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Unlocking Potential in The Next Generation of Scientists

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Photo of smiling people stand with ocean behind them, over map of Guam
Caption: The Pacific STEP-UP team visits Guam for opening of NIDDK lab (l-r): George Hui, University of Hawaii at Manoa; NIDDK’s Griffin P. Rodgers and Lawrence Agodoa; Aneesa Golshan, University of Hawaii at Manoa; Robert Rivers, NIDDK. Credit: Kristina C. Sayama, University of Guam

While talent is everywhere, opportunity is not. That belief, and meeting people where they are, have been the impetus for the efforts of NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) to nurture diverse research talent in the Pacific Islands. Most recently that effort manifested in opening a new biomedical research laboratory at Southern High School, located in Santa Rita village on the island of Guam.

One of seven research labs in the Pacific Islands established under NIDDK’s Short-Term Research Experience Program to Unlock Potential (STEP-UP), the facility provides research training to high school and college students from historically underserved populations, which is the mission of STEP-UP. The goal is to foster a diverse, talented scientific workforce.

Created by NIDDK more than 20 years ago, STEP-UP aims to make opportunities accessible to aspiring scientists nationwide, regardless of their background or zip code. In 2009, we expanded the program to the Pacific Islands. By working with academic and nonprofit coordinating centers throughout the United States and its Pacific territories, the program enables students to gain hands-on research experience, one-on-one mentorship, and access to modern laboratory techniques without travelling far from home.

For Mata’uitafa Solomona-Faiai, a Ph.D. student at Yale University School of Public Health, New Haven, CT, the exposure to science through STEP-UP turned into a passion for research. Solomona-Faiai participated in STEP-UP as a high schooler in American Samoa, and again as a college undergraduate. After getting her master’s degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she returned to American Samoa to conduct epidemiology research—and became a co-mentor to high school STEP-UP students. 

Her experiences in STEP-UP made her realize she wanted to pursue a life of public health research and gave her the skills to help pave that path. I was delighted to learn that Solomona-Faiai recently received an NIDDK Diversity Supplement to help support her research, which will focus on improving diabetes outcomes among adolescents from the Pacific Islands. She also hopes one day to run her own research group as an independent principal investigator, and I’m confident in her tenacity to make that happen! 

Solomona-Faiai is among more than 2,300 students who have participated in STEP-UP since 2000. Her story embodies the scientific potential we can access if we contribute the right resources and tools. Early evaluation results of STEP-UP from 2002 to 2018 showed that many of the program’s participants have pursued careers as researchers, physicians, and physician-scientists [1]. In addition, of the more than 300 high school STEP-UP participants in the Pacific Islands, most have gone on to attend four-year universities, many majoring in STEM disciplines [2]. I’m heartened to know our efforts are paying off.

Bringing scientific opportunity to the Pacific Islands has entailed more than just placing students into research labs. We found we had to help create infrastructure—building labs in often under-resourced areas where nearly no biomedical infrastructure previously existed.

Since 2008, NIDDK has helped establish research labs at high schools and community colleges in the American Samoa, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of Palau, and now Guam. The labs are also available to faculty to conduct their own science and to train as mentors. Having the support of their teachers is particularly important for students in these areas, many of whom have never heard of biomedical research before. For them, the labs often provide their first real exposure to science.  

As proud as I am of the strides we’ve made, I know we have much more work to do. That’s why I’m grateful to the unwavering commitment of my colleagues, including Lawrence Agodoa who has pioneered STEP-UP and other programs in NIDDK’s Office of Minority Health Research Coordination; Robert Rivers, who coordinates NIDDK’s training programs; and George Hui at University of Hawaii at Manoa, who has directed the Pacific STEP-UP for 15 years.

They, like so many of NIDDK’s staff, partners, and grantees, will continue to work relentlessly to achieve our institute’s vision of developing a talented biomedical research workforce that fully represents the diverse fabric of the United States and its territories.

