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Taking a Closer Look at COVID-19’s Effects on the Brain

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MRI of a brain damaged by COVID-19
Caption: Magnetic resonance microscopy showing lower part of a COVID-19 patient’s brain stem postmortem. Arrows point to light and dark spots indicative of blood vessel damage with no signs of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Credit: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH

While primarily a respiratory disease, COVID-19 can also lead to neurological problems. The first of these symptoms might be the loss of smell and taste, while some people also may later battle headaches, debilitating fatigue, and trouble thinking clearly, sometimes referred to as “brain fog.” All of these symptoms have researchers wondering how exactly the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, affects the human brain.

In search of clues, researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) have now conducted the first in-depth examinations of human brain tissue samples from people who died after contracting COVID-19. Their findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that COVID-19’s many neurological symptoms are likely explained by the body’s widespread inflammatory response to infection and associated blood vessel injury—not by infection of the brain tissue itself [1].

The NIH team, led by Avindra Nath, used a high-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner (up to 10 times as sensitive as a typical MRI) to examine postmortem brain tissue from 19 patients. They ranged in age from 5 to 73, and some had preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
The team focused on the brain’s olfactory bulb that controls our ability to smell and the brainstem, which regulates breathing and heart rate. Based on earlier evidence, both areas are thought to be highly susceptible to COVID-19.

Indeed, the MRI images revealed in both regions an unusual number of bright spots, a sign of inflammation. They also showed dark spots, which indicate bleeding. A closer look at the bright spots showed that tiny blood vessels in those areas were thinner than normal and, in some cases, leaked blood proteins into the brain. This leakage appeared to trigger an immune reaction that included T cells from the blood and the brain’s scavenging microglia. The dark spots showed a different pattern, with leaky vessels and clots but no evidence of an immune reaction.

While those findings are certainly interesting, perhaps equally noteworthy is what Nath and colleagues didn’t see in those samples. They could find no evidence in the brain tissue samples that SARS-CoV-2 had invaded the brain tissue. In fact, several methods to detect genetic material or proteins from the virus all turned up empty.

The findings are especially intriguing because there has been some suggestion based on studies in mice that SARS-CoV-2 might cross the blood-brain barrier and invade the brain. Indeed, a recent report by NIH-funded researchers in Nature Neuroscience showed that the viral spike protein, when injected into mice, readily entered the brain along with many other organs [2].

Another recent report in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, which used mouse and human brain tissue, suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may indeed directly infect the central nervous system, including the brain [3]. In autopsies of three people who died from complications of COVID-19, the NIH-supported researchers detected signs of SARS-CoV-2 in neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex. This work was done using the microscopy-based technique of immunohistochemistry, which uses antibodies to bind to a target, in this case, the virus’s spike protein. Also last month, in a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, another NIH-supported team demonstrated in a series of experiments in cell culture that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could cross a 3D model of the blood-brain barrier and infect the endothelial cells that line blood vessels in the brain [4].

Clearly, more research is needed, and NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has just launched the COVID-19 Neuro Databank/Biobank (NeuroCOVID) to collect more clinical information, primarily about COVID-19-related neurological symptoms, complications, and outcomes. Meanwhile, Nath and colleagues continue to explore how COVID-19 affects the brain and triggers the neurological symptoms often seen in people with COVID-19. As we learn more about the many ways COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the body, understanding the neurological symptoms will be critical in helping people, including the so-called Long Haulers bounce back from this terrible viral infection.

References:

[1] Microvascular Injury in the Brains of Patients with Covid-19. Lee MH, Perl DP, Nair G, Li W, Maric D, Murray H, Dodd SJ, Koretsky AP, Watts JA, Cheung V, Masliah E, Horkayne-Szakaly I, Jones R, Stram MN, Moncur J, Hefti M, Folkerth RD, Nath A. N Engl J Med. 2020 Dec 30.

[2] The S1 protein of SARS-CoV-2 crosses the blood-brain barrier in mice. Rhea EM, Logsdon AF, Hansen KM, Williams LM, Reed MJ, Baumann KK, Holden SJ, Raber J, Banks WA, Erickson MA. Nat Neurosci. 2020 Dec 16.

