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.
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.”
In the race to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at Yerkes National Primate Research Center of Emory University share two important findings from their latest peer-reviewed, published study in Cell.
Rhesus monkeys are a valid animal model for COVID-19 studies because the way they experience and respond to the virus has comparable similarities to the way the virus affects humans, the researchers say. And baricitinib, an anti-inflammatory medication that is FDA-approved for rheumatoid arthritis, is remarkably effective in reducing the lung inflammation COVID-19 causes when the medication is started early after infection.
The study results have immediate and important implications for treating patients with COVID-19. Baricitinib will be compared against the steroid dexamethasone in a NIAID-sponsored clinical trial called ACTT-4 (Adaptive COVID-19 Treatment Trial), which started in November.
Mirko Paiardini, PhD, a researcher in Yerkes’ Microbiology and Immunology division, and his team selected rhesus macaques as the animal model because they expected the monkeys would mimic the disease course in humans, including the virus traveling to the upper and lower airways, and causing high levels of inflammation in the lungs. The team randomized eight rhesus macaques into two groups – a control and a treatment group; the animals in the treatment group received baricitinib.
“Our results showed the medication reduced inflammation, decreased inflammatory cells in the lungs and, ultimately, limited the virus’ internal path of destruction,” Paiardini says. “Remarkably, the animals we treated with baricitinib rapidly suppressed the processes responsible for inducing lung inflammation, thus elevating baricitinib for consideration as a frontline treatment for COVID-19 and providing insights on the way the drug works and its effectiveness.”
The FDA recently granted baricitinib emergency use authorization in combination with remdesivir based on the results of the ACTT-2 findings. “Our study was under way concurrently and, now, solidifies the importance of baricitinib in treating COVID-19,” Paiardini adds.
Co-senior author Raymond Schinazi, PhD, DSc, inventor of the most commonly used HIV/AIDS drugs to prevent progression of the disease and death, says: “Our study shows the mechanisms of action are consistent across studies with monkeys and clinical trials with humans. This means the nonhuman primate model can provide enough therapeutic insights to properly test anti-inflammatory and other COVID-19 therapies for safety and effectiveness.”
Schinazi is the Frances Winship Walters Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and is affiliated with Yerkes.
“Ray and his group have been investigating the potential of anti-inflammatory drugs, such as baricitinib, for years in the context of another infection, HIV, in which inflammation is a key cause of sickness and death,” Paiardini says. “Our laboratories have collaborated for years to test therapeutics in the nonhuman primate model of HIV infection, thus placing us in a unique position when COVID-19 hit the U.S. to focus our combined expertise and efforts to halt the virus. It took only a phone call between the two of us to switch gears, begin work to create a reliable and robust monkey model of COVID-19 at Yerkes and test the potential of drugs to block inflammation.”
Tim Hoang, first author and Emory doctoral student in the Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis Program, says: “It was exciting to be at the forefront of the response to COVID-19 and to be part of this research team that involved collaboration from Yerkes and Emory infectious disease experts, geneticists, chemists, pathologists and veterinarians.”
Co-first author and Emory postdoctoral fellow Maria Pino, PhD, emphasizes: “We knew Yerkes was uniquely suited to conduct this study because of the research and veterinary expertise, specialized facilities and animal colony, and our team’s commitment to providing better treatment options for people who have COVID-19.”
The research team plans to conduct further studies to better understand the inflammation the virus causes and to develop more targeted approached to mitigate the damage COVID-19 leaves behind.
Steven Bosinger, PhD, co-senior author, and his research team conducted the genomic analyses that helped unravel the process by which baricitinib reduces inflammation. “One of the most exciting aspects of this project was the speed genomics brought to the collaborative research,” says Bosinger. “Eight months ago, we began using genomics to accelerate the drug screening process in order to identify treatable, molecular signatures of disease between humans and model organisms, such as the monkeys in this study, In addition to determining the effectiveness of baricitinib, this study highlights Emory researchers’ commitment to improving human health and, in this case, saving human lives.”
Bosinger is assistant professor, Department of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, Emory School of Medicine (SOM) and Emory Vaccine Center (EVC); director, Yerkes Nonhuman Primate Genomics Core and a researcher in Yerkes’ Division of Microbiology and Immunology.
Some of the others on the Emory research team include: Arun Boddapati (co-first author), Elise Viox, Thomas Vanderford, PhD, Rebecca Levit, MD, Rafick Sékaly, PhD, Susan Ribeiro, PhD, Guido Silvestri, MD, Anne Piantadosi, MD, PhD, Sanjeev Gumber, BVSc, MVSc, PhD, DACVP, Sherrie Jean, DVM, DACLAM, and Jenny Wood, DVM, DACLAM. Jacob Estes, PhD, at Oregon Health & Science University also collaborated.
