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Persistence Pays Off: Recognizing Katalin Karikó and Drew Weissman, the 2023 Nobel Prize Winners in Physiology or Medicine

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Modified mRNA is inserted into a lipid nanoparticle. This is delivered via a vaccine. Cells read the instructions and make viral spike proteins which leads to antibody production.
Karikó and Weissman discovered how to slightly modify mRNA to avoid an inflammatory response making the mRNA vaccines possible. Credit: Donny Bliss/NIH

Last week, biochemist Katalin Karikó and immunologist Drew Weissman earned the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries that enabled the development of effective messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against COVID-19. On behalf of the NIH community, I’d like to congratulate Karikó and Weissman and thank them for their persistence in pursuing their investigations. NIH is proud to have supported their seminal research, cited by the Nobel Assembly as key publications.1,2,3

While the lifesaving benefits of mRNA vaccines are now clearly realized, Karikó and Weissman’s breakthrough finding in 2005 was not fully appreciated at the time as to why it would be significant. However, their dogged dedication to gaining a better understanding of how RNA interacts with the immune system underscores the often-underappreciated importance of incremental research. Following where the science leads through step-by-step investigations often doesn’t appear to be flashy, but it can end up leading to major advances.

To best describe Karikó and Weissman’s discovery, I’ll first do a quick review of vaccine history. As many of you know, vaccines stimulate our immune systems to protect us from getting infected or from getting very sick from a specific pathogen. Since the late 1700s, scientists have used various approaches to design effective vaccines. Some vaccines introduce a weakened or noninfectious version of a virus to the body, while others present only a small part of the virus, like a protein. The immune system detects the weak or partial virus and develops specialized defenses against it. These defenses work to protect us if we are ever exposed to the real virus.  

In the early 1990s, scientists began exploring a different approach to vaccines that involved delivering genetic material, or instructions, so the body’s own cells could make the virus proteins that stimulate an immune response.4,5 Because this approach eliminates the step of growing virus or virus protein in the laboratory—which can be difficult to do in very large quantities and can require a lot of time and money—it had potential, in theory, to be a faster and cheaper way to manufacture vaccines.

Scientists were exploring two types of vaccines as part of this new approach: DNA vaccines and messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. DNA vaccines deliver an encoded protein recipe that the cell first copies or transcribes before it starts making protein. For mRNA vaccines, the transcription process is done in the laboratory, and the vaccine delivers the “readable” instructions to the cell for making protein. However, mRNA was not immediately a practical vaccine approach due to several scientific hurdles, including that it caused inflammatory reactions that could be unhealthy for people.

Unfazed by the challenges, Karikó and Weissman spent years pursuing research on RNA and the immune system. They had a brilliant idea that they turned into a significant discovery in 2005 when they proved that inserting subtle chemical modifications to lab-transcribed mRNA eliminated the unwanted inflammatory response.1 In later studies, the pair showed that these chemical modifications also increased protein production.2,3 Both discoveries would be critical to advancing the use of mRNA-based vaccines and therapies.

Earlier theories that mRNA could enable rapid vaccine development turned out to be true. By March 2020, the first clinical trial of an mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 had begun enrolling volunteers, and by December 2020, health care workers were receiving their first shots. This unprecedented timeline was only possible because of Karikó and Weissman’s decades of work, combined with the tireless efforts of many academic, industry and government scientists, including several from the NIH intramural program.  Now, researchers are exploring how mRNA could be used in vaccines for other infectious diseases and in cancer vaccines.

As an investigator myself, I’m fascinated by how science continues to build on itself—a process that is done out of the public eye. Luckily every year, the Nobel Prize briefly illuminates for the larger public this long arc of scientific discovery. The Nobel Assembly’s recognition of Karikó and Weissman is a tribute to all scientists who do the painstaking work of trying to understand how things work. Many of the tools we have today to better prevent and treat diseases would not have been possible without the brilliance, tenacity and grit of researchers like Karikó and Weissman.

