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Celebrating 2019 Biomedical Breakthroughs

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Science 2019 Biomedical Breakthroughs and a Breakdown

Happy New Year! As we say goodbye to the Teens, let’s take a look back at 2019 and some of the groundbreaking scientific discoveries that closed out this remarkable decade.

Each December, the reporters and editors at the journal Science select their breakthrough of the year, and the choice for 2019 is nothing less than spectacular: An international network of radio astronomers published the first image of a black hole, the long-theorized cosmic singularity where gravity is so strong that even light cannot escape [1]. This one resides in a galaxy 53 million light-years from Earth! (A light-year equals about 6 trillion miles.)

Though the competition was certainly stiff in 2019, the biomedical sciences were well represented among Science’s “runner-up” breakthroughs. They include three breakthroughs that have received NIH support. Let’s take a look at them:

In a first, drug treats most cases of cystic fibrosis: Last October, two international research teams reported the results from phase 3 clinical trials of the triple drug therapy Trikafta to treat cystic fibrosis (CF). Their data showed Trikafta effectively compensates for the effects of a mutation carried by about 90 percent of people born with CF. Upon reviewing these impressive data, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Trikafta, developed by Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

The approval of Trikafta was a wonderful day for me personally, having co-led the team that isolated the CF gene 30 years ago. A few years later, I wrote a song called “Dare to Dream” imagining that wonderful day when “the story of CF is history.” Though we’ve still got more work to do, we’re getting a lot closer to making that dream come true. Indeed, with the approval of Trikafta, most people with CF have for the first time ever a real chance at managing this genetic disease as a chronic condition over the course of their lives. That’s a tremendous accomplishment considering that few with CF lived beyond their teens as recently as the 1980s.

Such progress has been made possible by decades of work involving a vast number of researchers, many funded by NIH, as well as by more than two decades of visionary and collaborative efforts between the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and Aurora Biosciences (now, Vertex) that built upon that fundamental knowledge of the responsible gene and its protein product. Not only did this innovative approach serve to accelerate the development of therapies for CF, it established a model that may inform efforts to develop therapies for other rare genetic diseases.

Hope for Ebola patients, at last: It was just six years ago that news of a major Ebola outbreak in West Africa sounded a global health emergency of the highest order. Ebola virus disease was then recognized as an untreatable, rapidly fatal illness for the majority of those who contracted it. Though international control efforts ultimately contained the spread of the virus in West Africa within about two years, over 28,600 cases had been confirmed leading to more than 11,000 deaths—marking the largest known Ebola outbreak in human history. Most recently, another major outbreak continues to wreak havoc in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where violent civil unrest is greatly challenging public health control efforts.

As troubling as this news remains, 2019 brought a needed breakthrough for the millions of people living in areas susceptible to Ebola outbreaks. A randomized clinical trial in the DRC evaluated four different drugs for treating acutely infected individuals, including an antibody against the virus called mAb114, and a cocktail of anti-Ebola antibodies referred to as REGN-EB3. The trial’s preliminary data showed that about 70 percent of the patients who received either mAb114 or the REGN-EB3 antibody cocktail survived, compared with about half of those given either of the other two medicines.

So compelling were these preliminary results that the trial, co-sponsored by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the DRC’s National Institute for Biomedical Research, was halted last August. The results were also promptly made public to help save lives and stem the latest outbreak. All Ebola patients in the DRC treatment centers now are treated with one or the other of these two options. The trial results were recently published.

The NIH-developed mAb114 antibody and the REGN-EB3 cocktail are the first therapeutics to be shown in a scientifically rigorous study to be effective at treating Ebola. This work also demonstrates that ethically sound clinical research can be conducted under difficult conditions in the midst of a disease outbreak. In fact, the halted study was named Pamoja Tulinde Maisha (PALM), which means “together save lives” in Kiswahili.

To top off the life-saving progress in 2019, the FDA just approved the first vaccine for Ebola. Called Ervebo (earlier rVSV-ZEBOV), this single-dose injectable vaccine is a non-infectious version of an animal virus that has been genetically engineered to carry a segment of a gene from the Zaire species of the Ebola virus—the virus responsible for the current DRC outbreak and the West Africa outbreak. Because the vaccine does not contain the whole Zaire virus, it can’t cause Ebola. Results from a large study in Guinea conducted by the WHO indicated that the vaccine offered substantial protection against Ebola virus disease. Ervebo, produced by Merck, has already been given to over 259,000 individuals as part of the response to the DRC outbreak. The NIH has supported numerous clinical trials of the vaccine, including an ongoing study in West Africa.

