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An Evolutionary Guide to New Immunotherapies

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Credit: Dave Titensor, University of Utah, Salt Lake City

One of the best ways to learn how something works is to understand how it’s built. How it came to be. That’s true not only if you play a guitar or repair motorcycle engines, but also if you study the biological systems that make life possible. Evolutionary studies, comparing the development of these systems across animals and organisms, are now leading to many unexpected biological discoveries and promising possibilities for preventing and treating human disease.

While there are many evolutionary questions to ask, Brenda Bass, a distinguished biochemist at University of Utah, Salt Lake City, has set her sights on a particularly profound one: How has innate immunity evolved through the millennia in all living things, including humans? Innate immunity is the immune system’s frontline defense, the first responders that take control of an emerging infectious situation and, if needed, signal for backup.

Exploring the millennia for clues about innate immunity takes a special team, and Bass has assembled a talented one. It includes her Utah colleague Nels Elde, a geneticist; immunologist Dan Stetson, University of Washington, Seattle; and biochemist Jane Jackman, Ohio State University, Columbus.

With a 2020 NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award, this hard-working team will embark on studies looking back at 450 million years of evolution: the point in time when animals diverged to develop very distinct methods of innate immune defense [1]. The team members hope to uncover new possibilities encoded in the innate immune system, especially those that might be latent but still workable. The researchers will then explore whether their finds can be repurposed not only to boost our body’s natural response to external threats but also to internal threats like cancer.

Bass brings a unique perspective to the project. As a postdoc in the 1980s, she stumbled upon a whole new class of enzymes, called ADARs, that edit RNA [2]. Their function was mysterious at the time. It turns out that ADARs specifically edit a molecule called double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When viruses infect cells in animals, including humans, they make dsRNA, which the innate immune system detects as a sign that a cell has been invaded.

It also turns out that animal cells make their own dsRNA. Over the years, Bass and her lab have identified thousands of dsRNAs made in animal cells—in fact, a significant number of human genes produce dsRNA [3]. Also interesting, ADARs are crucial to marking our own dsRNA as “self” to avoid triggering an immune response when we don’t need it [4].

Bass and others have found that evolution has produced dramatic differences in the biochemical pathways powering the innate immune system. In vertebrate animals, dsRNA leads to release of the immune chemical interferon, a signaling pathway that invertebrate species don’t have. Instead, in response to detecting dsRNA from an invader, and repelling it, worms and other invertebrates trigger a gene-silencing pathway known as RNA interference, or RNAi.

With the new funding, Bass and team plan to mix and match immune strategies from simple and advanced species, across evolutionary time, to craft an entirely new set of immune tools to fight disease. The team will also build new types of targeted immunotherapies based on the principles of innate immunity. Current immunotherapies, which harness a person’s own immune system to fight disease, target infections, autoimmune disorders, and cancer. But they work through our second-line adaptive immune response, which is a biological system unique to vertebrates.

Bass and her team will first hunt for more molecules like ADARs: innate immune checkpoints, as they refer to them. The name comes from a functional resemblance to the better-known adaptive immune checkpoints PD-1 and CTLA-4, which sparked a revolution in cancer immunotherapy. The team will run several screens that sort molecules successful at activating innate immune responses—both in invertebrates and in mammals—hoping to identify a range of durable new immune switches that evolution skipped over but that might be repurposed today.

Another intriguing direction for this research stems from the observation that decreasing normal levels of ADARs in tumors kickstarts innate immune responses that kill cancer cells [5]. Along these lines, the scientists plan to test newly identified immune switches to look for novel ways to fight cancer where existing approaches have not worked.

Evolution is the founding principle for all of biology—organisms learn from what works to improve their ability to survive. In this case, research to re-examine such lessons and apply them for new uses may help transform bygone evolution into a therapeutic revolution!


[1] Evolution of adaptive immunity from transposable elements combined with innate immune systems. Koonin EV, Krupovic M. Nat Rev Genet. 2015 Mar;16(3):184-192.

[2] A developmentally regulated activity that unwinds RNA duplexes. Bass BL, Weintraub H. Cell. 1987 Feb 27;48(4):607-613.

[3] Mapping the dsRNA World. Reich DP, Bass BL. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Biol. 2019 Mar 1;11(3):a035352.