References:

  1. K Karikó, et al. Suppression of RNA Recognition by Toll-like Receptors: The impact of nucleoside modification and the evolutionary origin of RNA. Immunity DOI: 10.1016/j.immuni.2005.06.008 (2005).
  2. K Karikó, et al. Incorporation of pseudouridine into mRNA yields superior nonimmunogenic vector with increased translational capacity and biological stabilityMolecular Therapy DOI: 10.1038/mt.2008.200 (2008).
  3. BR Anderson, et al. Incorporation of pseudouridine into mRNA enhances translation by diminishing PKR activationNucleic Acids Research DOI: 10.1093/nar/gkq347 (2010).
  4. DC Tang, et al. Genetic immunization is a simple method for eliciting an immune response. Nature DOI: 10.1038/356152a0 (1992).
  5. F Martinon, et al. Induction of virus-specific cytotoxic T lymphocytes in vivo by liposome-entrapped mRNA. European Journal of Immunology DOI: 10.1002/eji.1830230749 (1993).

NIH Support:

Katalin Karikó: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

Drew Weissman: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


Welcome to Response Team Members

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Dr. Schwetz and Dr. Tabak at a table with Dr. Ashish Jha who is speaking into a microphone
It was my pleasure to interact with several members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team during their recent visit to NIH. While on our Bethesda campus, team members met with select researchers and leadership from the NIH Vaccine Research Center and the NIH Clinical Center. This photo shows Ashish Jha (r), the White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator, while addressing staff during a meeting in the NIH Clinical Center. Tara Schwetz (l), NIH’s acting principal deputy director, is seated next to me. The visit took place on the afternoon of March 23. Credit: NIH

A Look Back at Science’s 2022 Breakthroughs

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

RSV vaccines near the finish. Virus fingered as cause of multiple sclerosis. AI gets creative.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Shutterstock/tobe24, Midjourney Inc.

Happy New Year! I hope everyone finished 2022 with plenty to celebrate, whether it was completing a degree or certification, earning a promotion, attaining a physical fitness goal, or publishing a hard-fought scientific discovery.

If the latter, you are in good company. Last year produced some dazzling discoveries, and the news and editorial staff at the journal Science kept a watchful eye on the most high-impact advances of 2022. In December, the journal released its list of the top 10 advances across the sciences, from astronomy to zoology. In case you missed it, Science selected NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as the 2022 Breakthrough of the Year [1].

This unique space telescope took 20 years to complete, but it has turned out to be time well spent. Positioned 1.5-million-kilometers from Earth, the JWST and its unprecedented high-resolution images of space have unveiled the universe anew for astronomers and wowed millions across the globe checking in online. The telescope’s image stream, beyond its sheer beauty, will advance study of the early Universe, allowing astronomers to discover distant galaxies, explore the early formation of stars, and investigate the possibility of life on other planets.

While the biomedical sciences didn’t take home the top prize, they were well represented among Science’s runner-up breakthroughs. Some of these biomedical top contenders also have benefited, directly or indirectly, from NIH efforts and support. Let’s take a look:

RSV vaccines nearing the finish line: It’s been one of those challenging research marathons. But scientists last year started down the homestretch with the first safe-and-effective vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a leading cause of severe respiratory illness in the very young and the old.

In August, the company Pfizer presented evidence that its experimental RSV vaccine candidate offered protection for those age 60 and up. Later, they showed that the same vaccine, when administered to pregnant women, helped to protect their infants against RSV for six months after birth. Meanwhile, in October, the company GSK announced encouraging results from its late-stage phase III trial of an RSV vaccine in older adults.

As Science noted, the latest clinical progress also shows the power of basic science. For example, researchers have been working with chemically inactivated versions of the virus to develop the vaccine. But these versions have a key viral surface protein that changes its shape after fusing with a cell to start an infection. In this configuration, the protein elicits only weak levels of needed protective antibodies.

Back in 2013, Barney Graham, then with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and colleagues, solved the problem [2]. Graham’s NIH team discovered a way to lock the protein into its original prefusion state, which the immune system can better detect. This triggers higher levels of potent antibodies, and the discovery kept the science—and the marathon—moving forward.

These latest clinical advances come as RSV and other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, are sending an alarming number of young children to the hospital. The hope is that researchers will cross the finish line this year or next, and we’ll have the first approved RSV vaccine.

