Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
At the close of every year, editors and writers at the journal Science review the progress that’s been made in all fields of science—from anthropology to zoology—to select the biggest advance of the past 12 months. In most cases, this Breakthrough of the Year is as tough to predict as the Oscar for Best Picture. Not in 2020. In a year filled with a multitude of challenges posed by the emergence of the deadly coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-2019), the breakthrough was the development of the first vaccines to protect against this pandemic that’s already claimed the lives of more than 360,000 Americans.
In keeping with its annual tradition, Science also selected nine runner-up breakthroughs. This impressive list includes at least three areas that involved efforts supported by NIH: therapeutic applications of gene editing, basic research understanding HIV, and scientists speaking up for diversity. Here’s a quick rundown of all the pioneering advances in biomedical research, both NIH and non-NIH funded:
Shots of Hope. A lot of things happened in 2020 that were unprecedented. At the top of the list was the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines. Public and private researchers accomplished in 10 months what normally takes about 8 years to produce two vaccines for public use, with more on the way in 2021. In my more than 25 years at NIH, I’ve never encountered such a willingness among researchers to set aside their other concerns and gather around the same table to get the job done fast, safely, and efficiently for the world.
It’s also pretty amazing that the first two conditionally approved vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were found to be more than 90 percent effective at protecting people from infection with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Both are innovative messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines, a new approach to vaccination.
For this type of vaccine, the centerpiece is a small, non-infectious snippet of mRNA that encodes the instructions to make the spike protein that crowns the outer surface of SARS-CoV-2. When the mRNA is injected into a shoulder muscle, cells there will follow the encoded instructions and temporarily make copies of this signature viral protein. As the immune system detects these copies, it spurs the production of antibodies and helps the body remember how to fend off SARS-CoV-2 should the real thing be encountered.
It also can’t be understated that both mRNA vaccines—one developed by Pfizer and the other by Moderna in conjunction with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases—were rigorously evaluated in clinical trials. Detailed data were posted online and discussed in all-day meetings of an FDA Advisory Committee, open to the public. In fact, given the high stakes, the level of review probably was more scientifically rigorous than ever.
First CRISPR Cures: One of the most promising areas of research now underway involves gene editing. These tools, still relatively new, hold the potential to fix gene misspellings—and potentially cure—a wide range of genetic diseases that were once to be out of reach. Much of the research focus has centered on CRISPR/Cas9. This highly precise gene-editing system relies on guide RNA molecules to direct a scissor-like Cas9 enzyme to just the right spot in the genome to cut out or correct a disease-causing misspelling.
In late 2020, a team of researchers in the United States and Europe succeeded for the first time in using CRISPR to treat 10 people with sickle cell disease and transfusion-dependent beta thalassemia. As published in the New England Journal of Medicine, several months after this non-heritable treatment, all patients no longer needed frequent blood transfusions and are living pain free .
The researchers tested a one-time treatment in which they removed bone marrow from each patient, modified the blood-forming hematopoietic stem cells outside the body using CRISPR, and then reinfused them into the body. To prepare for receiving the corrected cells, patients were given toxic bone marrow ablation therapy, in order to make room for the corrected cells. The result: the modified stem cells were reprogrammed to switch back to making ample amounts of a healthy form of hemoglobin that their bodies produced in the womb. While the treatment is still risky, complex, and prohibitively expensive, this work is an impressive start for more breakthroughs to come using gene editing technologies. NIH, including its Somatic Cell Genome Editing program, continues to push the technology to accelerate progress and make gene editing cures for many disorders simpler and less toxic.
Scientists Speak Up for Diversity: The year 2020 will be remembered not only for COVID-19, but also for the very public and inescapable evidence of the persistence of racial discrimination in the United States. Triggered by the killing of George Floyd and other similar events, Americans were forced to come to grips with the fact that our society does not provide equal opportunity and justice for all. And that applies to the scientific community as well.
Science thrives in safe, diverse, and inclusive research environments. It suffers when racism and bigotry find a home to stifle diversity—and community for all—in the sciences. For the nation’s leading science institutions, there is a place and a calling to encourage diversity in the scientific workplace and provide the resources to let it flourish to everyone’s benefit.
