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Speeding COVID-19 Drug Discovery with Quantum Dots

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Viruses with nanoparticles attached
Credit: Ethan Tyler and Alan Hoofring/NIH Medical Arts

These round, multi-colored orbs in the illustration above may resemble SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. But they’re actually lab-made nanocrystals called quantum dots. They have been specially engineered to look and, in some ways, act like the coronavirus while helping to solve a real challenge for many labs that would like to study SARS-CoV-2.

Quantum dots, which have been around since the mid-1980s, are designed with special optical properties that allow them to fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light. The two pictured here are about 10 nanometers in diameter, about 3,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The quantum dot consists of a semi-conductive cadmium selenide inner core (orange) surrounded by a zinc sulfide outer shell (teal). Molecules on its surface (yellow) allow researchers to attach the viral spike protein (purple), which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.

To the left is a human cell (gray) studded with the ACE2 receptors (blue) that those viral spike proteins bind to before SARS-CoV-2 enters and infects our cells. In the background, you see another spike protein-studded quantum dot. But human neutralizing antibodies (pink) are preventing that one from reaching the human cell.

Because SARS-CoV-2 is so highly infectious, basic researchers without access to specially designed biosafety facilities may be limited in their ability to study the virus. But these harmless quantum dots offer a safe workaround. While the quantum dots may bind and enter human cells just like the virus, they can’t cause an infection. They offer a quick, informative way to assess the potential of antibodies or other compounds to prevent the coronavirus from binding to our cells.

In work published in the journal ACS Nano, a team that included Kirill Gorshkov, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), Rockville, MD, along with Eunkeu Oh and Mason Wolak, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., demonstrated how these quantum dots may serve as a useful new tool to speed the search for new COVID-19 treatments. The dots’ fluorescent glow enabled the researchers to use a microscope to observe how these viral mimics bind to ACE2 in real time, showing how SARS-CoV-2 might attach to and enter our cells, and suggesting ways to intervene.

Indeed, imagine thousands of tiny wells in which human cells are growing. Imagine adding a different candidate drug to each well; then imagine adding the loaded quantum dots to each well and using machine vision to identify the wells where the dots could not enter the cell. That’s not science fiction. That’s now.

With slightly different versions of their quantum dots, the NCATS researchers and their colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory will now explore how other viral proteins are important for the coronavirus to infect our cells. They also can test how slight variations in the spike protein may influence SARS-CoV-2’s behavior. This work provides yet another stunning example of how scientists with widely varying expertise have banded together—using all the tools at their disposal—to forge ahead to find solutions to COVID-19.

Reference:

[1] Quantum dot-conjugated SARS-CoV-2 spike pseudo-virions enable tracking of angiotensin converting enzyme 2 binding and endocytosis. Gorshkov K, Susumu K, Chen J, Xu M, Pradhan M, Zhu W, Hu X, Breger JC, Wolak M, Oh E. ACS Nano. 2020 Sep 22;14(9):12234-12247.

Links:

What are Quantum Dots? (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

I Am Translational Science: Kirill Gorshkov (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

U. S. Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, D.C.)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


Two Studies Show COVID-19 Antibodies Persist for Months

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Antibodies against SARS-CoV-2
Caption: Artistic rendering of SARS-CoV-2 virus (orange) covered with antibodies (white), generated by an immune B cell (gray) at the bottom left. Credit: iStock/selvanegra

More than 8 million people in the United States have now tested positive for COVID-19. For those who’ve recovered, many wonder if fending off SARS-CoV-2—the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—one time means their immune systems will protect them from reinfection. And, if so, how long will this “acquired immunity” last?

The early data brought hope that acquired immunity was possible. But some subsequent studies have suggested that immune protection might be short-lived. Though more research is needed, the results of two recent studies, published in the journal Science Immunology, support the early data and provide greater insight into the nature of the human immune response to this coronavirus [1,2].

The new findings show that people who survive a COVID-19 infection continue to produce protective antibodies against key parts of the virus for at least three to four months after developing their first symptoms. In contrast, some other antibody types decline more quickly. The findings offer hope that people infected with the virus will have some lasting antibody protection against re-infection, though for how long still remains to be determined.

