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COVID-19

Social isolation and the adolescent brain

We can’t read Emory neuroscientist Shannon Gourley’s papers on social isolation in adolescent mice, without thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting children and teenagers. Much of the experimental work was completed before the pandemic began. Still, in the future, researchers will be studying the effects of the pandemic on children, in terms of depression and anxiety, or effects on relationships and education. They could look to neuroscience studies such as Gourley’s for insights into brain mechanisms.

What will the social isolation of the pandemic mean for developing brains?

In the brain, social isolation interferes with the pruning of dendritic spines, the structures that underly connections between neurons. One might think that more dendritic spines are good, but the brain is like a sculpture taking shape – the spines represent processes that are refined as humans and animals mature.

Mice with a history of social isolation have higher spine densities in regions of the brain relevant to decision-making, such as the prefrontal cortex, the Emory researchers found.

In a recently published review, Gourley and her co-authors, former graduate student Elizabeth Hinton and current MD/PhD Dan Li, say that more research is needed on whether non-social enrichment, such as frequent introduction of new toys, can compensate for or attenuate the effects of social isolation.

This research is part of an effort to view adolescent mental health problems, such as depression, obesity or substance abuse, through the prism of decision-making. The experiments distinguish between goal-oriented behaviors and habits. For humans, this might suggest choices about work/school, food, or maybe personal hygiene. But in a mouse context, this consists of having them poke their noses in places that will get them tasty food pellets, while they decode the information they have been given about what to expect. 

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COVID-triggered autoimmunity may be mostly temporary

In people with severe COVID-19, the immune system goes temporarily berserk and generates a wide variety of autoantibodies: proteins that are tools for defense, but turned against the body’s own tissues.

During acute infection, COVID-19 patients’ immune systems resemble those of people with diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis. However, after the storm passes, the autoantibodies decay and are mostly removed from the body over time, according to a study of a small number of patients who were hospitalized and then recovered. 

In a preprint posted on medRxiv, Emory immunologists provide a view of the spectrum of what COVID-generated autoantibodies react against, both during acute infection and later. Note: the results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

The findings on COVID-19-triggered autoimmunity may have implications for both the treatment of acute infection and for long-haulers, in whom autoantibodies are suspected of contributing to persistent symptoms such as fatigue, skin rashes and joint pain.

During acute infection, testing for autoantibodies may enable identification of some patients who need early intervention to head off problems later. In addition, attenuation of autoantibody activity by giving intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG) – an approach that has been tested on a small scale — may help resolve persistent symptoms, the Emory investigators suggest.

Researchers led by Ignacio Sanz, MD and Frances Eun-Hyung Lee, MD, isolated thousands of antibody-secreting cells from 7 COVID-19 patients who were in ICUs at Emory hospitals. They also looked for markers of autoimmunity in a larger group of 52 COVID-19 ICU patients.

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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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Neutrophils flood lungs in severe COVID-19

“First responder” cells called neutrophils are the dominant type of immune cells flooding the airways of people with severe COVID-19, according to a recent analysis of African-American patients in Emory hospitals.

The findings were posted on the preprint server Biorxiv prior to peer review.

Neutrophils are the most abundant immune cells in the blood, and usually the first to arrive at the site of a bacterial or viral infection. But in the lungs of severe COVID-19 patients, neutrophils camp out and release tissue-damaging enzymes, the new research shows. They also produce inflammatory messengers that induce more neutrophils to come to the lungs. 

Lung inflammation photo from NIEHS. Most of these dense small cells are neutrophils

This circulating cell type enters the lung and initiates a self-sustaining hyper-inflammation that leads to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), the leading cause of mortality in COVID-19, says lead author Eliver Ghosn assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

“Our findings reveal novel therapeutic targets, and developing tactics to intervene could benefit severe patients in the ICU, particularly those that are most vulnerable,” Ghosn says. “We compared our lung data with matching blood samples for all the patients, and we were able to identify the subtype of neutrophils in the blood that is most likely to infiltrate the lungs of severe patients and cause ARDS.”

Somewhat counter-intuitively, Emory researchers had difficulty detecting SARS-CoV-2 infected cells in the upper airways of hospitalized patients. This result, consistent with findings by others, may explain why antiviral drugs such as remdesivir are ineffective once systemic inflammation has gained momentum; lung injury comes more from the influx of immune cells, such as neutrophils, rather than viral infection itself.

When Ghosn and his colleagues began examining immune cells in COVID-19, they found that almost all of the hospitalized patients they encountered were African-American. This highlights the racial disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially in Georgia, and Ghosn’s team decided to “lean in” and focus on African-Americans. They collaborated closely with Eun-Hyung Lee’s lab at Emory to collect samples from hospitalized patients. 

“We believe these results can have broader implications and be applied to other demographics that suffer from similar lung pathology,” Ghosn says.

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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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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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Strengthening SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance: support from CDC, private foundations

As part of an effort to strengthen genomic surveillance for emerging strains of SARS-CoV-2, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has awarded a contract to Emory University researchers to characterize viral variants circulating in Georgia.

