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Searching for Ways to Prevent Life-Threatening Blood Clots in COVID-19

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At Home with Gary Gibbons

Six months into the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers still have much to learn about the many ways in which COVID-19 can wreak devastation on the human body. Among the many mysteries is exactly how SARS-CoV-2, which is the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, triggers the formation of blood clots that can lead to strokes and other life-threatening complications, even in younger people.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with Dr. Gary Gibbons, Director of NIH’s Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) about what research is being done to tackle this baffling complication of COVID-19. Our conversation took place via videoconference, with him connecting from his home in Washington, D.C., and me linking in from my home just up the road in Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:

Collins: I’m going to start by asking about the SARS-CoV-2-induced blood clotting not only in the lungs, but in other parts of the body. What do we know about the virus that would explain this?

Gibbons: It seems like every few weeks another page gets turned on COVID-19, and we learn even more about how this virus affects the body. Blood clots are one of the startling and, unfortunately, devastating complications that emerged as patients were cared for, particularly in New York City. It became apparent that certain individuals had difficulty getting enough oxygen into their system. The difficulty couldn’t be explained entirely by the extent of the pneumonia affecting the lungs’ ability to exchange oxygen.

It turned out that, in addition to the pneumonia, blood clots in the lungs were compromising oxygenation. But some patients also had clotting, or thrombotic, complications in their veins and arteries in other parts of the body. Quite puzzling. There were episodes of relatively young individuals in their 30s and 40s presenting with strokes related to blood clots affecting the arterial circulation to the brain.

We’re still trying to understand what promotes the clotting. One clue involves the endothelial cells that form the inner lining of our blood vessels. These cells have on their surface a protein called the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptor, and this clue is important for two reasons. One, the virus attaches to the ACE2 receptor, using it as an entry point to infect cells. Two, endothelial-lined blood vessels extend to every organ in the body. Taken together, it seems that some COVID-19 complications relate to the virus attaching to endothelial cells, not only in the lungs, but in the heart and multiple organs.

Collins: So, starting in the respiratory tree, the virus somehow breaks through into a blood vessel and then gets spread around the body. There have been strange reports of people with COVID-19 who may not get really sick, but their toes look frostbitten. Is “COVID toes,” as some people call it, also part of this same syndrome?

Gibbons: We’re still in the early days of learning about this virus. But I think this offers a further clue that the virus not only affects large vessels but small vessels. In fact, clots have been reported at the capillary level, and that’s fairly unusual. It’s suggestive that an interaction is taking place between the platelets and the endothelial surface.

Normally, there’s a tightly regulated balance in the bloodstream between pro-coagulant and anticoagulant proteins to prevent clotting and keep the blood flowing. But when you cut your finger, for example, you get activation for blood clots in the form of a protein mesh. It looks like a fishing net that can help seal the injury. In addition, platelets in the blood stream help to plug the holes in that fishing net and create a real seal of a blood vessel.

Well, imagine it happening in those small vessels, which usually have a non-stick endothelial surface, almost like Teflon, that prevents clotting. Then the virus comes along and tips the balance toward promoting clot formation. This disturbs the Teflon-like property of the endothelial lining and makes it sticky. It’s incredible the tricks this virus has learned by binding onto one of these molecules in the endothelial lining.

Collins: Who are the COVID-19 patients most at risk for this clotting problem?

Gibbons: Unfortunately, it appears right now that older adults are among the most vulnerable. They have a lot of the risks for the formation of these blood clots. What’s notable is these thrombotic complications are also happening to relatively young adults or middle-aged individuals who don’t have a lot of other chronic conditions, or comorbidities, to put them at higher risk for severe disease. Again, it’s suggestive that this virus is doing something that is particular to the coagulation system.

Collins: We’d love to have a way of identifying in advance the people who are most likely to get into trouble with blood clotting. They might be the ones you’d want to start on an intervention, even before you have evidence that things are getting out of control. Do you have any kind of biomarker to tell you which patients might benefit from early intervention?

