Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Many people who contract COVID-19 have only a mild illness, or sometimes no symptoms at all. But others develop respiratory failure that requires oxygen support or even a ventilator to help them recover . It’s clear that this happens more often in men than in women, as well as in people who are older or who have chronic health conditions. But why does respiratory failure also sometimes occur in people who are young and seemingly healthy?
A new study suggests that part of the answer to this question may be found in the genes that each one of us carries . While more research is needed to pinpoint the precise underlying genes and mechanisms responsible, a recent genome-wide association (GWAS) study, just published in the New England Journal of Medicine, finds that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death.
The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system. In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.
These new findings—the first to identify statistically significant susceptibility genes for the severity of COVID-19—come from a large research effort led by Andre Franke, a scientist at Christian-Albrecht-University, Kiel, Germany, along with Tom Karlsen, Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet, Norway. Their study included 1,980 people undergoing treatment for severe COVID-19 and respiratory failure at seven medical centers in Italy and Spain.
In search of gene variants that might play a role in the severe illness, the team analyzed patient genome data for more than 8.5 million so-called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs. The vast majority of these single “letter” nucleotide substitutions found all across the genome are of no health significance, but they can help to pinpoint the locations of gene variants that turn up more often in association with particular traits or conditions—in this case, COVID-19-related respiratory failure. To find them, the researchers compared SNPs in people with severe COVID-19 to those in more than 1,200 healthy blood donors from the same population groups.
The analysis identified two places that turned up significantly more often in the individuals with severe COVID-19 than in the healthy folks. One of them is found on chromosome 3 and covers a cluster of six genes with potentially relevant functions. For instance, this portion of the genome encodes a transporter protein known to interact with angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), the surface receptor that allows the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, to bind to and infect human cells. It also encodes a collection of chemokine receptors, which play a role in the immune response in the airways of our lungs.
The other association signal popped up on chromosome 9, right over the area of the genome that determines blood type. Whether you are classified as an A, B, AB, or O blood type, depends on how your genes instruct your blood cells to produce (or not produce) a certain set of proteins. The researchers did find evidence suggesting a relationship between blood type and COVID-19 risk. They noted that this area also includes a genetic variant associated with increased levels of interleukin-6, which plays a role in inflammation and may have implications for COVID-19 as well.
These findings, completed in two months under very difficult clinical conditions, clearly warrant further study to understand the implications more fully. Indeed, Franke, Karlsen, and many of their colleagues are part of the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, an ongoing international collaborative effort to learn the genetic determinants of COVID-19 susceptibility, severity, and outcomes. Some NIH research groups are taking part in the initiative, and they recently launched a study to look for informative gene variants in 5,000 COVID-19 patients in the United States and Canada.
The hope is that these and other findings yet to come will point the way to a more thorough understanding of the biology of COVID-19. They also suggest that a genetic test and a person’s blood type might provide useful tools for identifying those who may be at greater risk of serious illness.
 Characteristics of and important lessons from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak in China: Summary of a report of 72 314 cases from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Wu Z, McGoogan JM, et. al. 2020 Feb 24. [published online ahead of print]
 Genomewide association study of severe Covid-19 with respiratory failure. Ellinghaus D, Degenhardt F, et. a. NEJM. June 17, 2020.
Andre Franke (Christian-Albrechts-University of Kiel, Germany)
Tom Karlsen (Oslo University Hospital Rikshospitalet, Norway)
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
If you’ve spent time with individuals affected with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), you might have noticed that some people lose their memory and other cognitive skills more slowly than others. Why is that? New findings indicate that at least part of the answer may lie in differences in their immune responses.
Researchers have now found that slower loss of cognitive skills in people with AD correlates with higher levels of a protein that helps immune cells clear plaque-like cellular debris from the brain . The efficiency of this clean-up process in the brain can be measured via fragments of the protein that shed into the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). This suggests that the protein, called TREM2, and the immune system as a whole, may be promising targets to help fight Alzheimer’s disease.
The findings come from an international research team led by Michael Ewers, Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany, and Christian Haass, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany and German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases. The researchers got interested in TREM2 following the discovery several years ago that people carrying rare genetic variants for the protein were two to three times more likely to develop AD late in life.