In one of the two studies, partly funded by NIH, researchers led by Richelle Charles, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, sought a more detailed understanding of antibody responses following infection with SARS-CoV-2. To get a closer look, they enrolled 343 patients, most of whom had severe COVID-19 requiring hospitalization. They examined their antibody responses for up to 122 days after symptoms developed and compared them to antibodies in more than 1,500 blood samples collected before the pandemic began.

The researchers characterized the development of three types of antibodies in the blood samples. The first type was immunoglobulin G (IgG), which has the potential to confer sustained immunity. The second type was immunoglobulin A (IgA), which protects against infection on the body’s mucosal surfaces, such as those found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, and are found in high levels in tears, mucus, and other bodily secretions. The third type is immunoglobulin M (IgM), which the body produces first when fighting an infection.

They found that all three types were present by about 12 days after infection. IgA and IgM antibodies were short-lived against the spike protein that crowns SARS-CoV-2, vanishing within about two months.

The good news is that the longer-lasting IgG antibodies persisted in these same patients for up to four months, which is as long as the researchers were able to look. Levels of those IgG antibodies also served as an indicator for the presence of protective antibodies capable of neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 in the lab. Even better, that ability didn’t decline in the 75 days after the onset of symptoms. While longer-term study is needed, the findings lend support to evidence that protective antibody responses against the novel virus do persist.

The other study came to very similar conclusions. The team, led by Jennifer Gommerman and Anne-Claude Gingras, University of Toronto, Canada, profiled the same three types of antibody responses against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, They created the profiles using both blood and saliva taken from 439 people, not all of whom required hospitalization, who had developed COVID-19 symptoms from 3 to 115 days prior. The team then compared antibody profiles of the COVID-19 patients to those of people negative for COVID-19.

The researchers found that the antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were readily detected in blood and saliva. IgG levels peaked about two weeks to one month after infection, and then remained stable for more than three months. Similar to the Boston team, the Canadian group saw IgA and IgM antibody levels drop rapidly.

The findings suggest that antibody tests can serve as an important tool for tracking the spread of SARS-CoV-2 through our communities. Unlike tests for the virus itself, antibody tests provide a means to detect infections that occurred sometime in the past, including those that may have been asymptomatic. The findings from the Canadian team further suggest that tests of IgG antibodies in saliva may be a convenient way to track a person’s acquired immunity to COVID-19.

Because IgA and IgM antibodies decline more quickly, testing for these different antibody types also could help to distinguish between an infection within the last two months and one that more likely occurred even earlier. Such details are important for filling in gaps in our understanding COVID-19 infections and tracking their spread in our communities.

Still, there are rare reports of individuals who survived one bout with COVID-19 and were infected with a different SARS-CoV-2 strain a few weeks later [3]. The infrequency of such reports, however, suggests that acquired immunity after SARS-CoV-2 infection is generally protective.

There remain many open questions, and answering them will require conducting larger studies with greater diversity of COVID-19 survivors. So, I’m pleased to note that the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently launched the NCI Serological Sciences Network for COVID19 (SeroNet), now the nation’s largest coordinated effort to characterize the immune response to COVID-19 [4].

The network was established using funds from an emergency Congressional appropriation of more than $300 million to develop, validate, improve, and implement antibody testing for COVID-19 and related technologies. With help from this network and ongoing research around the world, a clearer picture will emerge of acquired immunity that will help to control future outbreaks of COVID-19.

References:

[1] Persistence and decay of human antibody responses to the receptor binding domain of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in COVID-19 patients. Iyer AS, Jones FK, Nodoushani A, Ryan ET, Harris JB, Charles RC, et al. Sci Immunol. 2020 Oct 8;5(52):eabe0367.

[2] Persistence of serum and saliva antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 spike antigens in COVID-19 patients. Isho B, Abe KT, Zuo M, Durocher Y, McGeer AJ, Gommerman JL, Gingras AC, et al. Sci Immunol. 2020 Oct 8;5(52):eabe5511.

[3] What reinfections mean for COVID-19. Iwasaki A. Lancet Infect Dis, 2020 October 12. [Epub ahead of print]

[4] NIH to launch the Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19, announce grant and contract awardees. National Institutes of Health. 2020 October 8.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Charles Lab (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston)

Gingras Lab (University of Toronto, Canada)

Jennifer Gommerman (University of Toronto, Canada)

NCI Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19 (SeroNet) (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute


COVID-19 Vaccine Appears Well-Tolerated and Effective in Developing Antibodies in Small Study of Older Adults

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Bandage after vaccine
Credit: iStock/BackyardProduction

It’s been truly breathtaking to watch the progress being made on a daily basis to develop safe and effective vaccines for SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Indeed, months sooner than has ever been possible for a newly emerging infection, several promising vaccines are already working their way through Phase 3 studies, the final stage of clinical evaluation. I remain optimistic that we will have one or more vaccines that prove to be safe and effective by January 2021.