This month, we welcome a new class of STEP-UP participants, and I hope that, like Solomona-Faiai, they’ll experience the excitement of scientific discovery that will help shape their career goals and propel them to attain those goals. And I’m reminded of the tremendous responsibility we have to nurture and support the next generation of scientists. After all, the future of our nation’s health is in their hands.

References:

[1] NIDDK’s short-term research experience for underrepresented persons (STEP-UP) program. Rivers, R., Brinkley, K., Agodoa, L. JHDRP. 2019 Summer; 12: 1-2.

[2] Promoting local talents to fight local health issues: STEP-UP in the Pacific. Golshan, A., Hui, G. JHDRP. 2019 Summer; 12: 31-32.

Links:

Short-Term Research Experience Program to Unlock Potential (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Office of Minority Health Research Coordination (NIDDK)

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 12th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Tuberculosis: An Ancient Disease in Need of Modern Scientific Tools

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Two men, one holds an award
Caption: Here I am with Paul Farmer, who was a strong voice for improving TB prevention and treatments in resource-scarce settings, when he came to NIH in 2007 to deliver my institute’s James C. Hill Memorial Lecture. Credit: NIH

Although COVID-19 has dominated our attention for the past two years, tuberculosis (TB), an ancient scourge, remains a dominating infectious disease globally, with an estimated 10 million new cases and more than 1.3 million deaths in 2020. TB disproportionately afflicts the poor and has long been the leading cause of death in people living with HIV.

Unfortunately, during the global COVID-19 pandemic, recent gains in TB control have been stalled or reversed. We’ve seen a massive drop in new TB diagnoses, reflecting poor access to care and an uptick in deaths in 2020 [1].

We are fighting TB with an armory of old weapons inferior to those we have for COVID-19. The Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG) vaccine, the world’s only licensed TB vaccine, has been in use for more than 100 years. While BCG is somewhat effective at preventing TB meningitis in children, it provides more limited durable protection against pulmonary TB in children and adults. More effective vaccination strategies to prevent infection and disease, decrease relapse rates, and shorten durations of treatment are desperately needed to reduce the terrible global burden of TB.

In this regard, over the past five years, several exciting research advances have generated new optimism in the field of TB vaccinology. Non-human primate studies conducted at my National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases’ (NIAID) Vaccine Research Center and other NIAID-funded laboratories have demonstrated that effective immunity against infection is achievable and that administering BCG intravenously, rather than under the skin as it currently is given, is highly protective [2].

Results from a phase 2 trial testing BCG revaccination in adolescents at high risk of TB infection suggested this approach could help prevent TB [3]. In addition, a phase 2 trial of an experimental TB vaccine based on the recombinant protein M72 and an immune-priming adjuvant, AS01, also showed promise in preventing active TB disease in latently infected adults [4].

Both candidates are now moving on to phase 3 efficacy trials. The encouraging results of these trials, combined with nine other candidates currently in phase 2 or 3 studies [5], offer new hope that improved vaccines may be on the horizon. The NIAID is working with a team of other funders and investigators to analyze the correlates of protection from these studies to inform future TB vaccine development.

Even with these exciting developments, it is critical to accelerate our efforts to enhance and diversify the TB vaccine pipeline by addressing persistent basic and translational research gaps. To this end, NIAID has several new programs. The Immune Protection Against Mtb Centers are taking a multidisciplinary approach to integrate animal and human data to gain a comprehensive understanding of the immune responses required to prevent TB infection and disease.

This spring, NIAID will fund awards under the Innovation for TB Vaccine Discovery program that will focus on the discovery and early evaluation of novel TB vaccine candidates with the goal of diversifying the TB vaccine pipeline. Later this year, the Advancing Vaccine Adjuvant Research for TB program will systematically assess combinations of TB immunogens and adjuvants. Finally, NIAID’s well-established clinical trials networks are planning two new clinical trials of TB vaccine candidates.

