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Tackling Cancer Metastasis with Engineered Blood Platelets

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Tara Deans
Credit: Dan Hixson/University of Utah College of Engineering, Salt Lake City

When cancer cells spread to new parts of the body in a process called metastasis, they often get there by traveling through the bloodstream. To avoid alerting the immune system and possibly triggering their demise, cancer cells coax circulating blood platelets to glom onto their surfaces and mask them from detection. This deceptive arrangement has raised a tantalizing possibility: What if blood platelets could be programmed to recognize and take out those metastasizing cancer cells?

Tara Deans, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, was recently awarded a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to do exactly that. It’s an exciting opportunity for a researcher who stumbled onto this innovative strategy quite by accident.

Deans is a bioengineer and expert in designing synthetic gene circuits. These circuits consist of small collections of genetic “parts” that can be assembled and integrated to program cells to behave differently than their natural counterparts [1]. In her initial work, Deans got these specialized gene circuits to prompt blood-forming stem cells to mass-produce platelets in the lab.

But blood platelets are unusual cells. They’re packed with many proteins that help to repair small nicks in blood vessels and stop the bleeding when we’re injured. Blood platelets do so even though they lack a nucleus and DNA to encode and make any of the proteins. Their protein cargo is pre-packaged and comes strictly from the bone marrow cells, called megakaryocytes, that produce them.

Deans realized that engineering platelets might pose a rare opportunity. She could wire the needed circuitry into the blood-forming stem cells and engineer them to make any desired therapeutic proteins, which are then loaded into the blood platelets for their 8- to 10-day lifespan. She started out producing blood platelets that could safely carry functional replacement enzymes in people with certain rare metabolic disorders.

As this research progressed, Deans got some troubling personal news: A friend was diagnosed with a blood cancer. At the time, Deans didn’t know much about the diagnosis. But, in reading about her friend’s cancer, she learned how metastasizing tumor cells interact with platelets.

That’s when Deans had her “aha” moment: maybe the engineered platelets could also be put to work in preventing metastasizing tumor cells from spreading.

Now, with her New Innovator Award, Deans will pursue this novel approach by engineering platelets to carry potentially promising cancer-fighting proteins. In principle, they could be tailored to fight breast, lung, and various other cancer types. Ultimately, she hopes that platelets could be engineered to target and kill circulating cancer cells before they move into other tissues.

There’s plenty of research ahead to work out the details of targeting the circulating cancer cells and then testing them in animal models before this strategy could ever be attempted in people. But Deans is excited about the path forward, and thinks that platelets hold great promise to function as unique drug delivery devices. It has not escaped her notice that this approach could work not only for controlling the spread of cancer cells, but also in treating other medical conditions.

Reference:

[1] Genetic circuits to engineer tissues with alternative functions. Healy CP, Deans TL. J Biol Eng. 2019 May 3;13:39.

Links:

Metastatic Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Deans Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Deans Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute


Racing to Develop Fast, Affordable, Accessible Tests for COVID-19

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RADx: Innovating Better Tests
Credit: iStock/peshkov

Developing faster, more convenient ways of testing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) will be essential to our efforts to end this deadly pandemic. Despite the tremendous strides that have been made in diagnostics over the past seven months, we still need more innovation.

We need reliable, affordable tests for the presence SARS-CoV-2—the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19—that do not take hours or days to deliver results. We need tests that are more user friendly, and that don’t rely on samples collected by swabs that have to be inserted deep into the nose by someone wearing PPE. We need tests that can be performed at the point-of-care, whether a doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, long-term care facility, or even a home. Ideally, such tests should also be able to integrate with mobile devices to convey results and transmit data seamlessly. Above all, we need tests that are accessible to everyone.

Most current diagnostic tests for SARS-CoV-2 involve detecting viral genetic material using a decades-old technology called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). If there’s even a tiny bit of viral genetic material in a patient’s sample, PCR can amplify the material millions of times so that it can be readily detected. The problem is that this amplification process is time-consuming and requires a thermal cycling machine that’s generally operated by trained personnel in sophisticated lab settings.

To spur the creation of new approaches that can rapidly expand access to testing, NIH launched the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) program in late April 2020. This fast-paced, innovative effort, conducted in partnership with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Health, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), and the Department of Defense, is supported by $1.5 billion in federal stimulus funding. The goal? To expand diagnostic testing capacity for COVID-19 in the United States to about 6 million tests per day by December. That’s quite a leap forward because our nation’s current testing capacity is currently about 1 million tests per day.