But, as encouraging as the early data have been, uncertainty has remained over whether vaccines that appear safe and effective in developing antibodies in younger adults will work as well in older people, too. It’s a critical issue given that older individuals also are at greater risk for severe or life-threatening illness if they do get sick from COVID-19.

So, I’m pleased to highlight some recent findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine [1], from an early Phase 1 clinical trial that was expanded to include 40 adults over age 55. While we eagerly await the results of ongoing and larger studies, these early data suggest that an innovative COVID-19 vaccine co-developed by NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), in partnership with Moderna Inc., Cambridge, MA, is both well tolerated and effective in generating a strong immune response when given to adults of any age.

The centerpiece of the vaccine in question, known as mRNA-1273, is a small, non-infectious snippet of messenger RNA (mRNA). When this mRNA is injected into muscle, a person’s own body will begin to make the key viral spike protein. As the immune system detects this spike protein, it spurs the production of antibodies that may help to fend off the novel SARS-CoV-2.

Earlier findings from the NIH-supported phase 1 human clinical trial found mRNA-1273 was safe and effective in generating a vigorous immune response in people ages 18 to 55, when delivered in two injections about a month apart. Based on those findings, a large Phase 3 clinical trial is currently enrolling 30,000 volunteers, with results expected in the next few weeks [2]. But, given that immune response to many other vaccines tends to grow weaker with age, how well would this new COVID-19 vaccine work for older individuals?

To find out, a team at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, Seattle, and Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, expanded the initial Phase 1 trial to include 20 healthy volunteers ages 56 to 70 and another 20 healthy volunteers ages 71 and older. Ten volunteers in each of the two older age groups received a lower dose of the vaccine (25 micrograms) in two injections given about a month apart. The other 10 in each age group received a higher dose (100 micrograms), given on the same schedule.

Here’s what they found:

• No volunteers suffered serious adverse events. The most common adverse events were mild-to-moderate in severity and included headache, fatigue, muscle aches, chills and pain at the injection site. Those symptoms occurred most often after the second dose and in individuals receiving the higher dose of 100 micrograms.

• Volunteers showed a rapid production of protective antibodies against the spike protein following immunization. After the second injection, all participants showed a strong immune response, with production of robust binding and neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

• The higher dose of 100 micrograms safely produced a stronger immune response compared to the lower dose, supporting its use in larger clinical studies.

• Most importantly, the immune response observed in these older individuals was comparable to that seen previously in younger adults.

The researchers will continue to follow the volunteer trial participants of all ages for about a year to monitor the vaccine’s longer-term effects. But these findings provided support for continued testing of this promising vaccine in older adults in the ongoing Phase 3 clinical trial.

There are currently four SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in phase 3 clinical trials in the United States (though two are currently on hold). Trials of two more vaccines are expected start in the next month or two.

It is not known whether all of these vaccines will have the same vigorous immune response in older individuals that has been demonstrated for this one. But if more than one of these vaccines turns out to be safe and effective, it will be important to know about the response in various populations, so that distribution to high-risk groups can be planned accordingly.

References:

[1] Safety and immunogenicity of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA-1273 vaccine in older adults. Anderson EJ, Rouphael NG, Widge AT, Jackson LA, Roberts PC, Makhene M, Chappell JD, Denison MR, Stevens LJ, Pruijssers AJ, McDermott AB, Flach B, Lin BC, Doria-Rose NA, O’Dell S, Schmidt SD, Corbett KS, Swanson PA 2nd, Padilla M, Neuzil KM, Bennett H, Leav B, Makowski M, Albert J, Cross K, Edara VV, Floyd K, Suthar MS, Martinez DR, Baric R, Buchanan W, Luke CJ, Phadke VK, Rostad CA, Ledgerwood JE, Graham BS, Beigel JH; mRNA-1273 Study Group. N Engl J Med. 2020 Sep 29.

