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Fueling the Next Genomic Revolution

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Genomics Research Panel Discussion
I recently enjoyed taking part in a video discussion of the future of genomics with Eric Lander, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard (lower left); Charles Rotimi, NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute; and Claire Fraser, University of Maryland’s Institute for Genome Sciences. The Jan. 13, 2021 event celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first complete bacterial genome, the 20th anniversary of the publication of the human genome, and the 15th anniversary of the first human metagenome. I’m also excited to report that two days later, President-elect Joe Biden asked me to stay on as NIH Director and nominated Lander to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and serve as our nation’s first Cabinet-level Science Adviser.

DNA Base Editing May Treat Progeria, Study in Mice Shows

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Sam Berns with personalized snare drum carrier
Credit: Progeria Research Foundation

My good friend Sam Berns was born with a rare genetic condition that causes rapid premature aging. Though Sam passed away in his teens from complications of this condition, called Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, he’s remembered today for his truly positive outlook on life. Sam expressed it, in part, by his willingness to make adjustments that allowed him, in his words, to put things that he always wanted to do in the “can do” category.

In this same spirit on behalf of the several hundred kids worldwide with progeria and their families, a research collaboration, including my NIH lab, has now achieved a key technical advance to move non-heritable gene editing another step closer to the “can do” category to treat progeria. As published in the journal Nature, our team took advantage of new gene-editing tools to correct for the first time a single genetic misspelling responsible for progeria in a mouse model, with dramatically beneficial effects [1, 2]. This work also has implications for correcting similar single-base typos that cause other inherited genetic disorders.

The outcome of this work is incredibly gratifying for me. In 2003, my NIH lab discovered the DNA mutation that causes progeria. One seemingly small glitch—swapping a “T” in place of a “C” in a gene called lamin A (LMNA)—leads to the production of a toxic protein now known as progerin. Without treatment, children with progeria develop normally intellectually but age at an exceedingly rapid pace, usually dying prematurely from heart attacks or strokes in their early teens.

The discovery raised the possibility that correcting this single-letter typo might one day help or even cure children with progeria. But back then, we lacked the needed tools to edit DNA safely and precisely. To be honest, I didn’t think that would be possible in my lifetime. Now, thanks to advances in basic genomic research, including work that led to the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, that’s changed. In fact, there’s been substantial progress toward using gene-editing technologies, such as the CRISPR editing system, for treating or even curing a wide range of devastating genetic conditions, such as sickle cell disease and muscular dystrophy

It turns out that the original CRISPR system, as powerful as it is, works better at knocking out genes than correcting them. That’s what makes some more recently developed DNA editing agents and approaches so important. One of them, which was developed by David R. Liu, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, Cambridge, MA, and his lab members, is key to these latest findings on progeria, reported by a team including my lab in NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute and Jonathan Brown, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN.

The relatively new gene-editing system moves beyond knock-outs to knock-ins [3,4]. Here’s how it works: Instead of cutting DNA as CRISPR does, base editors directly convert one DNA letter to another by enzymatically changing one DNA base to become a different base. The result is much like the find-and-replace function used to fix a typo in a word processor. What’s more, the gene editor does this without cutting the DNA.

Our three labs (Liu, Brown, and Collins) first teamed up with the Progeria Research Foundation, Peabody, MA, to obtain skin cells from kids with progeria. In lab studies, we found that base editors, targeted by an appropriate RNA guide, could successfully correct the LMNA gene in those connective tissue cells. The treatment converted the mutation back to the normal gene sequence in an impressive 90 percent of the cells.