[4] To protect and modify double-stranded RNA – the critical roles of ADARs in development, immunity and oncogenesis. Erdmann EA, Mahapatra A, Mukherjee P, Yang B, Hundley HA. Crit Rev Biochem Mol Biol. 2021 Feb;56(1):54-87.

[5] Loss of ADAR1 in tumours overcomes resistance to immune checkpoint blockade. Ishizuka JJ, Manguso RT, Cheruiyot CK, Bi K, Panda A, et al. Nature. 2019 Jan;565(7737):43-48.


Bass Lab (University of Utah, Salt Lake City)

Elde Lab (University of Utah)

Jackman Lab (Ohio State University, Columbus)

Stetson Lab (University of Washington, Seattle)

Bass/Elde/Jackman/Stetson Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Transformative Research Award Program (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Cancer Institute

Is One Vaccine Dose Enough After COVID-19 Infection?

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COVID-19 vaccination record card
Credit: iStock/Bill Oxford

For the millions of Americans now eligible to receive the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, it’s recommended that everyone get two shots. The first dose of these mRNA vaccines trains the immune system to recognize and attack the spike protein on the surface of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The second dose, administered a few weeks later, boosts antibody levels to afford even better protection. People who’ve recovered from COVID-19 also should definitely get vaccinated to maximize protection against possible re-infection. But, because they already have some natural immunity, would just one shot do the trick? Or do they still need two?

A small, NIH-supported study, published as a pre-print on medRxiv, offers some early data on this important question [1]. The findings show that immune response to the first vaccine dose in a person who’s already had COVID-19 is equal to, or in some cases better, than the response to the second dose in a person who hasn’t had COVID-19. While much more research is needed—and I am definitely not suggesting a change in the current recommendations right now—the results raise the possibility that one dose might be enough for someone who’s been infected with SARS-CoV-2 and already generated antibodies against the virus.

These findings come from a research team led by Florian Krammer and Viviana Simon, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. The researchers reasoned that for folks whose bodies have already produced antibodies following a COVID-19 infection, the first shot might act similarly to the second one in someone who hadn’t had the virus before. In fact, there was some anecdotal evidence suggesting that previously infected people were experiencing stronger evidence of an active immune response (sore arm, fever, chills, fatigue) than never-infected individuals after getting their first shots.

What did the antibodies show? To find out, the researchers enlisted the help of 109 people who’d received their first dose of mRNA vaccines made by either Pfizer or Moderna. They found that those who’d never been infected by SARS-CoV-2 developed antibodies at low levels within 9 to 12 days of receiving their first dose of vaccine.

But in 41 people who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies prior to getting the first shot, the immune response looked strikingly different. They generated high levels of antibodies within just a few days of getting the vaccine. Compared across different time intervals, previously infected people had immune responses 10 to 20 times that observed in uninfected people. Following their second vaccine dose, it was roughly the same story. Antibody levels in those with a prior infection were about 10 times greater than the others.

Both vaccines were generally well tolerated. But, because their immune systems were already in high gear, people who were previously infected tended to have more symptoms following their first shot, such as pain and swelling at the injection site. They also were more likely to report other less common symptoms, including fatigue, fever, chills, headache, muscle aches, and joint pain.

Though sometimes it may not seem like it, COVID-19 and the mRNA vaccines are still relatively new. Researchers haven’t yet been able to study how long these vaccines confer immunity to the disease, which has now claimed the lives of more than 500,000 Americans. But these findings do suggest that a single dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines can produce a rapid and strong immune response in people who’ve already recovered from COVID-19.

If other studies support these results, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) might decide to consider whether one dose is enough for people who’ve had a prior COVID-19 infection. Such a policy is already under consideration in France and, if implemented, would help to extend vaccine supply and get more people vaccinated sooner. But any serious consideration of this option will require more data. It will also be up to the expert advisors at FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to decide.

For now, the most important thing all of us can all do to get this terrible pandemic under control is to follow the 3 W’s—wear our masks, wash our hands, watch our distance from others—and roll up our sleeves for the vaccine as soon as it’s available to us.