[2] “Phase 3 clinical trial of investigational vaccine for COVID-19 begins.” National Institutes of Heath. July 27, 2020

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19 Prevention Network (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Moderna, Inc. (Cambridge, MA)

Safety and Immunogenicity Study of 2019-nCoV Vaccine (mRNA-1273) for Prophylaxis of SARS-CoV-2 Infection (COVID-19) (ClinicalTrials.gov)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Discussing the Long Arc of Discovery with NIH’s Newest Nobelist

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Discussion with Dr. Harvey Alter

It’s been a tough year for our whole world because of everything that’s happening as a result of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Yet there are bright spots that still shine through, and this week brought some fantastic news about NIH-supported researchers being named 2020 Nobel Prize Laureates for their pioneering work in two important fields: Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, NIH grantee Jennifer A. Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, got word that she and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany, had won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the CRISPR/cas approach to genome editing. Doudna has received continuous NIH funding since 1997, mainly from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and National Human Genome Research Institute.

The CRISPR/cas system, which consists of a short segment of RNA attached to the cas enzyme, provides the ability to make very precise changes in the sequence, or spelling, of the genetic instruction books of humans and other species. If used to make non-heritable edits in relevant tissues, such technology holds enormous potential to treat or even cure a wide range of devastating diseases, including thousands of genetic disorders where the DNA misspelling is precisely known.

Just two days before Doudna learned of her big award, a scientist who’s spent almost his entire career at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, received news that he too was getting a Nobel—the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Harvey Alter, a senior scholar in the NIH Clinical Center’s Transfusion Medicine Department, was recognized for his contributions in identifying the potentially deadly hepatitis C virus. He shares this year’s prize with Michael Houghton, now with University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Charles M. Rice, The Rockefeller University, New York, who’s received continuous NIH funding since 1987, mainly from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In a long arc of discovery rooted in basic, translational, and clinical research that spanned several decades, Alter and his colleagues doggedly pursued biological clues that at first led to tests, then life-saving treatments, and, today, the very real hope of eradicating the global health threat posed by hepatitis C infections.

We at NIH are particularly proud of the fact that Alter is the sixth Nobel Prize winner—and the first in 26 years—to have done the entirety of his award-winning research in our Intramural Research Program. So, I jumped at the opportunity to talk with Harvey on NIH’s Facebook Live and Twitter chats just hours after he got the good news on Monday. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation, which took place on the NIH campus, but at a safe physical distance to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Collins: Harvey, let me start off by asking, how did you find out you’d won the Nobel Prize?

Alter: At 4:15 this morning. I was asleep and heard the telephone ringing. I ignored it. Five minutes later, I got another call. Now, I’m getting kind of perturbed. But I ignored it, thinking the call must be some kind of solicitation. Then, the phone rang a third time. I answered it, prepared to tell the person on the other end not to call me anymore. I heard a man’s voice say, “I’m the Secretary General of the Nobel Prize, calling you from Stockholm.” At that point, I just froze.

Collins: Did you think it might be a hoax?

Alter: No, I didn’t think it was a hoax. But I wasn’t expecting to win the prize. I knew about three years ago that I’d been on a Nobel list. But it didn’t happen, and I just forgot about it. Truthfully, I didn’t know that today was the day that the announcement was being made. The news came as a complete shock.

Collins: Please say a few words about viral hepatitis. What is it?

Alter: Sure. Viral hepatitis is an infection of the liver that causes inflammation and can lead to scarring, or cirrhosis. Early in my career, two viruses were known to cause the disease. One was the hepatitis A virus. You got it from consuming contaminated water or food. The second was the hepatitis B virus, which has a blood-borne transmission, typically from blood transfusions. In the 1970s, we realized that some other agent was causing most of the hepatitis from blood transfusions. Since it wasn’t A and it wasn’t B, we cleverly decided to call it: non-A, non-B. We did that because we hadn’t yet proven that the causative agent was a virus.

Collins: So, even though you screened donor units for the hepatitis B virus to eliminate tainted blood, people were still getting hepatitis from blood transfusions. How did you go about trying to solve this mystery?

Alter: The main thing was to follow patients prospectively, meaning forward in time. We drew a blood sample before they were transfused, and then serially afterwards. We saved those samples and also the donor samples to compare them. Using a liver function test, we found that 30 percent of patients who had open heart surgery at NIH prior to 1970 developed liver abnormalities indicative of hepatitis. That’s 1 in 3 people.

