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Lessons Learned About Substance Use Disorders During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Nora Volkow and Francis Collins in a teleconference from their recent conversation

Every spring, I and my colleague Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), join with leaders across the country in the Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit. Our role is to discuss NIH’s continued progress in tackling our nation’s opioid crisis. Because of the continued threat of COVID-19 pandemic, we joined in virtually for the second year in a row.

While the demands of the pandemic have been challenging for everyone, biomedical researchers have remained hard at work to address the opioid crisis. Among the many ways that NIH is supporting these efforts is through its Helping to End Addiction Long-Term (HEAL) Initiative, which is directing more than $1.5 billion to researchers and communities across the country.

Here’s a condensed transcript of our April 6th video dialogue, which focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on people struggling with substance use disorders and those who are trying to help them.

HEAL NIH Helping to End Addition Long-term

Collins: What have we learned so far through HEAL? Well, one thing HEAL is doing is tackling the need for pain treatments that help people avoid the risks of opioids. This research has uncovered new targets and therapeutics for different types of pain, including neuropathic, post-surgical, osteoarthritic, and chemotherapy induced. We’re testing implanted devices, such as electrodes and non-invasive nerve stimulation; and looking at complementary and integrative approaches, such as phone-based physical therapy for low back pain.

Through HEAL, we’ve launched a first-in-human test of a vaccine to protect against the harmful effects of opioids, including relapse and overdose. We’re also testing a tool that provides pharmacists with a validated opioid use disorder risk measure. The goal is to identify better who’s at high risk for opioid addiction and to determine what kind of early intervention could be put in place.

Despite COVID, many clinical studies are now recruiting participants. This includes family-based prevention programs, culturally tailored interventions for hard-hit American Indian populations, and interventions that address social inequities, such as lack of housing.

We are also making progress on the truly heart-breaking problem of babies born dependent on opioids. HEAL has launched a study to test the effectiveness of a new approach to care that measures the severity of a baby’s withdrawal, based on their ability to eat, sleep, and be consoled. This approach helps provide appropriate treatment for these infants, without the use of medication when possible. We’re also developing novel technologies to help treat neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome, including a gently vibrating hospital bassinet pad that’s received breakthrough device designation from the FDA.

2020 was an extraordinary year that was tragic in so many ways, including lives lost and economic disasters that have fallen upon families. The resilience and ingenuity of the scientific community has been impressive. Quick pivoting has resulted in some gains through research, maybe you could even call them silver linings in the midst of this terrible storm.

Nora, what’s been at the forefront of your mind as we’ve watched things unfold?

Volkow: When we did this one year ago, we didn’t know what to expect. Obviously, we were concerned that the stressors associated with a pandemic, with unknowns, are factors that have been recognized for many years to increase drug use. Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is an increase in drug use of all types across the country.

We have seen an exacerbation of the opioid epidemic, as evidenced by the number of people who have died. Already, in the 12 months ending in July 2020, there was a 24 percent increase in mortality from overdoses. Within those numbers, there was close to a 50 percent increase in mortality associated with fentanyl. We’re also seeing an increase, not just in deaths from fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, but in deaths from stimulant drugs, like cocaine and methamphetamine. And the largest increases have been very much driven by drug combinations.

So, we have the perfect storm. We have people stressed to their limits by decreases in the economy, the loss of jobs, the death of loved ones. On the other hand, we see dealers taking the opportunity to bring in drugs such as synthetic opioids and synthetic stimulants and distribute them to a much wider extent than previously seen.

Collins: On top of that, people are at risk of getting sick from COVID-19. What have we learned about the risks of coronavirus illness for people who use drugs?

Volkow: It is a double whammy. When you look at the electronic health records about the outcomes of people diagnosed with substance use disorders, you consistently see an increased risk for getting infected with COVID-19. And if you look at those who get infected, you observe a significantly increased risk of dying from COVID.

What’s driving this vulnerability? One factor is the pharmacological effects of these drugs. Basically, all of the drugs of abuse that result in addiction, notably opioids, damage the cardiopulmonary system. Some also damage the immune system. And we know that individuals who have any disruption of cardiovascular health, pulmonary health, immune function, or metabolism are at higher risk of getting infected with COVID-19 and having adverse outcomes.

