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Discussing the Long Arc of Discovery with NIH’s Newest Nobelist

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Discussion with Dr. Harvey Alter

It’s been a tough year for our whole world because of everything that’s happening as a result of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Yet there are bright spots that still shine through, and this week brought some fantastic news about NIH-supported researchers being named 2020 Nobel Prize Laureates for their pioneering work in two important fields: Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine.

In the wee hours of Wednesday morning, NIH grantee Jennifer A. Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, got word that she and Emmanuelle Charpentier, a microbiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany, had won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the CRISPR/cas approach to genome editing. Doudna has received continuous NIH funding since 1997, mainly from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and National Human Genome Research Institute.

The CRISPR/cas system, which consists of a short segment of RNA attached to the cas enzyme, provides the ability to make very precise changes in the sequence, or spelling, of the genetic instruction books of humans and other species. If used to make non-heritable edits in relevant tissues, such technology holds enormous potential to treat or even cure a wide range of devastating diseases, including thousands of genetic disorders where the DNA misspelling is precisely known.

Just two days before Doudna learned of her big award, a scientist who’s spent almost his entire career at the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD, received news that he too was getting a Nobel—the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Harvey Alter, a senior scholar in the NIH Clinical Center’s Transfusion Medicine Department, was recognized for his contributions in identifying the potentially deadly hepatitis C virus. He shares this year’s prize with Michael Houghton, now with University of Alberta, Edmonton, and Charles M. Rice, The Rockefeller University, New York, who’s received continuous NIH funding since 1987, mainly from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

In a long arc of discovery rooted in basic, translational, and clinical research that spanned several decades, Alter and his colleagues doggedly pursued biological clues that at first led to tests, then life-saving treatments, and, today, the very real hope of eradicating the global health threat posed by hepatitis C infections.

We at NIH are particularly proud of the fact that Alter is the sixth Nobel Prize winner—and the first in 26 years—to have done the entirety of his award-winning research in our Intramural Research Program. So, I jumped at the opportunity to talk with Harvey on NIH’s Facebook Live and Twitter chats just hours after he got the good news on Monday. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation, which took place on the NIH campus, but at a safe physical distance to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread.

Collins: Harvey, let me start off by asking, how did you find out you’d won the Nobel Prize?

Alter: At 4:15 this morning. I was asleep and heard the telephone ringing. I ignored it. Five minutes later, I got another call. Now, I’m getting kind of perturbed. But I ignored it, thinking the call must be some kind of solicitation. Then, the phone rang a third time. I answered it, prepared to tell the person on the other end not to call me anymore. I heard a man’s voice say, “I’m the Secretary General of the Nobel Prize, calling you from Stockholm.” At that point, I just froze.

Collins: Did you think it might be a hoax?

Alter: No, I didn’t think it was a hoax. But I wasn’t expecting to win the prize. I knew about three years ago that I’d been on a Nobel list. But it didn’t happen, and I just forgot about it. Truthfully, I didn’t know that today was the day that the announcement was being made. The news came as a complete shock.

Collins: Please say a few words about viral hepatitis. What is it?

Alter: Sure. Viral hepatitis is an infection of the liver that causes inflammation and can lead to scarring, or cirrhosis. Early in my career, two viruses were known to cause the disease. One was the hepatitis A virus. You got it from consuming contaminated water or food. The second was the hepatitis B virus, which has a blood-borne transmission, typically from blood transfusions. In the 1970s, we realized that some other agent was causing most of the hepatitis from blood transfusions. Since it wasn’t A and it wasn’t B, we cleverly decided to call it: non-A, non-B. We did that because we hadn’t yet proven that the causative agent was a virus.

Collins: So, even though you screened donor units for the hepatitis B virus to eliminate tainted blood, people were still getting hepatitis from blood transfusions. How did you go about trying to solve this mystery?

Alter: The main thing was to follow patients prospectively, meaning forward in time. We drew a blood sample before they were transfused, and then serially afterwards. We saved those samples and also the donor samples to compare them. Using a liver function test, we found that 30 percent of patients who had open heart surgery at NIH prior to 1970 developed liver abnormalities indicative of hepatitis. That’s 1 in 3 people.