But would it work in a living animal? To get the answer, we delivered a single injection of the DNA-editing apparatus into nearly a dozen mice either three or 14 days after birth, which corresponds in maturation level roughly to a 1-year-old or 5-year-old human. To ensure the findings in mice would be as relevant as possible to a future treatment for use in humans, we took advantage of a mouse model of progeria developed in my NIH lab in which the mice carry two copies of the human LMNA gene variant that causes the condition. Those mice develop nearly all of the features of the human illness

In the live mice, the base-editing treatment successfully edited in the gene’s healthy DNA sequence in 20 to 60 percent of cells across many organs. Many cell types maintained the corrected DNA sequence for at least six months—in fact, the most vulnerable cells in large arteries actually showed an almost 100 percent correction at 6 months, apparently because the corrected cells had compensated for the uncorrected cells that had died out. What’s more, the lifespan of the treated animals increased from seven to almost 18 months. In healthy mice, that’s approximately the beginning of old age.

This is the second notable advance in therapeutics for progeria in just three months. Last November, based on preclinical work from my lab and clinical trials conducted by the Progeria Research Foundation in Boston, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first treatment for the condition. It is a drug called Zokinvy, and works by reducing the accumulation of progerin [5]. With long-term treatment, the drug is capable of extending the life of kids with progeria by 2.5 years and sometimes more. But it is not a cure.

We are hopeful this gene editing work might eventually lead to a cure for progeria. But mice certainly aren’t humans, and there are still important steps that need to be completed before such a gene-editing treatment could be tried safely in people. In the meantime, base editors and other gene editing approaches keep getting better—with potential application to thousands of genetic diseases where we know the exact gene misspelling. As we look ahead to 2021, the dream envisioned all those years ago about fixing the tiny DNA typo responsible for progeria is now within our grasp and getting closer to landing in the “can do” category.


[1] In vivo base editing rescues Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome in mice. Koblan LW et al. Nature. 2021 Jan 6.

[2] Base editor repairs mutation found in the premature-ageing syndrome progeria. Vermeij WP, Hoeijmakers JHJ. Nature. 6 Jan 2021.

[3] Programmable editing of a target base in genomic DNA without double-stranded DNA cleavage. Komor AC, Kim YB, Packer MS, Zuris JA, Liu DR. Nature. 2016 May 19;533(7603):420-424.

[4] Programmable base editing of A•T to G•C in genomic DNA without DNA cleavage. Gaudelli NM, Komor AC, Rees HA, Packer MS, Badran AH, Bryson DI, Liu DR. Nature. 2017 Nov 23;551(7681):464-471.

[5] FDA approves first treatment for Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome and some progeroid laminopathies. Food and Drug Administration. 2020 Nov 20.


Progeria (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center/NIH)

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

Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program (Common Fund/NIH)

David R. Liu (Harvard University, Cambridge, MA)

Collins Group (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Jonathan Brown (Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN)

NIH Support: National Human Genome Research Institute; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund

Genome Data from Africa Reveal Millions of New Variants

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H2Africa logo
Credit: Human Heredity and Health in Africa Initiative

The first Homo sapiens emerged in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago. We are all descended from that common pool of ancestors. Put another way, we are all Africans. While it’s not possible to study the DNA of these vanished original human populations, it is possible to study the genetic material of today’s African peoples to learn more about the human genome and its evolution over time. The degree of genetic diversity in Africa is greater than anywhere else in the world.

Progress continues to be made in this important area of genomic research. The latest step forward is a study just published in the journal Nature that analyzes more than 400 complete human genomes, including 50 distinct groups of people from 13 African countries. This work has uncovered about 3.4 million unique gene variants that had never before been described, greatly expanding our knowledge of human genetic variation and its implications for health and disease.

This work is the latest from the Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) Initiative , which I helped establish a decade ago. This partnership between NIH, the Wellcome Trust, and the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) seeks to train a new generation of African scientists in genomic science and other disciplines, while conducting state-of-the-art health research on the African continent. The hope is to help these scientists use their new knowledge to improve human health in Africa and to help fill significant gaps in our knowledge of the diversity within human genomes.

The new study was led by Zané Lombard, the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa; Neil Hanchard, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston; and Adebowale Adeyemo, NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, Bethesda, MD. It also included more than 50 other H3Africa data providers and data analysts from across Africa and around the world.