Gibbons: Biomarkers are being actively studied. What we do know from some earlier observations is that you can assess the balance of clotting and anticlotting factors in the blood by measuring a biomarker called D-dimer. It’s basically a protein fragment, a degradation product, from a prior clot. It tells you a bit about the system’s activity in forming and dissolving clots.
If there’s a lot of D-dimer activity, it suggests a coagulation cascade is jazzed up. In those patients, it’s probably a clue that this is a big trigger in terms of coagulation and thrombosis. So, D-dimer levels could maybe tell us which patients need really aggressive full anticoagulation.

Collins: Have people tried empirically using blood thinners for people who seem to be getting into trouble with this clotting problem?

Gibbons: There’s a paper out of the Mount Sinai in New York City that looked at thousands of patients being treated for COVID-19 [1]. Based on clinical practice and judgments, one of the striking findings is that those who were fully anticoagulated had better survival than those who were not. Now, this was not a randomized, controlled clinical trial, where some were given full anticoagulation and others were not. It was just an observational study that showed an association. But this study indicated indirectly that by giving the blood thinners, changing that thrombotic risk, maybe it’s possible to reduce morbidity and mortality. That’s why we need to do a randomized, controlled clinical trial to see if it can be used to reduce these case fatality rates.

Collins: You and your colleagues got together and came up with a design for such a clinical trial. Tell us about that.

Gibbons: My institute studies the heart, lung, and blood. The virus attacks all three. So, our community has a compelling need to lean in and study COVID-19. Recently, NIH helped to launch a public-private partnership called Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV). As the name spells out, this initiative provides is a clinical platform to generate life-saving treatments as we wait for the development of a vaccine.

Through ACTIV, a protocol is now in the final stages of review for a clinical trial that will involve a network of hospitals and explore the question: is it sufficient to try a low-dose thrombo-prophylactic, or clot preventative, approach versus full anticoagulation? Some think patients ought to have full anticoagulation, but that’s not without risk. So, we want to put that question to the test. As part of that, we’ll also learn more about biomarkers and what could be predictive of individuals getting the greatest benefit.

If we find that fully anticoagulating patients prevents clots, then that’s great. But it begs the question: what happens when patients go home? Is it sufficient to just turn off the drip and let them go their merry way? Should they have a low dose thrombo-prophylactic regimen for a period of time? If so, how long? Or should they be fully anticoagulated with oral anticoagulation for a certain period of time? All these and other questions still remain.

Collins: This can make a huge difference. If you’re admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, that means you’re pretty sick and, based on the numbers that I’ve seen, your chance of dying is about 12 percent if nothing else happens. If we can find something like an anticoagulant that would reduce that risk substantially, we can have a huge impact on reducing deaths from COVID-19. How soon can we get this trial going, Gary?

Gibbons: We have a sense of urgency that clearly this pandemic is taking too many lives and time is of the essence. So, we’ve indeed had a very streamlined process. We’re leveraging the fact that we have clinical trial networks, where regardless of what they were planning to do, it’s all hands on deck. As a result, we’re able to move faster to align with that sense of urgency. We hope that we can be off to a quick launch within the next two to three weeks with the anticoagulation trials.

Collins: This is good because people are waiting on the vaccines, but realistically we won’t know whether the vaccines are working for several more months, and having them available for lots of people will be at the very end of this year or early 2021 at best. Meanwhile, people still are going to be getting sick with COVID-19. We want to be able to have as many therapeutic options as possible to offer to them. And this seems like a pretty exciting one to try and move forward as quickly as possible. You and your colleagues deserve a lot of credit for bringing this to everybody’s attention.

But before we sign off, I have to raise another issue of deep significance. Gary, I think both of us are struggling not only with the impact of COVID-19 on the world, but the profound sorrow, grief, frustration, and anger that surrounds the death of George Floyd. This brings into acute focus the far too numerous other circumstances where African Americans have been mistreated and subjected to tragic outcomes.