As we look to the future, we must apply the lessons learned in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines to longstanding public health challenges such as TB. COVID-19 vaccine development was hugely successful due to the use of novel vaccine platforms, structure-based vaccine design, community engagement for rapid clinical trial enrollment, real-time data sharing with key stakeholders, and innovative trial designs.

However, critical gaps remain in our armamentarium. These include the harnessing the immunology of the tissues that line the respiratory tract to design vaccines more adept at blocking initial infection and transmission, employing thermostable formulations and novel delivery systems for resource-limited settings, and crafting effective messaging around vaccines for different populations.

As we work to develop better ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat TB, we will do well to remember the great public health icon, Paul Farmer, who tragically passed away earlier this year at a much too young age. Paul witnessed firsthand the devastating consequences of TB and its drug resistant forms in Haiti, Peru, and other parts of the world.

In addition to leading efforts to improve how TB is treated, Paul provided direct patient care in underserved communities and demanded that the world do more to meet their needs. As we honor Paul’s legacy, let us accelerate our efforts to find better tools to fight TB and other diseases of global health importance that exact a disproportionate toll among the poor and underserved.

References:

[1] Global tuberculosis report 2021. WHO. October 14, 2021.

[2] Prevention of tuberculosis in macaques after intravenous BCG immunization. Darrah PA, Zeppa JJ, Maiello P, Hackney JA, Wadsworth MH,. Hughes TK, Pokkali S, Swanson PA, Grant NL, Rodgers MA, Kamath M, Causgrove CM, Laddy DJ, Bonavia A, Casimiro D, Lin PL, Klein E, White AG, Scanga CA, Shalek AK, Roederer M, Flynn JL, and Seder RA. Nature. 2020 Jan 1; 577: 95–102.

[3] Prevention of M. tuberculosis Infection with H4:IC31 vaccine or BCG revaccination. Nemes E, Geldenhuys H, Rozot V, Rutkowski KT, Ratangee F,Bilek N., Mabwe S, Makhethe L, Erasmus M, Toefy A, Mulenga H, Hanekom WA, et al. N Engl J Med 2018; 379:138-149.

[4] Final analysis of a trial of M72/AS01E vaccine to prevent tuberculosis. Tait DR, Hatherill M, Van Der Meeren O, Ginsberg AM, Van Brakel E, Salaun B, Scriba TJ, Akite EJ, Ayles HM, et al.

[5] Pipeline Report 2021: Tuberculosis Vaccines. TAG. October 2021.

Links:

Tuberculosis (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

NIAID Strategic Plan for Tuberculosis Research

Immune Mechanisms of Protection Against Mycobacterium tuberculosis Centers (IMPAc-TB) (NIAID)

Partners in Health (Boston, MA)

[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 seventh in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]


New Initiative Puts At-Home Testing to Work in the Fight Against COVID-19

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COVID-19 Update: Community At-Home Testing
Credit: nito/Shutterstock

Thankfully COVID-19 testing is now more widely available than it was earlier in the pandemic. But getting tested often still involves going to a doctor’s office or community testing site and waiting as long as a couple of days for the results. Testing would be so much easier if people could do it themselves at home. If the result came up positive, a person could immediately self-isolate, helping to stop the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, from spreading any further in their communities.

That’s why I’m happy to report that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in close collaboration with state and local public health departments and with NIH, has begun an innovative community health initiative called “Say Yes! COVID Test.” The initiative, the first large-scale evaluation of community-wide, self-administered COVID-19 testing, was launched last week in Pitt County, NC, and will start soon in Chattanooga/Hamilton County, TN.

The initiative will provide as many as 160,000 residents in these two locales with free access to rapid COVID-19 home tests, supplied through NIH’s Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative. Participants can administer these easy-to-use tests themselves up to three times a week for one month. The goal is to assess the benefits of self-administered COVID-19 testing and help guide other communities in implementing similar future programs to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The counties in North Carolina and Tennessee were selected based on several criteria. These included local infection rates; public availability of accurate COVID-19 tracking data, such as that gathered by wastewater surveillance; the presence of local infrastructure needed to support the project; and existing community relationships through RADx’s Underserved Populations (RADx-UP) program. Taken together, these criteria also help to ensure that vulnerable and underserved populations will benefit from the initiative.

