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Reasons for Gratitude Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Thanksgiving Tribute
Credit: Getty Images

For many of us, Thanksgiving will feel really different this year. Less will need to be more, as we celebrate alone or with our immediate household members to stay safe and help combat the surge in COVID-19 cases across most of the land. And yet, times of trouble can also help us to focus on what’s really important in our lives. So, even as we face these challenges and the range of emotions that arise with them, it’s worth remembering that this Thanksgiving, there remain many reasons to be grateful.

I’m certainly grateful for a loving family and friends that provide depth and meaning to life, even though most of us can’t be physically together and hug each other right now. My faith is also a source of comfort and reassurance at this time. I also feel a deep sense of gratitude for everyone who has sacrificed for the common good over the last several months, especially those who’ve masked up and physically distanced to provide essential services in our communities to keep everything going. You will no doubt have your own list of heroes, but here are just a few of mine:

Healthcare workers, thanks for all you do under such difficult and dangerous conditions.
Essential workers, thanks for clocking in every day. That includes bus drivers, grocery store cashiers, waste collectors, tradespeople, firefighters, law enforcement officers, and all those who deliver packages to my door.
Teachers, working remotely or in person. Thanks for your commitment to our students and continuing to bring out the best in them.
Parents, including so many now working with kids at home. Thanks for juggling responsibilities and making everything work.
Clinical trials participants. Your participation is critical for developing treatments and vaccines. Thanks to you all, including the fine examples of many public figures, including the trial participation of Senator Rob Portman and financial contribution of legendary performer Dolly Parton.
Everyone following the 3 W’s: Wear a mask, Watch your distance, and Wash your hands. Thank you for doing your part every day to keep yourself, your loved ones, and your community safe. You are our front lines in the battle.
Researchers, from both the public and private sectors, who are working in partnership all around the world. Our shared goal is to learn all we can about COVID-19 and to develop better tests, new treatments, and safe and effective vaccines.

On that note, you may have heard about the very promising interim clinical trial results of an investigational COVID-19 vaccine known as mRNA-1273, co-developed by the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, and NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. That mRNA vaccine was found to be 94.5 percent effective in preventing symptomatic COVID-19. Another mRNA vaccine, developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, also recently was shown to be 95 percent effective and has now submitted an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In addition, AstraZeneca announced that, in a late-stage clinical trial, the vaccine it developed in partnership with the University of Oxford reduced the risk of COVID-19 infection by an average of 70 percent, with up to 90 percent efficacy in one dosing regimen.

Other promising vaccine candidates continue to work their way through clinical trials, and we’ll no doubt be hearing more about those soon. It is truly remarkable to accomplish in 10 months what normally takes about 8 years. Therapeutic progress is also moving forward rapidly, with a second monoclonal antibody treatment for high-risk outpatients receiving emergency use authorization from the FDA just a few days ago.

For all of these advances, I am immensely grateful. Of course, it will take time and continued study to get a COVID-19 vaccine fully approved and distributed to all those who need it. The success of any vaccine also will hinge on people across the country—including you and all those whom I’ve recognized here—making the choice to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

As we look ahead to that day when the COVID-19 pandemic is under control, I encourage you to take some time to jot down your own list of reasons to be grateful. Encourage family members to do the same and take some time to share them with one another, whether it’s around the table or by email, phone, or videoconferencing. The holidays are a time for making memories and—as different as it may look—this year is no different. So, while you’re enjoying your Thanksgiving meal around a smaller table, remember that you’re doing it from a place of love and gratitude. I wish for you a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID) (NIH)

Your Health: Holiday Celebrations and Small Gatherings (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

Your Health: Personal and Social Activities (CDC)


Mini-Lungs in a Lab Dish Mimic Early COVID-19 Infection

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Credit: Arvind Konkimalla, Tata Lab, Duke University, Durham, NC

Researchers have become skilled at growing an array of miniature human organs in the lab. Such lab-grown “organoids” have been put to work to better understand diabetes, fatty liver disease, color vision, and much more. Now, NIH-funded researchers have applied this remarkable lab tool to produce mini-lungs to study SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

The intriguing bubble-like structures (red/clear) in the mini-lung pictured above represent developing alveoli, the tiny air sacs in our lungs, where COVID-19 infections often begin. In this organoid, the air sacs consist of many thousands of cells, all of which arose from a single adult stem cell isolated from tissues found deep within healthy human lungs. When carefully nurtured in lab dishes, those so-called alveolar epithelial type-2 cells (AT2s) begin to multiply. As they grow, they spontaneously assemble into structures that closely resemble alveoli.

A team led by Purushothama Rao Tata, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, developed these mini-lungs in a quest to understand how adult stem cells help to regenerate damaged tissue in the deepest recesses of the lungs, where SARS-CoV-2 attacks. In earlier studies, the researchers had shown it was possible for these cells to produce miniature alveoli. But there was a problem: the “soup” they used to nurture the growing cells included ingredients that weren’t well defined, making it hard to characterize the experiments fully.