This troubling time also shines a light on the health disparities that affect our nation in so many ways. We can see what COVID-19 has done to certain underrepresented groups who have borne an undue share of the burden, and have suffered injustices at the hands of society. It’s been tough for many of us to admit that our country is far from treating everyone equally, but it’s a learning opportunity and a call to redouble our efforts to find solutions.

Gary, you’ve been a wonderful leader in that conversation for a long time. I want to thank you both for what you’re doing scientifically and for your willingness to speak the truth and stand up for what’s right and fair. It’s been great talking to you about all these issues.

Gibbons: Thank you. We appreciate this opportunity to fulfill NIH’s mission of turning scientific discovery into better health for all. If there’s any moment that our nation needs us, this is it.

Reference:

[1] Association of Treatment Dose Anticoagulation With In-Hospital Survival Among Hospitalized Patients With COVID-19. Paranjpe I, Fuster V, Lala A, Russak A, Glicksberg BS, Levin MA, Charney AW, Narula J, Fayad ZA, Bagiella E, Zhao S, Nadkarni GN. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020 May 5;S0735-1097(20)35218-9.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rising to the Challenge of COVID-19: The NHLBI Community Response,” Director’s Messages, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH, April 29, 2020.

Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) (NIH)


Gene Therapy Shows Promise Repairing Brain Tissue Damaged by Stroke

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Glial Gene Therapy
Caption: Neurons (red) converted from glial cells using a new NeuroD1-based gene therapy in mice. Credit: Chen Laboratory, Penn State, University Park

It’s a race against time when someone suffers a stroke caused by a blockage of a blood vessel supplying the brain. Unless clot-busting treatment is given within a few hours after symptoms appear, vast numbers of the brain’s neurons die, often leading to paralysis or other disabilities. It would be great to have a way to replace those lost neurons. Thanks to gene therapy, some encouraging strides are now being made.

In a recent study in Molecular Therapy, researchers reported that, in their mouse and rat models of ischemic stroke, gene therapy could actually convert the brain’s support cells into new, fully functional neurons [1]. Even better, after gaining the new neurons, the animals had improved motor and memory skills.

For the team led by Gong Chen, Penn State, University Park, the quest to replace lost neurons in the brain began about a decade ago. While searching for the right approach, Chen noticed other groups had learned to reprogram fibroblasts into stem cells and make replacement neural cells.

As innovative as this work was at the time, it was performed mostly in lab Petri dishes. Chen and his colleagues thought, why not reprogram cells already in the brain?

They turned their attention to the brain’s billions of supportive glial cells. Unlike neurons, glial cells divide and replicate. They also are known to survive and activate following a brain injury, remaining at the wound and ultimately forming a scar. This same process had also been observed in the brain following many types of injury, including stroke and neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

To Chen’s NIH-supported team, it looked like glial cells might be a perfect target for gene therapies to replace lost neurons. As reported about five years ago, the researchers were on the right track [2].

The Chen team showed it was possible to reprogram glial cells in the brain into functional neurons. They succeeded using a genetically engineered retrovirus that delivered a single protein called NeuroD1. It’s a neural transcription factor that switches genes on and off in neural cells and helps to determine their cell fate. The newly generated neurons were also capable of integrating into brain circuits to repair damaged tissue.

There was one major hitch: the NeuroD1 retroviral vector only reprogrammed actively dividing glial cells. That suggested their strategy likely couldn’t generate the large numbers of new cells needed to repair damaged brain tissue following a stroke.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and improved adeno-associated viral vectors (AAV) have emerged as a major alternative to retroviruses for gene therapy applications. This was exactly the breakthrough that the Chen team needed. The AAVs can reprogram glial cells whether they are dividing or not.