We then looked for the reasons. We found the main one was our source of blood. We were buying blood, which was then in short supply, from commercial laboratories. It turned out that their paid donors were engaging in high-risk behaviors [Note: like IV drug users sharing hypodermic needles]. We immediately stopped using these laboratories, and, through various other measures, we got the rate down to around 4 percent in 1987.

That’s when Michael Houghton, then at Chiron Corp. and a co-recipient of this year’s prize, cloned the virus. Think about it, he and his colleagues looked at 6 million clones and found just one that reacted with the convalescent serum of a patient with non-A, non-B. In other words, having contracted the virus, the patient already made antibodies against it that were present in the serum. If that one clone came from the virus, the antibodies in the serum would recognize it. They did, and Chiron then developed an assay to detect antibodies to the virus.

Collins: And that’s when they contacted you.

Alter: Yes, they wanted to use our panel of patient blood samples that had fooled a lot of people who claimed to have developed a non-A, non-B assay. Nobody else had “broken” this panel, but the Chiron Corp. did. We found that every case of non-A, non-B was really hepatitis C, the agent that they had cloned. Hepatitis C was the missing piece. As far as we could tell, there were no other agents beside hepatitis B and C that would result in transfusion transmission of the disease.

Collins: This story is clearly one of persistence. So, say something about persistence as an important characteristic of a scientist. You’re a great example of someone who was always looking out for opportunities that might not have seemed so promising at first.

Alter: I first learned persistence from Dr. Baruch Blumberg, my first NIH mentor who discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967. [Note: Other NIH researchers identified the hepatitis A virus in 1977] The discovery started when we found this “Australian antigen,” a molecular structure that the immune system recognizes as foreign and attacks. It was a serendipitous finding that could have been easily just dropped. But he just kept at it, kept at it, kept at it. He had this famous wall where he diagrammed his hypotheses with all the contingencies if one worked or failed. Then, all of a sudden, the antigen was associated with hepatitis B. It became the basis of the hepatitis B vaccine, which is highly effective and used throughout the world. Dr. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize for his work on the hepatitis B virus in 1976.

Collins: Sometimes people look at NIH and ask why we don’t focus all of our efforts on curing a particular disease. I keep answering, ‘Wait a moment, we don’t know enough to know how to do that.’ What’s the balance that we ought to be seeking between basic research and clinical applications?

Alter: There is this tendency now to pursue highly directed research to solve a problem. That’s certainly how biopharma works. They want a payoff. The NIH is different. It’s a place where you can pursue your scientific interests, wherever they lead. The NIH leadership understands that the details of a problem often aren’t obvious at first. Researchers need to be allowed to observe things and then to pursue their leads as far as possible, with the understanding that not everything will work out. I think it’s very important to keep this basic research component in parallel with the more clinical applications. In the case of hepatitis C, it started as a clinical problem that led to a basic research investigation, which led back to a clinical problem. It was bedside-to-bench-to-bedside.

Collins: Are people still getting infected with hepatitis C?

Alter: Yes, hepatitis C remains a global problem. Seventy million people have contracted the virus, though the majority are generally asymptomatic, meaning they don’t get sick from it. Instead, they carry around the virus for decades without knowing it. That’s because the hepatitis C virus likes to persist, and our immune system doesn’t seem to be able to get rid of it easily.

However, some of those infected will have bad outcomes, such as cirrhosis or cancer of the liver. But there’s no way of knowing who will and who won’t get sick over time. The trick now is to identify people when they’re asymptomatic and without obvious disease.

That involves testing. We’re in a unique position with hepatitis C, where we have great tests that are highly sensitive and very specific to the virus. We also have great treatments. We can cure everybody who is tested and found to be positive.

Collins: People may be surprised to hear that. Here is a chronic viral illness, for which we actually have a cure. That’s come along fairly recently. Say a bit more about that—it’s such a great story of success.

Alter: For many years, the only treatment for hepatitis C was interferon, a very difficult treatment that initially had only about a 6 percent cure rate. With further progress, it got up to around 50 percent. But the big breakthrough came in the late 1990s when Gilead Corp., having the sequenced genome of the hepatitis C virus, deduced what it needs to replicate. If we know what it needs and we interfere with that, we can stop the replication. Gilead came out with a blockbuster drug that, now in combination with another drug, aims at two different sites on the virus and cures at least 98 percent of people. It’s an oral therapy taken for only 12 weeks, sometimes as little as 8 weeks, and with virtually no side-effects. It’s like a miracle drug.