Not much was previously known about TREM2, so this finding from a genome wide association study (GWAS) was a surprise. In the brain, it turns out that TREM2 proteins are primarily made by microglia. These scavenging immune cells help to keep the brain healthy, acting as a clean-up crew that clears cellular debris, including the plaque-like amyloid-beta that is a hallmark of AD.
In subsequent studies, Haass and colleagues showed in mouse models of AD that TREM2 helps to shift microglia into high gear for clearing amyloid plaques . This animal work and that of others helped to strengthen the case that TREM2 may play an important role in AD. But what did these data mean for people with this devastating condition?
There had been some hints of a connection between TREM2 and the progression of AD in humans. In the study published in Science Translational Medicine, the researchers took a deeper look by taking advantage of the NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI).
ADNI began more than a decade ago to develop methods for early AD detection, intervention, and treatment. The initiative makes all its data freely available to AD researchers all around the world. That allowed Ewers, Haass, and colleagues to focus their attention on 385 older ADNI participants, both with and without AD, who had been followed for an average of four years.
Their primary hypothesis was that individuals with AD and evidence of higher TREM2 levels at the outset of the study would show over the years less change in their cognitive abilities and in the volume of their hippocampus, a portion of the brain important for learning and memory. And, indeed, that’s exactly what they found.
In individuals with comparable AD, whether mild cognitive impairment or dementia, those having higher levels of a TREM2 fragment in their CSF showed a slower decline in memory. Those with evidence of a higher ratio of TREM2 relative to the tau protein in their CSF also progressed more slowly from normal cognition to early signs of AD or from mild cognitive impairment to full-blown dementia.
While it’s important to note that correlation isn’t causation, the findings suggest that treatments designed to boost TREM2 and the activation of microglia in the brain might hold promise for slowing the progression of AD in people. The challenge will be to determine when and how to target TREM2, and a great deal of research is now underway to make these discoveries.
Since its launch more than a decade ago, ADNI has made many important contributions to AD research. This new study is yet another fine example that should come as encouraging news to people with AD and their families.
 Increased soluble TREM2 in cerebrospinal fluid is associated with reduced cognitive and clinical decline in Alzheimer’s disease. Ewers M, Franzmeier N, Suárez-Calvet M, Morenas-Rodriguez E, Caballero MAA, Kleinberger G, Piccio L, Cruchaga C, Deming Y, Dichgans M, Trojanowski JQ, Shaw LM, Weiner MW, Haass C; Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative. Sci Transl Med. 2019 Aug 28;11(507).
 Loss of TREM2 function increases amyloid seeding but reduces plaque-associated ApoE. Parhizkar S, Arzberger T, Brendel M, Kleinberger G, Deussing M, Focke C, Nuscher B, Xiong M, Ghasemigharagoz A, Katzmarski N, Krasemann S, Lichtenthaler SF, Müller SA, Colombo A, Monasor LS, Tahirovic S, Herms J, Willem M, Pettkus N, Butovsky O, Bartenstein P, Edbauer D, Rominger A, Ertürk A, Grathwohl SA, Neher JJ, Holtzman DM, Meyer-Luehmann M, Haass C. Nat Neurosci. 2019 Feb;22(2):191-204.
Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (University of Southern California, Los Angeles)
Ewers Lab (University Hospital Munich, Germany)
Haass Lab (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, Germany)
Institute for Stroke and Dementia Research (Munich, Germany)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Predicting whether someone will get Alzheimer’s disease (AD) late in life, and how to use that information for prevention, has been an intense focus of biomedical research. The goal of this work is to learn not only about the genes involved in AD, but how they work together and with other complex biological, environmental, and lifestyle factors to drive this devastating neurological disease.
It’s good news to be able to report that an international team of researchers, partly funded by NIH, has made more progress in explaining the genetic component of AD. Their analysis, involving data from more than 35,000 individuals with late-onset AD, has identified variants in five new genes that put people at greater risk of AD . It also points to molecular pathways involved in AD as possible avenues for prevention, and offers further confirmation of 20 other genes that had been implicated previously in AD.