Microbes combat malnourishment: Researchers discovered a few years ago that abnormal microbial communities, or microbiomes, in the intestine appear to contribute to childhood malnutrition. An NIH-supported research team followed up on this lead with a study of kids in Bangladesh, and it published last July its groundbreaking finding: that foods formulated to repair the “gut microbiome” helped malnourished kids rebuild their health. The researchers were able to identify a network of 15 bacterial species that consistently interact in the gut microbiomes of Bangladeshi children. In this month-long study, this bacterial network helped the researchers characterize a child’s microbiome and/or its relative state of repair.

But a month isn’t long enough to determine how the new foods would help children grow and recover. The researchers are conducting a similar study that is much longer and larger. Globally, malnutrition affects an estimated 238 million children under the age 5, stunting their normal growth, compromising their health, and limiting their mental development. The hope is that these new foods and others adapted for use around the world soon will help many more kids grow up to be healthy adults.

Measles Resurgent: The staff at Science also listed their less-encouraging 2019 Breakdowns of the Year, and unfortunately the biomedical sciences made the cut with the return of measles in the U.S. Prior to 1963, when the measles vaccine was developed, 3 to 4 million Americans were sickened by measles each year. Each year about 500 children would die from measles, and many more would suffer lifelong complications. As more people were vaccinated, the incidence of measles plummeted. By the year 2000, the disease was even declared eliminated from the U.S.

But, as more parents have chosen not to vaccinate their children, driven by the now debunked claim that vaccines are connected to autism, measles has made a very preventable comeback. Last October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an estimated 1,250 measles cases in the United States at that point in 2019, surpassing the total number of cases reported annually in each of the past 25 years.

The good news is those numbers can be reduced if more people get the vaccine, which has been shown repeatedly in many large and rigorous studies to be safe and effective. The CDC recommends that children should receive their first dose by 12 to 15 months of age and a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. Older people who’ve been vaccinated or have had the measles previously should consider being re-vaccinated, especially if they live in places with low vaccination rates or will be traveling to countries where measles are endemic.

Despite this public health breakdown, 2019 closed out a memorable decade of scientific discovery. The Twenties will build on discoveries made during the Teens and bring us even closer to an era of precision medicine to improve the lives of millions of Americans. So, onward to 2020—and happy New Year!

Reference:

[1] 2019 Breakthrough of the Year. Science, December 19, 2019.

NIH Support: These breakthroughs represent the culmination of years of research involving many investigators and the support of multiple NIH institutes.


For HIV, Treatment is Prevention

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U=U

For almost four decades, researchers have worked tirelessly to find a cure for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. There’s still more work to do, but a recent commentary published in JAMA [1] by Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and his colleagues serves as a reminder of just how far we’ve come. Today, thanks to scientific advances, especially the development of effective antiretroviral therapy (ART), most people living with HIV can live full and productive lives. These developments have started to change how our society views HIV infection.

In their commentary, the NIH scientists describe the painstaking research that has now firmly established that people who take ART daily as prescribed, and who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood), cannot sexually transmit the virus to others. To put it simply: Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U).

The U=U message was introduced in 2016 by the Prevention Access Campaign, an international health equity initiative that aims to help end the HIV epidemic and HIV-related social stigma. The major breakthrough in combination ART regimens, which successfully reduced viral loads for many HIV patients, came over 20 years ago. But their importance for HIV prevention wasn’t immediately apparent.

There’d been some hints of U=U, but it was the results of the NIH-funded HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) 052, published in The New England Journal of Medicine [2] in 2011, that offered the first rigorous clinical evidence. Among heterosexual couples in the randomized clinical trial, no HIV transmissions to an uninfected partner were observed when ART consistently, durably suppressed the virus in the partner living with HIV.

The data provided convincing evidence that ART not only treats HIV but also prevents the sexual transmission of HIV infection. The public health implications of what’s sometimes referred to as “treatment as prevention” were obvious and exciting. In fact, the discovery made Science’s 2011 list of top 10 Breakthroughs of the Year .

Three subsequent studies, known as PARTNER 1 and 2 and Opposites Attract, confirmed and extended the findings of the HPTN 052 study. All three showed that people with HIV taking ART, who had undetectable HIV levels in their blood, had essentially no risk of passing the virus on to their HIV-negative partners.

Of course, the success of U=U depends on people with HIV having the needed access to health care and taking their medications as prescribed every day of their lives [3]. ART works by preventing the virus from making more copies of itself. It’s important to note that achieving an undetectable viral load with treatment can take time—up to 6 months. Viral load testing should be performed on a regular basis to ensure that the virus remains at undetectable levels. If treatment is stopped, the virus typically rebounds within a matter of weeks. So, strict adherence to ART over the long term is absolutely essential.

Practically speaking, though, ART alone won’t be enough to end the spread of HIV, and other methods of HIV prevention are still needed. In fact, we’re now at a critical juncture in HIV research as work continues on preventive vaccines that could one day bring about a durable end to the pandemic.