Virus fingered as cause of multiple sclerosis: Researchers have long thought that multiple sclerosis, or MS, has a viral cause. Pointing to the right virus with the required high degree of certainty has been the challenge, slowing progress on the treatment front for those in need. As published in Science last January, Alberto Ascherio, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, and colleagues produced the strongest evidence yet that MS is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a herpesvirus also known for causing infectious mononucleosis [3].

The link between EBV and MS had long been suspected. But it was difficult to confirm because EBV infections are so widespread, and MS is so disproportionately rare. In the recent study, the NIH-supported researchers collected blood samples every other year from more than 10 million young adults in the U.S. military, including nearly 1,000 who were diagnosed with MS during their service. The evidence showed that the risk of an MS diagnosis increased 32-fold after EBV infection, but it held steady following infection with any other virus. Levels in blood serum of a biomarker for MS neurodegeneration also went up only after an EBV infection, suggesting that the viral illness is a leading cause for MS.

Further evidence came last year from a discovery published in the journal Nature by William Robinson, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, and colleagues. The NIH-supported team found a close resemblance between an EBV protein and one made in the healthy brain and spinal cord [4]. The findings suggest an EBV infection may produce antibodies that mistakenly attack the protective sheath surrounding our nerve cells. Indeed, the study showed that up to one in four people with MS had antibodies that bind both proteins.

This groundbreaking research suggests that an EBV vaccine and/or antiviral drugs that thwart this infection might ultimately prevent or perhaps even cure MS. Of note, NIAID launched last May an early-stage clinical trial for an experimental EBV vaccine at the NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD.

AI Gets Creative: Science’s 2021 Breakthrough of the Year was AI-powered predictions of protein structure. In 2022, AI returned to take another well-deserved bow. This time, Science singled out AI’s now rapidly accelerating entry into once uniquely human attributes, such as artistic expression and scientific discovery.

On the scientific discovery side, Science singled out AI’s continued progress in getting creative with the design of novel proteins for vaccines and myriad other uses. One technique, called “hallucination,” generates new proteins from scratch. Researchers input random amino acid sequences into the computer, and it randomly and continuously mutates them into sequences that other AI tools are confident will fold into stable proteins. This greatly simplifies the process of protein design and frees researchers to focus their efforts on creating a protein with a desired function.

AI research now engages scientists around world, including hundreds of NIH grantees. Taking a broader view of AI, NIH recently launched the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program. It will help to create greater diversity within the field, which is a must. A lack of diversity could perpetuate harmful biases in how AI is used, how algorithms are developed and trained, and how findings are interpreted to avoid health disparities and inequities for underrepresented communities.

And there you have it, some of the 2022 breakthroughs from Science‘s news and editorial staff. Of course, the highlighted biomedical breakthroughs don’t capture the full picture of research progress. There were many other milestone papers published in 2022 that researchers worldwide will build upon in the months and years ahead to make further progress in their disciplines and, for some, draw the attention of Science’s news and editorial staff. Here’s to another productive year in biomedical research, which the blog will continue to feature and share with you as it unfolds in 2023.

References:

[1] 2022 Breakthrough of the Year. Science. Dec 15, 2022.

[2] Structure of RSV fusion glycoprotein trimer bound to a prefusion-specific neutralizing antibody. McLellan JS, Chen M, Leung S, Kwong PD, Graham BS, et al. Science. 2013 May 31;340(6136):1113-1117.

[3] Longitudinal analysis reveals high prevalence of Epstein-Barr virus associated with multiple sclerosis. Bjornevik K, Cortese M, Healy BC, Kuhle J, Mina MJ, Leng Y, Elledge SJ, Niebuhr DW, Scher AI, Munger KL, Ascherio A. Science. 2022 Jan 21;375(6578):296-301.

[4] Clonally expanded B cells in multiple sclerosis bind EBV EBNA1 and GlialCAM. Lanz TV, Brewer RC, Steinman L, Robinson WH, et al. Nature. 2022 Mar;603(7900):321-327.