Just yesterday, I joined other NIH leaders in authoring a special report in the New England Journal of Medicine that describes RADx’s main activities, and provides an update on the remarkable progress that’s been made in just three short months [1]. In a nutshell, RADx consists of four components: RADx-tech, RADx Advanced Technology Platforms (RADx-ATP). RADx Radical (RADx-rad), and RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP).


Though all parts of RADx are operating on a fast-track, RADx-tech has embraced its rapid timelines in a can-do manner unlike anything that I’ve encountered in my 27 years in government. Here’s how the process, which has been likened to a scientific “shark tank,” works.

Once an applicant submits a test idea to RADx-tech, it’s reviewed within a day by a panel of 30 experts. If approved, the application moves to a highly competitive “shark-tank” in which a team of experts spend about 150 to 200 person-hours with the applicant evaluating the technical, clinical, and commercial strengths and weaknesses of the proposed test.

From there, a detailed proposal is presented to a steering committee, and then sent to NIH. If we at NIH think it’s a great idea, promising early-stage technologies enter what’s called “phase one” development, with considerable financial support and the expectation that the applicant will hit its validation milestones within a month. Technologies that succeed can then go to “phase two”, where support is provided for scale-up of tests for meeting regulatory requirements and supporting manufacture, scale-up, and distribution.

The major focus of RADx-tech is to simplify and speed diagnostic testing for COVID-19. Tests now under development include a variety of mobile devices that can be used at a doctor’s office or other point-of-care settings, and give results in less than an hour. In addition, about half of the tests now under development use saliva or another alternative to samples gathered via nasal swabs.

As Americans think about how to move back safely into schools, workspaces, and other public areas in the era of COVID-19, it is clear that we need to figure out ways to make it easier for everyone to get tested. To attain that goal, RADx has three other components that build on different aspects of this social imperative:

RADx Advanced Technology Platforms (RADx-ATP). This program offers a rapid-response application process for firms with existing point-of-care technologies authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for detecting SARS-CoV-2. These technologies are already advanced enough that they don’t need the shark tank. The RADx-ATP program provides support for scaling up production to between 20,000 and 100,000 tests per day by the fall. Another component of this program provides support for expanding automated “mega-labs” to increase testing capacity across the country by another 100,000 to 250,000 tests per day.

RADx Radical (RADx-rad). The program seeks to fuel the development of truly futuristic testing technologies. For example, it supports projects that use biomarkers to detect an infection or predict the severity of disease, including the likelihood of developing COVID-related multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). Other areas of interest include the use of biosensors to detect the presence of the virus in a person’s breath and the analysis of wastewater to conduct community-based surveillance.

RADx Underserved Populations (RADx-UP). Data collected over the past several months make it clear that Blacks, Latinxs, and American Indians/Alaska Natives are hospitalized and die of COVID-19 at disproportionately higher rates than other groups. RADx-UP aims to engage underserved communities to improve access to testing. Such actions will include closely examining the factors that have led to the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on underserved populations, as well as building infrastructure that can be leveraged to provide optimal access and uptake of SARS-CoV-2 testing in such communities.

At NIH, we have great hopes for what RADx-supported research will do to help bring to an end the greatest public health crisis of our generation. Yet the benefits may not end there. The diagnostic testing technologies developed here will have many other applications moving forward. Long after the COVID-19 pandemic becomes a chapter in history books, I’m convinced the RADx model of rapid innovation will be inspiring future generations of researchers as they look for creative new ways to address other diseases and conditions.

Reference:

[1] Rapid scaling up of COVID-19 diagnostic testing in the United States—The NIH RADx Initiative. Tromberg BJ, Schwetz TA, Perez-Stable E, Hodes RJ. Woychick RP, Bright RA, Fleurence RL, Collins FS. NEJM; 2020 July 16. [Online publication ahead of print]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx)

NIH mobilizes national innovation initiative for COVID-19 diagnostics,” NIH news release, April 29, 2020.