[3] Neuroinvasion of SARS-CoV-2 in human and mouse brain. Song E, Zhang C, Israelow B, et al. J Exp Med (2021) 218 (3): e20202135.

[4] The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alters barrier function in 2D static and 3D microfluidic in-vitro models of the human blood-brain barrier. Buzhdygan TP, DeOre BJ, Baldwin-Leclair A, Bullock TA, McGary HM, Khan JA, Razmpour R, Hale JF, Galie PA, Potula R, Andrews AM, Ramirez SH. Neurobiol Dis. 2020 Dec;146:105131.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Avindra Nath (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Mental Health


The People’s Picks for Best Posts

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It’s 2021—Happy New Year! Time sure flies in the blogosphere. It seems like just yesterday that I started the NIH Director’s Blog to highlight recent advances in biology and medicine, many supported by NIH. Yet it turns out that more than eight years have passed since this blog got rolling and we are fast approaching my 1,000th post!

I’m pleased that millions of you have clicked on these posts to check out some very cool science and learn more about NIH and its mission. Thanks to the wonders of social media software, we’ve been able to tally up those views to determine each year’s most-popular post. So, I thought it would be fun to ring in the New Year by looking back at a few of your favorites, sort of a geeky version of a top 10 countdown or the People’s Choice Awards. It was interesting to see what topics generated the greatest interest. Spoiler alert: diet and exercise seemed to matter a lot! So, without further ado, I present the winners:

2013: Fighting Obesity: New Hopes from Brown Fat. Brown fat, one of several types of fat made by our bodies, was long thought to produce body heat rather than store energy. But Shingo Kajimura and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, showed in a study published in the journal Nature, that brown fat does more than that. They discovered a gene that acts as a molecular switch to produce brown fat, then linked mutations in this gene to obesity in humans.

What was also nice about this blog post is that it appeared just after Kajimura had started his own lab. In fact, this was one of the lab’s first publications. One of my goals when starting the blog was to feature young researchers, and this work certainly deserved the attention it got from blog readers. Since highlighting this work, research on brown fat has continued to progress, with new evidence in humans suggesting that brown fat is an effective target to improve glucose homeostasis.

2014: In Memory of Sam Berns. I wrote this blog post as a tribute to someone who will always be very near and dear to me. Sam Berns was born with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, one of the rarest of rare diseases. After receiving the sad news that this brave young man had passed away, I wrote: “Sam may have only lived 17 years, but in his short life he taught the rest of us a lot about how to live.”

Affecting approximately 400 people worldwide, progeria causes premature aging. Without treatment, children with progeria, who have completely normal intellectual development, die of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, on average in their early teens.

From interactions with Sam and his parents in the early 2000s, I started to study progeria in my NIH lab, eventually identifying the gene responsible for the disorder. My group and others have learned a lot since then. So, it was heartening last November when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment for progeria. It’s an oral medication called Zokinvy (lonafarnib) that helps prevent the buildup of defective protein that has deadly consequences. In clinical trials, the drug increased the average survival time of those with progeria by more than two years. It’s a good beginning, but we have much more work to do in the memory of Sam and to help others with progeria. Watch for more about new developments in applying gene editing to progeria in the next few days.

2015: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol. Readers absolutely loved this post. When the American Society of Cell Biology held its first annual video competition, called CellDance, my blog featured some of the winners. Among them was this captivating video from Alex Ritter, then working with cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The video stars a roving, specialized component of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. Their job is to seek out and destroy any foreign or detrimental cells. Here, these T cells literally convince a problem cell to commit suicide, a process that takes about 10 minutes from detection to death.

These cytotoxic T cells are critical players in cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. Cancer immunotherapy remains a promising area of research that continues to progress, with a lot of attention now being focused on developing immunotherapies for common, solid tumors like breast cancer. Ritter is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Ira Mellman, Genentech, South San Francisco. His focus has shifted to how cancer cells protect themselves from T cells. And video buffs—get this—Ritter says he’s now created even cooler videos that than the one in this post.