Links:

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Multiple Sclerosis (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Barney Graham (Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta)

Alberto Ascherio (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston)

Robinson Lab (Stanford Medicine, Stanford, CA)

Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program (NIH)

James Webb Space Telescope (Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA, Greenbelt, MD)


This Is Why NIH Invests in Global Health Research

Posted on by Roger I. Glass, M.D., Ph.D., Fogarty International Center

Young girl getting immunized
Caption: Global partnerships fostered by NIH’s Fogarty International Center speed translation of scientific discoveries into lifesaving biomedical products. Credit: Gabe Bienczycki, PATH, Seattle

Efforts over the past few years to end the COVID-19 pandemic clearly reveal how global health impacts individual wellbeing and national security. At NIH, the Fogarty International Center helps the other institutes become engaged with global health research, which investigates the dual burden of infectious disease and non-communicable disease.

Global health research also encompasses data science, economics, genetics, climate change science, and many other disciplines. For more than 50 years, Fogarty has been building partnerships among institutions in the U.S. and abroad, while training the next generation of scientists focused on universal health needs.

America’s investment in Fogarty has paid rich dividends

During the pandemic, in particular, we’ve seen researchers trained by our programs make scientific discoveries that contributed to international security. Take Jessica Manning, a former Fogarty fellow who now conducts malaria research in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Her team at the Ministry of Health sequenced the viral strain of SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, infecting the first Cambodian patient and documented early the spread of this novel coronavirus outside of China.

Similarly, Christian Happi, director of the African Centre of Excellence for the Genomics of Infectious Disease, Ede, Nigeria, sequenced the first SARS-CoV-2 genome in Africa. Happi was able to do it by adapting the sequencing and analytical pipelines that he’d created back when he was a Fogarty grantee studying Ebola.

In Botswana, Sikhulile Moyo leveraged the skills he’d acquired while supported by a Fogarty HIV research training grant with Max Essex, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, MA, to track COVID-19 mutations for his country’s Ministry of Health. Last November, he alerted the world of a new Omicron variant. Within six weeks, Omicron became the dominant global strain, challenging the ability of COVID vaccines to control its spread. In the Dominican Republic, William Duke, a national commission member, used what he’d learned as a Fogarty trainee to help create a national COVID-19 intervention plan to prevent and control the disease.

Fogarty’s fostering of global health leaders is one way we advance scientific expertise while ensuring our nation’s biosecurity. Another is by finding effective ways to study abroad the same health conditions that affect our own population.

Research conducted in Colombia, for example, may provide clues for preventing Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. Fogarty support brought together neuroscientists Kenneth Kosik, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Francisco Lopera, University of Antioquia, Colombia, to study members of the largest-known family with an early-onset, rapidly progressive form of the disease. Over the years, Kosik and Lopera have trained local scientists, explored gene therapy targets, investigated biomarkers to monitor disease progression, and conducted drug trials in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Researchers in other fields also discover unique opportunities to investigate populations with high rates of disease. Siana Nkya, a Fogarty grantee based in Tanzania, has devoted her career to studying the genetic determinants of sickle cell disease, which affects many people around the world, including in the U.S. We hope that US-African partnerships might develop improved, affordable treatments and a cure for all patients with this devastating disease. Similarly, people in the U.S. have access to state-of-the-art HIV treatment studies in places around the globe where incidence rates are higher.

Fogarty has supported many milestone achievements in HIV research over the years. Among them is a study that took place in nine countries. The research, led by Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, established that antiretroviral therapy can prevent sexual transmission of HIV-1 among couples in which one person is infected and the other is not. In fact, this research informs current HIV treatment recommendations worldwide, including in the U.S.

Americans will also undoubtedly benefit from projects funded by Fogarty’s Global Brain and Nervous System Disorders Research across the Lifespan program. For example, psychologist Tatiana Balachova, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, has designed an intervention for women in Russia to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. In another project in South Africa, Sandra and Joseph Jacobson, Wayne State University, Detroit, conducted the first-ever prospective longitudinal study of the syndrome. Findings from both projects are ripe for translation within an American context.

Other examples of Global Brain program investigations with broad implications in our own country include studying early psychosis in China; capacity building for schizophrenia research in Macedonia; exploring family consequences from the Zika virus in Brazil; and studying dementia and related health and social challenges in Lebanon.