The test is called the QuickVue At-Home COVID-19 Test. Developed with RADx support by San Diego-based diagnostic company Quidel, this test is easily performed with a nasal swab and offers results in just 10 minutes. Last week, the test was among several authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for over-the-counter use to screen for COVID-19 at home.

Participants can order their QuickVue test kits online for home delivery or local pick up. A free online tool, which was developed with NIH support by CareEvolution, LLC, Ann Arbor, MI, will also be available to provide testing instructions, help in understanding test results, and text message reminders about testing. This innovative tool is also available as a smartphone app.

A recent study, supported by the RADx initiative, found that rapid antigen testing for COVID-19, when conducted at least three times per week, achieves a viral detection level on par with the gold standard of PCR-based COVID-19 testing processed in a lab [1]. That’s especially significant considering the other advantages of a low-cost, self-administered rapid test, including confidential results at home in minutes.

The Say Yes! COVID Test initiative is an important next step in informing the best testing strategies in communities all over the country to end this and future pandemics. The initiative will also help to determine how readily people accept such testing when it’s made available to them. If the foundational data looks promising, the hope is that rapid at-home tests will help to encourage people to protect themselves and others by following the three W’s (Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Watch your distance), getting vaccinated, and saying “Yes” to the COVID-19 test.

Reference:

[1] Longitudinal assessment of diagnostic test performance over the course of acute SARS-CoV-2 infection. Smith RL, Gibson LL, Martinez PP, Heetderks WJ, McManus DD, Brooke CB, et al. medRxiv, 2021 March 20.

Links:

CDC and NIH bring COVID-19 self-testing to residents in two locales, NIH News Release, March 31, 2021

Say Yes! COVID Test

Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) (NIH)

COVID-19 Testing (CDC)

Quidel Corporation (San Diego, CA)

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Continues to Advance Over-the Counter and Other Screening Test Development, FDA News Release, March 31, 2021

NIH Support: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering


Swimming with the High-Tech Sharks to Improve COVID-19 Testing

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At Home with Bruce Thromburg

So much has been reported over the past six months about testing for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) that keeping up with the issue can be a real challenge. To discuss the latest progress on new technologies for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic testing in the United States, I spoke recently with NIH’s Dr. Bruce Tromberg, director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). Not only does Bruce run a busy NIH institute, he is helping to coordinate the national response for expanded testing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bruce also has a leading role in one of NIH’s most-exciting new initiatives. It’s called the Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx) initiative, and it is on the fast track to bolster the country’s diagnostic testing capacity within months. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat, which took place via videoconference, with Bruce linking in from Bethesda, MD and me from my home in Chevy Chase, MD:

Collins: Let’s start with how many COVID-19 tests are being done right now per day in the United States. By that, I’m referring to testing for the presence of the novel coronavirus, not antibodies as a sign of a previous infection.

Tromberg: The numbers fluctuate—anywhere from around 400,000 to 900,000 tests per day. So, the national capacity, with all these complex laboratory tests and emerging point-of-care assays, is getting close to 1 million a day. That’s substantially higher than in mid-April, when the nation was doing about 150,000 tests per day. But most testing is still being done in laboratories or complex facilities, and it can take a while for those tests to be run and for people to get answers. What we’d like to have are more convenient tests. We’d like to have tests that people can have at the point of care, where you get an answer on the spot and very quickly, or tests that can be performed easily in their homes.

Collins: Yes, we’d all love to have point-of-care tests for COVID-19. And there are some out there already. Every time I go to the White House, they have this gadget, called Abbott ID Now, that gives a result in about 15 minutes. That sounds pretty good. Do we just need to make more of those machines to solve the problem?

