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Genomic Study Points to Natural Origin of COVID-19

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COVID-19 Update

No matter where you go online these days, there’s bound to be discussion of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some folks are even making outrageous claims that the new coronavirus causing the pandemic was engineered in a lab and deliberately released to make people sick. A new study debunks such claims by providing scientific evidence that this novel coronavirus arose naturally.

The reassuring findings are the result of genomic analyses conducted by an international research team, partly supported by NIH. In their study in the journal Nature Medicine, Kristian Andersen, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA; Robert Garry, Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans; and their colleagues used sophisticated bioinformatic tools to compare publicly available genomic data from several coronaviruses, including the new one that causes COVID-19.

The researchers began by homing in on the parts of the coronavirus genomes that encode the spike proteins that give this family of viruses their distinctive crown-like appearance. (By the way, “corona” is Latin for “crown.”) All coronaviruses rely on spike proteins to infect other cells. But, over time, each coronavirus has fashioned these proteins a little differently, and the evolutionary clues about these modifications are spelled out in their genomes.

The genomic data of the new coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 show that its spike protein contains some unique adaptations. One of these adaptations provides special ability of this coronavirus to bind to a specific protein on human cells called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE2). A related coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in humans also seeks out ACE2.

Existing computer models predicted that the new coronavirus would not bind to ACE2 as well as the SARS virus. However, to their surprise, the researchers found that the spike protein of the new coronavirus actually bound far better than computer predictions, likely because of natural selection on ACE2 that enabled the virus to take advantage of a previously unidentified alternate binding site. Researchers said this provides strong evidence that that new virus was not the product of purposeful manipulation in a lab. In fact, any bioengineer trying to design a coronavirus that threatened human health probably would never have chosen this particular conformation for a spike protein.

The researchers went on to analyze genomic data related to the overall molecular structure, or backbone, of the new coronavirus. Their analysis showed that the backbone of the new coronavirus’s genome most closely resembles that of a bat coronavirus discovered after the COVID-19 pandemic began. However, the region that binds ACE2 resembles a novel virus found in pangolins, a strange-looking animal sometimes called a scaly anteater. This provides additional evidence that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 almost certainly originated in nature. If the new coronavirus had been manufactured in a lab, scientists most likely would have used the backbones of coronaviruses already known to cause serious diseases in humans.

So, what is the natural origin of the novel coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic? The researchers don’t yet have a precise answer. But they do offer two possible scenarios.

In the first scenario, as the new coronavirus evolved in its natural hosts, possibly bats or pangolins, its spike proteins mutated to bind to molecules similar in structure to the human ACE2 protein, thereby enabling it to infect human cells. This scenario seems to fit other recent outbreaks of coronavirus-caused disease in humans, such as SARS, which arose from cat-like civets; and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which arose from camels.

The second scenario is that the new coronavirus crossed from animals into humans before it became capable of causing human disease. Then, as a result of gradual evolutionary changes over years or perhaps decades, the virus eventually gained the ability to spread from human-to-human and cause serious, often life-threatening disease.

Either way, this study leaves little room to refute a natural origin for COVID-19. And that’s a good thing because it helps us keep focused on what really matters: observing good hygiene, practicing social distancing, and supporting the efforts of all the dedicated health-care professionals and researchers who are working so hard to address this major public health challenge.

Finally, next time you come across something about COVID-19 online that disturbs or puzzles you, I suggest going to FEMA’s new Coronavirus Rumor Control web site. It may not have all the answers to your questions, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction in helping to distinguish rumors from facts.

Reference:
[1] The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Andersen KG, Rambaut A, Lipkin WI, Holmes EC, Garry RF. Nat Med, 17 March 2020. [Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)

COVID-19, MERS & SARS (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Andersen Lab (Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA)

Robert Garry (Tulane University School of Medicine, New Orleans)

Coronavirus Rumor Control (FEMA)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Human Genome Research Institute


Structural Biology Points Way to Coronavirus Vaccine

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Spike Protein on Novel Coronavirus
Caption: Atomic-level structure of the spike protein of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Credit: McLellan Lab, University of Texas at Austin

The recent COVID-19 outbreak of a novel type of coronavirus that began in China has prompted a massive global effort to contain and slow its spread. Despite those efforts, over the last month the virus has begun circulating outside of China in multiple countries and territories.

Cases have now appeared in the United States involving some affected individuals who haven’t traveled recently outside the country. They also have had no known contact with others who have recently arrived from China or other countries where the virus is spreading. The NIH and other U.S. public health agencies stand on high alert and have mobilized needed resources to help not only in its containment, but in the development of life-saving interventions.