Collins: What would you say to somebody who is thinking about becoming a scientist? How do you pick an area of research that will be right for you?

Alter: It’s a tough question. Medical research is very difficult, but there’s nothing more rewarding than doing something for patients and to see a good outcome like we had with hepatitis C.

The best path forward is to work for somebody who’s already an established investigator and a good teacher. Work in his or her lab for a few years and get involved in a project. I’ve learned not get into a lot of projects. Get into something where you can become the expert and pursue it.
The other thing is to collaborate. There’s no way that one person can do everything these days. You need too much technology and lots of different areas of expertise.

Collins: You took on a high-risk project in which you didn’t know that you’d find the answer. What’s the right balance between a project that you know will be productive, and something that might be risky, but, boy, if it works, could be transformative? How did you decide which of those paths to go?

Alter: I don’t think I decided. I just went! But there were interim rewards. Finding that the paid donors were bad was a reward and it had a big impact. And the different donor testing, decreasing the amount of blood [transfused], there were all kinds of steps along the way that gave you a reward. Now, did I think that there would be a treatment, an eradication of post-transfusion hepatitis at the end of my line? No, I didn’t.

And it wouldn’t have happened if it was only me. I just got the ball rolling. But it needed Houghton’s group. It needed the technology of Charlie Rice, a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize. It needed joint company involvement. So, it required massive cooperation, and I have to say that here at NIH, Bob Purcell did most of the really basic work in his lab. Patrizia Farci, my closest collaborator, does things that I can’t do. You just need people who have a different expertise.

Collins: Harvey, it’s been maybe six hours since you found out that you won the Nobel Prize. How are you going to spend the rest of your day?

Alter: Well, I have to tell you a story that just happened. We had a press conference earlier today at NIH. Afterwards, I wanted to return to my NIH office and the easiest route was through the parking garage across the street from where we held the press conference. When I entered the garage, a security guard said, “You can’t come in, you haven’t been screened for COVID.” I assured him that I had been screened when I drove onto the NIH campus. He repeated that I had to go around to the front of the building to get screened.

Finally, I said to him, “Would it make any difference if I told you that I won the Nobel Prize today?” He replied, ‘That’s nice, but you must go around to the front of the building.’” So, winning the Nobel doesn’t give you immediate rewards!

Collins: Let me find that security guard and give him a bonus for doing a good job. Well, Harvey, will there be that trip to Stockholm coming up in December?

Alter: Not this year. I’ve heard that they will invite us to Stockholm next year to receive the award. But there’s going to be something in the US. I don’t know what it will be. I’ll invite you.

Collins: I will be glad to take part in the celebration. Well, Harvey, I really want to thank you for taking some time on this special day to reflect on your career and how the Nobel Committee came calling at 4:30 this morning. We’re really proud of you!

Alter: Thank you.

Links:

Hepatitis C (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus,” Nobel Prize announcement, October 5,2020.

Harvey Alter (Clinical Center/NIH)

The Road Not Taken, or How I Learned to Love the Liver: A Personal Perspective on Hepatitis History” Alter HJ, Hepatology. 2014 Jan;59(1):4-12.

Reflections on the History of HCV: A Posthumous Examination.” Alter HJ, Farci P, Bukh J, Purcell RH. Clinical Liver Disease, 15:1, Feb 2020.

Is Elimination of Hepatitis B and C a Pipe Dream or Reality?” Alter HJ, Chisari FV. Gastroenterology. 2019 Jan;156(2):294-296.

Michael Houghton (University of Alberta, Edmonton)

Charles Rice (The Rockefeller University, New York)

What is genome editing? (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Jennifer Doudna (University of California, Berkeley)

Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany)


Rogue Antibodies and Gene Mutations Explain Some Cases of Severe COVID-19

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SARS-CoV-2
Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a dying cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

One of the many perplexing issues with COVID-19 is that it affects people so differently. That has researchers trying to explain why some folks bounce right back from the virus, or don’t even know they have it—while others become critically ill. Now, two NIH-funded studies suggest that one reason some otherwise healthy people become gravely ill may be previously unknown trouble spots in their immune systems, which hamper their ability to fight the virus.