[1] Robust spike antibody responses and increased reactogenicity in seropositive individuals after a single dose of SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccine. Krammer F et al. medRxiv. 2021 Feb 1.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Krammer Lab (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY)

Simon Lab (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

Two Studies Show COVID-19 Antibodies Persist for Months

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Antibodies against SARS-CoV-2
Caption: Artistic rendering of SARS-CoV-2 virus (orange) covered with antibodies (white), generated by an immune B cell (gray) at the bottom left. Credit: iStock/selvanegra

More than 8 million people in the United States have now tested positive for COVID-19. For those who’ve recovered, many wonder if fending off SARS-CoV-2—the coronavirus that causes COVID-19—one time means their immune systems will protect them from reinfection. And, if so, how long will this “acquired immunity” last?

The early data brought hope that acquired immunity was possible. But some subsequent studies have suggested that immune protection might be short-lived. Though more research is needed, the results of two recent studies, published in the journal Science Immunology, support the early data and provide greater insight into the nature of the human immune response to this coronavirus [1,2].

The new findings show that people who survive a COVID-19 infection continue to produce protective antibodies against key parts of the virus for at least three to four months after developing their first symptoms. In contrast, some other antibody types decline more quickly. The findings offer hope that people infected with the virus will have some lasting antibody protection against re-infection, though for how long still remains to be determined.

In one of the two studies, partly funded by NIH, researchers led by Richelle Charles, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, sought a more detailed understanding of antibody responses following infection with SARS-CoV-2. To get a closer look, they enrolled 343 patients, most of whom had severe COVID-19 requiring hospitalization. They examined their antibody responses for up to 122 days after symptoms developed and compared them to antibodies in more than 1,500 blood samples collected before the pandemic began.

The researchers characterized the development of three types of antibodies in the blood samples. The first type was immunoglobulin G (IgG), which has the potential to confer sustained immunity. The second type was immunoglobulin A (IgA), which protects against infection on the body’s mucosal surfaces, such as those found in the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, and are found in high levels in tears, mucus, and other bodily secretions. The third type is immunoglobulin M (IgM), which the body produces first when fighting an infection.

They found that all three types were present by about 12 days after infection. IgA and IgM antibodies were short-lived against the spike protein that crowns SARS-CoV-2, vanishing within about two months.

The good news is that the longer-lasting IgG antibodies persisted in these same patients for up to four months, which is as long as the researchers were able to look. Levels of those IgG antibodies also served as an indicator for the presence of protective antibodies capable of neutralizing SARS-CoV-2 in the lab. Even better, that ability didn’t decline in the 75 days after the onset of symptoms. While longer-term study is needed, the findings lend support to evidence that protective antibody responses against the novel virus do persist.

The other study came to very similar conclusions. The team, led by Jennifer Gommerman and Anne-Claude Gingras, University of Toronto, Canada, profiled the same three types of antibody responses against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, They created the profiles using both blood and saliva taken from 439 people, not all of whom required hospitalization, who had developed COVID-19 symptoms from 3 to 115 days prior. The team then compared antibody profiles of the COVID-19 patients to those of people negative for COVID-19.

The researchers found that the antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 were readily detected in blood and saliva. IgG levels peaked about two weeks to one month after infection, and then remained stable for more than three months. Similar to the Boston team, the Canadian group saw IgA and IgM antibody levels drop rapidly.

The findings suggest that antibody tests can serve as an important tool for tracking the spread of SARS-CoV-2 through our communities. Unlike tests for the virus itself, antibody tests provide a means to detect infections that occurred sometime in the past, including those that may have been asymptomatic. The findings from the Canadian team further suggest that tests of IgG antibodies in saliva may be a convenient way to track a person’s acquired immunity to COVID-19.

Because IgA and IgM antibodies decline more quickly, testing for these different antibody types also could help to distinguish between an infection within the last two months and one that more likely occurred even earlier. Such details are important for filling in gaps in our understanding COVID-19 infections and tracking their spread in our communities.

Still, there are rare reports of individuals who survived one bout with COVID-19 and were infected with a different SARS-CoV-2 strain a few weeks later [3]. The infrequency of such reports, however, suggests that acquired immunity after SARS-CoV-2 infection is generally protective.

There remain many open questions, and answering them will require conducting larger studies with greater diversity of COVID-19 survivors. So, I’m pleased to note that the NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently launched the NCI Serological Sciences Network for COVID19 (SeroNet), now the nation’s largest coordinated effort to characterize the immune response to COVID-19 [4].

