Two items relevant to long COVID

One of the tricky issues in studying in long COVID is: how widely do researchers cast their net? Initial reports acknowledged that people who were hospitalized and in intensive care may take a while to get back on their feet. But the number of people who had SARS-CoV-2 infections and were NOT hospitalized, yet experienced lingering symptoms, may be greater. A recent report from the United Kingdom, published in PLOS Medicine, studied more than Read more

All your environmental chemicals belong in the exposome

Emory team wanted to develop a standard low-volume approach that would avoid multiple processing steps, which can lead to loss of material, variable recovery, and the potential for Read more

Signature of success for an HIV vaccine?

Efforts to produce a vaccine against HIV/AIDS have been sustained for more than a decade by a single, modest success: the RV144 clinical trial in Thailand, whose results were reported in 2009. Now Emory, Harvard and Case Western Reserve scientists have identified a gene activity signature that may explain why the vaccine regimen in the RV144 study was protective in some individuals, while other HIV vaccine studies were not successful. The researchers think that this signature, Read more

Immunology

Two items relevant to long COVID

One of the tricky issues in studying in long COVID is: how widely do researchers cast their net? Initial reports acknowledged that people who were hospitalized and in intensive care may take a while to get back on their feet. But the number of people who had SARS-CoV-2 infections and were NOT hospitalized, yet experienced lingering symptoms, may be greater.

A recent report from the United Kingdom, published in PLOS Medicine, studied more than 270,000 people using electronic health records. This research found that more than a third of patients had one or more features of long COVID three to six months after COVID-19 diagnosis.

That would be consistent with recently published findings from Emory, which surveyed 290 people from a telemedicine program: Emory Healthcare’s Virtual Outpatient Management Clinic. Almost 40 percent reported persistent symptoms. However, none of the individual symptoms, such as fatigue, mental fog or difficulty breathing, were reported at a rate of more than about 20 percent.

With this survey, Emory investigators were trying to capture the larger number of people out there who were recovering from COVID-19, without selecting for people who are especially miserable (to put it bluntly). Initial symptom severity predicted the likelihood of long-term symptoms, but there were outliers from this trend. This was a cross-sectional but not longitudinal study. One intriguing finding was that people with hypertension were less likely to experience persistent COVID symptoms, which may have to do with ACE inhibitors, common anti-hypertension drugs.

The second item reports data on autoantibodies from a long COVID cohort at Emory, from immunologists Ignacio Sanz and Eun-Hyung Lee. Autoantibodies are a feature of autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, and their presence in long COVID may explain persistent symptoms such as fatigue, skin rash and joint pain.

Several research groups have shown that autoantibodies can result from the intense inflammation of COVID-19 (examples outside Emory here, here), which breaks down the guardrails that normally constrain immune cells from attacking the body itself. But a key question is: how long does that deranged state last? And do autoantibodies correlate with persistent symptoms? This preprint (Evidence of Persisting Autoreactivity in Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 Infection)– not yet published in a peer review journal — represents the first data on this topic collected from the post-COVID clinics at Emory. More to come on this topic.

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Signature of success for an HIV vaccine?

Efforts to produce a vaccine against HIV/AIDS have been sustained for more than a decade by a single, modest success: the RV144 clinical trial in Thailand, whose results were reported in 2009.

Now Emory, Harvard and Case Western Reserve scientists have identified a gene activity signature that may explain why the vaccine regimen in the RV144 study was protective in some individuals, while other HIV vaccine studies were not successful.

The researchers think that this signature, observed in immune cells in the blood after vaccination, could be used to design future vaccines that will have a better chance of providing protection against HIV infection.

“We may not need to take ‘shots in the dark’, when testing vaccine platforms or adjuvants for efficacy,” says senior author Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, PhD. “Instead, we can now identify adjuvants and/or vaccine regimens which more potently induce the activation of this signature.”

Rafick-Pierre Sekaly, PhD

The results, published this week in Nature Immunology, also contain hints on a contributing factor explaining why a recent HIV vaccine study conducted in South Africa (HVTN702) did not show a protective effect. HVTN702 was designed as a follow-up to RV144, but multiple parameters were different between the Thai and South African vaccine studies, such as the demographics of the participants, the adjuvant used, and the levels and varieties of HIV circulating.

