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.
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.
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.
For many of us, Thanksgiving will feel really different this year. Less will need to be more, as we celebrate alone or with our immediate household members to stay safe and help combat the surge in COVID-19 cases across most of the land. And yet, times of trouble can also help us to focus on what’s really important in our lives. So, even as we face these challenges and the range of emotions that arise with them, it’s worth remembering that this Thanksgiving, there remain many reasons to be grateful.
I’m certainly grateful for a loving family and friends that provide depth and meaning to life, even though most of us can’t be physically together and hug each other right now. My faith is also a source of comfort and reassurance at this time. I also feel a deep sense of gratitude for everyone who has sacrificed for the common good over the last several months, especially those who’ve masked up and physically distanced to provide essential services in our communities to keep everything going. You will no doubt have your own list of heroes, but here are just a few of mine:
• Healthcare workers, thanks for all you do under such difficult and dangerous conditions. • Essential workers, thanks for clocking in every day. That includes bus drivers, grocery store cashiers, waste collectors, tradespeople, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and all those who deliver packages to my door. • Teachers, working remotely or in person. Thanks for your commitment to our students and continuing to bring out the best in them. • Parents, including so many now working with kids at home. Thanks for juggling responsibilities and making everything work. • Clinical trials participants. Your participation is critical for developing treatments and vaccines. Thanks to you all, including the fine examples of many public figures, including the trial participation of Senator Rob Portman and financial contribution of legendary performer Dolly Parton. • Everyone following the 3 W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, and Wash your hands. Thank you for doing your part every day to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community safe. You are our front lines in the battle. • Researchers, from both the public and private sectors, who are working in partnership all around the world. Our shared goal is to learn all we can about COVID-19 and to develop better tests, new treatments, and safe and effective vaccines.
On that note, you may have heard about the very promising interim clinical trial results of an investigational COVID-19 vaccine known as mRNA-1273, co-developed by the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, and NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That mRNA vaccine was found to be 94.5 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19. Another mRNA vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, also recently was shown to be 95 percent effective and has now submitted an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, AstraZeneca announced that, in a late-stage clinical trial, the vaccine it developed in partnership with the University of Oxford reduced the risk of COVID-19 infection by an average of 70 percent, with up to 90 percent efficacy in one dosing regimen.
Other promising vaccine candidates continue to work their way through clinical trials, and we’ll no doubt be hearing more about those soon. It is truly remarkable to accomplish in 10 months what normally takes about 8 years. Therapeutic progress is also moving forward rapidly, with a second monoclonal antibody treatment for high-risk outpatients receiving emergency use authorization from the FDA just a few days ago.
For all of these advances, I am immensely grateful. Of course, it will take time and continued study to get a COVID-19 vaccine fully approved and distributed to all those who need it. The success of any vaccine also will hinge on people across the country—including you and all those whom I’ve recognized here—making the choice to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
As we look ahead to that day when the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, I encourage you to take some time to jot down your own list of reasons to be grateful. Encourage family members to do the same and take some time to share them with one another, whether it’s around the table or by email, phone, or videoconferencing. The holidays are a time for making memories and—as different as it may look—this year is no different. So, while you’re enjoying your Thanksgiving meal around a smaller table, remember that you’re doing it from a place of love and gratitude. I wish for you a safe and happy Thanksgiving.
Amid all the headlines and uncertainty surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s easy to overlook the important progress that biomedical research is making against other diseases. So, today, I’m pleased to share word of what promises to be the first effective treatment to help young people suffering from the consequences of a painful, often debilitating genetic disorder called neurofibromatosis type 1 (NF1).
This news is particularly meaningful to me because, 30 years ago, I led a team that discovered the gene that underlies NF1. About 1 in 3,000 babies are born with NF1. In about half of those affected, a type of tumor called a plexiform neurofibroma arises along nerves in the skin, face, and other parts of the body. While plexiform neurofibromas are not cancerous, they grow steadily and can lead to severe pain and a range of other health problems, including vision and hearing loss, hypertension, and mobility issues.
The good news is the results of a phase II clinical trial involving NF1, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The trial was led by Brigitte Widemann and Andrea Gross, researchers in the Center for Cancer Research at NIH’s National Cancer Institute.
