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

autoimmunity

NIAID long COVID workshop

On Thursday and Friday, Emory researchers participated in an online NIAID workshop about “post-acute sequelae” of COVID-19, which includes people with long COVID.

Long COVID has some similarities to post-viral ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis/ chronic fatigue syndrome), which has a history of being dismissed or minimized by mainstream medicine. In contrast, the workshop reflected how seriously NIAID and researchers around the world are taking long COVID.

Post-acute is a confusing term, because it includes both people who were hospitalized with COVID-19, sometimes spending weeks on a ventilator or in an intensive care unit, as well as members of the long COVID group, who often were not hospitalized and did not seem to have a severe infection to begin with.

COVID-19 infection can leave behind lung or cardiac damage that could explain why someone would have fatigue and shortness of breath. But there are also signs that viral infection can perturb other systems of the body, leading to symptoms such as “brain fog” (cognitive/memory problems), persistent pain and/or loss of smell and taste.

Highlights from Thursday were appearances from patient advocates Hannah Davis and Chimere Smith, along with virologist Peter Piot, who all described their experiences. Davis is part of a patient-led long COVID-19 support group, which has pushed research forward.

One goal for the workshop was to have experts discuss how to design future studies, or how to take advantage of existing studies to gain insights. A major clue on what to look for comes from Emory immunologist Ignacio Sanz, who spoke at the conference.

Sanz’s research has shown similarities between immune activation in people hospitalized at Emory with severe COVID-19 and in people with the autoimmune disease lupus. In lupus, the checks and balances constraining the immune system break down. A characteristic element of lupus are autoantibodies: antibodies that recognize parts of the body itself. Their presence in COVID-19 may be an explanation for the fatigue, joint pain and other persistent symptoms experienced by some people after their acute infections have passed.

Part of Ignacio Sanz’s talk at the NIAID conference on post-acute sequelae of COVID-19

For details on Sanz’s research, please see our write-up from October, their Nature Immunology paper, and first author Matthew Woodruff’s explainer. The Nature Immunology paper’s results didn’t include measurement of autoantibodies, but a more recent follow-up did (medRxiv preprint). More than half of the 52 COVID-19 patients tested positive for autoantibodies at levels comparable to those in lupus. In those with the highest amounts of the inflammatory marker CRP, the proportion was greater.

“It could be that severe viral illness routinely results in the production of autoantibodies with little consequence; this could just be the first time we’re seeing it,” Woodruff writes in a second explainer. “We also don’t know how long the autoantibodies last. Our data suggest that they are relatively stable over a few weeks. But, we need follow-up studies to understand if they are persisting routinely beyond infection recovery.”

Sanz’s group was looking at patients’ immune systems when both infection and inflammation were at their peaks. They don’t yet know whether autoantibodies persist for weeks or months after someone leaves the hospital. In addition, this result doesn’t say what is happening in the long COVID group, many of whom were not hospitalized.

Autoantibodies have also been detected in MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children), a rare complication that can come after an initial asymptomatic infection. In addition, some patients’ antiviral responses are impaired because of autoantibodies against interferons.

It makes sense that multiple mechanisms could explain post-COVID impairments, including persistent inflammation, damage to blood vessels or various organs, and blood clots/mini-strokes.

Anthony Komaroff from Harvard, who chaired a breakout group on neurology/psychiatry, said the consensus was that so far, direct evidence of viral infection in the brain is thin. Komaroff said that neuro/psych effects are more likely to come from the immune response to the virus.

There were breakout groups for different areas of investigation, such as cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal. Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed co-chaired a session for immunologists and rheumatologists, together with Fred Hutch’s Julie McElrath.

Emory’s Carlos del Rio, who recently summarized long COVID for JAMA, spoke about racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19’s impact and said he expected similar inequities to appear with long COVID.

Reports from the breakout groups Friday emphasized the need to design prospective studies, which would include people before they became sick and take baseline samples. Some suggestions came for taking advantage of samples from the placebo groups in recent COVID-19 vaccine studies.

La Jolla immunologist Shane Crotty said that researchers need to track the relationship between infection severity/duration and post-infection impairments. “There’s a big gap on the virological side,” Crotty said. He noted that one recent preprint shows that SARS-CoV-2 virus is detectable in the intestines in some study participants 3 months after onset.  

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology 1 Comment

Immune cell activation in severe COVID-19 resembles lupus

In severe cases of COVID-19, Emory researchers have been observing an exuberant activation of B cells, resembling acute flares in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease.

The findings point towards tests that could separate some COVID-19 patients who need immune-calming therapies from others who may not. It also may begin to explain why some people infected with SARS-CoV-2 produce abundant antibodies against the virus, yet experience poor outcomes.

The results were published online on Oct. 7 in Nature Immunology.