Paiardini says, “So many colleagues had a key role in this study. First authors Tim and Maria as well as Yerkes veterinary and animal care personnel who worked non-stop for months on this project. This truly has been a collaborative effort at Emory University to help improve lives worldwide.”
This study was funded by the National Institutes of Health, Emory University’s COVID-19 Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics Initiative Seed Grant, Yerkes’ base grant, which included support for the center’s Coronavirus Pilot Research Project grants, and Fast Grants.
Grant amounts (direct + indirect) are:
NIH R37AI141258, $836,452/yr (2018-23)
NIH R01AI116379, $783,714/yr (2015-20 + 2021 NCE)
NIH P51 OD011132, $10,540,602/yr (2016-20)
U24 AI120134 $681,214/yr (2020-2025)
S10OD026799 $985,030/yr (2019-2020)
Emory University COVID-19 Molecules and Pathogens to Populations and Pandemics Initiative Seed Grant, $150,000/1 yr
Fast Grants #2144, $100,000/1 yr
Note: Only a portion of the NIH grant funding was applied to the study reported in this news release.
With cold weather approaching, many are digging out old jackets to find that the zippers don’t function as well as they used to. This is a good way to understand disruptions of muscle cell attachment studied by Emory cell biologist Guy Benian’s lab.
“This is yet another example in which research using the model genetic organism C. elegans has led to a new insight applicable to all animals, including humans,” Benian says. “Research on this organism has led to crucial advances in our understanding about development, cell death, aging and longevity, RNAi, microRNAs, epigenetics — and muscle.”
Certain types of intestinal bacteria can help protect the liver from injuries such as alcohol or acetaminophen overdose, according to Emory scientists led by pathologist Andrew Neish and physiologist Dean Jones.
“The composition of the microbiota, because of natural variation, dysbiosis, or supplementation with probiotics, can strongly affect how the liver processes both toxins and pharmacological agents, and thus have clinical consequences on how individuals respond to such exogenous chemicals,” Neish says.
While pretreatment with bacteria is needed for the observed effect in acute liver injury, probiotics or small molecule substitutes may be useful in the treatment of chronic liver diseases, the authors suggest.
In mice, oral administration of Lactobacillus rhamnosus or LGG could protect against liver damage brought on by alcohol or acetaminophen. Several labs had already observed a beneficial effect from LGG against liver injury, but the Emory research establishes an additional mechanism.
The protection comes from a small molecule metabolite produced by the bacteria called 5-MIAA (5-methoxyindoleacetic acid), activating the mammalian transcription factor Nrf2. Other types of bacteria did not produce 5-MIAA or activate Nrf2. While LGG is also known to improve the barrier function of the gut and dampen inflammation, liver-specific depletion of Nrf2 prevented LGG’s beneficial effects, suggesting that this is the primary mechanism of action. Read more
Donated blood from COVID-19 survivors could be an effective treatment in helping others fight the illness – and should be tested more broadly to see if it can “change the course of this pandemic,” two Emory pathologists say.
The idea of using a component of survivors’ donated blood, or “convalescent plasma,” is that antibodies from patients who have recovered can be used in other people to help them defend against coronavirus.
Emory pathologists John Roback, MD, PhD and Jeannette Guarner, MD, wrote about the prospects of using the donated blood in a commentary published in JAMA. Their article accompanied a small study in China of five patients on ventilators whose condition improved after they were treated with convalescent plasma.
“Deploying passive antibody therapies against the rapidly increasing number of COIVD-19 cases provides an unprecedented opportunity to perform clinical studies of the efficacy of this treatment against a viral agent,” the two wrote. “If the results of rigorously conducted investigations, such as a large-scale randomized clinical trial, demonstrate efficacy, use of this therapy also could help change the course of this pandemic.”
The patients in Shenzhen were also treated with other antiviral and antiinflammatory agents, and the study was too small to come to definite conclusions. Still, the Emory authors say, the Shenzhen study provides an example of an approach that should be tested on a larger scale. Read more
Stimulating immune cells with two cancer immunotherapies together can shrink the size of the viral “reservoir” in SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus)-infected nonhuman primates treated with antiviral drugs, Emory researchers and their colleagues have concluded. The reservoir includes immune cells that harbor virus despite potent antiviral drug treatment.
The findings, reported in Nature Medicine, have important implications for the quest to cure HIV because reservoir shrinkage has not been achieved consistently before. However, the combination treatment does not prevent or delay viral rebound once antiviral drugs are stopped. Finding an HIV cure is important because, although antiretroviral therapy can reduce the amount of circulating virus to undetectable levels, problematic issues remain such as social stigma in addition to the long-term toxicity and cost of antiretroviral drugs.