These are just a few examples of Fogarty’s work and its unique mission. What is most remarkable about Fogarty is that just under 90 percent of our grants are co-funded by at least one other NIH institute, center, or office. Collaboration, both within borders and across them, is Fogarty’s formula for success.

Links:

Fogarty International Center (NIH)

Overview of Brain Disorders: Research Across the Lifespan (Fogarty)

Former Fogarty Scholar Dr Jessica Manning Helps Cambodia Respond to COVID (Fogarty)

Christian Happi: Former Fogarty Grantee Leads COVID-19 Genomics Work in Africa (Fogarty)

Sikhulile Moyo: Fogarty Fellow Recognized for Omicron Discovery (Fogarty)

William Duke: Former Fogarty HIV Trainee Helps Lead Dominican Republic’s COVID Response (Fogarty)

Kenneth Kosic and Francisco Lopera: NIH Support Spurs Alzheimer’s Research in Colombia (Fogarty)

Former Fogarty fellow Siana Nkya Tackles Sickle Cell Disease in Tanzania (Fogarty)

Tatiana Balachova: Researchers Tackle Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Russia (Fogarty)

Sandra and Joseph Jacobson: Fetal Alcohol Exposure Research Supported by NIAAA in South Africa, Ukraine and Russia Improves Prevention, Outcomes (Fogarty)

Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, 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 22nd in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Gratitude for Biomedical Progress and All Those Who Make It Possible

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Group of people holding hands around a dinner table
Credit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

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

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

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


Understanding Long-Term COVID-19 Symptoms and Enhancing Recovery

Posted on by Walter J. Koroshetz, M.D., National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke

RECOVER: Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery. An Initiative Funded by the National Institutes of Health

We are in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and across the world, most restrictions have lifted, and society is trying to get back to “normal.” But for many people—potentially millions globally—there is no getting back to normal just yet.

They are still living with the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection, known as the post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), including Long COVID. These people continue to experience debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, pain, difficulty sleeping, racing heart rate, exercise intolerance, gastrointestinal and other symptoms, as well as cognitive problems that make it difficult to perform at work or school.

This is a public health issue that is in desperate need of answers. Research is essential to address the many puzzling aspects of Long COVID and guide us to effective responses that protect the nation’s long-term health.

For the past two years, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and my National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) along with several other NIH institutes and the office of the NIH Director, have been leading NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) initiative, a national research program to understand PASC.

The initiative studies core questions such as why COVID-19 infections can have lingering effects, why new symptoms may develop, and what is the impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on other diseases and conditions? Answering these fundamental questions will help to determine the underlying biologic basis of Long COVID. The answers will also help to tell us who is at risk for Long COVID and identify therapies to prevent or treat the condition.

The RECOVER initiative’s wide scope of research is also unprecedented. It is needed because Long COVID is so complex, and history indicates that similar post infectious conditions have defied definitive explanation or effective treatment. Indeed, those experiencing Long COVID report varying symptoms, making it highly unlikely that a single therapy will work for everyone, underscoring the need to pursue multiple therapeutic strategies.

To understand Long COVID fully, hundreds of RECOVER investigators are recruiting more than 17,000 adults (including pregnant people) and more than 18,000 children to take part in cohort studies. Hundreds of enrolling sites have been set up across the country. An autopsy research cohort will also provide further insight into how COVID-19 affects the body’s organs and tissues.

In addition, researchers will analyze electronic health records from millions of people to understand how Long COVID and its symptoms change over time. The RECOVER initiative is also utilizing consistent research protocols across all the study sites. The protocols have been carefully developed with input from patients and advocates, and they are designed to allow for consistent data collection, improve data sharing, and help to accelerate the pace of research.

From the very beginning, people suffering from Long COVID have been our partners in RECOVER. Patients and advocates have contributed important perspectives and provided valuable input into the master protocols and research plans.

Now, with RECOVER underway, individuals with Long COVID, their caregivers, and community members continue to serve a critical role in the Initiative. The National Community Engagement Group (NCEG) has been established to make certain that RECOVER meets the needs of all people affected by Long COVID. The RECOVER Patient and Community Engagement Strategy outlines all the approaches that RECOVER is using to engage with and gather input from individuals impacted by Long COVID.

