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mRNA

Structural Biology Points Way to Coronavirus Vaccine

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Spike Protein on Novel Coronavirus
Caption: Atomic-level structure of the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Credit: McLellan Lab, University of Texas at Austin

The recent COVID-19 outbreak of a novel type of coronavirus that began in China has prompted a massive global effort to contain and slow its spread. Despite those efforts, over the last month the virus has begun circulating outside of China in multiple countries and territories.

Cases have now appeared in the United States involving some affected individuals who haven’t traveled recently outside the country. They also have had no known contact with others who have recently arrived from China or other countries where the virus is spreading. The NIH and other U.S. public health agencies stand on high alert and have mobilized needed resources to help not only in its containment, but in the development of life-saving interventions.

On the treatment and prevention front, some encouraging news was recently reported. In record time, an NIH-funded team of researchers has created the first atomic-scale map of a promising protein target for vaccine development [1]. This is the so-called spike protein on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As shown above, a portion of this spiky surface appendage (green) allows the virus to bind a receptor on human cells, causing other portions of the spike to fuse the viral and human cell membranes. This process is needed for the virus to gain entry into cells and infect them.

Preclinical studies in mice of a candidate vaccine based on this spike protein are already underway at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An early-stage phase I clinical trial of this vaccine in people is expected to begin within weeks. But there will be many more steps after that to test safety and efficacy, and then to scale up to produce millions of doses. Even though this timetable will potentially break all previous speed records, a safe and effective vaccine will take at least another year to be ready for widespread deployment.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, including some that cause “the common cold” in healthy humans. In fact, these viruses are found throughout the world and account for up to 30 percent of upper respiratory tract infections in adults.

This outbreak of COVID-19 marks the third time in recent years that a coronavirus has emerged to cause severe disease and death in some people. Earlier coronavirus outbreaks included SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared two years later, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2012 and continues to affect people in small numbers.

Soon after COVID-19 emerged, the new coronavirus, which is closely related to SARS, was recognized as its cause. NIH-funded researchers including Jason McLellan, an alumnus of the VRC and now at The University of Texas at Austin, were ready. They’d been studying coronaviruses in collaboration with NIAID investigators for years, with special attention to the spike proteins.

Just two weeks after Chinese scientists reported the first genome sequence of the virus [2], McLellan and his colleagues designed and produced samples of its spike protein. Importantly, his team had earlier developed a method to lock coronavirus spike proteins into a shape that makes them both easier to analyze structurally via the high-resolution imaging tool cryo-electron microscopy and to use in vaccine development efforts.

After locking the spike protein in the shape it takes before fusing with a human cell to infect it, the researchers reconstructed its atomic-scale 3D structural map in just 12 days. Their results, published in Science, confirm that the spike protein on the virus that causes COVID-19 is quite similar to that of its close relative, the SARS virus. It also appears to bind human cells more tightly than the SARS virus, which may help to explain why the new coronavirus appears to spread more easily from person to person, mainly by respiratory transmission.

McLellan’s team and his NIAID VRC counterparts also plan to use the stabilized spike protein as a probe to isolate naturally produced antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. Such antibodies might form the basis of a treatment for people who’ve been exposed to the virus, such as health care workers.

The NIAID is now working with the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, to use the latest findings to develop a vaccine candidate using messenger RNA (mRNA), molecules that serve as templates for making proteins. The goal is to direct the body to produce a spike protein in such a way to elicit an immune response and the production of antibodies. An early clinical trial of the vaccine in people is expected to begin in the coming weeks. Other vaccine candidates are also in preclinical development.

Meanwhile, the first clinical trial in the U.S. to evaluate an experimental treatment for COVID-19 is already underway at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit [3]. The NIH-sponsored trial will evaluate the safety and efficacy of the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in hospitalized adults diagnosed with COVID-19. The first participant is an American who was repatriated after being quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

As noted, the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the United States is currently low, but the situation is changing rapidly. One of the features that makes the virus so challenging to stay in front of is its long latency period before the characteristic flu-like fever, cough, and shortness of breath manifest. In fact, people infected with the virus may not show any symptoms for up to two weeks, allowing them to pass it on to others in the meantime. You can track the reported cases in the United States on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

As the outbreak continues over the coming weeks and months, you can be certain that NIH and other U.S. public health organizations are working at full speed to understand this virus and to develop better diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.

References:

[1] Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation. Wrapp D, Wang N, Corbett KS, Goldsmith JA, Hsieh CL, Abiona O, Graham BS, McLellan JS. Science. 2020 Feb 19.

[2] A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China. Wu F, Zhao S, Yu B, Chen YM, Wang W, Song ZG, Hu Y, Tao ZW, Tian JH, Pei YY, Yuan ML, Zhang YL, Dai FH, Liu Y, Wang QM, Zheng JJ, Xu L, Holmes EC, Zhang YZ. Nature. 2020 Feb 3.

[3] NIH clinical trial of remdesivir to treat COVID-19 begins. NIH News Release. Feb 25, 2020.

Links:

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

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIAID)

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


A GPS-like System for Single-Cell Analysis

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Courtesy of the Chen and Macosko labs

A few years ago, I highlighted a really cool technology called Drop-seq for simultaneously analyzing the gene expression activity inside thousands of individual cells. Today, one of its creators, Evan Macosko, reports significant progress in developing even better tools for single-cell analysis—with support from an NIH Director’s New Innovator Award.

In a paper in the journal Science, Macosko, Fei Chen, and colleagues at the Broad Institute of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, recently unveiled another exciting creation called Slide-seq [1]. This technology acts as a GPS-like system for mapping the exact location of each of the thousands of individual cells undergoing genomic analysis in a tissue sample.

This 3D video shows the exquisite precision of this new cellular form of GPS, which was used to generate a high-resolution map of the different cell types found in a tiny cube of mouse brain tissue. Specifically, it provides locations of the cell types and gene expression in the hippocampal regions called CA1 (green), CA2/3 (blue), and dentate gyrus (red).

Because using Slide-seq in the lab requires no specialized imaging equipment or skills, it should prove valuable to researchers across many different biomedical disciplines who want to look at cellular relationships or study gene activity in tissues, organs, or even whole organisms.

How does Slide-seq work? Macosko says one of the main innovations is an inexpensive rubber-coated glass slide nicknamed a puck. About 3 millimeters in diameter, pucks are studded with tens of thousands of 10 micron-sized beads, each one decorated with a random snippet of genetic material—an RNA barcode—that serves as its unique identifier of the bead.

The barcodes are sequenced en masse, and the exact location of each barcoded bead is indexed using innovative software developed by a team led by Chen, who is an NIH Director’s Early Independence awardee.

Then, the researchers place a sample of fresh-frozen tissue (typically, 10 micrometers, or 0.00039 inches, thick) on the puck and dissolve the tissue, lysing the cells and releasing their messenger RNA (mRNA). That leaves only the barcoded beads binding the mRNA transcripts expressed by the cells in the tissue—a biological record of the genes that were turned on at the time the sample was frozen.

The barcoded mRNA is then sequenced. The spatial position of each mRNA molecule can be inferred, using the reference index on the puck. This gives researchers a great deal of biological information about the cells in the tissue, often including their cell type and their gene expression pattern. All the data can then be mapped out in ways similar to those seen in this video, which was created using data from 66 pucks.

Slide-seq has been tested on a range of tissues from both mouse and human, replicating results from similar maps created using existing approaches, but also uncovering new biology. For example, in the mouse cerebellum, Slide-seq allowed the researchers to detect bands of variable gene activity across the tissues. This intriguing finding suggests that there may be subpopulations of cells in this part of the brain that have gene activity influenced by their physical locations.

Such results demonstrate the value of combining cell location with genomic information. In fact, Macosko now hopes to use Slide-seq to study the response of brain cells that are located near the buildup of damaged amyloid protein associated with the early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Meanwhile, Chen is interested in pursuing cell lineage studies in a variety of tissues to see how and where changes in the molecular dynamics of tissues can lead to disease.

These are just a few examples of how Slide-seq will add to the investigative power of single-cell analysis in the years ahead. In meantime, the Macosko and Chen labs are working hard to develop even more innovative approaches to this rapidly emerging areas of biomedical research, so who knows what “seq” we will be talking about next?

Reference:

[1] Slide-seq: A scalable technology for measuring genome-wide expression at high spatial resolution. Rodriques SG, Stickels RR, Goeva A, Martin CA, Murray E, Vanderburg CR, Welch J, Chen LM, Chen F, Macosko EZ. Science. 2019 Mar 29;363(6434):1463-1467.

Links:

Single Cell Analysis (NIH)

Macosko Lab (Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Cambridge)

Chen Lab (Broad Institute)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; Common Fund