In the new study, Chen’s team, led by post-doc Yu-Chen Chen, put this new gene therapy system to work, and the results are quite remarkable. In a mouse model of ischemic stroke, the researchers showed the treatment could regenerate about a third of the total lost neurons by preferentially targeting reactive, scar-forming glial cells. The conversion of those reactive glial cells into neurons also protected another third of the neurons from injury.

Studies in brain slices showed that the replacement neurons were fully functional and appeared to have made the needed neural connections in the brain. Importantly, their studies also showed that the NeuroD1 gene therapy led to marked improvements in the functional recovery of the mice after a stroke.

In fact, several tests of their ability to make fine movements with their forelimbs showed about a 60 percent improvement within 20 to 60 days of receiving the NeuroD1 therapy. Together with study collaborator and NIH grantee Gregory Quirk, University of Puerto Rico, San Juan, they went on to show similar improvements in the ability of rats to recover from stroke-related deficits in memory.

While further study is needed, the findings in rodents offer encouraging evidence that treatments to repair the brain after a stroke or other injury may be on the horizon. In the meantime, the best strategy for limiting the number of neurons lost due to stroke is to recognize the signs and get to a well-equipped hospital or call 911 right away if you or a loved one experience them. Those signs include: sudden numbness or weakness of one side of the body; confusion; difficulty speaking, seeing, or walking; and a sudden, severe headache with unknown causes. Getting treatment for this kind of “brain attack” within four hours of the onset of symptoms can make all the difference in recovery.

References:

[1] A NeuroD1 AAV-Based gene therapy for functional brain repair after ischemic injury through in vivo astrocyte-to-neuron conversion. Chen Y-C et al. Molecular Therapy. Published online September 6, 2019.

[2] In vivo direct reprogramming of reactive glial cells into functional neurons after brain injury and in an Alzheimer’s disease model. Guo Z, Zhang L, Wu Z, Chen Y, Wang F, Chen G. Cell Stem Cell. 2014 Feb 6;14(2):188-202.

Links:

Stroke (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Gene Therapy (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Chen Lab (Penn State, University Park)

NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Mental Health


New Grants Explore Benefits of Music on Health

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It’s not every day you get to perform with one of the finest voices on the planet. What an honor it was to join renowned opera singer Renée Fleming back in May for a rendition of “How Can I Keep from Singing?” at the NIH’s J. Edward Rall Cultural Lecture. Yet our duet was so much more. Between the song’s timeless message and Renée’s matchless soprano, the music filled me with a profound sense of joy, like being briefly lifted outside myself into a place of beauty and well-being. How does that happen?

Indeed, the benefits of music for human health and well-being have long been recognized. But biomedical science still has a quite limited understanding of music’s mechanisms of action in the brain, as well as its potential to ease symptoms of an array of disorders including Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a major step toward using rigorous science to realize music’s potential for improving human health, NIH has just awarded $20 million over five years to support the first research projects of the Sound Health initiative. Launched a couple of years ago, Sound Health is a partnership between NIH and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts.

With support from 10 NIH institutes and centers, the Sound Health awardees will, among other things, study how music might improve the motor skills of people with Parkinson’s disease. Previous research has shown that the beat of a metronome can steady the gait of someone with Parkinson’s disease, but more research is needed to determine exactly why that happens.

Other fascinating areas to be explored by the Sound Health awardees include:

• Assessing how active music interventions, often called music therapies, affect multiple biomarkers that correlate with improvement in health status. The aim is to provide a more holistic understanding of how such interventions serve to ease cancer-related stress and possibly even improve immune function.

• Investigating the effects of music on the developing brain of infants as they learn to talk. Such work may be especially helpful for youngsters at high risk for speech and language disorders.

• Studying synchronization of musical rhythm as part of social development. This research will look at how this process is disrupted in children with autism spectrum disorder, possibly suggesting ways of developing music-based interventions to improve communication.

