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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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
Tab Ansari’s research at Emory/Yerkes on how an antibody treatment can push monkeys infected with SIV into remission was published in Science last year. At that time, Ansari told Lab Land about follow-up experiments to probe which immune cells are needed for this effect, which surprised many HIV/AIDS experts.
Ansari’s partner on the project, NIAID director Anthony Fauci, described the follow-up work in July at the International AIDS Society Conference in Paris. We thank Treatment Action Group’s Richard Jefferys for taking notes and posting a summary:
The approach that the researchers took was to deplete different types of immune cells in the animals controlling SIV viral load, then assess whether this led to an increase in viral replication. The experiments compared:
*Antibodies to the CD8 receptor alpha chain, which deplete CD8 T cells, natural killer T cells (NKTs) and natural killer (NK) cells
*Antibodies to the CD8 receptor beta chain, which deplete CD8 T cells
*Antibodies to CD20, which deplete B cells
According to Fauci’s slides, which are available online, there was a transient rebound in viral load with the CD8 alpha antibody and to a small degree with the CD8 beta. This suggests NKTs and NK cells are making a contribution to the observed control of SIV replication, but a role for CD8 T cells cannot be ruled out.
For comparison, a study from Guido Silvestri and colleagues at Yerkes published in 2016 found that treating SIV-infected monkeys with anti-CD8 antibodies, without stopping antiretroviral drugs, resulted in a rebound in virus levels. [They used ultrasensitive assays to detect the rebound.] However, the Yerkes team only used antibodies to the CD8 receptor alpha chain.
I was struck by one part of Mirko Paiardini’s paper that was published this week in Journal of Clinical Investigation. It describes aÂ treatment aimed at repairing immune function in SIV-infected monkeys, with an eye toward helping people with HIV one day.Â One of the goals of their IL-21 treatment is to restoreÂ intestinal Th17 cells, which are depleted by viral infection.Â In this context, IL-21’s effect is anti-inflammatory.
However, Th17 cells are also involved in autoimmune disease. A recent Cell Metabolism paper from endocrinologist Roberto Pacifici and colleagues examinesÂ Th17 cells, with the goal of treating bone loss coming from an overactive parathyroid. In that situation, too many Th17 cells are bad and they need to be beaten back. Fortunately, bothÂ an inexpensive blood pressure medication and a drugÂ under development for psoriasisÂ seem to do just that.