These researchers sequenced and analyzed the genomes of 426 individuals, almost all from studies and countries within the H3Africa Consortium, the network of NIH and Wellcome Trust-funded research sites in Africa. These individuals were carefully selected to provide broad coverage of the diverse landscape of African genomic variation. They also included many populations that hadn’t been studied at the genetic level before. The team focused its attention on single-letter differences, also known as single nucleotide variants (SNVs), located across the 3 billion DNA letters of the human genome.

All told, the researchers observed more than 31 million confirmed SNVs. Of the 3.4 million newly discovered SNVs, most turned up in the genomes of individuals from previously unstudied African ethnic groups with their own distinct languages. Even among SNVs that had been previously reported, several were found much more often than in other populations. That’s important because medical geneticists often include information about frequency in deciding whether a gene variant is a likely cause of rare disease. So, this more complete picture of normal genetic variation will be valuable for diagnosing such genetic conditions around the globe.

The researchers also found more than 100 regions of the genome where the pattern of genetic variation was suggestive of underlying variants that were evolutionarily favored at some time in the past. Sixty-two of those chromosomal locations weren’t previously known to be under such strong natural selection in human populations. Interestingly, those selected regions were found to contain genes associated with viral immunity, DNA repair, reproduction, and metabolism, or occurred close to variants that have been associated with conditions such as uterine fibroids and chronic kidney disease.

The findings suggest that viral infections, such as outbreaks of Ebola, yellow fever, and Lassa fever, may have played an important role over centuries in driving genetic differences on the African continent. The data also point to the possibility of human adaptation to differences across the African continent in local environments and diets, and these adaptations could be relevant to common diseases and traits we see now.

The researchers used the data to help gain insight into past migrations of human populations. The genetic data revealed complex patterns of ancestral mixing within and between groups. It also uncovered how distinct groups likely moved large distances across Africa in the past, going back hundreds to thousands of years. The findings also offered a more complete picture of the timing and extent of the migration of speakers of Africa’s most common language group (Bantu) as they moved from West Africa to the southern and eastern reaches of the continent—a defining event in the genetic history of Africa.

There’s still much more to learn about the diversity of human genomes, and a need for continued studies, including many more individuals representing more distinct groups in Africa. Indeed, H3Africa now consists of 51 projects all across the continent, focused on population-based genomic studies of many common health conditions, from heart disease to tuberculosis. As the cradle of all humanity, Africa has much to offer genomic research in the years ahead that will undoubtedly have far-reaching implications for people living in all parts of our planet.


[1] High-depth African genomes inform human migration and health. Choudhury A et al. 2020 Oct;586(7831):741-748.


Human Heredity and Health in Africa (H3Africa) (NIH)

H3Africa (University of Cape Town, South Africa)

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

Rogue Antibodies and Gene Mutations Explain Some Cases of Severe COVID-19

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Caption: Colorized scanning electron micrograph of a dying cell (blue) heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (yellow), isolated from a patient sample. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

One of the many perplexing issues with COVID-19 is that it affects people so differently. That has researchers trying to explain why some folks bounce right back from the virus, or don’t even know they have it—while others become critically ill. Now, two NIH-funded studies suggest that one reason some otherwise healthy people become gravely ill may be previously unknown trouble spots in their immune systems, which hamper their ability to fight the virus.

According to the new findings in hundreds of racially diverse people with life-threatening COVID-19, a small percentage of people who suffer the most severe symptoms carry rare mutations in genes that disrupt their antiviral defenses. Another 10 percent with severe COVID-19 produce rogue “auto-antibodies,” which misguidedly disable a part of the immune system instead of attacking the virus.

Either way, the outcome is the same: the body has trouble fending off SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The biological reason is there’s not enough of an assortment of signaling proteins, called type I interferons, that are crucial to detecting dangerous viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and sounding the alarm to prevent serious illness.

The research was led by Jean-Laurent Casanova, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and The Rockefeller University, New York; and the Imagine Institute, Necker Hospital, Paris. Casanova and his team began enrolling people with COVID-19 last February, with a particular interest in young adults battling severe illness. They were curious whether inherent weaknesses in their immune systems might explain their surprising vulnerability to the virus despite being otherwise young and healthy. Based on earlier findings in other infectious illnesses, they were especially interested in a set of 13 genes involved in interferon-driven immunity.