The NIH recently made more than 40 awards to improve understanding of the underlying biology and pathology of Long COVID. There have already been several important findings published by RECOVER scientists.

For example, in a recent study published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, RECOVER investigators used machine learning to comb through electronic health records to look for signals that may predict whether someone has Long COVID [1]. As new findings, tools, and technologies continue to emerge that help advance our knowledge of the condition, the RECOVER Research Review (R3) Seminar Series will provide a forum for researchers and our partners with up-to-date information about Long COVID research.

It is important to note that post-viral conditions are not a new concept. Many, but not all, of the symptoms reported in Long COVID, including fatigue, post-exertional malaise, chronic musculoskeletal pain, sleep disorders, postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS), and cognitive issues, overlap with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

ME/CFS is a serious disease that can occur following infection and make people profoundly sick for decades. Like Long COVID, ME/CFS is a heterogenous condition that does not affect everybody in the same way, and the knowledge gained through research on Long COVID may also positively impact the understanding, treatment, and prevention of POTS, ME/CFS, and other chronic diseases.

Unlike other post-viral conditions, people who experience Long COVID were all infected by the same virus—albeit different variants—at a similar point in time. This creates a unique opportunity for RECOVER researchers to study post-viral conditions in real-time.

The opportunity enables scientists to study many people simultaneously while they are still infected to monitor their progress and recovery, and to try to understand why some individuals develop ongoing symptoms. A better understanding of the transition from acute to chronic disease may offer an opportunity to intervene, identify who is at risk of the transition, and develop therapies for people who experience symptoms long after the acute infection has resolved.

The RECOVER initiative will soon announce clinical trials, leveraging data from clinicians and patients in which symptom clusters were identified and can be targeted by various interventions. These trials will investigate therapies that are indicated for other non-COVID conditions and novel treatments for Long COVID.

Through extensive collaboration across the multiple NIH institutes and offices that contribute to the RECOVER effort, our hope is critical answers will emerge soon. These answers will help us to recognize the full range of outcomes and needs resulting from PASC and, most important, enable many people to make a full recovery from COVID-19. We are indebted to the over 10,000 subjects who have already enrolled in RECOVER. Their contributions and the hard work of the RECOVER investigators offer hope for the future to the millions still suffering from the pandemic.

Reference:

[1] Identifying who has long COVID in the USA: a machine learning approach using N3C data. Pfaff ER, Girvin AT, Bennett TD, Bhatia A, Brooks IM, Deer RR, Dekermanjian JP, Jolley SE, Kahn MG, Kostka K, McMurry JA, Moffitt R, Walden A, Chute CG, Haendel MA; N3C Consortium. Lancet Digit Health. 2022 Jul;4(7):e532-e541.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Long COVID (NIH)

RECOVER: Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (NIH)

NIH builds large nationwide study population of tens of thousands to support research on long-term effects of COVID-19,” NIH News Release, September 15, 2021.

Director’s Messages (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, 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 18th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Time to Get Boosted

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

Dr. Tabak receiving a vaccination in his shoulder
I got my COVID-19 bivalent vaccine booster last weekend. The Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 bivalent vaccine boosters should be now widely available in communities around the country. If it’s been two months since you completed your primary vaccination series or received a booster, you are eligible to receive the bivalent booster. I encourage all those eligible to get the updated vaccine booster, especially with winter on the way.

Using AI to Advance Understanding of Long COVID Syndrome

Posted on by Lawrence Tabak, D.D.S., Ph.D.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to present considerable public health challenges in the United States and around the globe. One of the most puzzling is why many people who get over an initial and often relatively mild COVID illness later develop new and potentially debilitating symptoms. These symptoms run the gamut including fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, anxiety, and gastrointestinal trouble.

People understandably want answers to help them manage this complex condition referred to as Long COVID syndrome. But because Long COVID is so variable from person to person, it’s extremely difficult to work backwards and determine what these people had in common that might have made them susceptible to Long COVID. The variability also makes it difficult to identify all those who have Long COVID, whether they realize it or not. But a recent study, published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, shows that a well-trained computer and its artificial intelligence can help.