• Examining the memory-related impacts of repeated exposures to a certain song or musical phrase, including those “earworms” that get “stuck” in our heads. This work might tell us more about how music sometimes serves as a cue for retrieving associated memories, even in people whose memory skills are impaired by Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive disorders.

• Tracing the developmental timeline—from childhood to adulthood—of how music shapes the brain. This will include studying how musical training at different points on that timeline may influence attention span, executive function, social/emotional functioning, and language skills.

We are fortunate to live in an exceptional time of discovery in neuroscience, as well as an extraordinary era of creativity in music. These Sound Health grants represent just the beginning of what I hope will be a long and productive partnership that brings these creative fields together. I am convinced that the power of science holds tremendous promise for improving the effectiveness of music-based interventions, and expanding their reach to improve the health and well-being of people suffering from a wide variety of conditions.

Links:

The Soprano and the Scientist: A Conversation About Music and Medicine, (National Public Radio, June 2, 2017)

NIH Workshop on Music and Health, January 2017

Sound Health (NIH)

NIH Support: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health; National Eye Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism; National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Nursing Research; Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research; Office of the Director


Can a Mind-Reading Computer Speak for Those Who Cannot?

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Credit: Adapted from Nima Mesgarani, Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York

Computers have learned to do some amazing things, from beating the world’s ranking chess masters to providing the equivalent of feeling in prosthetic limbs. Now, as heard in this brief audio clip counting from zero to nine, an NIH-supported team has combined innovative speech synthesis technology and artificial intelligence to teach a computer to read a person’s thoughts and translate them into intelligible speech.

Turning brain waves into speech isn’t just fascinating science. It might also prove life changing for people who have lost the ability to speak from conditions such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or a debilitating stroke.

When people speak or even think about talking, their brains fire off distinctive, but previously poorly decoded, patterns of neural activity. Nima Mesgarani and his team at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute, New York, wanted to learn how to decode this neural activity.

Mesgarani and his team started out with a vocoder, a voice synthesizer that produces sounds based on an analysis of speech. It’s the very same technology used by Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or other similar devices to listen and respond appropriately to everyday commands.

As reported in Scientific Reports, the first task was to train a vocoder to produce synthesized sounds in response to brain waves instead of speech [1]. To do it, Mesgarani teamed up with neurosurgeon Ashesh Mehta, Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine, Manhasset, NY, who frequently performs brain mapping in people with epilepsy to pinpoint the sources of seizures before performing surgery to remove them.

In five patients already undergoing brain mapping, the researchers monitored activity in the auditory cortex, where the brain processes sound. The patients listened to recordings of short stories read by four speakers. In the first test, eight different sentences were repeated multiple times. In the next test, participants heard four new speakers repeat numbers from zero to nine.

From these exercises, the researchers reconstructed the words that people heard from their brain activity alone. Then the researchers tried various methods to reproduce intelligible speech from the recorded brain activity. They found it worked best to combine the vocoder technology with a form of computer artificial intelligence known as deep learning.

Deep learning is inspired by how our own brain’s neural networks process information, learning to focus on some details but not others. In deep learning, computers look for patterns in data. As they begin to “see” complex relationships, some connections in the network are strengthened while others are weakened.

In this case, the researchers used the deep learning networks to interpret the sounds produced by the vocoder in response to the brain activity patterns. When the vocoder-produced sounds were processed and “cleaned up” by those neural networks, it made the reconstructed sounds easier for a listener to understand as recognizable words, though this first attempt still sounds pretty robotic.

The researchers will continue testing their system with more complicated words and sentences. They also want to run the same tests on brain activity, comparing what happens when a person speaks or just imagines speaking. They ultimately envision an implant, similar to those already worn by some patients with epilepsy, that will translate a person’s thoughts into spoken words. That might open up all sorts of awkward moments if some of those thoughts weren’t intended for transmission!