According to the new findings in hundreds of racially diverse people with life-threatening COVID-19, a small percentage of people who suffer the most severe symptoms carry rare mutations in genes that disrupt their antiviral defenses. Another 10 percent with severe COVID-19 produce rogue “auto-antibodies,” which misguidedly disable a part of the immune system instead of attacking the virus.

Either way, the outcome is the same: the body has trouble fending off SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The biological reason is there’s not enough of an assortment of signaling proteins, called type I interferons, that are crucial to detecting dangerous viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and sounding the alarm to prevent serious illness.

The research was led by Jean-Laurent Casanova, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The Rockefeller University, New York; and the Imagine Institute, Necker Hospital, Paris. Casanova and his team began enrolling people with COVID-19 last February, with a particular interest in young adults battling severe illness. They were curious whether inherent weaknesses in their immune systems might explain their surprising vulnerability to the virus despite being otherwise young and healthy. Based on earlier findings in other infectious illnesses, they were especially interested in a set of 13 genes involved in interferon-driven immunity.

In their first study, published in the journal Science, researchers compared this set of genes in 659 patients with life-threatening COVID-19 to the same genes in 534 people with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 [1]. It turned out that 23, or 3.5 percent, of people with severe COVID-19 indeed carried rare mutations in genes involved in producing antiviral interferons. Those unusual aberrations never turned up in people with milder disease. The researchers went on to show in lab studies that those genetic errors leave human cells more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

The discovery was certainly intriguing, but given the rarity of those mutations, it doesn’t explain most instances of severe COVID-19. Still, it did give Casanova’s team another idea. Perhaps some other people who suffer from severe COVID-19 lack interferons too, but for different reasons. Perhaps their bodies were producing rogue antibodies that were crippling their own antiviral defenses.

In their second study, also in Science, that’s exactly what researchers found in 101 of 987 (over 10 percent) patients from around the world with life-threatening COVID-19 [2]. In the bloodstreams of such individuals, they detected auto-antibodies against an assortment of interferon proteins. Those antibodies, which blocked the interferons’ antiviral activity, weren’t found in people with more mild cases of COVID-19.

Interestingly, the vast majority of patients with those harmful antibodies were men. The findings might help to explain the observation that men are at greater risk than women for developing severe COVID-19. The patients with auto-antibodies also were slightly older, with about half over the age of 65.

Many questions remain. For instance, it’s not yet clear what drives the production of those debilitating auto-antibodies. Might there be more mutations in antiviral defense-related genes that researchers have yet to discover? Is it possible that interferon treatment may help some people with severe COVID-19? Such treatment may be difficult in patients with auto-antibodies, although some clinical trials to explore this possibility already are underway.

The findings, if confirmed, have some potentially immediate implications. It’s possible that screening patients for the presence of damaging auto-antibodies might help to identify those at greater risk for progressing to severe disease. Treatments to remove those antibodies from the bloodstream or to boost antiviral defenses in other ways also may help. Ideally, it would be a good idea to make sure donated convalescent plasma now being tested in clinical trials as a treatment for severe COVID-19 doesn’t contain such disruptive auto-antibodies.

These new findings come from an international effort involving hundreds of scientists called the COVID Human Genetic Effort. Besides its ongoing efforts to understand severe COVID-19, Casanova says his team is also taking a look at the other side of the coin: how some people who’ve been exposed to severe COVID-19 in their own households manage to not get sick. A related international group called the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative is pursuing similar goals. Such insights will be invaluable as we continue to manage and treat COVID-19 patients in the future.

References:

[1] Inborn errors of type I IFN immunity in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Zhang Q, Bastard P, Liu Z, Le Pen J, Moncada-Velez M, Gorochov G, Béziat V, Jouanguy E, Sancho-Shimizu V, Rice CM, Abel L, Notarangelo LD, Cobat A, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4570. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Auto-antibodies against type I IFNs in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Bastard P, Rosen LB, Zhang Q, Michailidis E, Hoffmann HH, Gorochov G, Jouanguy E, Rice CM, Cobat A, Notarangelo LD, Abel L, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4585. [Published online ahead of print.]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Interferons (Alpha, Beta) (NIH)

Interferons. Taylor MW. Viruses and Men: A History of Interactions. 2014 July 22. (Pubmed)

Video: Understanding the underlying genetics of COVID-19, Jean-Laurent Casanova (Youtube)

Jean-Laurent Casanova (The Rockefeller University, New York)

COVID Human Genetic Effort

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


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