Researchers found that computers, after scanning thousands of electronic health records (EHRs) from people with Long COVID, could reliably make the call. The results, though still preliminary and in need of further validation, point the way to developing a fast, easy-to-use computer algorithm to help determine whether a person with a positive COVID test is likely to battle Long COVID.

In this groundbreaking study, NIH-supported researchers led by Emily Pfaff, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and Melissa Haendel, the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, Aurora, relied on machine learning. In machine learning, a computer sifts through vast amounts of data to look for patterns. One reason machine learning is so powerful is that it doesn’t require humans to tell the computer which features it should look for. As such, machine learning can pick up on subtle patterns that people would otherwise miss.

In this case, Pfaff, Haendel, and team decided to “train” their computer on EHRs from people who had reported a COVID-19 infection. (The records are de-identified to protect patient privacy.) The researchers found just what they needed in the National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C), a national, publicly available data resource sponsored by NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. It is part of NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) initiative, which aims to improve understanding of Long COVID.

The researchers defined a group of more than 1.5 million adults in N3C who either had been diagnosed with COVID-19 or had a record of a positive COVID-19 test at least 90 days prior. Next, they examined common features, including any doctor visits, diagnoses, or medications, from the group’s roughly 100,000 adults.

They fed that EHR data into a computer, along with health information from almost 600 patients who’d been seen at a Long COVID clinic. They developed three machine learning models: one to identify potential long COVID patients across the whole dataset and two others that focused separately on people who had or hadn’t been hospitalized.

All three models proved effective for identifying people with potential Long-COVID. Each of the models had an 85 percent or better discrimination threshold, indicating they are highly accurate. That’s important because, once researchers can identify those with Long COVID in a large database of people such as N3C, they can begin to ask and answer many critical questions about any differences in an individual’s risk factors or treatment that might explain why some get Long COVID and others don’t.

This new study is also an excellent example of N3C’s goal to assemble data from EHRs that enable researchers around the world to get rapid answers and seek effective interventions for COVID-19, including its long-term health effects. It’s also made important progress toward the urgent goal of the RECOVER initiative to identify people with or at risk for Long COVID who may be eligible to participate in clinical trials of promising new treatment approaches.

Long COVID remains a puzzling public health challenge. Another recent NIH study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine set out to identify people with symptoms of Long COVID, most of whom had recovered from mild-to-moderate COVID-19 [2]. More than half had signs of Long COVID. But, despite extensive testing, the NIH researchers were unable to pinpoint any underlying cause of the Long COVID symptoms in most cases.

So if you’d like to help researchers solve this puzzle, RECOVER is now enrolling adults and kids—including those who have and have not had COVID—at more than 80 study sites around the country.

References:

[1] Identifying who has long COVID in the USA: a machine learning approach using N3C data. Pfaff ER, Girvin AT, Bennett TD, Bhatia A, Brooks IM, Deer RR, Dekermanjian JP, Jolley SE, Kahn MG, Kostka K, McMurry JA, Moffitt R, Walden A, Chute CG, Haendel MA; N3C Consortium. Lancet Digit Health. 2022 May 16:S2589-7500(22)00048-6.

[2] A longitudinal study of COVID-19 sequelae and immunity: baseline findings. Sneller MC, Liang CJ, Marques AR, Chung JY, Shanbhag SM, Fontana JR, Raza H, Okeke O, Dewar RL, Higgins BP, Tolstenko K, Kwan RW, Gittens KR, Seamon CA, McCormack G, Shaw JS, Okpali GM, Law M, Trihemasava K, Kennedy BD, Shi V, Justement JS, Buckner CM, Blazkova J, Moir S, Chun TW, Lane HC. Ann Intern Med. 2022 May 24:M21-4905.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

National COVID Cohort Collaborative (N3C) (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

RECOVER Initiative

Emily Pfaff (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Melissa Haendel (University of Colorado, Aurora)

NIH Support: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


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

Posted on by Bruce J. Tromberg, Ph.D., National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering

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.]


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