“It’s a glass-half-full situation,” says senior author Mirko Paiardini, PhD. “We concluded immune checkpoint blockade, even a very effective combination, is unlikely to achieve viral remission as a standalone treatment during antiretroviral therapy.”
He adds the approach may have greater potential if combined with other immune-stimulating agents. Or it could be deployed at a different point — when the immune system is engaged in fighting the virus, creating a target-rich environment. Other HIV/AIDS researchers have started to test those tactics, he says.
Paiardini is an associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Emory University School of Medicine and a researcher at Yerkes National Primate Research Center. The study performed in nonhuman primates, considered the best animal model for HIV studies, was carried out in collaboration with co-authors Shari Gordon and David Favre at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and GlaxoSmithKline; Katharine Bar at the University of Pennsylvania; and Jake Estes at Oregon Health & Science University. Read more
In February, the Infectious Diseases Society of America issued new guidelines for fighting Clostridium difficile, the hardy bacterium that can cause life-threatening diarrhea and whose dominance is sometimes a consequence of antibiotic treatment. The guidelines recommend for the first time that FMT (fecal microbiota transplant) be considered for individuals who have repeatedly failed standard antibiotics.
In a nice coincidence, Emory FMT specialists Colleen Kraft and Tanvi Dhere recently published a look at their clinical outcomes with C diff going back to 2012, in Clinical Infectious Diseases. They report 95 percent of patients (122/128) indicated they would undergo FMT again and 70 percent of the 122 said they would prefer FMT to antibiotics as initial treatment if they were to have a recurrence. Read more
Molecules from animals with exotic immune systems can be big business, as Andrew Joseph from STAT News points out. Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi recently bought a company focused on nanobodies, originally derived from camels, llamas and alpacas, for $4.8 billion.
Lampreys’ variable lymphocyte receptors (VLRs) are their version of antibodies, even though they look quite different in molecular terms. Research on VLRs and their origins may seem impractical. However, Cooper’s team has shown their utility as diagnostic tools, and his colleagues have been weaponizing them, possibly for use in cancer immunotherapy.
CAR-T cells have attracted attention for dramatic elimination of certain types of leukemias from the body and also for harsh side effects and staggering costs; see this opinion piece by Georgia Tech’s Aaron Levine. Now many research teams are scheming about how to apply the approach to other types of cancers. The provocative idea is: replace the standard CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) warhead with a lamprey VLR.
The finding adds to evidence that alpha-synuclein is a pivot for damage to brain cells in PD, and helps to explain why brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine are more vulnerable to degeneration.
Alpha-synuclein is a major component of Lewy bodies, the protein clumps that are a pathological sign of PD. Also, duplications of or mutations in the gene encoding alpha-synuclein drive some rare familial cases.
A “tug of war” situation thus exists between alpha-synuclein and BDNF, struggling for dominance over TrkB. In cultured neurons and in mice, alpha-synuclein inhibits BDNF’s ability to protect brain cells from neurotoxins that mimic PD-related damage, Ye’s team found. Read more
Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are not the same. They affect different regions of the brain and have distinct genetic and environmental risk factors.
But at the biochemical level, these two neurodegenerative diseases start to look similar. That’s how Emory scientists led by Keqiang Ye, PhD, landed on a potential drug target for Parkinson’s.
Keqiang Ye, PhD
In both Alzheimer’s (AD) and Parkinson’s (PD), a sticky and sometimes toxic protein forms clumps in brain cells. In AD, the troublemaker inside cells is called tau, making up neurofibrillary tangles. In PD, the sticky protein is alpha-synuclein, forming Lewy bodies. Here is a thorough review of alpha-synuclein’s role in Parkinson’s disease.
Ye and his colleagues had previously identified an enzyme (asparagine endopeptidase or AEP) that trims tau in a way that makes it both more sticky and more toxic. In addition, they have found that AEP similarly processes beta-amyloid, another bad actor in Alzheimer’s, and drugs that inhibit AEP have beneficial effects in Alzheimer’s animal models.
“In Parkinson’s, alpha-synuclein behaves much like Tau in Alzheimer’s,” Ye says. “We reasoned that if AEP cuts Tau, it’s very likely that it will cut alpha-synuclein too.”
A particular chunk of alpha-synuclein produced by AEP’s scissors can be found in samples of brain tissue from patients with PD, but not in control samples, Ye’s team found.
In control brain samples AEP was confined to lysosomes, parts of the cell with a garbage disposal function. But in PD samples, AEP was leaking out of the lysosomes to the rest of the cell.
The researchers also observed that the chunk of alpha-synuclein generated by AEP is more likely to aggregate into clumps than the full length protein, and is more toxic when introduced into cells or mouse brains. In addition, alpha-synuclein mutated so that AEP can’t cut it is less toxic. Read more