“Our findings highlight one potential mechanism which may have contributed to the muted efficacy of HVTN702,” says Sekaly, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

This mechanism involves the choice of adjuvant, a vaccine additive that enhances immune responses. While RV144 used the adjuvant alum (aluminum hydroxide), HVTN702 used the oil-based adjuvant MF59, also found in some influenza vaccines, to stimulate higher antibody production.

“There are multiple ways that a vaccine can promote protection and some of these do not involve antibodies,” Sekaly says. “Since MF59 failed to potently induce the gene signature we found to be associated with protection, this signature could guide us to mechanisms distinct from antibodies which could trigger protection from HIV-1.”

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The future of your face is plastic

Prolific drug discoverer and repurposer Jack Arbiser is at it again. Arbiser, an Emory dermatologist, has identified a new (but old) compound as a treatment for rosacea, a common skin condition involving redness and visible blood vessels on the face. Severe rosacea can lead to itching, pain, or thickening of the skin.

The compound is remarkable for two reasons: it is the same as Irganox 1010, an antioxidant plastic stabilizer used in industry for years, and it is a proteasome inhibitor.

The proteasome is the cell’s garbage disposal, and many kinds of proteins get tagged and thrown into it. Interfering with the disposal inhibits the inflammatory NFkB pathway. Oncologists may be familiar with the proteasome inhibitor bortezomib (a blockbuster drug known commercially as Velcade), used to treat multiple myeloma.

Arbiser has founded a company called Accuitis to develop the compound, called ACU-D1. Accuitis was funded by the Georgia Research Alliance. Accuitis’ web site notes that the compound “has the advantage of extensive toxicology testing in multiple animal species, as well as a safe record of human exposure for over 30 years.”

“ACU-D1 is a cream that works through a new mechanism of action that no current rosacea medications work through,” Arbiser told Dermatology Times. “Given the fact that there are no truly great treatments for rosacea, we are hoping that in the future our compound will be a first-in-class drug and become first-line therapy for rosacea.”

The results of a clinical trial for ACU-D1, conducted at the University of Louisville in Kentucky and Forefront Dermatology in San Antonio, were recently published in Journal of Drug in Dermatology.

This was a first-in-human study with 40 participants, lasting 12 weeks. It was not powered for a pivotal evaluation of ACU-D1’s efficacy. However, the drug showed a pronounced effect on people with severe rosacea. The trial used a Canfield imaging system imaging as a way of measuring skin irritation objectively, separately from the opinions of the investigators.

Canfield imaging of the face. From left to right: baseline, week 4, week 12

The drug appears to take effect after a couple weeks, showing maximum efficacy at one month. It also shows positive effects on redness, which is rare for a skin medication, Arbiser says. Few adverse effects were reported.

Arbiser says ACU-D1 could be an alternative to antibiotics, a common systemic treatment for rosacea. (Rosacea is partly an inflammatory response to microbes in the skin.) He is interested in studying ACU-D1’s efficacy for other inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

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Multiple myeloma patients display weakened antibody responses to mRNA COVID vaccines

A new study reports weakened antibody responses to COVID-19 mRNA vaccines among most patients with multiple myeloma, a form of bone-marrow cancer associated with an immunocompromised state.

The research, published in the journal Leukemia, was carried out at the Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research (IMBCR) in California, in collaboration with Emory infectious diseases fellow Samuel Stampfer, MD, PhD.

Patients with smoldering myeloma, not requiring treatment, all achieved a good response to COVID-19 vaccination, whereas less than half of patients with active myeloma requiring treatment did. Specifically, only 45 percent of active patients fully responded to the mRNA vaccines, whereas less than a quarter showed a partial response and one-third did not respond to the vaccines above background antibody levels.

Serum samples from 103 multiple myeloma patients were obtained prior to vaccination and 2-3 weeks after administration of the first and second vaccines, and compared to a group of age‑matched healthy controls. Predictors of reduced antibody responses to the vaccines included: older age, impaired renal function, low lymphocyte counts, reduced uninvolved antibody levels, past first line of treatment, and those not in complete remission. Nearly two-thirds of patients who received the Moderna vaccine responded to a level thought to be clinically significant, whereas only approximately a quarter who received the Pfizer vaccine did.