Tromberg: Abbott ID Now is one of the first point-of-care technologies. It’s not complicated, so a specialized laboratory isn’t required to run them. That’s what makes Abbott ID Now very appealing, but its performance could be better. There’s a bit of a risk when it’s used in individuals for which you really need to know, with absolute certainty, if they have the virus or not. Those performance issues have created opportunities to build platforms that are better, faster, and possible for people to do on their own.

Collins: Congress provided a big infusion of resources last April to assist in the development of new diagnostic technologies for COVID-19. A lot of that infusion came to NIH, and, Bruce, you were asked to step in and make something amazing happen on a timetable that’s pretty breathtaking. It’s called the RADx Initiative. Tell us a little about that.

Tromberg: RADx is short for Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics. The goal of the initiative is to make it possible for everyone to have access to diagnostic testing for COVID-19 as easily and quickly as possible. As we pivot to doing surveillance in large populations, we will need greater testing capacity to help optimize the management of each individual. So, that’s really the aim of RADx, or RADx-tech, which is a special flavor of RADx.

Collins: Right, the goal of RADx-tech, which you are overseeing, is to identify some of these exciting new technologies and help scale them up quickly to the point where they can help people across the nation. Could you give us some examples?

Tromberg: Sure. One general class of technologies is called a lateral flow assay. These tests are small enough to fit in your hand and come in a convenient container. Basically, you can use a swab from your oral cavity and place it on one of the pads, and then you add a little bit of solution. The actual assay itself has a membrane inside of a little plastic container. The fluid flows across the membrane, and there’s chemistry that goes on inside the container to detect, for example, genetic material from the coronavirus. So, it can tell you if there is a presence of virus inside the swab. It’s very quick and straightforward. A line will “light up” if virus is present.

Another type of lateral flow assay, also small enough to hold in your hand, looks for proteins on the surface of the virus. You don’t have to break up the virus particle itself, but in this specific example, what captures the virus in this membrane is what’s called an aptamer. An aptamer is similar to an antibody, except it’s made from nucleic acid. It’s designed to bind very tightly with any molecule of interest. If you put a saliva sample into this assay, it moves up the membrane and some chemistry takes place. And then, you’ll see a line appear if there’s presence of a virus.

Collins: You just said saliva. I think a lot of people would much prefer, if they had to provide a sample, to use saliva instead of having a swab stuck in their nose, especially if it has to go all the way to the back of the nose. Does saliva work?

Tromberg: We hope so. Right now, RADx-tech has at least nine companies that are in what we call phase one, which is a significant step towards commercialization. Of those companies, more than half are looking at saliva or other kinds of sampling that’s not sticking swabs way up into the nasal cavity.

Another type of test is a lateral flow assay that fits directly into a mobile device like a tablet. It has a separate lateral flow apparatus, which looks like an elongated zip drive, and it slides right into the tablet itself. It’s something that’s not complicated. It would be easy to do at home. But rather than watching for the presence of a reaction, you look for a light inside the tablet to say the result is ready. And then, there is another color of light that comes directly from the lateral flow strip, that’s an indicator that the virus is present.

One last example is a nucleic acid test. This rectangular, hand-held device (see photo), reminiscent of a computer disc, looks inside the virus to amplify small traces of its nucleic acid to detectable levels. It is completely self-contained. To find that technology today, you generally must go to complex laboratories where the test is done on big machines, operated in multiple steps. Efforts are being made to reduce the size and the complexity of these devices so they can move out to point of care, without sacrificing the performance that we expect from a laboratory-based device.

Collins: That’s totally cool. Is the nucleic-acid test device that you just mentioned made for one-time use, and then you throw it away?

Tromberg: That’s their business model right now. I should probably mention something about cost. For example, you can imagine scaling up lateral flow assays very quickly to make tens of millions of tests. The components are inexpensive, and the tests may cost just a few dollars to make.