The results of this largest-ever genomic study of AD suggests key roles for genes involved in the processing of beta-amyloid peptides, which form plaques in the brain recognized as an important early indicator of AD. They also offer the first evidence for a genetic link to proteins that bind tau, the protein responsible for telltale tangles in the AD brain that track closely with a person’s cognitive decline.
The new findings are the latest from the International Genomics of Alzheimer’s Project (IGAP) consortium, led by a large, collaborative team including Brian Kunkle and Margaret Pericak-Vance, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Miami, FL. The effort, spanning four consortia focused on AD in the United States and Europe, was launched in 2011 with the aim of discovering and mapping all the genes that contribute to AD.
An earlier IGAP study including about 25,500 people with late-onset AD identified 20 common gene variants that influence a person’s risk for developing AD late in life . While that was terrific progress to be sure, the analysis also showed that those gene variants could explain only a third of the genetic component of AD. It was clear more genes with ties to AD were yet to be found.
So, in the study reported in Nature Genetics, the researchers expanded the search. While so-called genome-wide association studies (GWAS) are generally useful in identifying gene variants that turn up often in association with particular diseases or other traits, the ones that arise more rarely require much larger sample sizes to find.
To increase their odds of finding additional variants, the researchers analyzed genomic data for more than 94,000 individuals, including more than 35,000 with a diagnosis of late-onset AD and another 60,000 older people without AD. Their search led them to variants in five additional genes, named IQCK, ACE, ADAM10, ADAMTS1, and WWOX, associated with late-onset AD that hadn’t turned up in the previous study.
Further analysis of those genes supports a view of AD in which groups of genes work together to influence risk and disease progression. In addition to some genes influencing the processing of beta-amyloid peptides and accumulation of tau proteins, others appear to contribute to AD via certain aspects of the immune system and lipid metabolism.
Each of these newly discovered variants contributes only a small amount of increased risk, and therefore probably have limited value in predicting an average person’s risk of developing AD later in life. But they are invaluable when it comes to advancing our understanding of AD’s biological underpinnings and pointing the way to potentially new treatment approaches. For instance, these new data highlight intriguing similarities between early-onset and late-onset AD, suggesting that treatments developed for people with the early-onset form also might prove beneficial for people with the more common late-onset disease.
It’s worth noting that the new findings continue to suggest that the search is not yet over—many more as-yet undiscovered rare variants likely play a role in AD. The search for answers to AD and so many other complex health conditions—assisted through collaborative data sharing efforts such as this one—continues at an accelerating pace.
 Genetic meta-analysis of diagnosed Alzheimer’s disease identifies new risk loci and implicates Aβ, tau, immunity and lipid processing. Kunkle BW, Grenier-Boley B, Sims R, Bis JC, et. al. Nat Genet. 2019 Mar;51(3):414-430.
 Meta-analysis of 74,046 individuals identifies 11 new susceptibility loci for Alzheimer’s disease. Lambert JC, Ibrahim-Verbaas CA, Harold D, Naj AC, Sims R, Bellenguez C, DeStafano AL, Bis JC, et al. Nat Genet. 2013 Dec;45(12):1452-8.
Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Fact Sheet (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Margaret Pericak-Vance (University of Miami Health System, FL)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Human Genome Research Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Forty-five years ago, when I was a first-year medical student, a lecturer introduced me to a young man with sickle cell disease (SCD). Sickle cell disease is the first “molecular disease”, with its cause having been identified decades ago. That helped me see the connection between the abstract concepts of molecular genetics and their real-world human consequences in a way no textbook could. In fact, it inspired some of my earliest research on human hemoglobin disorders, which I conducted as a postdoctoral fellow.
Today, I’m heartened to report that, thanks to decades of biomedical advances, we stand on the verge of a cure for SCD. While at the American Society of Hematology meeting in San Diego last week, I was excited to be part of a discussion about how the tools and technologies arising from the Human Genome Project are accelerating the quest for cures.