We then looked for the reasons. We found the main one was our source of blood. We were buying blood, which was then in short supply, from commercial laboratories. It turned out that their paid donors were engaging in high-risk behaviors [Note: like IV drug users sharing hypodermic needles]. We immediately stopped using these laboratories, and, through various other measures, we got the rate down to around 4 percent in 1987.

That’s when Michael Houghton, then at Chiron Corp. and a co-recipient of this year’s prize, cloned the virus. Think about it, he and his colleagues looked at 6 million clones and found just one that reacted with the convalescent serum of a patient with non-A, non-B. In other words, having contracted the virus, the patient already made antibodies against it that were present in the serum. If that one clone came from the virus, the antibodies in the serum would recognize it. They did, and Chiron then developed an assay to detect antibodies to the virus.

Collins: And that’s when they contacted you.

Alter: Yes, they wanted to use our panel of patient blood samples that had fooled a lot of people who claimed to have developed a non-A, non-B assay. Nobody else had “broken” this panel, but the Chiron Corp. did. We found that every case of non-A, non-B was really hepatitis C, the agent that they had cloned. Hepatitis C was the missing piece. As far as we could tell, there were no other agents beside hepatitis B and C that would result in transfusion transmission of the disease.

Collins: This story is clearly one of persistence. So, say something about persistence as an important characteristic of a scientist. You’re a great example of someone who was always looking out for opportunities that might not have seemed so promising at first.

Alter: I first learned persistence from Dr. Baruch Blumberg, my first NIH mentor who discovered the hepatitis B virus in 1967. [Note: Other NIH researchers identified the hepatitis A virus in 1977] The discovery started when we found this “Australian antigen,” a molecular structure that the immune system recognizes as foreign and attacks. It was a serendipitous finding that could have been easily just dropped. But he just kept at it, kept at it, kept at it. He had this famous wall where he diagrammed his hypotheses with all the contingencies if one worked or failed. Then, all of a sudden, the antigen was associated with hepatitis B. It became the basis of the hepatitis B vaccine, which is highly effective and used throughout the world. Dr. Blumberg won the Nobel Prize for his work on the hepatitis B virus in 1976.

Collins: Sometimes people look at NIH and ask why we don’t focus all of our efforts on curing a particular disease. I keep answering, ‘Wait a moment, we don’t know enough to know how to do that.’ What’s the balance that we ought to be seeking between basic research and clinical applications?

Alter: There is this tendency now to pursue highly directed research to solve a problem. That’s certainly how biopharma works. They want a payoff. The NIH is different. It’s a place where you can pursue your scientific interests, wherever they lead. The NIH leadership understands that the details of a problem often aren’t obvious at first. Researchers need to be allowed to observe things and then to pursue their leads as far as possible, with the understanding that not everything will work out. I think it’s very important to keep this basic research component in parallel with the more clinical applications. In the case of hepatitis C, it started as a clinical problem that led to a basic research investigation, which led back to a clinical problem. It was bedside-to-bench-to-bedside.

Collins: Are people still getting infected with hepatitis C?

Alter: Yes, hepatitis C remains a global problem. Seventy million people have contracted the virus, though the majority are generally asymptomatic, meaning they don’t get sick from it. Instead, they carry around the virus for decades without knowing it. That’s because the hepatitis C virus likes to persist, and our immune system doesn’t seem to be able to get rid of it easily.

However, some of those infected will have bad outcomes, such as cirrhosis or cancer of the liver. But there’s no way of knowing who will and who won’t get sick over time. The trick now is to identify people when they’re asymptomatic and without obvious disease.

That involves testing. We’re in a unique position with hepatitis C, where we have great tests that are highly sensitive and very specific to the virus. We also have great treatments. We can cure everybody who is tested and found to be positive.

Collins: People may be surprised to hear that. Here is a chronic viral illness, for which we actually have a cure. That’s come along fairly recently. Say a bit more about that—it’s such a great story of success.