In their first study, published in the journal Science, researchers compared this set of genes in 659 patients with life-threatening COVID-19 to the same genes in 534 people with mild or asymptomatic COVID-19 [1]. It turned out that 23, or 3.5 percent, of people with severe COVID-19 indeed carried rare mutations in genes involved in producing antiviral interferons. Those unusual aberrations never turned up in people with milder disease. The researchers went on to show in lab studies that those genetic errors leave human cells more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection.

The discovery was certainly intriguing, but given the rarity of those mutations, it doesn’t explain most instances of severe COVID-19. Still, it did give Casanova’s team another idea. Perhaps some other people who suffer from severe COVID-19 lack interferons too, but for different reasons. Perhaps their bodies were producing rogue antibodies that were crippling their own antiviral defenses.

In their second study, also in Science, that’s exactly what researchers found in 101 of 987 (over 10 percent) patients from around the world with life-threatening COVID-19 [2]. In the bloodstreams of such individuals, they detected auto-antibodies against an assortment of interferon proteins. Those antibodies, which blocked the interferons’ antiviral activity, weren’t found in people with more mild cases of COVID-19.

Interestingly, the vast majority of patients with those harmful antibodies were men. The findings might help to explain the observation that men are at greater risk than women for developing severe COVID-19. The patients with auto-antibodies also were slightly older, with about half over the age of 65.

Many questions remain. For instance, it’s not yet clear what drives the production of those debilitating auto-antibodies. Might there be more mutations in antiviral defense-related genes that researchers have yet to discover? Is it possible that interferon treatment may help some people with severe COVID-19? Such treatment may be difficult in patients with auto-antibodies, although some clinical trials to explore this possibility already are underway.

The findings, if confirmed, have some potentially immediate implications. It’s possible that screening patients for the presence of damaging auto-antibodies might help to identify those at greater risk for progressing to severe disease. Treatments to remove those antibodies from the bloodstream or to boost antiviral defenses in other ways also may help. Ideally, it would be a good idea to make sure donated convalescent plasma now being tested in clinical trials as a treatment for severe COVID-19 doesn’t contain such disruptive auto-antibodies.

These new findings come from an international effort involving hundreds of scientists called the COVID Human Genetic Effort. Besides its ongoing efforts to understand severe COVID-19, Casanova says his team is also taking a look at the other side of the coin: how some people who’ve been exposed to severe COVID-19 in their own households manage to not get sick. A related international group called the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative is pursuing similar goals. Such insights will be invaluable as we continue to manage and treat COVID-19 patients in the future.


[1] Inborn errors of type I IFN immunity in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Zhang Q, Bastard P, Liu Z, Le Pen J, Moncada-Velez M, Gorochov G, Béziat V, Jouanguy E, Sancho-Shimizu V, Rice CM, Abel L, Notarangelo LD, Cobat A, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4570. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Auto-antibodies against type I IFNs in patients with life-threatening COVID-19. Bastard P, Rosen LB, Zhang Q, Michailidis E, Hoffmann HH, Gorochov G, Jouanguy E, Rice CM, Cobat A, Notarangelo LD, Abel L, Su HC, Casanova JL et al. Science. 2020 Sep 24:eabd4585. [Published online ahead of print.]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Interferons (Alpha, Beta) (NIH)

Interferons. Taylor MW. Viruses and Men: A History of Interactions. 2014 July 22. (Pubmed)

Video: Understanding the underlying genetics of COVID-19, Jean-Laurent Casanova (Youtube)

Jean-Laurent Casanova (The Rockefeller University, New York)

COVID Human Genetic Effort

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

How COVID-19 Took Hold in North America and Europe

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SARS-CoV-2 Tracking
Caption: SARS-CoV-2 introductions to U.S. and Europe. Credit: Modified from Worobey M, Science, 2020.