2016: Exercise Releases Brain-Healthy Protein. The research literature is pretty clear: exercise is good for the brain. In this very popular post, researchers led by Hyo Youl Moon and Henriette van Praag of NIH’s National Institute on Aging identified a protein secreted by skeletal muscle cells to help explore the muscle-brain connection. In a study in Cell Metabolism, Moon and his team showed that this protein called cathepsin B makes its way into the brain and after a good workout influences the development of new neural connections. This post is also memorable to me for the photo collage that accompanied the original post. Why? If you look closely at the bottom right, you’ll see me exercising—part of my regular morning routine!

2017: Muscle Enzyme Explains Weight Gain in Middle Age. The struggle to maintain a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge for many of us. While several risk factors for weight gain, such as counting calories, are within our control, there’s a major one that isn’t: age. Jay Chung, a researcher with NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and his team discovered that the normal aging process causes levels of an enzyme called DNA-PK to rise in animals as they approach middle age. While the enzyme is known for its role in DNA repair, their studies showed it also slows down metabolism, making it more difficult to burn fat.

Since publishing this paper in Cell Metabolism, Chung has been busy trying to understand how aging increases the activity of DNA-PK and its ability to suppress renewal of the cell’s energy-producing mitochondria. Without renewal of damaged mitochondria, excess oxidants accumulate in cells that then activate DNA-PK, which contributed to the damage in the first place. Chung calls it a “vicious cycle” of aging and one that we’ll be learning more about in the future.

2018: Has an Alternative to Table Sugar Contributed to the C. Diff. Epidemic? This impressive bit of microbial detective work had blog readers clicking and commenting for several weeks. So, it’s no surprise that it was the runaway People’s Choice of 2018.

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a common bacterium that lives harmlessly in the gut of most people. But taking antibiotics can upset the normal balance of healthy gut microbes, allowing C. diff. to multiply and produce toxins that cause inflammation and diarrhea.

In the 2000s, C. diff. infections became far more serious and common in American hospitals, and Robert Britton, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wanted to know why. He and his team discovered that two subtypes of C. diff have adapted to feed on the sugar trehalose, which was approved as a food additive in the United States during the early 2000s. The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature, suggested that hospitals and nursing homes battling C. diff. outbreaks may want to take a closer look at the effect of trehalose in the diet of their patients.

2019: Study Finds No Benefit for Dietary Supplements. This post that was another one that sparked a firestorm of comments from readers. A team of NIH-supported researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, found that people who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to amounts that are available from food consumption. The researchers based their conclusion on an analysis of the well-known National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 survey data. The team, which reported its data in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess.

2020: Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19. Typically, my blog focuses on research involving many different diseases. That changed in 2020 due to the emergence of a formidable public health challenge: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Since last March, the blog has featured 85 posts on COVID-19, covering all aspects of the research response and attracting more visitors than ever. And which post got the most views? It was one that highlighted a study, published last June in the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggested the clues to people’s variable responses to COVID-19 may be found in our genes and our blood types.

The researchers found that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death. The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system.

In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.

That’s it for the blog’s year-by-year Top Hits. But wait! I’d also like to give shout outs to the People’s Choice winners in two other important categories—history and cool science images.

Top History Post: HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story. Published in August 2013, this post remains one of the blog’s greatest hits with readers. The post highlights science’s use of cancer cells taken in the 1950s from a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells had an amazing property not seen before: they could be grown continuously in laboratory conditions. The “new chapter” featured in this post is an agreement with the Lacks family that gives researchers access to the HeLa genome data, while still protecting the family’s privacy and recognizing their enormous contribution to medical research. And the acknowledgments rightfully keep coming from those who know this remarkable story, which has been chronicled in both book and film. Recently, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to honor her extraordinary life and examine access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups.

Top Snapshots of Life: A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells. My blog posts come in several categories. One that you may have noticed is “Snapshots of Life,” which provides a showcase for cool images that appear in scientific journals and often dominate Science as Art contests. My blog has published dozens of these eye-catching images, representing a broad spectrum of the biomedical sciences. But the blog People’s Choice goes to a very recent addition that reveals exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when they are infected with the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. This vivid image, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This image squeezed in just ahead of another highly popular post from Steve Ramirez, Boston University, in 2019 that showed “What a Memory Looks Like.”