Alter: For many years, the only treatment for hepatitis C was interferon, a very difficult treatment that initially had only about a 6 percent cure rate. With further progress, it got up to around 50 percent. But the big breakthrough came in the late 1990s when Gilead Corp., having the sequenced genome of the hepatitis C virus, deduced what it needs to replicate. If we know what it needs and we interfere with that, we can stop the replication. Gilead came out with a blockbuster drug that, now in combination with another drug, aims at two different sites on the virus and cures at least 98 percent of people. It’s an oral therapy taken for only 12 weeks, sometimes as little as 8 weeks, and with virtually no side-effects. It’s like a miracle drug.

Collins: What would you say to somebody who is thinking about becoming a scientist? How do you pick an area of research that will be right for you?

Alter: It’s a tough question. Medical research is very difficult, but there’s nothing more rewarding than doing something for patients and to see a good outcome like we had with hepatitis C.

The best path forward is to work for somebody who’s already an established investigator and a good teacher. Work in his or her lab for a few years and get involved in a project. I’ve learned not get into a lot of projects. Get into something where you can become the expert and pursue it.
The other thing is to collaborate. There’s no way that one person can do everything these days. You need too much technology and lots of different areas of expertise.

Collins: You took on a high-risk project in which you didn’t know that you’d find the answer. What’s the right balance between a project that you know will be productive, and something that might be risky, but, boy, if it works, could be transformative? How did you decide which of those paths to go?

Alter: I don’t think I decided. I just went! But there were interim rewards. Finding that the paid donors were bad was a reward and it had a big impact. And the different donor testing, decreasing the amount of blood [transfused], there were all kinds of steps along the way that gave you a reward. Now, did I think that there would be a treatment, an eradication of post-transfusion hepatitis at the end of my line? No, I didn’t.

And it wouldn’t have happened if it was only me. I just got the ball rolling. But it needed Houghton’s group. It needed the technology of Charlie Rice, a co-recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize. It needed joint company involvement. So, it required massive cooperation, and I have to say that here at NIH, Bob Purcell did most of the really basic work in his lab. Patrizia Farci, my closest collaborator, does things that I can’t do. You just need people who have a different expertise.

Collins: Harvey, it’s been maybe six hours since you found out that you won the Nobel Prize. How are you going to spend the rest of your day?

Alter: Well, I have to tell you a story that just happened. We had a press conference earlier today at NIH. Afterwards, I wanted to return to my NIH office and the easiest route was through the parking garage across the street from where we held the press conference. When I entered the garage, a security guard said, “You can’t come in, you haven’t been screened for COVID.” I assured him that I had been screened when I drove onto the NIH campus. He repeated that I had to go around to the front of the building to get screened.

Finally, I said to him, “Would it make any difference if I told you that I won the Nobel Prize today?” He replied, ‘That’s nice, but you must go around to the front of the building.’” So, winning the Nobel doesn’t give you immediate rewards!

Collins: Let me find that security guard and give him a bonus for doing a good job. Well, Harvey, will there be that trip to Stockholm coming up in December?

Alter: Not this year. I’ve heard that they will invite us to Stockholm next year to receive the award. But there’s going to be something in the US. I don’t know what it will be. I’ll invite you.

Collins: I will be glad to take part in the celebration. Well, Harvey, I really want to thank you for taking some time on this special day to reflect on your career and how the Nobel Committee came calling at 4:30 this morning. We’re really proud of you!

Alter: Thank you.

Links:

Hepatitis C (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine jointly to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for the discovery of Hepatitis C virus,” Nobel Prize announcement, October 5,2020.

Harvey Alter (Clinical Center/NIH)

The Road Not Taken, or How I Learned to Love the Liver: A Personal Perspective on Hepatitis History” Alter HJ, Hepatology. 2014 Jan;59(1):4-12.

Reflections on the History of HCV: A Posthumous Examination.” Alter HJ, Farci P, Bukh J, Purcell RH. Clinical Liver Disease, 15:1, Feb 2020.

Is Elimination of Hepatitis B and C a Pipe Dream or Reality?” Alter HJ, Chisari FV. Gastroenterology. 2019 Jan;156(2):294-296.