Genomic Study Points to Natural Origin of COVID-19

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COVID-19 Update

No matter where you go online these days, there’s bound to be discussion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some folks are even making outrageous claims that the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

The reassuring findings are the result of genomic analyses conducted by an international research team, partly supported by NIH. In their study in the journal Nature Medicine, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA; Robert Garry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans; and their colleagues used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

The researchers began by homing in on the parts of the coronavirus genomes that encode the spike proteins that give this family of viruses their distinctive crown-like appearance. (By the way, “corona” is Latin for “crown.”) All coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to infect other cells. But, over time, each coronavirus has fashioned these proteins a little differently, and the evolutionary clues about these modifications are spelled out in their genomes.

The genomic data of the new coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 show that its spike protein contains some unique adaptations. One of these adaptations provides special ability of this coronavirus to bind to a specific protein on human cells called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE2). A related coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans also seeks out ACE2.

Existing computer models predicted that the new coronavirus would not bind to ACE2 as well as the SARS virus. However, to their surprise, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. Researchers said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.

The researchers went on to analyze genomic data related to the overall molecular structure, or backbone, of the new coronavirus. Their analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature. If the new coronavirus had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

So, what is the natural origin of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers don’t yet have a precise answer. But they do offer two possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Either way, this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19. And that’s a good thing because it helps us keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting the efforts of all the dedicated health-care professionals and researchers who are working so hard to address this major public health challenge.

Finally, next time you come across something about COVID-19 online that disturbs or puzzles you, I suggest going to FEMA’s new Coronavirus Rumor Control web site. It may not have all the answers to your questions, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in helping to distinguish rumors from facts.

Reference:
[1] The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. Nat Med, 17 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Andersen Lab (Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Robert Garry (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

Coronavirus Rumor Control (FEMA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute


Tackling Fibrosis with Synthetic Materials

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April Kloxin
April Kloxin/Credit: Evan Krape, University of Delaware, Newark

When injury strikes a limb or an organ, our bodies usually heal quickly and correctly. But for some people, the healing process doesn’t shut down properly, leading to excess fibrous tissue, scarring, and potentially life-threatening organ damage.

This permanent scarring, known as fibrosis, can occur in almost every tissue of the body, including the heart and lungs. With support from a 2019 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award, April Kloxin is applying her expertise in materials science and bioengineering to build sophisticated fibrosis-in-a-dish models for unraveling this complex process in her lab at the University of Delaware, Newark.

Though Kloxin is interested in all forms of fibrosis, she’s focusing first on the incurable and often-fatal lung condition called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF). This condition, characterized by largely unexplained thickening and stiffening of lung tissue, is diagnosed in about 50,000 people each year in the United States.

IPF remains poorly understood, in part because it often is diagnosed when the disease is already well advanced. Kloxin hopes to turn back the clock and start to understand the disease at an earlier stage, when interventions might be more successful. The key is to develop a model that better recapitulates the complexity and irreversibility of the disease process in people.

Building that better model starts with simulating the meshwork of collagen and other proteins in the extracellular matrix (ECM) that undergird every tissue and organ in the body. The ECM’s interactions with our cells are essential in wound healing and, when things go wrong, also in causing fibrosis.

Kloxin will build three-dimensional hydrogels, crosslinked sponge-like networks of polymers, peptides, and proteins, with structures that more accurately capture the biological complexities of human tissues, including the ECMs within fibrous collagen-rich microenvironments. Her synthetic matrices can be triggered with light to lock in place and stiffen. The matrices also will make it possible to culture the lung’s epithelium, or outermost layer of cells, and connective tissue that surrounds it, to study cellular responses as the model shifts from a healthy and flexible to a stiffened, disease-like state.

Kloxin and her team will also integrate into their model system lung cells that have been engineered to fluoresce or light up under a microscope when the wound-healing program activates. Such fluorescent reporters will allow her team to watch for the first time how different cells and their nearby microenvironment respond as the composition of the ECM changes and stiffens. With this system, she’ll also be able to search for small molecules with the ability to turn off excessive wound healing.

The hope is that what’s learned with her New Innovator Award will lead to fresh insights and ultimately new treatments for this mysterious, hard-to-treat condition. But the benefits could be even more wide-ranging. Kloxin thinks that her findings will have implications for the prevention and treatment of other fibrotic diseases as well.

Links:

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

April Kloxin Group (University of Delaware, Newark)

Kloxin Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Giving Thanks for Biomedical Research

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This Thanksgiving, Americans have an abundance of reasons to be grateful—loving family and good food often come to mind. Here’s one more to add to the list: exciting progress in biomedical research. To check out some of that progress, I encourage you to watch this short video, produced by NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Engineering (NIBIB), that showcases a few cool gadgets and devices now under development.