If you’re throwing away a nucleic acid test with its more-expensive components, obviously, the cost will be higher. Right now, if you go to a laboratory for a nucleic acid test, the cost may be on the order of $40 or so. With these one-time-use nucleic acid tests, the aim is to scale up the manufacturing to produce larger volumes that will bring the cost down. The estimates are maybe $60 per test.

Collins: That needs to come down more, obviously. In the months ahead, we’re talking about testing millions of people, maybe even fairly often to make sure that they haven’t been infected by SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Is frequent testing the kind of thing that you’d like to be able to do by next fall?

Tromberg: Yes, and I think that that really speaks to the diversity of the types of tests that we need. I think there is a market, or the capacity, for some of the more expensive tests, if they’re extremely accurate and convenient. So, the nucleic acid test may cost more, but it will give you an answer very quickly and with very high sensitivity. It’s also very convenient. But the performance of that test may be very different from a standard lateral flow assay. Those tests will be far more accessible and very, very inexpensive, but they may have a higher false negative rate. We envision that every test that comes out of our innovation funnel will have documentation about its best-use case.

Collins: You mentioned your innovation funnel, sometimes called a “shark tank.” Say a little more about the RADx-tech shark tank. Who gets into it, and what happens when they get there?

Tromberg: At NIH, we’re into processes, and NIBIB created a very effective one 13 years ago with the Point of Care Technology Research Network (POCTRN). We’ve now leveraged this network to focus almost exclusively on COVID testing. POCTRN has five sites in the US. All have core resources, personnel, and expertise that are contributing to RADx-tech. Those include the ability to validate tests independently, the ability to do clinical studies in real-world samples and patients, and the ability to analyze manufacturing and scale-up needs while creating a roadmap for every project team to follow.

We have more than 200 people around the country working day and night on this process. If anyone has an idea about a COVID-19 test, you can and apply for funding on the POCTRN website. Your application will be reviewed by a panel of 30 experts within a day and, if approved, will move to the next stage, which is the shark tank.

In the shark tank [also called phase zero], a team of experts will spend about 150 to 200 person-hours with you evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your test technically, clinically, and commercially. From this careful analysis, a detailed proposal will be presented to a steering committee, then sent to NIH. If we think it’s a great idea, the project will enter what we call phase one, with considerable financial support and the expectation that the company will hit its validation milestones within a month.

Collins: How far have things progressed, given that you just started RADx on April 29?

Tromberg: We have almost 60 projects that have entered or emerged from this shark-tank stage. I’m expecting that we’ll have around 15 projects in the phase one stage this month, and it’s very exciting to see them move there. If they can reach their validation milestones in that first month, they will be eligible to move to phase two. It involves a much larger chunk of money, so companies can move into manufacturing and scale up for distribution. We’re hoping to have between five and 10 companies emerge over time from this innovation funnel. But, by the end of the summer, we’d like to see at least two come out with products that will make a difference.

Collins: Wow, that’s just a few months away. How will you can get there so fast?

Tromberg: Sure. Some companies are further along than others. I can think of one that is quite far along with an established platform concept. This company has lots of expertise and has raised lots of money. We may be able to give them the surge that they need, plus the additional support with regulatory issues, commercialization, and manufacturing, in that short period of time to go to market.

Complementing that work is another of our initiatives called Advanced Technology Platforms (RADx-ATP). It’s designed to scale up existing technologies. For example, I mentioned a one-time-use nucleic acid test. It still needs validation, emergency use authorization, a little bit of manufacturing optimization. But we have other platforms out there that are much closer to commercialization, and RADx-ATP could be very impactful in getting some of those technologies out earlier.

Collins: You mentioned RADx-ATP, and we’ve been talking about RADx-tech, which is your shark tank approach. But there are a couple of other RADx components. Say something about those, please.