But there’s another factor that’s as important—one that’s very tractable. It is the way in which our society has dealt with substance use disorders: not actually treating them as a disease that requires intervention and support for recovery. The stigmatization of individuals with addiction, the lack of access to treatment, the social isolation, have all created havoc by making these individuals so much more vulnerable to get infected with COVID-19.

They will not go to a doctor. They don’t want to be stigmatized. They need to go out into the streets to get access to the drugs. Many times, they don’t have a choice of what drugs to take because they cannot afford anything except what’s offered to them. So, many, especially those who are minorities, end up homeless or in jails or prison. Even before COVID, we knew that prisons and jails are places where infections can transmit extraordinary rapidly. You could see this was going to result in very negative outcomes for this group of individuals.

Collins: Nora, tell us more about the trends contributing to the current crisis. Maybe three or four years ago, what was going straight up was opioid use, especially heroin. Then, fentanyl started coming up very fast and that has continued. Now, we are seeing more stimulants and mixing of different types of drugs. What is the basis for this?

Volkow: At the beginning of the opiate pandemic, mortality was mainly associated with white Americans, many in rural or semi-suburban areas of the Appalachian states and in New Mexico and Arizona. That has shifted. The highest increase in mortality from opioids, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans. They’ve had very, very high rates of mortality during the COVID pandemic. And when you look at mortality from methamphetamine, it’s chilling to realize that the risk of dying from methamphetamine overdose is 12-fold higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than other groups. This should make us pause to think about what’s driving these terrible racial disparities.

As for drug combinations, many deaths from methamphetamine or cocaine—an estimated 50 percent—are linked to these stimulant drugs being combined with fentanyl or heroin. Dealers are lacing these non-opioid drugs with cheaper, yet potent, opioids to make a larger profit. Someone who’s addicted to a stimulant drug like cocaine or methamphetamine is not tolerant to opioids, which means they are going to be at high risk of overdose if they get a stimulant drug that’s laced with an opioid like fentanyl. That’s been contributing to the sharp rise in mortality from non-opioid drugs.

Collins: I’m glad you raised the issue of health disparities. 2020 will go down as a year in which our nation had to focus on three public health crises at once. The first is the crisis of opioid use disorder and rising mortality from use of other drugs. The second is COVID-19. And the third is the realization, although the problem has been there all along, that health disparities continue to shorten the lives of far too many people.

The latter crisis has little to do with biology, but everything to do with the way in which our society still is afflicted by structural racism. We at NIH are looking at this circumstance, realizing that our own health disparities research agenda needs to be rethought. We have not fully incorporated all the factors that play out in health inequities and racial inequities in our country.

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You were also talking about how stimulants have become more widespread. What about treatments for people with stimulant use disorders?

Volkow: For opioid addiction, we’re lucky because we have very effective medications: methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone. On top of that, we have naloxone, Narcan, that if administered on time, can save the life of a person who has overdosed.

We don’t have any FDA-approved medication for methamphetamine addiction, and we don’t have any overdose reversal for methamphetamine. At the beginning of this year, we funded a large clinical trial aimed at investigating the benefits of the combination of two medications that were already approved as anti-depressants and for the treatment of smoking cessation and alcoholism. It found this combination significantly inhibits the urge to take drugs and therefore helps people stay away from use of methamphetamine. Now, we want to replicate these findings, and to tie that replication study in with guidelines from the FDA on what is needed to approve our new indication for these medications. Why? Because then insurance can cover it, and that will increase the likelihood that people will get treated.

Another exciting possibility is a monoclonal antibody against methamphetamine that’s in Phase 2 clinical trials. If someone comes into the emergency room with an overdose of a combination of opioid and methamphetamine, naloxone often will not work. But this monoclonal antibody with naloxone may offer a greater likelihood of success.
Another thing that’s promising is that investigators have been able to modify monoclonal antibodies so they stay in the bloodstream for a longer time. That means we may someday be able to use this passive immunization approach as a treatment for methamphetamine addiction.

Collins: That’s good to hear. Speaking of progress, is there any you want to point to within HEAL?

Volkow: There’s a lot of excitement surrounding medication development. We’re interested in developing antidotes that will be more effective in reversing overdose deaths from fentanyl. We’re also interested in providing longer lasting medications for treatment of opioid use disorders, which would improve the likelihood of patients being protected from overdoses.

The Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN) is another HEAL landmark project. It involves a network of researchers that is working with judges and with the workers in jail and prison systems responsible for taking care of individuals with substance use disorders. Through this network, we’ve been able to start to harmonize practices. One thing that’s been transformative in the jail and prison system has been the embracing of telehealth. In the past, telehealth was not much of a reality in jails and prisons because of the fear of it could lead to communications that could perhaps be considered dangerous. That’s changed due to COVID-19. Now, telehealth is providing access to treatment for individuals in jail and prison, many of them with substance use disorders.

Also, because of COVID, many nonviolent individuals in jails and prisons were released. This gives us an opportunity to evaluate how best to help such individuals achieve recovery from substance use disorders. Hopefully we can generate data to show that there are much more effective strategies than incarceration for dealing with substance use disorders.

The HEALing Communities Study, involves Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and Kentucky—four of the states with the highest rates of mortality from overdoses from the inception of the opioid epidemic. By implementing a battery of interventions for which there is evidence of benefit, this ambitious study set out to decrease overdose mortality by 40 percent in two years. Then, came COVID and turned everything upside down. Still, because we consolidated interactions between agencies, we’ve been able to apply support systems more efficiently in those communities in ways that have been very, very reinforcing. Obviously, there’ve been delays in implementation of interventions that require in-person interactions or that involve hospital emergency departments, which have been saturated with COVID patients.

We’ve learned a lot in the process. I may be too optimistic, but I do believe that we can stay on goal.

Collins: Now, I’d like to transition to a few questions from people who subscribe to the HEAL website. Announced at this meeting three years ago, the HEAL Initiative involves research participants and patients and stakeholders—especially people who have lived experience with pain, addiction, or both.

Let’s get to the first question: “What is NIH doing through HEAL to address the stigma that prevents people who need opioid medications for treatment from getting them?”

Volkow: A crucial question. As we look at the issue of stigma, we need to recognize that there are structural issues in how our society is prioritizing the importance of substance use disorders and the investments devoted to them. And we need to recognize that substance use disorder doesn’t exist in isolation; it is frequently comorbid with mental illness.

We need to listen. Some of the issues that we believe are most problematic are not. We need to empower these communities to speak up and help them do so. This is probably one of the most important things that we can do in terms of addressing stigma for addiction.

Collins: Absolutely. The HEAL Initiative has a number of projects that are focusing on stigma and coming up with tools to help reduce this. And here’s our second question: “In small communities, how can we provide more access to medications for opioid use disorder?”

Volkow: One project funded through HEAL was to evaluate the effectiveness of community pharmacies for delivering buprenorphine to individuals with opioid use disorder. The results show that patients receiving buprenorphine through community pharmacies in rural areas had as good outcomes as patients being treated by specialized clinicians on site.
Another change that’s made things easier is that in March 2020, the DEA relaxed its rules on how a physician can prescribe buprenorphine. In the past, you needed to go physically to see a doctor. Now, the DEA allows a patient to be initiated on buprenorphine through telehealth, and that’s opened the possibility of greater access to treatment in rural communities.

My perspective is let’s look at innovative ways of solving problems. Because the technology is changing in so many ways and so rapidly, let’s take advantage of it.

Collins: Totally with you on that. If there’s a silver lining to COVID-19, it’s that we’ve been forced to take stock of the ways we’ve been doing things. We will learn from this pandemic and change the way we approach so many things in health and medicine as a result. Certainly, opioid use disorder ought to be very high on that list. Let’s move on to another question: “What is the HEAL initiative doing to promote prevention of opioid use?”

Volkow: This is where the HEAL initiative is aiming to provide alternative treatments for the management of pain that reduce the risk of addiction.

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Then there’s the issue of prevention in people who start to take opioids because they either want to get high or escape. With the COVID pandemic, we’ve seen increases in anxiety and in depression. Those are factors that can put a teenager or young adult on a trajectory for higher risk of substance use disorders.

So, what is HEAL doing? There is prevention research specifically targeted, for example, at the transition from adolescence to young adulthood. That is the period of greatest vulnerability of uptake of opioids, or drugs of misuse. We’re also targeting minority groups that may be at very, very high risk. We want to be able to understand the factors that make them more vulnerable to tailor prevention interventions more effectively.

