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Mapping Severe COVID-19 in the Lungs at Single-Cell Resolution

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lung microscopy with red macrophages and green fibrosis cells
Caption: Image shows macrophages (red), fibroblast cells (green), and other cells (blue). In late COVID-19, macrophages migrate near fibroblasts, which may play a role in fibrosis. Credit: Images courtesy of André Rendeiro

A crucial question for COVID-19 researchers is what causes progression of the initial infection, leading to life-threatening respiratory illness. A good place to look for clues is in the lungs of those COVID-19 patients who’ve tragically lost their lives to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), in which fluid and cellular infiltrates build up in the lung’s air sacs, called alveoli, keeping them from exchanging oxygen with the bloodstream.

As shown above, a team of NIH-funded researchers has done just that, capturing changes in the lungs over the course of a COVID-19 infection at unprecedented, single-cell resolution. These imaging data add evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, primarily infects cells at the surface of the air sacs. Their findings also offer valuable clues for treating the most severe consequences of COVID-19, suggesting that a certain type of scavenging immune cell might be driving the widespread lung inflammation that leads to ARDS.

The findings, published in Nature [1], come from Olivier Elemento and Robert E. Schwartz, Weill Cornell Medicine, New York. They already knew from earlier COVID-19 studies about the body’s own immune response causing the lung inflammation that leads to ARDS. What was missing was an understanding of the precise interplay between immune cells and lung tissue infected with SARS-CoV-2. It also wasn’t clear how the ARDS seen with COVID-19 compared to the ARDS seen in other serious respiratory diseases, including influenza and bacterial pneumonia.

Traditional tissue analysis uses chemical stains or tagged antibodies to label certain proteins and visualize important features in autopsied human tissues. But using these older techniques, it isn’t possible to capture more than a few such proteins at once. To get a more finely detailed view, the researchers used a more advanced technology called imaging mass cytometry [2].

This approach uses a collection of lanthanide metal-tagged antibodies to label simultaneously dozens of molecular markers on cells within tissues. Next, a special laser scans the labeled tissue sections, which vaporizes the heavy metal tags. As the metals are vaporized, their distinct signatures are detected in a mass spectrometer along with their spatial position relative to the laser. The technique makes it possible to map precisely where a diversity of distinct cell types is located in a tissue sample with respect to one another.

In the new study, the researchers applied the method to 19 lung tissue samples from patients who had died of severe COVID-19, acute bacterial pneumonia, or bacterial or influenza-related ARDS. They included 36 markers to differentiate various types of lung and immune cells as well as the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and molecular signs of immune activation, inflammation, and cell death. For comparison, they also mapped four lung tissue samples from people who had died without lung disease.

Altogether, they captured more than 200 lung tissue maps, representing more than 660,000 cells across all the tissues sampled. Those images showed in all cases that respiratory infection led to a thickening of the walls surrounding alveoli as immune cells entered. They also showed an increase in cell death in infected compared to healthy lungs.

Their maps suggest that what happens in the lungs of COVID-19 patients who die with ARDS isn’t entirely unique. It’s similar to what happens in the lungs of those with other life-threatening respiratory infections who also die with ARDS.

They did, however, reveal a potentially prominent role in COVID-19 for white blood cells called macrophages. The results showed that macrophages are much more abundant in the lungs of severe COVID-19 patients compared to other lung infections.

In late COVID-19, macrophages also increase in the walls of alveoli, where they interact with lung cells known as fibroblasts. This suggests these interactions may play a role in the buildup of damaging fibrous tissue, or scarring, in the alveoli that tends to be seen in severe COVID-19 respiratory infections.

While the virus initiates this life-threatening damage, its progression may not depend on the persistence of the virus, but on an overreaction of the immune system. This may explain why immunomodulatory treatments like dexamethasone can provide benefit to the sickest patients with COVID-19. To learn even more, the researchers are making their data and maps available as a resource for scientists around the world who are busily working to understand this devastating illness and help put an end to the terrible toll caused by this pandemic.


[1] The spatial landscape of lung pathology during COVID-19 progression. Rendeiro AF, Ravichandran H, Bram Y, Chandar V, Kim J, Meydan C, Park J, Foox J, Hether T, Warren S, Kim Y, Reeves J, Salvatore S, Mason CE, Swanson EC, Borczuk AC, Elemento O, Schwartz RE. Nature. 2021 Mar 29.

[2] Mass cytometry imaging for the study of human diseases-applications and data analysis strategies. Baharlou H, Canete NP, Cunningham AL, Harman AN, Patrick E. Front Immunol. 2019 Nov 14;10:2657.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Elemento Lab (Weill Cornell Medicine, New York)

Schwartz Lab (Weill Cornell Medicine)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Cancer Institute

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)