In the study, now reported in Cell Stem Cell, the researchers found a way to simplify and define that brew. For the first time, they could produce mini-lungs consisting only of human lung cells. By growing them in large numbers in the lab, they can now learn more about SARS-CoV-2 infection and look for new ways to prevent or treat it.

Tata and his collaborators at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, have already confirmed that SARS-CoV-2 infects the mini-lungs via the critical ACE2 receptor, just as the virus is known to do in the lungs of an infected person.

Interestingly, the cells also produce cytokines, inflammatory molecules that have been tied to tissue damage. The findings suggest the cytokine signals may come from the lungs themselves, even before immune cells arrive on the scene.

The heavily infected lung cells eventually self-destruct and die. In an unexpected turn of events, they even induce cell death in some neighboring healthy cells that are not infected. The relevance of the studies to the clinic was boosted by the finding that the gene activity patterns in the mini-lungs are a close match to those found in samples taken from six patients with severe COVID-19.

Now that he’s got the recipe down, Tata is busy making organoids and helping to model COVID-19 infections, with the hope of identifying and testing promising new treatments. It’s clear these mini-lungs are breathing some added life into the basic study of COVID-19.

Reference:

[1] Human lung stem cell-based alveolospheres provide insights into SARS-CoV-2-mediated interferon responses and pneumocyte dysfunction. Katsura H, Sontake V, Tata A, Kobayashi Y, Edwards CE, Heaton BE, Konkimalla A, Asakura T, Mikami Y, Fritch EJ, Lee PJ, Heaton NS, Boucher RC, Randell SH, Baric RS, Tata PR. Cell Stem Cell. 2020 Oct 21:S1934-5909(20)30499-9.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Tata Lab (Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


Discussing COVID-19 at the Washington National Cathedral

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On November 12, I took my 3D model of SARS-CoV-2 along with me to the annual Ignatius Forum at the Washington National Cathedral. Following a presentation on the COVID-19 pandemic by NIH’s Anthony Fauci, I participated in a panel discussion with infectious disease expert Luciana Borio (center). New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Amy L. Ignatius (right) moderated the video-recorded discussion. Credit: Washington National Cathedral


Planning Your Holidays During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Thanksgiving 2020
Credit: Getty Images

With the holiday season fast approaching and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) surging in most parts of the country, millions of Americans—including me and my family—will break with tradition this year to celebrate in ways that we hope will help to keep us all safe and healthy. Granted, this may present some difficult emotional and logistical challenges, but I’m confident that the American can-do spirit will rise to meet those challenges.

I also recognize that this will be hard for many of us. Celebrating holidays alone or with your immediate household members can sound rather dreary. After all, who wants to roast and carve a turkey for just a few people? But, if you look at it another way, the pandemic does offer opportunities to make this holiday a season to remember in new and different ways. Here are a couple of ideas that you may want to consider:

Send Gifts. Although COVID-19 has changed our lives in many ways, sending cards or gifts remains a relatively easy way to let loved ones know that you’re thinking of them. Who wouldn’t want to receive some home-baked goodies, a basket of fresh fruit, or a festive wreath? If you enjoy knitting, candle making, or other ways of crafting gifts for the holidays, now’s the time to start planning for Thanksgiving through the New Year.

Make Videos. When I’m visiting family, there is often music involved—with guitar, piano, and maybe some singing. But, this year, I’ll have to be content with video recording a few songs and sending them to others by text or email. Come to think of it, the kids and the grandkids might enjoy these songs just as much—or even more—if they can watch them at a time and place that works best for them. (On the other hand, some of them might roll their eyes and decide not to open that video file!) If you don’t play a guitar or like to sing, you can still make your own holiday-themed videos. Maybe share a dance routine, a demonstration of athletic skill, or even some stand-up comedy. The key is to have fun and let your imagination run free.

Share a Meal Remotely. Most of our end-of-the-year holidays involve the family sitting around a table overflowing with delicious food. With all of the videoconferencing platforms now available, it is easy to set aside a block of time to share a meal and good conversation remotely with friends and family members, whether they live nearby or across the country. Rather than one cook slaving over a hot stove or a certain person monopolizing the dinner table conversation, everyone gets a chance to cook and share their stories via their smartphone, tablet, or laptop. You can compare your culinary creations, swap recipes, and try to remember to leave room for dessert. If you have a tradition of playing games or giving thanks for your many blessings, you can still do many of these activities remotely.

Take an After-Dinner Walk. Due to the physical demands and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s been difficult for many of us to stay physically active. The key is making exercise a daily priority, and the holidays are no different. After your holiday meal, go on a virtual group walk through your respective neighborhoods to work off the food. Thanks to your smartphone’s camera, you can share your time outdoors and all of the interesting sights along the way. (Yes, the new playground in the local park looks fantastic, and the neighbors really did just paint their house purple!)