On the treatment and prevention front, some encouraging news was recently reported. In record time, an NIH-funded team of researchers has created the first atomic-scale map of a promising protein target for vaccine development [1]. This is the so-called spike protein on the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19. As shown above, a portion of this spiky surface appendage (green) allows the virus to bind a receptor on human cells, causing other portions of the spike to fuse the viral and human cell membranes. This process is needed for the virus to gain entry into cells and infect them.

Preclinical studies in mice of a candidate vaccine based on this spike protein are already underway at NIH’s Vaccine Research Center (VRC), part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). An early-stage phase I clinical trial of this vaccine in people is expected to begin within weeks. But there will be many more steps after that to test safety and efficacy, and then to scale up to produce millions of doses. Even though this timetable will potentially break all previous speed records, a safe and effective vaccine will take at least another year to be ready for widespread deployment.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, including some that cause “the common cold” in healthy humans. In fact, these viruses are found throughout the world and account for up to 30 percent of upper respiratory tract infections in adults.

This outbreak of COVID-19 marks the third time in recent years that a coronavirus has emerged to cause severe disease and death in some people. Earlier coronavirus outbreaks included SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which emerged in late 2002 and disappeared two years later, and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome), which emerged in 2012 and continues to affect people in small numbers.

Soon after COVID-19 emerged, the new coronavirus, which is closely related to SARS, was recognized as its cause. NIH-funded researchers including Jason McLellan, an alumnus of the VRC and now at The University of Texas at Austin, were ready. They’d been studying coronaviruses in collaboration with NIAID investigators for years, with special attention to the spike proteins.

Just two weeks after Chinese scientists reported the first genome sequence of the virus [2], McLellan and his colleagues designed and produced samples of its spike protein. Importantly, his team had earlier developed a method to lock coronavirus spike proteins into a shape that makes them both easier to analyze structurally via the high-resolution imaging tool cryo-electron microscopy and to use in vaccine development efforts.

After locking the spike protein in the shape it takes before fusing with a human cell to infect it, the researchers reconstructed its atomic-scale 3D structural map in just 12 days. Their results, published in Science, confirm that the spike protein on the virus that causes COVID-19 is quite similar to that of its close relative, the SARS virus. It also appears to bind human cells more tightly than the SARS virus, which may help to explain why the new coronavirus appears to spread more easily from person to person, mainly by respiratory transmission.

McLellan’s team and his NIAID VRC counterparts also plan to use the stabilized spike protein as a probe to isolate naturally produced antibodies from people who’ve recovered from COVID-19. Such antibodies might form the basis of a treatment for people who’ve been exposed to the virus, such as health care workers.

The NIAID is now working with the biotechnology company Moderna, Cambridge, MA, to use the latest findings to develop a vaccine candidate using messenger RNA (mRNA), molecules that serve as templates for making proteins. The goal is to direct the body to produce a spike protein in such a way to elicit an immune response and the production of antibodies. An early clinical trial of the vaccine in people is expected to begin in the coming weeks. Other vaccine candidates are also in preclinical development.

Meanwhile, the first clinical trial in the U.S. to evaluate an experimental treatment for COVID-19 is already underway at the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s biocontainment unit [3]. The NIH-sponsored trial will evaluate the safety and efficacy of the experimental antiviral drug remdesivir in hospitalized adults diagnosed with COVID-19. The first participant is an American who was repatriated after being quarantined on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.

As noted, the risk of contracting COVID-19 in the United States is currently low, but the situation is changing rapidly. One of the features that makes the virus so challenging to stay in front of is its long latency period before the characteristic flu-like fever, cough, and shortness of breath manifest. In fact, people infected with the virus may not show any symptoms for up to two weeks, allowing them to pass it on to others in the meantime. You can track the reported cases in the United States on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.

As the outbreak continues over the coming weeks and months, you can be certain that NIH and other U.S. public health organizations are working at full speed to understand this virus and to develop better diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.

References:

[1] Cryo-EM structure of the 2019-nCoV spike in the prefusion conformation. Wrapp D, Wang N, Corbett KS, Goldsmith JA, Hsieh CL, Abiona O, Graham BS, McLellan JS. Science. 2020 Feb 19.

[2] A new coronavirus associated with human respiratory disease in China. Wu F, Zhao S, Yu B, Chen YM, Wang W, Song ZG, Hu Y, Tao ZW, Tian JH, Pei YY, Yuan ML, Zhang YL, Dai FH, Liu Y, Wang QM, Zheng JJ, Xu L, Holmes EC, Zhang YZ. Nature. 2020 Feb 3.

[3] NIH clinical trial of remdesivir to treat COVID-19 begins. NIH News Release. Feb 25, 2020.