“Based on these data, myeloma patients may need to continue social distancing following COVID-19 vaccination, and postvaccine antibody tests may help guide decisions regarding supplementary vaccination or antibody prophylaxis for this vulnerable population,” says Stampfer, who co-designed the clinical study, under the guidance of senior author James Berenson, MD, the Scientific and Medical Director of IMBCR.

“This study highlights the importance of recognizing the limitations of current vaccination approaches to COVID-19 for immunocompromised patients, and that new approaches will have to be developed to improve their protection from this dangerous infection,” Berenson says. “It also suggests that there may be clinically significant differences in the effectiveness of different COVID-19 vaccines for immune compromised patients. Until these advances occur, it means that myeloma patients will need to remain very careful even if they have been vaccinated through wearing their masks and avoiding contact with unvaccinated individuals.”.

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Promiscuous protein droplets regulate immune gene activity

Biochemists at Emory are achieving insights into how an important regulator of the immune system switches its function, based on its orientation and local environment. New research demonstrates that the glucocorticoid receptor (or GR) forms droplets or “condensates” that change form, depending on its available partners.

The inside of a cell is like a crowded nightclub or party, with enzymes and other proteins searching out prospective partners. The GR is particularly well-connected and promiscuous, and has the potential to interact with many other proteins. It is a type of protein known as a transcription factor, which turns some genes on and others off, depending on how it is binding DNA.

These are fluorescent droplets of the glucocorticoid receptor (GR) in red, with a coregulator protein in green. When DNA is added, the co-regulator forms its own droplets on the surface of GR droplets. Image courtesy of Filipp Frank

“It is now thought that most transcription factors form or are recruited into condensates, and that condensation modulates their function,” says Filipp Frank, PhD, first author of the paper and a postdoctoral instructor in Eric Ortlund’s lab in the Department of Biochemistry. “What’s new is that we identified a DNA-dependent change in GR condensates, which has not been described for other transcription factors.”

The results are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Ortlund is a co-author of the paper, along with postdoctoral fellow Xu Liu, PhD.

Understanding how the GR works could help researchers find anti-inflammatory drugs with reduced side effects. The GR is the target for corticosteroid drugs such as dexamethasone, which is currently used to treat COVID-19 as well as allergies, asthma and autoimmune diseases.

Corticosteroids’ harmful side effects are thought to come from turning on genes involved in metabolism and bone growth, while their desired anti-inflammatory effects result from turning other inflammatory and immune system genes off. Researchers want to find alternatives that could separate those two functions.

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Natural killer cells can help control virus in primate model of HIV/AIDS

A combination immunotherapy of IL-21 and IFN-alpha, when added to antiviral therapy, is effective in generating highly functional natural killer cells that can help control and reduce SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) in animal models. This finding, from Yerkes National Primate Research Center scientists in collaboration with Institut Pasteur, could be key for developing additional treatment options to control HIV/AIDS.

The results were published in Nature Communications.

Antiviral therapy (ART) is the current leading treatment for HIV/AIDS, and is capable of reducing the virus to undetectable levels, but is not a cure and is hampered by issues such as cost, adherence to medication treatment plan and social stigma.

To reduce reliance on ART, the Yerkes, Emory and Institut Pasteur research team worked with 16 SIV-positive, ART-treated rhesus macaques. In most nonhuman primates (NHPs), including rhesus macaques, untreated SIV infection progresses to AIDS-like disease and generates natural killer (NK) cells with impaired functionality. In contrast, natural primate hosts of SIV do not progress to AIDS-like disease. Determining why natural hosts do not progress or how to stop the progression is a critical step in halting HIV in humans.

The researchers compared ART-only treated animals with animals that received ART, IL-21 and IFN-alpha to evaluate how the ART plus combination immunotherapy affected the amount of virus in the animals’ tissues.  

“Our results indicate ART plus combo-treated rhesus monkeys showed enhanced antiviral NK cell responses,” says first author Justin Harper, PhD, a senior research specialist and manager of the Paiardini research lab. “These robust NK cell responses helped clear cells in the lymph nodes, which are known for harboring the virus and enabling its replication and, therefore, the virus’ persistence. Targeting areas where the virus seeks refuge and knowing how to limit replication facilitate controlling HIV.”

