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CRISPR-Based Anti-Viral Therapy Could One Day Foil the Flu—and COVID-19

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Artistic rendering of CRISPR Cas13a as scissors

CRISPR gene-editing technology has tremendous potential for making non-heritable DNA changes that can treat or even cure a wide range of devastating disorders, from HIV to muscular dystrophy Now, a recent animal study shows that another CRISPR system—targeting viral RNA instead of human DNA—could work as an inhaled anti-viral therapeutic that can be preprogrammed to seek out and foil potentially almost any flu strain and many other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

How can that be? Other CRISPR gene-editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. This new anti-viral CRISPR system also relies on guide RNA. But the guide instead directs a different bacterial enzyme, called Cas13a, to the right spot in the viral genome to bind and cleave viral RNA and stop viruses from replicating in lung cells.

The findings, recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology [1], come from the lab of Philip Santangelo, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Atlanta. Earlier studies by other groups had shown the potential of Cas13 for degrading the RNA of influenza viruses in a lab dish [2,3]. In this latest work, Santangelo and colleagues turned to mice and hamsters to see whether this enzyme could actually work in the lung tissue of a living animal.

What’s interesting is how Santangelo’s team did it. Rather than delivering the Cas13a protein itself to the lungs, the CRISPR system works by supplying a messenger RNA (mRNA) with the instructions to make the anti-viral Cas13a protein. This is the same idea as the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, which temporarily direct your muscle cells to produce viral spike proteins that launch an immune response. In this case, the lung cells translate the Cas13a mRNA to produce the protein. Directed by the guide RNA that was also delivered to the same cells, Cas13a degrades the viral RNA and stops the infection. Because mRNA doesn’t enter the cell’s nucleus, it doesn’t interact with DNA and raise potential concerns about causing unwanted genetic changes.

The researchers designed guide RNAs that were specific to a shared, highly conserved portion of influenza viruses involved in replicating their genome and infecting other cells. They also designed another set directed to key portions of SARS-CoV-2.

Next, they delivered the Cas13a mRNA and guides straight to the lungs of animals using an adapted nebulizer, just like those used to deliver medicines to the lungs of people. In mice with influenza, Cas13a degraded influenza RNA in the lungs and the animals recovered without any apparent side effects. In SARS-CoV-2-infected hamsters, the same approach limited the virus’s ability to replicate in cells as the animals COVID-19-like symptoms improved.

The findings are the first to show that mRNA can be used to express the Cas13a protein in living lung tissue, not just in cells in a dish. It’s also the first to show that the bacterial Cas13a protein is effective at slowing or stopping replication of SARS-CoV-2. The latter raises hope that this CRISPR system could be quickly adapted to fight any future novel coronaviruses that develop the ability to infect humans.

The researchers report that this approach has potential to work against the vast majority—99 percent—of the flu strains that have circulated around the world over the last century. It also should be equally effective against the new and more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 now circulating around the globe. While more study is needed to understand the safety of such an anti-viral approach before trying it in humans, what’s clear is basic research advances like this one hold great potential for helping us to fight life-threatening respiratory viruses of the past, present, and future.


[1] Treatment of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 infections via mRNA-encoded Cas13a in rodents. Blanchard EL, Vanover D, Bawage SS, Tiwari PM, Rotolo L, Beyersdorf J, Peck HE, Bruno NC, Hincapie R, Michel F, Murray J, Sadhwani H, Vanderheyden B, Finn MG, Brinton MA, Lafontaine ER, Hogan RJ, Zurla C, Santangelo PJ. Nat Biotechnol. 2021 Feb 3. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Programmable inhibition and detection of RNA viruses using Cas13. Freije CA, Myhrvold C, Boehm CK, Lin AE, Welch NL, Carter A, Metsky HC, Luo CY, Abudayyeh OO, Gootenberg JS, Yozwiak NL, Zhang F, Sabeti PC. Mol Cell. 2019 Dec 5;76(5):826-837.e11.

[3] Development of CRISPR as an antiviral strategy to combat SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. Abbott TR, Dhamdhere G, Liu Y, Lin X, Goudy L, Zeng L, Chemparathy A, Chmura S, Heaton NS, Debs R, Pande T, Endy D, La Russa MF, Lewis DB, Qi LS. Cell. 2020 May 14;181(4):865-876.e12.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Influenza (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Santangelo Lab (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta)

ACTIV Update: Making Major Strides in COVID-19 Therapeutic Development

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Credit: NIH

Right now, many U.S. hospitals are stretched to the limit trying to help people battling serious cases of COVID-19. But as traumatic as this experience still is for patients and their loved ones, the chances of surviving COVID-19 have in fact significantly improved in the year since the start of the pandemic.

This improvement stems from several factors, including the FDA’s emergency use authorization (EUA) of a number of therapies found to be safe and effective for COVID-19. These include drugs that you may have heard about on the news: remdesivir (an antiviral), dexamethasone (a steroid), and monoclonal antibodies from the companies Eli Lilly and Regeneron.

Yet the quest to save more lives from COVID-19 isn’t even close to being finished, and researchers continue to work intensively to develop new and better treatments. A leader in this critical effort is NIH’s Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) initiative, a public-private partnership involving 20 biopharmaceutical companies, academic experts, and multiple federal agencies.

ACTIV was founded last April to accelerate drug research that typically requires more than a decade of clinical ups and downs to develop a safe, effective therapy. And ACTIV has indeed moved at unprecedented speed since its launch. Cutting through the usual red tape and working with an intense sense of purpose, the partnership took a mere matter of weeks to set up its first four clinical trials. Beyond the agents mentioned above that have already been granted an EUA, ACTIV is testing 15 additional potential agents, with several of these already demonstrating promising results.