The network was established using funds from an emergency Congressional appropriation of more than $300 million to develop, validate, improve, and implement antibody testing for COVID-19 and related technologies. With help from this network and ongoing research around the world, a clearer picture will emerge of acquired immunity that will help to control future outbreaks of COVID-19.


[1] Persistence and decay of human antibody responses to the receptor binding domain of SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in COVID-19 patients. Iyer AS, Jones FK, Nodoushani A, Ryan ET, Harris JB, Charles RC, et al. Sci Immunol. 2020 Oct 8;5(52):eabe0367.

[2] Persistence of serum and saliva antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 spike antigens in COVID-19 patients. Isho B, Abe KT, Zuo M, Durocher Y, McGeer AJ, Gommerman JL, Gingras AC, et al. Sci Immunol. 2020 Oct 8;5(52):eabe5511.

[3] What reinfections mean for COVID-19. Iwasaki A. Lancet Infect Dis, 2020 October 12. [Epub ahead of print]

[4] NIH to launch the Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19, announce grant and contract awardees. National Institutes of Health. 2020 October 8.


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Charles Lab (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston)

Gingras Lab (University of Toronto, Canada)

Jennifer Gommerman (University of Toronto, Canada)

NCI Serological Sciences Network for COVID-19 (SeroNet) (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute

Immune T Cells May Offer Lasting Protection Against COVID-19

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Healthy human T Cell
Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (T cell) from a healthy donor’s immune system. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH

Much of the study on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has focused on the production of antibodies. But, in fact, immune cells known as memory T cells also play an important role in the ability of our immune systems to protect us against many viral infections, including—it now appears—COVID-19.

An intriguing new study of these memory T cells suggests they might protect some people newly infected with SARS-CoV-2 by remembering past encounters with other human coronaviruses. This might potentially explain why some people seem to fend off the virus and may be less susceptible to becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

The findings, reported in the journal Nature, come from the lab of Antonio Bertoletti at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore [1]. Bertoletti is an expert in viral infections, particularly hepatitis B. But, like so many researchers around the world, his team has shifted their focus recently to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bertoletti’s team recognized that many factors could help to explain how a single virus can cause respiratory, circulatory, and other symptoms that vary widely in their nature and severity—as we’ve witnessed in this pandemic. One of those potential factors is prior immunity to other, closely related viruses.

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a large family of coronaviruses, six of which were previously known to infect humans. Four of them are responsible for the common cold. The other two are more dangerous: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

All six previously known coronaviruses spark production of both antibodies and memory T cells. In addition, studies of immunity to SARS-CoV-1 have shown that T cells stick around for many years longer than acquired antibodies. So, Bertoletti’s team set out to gain a better understanding of T cell immunity against the novel coronavirus.

The researchers gathered blood samples from 36 people who’d recently recovered from mild to severe COVID-19. They focused their attention on T cells (including CD4 helper and CD8 cytotoxic, both of which can function as memory T cells). They identified T cells that respond to the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid, which is a structural protein inside the virus. They also detected T cell responses to two non-structural proteins that SARS-CoV-2 needs to make additional copies of its genome and spread. The team found that all those recently recovered from COVID-19 produced T cells that recognize multiple parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Next, they looked at blood samples from 23 people who’d survived SARS. Their studies showed that those individuals still had lasting memory T cells today, 17 years after the outbreak. Those memory T cells, acquired in response to SARS-CoV-1, also recognized parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Finally, Bertoletti’s team looked for such T cells in blood samples from 37 healthy individuals with no history of either COVID-19 or SARS. To their surprise, more than half had T cells that recognize one or more of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins under study here. It’s still not clear if this acquired immunity stems from previous infection with coronaviruses that cause the common cold or perhaps from exposure to other as-yet unknown coronaviruses.

What’s clear from this study is our past experiences with coronavirus infections may have something important to tell us about COVID-19. Bertoletti’s team and others are pursuing this intriguing lead to see where it will lead—not only in explaining our varied responses to the virus, but also in designing new treatments and optimized vaccines.


[1] SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell immunity in cases of COVID-19 and SARS, and uninfected controls. Le Bert N, Tan AT, Kunasegaran K, et al. Nature. 2020 July 15. [published online ahead of print]


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Overview of the Immune System (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID)

Bertoletti Lab (Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore)

Finding Antibodies that Neutralize SARS-CoV-2

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Neutralizing Antibodies
Caption: Model of three neutralizing antibodies (blue, purple and orange) bound to the spike protein, which allows SARS-CoV-2 attach to our cells. Credit: Christopher Barnes and Pamela Bjorkman, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.