HIV treatment has historically focused on the role of T cells in immunity, so harnessing NK cells opens up different avenues.

Mirko Paiardini, PhD

“This proof-of-concept study in rhesus monkeys, which progress to AIDS-like disease in the absence of ART, demonstrates how certain NK cell activities can contribute to controlling the virus,” says Mirko Paiardini, PhD, an associate professor of pathology and laboratory Medicine at Emory University and a researcher at Yerkes. “This opens the door to designing additional treatment strategies to induce SIV and HIV remission in the absence of ART, and, ultimately, reducing the burden HIV is to individuals, families and the world.”

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More evidence for autoantibodies in severe COVID-19

A recent paper from Emory pathologist Cheryl Maier and colleagues provides more evidence for autoantibodies in critically ill COVID-19 patients. Autoantibodies are signs that the immune system attacking the body itself, and are features of diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. They have been proposed as an explanation for the severity of some acute COVID-19 cases, as well as continued symptoms in long COVID.

Generally, antibodies are a good thing, and a major goal of COVID-19 vaccination is to drive the immune system to generate protective antibodies against the coronavirus. With autoantibodies and COVID, the idea is that intense inflammation coming from viral infection is causing immune cells to become confused. Not every COVID-19 patient’s immune system goes off the rails, but the train wreck seems to happen more often in COVID-19.

Last year, immunologist Ignacio Sanz’s lab at Emory demonstrated that patients with severe COVID-19 display signs of immune dysregulation similar to those seen in lupus. A follow-up preprint found the suspected autoantibodies, and several other labs have observed autoantibodies in COVID-19 that may be sabotaging antiviral responses or perturbing blood clotting. Now, an active topic of investigation is whether the autoantibodies last longer or don’t diminish as quickly in long COVID. Stay tuned.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is MaierC.jpg
Cheryl Maier, MD, PhD

However, in the current paper in Cell Reports Medicine, autoantibodies were also found in most control samples from intensive care unit patients with pneumonia or sepsis, who are experiencing a state of systemic inflammation comparable to severe COVID-19.

“It’s a reminder that autoantibodies are not necessarily unique to COVID,” Maier says. “They may be more dramatic in COVID, but we see autoantibodies associated with other severe diseases too.”

Maier is medical director for Emory’s Special Coagulation Laboratory, and her team came to the autoimmunity question from a side angle. They were investigating blood clots and hyperviscosity in COVID-19 patients, and wanted to check whether high concentrations of antibodies might be an explanation. Antibodies are proteins, after all, and if someone’s blood is full of them, they thicken it.

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Make ‘em fight: redirecting neutrophils in CF

Why do people with cystic fibrosis (CF) have such trouble with lung infections? The conventional view is that people with CF are at greater risk for lung infections because thick, sticky mucus builds up in their lungs, allowing bacteria to thrive. CF is caused by a mutation that affects the composition of the mucus.

Rabindra Tirouvanziam, an immunologist at Emory, says a better question is: what type of cell is supposed to be fighting the bacteria?

The answer is neutrophils, one of the most abundant types of immune cells and foot soldiers against bacterial infections. When neutrophils get into the lungs in people with CF, they change behavior and shut off the expression of genes that would be important for them to combat bacteria. They stay around in the lungs, and release harmful proteins that interfere with other cells’ ability to clean up the bacteria.

Tirouvanziam’s lab has developed a culture system for studying neutrophil behavior, a model for how they act in the lungs. The system makes the neutrophils pass through a layer of lung epithelial cells. Under the influence of lung fluids obtained from CF patients, neutrophils turn what Tirouvanziam calls GRIM (Granule Release, Immunomodulatory, Metabolic). They’re feeding but not fighting: highly metabolically active, but not producing the molecules needed for bactericidal activity.

In a recent paper published in Cell Reports Medicine, researchers show that they can reverse the GRIM fate by applying alpha-amanitin, which blocks RNA transcription, and bring back bactericidal activity. This is a sledgehammer approach, because alpha-amanitin shuts down everything – it’s the toxic ingredient in destroying angel/death cap mushrooms.

Thus, alpha-amanitin would not be appropriate as a therapeutic medication. But it is a tantalizing hint of more specific approaches to come – related papers are on the way, Tirovanziam says. Reviving the anti-bacterial ability of neutrophils should be applicable regardless of the pathogen, and independent of antibiotic resistance, he adds.