The two-year contract is part of the SPHERES (SARS-CoV-2 Sequencing for Public Health Emergency Response, Epidemiology and Surveillance) initiative, with roughly $620,000 in total costs. The principal investigator is Anne Piantadosi, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, with co-investigator Mehul Suthar, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics (infectious diseases).

Both Piantadosi and Suthar are affiliated with Emory University School of Medicine and Emory Vaccine Center. Additional Emory partners include assistant professor of medicine Ahmed Babiker, MBBS, assistant professor of medicine Jesse Waggoner, MD and assistant professor of biology Katia Koelle, PhD.

“We are analyzing SARS-CoV-2 genomes from patients in Georgia to understand the timing and source of virus introduction into our community,” Piantadosi says. “We want to know whether there have been population-level changes in the rates of viral spread, and whether there are associations between viral genotype, viral phenotype in vitro, and clinical phenotype or clinical outcome.”

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Emory MVA COVID-19 Vaccine Safe and Effective in Animal Models

Researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, have developed a COVID-19 vaccine that has proven safe and effective in mice and monkeys. Results from this National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)-funded study were published online Thursday, Feb. 4 in Immunity.

The Emory MVA COVID-19 vaccine induces protective immunity with the platform of modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA), a harmless version of a poxvirus that is well-known for its use in HIV/AIDS vaccines. Like the Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines, the Emory MVA COVID-19 vaccine induces strong neutralizing antibodies, which support the immune system’s ability to fight infections. The Emory MVA COVID-19 vaccine also induces killer CD8 T cells, providing a multi-pronged approach to halting SARS-CoV-2.

In addition, the Emory researchers say the vaccine is easily adaptable to address disease variants and can be used in combination with existing vaccines to improve their ability to combat variants and has the potential to be equally effective with a single dose.

Lead researcher Rama Amara, PhD, built the Emory MVA COVID-19 vaccine based on his more than 20 years of experience working with MVA and animal models to develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine. He and his Yerkes-based research team tested two MVA SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in mice. One of them, MVA/S, used the complete spike protein of coronavirus to induce strong neutralizing antibodies and a strong killer CD8 T cell response against SARS-CoV-2.

“Generating neutralizing antibodies is an important component of a successful COVID-19 vaccine because the antibodies can block the virus from entering the body’s cells,” says Amara, Charles Howard Candler professor of microbiology and immunology at Emory University School of Medicine and a researcher in Yerkes’ Division of Microbiology and Immunology and Emory Vaccine Center. “It’s as important to activate CD8 T cells that can clear infected cells, so this allows us to approach halting the virus two ways simultaneously. The CD8 T cells also provide ongoing value because they are key to working against other variants of the virus, especially if antibodies fail.”

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The blind is off: Moderna COVID-19 vaccine study update

Amidst the tumult in the nation’s capital, a quieter reckoning was taking place this week for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial. Lab Land has been hearing from Emory-affiliated study participants that they’re finding out whether they received active vaccine or placebo.

For example, Emory and Grady physician Kimberly Manning, who had written about her participation in the Moderna study in a Lancet essay, posted on Twitter Tuesday. She discovered she had received placebo, and then was offered active vaccine.

After Moderna reported strong efficacy and an Emergency Use Authorization came from the FDA, this was going to happen at some point – the question was when and how. At the advisory panel hearing in December, there was some tension over whether to remove the blind immediately, as this STAT article describes:

“Companies have said that they feel an ethical obligation to deliver vaccine to placebo recipients; the FDA and experts at its advisory panel have debated whether this obligation even exists. Instead, they argue, offering vaccine to volunteers receiving placebo limits the quality of the data about the vaccine’s long-term efficacy and side effects.”

A plan to keep participants in the study under a blinded crossover design was floated, but not implemented. Some participants have said they sensed from the start, based on temporary unpleasant side effects, whether they had received active vaccine or placebo.

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Repurposing a rheumatoid arthritis drug for COVID-19

For COVID-19, many researchers around the world have tried to repurpose drugs for other indications, often unsuccessfully. New clinical trial results show that baricitinib, developed by Eli Lilly and approved for rheumatoid arthritis, can speed recovery and may reduce mortality in some groups of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

How did this study, sponsored by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, come together? In part, through decade-long groundwork laid by investigators at Emory, and their collaborations with others.

The ACTT-2 results were recently published in New England Journal of Medicine. (More formal NIAID and Emory press releases are here and here.)

For several years, drug hunter and virologist Raymond Schinazi and his team had been investigating a class of medications called JAK inhibitors, as an option for tamping down chronic inflammation in HIV infection. Schinazi was one of the first at Emory to investigate the use of anti-inflammatory agents for herpesviruses and HIV in combination with antiviral drugs. He believed that these viruses “hit and run,” leaving behind inflammation, even if they later go into hiding and seem to disappear.

In Schinazi’s lab, Christina Gavegnano had shown that JAK inhibitors had both anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties in the context of HIV — a project she started as a graduate student in 2010. JAK refers to Janus kinases, which regulate inflammatory signals in immune cells.

 “Our team was working on this for 10 years for HIV,” Gavegnano says. “There was a huge amount of data that we garnered, showing how this drug class works on chronic inflammation and why.” 

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