For those of us at NIH, last year’s peaceful protests and hashtags were noticed and taken to heart. That’s one of the many reasons why we will continue to strengthen our commitment to building a culturally diverse, inclusive workplace. For example, we have established the NIH Equity Committee. It allows for the systematic tracking and evaluation of diversity and inclusion metrics for the intramural research program for each NIH institute and center. There is also the recently founded Distinguished Scholars Program, which aims to increase the diversity of tenure track investigators at NIH. Recently, NIH also announced that it will provide support to institutions to recruit diverse groups or “cohorts” of early-stage research faculty and prepare them to thrive as NIH-funded researchers.
AI Disentangles Protein Folding: Proteins, which are the workhorses of the cell, are made up of long, interconnected strings of amino acids that fold into a wide variety of 3D shapes. Understanding the precise shape of a protein facilitates efforts to figure out its function, its potential role in a disease, and even how to target it with therapies. To gain such understanding, researchers often try to predict a protein’s precise 3D chemical structure using basic principles of physics—including quantum mechanics. But while nature does this in real time zillions of times a day, computational approaches have not been able to do this—until now.
Of the roughly 170,000 proteins mapped so far, most have had their structures deciphered using powerful imaging techniques such as x-ray crystallography and cryo–electron microscopy (cryo-EM). But researchers estimate that there are at least 200 million proteins in nature, and, as amazing as these imaging techniques are, they are laborious, and it can take many months or years to solve 3D structure of a single protein. So, a breakthrough certainly was needed!
In 2020, researchers with the company Deep Mind, London, developed an artificial intelligence (AI) program that rapidly predicts most protein structures as accurately as x-ray crystallography and cryo-EM can map them . The AI program, called AlphaFold, predicts a protein’s structure by computationally modeling the amino acid interactions that govern its 3D shape.
Getting there wasn’t easy. While a complete de novo calculation of protein structure still seemed out of reach, investigators reasoned that they could kick start the modeling if known structures were provided as a training set to the AI program. Utilizing a computer network built around 128 machine learning processors, the AlphaFold system was created by first focusing on the 170,000 proteins with known structures in a reiterative process called deep learning. The process, which is inspired by the way neural networks in the human brain process information, enables computers to look for patterns in large collections of data. In this case, AlphaFold learned to predict the underlying physical structure of a protein within a matter of days. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate the fields of structural biology and protein research, fueling progress throughout the sciences.
How Elite Controllers Keep HIV at Bay: The term “elite controller” might make some people think of video game whizzes. But here, it refers to the less than 1 percent of people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) who’ve somehow stayed healthy for years without taking antiretroviral drugs. In 2020, a team of NIH-supported researchers figured out why this is so.
In a study of 64 elite controllers, published in the journal Nature, the team discovered a link between their good health and where the virus has inserted itself in their genomes . When a cell transcribes a gene where HIV has settled, this so-called “provirus,” can produce more virus to infect other cells. But if it settles in a part of a chromosome that rarely gets transcribed, sometimes called a gene desert, the provirus is stuck with no way to replicate. Although this discovery won’t cure HIV/AIDS, it points to a new direction for developing better treatment strategies.
In closing, 2020 presented more than its share of personal and social challenges. Among those challenges was a flood of misinformation about COVID-19 that confused and divided many communities and even families. That’s why the editors and writers at Science singled out “a second pandemic of misinformation” as its Breakdown of the Year. This divisiveness should concern all of us greatly, as COVID-19 cases continue to soar around the country and our healthcare gets stretched to the breaking point. I hope and pray that we will all find a way to come together, both in science and in society, as we move forward in 2021.
 CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing for sickle cell disease and β-thalassemia. Frangoul H et al. N Engl J Med. 2020 Dec 5.
 ‘The game has changed.’ AI triumphs at protein folding. Service RF. Science. 04 Dec 2020.