Tromberg: Our centerpiece component for doing demonstration projects is called RADx-UP. This is an effort across NIH to provide cutting-edge testing technologies in underserved populations. If I’m allowed to be the interviewer and turn the tables, I might bounce the question back to you. This is where your thinking directly influenced the whole RADx portfolio. So, maybe you can tell us more.

Collins: I can try. It’s very clear that COVID-19 has hit certain populations particularly hard, especially African American and Hispanic communities. And yet, those communities often have the least access to testing, which is sort of upside-down. We want to help identify people who are infected quickly, do the quarantining, and prevent the infection from spreading. That has simply not worked very well in a lot of underserved communities.

With resources from Congress, we made it a very high priority to set up demonstration projects of these advanced technologies in communities that would benefit significantly from them. We’re trying to bring together two really important NIH priorities: technology development and addressing health disparities. I’ve got to say, at this particular moment, when we’re all really focused on the fact that our nation is still riddled with health disparities, health inequities, and even racism, this is a moment where we should be doing everything we can to try to take our scientific capabilities and apply them to finding solutions.

So, we’re all pretty excited about RADx-UP. But there’s one other RADx, and I’ll throw this one back to you. It’s called RADx-rad. What the heck is that, Bruce?

Tromberg: Well, RADx-rad is the home for the technologies that are really far forward and futuristic. These are the technologies that won’t quite be ready for the time pressure of the innovation funnel. But they’re fantastic ideas. They’re projects that may be non-traditional in terms of the application of technology. They have been generated largely by other NIH institutes and centers. They’re important ideas and projects that just need to be supported with a longer time-window of return. We don’t want to lose out on the energy and the ideas and the creativity of those concepts.

Collins: Right now, the focus is on COVID-19 and the need for testing, especially within this calendar year. We hope, by the end of 2020 or the early part of 2021, to have vaccines for COVID-19 ready to go. But, moving forward, there will be other events that will probably make us wish that we had point-of-care diagnostics. So, in the process of doing what you’re doing with all of these components, hopefully we’re also preparing for future challenges.

Bruce, you’re an optimistic guy. At the same time, we’ve got to be realistic. Around September, when schools and colleges are contemplating whether it’s safe to open up, what would we hope that RADx could contribute to make that a better outcome?

Tromberg: That’s a tough question to answer, but I have a lot of confidence in our process. I’m confident that we’re engaging the innovation and entrepreneurial community in such a way that a lot of these ideas will move out and give us better performing tests and more of them. A rough number that I like to think about is the capacity to test roughly 2 percent of the population, around 6 million people per day. I think we’ll hit that target by the end of the year.

I’d like to see testing technologies move away from being based predominantly in laboratories. I’d like to see them more accessible to people as technologies that they can use in their homes. We’re now doing so many things from home. We’re working from home, we’re talking from home, we get our entertainment from home. Home-based testing is really the direction a lot of healthcare is going. We need to have these technologies. I think the level of sophistication and performance that we’re hoping for is possible, and the innovation and entrepreneurial community is working extremely hard to make it happen. No one has really asked us to do anything of this scale before, and I like to compare it to our Super Bowl.

Collins: Well, this is one exciting Super Bowl, that’s for sure! You’ve applied the venture capitalist strategy to RADx of trying to discover what’s out there, while not being afraid to invest in risky endeavors. You’re figuring out how to help promising technologies take their best shot and fail early, if they’re going to fail. And for technologies that are further along, you give them the needed resources to advance to commercialization.

We have great hopes and expectations that RADx will make a real difference. What we’re doing here is not just about cool science, it’s also about saving lives. I want to thank you for your incredible dedication, and your intellectual and engineering contributions to this initiative, which make it one of the most exciting things that NIH is doing right now.

Tromberg: Thank you, Francis.

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

Rapid Acceleration of Diagnostics (RADx)

Social engineering and bioengineering together can thwart the COVID-19 pandemic,” Director’s Corner, National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering/NIH)

Video: RADx Tech and POCTRN: Diagnosing Disease-Delivering Health (NIBIB/NIH)


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)


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