Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
As this long year enters its final month, there is good reason to look ahead to 2021 with optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic will finally be contained. The Food and Drug Administration is now reviewing the clinical trial data of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to ensure their safety and efficacy. If all goes well, emergency use authorization could come very soon, allowing immunizations to begin.
Work also continues on developing better therapeutics against SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Though we’ve learned a great deal about this coronavirus in a short time, structural biologists continue to produce more detailed images that reveal more precisely where and how to target SARS-CoV-2. This research often involves neutralizing antibodies that circulate in the blood of most people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. The study of such antibodies and how they interact with SARS-CoV-2 offers critical biological clues into how to treat and prevent COVID-19.
A recent study in the journal Nature brings more progress, providing the most in-depth analysis yet of how human neutralizing antibodies physically grip SARS-CoV-2 to block it from binding to our cells . To conduct this analysis, a team of NIH-supported structural biologists, led by postdoc Christopher Barnes and Pamela Björkman, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, used the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) to capture complex molecular interactions at near-atomic scale.
People infected with SARS-CoV-2 (or any foreign substance, for that matter) generate thousands of different versions of attack antibodies. Some of these antibodies are very good at sticking to the coronavirus, while others attach only loosely. Barnes used cryo-EM to capture highly intricate pictures of eight different human neutralizing antibodies bound tightly to SARS-CoV-2. Each of these antibodies, which had been isolated from patients a few weeks after they developed symptoms of COVID-19, had been shown in lab tests to be highly effective at blocking infection.
The researchers mapped all physical interactions between several human neutralizing antibodies and SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein that stud its surface. The virus uses these spiky extensions to infect a human cell by grabbing on to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor. The molecular encounter between the coronavirus and ACE2 takes place via one or more of a trio of three protein domains, called receptor-binding domains (RBDs), that jut out from its spikes. RBDs flap up and down in the fluid surrounding cells, “reaching up” to touch and enter, or “laying down” to hide from an infected person’s antibodies and immune cells. Only an “up” RBD can attach to ACE2 and get into a cell.
Taken together with other structural information known about SARS-CoV-2, Barnes’ cryo-EM snapshots revealed four different types of shapes, or classes, of antibody-spike combinations. These high-resolution molecular views show that human neutralizing antibodies interact in many different ways with SARS-CoV-2: blocking access to either one or more RBDs in their “up” or “down” positions.
These results tell us a number of things, including underscoring why strategies that combine multiple types of antibodies in an “antibody cocktail” might likely offer broader protection against infection than using just a single type of antibody. Indeed, that approach is currently being tested in patients with COVID-19.
The findings also provide a molecular guide for custom-designing synthetic antibodies in the lab to foil SARS-CoV-2. As one example, Barnes and his team observed that one antibody completely locked all three RBDs into closed (“down”) positions. As you might imagine, scientists might want to copy that antibody type when designing an antibody-based drug or vaccine.
It is tragic that hundreds of thousands of people have died from this terrible new disease. Yet the immune system helps most to recover. Learning as much as we possibly can from those individuals who’ve been infected and returned to health should help us understand how to heal others who develop COVID-19, as well as inform precision design of additional vaccines that are molecularly targeted to this new foe.
While we look forward to the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines and their broad distribution in 2021, each of us needs to remember to practice the three W’s: Wear a mask. Watch your distance (stay 6 feet apart). Wash your hands often. In parallel with everyone adopting these critical public health measures, the scientific community is working harder than ever to meet this moment, doing everything possible to develop safe and effective ways of treating and preventing COVID-19.
 SARS-CoV-2 neutralizing antibody structures inform therapeutic strategies. Barnes CO, Jette CA, Abernathy ME, et al. Nature. 2020 Oct 12. [Epub ahead of print].
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Combat COVID (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C.)
Freezing a Moment in Time: Snapshots of Cryo-EM Research (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
Björkman Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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.
 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.
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
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Basic research in biology generates fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems. It is generally impossible to predict exactly where this line of scientific inquiry might lead, but history shows that basic science almost always serves as the foundation for dramatic breakthroughs that advance human health. Indeed, many important medical advances can be traced back to basic research that, at least at the outset, had no clear link at all to human health.
One exciting example of NIH-supported basic research is the Human Microbiome Project (HMP), which began 12 years ago as a quest to use DNA sequencing to identify and characterize the diverse collection of microbes—including trillions of bacteria, fungi, and viruses—that live on and in the healthy human body.
The HMP researchers have subsequently been using those vast troves of fundamental data as a tool to explore how microbial communities interact with human cells to influence health and disease. Today, these explorers are reporting their latest findings in a landmark set of papers in the Nature family of journals. Among other things, these findings shed new light on the microbiome’s role in prediabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and preterm birth. The studies are part of the Integrative Human Microbiome Project.
If you’d like to keep up on the microbiome and other basic research journeys, here’s a good way to do so. Consider signing up for basic research updates from the NIH Director’s Blog and NIH Research Matters. Here’s how to do it: Go to Email Updates, type in your email address, and enter. That’s it. If you’d like to see other update possibilities, including clinical and translational research, hit the “Finish” button to access Subscriber Preferences.
As for the recent microbiome findings, let’s start with the prediabetes study . An estimated 1 in 3 American adults has prediabetes, detected by the presence of higher than normal fasting blood glucose levels. If uncontrolled and untreated, prediabetes can lead to the more-severe type 2 diabetes (T2D) and its many potentially serious side effects .
George Weinstock, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, Farmington, CT, Michael Snyder, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and colleagues report that they have assembled a rich new data set covering the complex biology of prediabetes. That includes a comprehensive analysis of the human microbiome in prediabetes.