Collins: Today, we’ve shared some of the issues that NIH is wrestling with in its efforts to address the crisis of opioid misuse and overdose, as well as other drugs that are now very much part of the challenge. To learn more, go to the HEAL website. You can also send us your thoughts through the HEAL Idea Exchange.

These developments give me hope in the wake of a very difficult year. Clearly, we still have the capacity to work together, we are resilient, and we are determined to put an end to our nation’s opioid crisis.

Volkow: Francis, I want to thank you for your incredible leadership and your support. I hope the COVID pandemic will bring forth a more equitable system, in which all people are given the chance for resilience that maximizes their life, happiness, and productivity. I think science is an extraordinary tool to help us do that.

Links:

Video: The 2021 Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit: Francis Collins with Nora Volkow (NIH)

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative (NIH)

HEAL Idea Exchange (NIH)

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIH)

Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit, A 2021 Virtual Experience


Taking a Community-Based Approach to Youth Substance Abuse Prevention

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Credit: LaJoy Photography, Atlanta

As a child born and raised in a low-income, urban neighborhood of Jersey City, NJ, Ijeoma Opara counted herself lucky. She had strong support from her parents, both college-educated Nigerian immigrants. But she also saw firsthand the devastating effects that gang violence, crime, drugs, and alcohol were having on too many young people in her community. When she was in high school, her family bought their first house about 20 miles away in the middle-class, suburban neighborhood of Roselle, NJ. The dramatic differences between these two worlds drove home for her how significant a zip code can be in determining a child’s outlook and opportunities.

Today, inspired by this childhood moment of truth, Opara, an assistant professor of social work at The State University Stony Brook University, NY, is the recipient of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, tackling the complex relationships between neighborhoods, substance use, and mental health among urban youth. She’s focusing her efforts on Paterson, NJ, a city of about 150,000 people where the rates of substance abuse are among the highest in the country. She hopes to develop community engagement models that will work not only in Paterson, but in struggling urban communities across the United States.

Opara first explored the streets of Paterson, which is located about 20 miles west of New York City, and ultimately fell in love with the place as a PhD fellow studying substance abuse and mental health services. She got to know the youth of Paterson and heard from them directly about what their community was lacking to help them build a brighter future.

She also fell in love with community-based participatory research (CBPR). In this approach, researchers immerse themselves in a community and work as partners with community members, leaders, and organizations to understand the issues that matter, gather essential information and data, and translate them into efforts needed for a community and its youth to thrive.

When Opara decided to apply for the high-risk, high-reward Early Independence Award, she knew her proposal must be innovative and creative. Ultimately, though, Opara realized she needed to propose an idea about which she was passionate.

Opara remembered her love for Paterson and decided to go back there, focusing her attention on filling the many gaps in that community to prevent substance abuse among young people. True to her CBPR approach to research, she also spent weeks meeting with the people of Paterson to ensure that her work would address the community’s most-critical needs and strongest desires from day one.

Opara’s first aim is to look at neighborhoods across the city of Paterson and their relationship to substance abuse and mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression among its youth. Her work will factor in access to safe housing, healthy food, parks, and playgrounds.

She’ll also recruit young people, including those who are most at risk, to get their take on their community including the prevalence of drug use. Opara won’t just be checking with kids at school. She’ll also spend lots of time with them on basketball courts, in grocery store parking lots, or wherever they like to congregate. What she learns will help her craft evidence-based and community-driven substance abuse interventions for young people at risk. She’ll then work with her partners in the community to help put the interventions to the test.

She recognizes that many consider urban youth too hard to reach. In her view, that’s simply not true. It’s her job to meet these young people where they hang out, learn to engage them, and listen to their needs.

In Paterson, she wants to build vibrant neighborhood models that will enrich the community and help more of its children get ahead. Most of all, she wants to change the way substance abuse and mental health work is done in urban communities like Paterson, and see to it that more resources for youth are put into place.

Opara hopes one day to inhabit a world where urban kids have access to the emotional and mental health resources that they need to cope with the many challenges that confront them. She also wants to inhabit a world where young girls growing up in the inner-city, as she did not so long ago, will be nurtured to move upward and onward as leaders. Her efforts and the strength of her example are certainly a push in the right direction.