As we look ahead to 2021, I want to thank each of my blog’s readers for your views and comments over the last eight years. I love to hear from you, so keep on clicking! I’m confident that 2021 will generate a lot more amazing and bloggable science, including even more progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic that made our past year so very challenging.


Insulin-Producing Organoids Offer Hope for Treating Type 1 Diabetes

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Insulin-producing organoid
Caption: Human islet-like organoids express insulin (green). Credit: Salk Institute

For the 1 to 3 million Americans with type 1 diabetes, the immune system destroys insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas that control the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. As a result, these individuals must monitor their blood glucose often and take replacement doses of insulin to keep it under control. Such constant attention, combined with a strict diet to control sugar intake, is challenging—especially for children.

For some people with type 1 diabetes, there is another option. They can be treated—maybe even cured—with a pancreatic islet cell transplant from an organ donor. These transplanted islet cells, which harbor the needed beta cells, can increase insulin production. But there’s a big catch: there aren’t nearly enough organs to go around, and people who receive a transplant must take lifelong medications to keep their immune system from rejecting the donated organ.

Now, NIH-funded scientists, led by Ronald Evans of the Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA, have devised a possible workaround: human islet-like organoids (HILOs) [1]. These tiny replicas of pancreatic tissue are created in the laboratory, and you can see them above secreting insulin (green) in a lab dish. Remarkably, some of these HILOs have been outfitted with a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak to enable them to evade immune attack when transplanted into mice.

Over several years, Doug Melton’s lab at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, has worked steadily to coax induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which are made from adult skin or blood cells, to form miniature islet-like cells in a lab dish [2]. My own lab at NIH has also been seeing steady progress in this effort, working with collaborators at the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Although several years ago researchers could get beta cells to make insulin, they wouldn’t secrete the hormone efficiently when transplanted into a living mouse. About four years ago, the Evans lab found a possible solution by uncovering a genetic switch called ERR-gamma that when flipped, powered up the engineered beta cells to respond continuously to glucose and release insulin [3].

In the latest study, Evans and his team developed a method to program HILOs in the lab to resemble actual islets. They did it by growing the insulin-producing cells alongside each other in a gelatinous, three-dimensional chamber. There, the cells combined to form organoid structures resembling the shape and contour of the islet cells seen in an actual 3D human pancreas. After they are switched on with a special recipe of growth factors and hormones, these activated HILOs secrete insulin when exposed to glucose. When transplanted into a living mouse, this process appears to operate just like human beta cells work inside a human pancreas.

Another major advance was the invisibility cloak. The Salk team borrowed the idea from cancer immunotherapy and a type of drug called a checkpoint inhibitor. These drugs harness the body’s own immune T cells to attack cancer. They start with the recognition that T cells display a protein on their surface called PD-1. When T cells interact with other cells in the body, PD-1 binds to a protein on the surface of those cells called PD-L1. This protein tells the T cells not to attack. Checkpoint inhibitors work by blocking the interaction of PD-1 and PD-L1, freeing up immune cells to fight cancer.

Reversing this logic for the pancreas, the Salk team engineered HILOs to express PD-L1 on their surface as a sign to the immune system not to attack. The researchers then transplanted these HILOs into diabetic mice that received no immunosuppressive drugs, as would normally be the case to prevent rejection of these human cells. Not only did the transplanted HILOs produce insulin in response to glucose spikes, they spurred no immune response.

So far, HILOs transplants have been used to treat diabetes for more than 50 days in diabetic mice. More research will be needed to see whether the organoids can function for even longer periods of time.

Still, this is exciting news, and provides an excellent example of how advances in one area of science can provide new possibilities for others. In this case, these insights provide fresh hope for a day when children and adults with type 1 diabetes can live long, healthy lives without the need for frequent insulin injections.