The good news at the meeting included some promising, early results from human clinical trials of SCD gene therapies, including new data from the NIH Clinical Center. Researchers also presented very encouraging pre-clinical work on how gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, can be used in ways that may open the door to curing everyone with SCD. In fact, just days before the meeting, the first clinical trial for a CRISPR approach to SCD opened.
One important note: the gene editing research aimed at curing SCD is being done in non-reproductive (somatic) cells. The NIH does not support the use of gene editing technologies in human embryos (germline). I recently reiterated our opposition to germline gene editing, in response to an unethical experiment by a researcher in China who claims to have used CRISPR editing on embryos to produce twin girls resistant to HIV.
SCD affects approximately 100,000 people in the United States, and another 20 million worldwide, mostly in developing nations. This inherited, potentially life-threatening disorder is caused by a specific point mutation in a gene that codes for the beta chain of hemoglobin, a molecule found in red blood cells that deliver oxygen throughout the body. In people with SCD, the mutant hemoglobin forms insoluble aggregates when de-oxygenated. As a result the red cells assume a sickle shape, rather than the usual donut shape. These sickled cells clump together and stick in small blood vessels, resulting in severe pain, blood cell destruction, anemia, stroke, pulmonary hypertension, organ failure, and much too often, early death.
The need for a widespread cure for SCD is great. Since 1998, doctors have used a drug called hydroxyurea to reduce symptoms, but it can cause serious side effects and increase the risk of certain cancers. Blood transfusions can also ease symptoms in certain instances, but they too come with risks and complications. At the present time, the only way to cure SCD is a bone marrow transplant. However, transplants are not an option for many patients due to lack of matched marrow donors.
The good news is that novel genetic approaches have raised hopes of a widespread cure for SCD, possibly even within five to 10 years. So, in September, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute launched the Cure Sickle Cell Initiative to accelerate development of the most promising of these next generation of therapies
At the ASH meeting, that first wave of this progress was evident. A team led by NHLBI’s John Tisdale, in collaboration with Bluebird bio, Cambridge, MA, was among the groups that presented impressive early results from human clinical trials testing novel gene replacement therapies for SCD. In the NIH trial, researchers removed blood precursor cells, called hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs), from a patient’s own bone marrow or bloodstream and used a harmless virus to insert a sickle-resistant hemoglobin gene. Then, after a chemotherapy infusion to condition the patient’s existing bone marrow, they returned the corrected cells to the patient.
So far, nine SCD patients have received the most advanced form of the experimental gene therapy, and Tisdale presented data on those who were farthest out from treatment [1,2]. His team found that in the four patients who were at least six months out, levels of gene therapy-derived hemoglobin were found to equal or exceed their levels of SCD hemoglobin.
Very cool science, but what does this mean for SCD patients’ health and well-being? Well, none of the gene therapy trial participants have required a blood transfusion during the follow-up period. In addition, improvements were seen in their hemoglobin levels and key markers of blood-cell destruction (total bilirubin concentration, lactate dehydrogenase, and reticulocyte counts) compared to baseline. Most importantly, in the years leading up to the clinical trial, all of the participants had experienced frequent painful sickle crises, in which sickled cells blocked their blood vessels. No such episodes were reported among the participants in the months after they received the gene therapy.
Researchers did report that one patient receiving this form of gene therapy developed myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a serious condition in which the blood-forming cells in the bone marrow become abnormal. However, there is no indication that the gene replacement technology itself caused the problem, and MDS has previously been linked to the chemotherapy drugs used in conditioning regimens before bone marrow transplants.
The NIH trial is just one of several clinical trials for SCD that are using viral vectors to deliver a variety of genes with therapeutic potential. Other trials actively recruiting are led by researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, and the University of California, Los Angeles.
While it’s hoped that genes inserted by viral vectors will provide long-lasting or curative treatment, other researchers are betting that new gene-editing technologies, such as CRISPR, will offer the best chance for developing a widespread cure for SCD. One strategy being eyed by these “gene editors” is to correct the SCD mutation, replacing it with a normal gene. Another strategy involves knocking out certain DNA sequences to reactivate production of fetal hemoglobin (HbF).