“We can steer them in the right direction,” he says. “We are starting to realize that neutrophils have multiple programs and pathways – sort of like T cells. And we can show that it is being exposed to CF lung fluid that makes them go wrong – it’s not intrinsic to the neutrophils.”

The paper also says that scientists in his lab have been separating lung fluids from CF patients into fractions, in order to isolate the molecular entities responsible for steering neutrophils down the wrong path.

The first author of the Cell Reports Medicine paper was former graduate student Camila Margaroli, currently a postdoc at UAB. Tirouvanziam’s lab is part of Emory’s Department of Pediatrics and the Emory-Children’s Healthcare Center for Cystic Fibrosis and Airways Disease Research.

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COVID-19 vaccine-generated antibodies last at least 6 months

How long does COVID-19 vaccine-generated immunity last? New laboratory results provide a partial answer to that question.

Antibodies generated by a currently available COVID-19 vaccine declined over time, but remained at high levels in 33 study participants 6 months after vaccination, according to data published Tuesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The results could begin to inform public health decisions about COVID-19 booster vaccinations and how frequently people should receive them. In older study participants, antiviral antibody activity tended to decay more rapidly than in those aged 18-55.

From Doria-Rose et al (2021). Note that neutralizing antibody activity was (on average) higher at day 209 than on day 29, when the second vaccine dose was administered. It takes two weeks for the immune system to kick into high gear after the second shot.

Emory Vaccine Center’s Mehul Suthar, co-lead author of the brief report, said that the “correlates of protection” are not yet known from COVID-19 vaccine studies – that is, what levels of antiviral antibodies are needed to fend off infection. Other forms of immunity, such as T cells, could be contributing to antiviral protection as well.

He cautioned that the decay in antibody activity over time – not surprising in itself – may combine with increased prevalence of emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants that may allow viruses to escape the immune system’s pressure.

“Still, these are encouraging results,” Suthar says. “We are seeing good antibody activity, measured three different ways, six months after vaccination. There are differences between age groups, which are consistent with what we know from other studies.”

The findings come from analysis of samples from the Moderna mRNA-1273 phase I clinical trial, which began last year. Reports of clinical outcomes from Pfizer/BioNTech also indicate that their vaccine remains effective after six months.

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Steer microglia toward the angels – with a drug based on sea anemone venom

Researchers interested in Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases are focusing their attention on microglia, cells that are part of the immune system in the brain.

Author Donna Jackson Nakazawa titled her recent book on microglia “The Angel and the Assassin,” based on the cells’ dual nature; they can be benign or malevolent, either supporting neuronal health or driving harmful inflammation. Microglia resemble macrophages in their dual nature, but microglia are renewed within the brain, unlike macrophages, which are white blood cells that infiltrate into the brain from outside.

At Emory, neurologist Srikant Rangaraju’s lab recently published a paper in PNAS on a promising drug target on microglia: Kv1.3 potassium channels. Overall, the results strengthen the case for targeting Kv1.3 potassium channels as a therapeutic approach for Alzheimer’s.

Kv1.3 potassium channels have also been investigated as potential therapeutic targets in autoimmune disorders, since they are expressed on T cells as well as microglia. The peptide dalazatide, based on a toxin from the venom of the Caribbean sea anemone Stichodactyla helianthus, is being developed by the Ohio-based startup TEKv Therapeutics. The original venom peptide needed to be modified to make it more selective toward the right potassium channels  – more about that here.

Kv1.3 potassium channels are potential therapeutic targets in autoimmune disorders and Alzheimer’s — blockable with peptides based on venom of the sea anemone Stichodactyla helianthus

It appears that Kv1.3 levels on microglia increase in response to exposure to amyloid-beta, the toxic protein fragment that accumulates in the brain in Alzheimer’s, and Kv1.3 may be an indicator that microglia are turning to the malevolent side.

In the Emory paper, researchers showed that Kv1.3 potassium channels are present on a subset of microglia isolated from Alzheimer’s patients’ brains. They also used bone marrow transplant experiments to show that the immune cells in mouse brain that express Kv1.3 channels are microglia (internal brain origin), not macrophages (transplantable w/ bone marrow).

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