The data come from monitoring the health of 106 people with and without prediabetes for nearly four years. The researchers met with participants every three months, drawing blood, assessing the gut microbiome, and performing 51 laboratory tests. All this work generated millions of molecular and microbial measurements that provided a unique biological picture of prediabetes.
The picture showed specific interactions between cells and microbes that were different for people who are sensitive to insulin and those whose cells are resistant to it (as is true of many of those with prediabetes). The data also pointed to extensive changes in the microbiome during respiratory viral infections. Those changes showed clear differences in people with and without prediabetes. Some aspects of the immune response also appeared abnormal in people who were prediabetic.
As demonstrated in a landmark NIH study several years ago , people with prediabetes can do a lot to reduce their chances of developing T2D, such as exercising, eating healthy, and losing a modest amount of body weight. But this study offers some new leads to define the biological underpinnings of T2D in its earliest stages. These insights potentially point to high value targets for slowing or perhaps stopping the systemic changes that drive the transition from prediabetes to T2D.
The second study features the work of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Multi’omics Data team. It’s led by Ramnik Xavier and Curtis Huttenhower, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA. 
Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is an umbrella term for chronic inflammations of the body’s digestive tract, such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These disorders are characterized by remissions and relapses, and the most severe flares can be life-threatening. Xavier, Huttenhower, and team followed 132 people with and without IBD for a year, collecting samples of their gut microbiomes every other week along with biopsies and blood samples for a total of nearly 3,000 samples.
By integrating DNA, RNA, protein, and metabolic analyses, they followed precisely which microbial species were present. They could also track which biochemical functions those microbes were capable of performing, and which functions they actually were performing over the course of the study.
These data now offer the most comprehensive view yet of functional imbalances associated with changes in the microbiome during IBD flares. These data also show how those imbalances may be altered when a person with IBD goes into remission. It’s also noteworthy that participants completed questionnaires on their diet. This dataset is the first to capture associations between diet and the gut microbiome in a relatively large group of people over time.
The evidence showed that the gut microbiomes of people with IBD were significantly less stable than the microbiomes of those without IBD. During IBD activity, the researchers observed increases in certain groups of microbes at the expense of others. Those changes in the microbiome also came with other telltale metabolic and biochemical disruptions along with shifts in the functioning of an individual’s immune system. The shifts, however, were not significantly associated with people taking medications or their social status.
By presenting this comprehensive, “multi-omic” view on the microbiome in IBD, the researchers were able to single out a variety of new host and microbial features that now warrant further study. For example, people with IBD had dramatically lower levels of an unclassified Subdoligranulum species of bacteria compared to people without the condition.
The third study features the work of The Vaginal Microbiome Consortium (VMC). The study represents a collaboration between Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, and Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (GAPPS). The VMC study is led by Gregory Buck, Jennifer Fettweis, Jerome Strauss,and Kimberly Jefferson of Virginia Commonwealth and colleagues.
In this study, part of the Multi-Omic Microbiome Study: Pregnancy Initiative, the team followed up on previous research that suggested a potential link between the composition of the vaginal microbiome and the risk of preterm birth . The team collected various samples from more than 1,500 pregnant women at multiple time points in their pregnancies. The researchers sequenced the complete microbiomes from the vaginal samples of 45 study participants, who gave birth prematurely and 90 case-matched controls who gave birth to full-term babies. Both cases and controls were primarily of African ancestry.
Those data reveal unique microbial signatures early in pregnancy in women who went on to experience a preterm birth. Specifically, women who delivered their babies earlier showed lower levels of Lactobacillus crispatus, a bacterium long associated with health in the female reproductive tract. Those women also had higher levels of several other microbes. The preterm birth-associated signatures also were associated with other inflammatory molecules.
The findings suggest a link between the vaginal microbiome and preterm birth, and raise the possibility that a microbiome test, conducted early in pregnancy, might help to predict a woman’s risk for preterm birth. Even more exciting, this might suggest a possible way to modify the vaginal microbiome to reduce the risk of prematurity in susceptible individuals.
Overall, these landmark HMP studies add to evidence that our microbial inhabitants have important implications for many aspects of our health. We are truly a “superorganism.” In terms of the implications for biomedicine, this is still just the beginning of what is sure to be a very exciting journey.
 Longitudinal multi-omics of host-microbe dynamics in prediabetes. Zhou W, Sailani MR, Contrepois K, Sodergren E, Weinstock GM, Snyder M, et. al. Nature. 2019 May 29.
 National Diabetes Statistics Report, 2017, Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta, GA)
 Long-term effects of lifestyle intervention or metformin on diabetes development and microvascular complications over 15-year follow-up: the Diabetes Prevention Program Outcomes Study. Diabetes Prevention Program Research Group.Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol.2015 Nov;3(11):866-875.
 Multi-omics of the gut microbial ecosystem in inflammatory bowel disease. Lloyd-Price J, Arze C. Ananthakrishnan AN, Vlamakis H, Xavier RJ, Huttenhower C, et. al. Nature. 2019 May 29.
 The vaginal microbiome and preterm birth. Fettweis JM, Serrano MG, Brooks, JP, Jefferson KK, Strauss JF, Buck GA, et al. Nature Med. 2019 May 29.
Insulin Resistance & Prediabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)
Crohn’s Disease (NIDDK/NIH)
Ulcerative colitis (NIDDK/NIH)
Preterm Labor and Birth: Condition Information (Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development/NIH)
Global Alliance to Prevent Prematurity and Stillbirth (Seattle, WA)
Prediabetes Study: Common Fund; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of Human Genome Research; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences
Inflammatory Bowel Disease Study: Common Fund; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Human Genome Research; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Preterm Birth Study: Common Fund; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development