Links:

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

Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIAID)

Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases


Enlisting CRISPR in the Quest for an HIV Cure

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Today, thanks to remarkable advances in antiretroviral drugs, most people with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) can expect to live an almost normal lifespan. But that means staying on medications for life. If those are stopped, HIV comes roaring back in just weeks. Finding a permanent cure for HIV infection, where the virus is completely and permanently eliminated from the body, has proven much tougher. So, I’m encouraged by recent work that shows it may be possible to eliminate HIV in a mouse model, and perhaps—with continued progress—someday we will actually cure HIV in humans.

This innovative approach relies on a one-two punch: drugs and genetic editing. First, HIV-infected mice received an experimental, long-acting form of antiretroviral therapy (ART) that suppresses viral replication. This step cleared the active HIV infection. But more was needed because HIV can “hide” by inserting its DNA into its host’s chromosomes—lying dormant until conditions are right for viral replication. To get at this infectious reservoir, researchers infused the mice with a gene-editing system designed to snip out any HIV DNA still lurking in the genomes of their spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes, and other cells. The result? Researchers detected no signs of HIV in more than one-third of mice that received the combination treatment.

The new study in Nature Communications is the product of a collaboration between the NIH-funded labs of Howard Gendelman, University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, and Kamel Khalili, Temple University, Philadelphia [1]. A virologist by training, Khalili years ago realized that HIV’s ability to integrate into the genomes of its host’s cells meant that the disease couldn’t be thought of only as a typical viral infection. It had a genetic component too, suggesting that an HIV cure might require a genetic answer.

At the time, however, the tools to remove HIV DNA from human cells without harming the human genome weren’t available. That’s changed in recent years with the discovery and subsequent development of a very precise gene-editing tool known as CRISPR/Cas9.

CRISPR/Cas9 editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome, where it can be used to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. Efforts are underway to apply CRISPR/Cas9 to the treatment of sickle cell disease, muscular dystrophy, and more.

Could CRISPR/Cas9 also remove HIV DNA from infected cells and eliminate the infection for good? Such an approach might be particularly helpful for people on ART who have persistent HIV DNA in the cells of their cerebrospinal fluid. A recent NIH-funded study in Journal of Clinical Investigation found that an association between this HIV reservoir and neurocognitive difficulties [2]

Earlier work by Khalili’s team showed that CRISPR could indeed remove HIV DNA from the genomes of host cells [3]. The problem was that, when delivered on its own, CRISPR couldn’t snip out every last bit of viral DNA from all cells as needed to get rid of HIV completely and permanently. It was crucial to reduce the burden of HIV genomes to the lowest possible level.

Meanwhile, Gendelman’s lab had been working to develop a new and more effective way to deliver ART. Often delivered in combinations, standard ART drugs are effective in suppressing HIV replication. However, people need to take their oral medications daily without fail. Also, most ART triple therapy drugs are water soluble, which means its cocktail of medications are swiftly processed and excreted by the body without reaching many places in the body where HIV hides.

In his quest to make ART work more effectively with fewer doses, Gendelman’s team altered the chemical composition of antiretroviral medicines, generating fat-soluble drug nanocrystals. The nanocrystals were then packaged into nanoparticles and delivered by intramuscular injection. The new drug formulation, known as long-acting slow-effective release (LASER) ART, reaches lymph nodes, spleen, gut, and brain tissues where HIV lurks [4]. Once there, it’s stored and released slowly over time. Still, like conventional ART, LASER ART can never completely cure HIV.

So, Gendelman teamed up with Khalili to ask: What would happen if LASER ART was followed by a round of CRISPR/Cas9? In a series of studies, the researchers tested LASER ART and CRISPR/Cas9, both alone and in combination. A total of 23 HIV-infected mice engineered to have some “humanized” immune features received the experimental combination therapy.

As expected, neither LASER ART nor CRISPR/Cas9 by itself proved sufficient to eradicate HIV in the mice. However, when LASER ART and CRISPR/Cas9 were delivered sequentially, the results were much different. Researchers found no evidence of HIV in the spleens or other tissues of more than one-third of the sequentially treated animals.

It’s important to note that this gene-editing approach to eradicating HIV is being applied to non-reproductive cells (somatic). The NIH does not support the use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos (germline) [5].

Of course, mice, even with humanized immune systems, are not humans. More research is needed to replicate these findings and to figure out how to make this approach to HIV treatment more effective in animal models before we can consider moving into human clinical trials. Still, these findings do provide a new reason for increased hope that an actual cure may ultimately be found for the tens of millions of people in the United States and around the globe now living with HIV.