Michael Houghton (University of Alberta, Edmonton)

Charles Rice (The Rockefeller University, New York)

What is genome editing? (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Jennifer Doudna (University of California, Berkeley)

Emmanuelle Charpentier (Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany)


Congratulations on 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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Congratulations to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier on sharing the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the development of a method for genome editing.” Doudna, a biochemist with the University of California, Berkeley and a genome editing pioneer, has received continuous NIH funding since 1997. Charpentier is a French microbiologist and a fellow genome editing pioneer with the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology, Berlin, Germany. Here, I am with Doudna on December 12, 2018 during a U. S. Senate NIH Caucus Meeting on CRISPR and Gene Editing. Credit: Berkeley News


A CRISPR Approach to Treating Sickle Cell

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Unedited and edited sickle cells
Caption: Red blood cells from patient with sickle cell disease. The cells were differentiated from bone marrow with unedited and edited hematopoietic stem cells, and the red arrows show the sickled cells. Credit: Wu et al. Nature Medicine. March 25, 2019

Recently, CBS’s “60 Minutes” highlighted the story of Jennelle Stephenson, a brave young woman with sickle cell disease (SCD). Jennelle now appears potentially cured of this devastating condition, thanks to an experimental gene therapy being tested at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD. As groundbreaking as this research may be, it’s among a variety of innovative strategies now being tried to cure SCD and other genetic diseases that have long seemed out of reach.

One particularly exciting approach involves using gene editing to increase levels of fetal hemoglobin (HbF) in the red blood cells of people with SCD. Shortly after birth, babies usually stop producing HbF, and switch over to the adult form of hemoglobin. But rare individuals continue to make high levels of HbF throughout their lives. This is referred to as hereditary persistence of fetal hemoglobin (HPFH). (My own postdoctoral research in the early 1980s discovered some of the naturally occurring DNA mutations that lead to this condition.)

Individuals with HPFH are entirely healthy. Strikingly, rare individuals with SCD who also have HPFH have an extremely mild version of sickle cell disease—essentially the presence of significant quantities of HbF provides protection against sickling. So, researchers have been exploring ways to boost HbF in everyone with SCD—and gene editing may provide an effective, long-lasting way to do this.

Clinical trials of this approach are already underway. And new findings reported in Nature Medicine show it may be possible to make the desired edits even more efficiently, raising the possibility that a single infusion of gene-edited cells might be able to cure SCD [1].

Sickle cell disease is caused by a specific point mutation in a gene that codes for the beta chain of hemoglobin. People with just one copy of this mutation have sickle cell trait and are generally healthy. But those who inherit two mutant copies of this gene suffer lifelong consequences of the presence of this abnormal protein. Their red blood cells—normally flexible and donut-shaped—assume the sickled shape that gives SCD its name. The sickled cells clump together and stick in small blood vessels, resulting in severe pain, anemia, stroke, pulmonary hypertension, organ failure, and far too often, early death.

Eleven years ago, a team led by Vijay Sankaran and Stuart Orkin at Boston Children’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute discovered that a protein called BCL11A seemed to determine HbF levels [2]. Subsequent work showed the protein actually works as a master mediator of the switch from fetal to adult hemoglobin, which normally occurs shortly after birth.

Five years ago, Orkin and Daniel Bauer identified a specific enhancer of BCL11A expression that could be an attractive target for gene editing [3]. They could knock out the enhancer in the bone marrow, and BCL11A would not be produced, allowing HbF to stay switched on.

Because the BCL11A protein is required to turn off production of HbF in red cells. the researchers had another idea. They thought it might be possible to keep HbF on permanently by disrupting BCL11A in blood-forming hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs). The hope was that such a treatment might offer people with SCD a permanent supply of healthy red blood cells.

Fast-forward to the present, and researchers are now testing the ability of gene editing tools to cure the disease. A favorite editing system is CRISPR, which I’ve highlighted on my blog.

CRISPR is a highly precise gene-editing tool that relies on guide RNA molecules to direct a scissor-like Cas9 enzyme to just the right spot in the genome to correct the misspelling. The gene-editing treatment involves removing bone marrow from a patient, modifying the HSCs outside the body using CRISPR gene-editing tools, and then returning them back to the patient. Preclinical studies had shown that CRISPR can be effective in editing BCL11A to boost HbF production.

But questions lingered about the editing efficiency in HSCs versus more common, shorter-lived progenitor cells found in bone marrow samples. The efficiency greatly influences how long the edited cells might benefit patients. Bauer’s team saw room for improvement and, as the new study shows, they were right.