Along with recently highlighted new ways to catch irregular heartbeats and cervical cancers, it’s yet another remarkable example of the many ways in which computers and artificial intelligence promise to transform the future of medicine.

Reference:

[1] Towards reconstructing intelligible speech from the human auditory cortex. Akbari H, Khalighinejad B, Herrero JL, Mehta AD, Mesgarani N. Sci Rep. 2019 Jan 29;9(1):874.

Links:

Advances in Neuroprosthetic Learning and Control. Carmena JM. PLoS Biol. 2013;11(5):e1001561.

Nima Mesgarani (Columbia University, New York)

NIH Support: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders; National Institute of Mental Health


Skin Cells Can Be Reprogrammed In Vivo

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Daniel Gallego-Perez
Credit: The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus

Thousands of Americans are rushed to the hospital each day with traumatic injuries. Daniel Gallego-Perez hopes that small chips similar to the one that he’s touching with a metal stylus in this photo will one day be a part of their recovery process.

The chip, about one square centimeter in size, includes an array of tiny channels with the potential to regenerate damaged tissue in people. Gallego-Perez, a researcher at The Ohio State University Colleges of Medicine and Engineering, Columbus, has received a 2018 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to develop the chip to reprogram skin and other cells to become other types of tissue needed for healing. The reprogrammed cells then could regenerate and restore injured neural or vascular tissue right where it’s needed.

Gallego-Perez and his Ohio State colleagues wondered if it was possible to engineer a device placed on the skin that’s capable of delivering reprogramming factors directly into cells, eliminating the need for the viral delivery vectors now used in such work. While such a goal might sound futuristic, Gallego-Perez and colleagues offered proof-of-principle last year in Nature Nanotechnology that such a chip can reprogram skin cells in mice. [1]

Here’s how it works: First, the chip’s channels are loaded with specific reprogramming factors, including DNA or proteins, and then the chip is placed on the skin. A small electrical current zaps the chip’s channels, driving reprogramming factors through cell membranes and into cells. The process, called tissue nanotransfection (TNT), is finished in milliseconds.

To see if the chips could help heal injuries, researchers used them to reprogram skin cells into vascular cells in mice. Not only did the technology regenerate blood vessels and restore blood flow to injured legs, the animals regained use of those limbs within two weeks of treatment.

The researchers then went on to show that they could use the chips to reprogram mouse skin cells into neural tissue. When proteins secreted by those reprogrammed skin cells were injected into mice with brain injuries, it helped them recover.

In the newly funded work, Gallego-Perez wants to take the approach one step further. His team will use the chip to reprogram harder-to-reach tissues within the body, including peripheral nerves and the brain. The hope is that the device will reprogram cells surrounding an injury, even including scar tissue, and “repurpose” them to encourage nerve repair and regeneration. Such an approach may help people who’ve suffered a stroke or traumatic nerve injury.

If all goes well, this TNT method could one day fill an important niche in emergency medicine. Gallego-Perez’s work is also a fine example of just one of the many amazing ideas now being pursued in the emerging field of regenerative medicine.

Reference:

[1] Topical tissue nano-transfection mediates non-viral stroma reprogramming and rescue. Gallego-Perez D, Pal D, Ghatak S, Malkoc V, Higuita-Castro N, Gnyawali S, Chang L, Liao WC, Shi J, Sinha M, Singh K, Steen E, Sunyecz A, Stewart R, Moore J, Ziebro T, Northcutt RG, Homsy M, Bertani P, Lu W, Roy S, Khanna S, Rink C, Sundaresan VB, Otero JJ, Lee LJ, Sen CK. Nat Nanotechnol. 2017 Oct;12(10):974-979.

Links:

Stroke Information (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Burns and Traumatic Injury (NIH)

Peripheral Neuropathy (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Video: Breakthrough Device Heals Organs with a Single Touch (YouTube)

Gallego-Perez Lab (The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus)

Gallego-Perez Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


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