References:

[1] Sequential LASER ART and CRISPR Treatments Eliminate HIV-1 in a Subset of Infected Humanized Mice. Dash PK, Kaminski R, Bella R, Su H, Mathews S, Ahooyi TM, Chen C, Mancuso P, Sariyer R, Ferrante P, Donadoni M, Robinson JA, Sillman B, Lin Z, Hilaire JR, Banoub M, Elango M, Gautam N, Mosley RL, Poluektova LY, McMillan J, Bade AN, Gorantla S, Sariyer IK, Burdo TH, Young WB, Amini S, Gordon J, Jacobson JM, Edagwa B, Khalili K, Gendelman HE. Nat Commun. 2019 Jul 2;10(1):2753.

[2] Spudich S et al. Persistent HIV-infected Cells in Cerebrospinal Fluid are Associated with Poorer Neurocognitive Performance. J Clin Invest. 2019. DOI: 10.1172/JCI127413 (2019).

[3] In Vivo Excision of HIV-1 Provirus by saCas9 and Multiplex Single-Guide RNAs in Animal Models. Yin C, Zhang T, Qu X, Zhang Y, Putatunda R, Xiao X, Li F, Xiao W, Zhao H, Dai S, Qin X, Mo X, Young WB, Khalili K, Hu W. Mol Ther. 2017 May 3;25(5):1168-1186.

[4] Creation of a nanoformulated cabotegravir prodrug with improved antiretroviral profiles. Zhou T, Su H, Dash P, Lin Z, Dyavar Shetty BL, Kocher T, Szlachetka A, Lamberty B, Fox HS, Poluektova L, Gorantla S, McMillan J, Gautam N, Mosley RL, Alnouti Y, Edagwa B, Gendelman HE. Biomaterials. 2018 Jan;151:53-65.

[5] Statement on Claim of First Gene-Edited Babies by Chinese Researcher. The NIH Director, NIH. 2018 November 28.

Links:

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

HIV Treatment: The Basics (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

Fast Facts (HIV.gov)

Global Statistics (HIV.gov)

Kamel Khalili (Temple University, Philadelphia, PA)

Howard Gendelman (University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha)

NIH Support: National Institute of Mental Health; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute on Aging; National Institute on Drug Abuse; Common Fund


Tracing Spread of Zika Virus in the Americas

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Francis Collins visits Ziika Forest

Caption: Here I am visiting the Ziika Forest area of Uganda, where the Zika virus was first identified in 1947.
Credit: National Institutes of Health

A couple of summers ago, the threat of mosquito-borne Zika virus disease in tropical areas of the Americas caused major concern, and altered the travel plans of many. The concern was driven by reports of Zika-infected women giving birth to babies with small heads and incompletely developed brains (microcephaly), as well as other serious birth defects. So, with another summer vacation season now upon us, you might wonder what’s become of Zika.

While pregnant women and couples planning on having kids should still take extra precautions [1] when travelling outside the country, the near-term risk of disease outbreaks has largely subsided because so many folks living in affected areas have already been exposed to the virus and developed protective immunity. But the Zika virus—first identified in the Ziika Forest in Uganda in 1947—has by no means been eliminated, making it crucial to learn more about how it spreads to avert future outbreaks. It’s very likely we have not heard the last of Zika in the Western hemisphere.

Recently, an international research team, partly funded by NIH, used genomic tools to trace the spread of the Zika virus. Genomic analysis can be used to build a “family tree” of viral isolates, and such analysis suggests that the first Zika cases in Central America were reported about a year after the virus had actually arrived and begun to spread.

The Zika virus, having circulated for decades in Africa and Asia before sparking a major outbreak in French Polynesia in 2013, slipped undetected across the Pacific Ocean into Brazil early in 2014, as established in previous studies. The new work reveals that by that summer, the bug had already hopped unnoticed to Honduras, spreading rapidly to other Central American nations and Mexico—likely by late 2014 and into 2015 [2].


Snapshots of Life: Finding Where HIV Hides

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HIV

Credit: Nadia Roan, University of California, San Francisco

Researchers have learned a tremendous amount about how the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV),  which causes AIDS, infects immune cells. Much of that information comes from studying immune cells in the bloodstream of HIV-positive people. Less detailed is the picture of how HIV interacts with immune cells inside the lymph nodes, where the virus can hide.

In this image of lymph tissue taken from the neck of a person with uncontrolled HIV infection, you can see areas where HIV is replicating (red) amid a sea of immune cells (blue dots). Areas of greatest HIV replication are associated with a high density of a subtype of human CD4 T-cells (yellow circles) that have been found to be especially susceptible to HIV infection.


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