Stay Safe. If you plan to go ahead and join a holiday gathering in person, it’s important to remain vigilant, even when interacting with dear friends and loved ones. The greatest risk for spread of COVID-19 right now is these family gatherings. Remember there are risks associated with travel and with interacting with people who’ve not been tested for the coronavirus prior to the event, especially if they reside in a COVID hot spot—which is almost everywhere these days. Try to keep any family gatherings brief and relatively small, about five people or less. If the weather permits, hold the get-together outdoors.

To protect yourself and your loved ones, both now and over the holidays, please follow these 3 W’s:

Wear a mask when you are out in public and when you are indoors with people who are not part of your immediate household. The only exception is while eating or drinking!
Watch your distance, staying at least 6 feet away from people who are not part of your immediate household.
Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.

Making all of these adjustments is a lot to consider when you’re trying to have a good time and there are children and older adults in the mix. That’s why I and my wife Diane decided the best plan for us this holiday season is to stay home in Maryland and forgo our traditional trips to family in Michigan and North Carolina. Not only did we want to reduce the risk of possibly contracting COVID-19 from—or transmitting it to—our faraway loved ones, we want to do everything we can to protect our local friends and co-workers from the coronavirus.

While this holiday season is likely to be memorable in ways that we never could have imagined, I’m confident that, thanks to the rapid advances being made by medical research, we ultimately will get the COVID-19 pandemic under control so we can once again give everyone we love a big hug in person. Until then, please stay safe. Wishing each of you a wonderful and healthful holiday season, starting with a Happy Thanksgiving!

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID) (NIH)

Your Health: Holiday Celebrations and Small Gatherings (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

Your Health: Personal and Social Activities (CDC)


Speeding COVID-19 Drug Discovery with Quantum Dots

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Viruses with nanoparticles attached
Credit: Ethan Tyler and Alan Hoofring/NIH Medical Arts

These round, multi-colored orbs in the illustration above may resemble SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. But they’re actually lab-made nanocrystals called quantum dots. They have been specially engineered to look and, in some ways, act like the coronavirus while helping to solve a real challenge for many labs that would like to study SARS-CoV-2.

Quantum dots, which have been around since the mid-1980s, are designed with special optical properties that allow them to fluoresce when exposed to ultraviolet light. The two pictured here are about 10 nanometers in diameter, about 3,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. The quantum dot consists of a semi-conductive cadmium selenide inner core (orange) surrounded by a zinc sulfide outer shell (teal). Molecules on its surface (yellow) allow researchers to attach the viral spike protein (purple), which SARS-CoV-2 depends on to infect human cells.

To the left is a human cell (gray) studded with the ACE2 receptors (blue) that those viral spike proteins bind to before SARS-CoV-2 enters and infects our cells. In the background, you see another spike protein-studded quantum dot. But human neutralizing antibodies (pink) are preventing that one from reaching the human cell.

Because SARS-CoV-2 is so highly infectious, basic researchers without access to specially designed biosafety facilities may be limited in their ability to study the virus. But these harmless quantum dots offer a safe workaround. While the quantum dots may bind and enter human cells just like the virus, they can’t cause an infection. They offer a quick, informative way to assess the potential of antibodies or other compounds to prevent the coronavirus from binding to our cells.

In work published in the journal ACS Nano, a team that included Kirill Gorshkov, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), Rockville, MD, along with Eunkeu Oh and Mason Wolak, Naval Research Laboratory, Washington, D.C., demonstrated how these quantum dots may serve as a useful new tool to speed the search for new COVID-19 treatments. The dots’ fluorescent glow enabled the researchers to use a microscope to observe how these viral mimics bind to ACE2 in real time, showing how SARS-CoV-2 might attach to and enter our cells, and suggesting ways to intervene.

Indeed, imagine thousands of tiny wells in which human cells are growing. Imagine adding a different candidate drug to each well; then imagine adding the loaded quantum dots to each well and using machine vision to identify the wells where the dots could not enter the cell. That’s not science fiction. That’s now.

With slightly different versions of their quantum dots, the NCATS researchers and their colleagues at the Naval Research Laboratory will now explore how other viral proteins are important for the coronavirus to infect our cells. They also can test how slight variations in the spike protein may influence SARS-CoV-2’s behavior. This work provides yet another stunning example of how scientists with widely varying expertise have banded together—using all the tools at their disposal—to forge ahead to find solutions to COVID-19.

Reference:

[1] Quantum dot-conjugated SARS-CoV-2 spike pseudo-virions enable tracking of angiotensin converting enzyme 2 binding and endocytosis. Gorshkov K, Susumu K, Chen J, Xu M, Pradhan M, Zhu W, Hu X, Breger JC, Wolak M, Oh E. ACS Nano. 2020 Sep 22;14(9):12234-12247.

Links:

What are Quantum Dots? (National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

I Am Translational Science: Kirill Gorshkov (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

U. S. Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, D.C.)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


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