It was nearly 10 months ago on January 15 that a traveler returned home to the Seattle area after visiting family in Wuhan, China. A few days later, he started feeling poorly and became the first laboratory-confirmed case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) in the United States. The rest is history.

However, new evidence published in the journal Science suggests that this first COVID-19 case on the West Coast didn’t snowball into the current epidemic. Instead, while public health officials in Washington state worked tirelessly and ultimately succeeded in containing its sustained transmission, the novel coronavirus slipped in via another individual about two weeks later, around the beginning of February.

COVID-19 is caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Last winter, researchers sequenced the genetic material from the SARS-CoV-2 that was isolated from the returned Seattle traveler. While contact tracing didn’t identify any spread of this particular virus, dubbed WA1, questions arose when a genetically similar virus known as WA2 turned up in Washington state. Not long after, WA2-like viruses then appeared in California; British Columbia, Canada; and eventually 3,000 miles away in Connecticut. By mid-March, this WA2 cluster accounted for the vast majority—85 percent—of the cases in Washington state.

But was it possible that the WA2 cluster is a direct descendent of WA1? Did WA1 cause an unnoticed chain of transmission over several weeks, making the Seattle the epicenter of the outbreak in North America?

To answer those questions and others from around the globe, Michael Worobey, University of Arizona, Tucson, and his colleagues drew on multiple sources of information. These included data peretaining to viral genomes, airline passenger flow, and disease incidence in China’s Hubei Province and other places that likely would have influenced the probability that infected travelers were moving the virus around the globe. Based on all the evidence, the researchers simulated the outbreak more than 1,000 times on a computer over a two-month period, beginning on January 15 and assuming the epidemic started with WA1. And, not once did any of their simulated outbreaks match up to the actual genome data.

Those findings suggest to the researchers that the idea WA1 is responsible for all that came later is exceedingly unlikely. The evidence and simulations also appear to rule out the notion that the earliest cases in Washington state entered the United States by way of Canada. A deep dive into the data suggests a more likely scenario is that the outbreak was set off by one or more introductions of genetically similar viruses from China to the West Coast. Though we still don’t know exactly where, the Seattle area is the most likely site given the large number of WA2-like viruses sampled there.

Worobey’s team conducted a second analysis of the outbreak in Europe, and those simulations paint a similar picture to the one in the United States. The researchers conclude that the first known case of COVID-19 in Europe, arriving in Germany on January 20, led to a relatively small number of cases before being stamped out by aggressive testing and contact tracing efforts. That small, early outbreak probably didn’t spark the later one in Northern Italy, which eventually spread to the United States.

Their findings also show that the chain of transmission from China to Italy to New York City sparked outbreaks on the East Coast slightly later in February than those that spread from China directly to Washington state. It confirms that the Seattle outbreak was indeed the first, predating others on the East Coast and in California.

The findings in this report are yet another reminder of the value of integrating genome surveillance together with other sources of data when it comes to understanding, tracking, and containing the spread of COVID-19. They also show that swift and decisive public health measures to contain the virus worked when SARS-CoV-2 first entered the United States and Europe, and can now serve as models of containment.

Since the suffering and death from this pandemic continues in the United States, this historical reconstruction from early in 2020 is one more reminder that all of us have the opportunity and the responsibility to try to limit further spread. Wear your mask when you are outside the home; maintain physical distancing; wash your hands frequently; and don’t congregate indoors, where the risks are greatest. These lessons will enable us to better anticipate, prevent, and respond to additional outbreaks of COVID-19 or any other novel viruses that may arise in the future.


[1] The emergence of SARS-CoV-2 in Europe and North America. Worobey M, Pekar J, Larsen BB, Nelson MI, Hill V, Joy JB, Rambaut A, Suchard MA, Wertheim JO, Lemey P. Science. 2020 Sep 10:eabc8169 [Epub ahead of print]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Michael Worobey (University of Arizona, Tucson)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Fogarty International Center; National Library of Medicine

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