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mRNA vaccine

CRISPR-Based Anti-Viral Therapy Could One Day Foil the Flu—and COVID-19

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Artistic rendering of CRISPR Cas13a as scissors

CRISPR gene-editing technology has tremendous potential for making non-heritable DNA changes that can treat or even cure a wide range of devastating disorders, from HIV to muscular dystrophy Now, a recent animal study shows that another CRISPR system—targeting viral RNA instead of human DNA—could work as an inhaled anti-viral therapeutic that can be preprogrammed to seek out and foil potentially almost any flu strain and many other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

How can that be? Other CRISPR gene-editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. This new anti-viral CRISPR system also relies on guide RNA. But the guide instead directs a different bacterial enzyme, called Cas13a, to the right spot in the viral genome to bind and cleave viral RNA and stop viruses from replicating in lung cells.

The findings, recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology [1], come from the lab of Philip Santangelo, Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, Atlanta. Earlier studies by other groups had shown the potential of Cas13 for degrading the RNA of influenza viruses in a lab dish [2,3]. In this latest work, Santangelo and colleagues turned to mice and hamsters to see whether this enzyme could actually work in the lung tissue of a living animal.

What’s interesting is how Santangelo’s team did it. Rather than delivering the Cas13a protein itself to the lungs, the CRISPR system works by supplying a messenger RNA (mRNA) with the instructions to make the anti-viral Cas13a protein. This is the same idea as the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines, which temporarily direct your muscle cells to produce viral spike proteins that launch an immune response. In this case, the lung cells translate the Cas13a mRNA to produce the protein. Directed by the guide RNA that was also delivered to the same cells, Cas13a degrades the viral RNA and stops the infection. Because mRNA doesn’t enter the cell’s nucleus, it doesn’t interact with DNA and raise potential concerns about causing unwanted genetic changes.

The researchers designed guide RNAs that were specific to a shared, highly conserved portion of influenza viruses involved in replicating their genome and infecting other cells. They also designed another set directed to key portions of SARS-CoV-2.

Next, they delivered the Cas13a mRNA and guides straight to the lungs of animals using an adapted nebulizer, just like those used to deliver medicines to the lungs of people. In mice with influenza, Cas13a degraded influenza RNA in the lungs and the animals recovered without any apparent side effects. In SARS-CoV-2-infected hamsters, the same approach limited the virus’s ability to replicate in cells as the animals COVID-19-like symptoms improved.

The findings are the first to show that mRNA can be used to express the Cas13a protein in living lung tissue, not just in cells in a dish. It’s also the first to show that the bacterial Cas13a protein is effective at slowing or stopping replication of SARS-CoV-2. The latter raises hope that this CRISPR system could be quickly adapted to fight any future novel coronaviruses that develop the ability to infect humans.

The researchers report that this approach has potential to work against the vast majority—99 percent—of the flu strains that have circulated around the world over the last century. It also should be equally effective against the new and more contagious variants of SARS-CoV-2 now circulating around the globe. While more study is needed to understand the safety of such an anti-viral approach before trying it in humans, what’s clear is basic research advances like this one hold great potential for helping us to fight life-threatening respiratory viruses of the past, present, and future.


[1] Treatment of influenza and SARS-CoV-2 infections via mRNA-encoded Cas13a in rodents. Blanchard EL, Vanover D, Bawage SS, Tiwari PM, Rotolo L, Beyersdorf J, Peck HE, Bruno NC, Hincapie R, Michel F, Murray J, Sadhwani H, Vanderheyden B, Finn MG, Brinton MA, Lafontaine ER, Hogan RJ, Zurla C, Santangelo PJ. Nat Biotechnol. 2021 Feb 3. [Published online ahead of print.]

[2] Programmable inhibition and detection of RNA viruses using Cas13. Freije CA, Myhrvold C, Boehm CK, Lin AE, Welch NL, Carter A, Metsky HC, Luo CY, Abudayyeh OO, Gootenberg JS, Yozwiak NL, Zhang F, Sabeti PC. Mol Cell. 2019 Dec 5;76(5):826-837.e11.

[3] Development of CRISPR as an antiviral strategy to combat SARS-CoV-2 and influenza. Abbott TR, Dhamdhere G, Liu Y, Lin X, Goudy L, Zeng L, Chemparathy A, Chmura S, Heaton NS, Debs R, Pande T, Endy D, La Russa MF, Lewis DB, Qi LS. Cell. 2020 May 14;181(4):865-876.e12.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Influenza (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Santangelo Lab (Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta)

Israeli Study Offers First Real-World Glimpse of COVID-19 Vaccines in Action

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COVID-19 Update: Large scale clinical trial
Credit: Getty Images/Hispanolistic

There are many reasons to be excited about the three COVID-19 vaccines that are now getting into arms across the United States. At the top of the list is their extremely high level of safety and protection against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Of course, those data come from clinical trials that were rigorously conducted under optimal research conditions. One might wonder how well those impressive clinical trial results will translate to the real world.

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine [1] offers an early answer for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. The Pfizer product is an mRNA vaccine that was found in a large clinical trial to be up to 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19, leading to its Emergency Use Authorization last December.

The new data, which come from Israel, are really encouraging. Based on a detailed analysis of nearly 600,000 people vaccinated in that nation, a research team led by Ran Balicer, The Clalit Research Institute, Tel Aviv, found that the risk of symptomatic COVID-19 infection dropped by 94 percent a week after individuals had received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. That’s essentially the same very high level of protection that was seen in the data gathered in the earlier U.S. clinical trial.

The study also found that just a single shot of the two-dose vaccine led to a 57 percent drop in the incidence of symptomatic COVID-19 infections and a 62 percent decline in the risk of severe illness after two to three weeks. Note, however, that the protection clearly got better after folks received the second dose. While it’s too soon to say how many lives were saved in Israel thanks to full vaccination, the early data not surprisingly suggest a substantial reduction in mortality.

Israel, which is about as large as New Jersey with a population of around 9 million, currently has the world’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rate. In addition to its relatively small size, Israel also has a national health system and one of the world’s largest integrated health record databases, making it a natural choice to see how well one of the new vaccines was working in the real world.

The study took place from December 20, 2020, the start of Israel’s first vaccination drive, through February 1, 2021. This also coincided with Israel’s third and largest wave of COVID-19 infections and illness. During this same period, the B.1.1.7 variant, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, gradually became Israel’s dominant strain. That’s notable because the U.K. variant spreads from person-to-person more readily and may be associated with an increased risk of death compared with other variants [2].

Balicer and his colleagues reviewed data on 596,618 fully vaccinated individuals, ages 16 and older. A little less than one third—about 170,000—of the people studied were over age 60. To see how well the vaccine worked, the researchers carefully matched each of the vaccinated individuals in the study to an unvaccinated person with similar demographics as well as risks of infection, severe illness, and other important health attributes.

The results showed that the vaccine works remarkably well. In fact, the researchers determined that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is similarly effective—94 percent to 96 percent—across adults in different age groups. It also appears that the vaccine works about equally well for individuals age 70 and older as it does for younger people.

So far, more than 92 million total vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S. With the Janssen COVID-19 vaccine (also called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine) now coming online, that number will rise even faster. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity just yet, these latest findings should come as added encouragement to roll up your sleeve for any one of the authorized vaccines as soon as your invitation arrives.


[1] BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine in a Nationwide Mass Vaccination Setting. Dagan N, Barda N, Kepten E, Miron O, Perchik S, Katz MA, Hernán MA, Lipsitch M, Reis B, Balicer RD. N Engl J Med. 2021 Feb 24.

[2] Emerging SARS-CoV-2 Variants. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Clalit Research Institute (Tel Aviv, Israel)

Ran Balicer (Clalit Research Institute)

Using R2D2 to Understand RNA Folding

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If you love learning more about biology at a fundamental level, I have a great video for you! It simulates the 3D folding of RNA. RNA is a single stranded molecule, but it is still capable of forming internal loops that can be stabilized by base pairing, just like its famously double-stranded parent, DNA. Understanding more about RNA folding may be valuable in many different areas of biomedical research, including developing ways to help people with RNA-related diseases, such as certain cancers and neuromuscular disorders, and designing better mRNA vaccines against infectious disease threats (like COVID-19).

Because RNA folding starts even while an RNA is still being made in the cell, the process has proven hugely challenging to follow closely. An innovative solution, shown in this video, comes from the labs of NIH grantees Julius Lucks, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, and Alan Chen, State University of New York at Albany. The team, led by graduate student Angela Yu and including several diehard Star Wars fans, realized that to visualize RNA folding they needed a technology platform that, like a Star Wars droid, is able to “see” things that others can’t. So, they created R2D2, which is short for Reconstructing RNA Dynamics from Data.

What’s so groundbreaking about the R2D2 approach, which was published recently in Molecular Cell, is that it combines experimental data on RNA folding at the nucleotide level with predictive algorithms at the atomic level to simulate RNA folding in ultra-slow motion [1]. While other computer simulations have been available for decades, they have lacked much-needed experimental data of this complex folding process to confirm their mathematical modeling.

As a gene is transcribed into RNA one building block, or nucleotide, at a time, the elongating RNA strand folds immediately before the whole molecule is fully assembled. But such folding can create a problem: the new strand can tie itself up into a knot-like structure that’s incompatible with the shape it needs to function in a cell.

To slip this knot, the cell has evolved immediate corrective pathways, or countermoves. In this R2D2 video, you can see one countermove called a toehold-mediated strand displacement. In this example, the maneuver is performed by an ancient molecule called a single recognition particle (SRP) RNA. Though SRP RNAs are found in all forms of life, this one comes from the bacterium Escherichia coli and is made up of 114 nucleotides.

The colors in this video highlight different domains of the RNA molecule, all at different stages in the folding process. Some (orange, turquoise) have already folded properly, while another domain (dark purple) is temporarily knotted. For this knotted domain to slip its knot, about 5 seconds into the video, another newly forming region (fuchsia) wiggles down to gain a “toehold.” About 9 seconds in, the temporarily knotted domain untangles and unwinds, and, finally, at about 23 seconds, the strand starts to get reconfigured into the shape it needs to do its job in the cell.

Why would evolution favor such a seemingly inefficient folding process? Well, it might not be inefficient as it first appears. In fact, as Chen noted, some nanotechnologists previously invented toehold displacement as a design principle for generating synthetic DNA and RNA circuits. Little did they know that nature may have scooped them many millennia ago!


[1] Computationally reconstructing cotranscriptional RNA folding from experimental data reveals rearrangement of non-naïve folding intermediates. Yu AM, Gasper PM Cheng L, Chen AA, Lucks JB, et. al. Molecular Cell 8, 1-14. 18 February 2021.


Ribonucleic Acid (RNA) (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Chen Lab (State University of New York at Albany)

Lucks Laboratory (Northwestern University, Evanston IL)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences; Common Fund

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

Getting My COVID-19 Booster Shot

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Man receiving vaccine shot
I was grateful to receive my second, or “booster,” shot of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the NIH Clinical Center on Jan. 19, 2021. As NIH Director, I’ve closely followed the development of this and other FDA-authorized vaccines, which have been rigorously tested for safety and efficacy. To protect both yourself and others, I encourage you to get vaccinated when the opportunity arises. Credit: NIH

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