The trial’s results confirm that a drug originally developed to treat cancer, called selumetinib, can shrink inoperable tumors in many children with NF1. They also establish that the drug can help affected kids make significant improvements in strength, range of motion, and quality of life. While selumetinib is not a cure, and further studies are still needed to see how well the treatment works in the long term, these results suggest that the first effective treatment for NF1 is at last within our reach.
Selumetinib blocks a protein in human cells called MEK. This protein is involved in a major cellular pathway known as RAS that can become dysregulated and give rise to various cancers. By blocking the MEK protein in animal studies and putting the brakes on the RAS pathway when it malfunctions, selumetinib showed great initial promise as a cancer drug.
Selumetinib was first tested several years ago in people with a variety of other cancers, including ovarian and non-small cell lung cancers. The clinical research looked good at first but eventually stalled, and so did much of the initial enthusiasm for selumetinib.
But the enthusiasm picked up when researchers considered repurposing the drug to treat NF1. The neurofibromas associated with the condition were known to arise from a RAS-activating loss of the NF1 gene. It made sense that blocking the MEK protein might blunt the overactive RAS signal and help to shrink these often-inoperable tumors.
An earlier phase 1 safety trial looked promising, showing for the first time that the drug could, in some cases, shrink large NF1 tumors . This fueled further research, and the latest study now adds significantly to that evidence.
In the study, Widemann and colleagues enrolled 50 children with NF1, ranging in age from 3 to 17. Their tumor-related symptoms greatly affected their wellbeing and ability to thrive, including disfigurement, limited strength and motion, and pain. Children received selumetinib alone orally twice a day and went in for assessments at least every four months.
As of March 2019, 35 of the 50 children in the ongoing study had a confirmed partial response, meaning that their tumors had shrunk by more than 20 percent. Most had maintained that response for a year or more. More importantly, the kids also felt less pain and were more able to enjoy life.
It’s important to note that the treatment didn’t work for everyone. Five children stopped taking the drug due to side effects. Six others progressed while on the drug, though five of them had to reduce their dose because of side effects before progressing. Nevertheless, for kids with NF1 and their families, this is a big step forward.
Drug developer AstraZeneca, working together with the researchers, has submitted a New Drug Application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While they’re eagerly awaiting the FDA’s decision, the work continues.
The researchers want to learn much more about how the drug affects the health and wellbeing of kids who take it over the long term. They’re also curious whether it could help to prevent the growth of large tumors in kids who begin taking it earlier in the course of the disease, and whether it might benefit other features of the disorder. They will continue to look ahead to other potentially promising treatments or treatment combinations that may further help, and perhaps one day even cure, kids with NF1. So, even while we cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are reasons to feel encouraged and grateful for continued progress made throughout biomedical research.
 Selumitinib in children with inoperable plexiform neurofibromas. New England Journal of Medicine. Gross AM, Wolters PL, Dombi E, Baldwin A, Whitcomb P, Fisher MJ, Weiss B, Kim A, Bornhorst M, Shah AC, Martin S, Roderick MC, Pichard DC, Carbonell A, Paul SM, Therrien J, Kapustina O, Heisey K, Clapp DW, Zhang C, Peer CJ, Figg WD, Smith M, Glod J, Blakeley JO, Steinberg SM, Venzon DJ, Doyle LA, Widemann BC. 18 March 2020. N Engl J Med. 2020 Mar 18. [Epub ahead of publication.]
Caption: Here I am with Senator Barbara Mikulski (center) and NCATS Director Chris Austin (right). Credit: NIH
Alzheimer’s disease research is among the many areas of biomedical science that Senator Barbara Mikulski has championed during her nearly 40 years on Capitol Hill. And it’s easy to understand why the Senator is concerned: an estimated 5 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, and those numbers are expected to rise exponentially as the U.S. population continues to age.
So, I was thrilled to have some encouraging progress to report last week when Senator Mikulski (D-MD) paid a visit to NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) in Gaithersburg, MD. After a whirlwind tour of the cutting-edge robotics facility for high throughput screening of small molecules, she joined me and NCATS Director Dr. Chris Austin in announcing that, thanks to an innovative public-private partnership, an experimental drug originally developed to fight cancer is now showing promise against Alzheimer’s disease.