Links:

Ijeoma Opara (The State University Stony Brook University, NY)

The Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab (Stony Brook)

Opara Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Early Independence Award

NIH Support: Common Fund


Study Highlights Need for Continued Care of COVID-19 Survivors

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Collage of people being cared for after contracting COVID-19
Credit: Composed of images from Getty

The past several months have shown that most people hospitalized with COVID-19 will get better. As inspiring as it is to see these patients breathe on their own and converse with their loved ones again, we are learning that many will leave the hospital still quite ill and in need of further care. But little has been published to offer a detailed demographic picture of those being discharged from our nation’s hospitals and the types of community-based care and monitoring that will be needed to keep them on the road to recovery.

A recent study in the journal EClinicalMedicine helps to fill in those gaps by chronicling the early COVID-19 experience of three prominent hospitals in the Boston area: Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Newton-Wellesley Hospital. These data were reported from a patient registry of 247 middle-aged and older COVID-19 patients. The patients were admitted over three weeks last March into one of these hospitals, which are part of New England’s largest integrated health network.

The data confirm numerous previous reports that COVID-19 disproportionately affects people of color. The researchers, led by Jason H. Wasfy and Cian P. McCarthy, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, found a large number of their patients were Hispanic (30 percent) or Black (10 percent). Wasfy said these numbers could be driven by many factors, including a low income, more family members living in one home, greater difficulty accessing healthcare, presence of chronic illness (health disparities), and serving as essential workers during the pandemic.

The researchers also tracked the patients after discharge for about 80 days. About a third of patients left the hospital for a post-acute care facility to continue their rehabilitation. After discharge, many required supplemental oxygen (15 percent), tube feeding (9 percent), or treatment with medications including antipsychotics and prescription painkillers (16 percent). About 10 percent were readmitted to the hospital within weeks or months of their initial discharge.

Wasfy and colleagues also found:

· Many patients undergoing treatment were enrolled in Medicaid (20 percent) or both Medicaid and Medicare (12 percent).

· A substantial number also were retired (36 percent) or unemployed (8.5 percent), highlighting the role of non-occupational spread. Many others worked in the hospitality industry, healthcare, or public transportation.

· A large proportion (42 percent) of hospitalized patients required intensive care. The good news is that most of them (86 percent) ultimately recovered enough to be discharged from the hospital. Tragically, 14 percent—34 of 247 people—died in the hospital.

These findings represent hospitals in just one notable American city hard hit early in the pandemic. But they spotlight the importance of public health efforts to prevent COVID-19 among the most vulnerable and reduce its most devastating social impacts. These are critical points, and NIH has recently begun supporting community engagement research efforts in areas hardest hit by COVID-19. With this support and access to needed post-discharge care, we aim to help more COVID survivors stay on the road to a full recovery.

Reference:

[1] Early clinical and sociodemographic experience with patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at a large American healthcare system. McCarthy CP et al. EClinicalMedicine. August 19, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Massachusetts General Hospital (Boston)

Brigham and Women’s Hospital (Boston)

Newton-Wellesley Hospital (Newton, MA)

Jason Wasfy (Massachusetts General Hospital)


Discussing Cancer Health Disparities

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Cancer Health Disparities
It was my pleasure to offer virtual remarks for the opening plenary session of the 13th Annual Science of Cancer Health Disparities in Racial/Ethnic Minorities and the Medically Underserved Virtual Conference. The session was hosted by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) on October 2, 2020. I started things off speaking about factors that influence racial health disparities, including cancer disparities, and the need for greater workforce diversity. This videoconference image shows me with the panel members for the opening session. They are (starting top left to right) John Carpten, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles; Patricia LoRusso, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT; Francis Collins; Brian Rivers, Morehouse School of Medicine; Atlanta; Chanita Hughes-Holbert, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; Mariana Stern, University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Los Angeles; Clayton Yates, Tuskegee University, AL; and Robert Winn, Virginia Commonwealth University Massey Cancer Center, Richmond.

Swimming with the High-Tech Sharks to Improve COVID-19 Testing

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At Home with Bruce Thromburg

So much has been reported over the past six months about testing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that keeping up with the issue can be a real challenge. To discuss the latest progress on new technologies for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testing in the United States, I spoke recently with NIH’s Dr. Bruce Tromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Not only does Bruce run a busy NIH institute, he is helping to coordinate the national response for expanded testing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bruce also has a leading role in one of NIH’s most-exciting new initiatives. It’s called the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, and it is on the fast track to bolster the country’s diagnostic testing capacity within months. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat, which took place via videoconference, with Bruce linking in from Bethesda, MD and me from my home in Chevy Chase, MD:

Collins: Let’s start with how many COVID-19 tests are being done right now per day in the United States. By that, I’m referring to testing for the presence of the novel coronavirus, not antibodies as a sign of a previous infection.