 Distinct viral reservoirs in individuals with spontaneous control of HIV-1. Jiang C et al. Nature. 2020 Sep;585(7824):261-267.
COVID-19 Research (NIH)
2020 Science Breakthrough of the Year (American Association for the Advancement of Science, Washington, D.C)
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
Technological advances with potential for improving human health sometimes come from the most unexpected places. An intriguing example is an electricity-conducting biological nanowire that holds promise for powering miniaturized pacemakers and other implantable electronic devices.
The nanowires come from a bacterium called Geobacter sulfurreducens, shown in the electron micrograph above. This rod-shaped microbe (white) was discovered two decades ago in soil collected from an unlikely place: a ditch outside of Norman, Oklahoma. The bug can conduct electricity along its arm-like appendages, and, in the hydrocarbon-contaminated, oxygen-depleted soil in which it lives, such electrical inputs and outputs are essentially the equivalent of breathing.
Scientists fascinated with G. sulfurreducens thought that its electricity had to be flowing through well-studied microbial appendages called pili. But, as the atomic structure of these nanowires (multi-colors, foreground) now reveals, these nanowires aren’t pili at all! Instead, the bacteria have manufactured unique submicroscopic arm-like structures. These arms consist of long, repetitive chains of a unique protein, each surrounding a core of iron-containing molecules.
The surprising discovery, published in the journal Cell, was made by an NIH-funded team involving Edward Egelman, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville. Egelman’s lab has had a long interest in what’s called a type 4 pili. These strong, adhering appendages help certain infectious bacteria enter tissues and make people sick. In fact, they enable bugs like Neisseria meningitidis to cross the blood-brain barrier and cause potentially deadly bacterial meningitis. While other researchers had proposed that those same type 4 pili allowed G. sulfurreducens to conduct electricity, Egelman wasn’t so sure.
So, he took advantage of recent advances in cryo-electron microscopy, which involves flash-freezing molecules at extremely low temperatures before bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera. The cryo-EM images allowed his team to nail down the atomic structure of the nanowires, now called OmcS filaments.
Using those images and sophisticated bioinformatics, Egelman and team determined that OmcS proteins uniquely fit into the nanowires’ long repetitive chains, spacing their iron-bearing cores at regular intervals to transfer electrons and convey electricity. In fact, bacteria unable to produce OmcS proteins make filaments that conduct electricity 100 times less efficiently.
With these cryo-EM structures in hand, Egelman says his team will continue to explore their conductive properties. Such knowledge might someday be used to build biologically-inspired nanowires, measuring 1/100,000th the width of a human hair, to connect miniature electronic devices directly to living tissues. This is one more example of how nature’s ability to invent is pretty breathtaking—surely one wouldn’t have predicted the discovery of nanowires in a bacterium that lives in contaminated ditches.
 Structure of Microbial Nanowires Reveals Stacked Hemes that Transport Electrons over Micrometers. Wang F, Gu Y, O’Brien JP, Yi SM, Yalcin SE, Srikanth V, Shen C, Vu D, Ing NL, Hochbaum AI, Egelman EH, Malvankar NS. Cell. 2019 Apr 4;177(2):361-369.
Electroactive microorganisms in bioelectrochemical systems. Logan BE, Rossi R, Ragab A, Saikaly PE. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2019 May;17(5):307-319.
High Resolution Electron Microscopy (National Cancer Institute/NIH)
Egelman Lab (University of Virginia, Charlottesville)
NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Common Fund
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Credit: Adapted from Jones et al. ChemRxiv.org
Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for mapping the structures of large biological molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. Now comes word of another absolutely incredible use of cryo-EM: determining with great ease and exquisite precision the structure of the smaller organic chemical compounds, or “small molecules,” that play such key roles in biological exploration and drug development.
The new advance involves a cryo-EM technique called microcrystal-electron diffraction (MicroED). As detailed in a preprint on ChemRxiv.org  and the journal Angewandte Chemie , MicroED has enabled researchers to take the powdered form of commercially available small molecules and generate high-resolution data on their chemical structures in less than a half-hour—dramatically faster than with traditional methods!