References:

[1] Immune-evasive human islet-like organoids ameliorate diabetes. [published online ahead of print, 2020 Aug 19]. Yoshihara E, O’Connor C, Gasser E, Wei Z, Oh TG, Tseng TW, Wang D, Cayabyab F, Dai Y, Yu RT, Liddle C, Atkins AR, Downes M, Evans RM. Nature. 2020 Aug 19. [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] Generation of Functional Human Pancreatic β Cells In Vitro. Pagliuca FW, Millman JR, Gürtler M, Segel M, Van Dervort A, Ryu JH, Peterson QP, Greiner D, Melton DA. Cell. 2014 Oct 9;159(2):428-39.

[3] ERRγ is required for the metabolic maturation of therapeutically functional glucose-responsive β cells. Yoshihara E, Wei Z, Lin CS, Fang S, Ahmadian M, Kida Y, Tseng T, Dai Y, Yu RT, Liddle C, Atkins AR, Downes M, Evans RM. Cell Metab. 2016 Apr 12; 23(4):622-634.

Links:

Type 1 Diabetes (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Pancreatic Islet Transplantation (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases)

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2012” for Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells, The Nobel Prize news release, October 8, 2012.

Evans Lab (Salk Institute, La Jolla, CA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Cancer Institute


Study Ties COVID-19-Related Syndrome in Kids to Altered Immune System

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Very sick child
Credit: iStock/Sasiistock

Most children infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, develop only a mild illness. But, days or weeks later, a small percentage of kids go on to develop a puzzling syndrome known as multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C). This severe inflammation of organs and tissues can affect the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, and eyes.

Thankfully, most kids with MIS-C respond to treatment and make rapid recoveries. But, tragically, MIS-C can sometimes be fatal.

With COVID-19 cases in children having increased by 21 percent in the United States since early August [2], NIH and others are continuing to work hard on getting a handle on this poorly understood complication. Many think that MIS-C isn’t a direct result of the virus, but seems more likely to be due to an intense autoimmune response. Indeed, a recent study in Nature Medicine [1] offers some of the first evidence that MIS-C is connected to specific changes in the immune system that, for reasons that remain mysterious, sometimes follow COVID-19.

These findings come from Shane Tibby, a researcher at Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London. United Kingdom; Manu Shankar-Hari, a scientist at Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, London; and colleagues. The researchers enlisted 25 children, ages 7 to 14, who developed MIS-C in connection with COVID-19. In search of clues, they examined blood samples collected from the children during different stages of their care, starting when they were most ill through recovery and follow-up. They then compared the samples to those of healthy children of the same ages.

What they found was a complex array of immune disruptions. The children had increased levels of various inflammatory molecules known as cytokines, alongside raised levels of other markers suggesting tissue damage—such as troponin, which indicates heart muscle injury.

The neutrophils, monocytes, and other white blood cells that rapidly respond to infections were activated as expected. But the levels of certain white blood cells called T lymphocytes were paradoxically reduced. Interestingly, despite the low overall numbers of T lymphocytes, particular subsets of them appeared activated as though fighting an infection. While the children recovered, those differences gradually disappeared as the immune system returned to normal.

It has been noted that MIS-C bears some resemblance to an inflammatory condition known as Kawasaki disease, which also primarily affects children. While there are similarities, this new work shows that MIS-C is a distinct illness associated with COVID-19. In fact, only two children in the study met the full criteria for Kawasaki disease based on the clinical features and symptoms of their illness.

Another recent study from the United Kingdom, reported several new symptoms of MIS-C [3]. They include headaches, tiredness, muscle aches, and sore throat. Researchers also determined that the number of platelets was much lower in the blood of children with MIS-C than in those without the condition. They proposed that evaluating a child’s symptoms along with his or her platelet level could help to diagnose MIS-C.

It will now be important to learn much more about the precise mechanisms underlying these observed changes in the immune system and how best to treat or prevent them. In support of this effort, NIH recently announced $20 million in research funding dedicated to the development of approaches that identify children at high risk for developing MIS-C [4].

The hope is that this new NIH effort, along with other continued efforts around the world, will elucidate the factors influencing the likelihood that a child with COVID-19 will develop MIS-C. Such insights are essential to allow doctors to intervene as early as possible and improve outcomes for this potentially serious condition.