Tromberg: The numbers fluctuate—anywhere from around 400,000 to 900,000 tests per day. So, the national capacity, with all these complex laboratory tests and emerging point-of-care assays, is getting close to 1 million a day. That’s substantially higher than in mid-April, when the nation was doing about 150,000 tests per day. But most testing is still being done in laboratories or complex facilities, and it can take a while for those tests to be run and for people to get answers. What we’d like to have are more convenient tests. We’d like to have tests that people can have at the point of care, where you get an answer on the spot and very quickly, or tests that can be performed easily in their homes.

Collins: Yes, we’d all love to have point-of-care tests for COVID-19. And there are some out there already. Every time I go to the White House, they have this gadget, called Abbott ID Now, that gives a result in about 15 minutes. That sounds pretty good. Do we just need to make more of those machines to solve the problem?

Tromberg: Abbott ID Now is one of the first point-of-care technologies. It’s not complicated, so a specialized laboratory isn’t required to run them. That’s what makes Abbott ID Now very appealing, but its performance could be better. There’s a bit of a risk when it’s used in individuals for which you really need to know, with absolute certainty, if they have the virus or not. Those performance issues have created opportunities to build platforms that are better, faster, and possible for people to do on their own.

Collins: Congress provided a big infusion of resources last April to assist in the development of new diagnostic technologies for COVID-19. A lot of that infusion came to NIH, and, Bruce, you were asked to step in and make something amazing happen on a timetable that’s pretty breathtaking. It’s called the RADx Initiative. Tell us a little about that.

Tromberg: RADx is short for Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics. The goal of the initiative is to make it possible for everyone to have access to diagnostic testing for COVID-19 as easily and quickly as possible. As we pivot to doing surveillance in large populations, we will need greater testing capacity to help optimize the management of each individual. So, that’s really the aim of RADx, or RADx-tech, which is a special flavor of RADx.

Collins: Right, the goal of RADx-tech, which you are overseeing, is to identify some of these exciting new technologies and help scale them up quickly to the point where they can help people across the nation. Could you give us some examples?

Tromberg: Sure. One general class of technologies is called a lateral flow assay. These tests are small enough to fit in your hand and come in a convenient container. Basically, you can use a swab from your oral cavity and place it on one of the pads, and then you add a little bit of solution. The actual assay itself has a membrane inside of a little plastic container. The fluid flows across the membrane, and there’s chemistry that goes on inside the container to detect, for example, genetic material from the coronavirus. So, it can tell you if there is a presence of virus inside the swab. It’s very quick and straightforward. A line will “light up” if virus is present.

Another type of lateral flow assay, also small enough to hold in your hand, looks for proteins on the surface of the virus. You don’t have to break up the virus particle itself, but in this specific example, what captures the virus in this membrane is what’s called an aptamer. An aptamer is similar to an antibody, except it’s made from nucleic acid. It’s designed to bind very tightly with any molecule of interest. If you put a saliva sample into this assay, it moves up the membrane and some chemistry takes place. And then, you’ll see a line appear if there’s presence of a virus.

Collins: You just said saliva. I think a lot of people would much prefer, if they had to provide a sample, to use saliva instead of having a swab stuck in their nose, especially if it has to go all the way to the back of the nose. Does saliva work?

Tromberg: We hope so. Right now, RADx-tech has at least nine companies that are in what we call phase one, which is a significant step towards commercialization. Of those companies, more than half are looking at saliva or other kinds of sampling that’s not sticking swabs way up into the nasal cavity.

Another type of test is a lateral flow assay that fits directly into a mobile device like a tablet. It has a separate lateral flow apparatus, which looks like an elongated zip drive, and it slides right into the tablet itself. It’s something that’s not complicated. It would be easy to do at home. But rather than watching for the presence of a reaction, you look for a light inside the tablet to say the result is ready. And then, there is another color of light that comes directly from the lateral flow strip, that’s an indicator that the virus is present.