The Emory team’s results converge with recent findings by other investigators, who found that high inflammation in COVID-19 may disrupt the formation of germinal centers, structures in lymph nodes where antibody-producing cells are trained. The Emory group observed that B cell activation is moving ahead along an “extrafollicular” pathway outside germinal centers – looking similar to what they had observed in SLE.

Update: check out first author Matthew Woodruff’s commentary in The Conversation: “The autoimmune-like inflammatory responses my team discovered could simply reflect a ‘normal’ response to a viral infection already out of hand. However, even if this kind of response is ‘normal,’ it doesn’t mean that it’s not dangerous.”

B cells represent a library of blueprints for antibodies, which the immune system can tap to fight infection. In severe COVID-19, the immune system is, in effect, pulling library books off the shelves and throwing them into a disorganized heap.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, co-senior author Ignacio (Iñaki) Sanz and his lab were focused on studying SLE and how the disease perturbs the development of B cells.

“We came in pretty unbiased,” Sanz says. “It wasn’t until the third or fourth ICU patient whose cells we analyzed, that we realized that we were seeing patterns highly reminiscent of acute flares in SLE.”

In people with SLE, B cells are abnormally activated and avoid the checks and balances that usually constrain them. That often leads to production of “autoantibodies” that react against cells in the body, causing symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, skin rashes and kidney problems. Flares are times when the symptoms are worse.

Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Immune ‘traffic jam’ from viral infection

Several drugs now used to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases are actually repurposed tools derived from the immune system. One of the ways these “therapeutic antibodies” work is to grab onto malignant or inflammatory cells and escort them to their doom.

Emory researchers have found that in a mouse model of chronic viral infection, a kind of traffic pileup inside the body limits how effective therapeutic antibodies can be.

The results, published this week in Immunity, have implications for biotechnology researchers who continue to refine antibodies for therapeutic purposes, as well as bolster our understanding of how chronic viral infections impair the immune system.

Researchers led by Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of the Emory Vaccine Center, were studying mice infected by LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus). They injected several antibodies with the goal of removing various types of immune cells from the mice.  One end of the antibody molecule is supposed to bind the target cell, while another acts as a flag for other cells to get rid of the target cell.

However, during a chronic LCMV infection, the mouse’s immune system is producing its own antibodies against the virus, which form complexes with viral proteins. These immune complexes prevented the injected antibodies from having the effect the scientists wanted, which was to deplete their target cells.

Excessive amounts of immune complexes appear to be “clogging” the Fc gamma receptors that immune cells would use to grab the antibodies bound to the target cell, says postdoctoral fellow Andreas Wieland, PhD, first author of the Immunity paper. That these immune complexes form was not news; but how much they interfere with other antibodies was, Wieland says. Fc gamma receptors were already known to be important for antibodies to be effective against influenza and HIV. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

Whole exome sequencing in IBD

Last year, pediatric gastroenterologist Subra Kugathasan gave an “old fashioned” grand rounds talk at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Egleston hospital, describing a family’s struggle with a multifaceted problem of autoimmunity.

Subra Kugathasan, MD

Now the Journal of Pediatric Gastroenterology and Nutrition paper, on how the genetic alteration underlying the family’s struggles was identified, is published. Kugathasan reports that the young man at the center of the paper is scheduled for allogeneic bone marrow transplant in the United States (but not in Atlanta) in the next couple months.

The list of troubles the members of the family had to deal with is long: gastrointestinal issues and food allergies, skin irritation, bacterial + yeast infections, and arthritis. The mother and her brother were affected to some degree, as well as all three of the kids (see tree diagram). The youngest brother is the “proband”, a geneticist’s term for starting point.

As determined by whole exome sequencing, the gene responsible is FOXP3, which controls the development of regulatory T cells. These are cells that restrain the rest of the immune system; if they aren’t functioning correctly, the immune system is at war with the rest of the body, like in this family.

The genetic variant identified was new — that’s why whole exome sequencing was necessary to find it. The authors conclude:

Supporting the utility of WES [whole exome sequencing] in familial clusters of atypical IBD [inflammatory bowel disease], this approach led to a definitive diagnosis in this case, resulting in a justifiable treatment strategy of allogeneic bone marrow transplantation, the treatment of choice for IPEX [Immune dysregulation, polyendocrinopathy, enteropathy, X-linked syndrome].

Bone marrow transplant is a big deal; doctors are essentially wiping out the immune system then bringing it back, with several associated risks. So the decision to go ahead is not taken lightly. In general, whether bone marrow transplant — either autologous (patient donates back to self) or allogeneic (the donor is someone else) — is appropriate as a treatment for inflammatory bowel disease is still being investigated. Here, since a genetic origin is clear and there are autoimmune effects beyond the digestive system, it becomes the treatment of choice.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment