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Gratitude for Biomedical Progress and All Those Who Make It Possible

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It’s good for our health to eat right, exercise, and get plenty of rest. Still, many other things contribute to our sense of wellbeing, including making it a point to practice gratitude whenever we can. With this in mind, I can’t think of a better time than Thanksgiving to recognize just a few of the many reasons that I—and everyone who believes in the mission of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—have to be grateful.

First, I’m thankful for the many enormously talented people with whom I’ve worked over the past year while performing the duties of the NIH Director. Particular thanks go to those on my immediate team within the Office of the Director. I could not have taken on this challenge without their dedicated support.

I’m also gratified by the continued enthusiasm and support for biomedical research from so many different corners of our society. This includes the many thousands of unsung, patient partners who put their time, effort, and, in some cases, even their lives on the line for the sake of medical progress and promising treatment advances. Without them, clinical research—including the most pivotal clinical trials—simply wouldn’t be possible.

I am most appreciative of the continuing efforts at NIH and across the broader biomedical community to further enable diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within the biomedical research workforce and in all the work that NIH supports.

High on my Thanksgiving list is the widespread availability of COVID-19 bivalent booster shots. These boosters not only guard against older strains of the coronavirus, but also broaden immunity to the newer Omicron variant and its many subvariants. I’m also tremendously grateful for everyone who has—or soon will—get boosted to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your communities as the winter months fast approach.

Another big “thank you” goes out to all the researchers studying Long COVID, the complex and potentially debilitating constellation of symptoms that strikes some people after recovery from COVID-19. I look forward to more answers as this work continues and we certainly couldn’t do it without our patient partners.

I’d also like to express my appreciation for the NIH’s institute and center directors who’ve contributed to the NIH Director’s Blog to showcase NIH’s broad and diverse portfolio of promising research.

Finally, a special thanks to all of you who read this blog. As you gather with family and friends to celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday, I hope the time you spend here gives you a few more reasons to feel grateful and appreciate the importance of NIH in turning scientific discovery into better health for all.


Study Shows Benefits of COVID-19 Vaccines and Boosters

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Diverse group of smiling adults with band-aids on their shoulders
Credit: Shutterstock/Semanche

As colder temperatures settle in and people spend more time gathered indoors, cases of COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses almost certainly will rise. That’s why, along with scheduling your annual flu shot, it’s now recommended that those age 5 and up should get an updated COVID-19 booster shot [1,2]. Not only will these new boosters guard against the original strain of the coronavirus that started the pandemic, they will heighten your immunity to the Omicron variant and several of the subvariants that continue to circulate in the U.S. with devastating effects.

At last count, about 14.8 million people in the U.S.—including me—have rolled up their sleeves to receive an updated booster shot [3]. It’s a good start, but it also means that most Americans aren’t fully up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines. If you or your loved ones are among them, a new study may provide some needed encouragement to make an appointment at a nearby pharmacy or clinic to get boosted [4].

A team of NIH-supported researchers found a remarkably low incidence of severe COVID-19 illness last fall, winter, and spring among more than 1.6 million veterans who’d been vaccinated and boosted. Severe illness was also quite low in individuals without immune-compromising conditions.

These latest findings, published in the journal JAMA, come from a research group led by Dan Kelly, University of California, San Francisco. He and his team conducted their study drawing on existing health data from the Veterans Health Administration (VA) within a time window of July 2021 and May 2022.

They identified 1.6 million people who’d had a primary-care visit within the last two years and were fully vaccinated for COVID-19, which included receiving a booster shot. Almost three-quarters of those identified were 65 and older. Nearly all were male, and more than 70 percent had another pre-existing health condition that put them at greater risk of becoming seriously ill from a COVID-19 infection.

Over a 24-week follow-up period for each fully vaccinated individual, 125 per 10,000 people had a breakthrough infection. That’s about 1 percent. Just 8.9 in 10,000 fully vaccinated people—less than 0.1 percent—died or were hospitalized from COVID-19 pneumonia. Drilling down deeper into the data:

• Individuals with an immune-compromising condition had a very low rate of hospitalization or death. In this group, 39.6 per 10,000 people had a serious breakthrough infection. That translates to 0.3 percent.

• For people with other preexisting health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease, hospitalization or death totaled 0.07 percent, or 6.7 per 10,000 people.

• For otherwise healthy adults aged 65 and older, the incidence of hospitalization or death was 1.9 per 10,000 people, or 0.02 percent.

• For boosted participants 65 or younger with no high-risk conditions, hospitalization or death came to less than 1 per 10,000 people. That comes to less than 0.01 percent.

It’s worth noting that these results reflect a period when the Delta and Omicron variants were circulating, and available boosters still were based solely on the original variant. Heading into this winter, the hope is that the updated “bivalent” boosters from Pfizer and Moderna will offer even broader protection as this terrible virus continues to evolve.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend that everyone stay up to date with their COVID-19 vaccines. That means all adults and kids 5 and older are encouraged to get boosted if it has been at least two months since their last COVID-19 vaccine dose. For older people and those with other health conditions, it’s even more important given their elevated risk for severe illness.

What if you’ve had a COVID-19 infection recently? Getting vaccinated or boosted a few months after you’ve had a COVID-19 infection will offer you even better protection in the future.

So, if you are among the millions of Americans who’ve been vaccinated for COVID-19 but are now due for a booster, don’t delay. Get yourself boosted to protect your own health and the health of your loved ones as the holidays approach.

References:

[1] CDC recommends the first updated COVID-19 booster. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. September 1, 2022.

[2] CDC expands updated COVID-19 vaccines to include children ages 5 through 11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, October 12, 2022.

[3] COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[4] Incidence of severe COVID-19 illness following vaccination and booster with BNT162b2, mRNA-1273, and Ad26.COV2.S vaccines. Kelly JD, Leonard S, Hoggatt KJ, Boscardin WJ, Lum EN, Moss-Vazquez TA, Andino R, Wong JK, Byers A, Bravata DM, Tien PC, Keyhani S. JAMA. 2022 Oct 11;328(14):1427-1437.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Dan Kelly (University of California, San Francisco)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


RADx Initiative: Bioengineering for COVID-19 at Unprecedented Speed and Scale

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Credit: Africa Studio/Shutterstock; Quidel Corporation, San Diego, CA

As COVID-19 rapidly expanded throughout the world in April 2020, many in the biomedical technology community voiced significant concerns about the lack of available diagnostic tests. At that time, testing for SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was conducted exclusively in clinical laboratories by order of a health-care provider. “Over the counter” (OTC) tests did not exist, and low complexity point of care (POC) platforms were rare. Fewer than 8 million tests were performed in the U.S. that month, and it was clear that we needed a radical transformation to make tests faster and more accessible.

By February 2022, driven by the Omicron variant surge, U.S. capacity had increased to a new record of more than 1.2 billion tests in a single month. Remarkably, the overwhelming majority of these—more than 85 percent—were “rapid tests” conducted in home and POC settings.

The story behind this practice-changing, “test-at-home” transformation is deeply rooted in technologic and manufacturing innovation. The NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), working collaboratively with multiple partners across NIH, government, academia, and the private sector, has been privileged to play a leading role in this effort via the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx®) initiative. On this two-year anniversary of RADx, we take a brief look back at its formation, impact, and potential for future growth.

On April 24, 2020, Congress recognized that testing was an urgent national need and appropriated $1.5 billion to NIH via an emergency supplement [1]. The goal was to substantially increase the number, type, and availability of diagnostic tests in only five to six months. Since the “normal” commercialization cycle for this type of diagnostic technology is typically more than five years, we needed an entirely new approach . . . fast.

The RADx initiative was launched just five days after that challenging Congressional directive [2]. Four NIH RADx programs were eventually created to support technology development and delivery, with the goal of matching test performance with community needs [3].The first two programs, RADx Tech and RADx Advanced Technology Platforms (ATP), were developed by NIBIB and focused on innovation for rapidly creating, scaling up, and deploying new technologies.

RADx Tech is built around NIBIB’s Point of Care Technologies Research Network (POCTRN) and includes core activities for technology review, test validation, clinical studies, regulatory authorization, and test deployment. Overall, the RADx Tech network includes approximately 900 participants from government, academia, and the private sector with unique capabilities and resources designed to decrease inherent risk and guide technologies from design and development to fully disseminated commercial products.

At the core of RADx Tech operations is the “innovation funnel” rapid review process, popularized as a shark tank [4]. A total of 824 complete applications were submitted during two open calls in a four-month period, beginning April 2020 and during a one-month period in June 2021. Forty-seven projects received phase 1 funding to validate and lower the inherent risk of developing these technologies. Meanwhile, 50 companies received phase 2 contracts to support FDA authorization studies and manufacturing expansion [5]

Beyond test development, RADx Tech has evolved to become a key contributor to the U.S. COVID-19 response. The RADx Independent Test Assessment Program (ITAP) was launched in October 2021 to accelerate regulatory authorization of new tests as a joint effort with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [6]. The ITAP acquires analytical and clinical performance data and works closely with FDA and manufacturers to shave weeks to months off the time it normally takes to receive Emergency Use Authorization (EUA).

The RADx Tech program also created a Variant Task Force to monitor the performance of tests against each new coronavirus “variant of concern” that emerges. This helps to ensure that marketed tests continue to remain effective. Other innovative RADx Tech projects include Say Yes! Covid Test, the first online free OTC test distribution program, and Project Rosa, which conducts real-time variant tracking across the country [7].

RADx Tech, by any measure, has exceeded even the most-optimistic expectations. In two years, RADx Tech-supported companies have received 44 EUAs and added approximately 2 billion tests and test products to the U.S. capacity. These remarkable numbers have steadily increased from more than16 million tests in September 2020, just five months after the program was established [8].

RADx Tech has also made significant contributions to the distribution of 1 billion free OTC tests via the government site, COVID.gov/tests. It has also provided critical guidance on serial testing and variants that have improved test performance and changed regulatory practice [9,10]. In addition, the RADx Mobile Application Reporting System (RADx MARS) reduces barriers to test reporting and test-to-treat strategies’ The latter offers immediate treatment options via telehealth or a POC location whenever a positive test result is reported. Finally, the When to Test website provides critical guidance on when and how to test for individuals, groups, and communities.

As we look to the future, RADx Tech has enormous potential to impact the U.S. response to other pathogens, diseases, and future pandemics. Major challenges going forward include improving home tests to work as well as lab platforms and building digital health networks for capturing and reporting test results to public health officials [11].

A recent editorial published in the journal Nature Biotechnology noted, “RADx has spawned a phalanx of diagnostic products to market in just 12 months. Its long-term impact on point of care, at-home, and population testing may be even more profound [12].” We are now poised to advance a new wave of precision medicine that’s led by innovative diagnostic technologies. It represents a unique opportunity to emerge stronger from the pandemic and achieve long-term impact.

References:

[1] Public Law 116 -139—Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act.

[2] NIH mobilizes national innovation initiative for COVID-19 diagnostics, NIH news release, April 29, 2020.

[3] Rapid scaling up of Covid-19 diagnostic testing in the United States—The NIH RADx Initiative. Tromberg BJ, Schwetz TA, Pérez-Stable EJ, Hodes RJ, Woychik RP, Bright RA, Fleurence RL, Collins FS. N Engl J Med. 2020 Sep 10;383(11):1071-1077.

[4] We need more covid-19 tests. We propose a ‘shark tank’ to get us there. Alexander L. and Blunt R., Washington Post, April 20, 2020.

[5] RADx® Tech/ATP dashboard, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, NIH.

[6] New HHS actions add to Biden Administration efforts to increase access to easy-to-use over-the-counter COVID-19 tests. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Press Office, October 25, 2021.

[7] A method for variant agnostic detection of SARS-CoV-2, rapid monitoring of circulating variants, detection of mutations of biological significance, and early detection of emergent variants such as Omicron. Lai E, et al. medRxiV preprint, January 9, 2022.

[8] RADx® Tech/ATP dashboard.

[9] Longitudinal assessment of diagnostic test performance over the course of acute SARS-CoV-2 infection. Smith RL, et al. J Infect Dis. 2021 Sep 17;224(6):976-982.

[10] Comparison of rapid antigen tests’ performance between Delta (B.1.61.7; AY.X) and Omicron (B.1.1.529; BA1) variants of SARS-CoV-2: Secondary analysis from a serial home self-testing study. Soni A, et al. MedRxiv preprint, March 2, 2022.

[11] Reporting COVID-19 self-test results: The next frontier. Health Affairs, Juluru K., et al. Health Affairs, February 11, 2022.

[12] Radical solutions. Nat Biotechnol. 2021 Apr;39(4):391.

Links:

Get Free At-Home COVID Tests (COVID.gov)

When to Test (Consortia for Improving Medicine with Innovation & Technology, Boston)

Say Yes! COVID Test

RADx Programs (NIH)

RADx® Tech and ATP Programs (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Biomedical Engineering/NIH)

Independent Test Assessment Program (NIBIB)

Mobile Application Reporting through Standards (NIBIB)

Point-of-Care Technologies Research Network (POCTRN) (NIBIB)

[Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the eighth in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]


How COVID-19 Immunity Holds Up Over Time

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Antibody protection. Graph showing gradient of many antibodies early and less as time goes on

More than 215 million people in the United States are now fully vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 [1]. More than 40 percent—more than 94 million people—also have rolled up their sleeves for an additional, booster dose. Now, an NIH-funded study exploring how mRNA vaccines are performing over time comes as a reminder of just how important it will be to keep those COVID-19 vaccines up to date as coronavirus variants continue to circulate.

The results, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, show that people who received two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines did generate needed virus-neutralizing antibodies [2]. But levels of those antibodies dropped considerably after six months, suggesting declining immunity over time.

The data also reveal that study participants had much reduced protection against newer SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Delta and Omicron. While antibody protection remained stronger in people who’d also had a breakthrough infection, even that didn’t appear to offer much protection against infection by the Omicron variant.

The new study comes from a team led by Shan-Lu Liu at The Ohio State University, Columbus. They wanted to explore how well vaccine-acquired immune protection holds up over time, especially in light of newly arising SARS-CoV-2 variants.

This is an important issue going forward because mRNA vaccines train the immune system to produce antibodies against the spike proteins that crown the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. These new variants often have mutated, or slightly changed, spike proteins compared to the original one the immune system has been trained to detect, potentially dampening the immune response.

In the study, the team collected serum samples from 48 fully vaccinated health care workers at four key time points: 1) before vaccination, 2) three weeks after the first dose, 3) one month after the second dose, and 4) six months after the second dose.

They then tested the ability of antibodies in those samples to neutralize spike proteins as a correlate for how well a vaccine works to prevent infection. The spike proteins represented five major SARS-CoV-2 variants. The variants included D614G, which arose very soon after the coronavirus first was identified in Wuhan and quickly took over, as well as Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351), Delta (B.1.617.2), and Omicron (B.1.1.529).

The researchers explored in the lab how neutralizing antibodies within those serum samples reacted to SARS-CoV-2 pseudoviruses representing each of the five variants. SARS-CoV-2 pseudoviruses are harmless viruses engineered, in this case, to bear coronavirus spike proteins on their surfaces. Because they don’t replicate, they are safe to study without specially designed biosafety facilities.

At any of the four time points, antibodies showed a minimal ability to neutralize the Omicron spike protein, which harbors about 30 mutations. These findings are consistent with an earlier study showing a significant decline in neutralizing antibodies against Omicron in people who’ve received the initial series of two shots, with improved neutralizing ability following an additional booster dose.

The neutralizing ability of antibodies against all other spike variants showed a dramatic decline from 1 to 6 months after the second dose. While there was a marked decline over time after both vaccines, samples from health care workers who’d received the Moderna vaccine showed about twice the neutralizing ability of those who’d received the Pfizer vaccine. The data also suggests greater immune protection in fully vaccinated healthcare workers who’d had a breakthrough infection with SARS-CoV-2.

In addition to recommending full vaccination for all eligible individuals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends everyone 12 years and up should get a booster dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines at least five months after completing the primary series of two shots [3]. Those who’ve received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster at least two months after receiving the initial dose.

While plenty of questions about the durability of COVID-19 immunity over time remain, it’s clear that the rapid deployment of multiple vaccines over the course of this pandemic already has saved many lives and kept many more people out of the hospital. As the Omicron threat subsides and we start to look forward to better days ahead, it will remain critical for researchers and policymakers to continually evaluate and revise vaccination strategies and recommendations, to keep our defenses up as this virus continues to evolve.

References:

[1] COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 27, 2022.

[2] Neutralizing antibody responses elicited by SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccination wane over time and are boosted by breakthrough infection. Evans JP, Zeng C, Carlin C, Lozanski G, Saif LJ, Oltz EM, Gumina RJ, Liu SL. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Feb 15:eabn8057.

[3] COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Feb 2, 2022.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Shan-Lu Liu (The Ohio State University, Columbus)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


How One Change to The Coronavirus Spike Influences Infectivity

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electron micrograph of COVID-19 viruses
Caption: Spike proteins (blue) crown SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Once the virus enters humans, the spike protein is decorated with sugars that attach to some of its amino acids, forming O-glycans. Loss of key O-glycans may facilitate viral spread to human cells. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

Since joining NIH, I’ve held a number of different leadership positions. But there is one position that thankfully has remained constant for me: lab chief. I run my own research laboratory at NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

My lab studies a biochemical process called O-glycosylation. It’s fundamental to life and fascinating to study. Our cells are often adorned with a variety of carbohydrate sugars. O-glycosylation refers to the biochemical process through which these sugar molecules, either found at the cell surface or secreted, get added to proteins. The presence or absence of these sugars on certain proteins plays fundamental roles in normal tissue development and first-line human immunity. It also is associated with various diseases, including cancer.

Our lab recently joined a team of NIH scientists led by my NIDCR colleague Kelly Ten Hagen to demonstrate how O-glycosylation can influence SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and its ability to fuse to cells, which is a key step in infecting them. In fact, our data, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that some variants, seem to have mutated to exploit the process to their advantage [1].

The work builds on the virus’s reliance on the spike proteins that crown its outer surface to attach to human cells. Once there, the spike protein must be activated to fuse and launch an infection. That happens when enzymes produced by our own cells make a series of cuts, or cleavages, to the spike protein.

The first cut comes from an enzyme called furin. We and others had earlier evidence that O-glycosylation can affect the way furin makes those cuts. That got us thinking: Could O-glycosylation influence the interaction between furin and the spike protein? The furin cleavage area of the viral spike was indeed adorned with sugars, and their presence or absence might influence spike activation by furin.

We also noticed the Alpha and Delta variants carry a mutation that removes the amino acid proline in a specific spot. That was intriguing because we knew from earlier work that enzymes called GALNTs, which are responsible for adding bulky sugar molecules to proteins, prefer prolines near O-glycosylation sites.

It also suggested that loss of proline in the new variants could mean decreased O-glycosylation, which might then influence the degree of furin cleavage and SARS-CoV-2’s ability to enter cells. I should note that the recent Omicron variant was not examined in the current study.

After detailed studies in fruit fly and mammalian cells, we demonstrated in the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that O-glycosylation of the spike protein decreases furin cleavage. Further experiments then showed that the GALNT1 enzyme adds sugars to the spike protein and this addition limits the ability of furin to make the needed cuts and activate the spike protein.

Importantly, the spike protein change found in the Alpha and Delta variants lowers GALNT1 activity, making it easier for furin to start its activating cuts. It suggests that glycosylation of the viral spike by GALNT1 may limit infection with the original virus, and that the Alpha and Delta variant mutation at least partially overcomes this effect, to potentially make the virus more infectious.

Building on these studies, our teams looked for evidence of GALNT1 in the respiratory tracts of healthy human volunteers. We found that the enzyme is indeed abundantly expressed in those cells. Interestingly, those same cells also express the ACE2 receptor, which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.

It’s also worth noting here that the Omicron variant carries the very same spike mutation that we studied in Alpha and Delta. Omicron also has another nearby change that might further alter O-glycosylation and cleavage of the spike protein by furin. The Ten Hagen lab is looking into these leads to learn how this region in Omicron affects spike glycosylation and, ultimately, the ability of this devastating virus to infect human cells and spread.

Reference:

[1] Furin cleavage of the SARS-CoV-2 spike is modulated by O-glycosylation. Zhang L, Mann M, Syed Z, Reynolds HM, Tian E, Samara NL, Zeldin DC, Tabak LA, Ten Hagen KG. PNAS. 2021 Nov 23;118(47).

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Kelly Ten Hagen (National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research/NIH)

Lawrence Tabak (NIDCR)

NIH Support: National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research


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