To produce lasting HbF production, it’s important to edit as many HSCs as possible. But it turns out that HSCs are more resistant to editing than other types of cells in bone marrow. With a series of adjustments to the gene-editing protocol, including use of an optimized version of the Cas9 protein, the researchers showed they could push the number of edited genes from about 80 percent to about 95 percent.

Their studies show that the most frequent Cas9 edits in HSCs are tiny insertions of a single DNA “letter.” With that slight edit to the BCL11A gene, HSCs reprogram themselves in a way that ensures long-term HbF production.

As a first test of their CRISPR-edited human HSCs, the researchers carried out the editing on HSCs derived from patients with SCD. Then they transferred the editing cells into immune-compromised mice. Four months later, the mice continued to produce red blood cells that produced high levels of HbF and resisted sickling. Bauer says they’re already taking steps to begin testing cells edited with their optimized protocol in a clinical trial.

What’s truly exciting is that the first U.S. human clinical trials of such a gene-editing approach for SCD are already underway, led by CRISPR Therapeutics/Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Sangamo Therapeutics/Sanofi. In January, CRISPR Therapeutics/Vertex Pharmaceuticals announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had granted Fast Track Designation for their CRISPR-based treatment called CTX001 [4].

In that recent “60 Minutes” segment, I dared to suggest that we now have what looks like a cure for SCD. As shown by this new work and the clinical trials underway, we in fact may soon have multiple different strategies to provide cures for this devastating disease. And if this can work for sickle cell, a similar strategy might work for other genetic conditions that currently lack any effective treatment.

References:

[1] Highly efficient therapeutic gene editing of human hematopoietic stem cells. Wu Y, Zeng J, Roscoe BP, Liu P, Yao Q, Lazzarotto CR, Clement K, Cole MA, Luk K, Baricordi C, Shen AH, Ren C, Esrick EB, Manis JP, Dorfman DM, Williams DA, Biffi A, Brugnara C, Biasco L, Brendel C, Pinello L, Tsai SQ, Wolfe SA, Bauer DE. Nat Med. 2019 Mar 25.

[2] Human fetal hemoglobin expression is regulated by the developmental stage-specific repressor BCL11A. Sankaran VG, Menne TF, Xu J, Akie TE, Lettre G, Van Handel B, Mikkola HK, Hirschhorn JN, Cantor AB, Orkin SH.Science. 2008 Dec 19;322(5909):1839-1842.

[3] An erythroid enhancer of BCL11A subject to genetic variation determines fetal hemoglobin level. Bauer DE, Kamran SC, Lessard S, Xu J, Fujiwara Y, Lin C, Shao Z, Canver MC, Smith EC, Pinello L, Sabo PJ, Vierstra J, Voit RA, Yuan GC, Porteus MH, Stamatoyannopoulos JA, Lettre G, Orkin SH. Science. 2013 Oct 11;342(6155):253-257.

[4] CRISPR Therapeutics and Vertex Announce FDA Fast Track Designation for CTX001 for the Treatment of Sickle Cell Disease, CRISPR Therapeutics News Release, Jan. 4, 2019.

Links:

Sickle Cell Disease (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (NHLBI)

What are Genome Editing and CRISPR-Cas9? (National Library of Medicine/NIH)

Could Gene Therapy Cure Sickle Cell Anemia? (CBS News)

Daniel Bauer (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston)

Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program (Common Fund/NIH)

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Creative Minds: Building a CRISPR Gene Drive Against Malaria

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Valentino Gantz

Valentino Gantz/Credit: Erik Jepsen

Researchers have used Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly that sometimes hovers around kitchens, to make seminal discoveries involving genetics, the nervous system, and behavior, just to name a few. Could a new life-saving approach to prevent malaria be next? Valentino Gantz, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego, is on a path to answer that question.

Gantz has received a 2016 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award to use Drosophila to hone a new bioengineered tool that acts as a so-called “gene drive,” which spreads a new genetically encoded trait through a population much faster than would otherwise be possible. The lessons learned while working with flies will ultimately be applied to developing a more foolproof system for use in mosquitoes with the hope of stopping the transmission of malaria and potentially other serious mosquito-borne diseases.