Here’s how ACTIV works. The program relies on four expert “working groups” with specific charges:

Preclinical Working Group: Shares standardized preclinical evaluation resources and accelerate testing of candidate therapies and vaccines for clinical trials.

Therapeutics Clinical Working Group: Prioritizes therapeutic agents for testing within an adaptive master protocol strategy for clinical research.

Clinical Trial Capacity Working Group: Has developed and organized an inventory of clinical trial capacity that can serve as potential settings in which to implement effective COVID-19 clinical trials.

Vaccines Working Group: Accelerates the evaluation of vaccine candidates.

To give you just one example of how much these expert bodies have accomplished in record time, the Therapeutics Clinical Working Group got to work immediately evaluating some 400 candidate therapeutics using multiple publicly available information sources. These candidates included antivirals, host-targeted immune modulators, monoclonal antibodies (mAb), and symptomatic/supportive agents including anticoagulants. To follow up on even more new leads, the working group launched a COVID-19 Clinical & Preclinical Candidate Compound Portal, which remains open for submissions of therapeutic ideas and data.

All the candidate agents have been prioritized using rigorous scoring and assessment criteria. What’s more, the working group simultaneously developed master protocols appropriate for each of the drug classes selected and patient populations: outpatient, inpatient, or convalescent.

Through the coordinated efforts of all the working groups, here’s where we stand with the ACTIV trials:

ACTIV-1: A large-scale Phase 3 trial is enrolling hospitalized adults to test the safety and effectiveness of three medicines (cenicriviroc, abatacept, and infliximab). They are called immune modulators because they help to minimize the effects of an overactive immune response in some COVID-19 patients. This response, called a “cytokine storm,” can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome, multiple organ failure, and other life-threatening complications.

ACTIV-2: A Phase 2/3 trial is enrolling adults with COVID-19 who are not hospitalized to evaluate the safety of multiple monoclonal antibodies (Lilly’s LY-CoV555, Brii Biosciences’s BRII-196 and BRII-198, and AstraZeneca’s AZD7442) used to block or neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The Lilly monoclonal antibody LY-CoV555 received an EUA for high risk non-hospitalized patients on November 9, 2020 and ACTIV-2 continued to test the agent in an open label study to further determine safety and efficacy in outpatients. Another arm of this trial has just started, testing inhaled, easy-to-administer interferon beta-1a treatment in adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who are not hospitalized. An additional arm will test the drug camostat mesilate, a protease inhibitor that can block the TMPRSS2 host protein that is necessary for viral entry into human cells.

ACTIV-3: This Phase 3 trial is enrolling hospitalized adults with COVID-19. This study primarily aims to evaluate safety and to understand if monoclonal antibodies (AstraZeneca’s AZD7442, BRII-196 and BRII-198, and the VIR-7831 from GSK/Vir Biotechnology) and potentially other types of therapeutics can reduce time to recovery. It also aims to understand a treatment’s effect on extrapulmonary complications and respiratory dysfunction. Lilly’s monoclonal antibody LY-CoV555 was one of the first agents to be tested in this clinical trial and it was determined to not show the same benefits seen in outpatients. [Update: NIH-Sponsored ACTIV-3 Clinical Trial Closes Enrollment into Two Sub-Studies, March 4, 2021]

ACTIV-4: This trial aims to determine if various types of blood thinners, including apixaban, aspirin, and both unfractionated (UF) and low molecular weight (LMW) heparin, can treat adults diagnosed with COVID-19 and prevent life-threatening blood clots from forming. There are actually three Phase 3 trials included in ACTIV-4. One is enrolling people diagnosed with COVID-19 but who are not hospitalized; a second is enrolling patients who are hospitalized; and a third is enrolling people who are recovering from COVID-19. ACTIV-4 has already shown that full doses of heparin blood thinners are safe and effective for moderately ill hospitalized patients.

ACTIV-5: This is a Phase 2 trial testing newly identified agents that might have a major benefit to hospitalized patients with COVID-19, but that need further “proof of concept” testing before they move into a registrational Phase 3 trial. (In fact, another name for this trial is the “Big Effect Trial”.) It is testing medicines previously developed for other conditions that might be beneficial in treatment of COVID-19. The first two agents being tested are risankizumab (the result of a collaboration between Boehringer-Ingelheim), which is already FDA-approved to treat plaque psoriasis, and lenzilumab, which is under development by Humanigen to treat patients experiencing cytokine storm as part of cancer therapy.

In addition to trials conducted under the ACTIV partnership, NIH has prioritized and tested additional therapeutics in “ACTIV-associated trials.” These are NIH-funded, randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trials with one or more industry partners. Here’s a table with a comprehensive list.

Looking a bit further down the road, we also seek to develop orally administered drugs that would potentially block the replication ability of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, in the earliest stages of infection. One goal would be to develop an antiviral medication for SARS-CoV-2 that acts similarly to oseltamivir phosphate (Tamiflu®), a drug used to shorten the course of the flu in people who’ve had symptoms for less than two days and to prevent the flu in asymptomatic people who may have been exposed to the influenza virus. Yet another major long-term effort of NIH and its partners will be to develop safe and effective antiviral medications that work against all coronaviruses, even those with variant genomes. (And, yes, such drugs might even cure the common cold!)

So, while our ACTIV partners and many other researchers around the globe continue to harness the power of science to end the devastating COVID-19 pandemic as soon as possible, we must also consider the lessons learned this past year, in order to prepare ourselves to respond more swiftly to future outbreaks of coronaviruses and other infectious disease threats. Our work is clearly a marathon, not a sprint.


Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)

Pull Up a Chair with Dr. Freire: The COVID Conversations (Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD)

SARS-COV-2 Antiviral Therapeutics Summit Report, November 2020 (NIH)