The HbF protein is produced in the developing fetus to give it better access to oxygen from the mother’s bloodstream. But shortly after birth, the production of fetal hemoglobin shuts down, and the adult form kicks in. Adults normally have very low levels of fetal hemoglobin, which makes sense. However, from genome-wide association studies of human genetic variation, we know that that actual levels of HbF are under genetic control.
A major factor has been mapped to the BCL11A gene, which has subsequently been found to be a master mediator for the fetal to adult hemoglobin switch. Specifically, variations in a red cell specific enhancer of BCL11A affect an adult’s level of HbF— levels of BCL11A protein lead to higher amounts of fetal hemoglobin. Furthermore, it’s been known for some time that rare individuals keep on producing relatively high levels of hemoglobin into adulthood. If people with SCD happen to have a rare mutation that keeps fetal hemoglobin production active in adulthood (the first of these was found as part of my postdoctoral research), their SCD symptoms are much less severe.
Currently, two groups—CRISPR Therapeutics/Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Sangamo Therapeutics/Bioverativ—are gearing up to begin the first U.S. human clinical trials of gene-editing for SCD within the next few months. While they employ different technologies, both approaches involve removing a patient’s HSCs, using gene editing to knock out the BCL11A red cell enhancer, and then returning the gene-edited cells to the patient. The hope is that the gene-edited cells will greatly boost fetal hemoglobin production, thereby offsetting the effects of SCD.
All of this is exciting news for the 100,000 people living in the United States who have SCD. But what about the 300,000 babies born with SCD every year in other parts of the world, mostly in low- and middle-income countries?
The complicated, high-tech procedures that I just described may not be practical for a very long time in places like sub-Saharan Africa. That’s one reason why NIH recently launched a new effort to speed the development of safe, effective genome-editing approaches that could be delivered directly into a patient’s body (in vivo), perhaps by infusion of the CRISPR gene editing apparatus. Recent preclinical experiments demonstrating the promise of in vivo gene editing for Duchenne muscular dystrophy make me optimistic that NIH’s Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program, which is hosting its first gathering of investigators this week, will be able to develop similar approaches for SCD and many other conditions.
While moving forward in this fast-paced field, it is important that we remain ethical, but also remain bold on behalf of the millions of patients with genetic diseases who are still waiting for a cure. We must continue to assess and address the very serious ethical concerns raised by germline gene editing of human embryos, which will irreversibly alter the DNA instruction book of future children and affect future generations. I continue to argue that we are not ready to undertake such experiments.
But the use of gene editing to treat, perhaps even to cure, children and adults with genetic diseases, by correcting the mutation in their relevant tissues (so-called somatic cell gene editing), without risk of passing those changes on to a future generation, holds enormous promise. Somatic cell gene editing is associated with ethical issues that are much more in line with decades of deep thinking about benefits and risks of therapeutic trials.
Finally, we must recognize that somatic cell gene editing is a profoundly promising approach not only for people with SCD, but for all who are struggling with the thousands of diseases that still have no treatments or cures. Real hope for cures has never been greater.
 NIH researcher presents encouraging results for gene therapy for severe sickle cell disease. NIH News Release. December 4, 2018
Sickle Cell Disease (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)
Cure Sickle Cell Initiative (NHLBI)
John Tisdale (NHLBI)
Somatic Cell Genome Editing Program (Common Fund/NIH)
NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Common Fund
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Four years ago, Valerie Arboleda accomplished something most young medical geneticists rarely do. She helped discover a rare congenital disease now known as KAT6A syndrome . From the original 10 cases to the more than 100 diagnosed today, KAT6A kids share a single altered gene that causes neuro-developmental delays, most prominently in learning to walk and talk, plus a spectrum of possible abnormalities involving the head, face, heart, and immune system.
Now, Arboleda wants to accomplish something even more groundbreaking. With a 2017 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, she will develop ways to mine Big Data—the voluminous amounts of DNA sequence and other biological information now stored in public databases—to unearth new clues into the biology of rare disorders like KAT6A syndrome. If successful, Arboleda’s work could bring greater precision to the diagnosis and potentially treatment of Mendelian disorders, as well as provide greater clarity into the specific challenges that might lie ahead for an affected child.