One last example is a nucleic acid test. This rectangular, hand-held device (see photo), reminiscent of a computer disc, looks inside the virus to amplify small traces of its nucleic acid to detectable levels. It is completely self-contained. To find that technology today, you generally must go to complex laboratories where the test is done on big machines, operated in multiple steps. Efforts are being made to reduce the size and the complexity of these devices so they can move out to point of care, without sacrificing the performance that we expect from a laboratory-based device.

Collins: That’s totally cool. Is the nucleic-acid test device that you just mentioned made for one-time use, and then you throw it away?

Tromberg: That’s their business model right now. I should probably mention something about cost. For example, you can imagine scaling up lateral flow assays very quickly to make tens of millions of tests. The components are inexpensive, and the tests may cost just a few dollars to make.

If you’re throwing away a nucleic acid test with its more-expensive components, obviously, the cost will be higher. Right now, if you go to a laboratory for a nucleic acid test, the cost may be on the order of $40 or so. With these one-time-use nucleic acid tests, the aim is to scale up the manufacturing to produce larger volumes that will bring the cost down. The estimates are maybe $60 per test.

Collins: That needs to come down more, obviously. In the months ahead, we’re talking about testing millions of people, maybe even fairly often to make sure that they haven’t been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Is frequent testing the kind of thing that you’d like to be able to do by next fall?

Tromberg: Yes, and I think that that really speaks to the diversity of the types of tests that we need. I think there is a market, or the capacity, for some of the more expensive tests, if they’re extremely accurate and convenient. So, the nucleic acid test may cost more, but it will give you an answer very quickly and with very high sensitivity. It’s also very convenient. But the performance of that test may be very different from a standard lateral flow assay. Those tests will be far more accessible and very, very inexpensive, but they may have a higher false negative rate. We envision that every test that comes out of our innovation funnel will have documentation about its best-use case.

Collins: You mentioned your innovation funnel, sometimes called a “shark tank.” Say a little more about the RADx-tech shark tank. Who gets into it, and what happens when they get there?

Tromberg: At NIH, we’re into processes, and NIBIB created a very effective one 13 years ago with the Point of Care Technology Research Network (POCTRN). We’ve now leveraged this network to focus almost exclusively on COVID testing. POCTRN has five sites in the US. All have core resources, personnel, and expertise that are contributing to RADx-tech. Those include the ability to validate tests independently, the ability to do clinical studies in real-world samples and patients, and the ability to analyze manufacturing and scale-up needs while creating a roadmap for every project team to follow.

We have more than 200 people around the country working day and night on this process. If anyone has an idea about a COVID-19 test, you can and apply for funding on the POCTRN website. Your application will be reviewed by a panel of 30 experts within a day and, if approved, will move to the next stage, which is the shark tank.

In the shark tank [also called phase zero], a team of experts will spend about 150 to 200 person-hours with you evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your test technically, clinically, and commercially. From this careful analysis, a detailed proposal will be presented to a steering committee, then sent to NIH. If we think it’s a great idea, the project will enter what we call phase one, with considerable financial support and the expectation that the company will hit its validation milestones within a month.

Collins: How far have things progressed, given that you just started RADx on April 29?

Tromberg: We have almost 60 projects that have entered or emerged from this shark-tank stage. I’m expecting that we’ll have around 15 projects in the phase one stage this month, and it’s very exciting to see them move there. If they can reach their validation milestones in that first month, they will be eligible to move to phase two. It involves a much larger chunk of money, so companies can move into manufacturing and scale up for distribution. We’re hoping to have between five and 10 companies emerge over time from this innovation funnel. But, by the end of the summer, we’d like to see at least two come out with products that will make a difference.

Collins: Wow, that’s just a few months away. How will you can get there so fast?

Tromberg: Sure. Some companies are further along than others. I can think of one that is quite far along with an established platform concept. This company has lots of expertise and has raised lots of money. We may be able to give them the surge that they need, plus the additional support with regulatory issues, commercialization, and manufacturing, in that short period of time to go to market.

Complementing that work is another of our initiatives called Advanced Technology Platforms (RADx-ATP). It’s designed to scale up existing technologies. For example, I mentioned a one-time-use nucleic acid test. It still needs validation, emergency use authorization, a little bit of manufacturing optimization. But we have other platforms out there that are much closer to commercialization, and RADx-ATP could be very impactful in getting some of those technologies out earlier.