Among the technological innovations is a wearable ultrasound patch for monitoring blood pressure [1]. The patch was developed by a research team led by Sheng Xu and Chonghe Wang, University of California San Diego, La Jolla. When this small patch is worn on the neck, it measures blood pressure in the central arteries and veins by emitting continuous ultrasound waves.

Other great technologies featured in the video include:

Laser-Powered Glucose Meter. Peter So and Jeon Woong Kang, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, and their collaborators at MIT and University of Missouri, Columbia have developed a laser-powered device that measures glucose through the skin [2]. They report that this device potentially could provide accurate, continuous glucose monitoring for people with diabetes without the painful finger pricks.

15-Second Breast Scanner. Lihong Wang, a researcher at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and colleagues have combined laser light and sound waves to create a rapid, noninvasive, painless breast scan. It can be performed while a woman rests comfortably on a table without the radiation or compression of a standard mammogram [3].

White Blood Cell Counter. Carlos Castro-Gonzalez, then a postdoc at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and colleagues developed a portable, non-invasive home monitor to count white blood cells as they pass through capillaries inside a finger [4]. The test, which takes about 1 minute, can be carried out at home, and will help those undergoing chemotherapy to determine whether their white cell count has dropped too low for the next dose, avoiding risk for treatment-compromising infections.

Neural-Enabled Prosthetic Hand (NEPH). Ranu Jung, a researcher at Florida International University, Miami, and colleagues have developed a prosthetic hand that restores a sense of touch, grip, and finger control for amputees [5]. NEPH is a fully implantable, wirelessly controlled system that directly stimulates nerves. More than two years ago, the FDA approved a first-in-human trial of the NEPH system.

If you want to check out more taxpayer-supported innovations, take a look at NIBIB’s two previous videos from 2013 and 2018 As always, let me offer thanks to you from the NIH family—and from all Americans who care about the future of their health—for your continued support. Happy Thanksgiving!

References:

[1] Monitoring of the central blood pressure waveform via a conformal ultrasonic device. Wang C, Li X, Hu H, Zhang, L, Huang Z, Lin M, Zhang Z, Yun Z, Huang B, Gong H, Bhaskaran S, Gu Y, Makihata M, Guo Y, Lei Y, Chen Y, Wang C, Li Y, Zhang T, Chen Z, Pisano AP, Zhang L, Zhou Q, Xu S. Nature Biomedical Engineering. September 2018, 687-695.

[2] Evaluation of accuracy dependence of Raman spectroscopic models on the ratio of calibration and validation points for non-invasive glucose sensing. Singh SP, Mukherjee S, Galindo LH, So PTC, Dasari RR, Khan UZ, Kannan R, Upendran A, Kang JW. Anal Bioanal Chem. 2018 Oct;410(25):6469-6475.

[3] Single-breath-hold photoacoustic computed tomography of the breast. Lin L, Hu P, Shi J, Appleton CM, Maslov K, Li L, Zhang R, Wang LV. Nat Commun. 2018 Jun 15;9(1):2352.

[4] Non-invasive detection of severe neutropenia in chemotherapy patients by optical imaging of nailfold microcirculation. Bourquard A, Pablo-Trinidad A, Butterworth I, Sánchez-Ferro Á, Cerrato C, Humala K, Fabra Urdiola M, Del Rio C, Valles B, Tucker-Schwartz JM, Lee ES, Vakoc BJ9, Padera TP, Ledesma-Carbayo MJ, Chen YB, Hochberg EP, Gray ML, Castro-González C. Sci Rep. 2018 Mar 28;8(1):5301.

[5] Enhancing Sensorimotor Integration Using a Neural Enabled Prosthetic Hand System

Links:

Sheng Xu Lab (University of California San Diego, La Jolla)

So Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

Lihong Wang (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)

Video: Lihong Wang: Better Cancer Screenings

Carlos Castro-Gonzalez (Madrid-MIT M + Visión Consortium, Cambridge, MA)

Video: Carlos Castro-Gonzalez (YouTube)

Ranu Jung (Florida International University, Miami)

Video: New Prosthetic System Restores Sense of Touch (Florida International)

NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Cancer Institute; Common Fund


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