References:

[1] Peripheral immunophenotypes in children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection. Carter MJ, Fish M, Jennings A, Doores KJ, Wellman P, Seow J, Acors S, Graham C, Timms E, Kenny J, Neil S, Malim MH, Tibby SM, Shankar-Hari M. Nat Med. 2020 Aug 18.

[2] Children and COVID-19: State-Level Data Report. American Academy of Pediatrics. August 24, 2020.

[3] Clinical characteristics of children and young people admitted to hospital with covid-19 in United Kingdom: prospective multicentre observational cohort study. Swann OV, Holden KA, Turtle L, Harrison EW, Docherty AB, Semple MG, et al. Br Med J. 2020 Aug 17.

[4] NIH-funded project seeks to identify children at risk for MIS-C. NIH. August 7, 2020.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Kawasaki Disease (Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Shane Tibby (Evelina London Children’s Hospital, London)

Manu Shankar-Hari (King’s College, London)

NIH Support: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Office of the Director; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute on Drug Abuse; National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities; Fogarty International Center


Immune T Cells May Offer Lasting Protection Against COVID-19

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Healthy human T Cell
Caption: Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (T cell) from a healthy donor’s immune system. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH

Much of the study on the immune response to SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, has focused on the production of antibodies. But, in fact, immune cells known as memory T cells also play an important role in the ability of our immune systems to protect us against many viral infections, including—it now appears—COVID-19.

An intriguing new study of these memory T cells suggests they might protect some people newly infected with SARS-CoV-2 by remembering past encounters with other human coronaviruses. This might potentially explain why some people seem to fend off the virus and may be less susceptible to becoming severely ill with COVID-19.

The findings, reported in the journal Nature, come from the lab of Antonio Bertoletti at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore [1]. Bertoletti is an expert in viral infections, particularly hepatitis B. But, like so many researchers around the world, his team has shifted their focus recently to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bertoletti’s team recognized that many factors could help to explain how a single virus can cause respiratory, circulatory, and other symptoms that vary widely in their nature and severity—as we’ve witnessed in this pandemic. One of those potential factors is prior immunity to other, closely related viruses.

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a large family of coronaviruses, six of which were previously known to infect humans. Four of them are responsible for the common cold. The other two are more dangerous: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

All six previously known coronaviruses spark production of both antibodies and memory T cells. In addition, studies of immunity to SARS-CoV-1 have shown that T cells stick around for many years longer than acquired antibodies. So, Bertoletti’s team set out to gain a better understanding of T cell immunity against the novel coronavirus.

The researchers gathered blood samples from 36 people who’d recently recovered from mild to severe COVID-19. They focused their attention on T cells (including CD4 helper and CD8 cytotoxic, both of which can function as memory T cells). They identified T cells that respond to the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid, which is a structural protein inside the virus. They also detected T cell responses to two non-structural proteins that SARS-CoV-2 needs to make additional copies of its genome and spread. The team found that all those recently recovered from COVID-19 produced T cells that recognize multiple parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Next, they looked at blood samples from 23 people who’d survived SARS. Their studies showed that those individuals still had lasting memory T cells today, 17 years after the outbreak. Those memory T cells, acquired in response to SARS-CoV-1, also recognized parts of SARS-CoV-2.

Finally, Bertoletti’s team looked for such T cells in blood samples from 37 healthy individuals with no history of either COVID-19 or SARS. To their surprise, more than half had T cells that recognize one or more of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins under study here. It’s still not clear if this acquired immunity stems from previous infection with coronaviruses that cause the common cold or perhaps from exposure to other as-yet unknown coronaviruses.

What’s clear from this study is our past experiences with coronavirus infections may have something important to tell us about COVID-19. Bertoletti’s team and others are pursuing this intriguing lead to see where it will lead—not only in explaining our varied responses to the virus, but also in designing new treatments and optimized vaccines.

Reference:

[1] SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell immunity in cases of COVID-19 and SARS, and uninfected controls. Le Bert N, Tan AT, Kunasegaran K, et al. Nature. 2020 July 15. [published online ahead of print]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Overview of the Immune System (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID)

Bertoletti Lab (Duke-NUS Medical School, Singapore)


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