Collins: You mentioned RADx-ATP, and we’ve been talking about RADx-tech, which is your shark tank approach. But there are a couple of other RADx components. Say something about those, please.

Tromberg: Our centerpiece component for doing demonstration projects is called RADx-UP. This is an effort across NIH to provide cutting-edge testing technologies in underserved populations. If I’m allowed to be the interviewer and turn the tables, I might bounce the question back to you. This is where your thinking directly influenced the whole RADx portfolio. So, maybe you can tell us more.

Collins: I can try. It’s very clear that COVID-19 has hit certain populations particularly hard, especially African American and Hispanic communities. And yet, those communities often have the least access to testing, which is sort of upside-down. We want to help identify people who are infected quickly, do the quarantining, and prevent the infection from spreading. That has simply not worked very well in a lot of underserved communities.

With resources from Congress, we made it a very high priority to set up demonstration projects of these advanced technologies in communities that would benefit significantly from them. We’re trying to bring together two really important NIH priorities: technology development and addressing health disparities. I’ve got to say, at this particular moment, when we’re all really focused on the fact that our nation is still riddled with health disparities, health inequities, and even racism, this is a moment where we should be doing everything we can to try to take our scientific capabilities and apply them to finding solutions.

So, we’re all pretty excited about RADx-UP. But there’s one other RADx, and I’ll throw this one back to you. It’s called RADx-rad. What the heck is that, Bruce?

Tromberg: Well, RADx-rad is the home for the technologies that are really far forward and futuristic. These are the technologies that won’t quite be ready for the time pressure of the innovation funnel. But they’re fantastic ideas. They’re projects that may be non-traditional in terms of the application of technology. They have been generated largely by other NIH institutes and centers. They’re important ideas and projects that just need to be supported with a longer time-window of return. We don’t want to lose out on the energy and the ideas and the creativity of those concepts.

Collins: Right now, the focus is on COVID-19 and the need for testing, especially within this calendar year. We hope, by the end of 2020 or the early part of 2021, to have vaccines for COVID-19 ready to go. But, moving forward, there will be other events that will probably make us wish that we had point-of-care diagnostics. So, in the process of doing what you’re doing with all of these components, hopefully we’re also preparing for future challenges.

Bruce, you’re an optimistic guy. At the same time, we’ve got to be realistic. Around September, when schools and colleges are contemplating whether it’s safe to open up, what would we hope that RADx could contribute to make that a better outcome?

Tromberg: That’s a tough question to answer, but I have a lot of confidence in our process. I’m confident that we’re engaging the innovation and entrepreneurial community in such a way that a lot of these ideas will move out and give us better performing tests and more of them. A rough number that I like to think about is the capacity to test roughly 2 percent of the population, around 6 million people per day. I think we’ll hit that target by the end of the year.

I’d like to see testing technologies move away from being based predominantly in laboratories. I’d like to see them more accessible to people as technologies that they can use in their homes. We’re now doing so many things from home. We’re working from home, we’re talking from home, we get our entertainment from home. Home-based testing is really the direction a lot of healthcare is going. We need to have these technologies. I think the level of sophistication and performance that we’re hoping for is possible, and the innovation and entrepreneurial community is working extremely hard to make it happen. No one has really asked us to do anything of this scale before, and I like to compare it to our Super Bowl.

Collins: Well, this is one exciting Super Bowl, that’s for sure! You’ve applied the venture capitalist strategy to RADx of trying to discover what’s out there, while not being afraid to invest in risky endeavors. You’re figuring out how to help promising technologies take their best shot and fail early, if they’re going to fail. And for technologies that are further along, you give them the needed resources to advance to commercialization.

We have great hopes and expectations that RADx will make a real difference. What we’re doing here is not just about cool science, it’s also about saving lives. I want to thank you for your incredible dedication, and your intellectual and engineering contributions to this initiative, which make it one of the most exciting things that NIH is doing right now.

Tromberg: Thank you, Francis.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx)

Social engineering and bioengineering together can thwart the COVID-19 pandemic,” Director’s Corner, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Video: RADx Tech and POCTRN: Diagnosing Disease-Delivering Health (NIBIB/NIH)


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