It’s now clear that nearly everyone who recovers from coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) produces antibodies that specifically target SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes the infection. Yet many critical questions remain. A major one is: just how well do those particular antibodies neutralize the virus to fight off the infection and help someone recover from COVID-19? Fortunately, most people get better—but should the typical antibody response take the credit?

A new NIH-funded study of nearly 150 people who recovered from COVID-19 offers some essential insight. The study, published in the journal Nature, shows that most people, in fact, do produce antibodies that can effectively neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But there is a catch: 99 percent of the study’s participants didn’t make enough neutralizing antibodies to mount an ideal immune response.

The good news is that when researchers looked at individuals who mounted a strong immune response, they were able to identify three antibodies (depicted above) that were extremely effective at neutralizing SARS-CoV-2. By mass-producing copies of these antibodies as so-called monoclonal antibodies, the researchers can now better evaluate their potential as treatments to help people who don’t make strongly neutralizing antibodies, or not enough of them.

These findings come from a team led by Michel Nussenzweig, Paul Bieniasz, and Charles Rice at The Rockefeller University, New York, and Pamela Bjorkman at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. In the Nussenzweig lab, the team has spent years searching for broadly neutralizing antibodies against the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its great urgency, Nussenzweig and team shifted their focus recently to look for promising antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.

Antibodies are blood proteins that the immune system makes to neutralize viruses or other foreign invaders. The immune system doesn’t make just one antibody to thwart an invader; it makes a whole family of antibodies. But not all antibodies in that family are created equal. They can vary widely in where they latch onto a virus like SARS-CoV-2, and that determines how effective each will be at blocking it from infecting human cells. That’s one reason why people respond differently to infections such as COVID-19.

In early April, Nussenzweig’s team began analyzing samples from volunteer survivors who visited The Rockefeller Hospital to donate plasma, which contains the antibodies. The volunteers had all recovered from mild-to-severe cases of COVID-19, showing their first signs of illness about 40 days prior to their first plasma collection.

Not surprisingly, all volunteers had produced antibodies in response to the virus. To test the strength of the antibodies, the researchers used a special assay that shows how effective each one is at blocking the virus from infecting human cells in lab dishes.

Overall, most of the plasma samples—118 of 149—showed at best poor to modest neutralizing activity. In about one-third of individuals, their plasma samples had below detectable levels of neutralizing activity. It’s possible those individuals just resolved the infection quickly, before more potent antibodies were produced.

More intriguing to the researchers were the results from two individuals that showed an unusually strong ability to neutralize SARS-CoV-2. Among these two “elite responders” and four other individuals, the researchers identified 40 different antibodies that could neutralize SARS-CoV-2. But again, not all antibodies are created equal. Three neutralized the virus even when present at extremely low levels, and they now will be studied further as possible monoclonal antibodies.

The team determined that those strongly neutralizing antibodies bind three distinct sites on the receptor-binding domain (RBD) of the coronavirus spike protein. This portion of the virus is important because it allows SARS-CoV-2 to bind and infect human cells. Importantly, when the researchers looked more closely at plasma samples with poor neutralizing ability, they found that they also contained those RBD-binding antibodies, just not in very large numbers.

These findings help not only to understand the immune response to COVID-19, they are also critical for vaccine design, revealing what a strong neutralizing antibody for SARS-CoV-2 should look like to help the immune system win. If a candidate vaccine can generate such strongly neutralizing antibodies, researchers will know that they are on the right track.

While this research showed that there’s a lot of variability in immune responses to SARS-CoV-2, it appears that most of us are inherently capable of producing antibodies to neutralize this devastating virus. That brings more reason for hope that the many vaccines now under study to elicit such neutralizing antibodies in sufficient numbers may afford us with much-needed immune protection.


[1] Convergent antibody responses to SARS-CoV-2 in convalescent individuals. Robbiani DF, Gaebler C, Muecksch F, et al. Nature. 2020 Jun 18. [Published online ahead of print].


Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV)

Nussenzweig Lab (The Rockefeller University, New York)

Bjorkman Lab (California Institute of Technology, Pasadena)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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