You’ve probably seen some amazing high-resolution images of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, on television and the web. What you might not know is that many of these images, including the ones shown here, were produced at Rocky Mountain Laboratories (RML), a part of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that’s located in the small Montana town of Hamilton.
The head of RML’s Electron Microscopy Unit, Elizabeth Fischer, was the researcher who took this portrait of SARS-CoV-2. For more than 25 years, Fischer has snapped stunning images of dangerous viruses and microbes, including some remarkable shots of the deadly Ebola virus. She also took some of the first pictures of the coronavirus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels and continues to circulate at low levels in people.
The NIAID facility uses a variety of microscopy techniques, including state-of-the-art cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). But the eye-catching image you see here was taken with a classic scanning electron microscope (SEM).
SEM enables visualization of particles, including viruses, that are too small to be seen with traditional light microscopy. It does so by focusing electrons, instead of light, into a beam that scans the surface of a sample that’s first been dehydrated, chemically preserved, and then coated with a thin layer of metal. As electrons bounce off the sample’s surface, microscopists such as Fischer are able to capture its precise topology. The result is a gray-scale micrograph like the one you see above on the left. To make the image easier to interpret, Fischer hands the originals off to RML’s Visual Medical Arts Department, which uses colorization to make key features pop like they do in the image on the right.
So, what exactly are you seeing in this image? The orange-brown folds and protrusions are part of the surface of a single cell that’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2. This particular cell comes from a commonly studied primate kidney epithelial cell line. The small, blue spheres emerging from the cell surface are SARS-CoV-2 particles.
This picture is quite literally a snapshot of viral shedding, a process in which viral particles are released from a dying cell. This image gives us a window into how devastatingly effective SARS-CoV-2 appears to be at co-opting a host’s cellular machinery: just one infected cell is capable of releasing thousands of new virus particles that can, in turn, be transmitted to others.
While capturing a fixed sample on the microscope is fairly straightforward for a pro like Fischer, developing a sample like this one involves plenty of behind-the-scenes trial and error by NIAID investigators. As you might imagine, to see the moment that viruses emerge from an infected cell, you have to get the timing just right.
By capturing many shots of the coronavirus using the arsenal of microscopes available at RML and elsewhere, researchers are learning more every day about how SARS-CoV-2 enters a cell, moves inside it, and then emerges to infect other cells. In addition to advancing scientific knowledge, Fischer notes that images like these also hold the remarkable power to make an invisible enemy visible to the world at large.
Making SARS-CoV-2 tangible helps to demystify the challenges that all of us now face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope is it will encourage each and every one of us to do our part to fight it, whether that means digging into the research, working on the front lines, or staying at home to prevent transmission and flatten the curve. And, if you could use some additional inspiration, don’t miss the NIAID’s image gallery on Flickr, which includes some of Fischer’s finest work.
Right now, the world is utterly focused on the coronavirus outbreak known as COVID-19. That’s certainly true for those of us at NIH. Though I am working from home to adhere rigorously to physical distancing, I can’t remember ever working harder, trying to do everything I can to assist in the development of safe and effective treatments and vaccines.
Over the past several weeks, a mind-boggling array of possible therapies have been considered. None have yet been proven to be effective in rigorously controlled trials, but for one of them, it’s been a busy week. So let’s focus on an experimental anti-viral drug, called remdesivir, that was originally developed for the deadly Ebola virus. Though remdesivir failed to help people with Ebola virus disease, encouraging results from studies of coronavirus-infected animals have prompted the launch of human clinical trials to see if this drug might fight SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
You may wonder how a drug could possibly work for Ebola and SARS-CoV-2, since they are very different viruses that produce dramatically different symptoms in humans. The commonality is that both viruses have genomes made of ribonucleic acid (RNA), which must be copied by an enzyme called RNA-dependent RNA polymerase for the virus to replicate.
Remdesivir has an affinity for attaching to this kind of polymerase because its structure is very similar to one of the RNA letters that make up the viral genome . Due to this similarity, when an RNA virus attempts to replicate, its polymerase is tricked into incorporating remdesivir into its genome as a foreign nucleotide, or anomalous letter. That undecipherable, extra letter brings the replication process to a crashing halt—and, without the ability to replicate, viruses can’t infect human cells.
Would this work on a SARS-CoV-2 infection in a living organism? An important step was just posted as a preprint yesterday—a small study showed infusion of remdesivir was effective in limiting the severity of lung disease in rhesus macaques . That’s encouraging news. But the only sure way to find out if remdesivir will actually help humans who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 is to conduct a randomized, controlled clinical trial.
In late February, NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) did just that, when it launched a randomized, controlled clinical trial to test remdesivir in people with COVID-19. The study, led by NIAID’s Division of Microbiology and Infectious Diseases, has already enrolled 805 patients at 67 testing sites. Most sites are in the United States, but there are also some in Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Greece, and Germany.