But for now, there are more than 35 million people worldwide who are HIV positive [4]. With currently available interventions, experts have predicted that about 50 million people around the world will become HIV positive from 2015 to 2035 [5]. Work is proceeding actively on the vaccine, and also on ways to totally eradicate the virus from infected individuals (a “cure”), but that is proving to be extremely challenging.

Meanwhile, with continued advances, including improved accessibility to testing, adherence to existing medications, and use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) in high risk individuals, the goal is to reduce greatly the number of new cases of HIV/AIDS.

References:

[1] HIV Viral Load and Transmissibility of HIV Infection: Undetectable Equals Untransmittable. Eisinger RW, Dieffenbach CW, Fauci AS. JAMA. 2019 Jan 10.

[2] Prevention of HIV-1 infection with early antiretroviral therapy. Cohen MS, Chen YQ, McCauley M, Gamble T, Hosseinipour MC, Kumarasamy N, Hakim JG, Kumwenda J, Grinsztejn B, Pilotto JH, Godbole SV, Mehendale S, Chariyalertsak S, Santos BR, Mayer KH, Hoffman IF, Eshleman SH, Piwowar-Manning E, Wang L, Makhema J, Mills LA, de Bruyn G, Sanne I, Eron J, Gallant J, Havlir D, Swindells S, Ribaudo H, Elharrar V, Burns D, Taha TE, Nielsen-Saines K, Celentano D, Essex M, Fleming TR; HPTN 052 Study Team. N Engl J Med. 2011 Aug 11;365(6):493-505.

[3] HIV Treatment (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

[4] HIV/AIDS (World Health Organization)

[5] Effectiveness of UNAIDS targets and HIV vaccination across 127 countries. Medlock J, Pandey A, Parpia AS, Tang A, Skrip LA, Galvani AP. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2017 Apr 11;114(15):4017-4022.

Links:

HIV/AIDS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Treatment as HIV Prevention (NIAID)

Prevention Access Campaign

Anthony S. Fauci (NIAID)

HIV Prevention Trials Network (Durham, NC)


Ebola Virus: Lessons from a Unique Survivor

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Ebola virus

Caption: Ebola virus (green) is shown on cell surface.
Credit: National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

There are new reports of an outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This news comes just two years after international control efforts eventually contained an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, though before control was achieved, more than 11,000 people died—the largest known Ebola outbreak in human history [1]. While considerable progress continues to be made in understanding the infection and preparing for new outbreaks, many questions remain about why some people die from Ebola and others survive.

Now, some answers are beginning to emerge thanks to a new detailed analysis of the immune responses of a unique Ebola survivor, a 34-year-old American health-care worker who was critically ill and cared for at the NIH Special Clinical Studies Unit in 2015 [2]. The NIH-led team used the patient’s blood samples, which were drawn every day, to measure the number of viral particles and monitor how his immune system reacted over the course of his Ebola infection, from early symptoms through multiple organ failures and, ultimately, his recovery.

The researchers identified unexpectedly large shifts in immune responses that preceded observable improvements in the patient’s symptoms. The researchers say that, through further study and close monitoring of such shifts, health care workers may be able to develop more effective ways to care for Ebola patients.


Creative Minds: Preparing for Future Pandemics

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Jonathan Abraham

Jonathan Abraham / Credit: ChieYu Lin

Growing up in Queens, NY, Jonathan Abraham developed a love for books and an interest in infectious diseases. One day Abraham got his hands on a copy of Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, a 1990s bestseller warning of future global pandemics, and he sensed his life’s calling. He would help people around the world survive deadly viral outbreaks, particularly from Ebola, Marburg, and other really bad bugs that cause deadly hemorrhagic fevers.

Abraham, now a physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, continues to chase that dream. With support from an NIH Director’s 2016 Early Independence Award, Abraham has set out to help design the next generation of treatments to enable more people to survive future outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic fever. His research strategy: find antibodies in the blood of known survivors that helped them overcome their infections. With further study, he hopes to develop purified forms of the antibodies as potentially life-saving treatments for people whose own immune systems may not make them in time. This therapeutic strategy is called passive immunity.


Ferreting Out Flu

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Photo of two caged ferrets, one appears normal in color and playful, the other albino and skittish.

Caption: Testing transmission of the new H7N9 flu virus
Credit: Sander Herfst, Department of Virology, Erasmus Medical Center, Rotterdam, NL

The latest flu virus causing concern, H7N9, arose in birds in Eastern China a few months ago—so far infecting more than 100 people, with a high death rate [1]. To gauge the pandemic potential of this new avian virus, a team of Chinese and NIH-funded American researchers isolated the virus from a patient in China and used it to infect ferrets [2].

Yes, you read that right: ferrets! It turns out that ferret airways have biological similarity to humans, and so they are traditionally used as an indicator of whether humans are susceptible to a particular flu virus and whether transmission can occurs through the air (breathing, coughing, or sneezing) or requires direct contact.


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