All trial participants must have laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 infections and evidence of lung involvement, such as abnormal chest X-rays, rattling sounds when breathing (rales) with a need for supplemental oxygen, or a need for mechanical ventilation. They are randomly assigned to receive either a round of treatment with remdesivir or a harmless placebo with no therapeutic effect. To avoid bias from creeping into patient care, the study is double-blind, meaning neither the medical staff nor the participants know who is receiving remdesivir.
There is also an early hint from another publication that remdesivir may benefit some people with COVID-19. Since the end of January 2020, Gilead Sciences, Foster City, CA, which makes remdesivir, has provided daily, intravenous infusions of the drug on a compassionate basis to more than 1,800 people hospitalized with advanced COVID-19 around the world. In a study of a subgroup of 53 compassionate-use patients with advanced complications of COVID-19, nearly two-thirds improved when given remdesivir for up to 10 days . Most of the participants were men over age 60 with preexisting conditions that included hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, and asthma.
This may sound exciting, but these preliminary results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, come with major caveats. There were no controls, participants were not randomized, and the study lacked other key features of the more rigorously designed NIH clinical trial. We can all look forward to the results from the NIH trial, which are are expected within a matter of weeks. Hopefully these will provide much-needed scientific evidence on remdesivir’s safety and efficacy in people with COVID-19.
In the meantime, basic researchers continue to learn more about remdesivir and its interaction with the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. In a recent study in the journal Science, a research team, led by Quan Wang, Shanghai Tech University, China, mapped the 3D atomic structure of the novel coronavirus’s polymerase while it was complexed with two other vital parts of the viral replication machinery . This was accomplished using a high-resolution imaging approach called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), which involves flash-freezing molecules in liquid nitrogen and bombarding them with electrons to capture their images with a special camera.
With these atomic structures in hand, the researchers then modeled exactly how remdesivir binds to the polymerase of the novel coronavirus. The model will help inform future efforts to tweak the structure of the drug and optimize its ability to disrupt viral replication. Such detailed biochemical information will be vital in the weeks ahead, especially if data generated by the NIH clinical trial indicate that remdesivir is a worthwhile lead to pursue in our ongoing search for anti-viral drugs to combat the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Caption: MinION sequencing device plugged into a laptop/Oxford Nanopore Technologies
It’s hard to believe, but it’s been almost 15 years since we successfully completed the Human Genome Project, ahead of schedule and under budget. I was proud to stand with my international colleagues in a celebration at the Library of Congress on April 14, 2003 (which happens to be my birthday), to announce that we had stitched together the very first reference sequence of the human genome at a total cost of about $400 million. As remarkable as that achievement was, it was just the beginning of our ongoing effort to understand the human genome, and to use that understanding to improve human health.
That first reference human genome was sequenced using automated machines that were the size of small phone booths. Since then, breathtaking progress has been made in developing innovative technologies that have made DNA sequencing far easier, faster, and more affordable. Now, a report in Nature Biotechnology highlights the latest advance: the sequencing and assembly of a human genome using a pocket-sized device . It was generated using several “nanopore” devices that can be purchased online with a “starter kit” for just $1,000. In fact, this new genome sequence—completed in a matter of weeks—includes some notoriously hard-to-sequence stretches of DNA, filling several key gaps in our original reference genome.
In response to the health threat posed by the recent outbreak of Zika virus in Latin America and its recent spread to Puerto Rico and Florida, researchers have been working at a furious pace to learn more about the mosquito-borne virus. Considerable progress has been made in understanding how Zika might cause babies to be born with unusually small heads and other abnormalities and in developing vaccines that may guard against Zika infection.
Still, there remains an urgent need to find drugs that can be used to treat people already infected with the Zika virus. A team that includes scientists at NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) now has some encouraging news on this front. By testing 6,000 FDA-approved drugs and experimental chemical compounds on Zika-infected human cells in the lab, they’ve shown that some existing drugs might be repurposed to fight Zika infection and prevent the virus from harming the developing brain . While additional research is needed, the new findings suggest it may be possible to speed development and approval of new treatments for Zika infection.
Caption: A rapid Ebola detection system consisting of a microfluidic chip (left) and an optofluidic chip (right), connected by a curved tube (center). Credit: Joshua Parks, University of California, Santa Cruz
Many lessons were learned during last year’s devastating outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa. A big one is that field clinics operating in remote settings desperately need a simple, rapid, and accurate test that can tell doctors on the spot—with just a drop of blood—whether or not a person has an active Ebola infection.
A number of point-of-care tests are under development, and it’s exciting to see them moving in the right direction to fill this critical need . As a recent example, a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports by a team of NIH-supported researchers and colleagues shows early success in rapid Ebola detection with an automated lab on a chip . The hybrid system, which combines microfluidics for sample preparation with optofluidics for viral detection, identifies Ebola at concentrations that are typically seen in the bloodstream of an infected person. It also distinguishes between Ebola and the related Marburg and Sudan viruses, suggesting it could be used to detect other infectious diseases.