Quinn Eastman

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.

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Immunology Leave a comment

All your environmental chemicals belong in the exposome

Emory researchers recently described a “contact tracing” system for environmental chemical exposures, published in Nature Communications. The apparent metabolic breakdown products of common drugs — antidepressants, blood thinners and beta-blockers – can be detected in clinical samples. Many of those breakdown products are uncharted territory, in terms of chemical analysis, and the Emory researchers’ system will help them map it.

But what about all the environmental chemicals that are out there, such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), once widely used in electrical infrastructure, and pesticides such as DDT? PCB exposure has been connected with increased rates of cancer and harm to wildlife.

Xin Hu, PhD

A companion paper from the same group, also in Nature Communications, focuses more on techniques for detecting those contaminants. It lays out a standard workflow for processing samples for large-scale studies of the human exposome – all the influences from the environment as well as foods, drugs and other domestic products.

“What we aimed for was a simple method that is affordable and can be adopted by any laboratory to study as many chemicals as possible,” says lead author Xin Hu, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine. “We know that most of the contaminants have a small effect size, which means large-scale studies on tens of thousands of people are needed to understand the health effect of those contaminants and their link to rare but devastating diseases, like cancer.  A simple analytical method will allow us to combine efforts from different laboratories and studies, and eventually measure tens of thousands of chemicals on tens of thousands of people.”

Part of what the researchers needed to do is to test and optimize methods for studying each type of environmental chemical, using a technique called GC-HRMS (gas chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry). Previous studies on PCBs and DDT use that technique, but the 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 contamination.

The researchers used their approach to analyze samples from human plasma, lung, thyroid and stool. They also showed that they could identify new chemicals in clinical samples. An advantage of the new method over traditional approaches is that the database retains information of unidentified chemicals that can be readily accessed for future characterization, Hu says.

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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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Molecular picture of how antiviral drug molnupiravir works

Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany have generated a structure showing how the antiviral drug molnupiravir drug works.

Molnupiravir was originally discovered by Emory’s non-profit drug development company DRIVE, and is now being developed by Merck. The drug, previously known as EIDD-2801, can be provided as a pill in an outpatient setting – potentially a step up in ease of distribution and convenience.

Molnupiravir is currently in clinical trials for non-hospitalized people with COVID-19 and at least one risk factor; results are expected later in the fall of 2021. Merck also recently began a prevention study for adults who live with a currently infected person. Previous small-scale studies conducted by Merck’s partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics showed that the drug is safe and can reduce viral levels to undetectable in non-hospitalized people within five days.

The structure shows how the active form of molnupiravir interacts with the enzyme that makes new copies of the SARS-CoV-2 genome (RNA-dependent RNA polymerase). Incorporation of the active form of the drug into the RNA genome leads to mutations – so many that the virus can’t generate enough accurate copies of itself. Molnupiravir is likely to work in a similar way when deployed against other viruses such as influenza.

The cryo EM (cryo-electron microscopy) structure comes from Patrick Cramer’s group in Göttingen, along with chemists at the University of Würzburg, and was published in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology. Last year, Cramer’s group also generated a structure of the replicating viral RNA polymerase. The video below comes courtesy of the Max Planck Institute and Cramer’s lab.

The animation shows how the RNA-like building blocks of molnupiravir (M, yellow) form atypical pairings with adenine (A) and guanine (G) in the viral RNA. This leads to mutations in the viral RNA, interfering with efficient replication of SARS-CoV-2.
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Straight to the heart: direct reprogramming creates cardiac “tissue” in mice

Bypassing stem cells, Emory scientists can now create engineered heart tissue by directly reprogramming connective tissue cells in mice. The findings could provide new avenues for a quest many cardiologists have pursued: repairing the damaged heart like patching a roof. 

The results were published in Nature Biomedical Engineering

“This is the first study demonstrating direct tissue reprogramming from single adult cells from the body,” says senior author Young-sup Yoon, MD, PhD, professor of medicine at Emory University School of Medicine.

The research could potentially provide therapeutic options for millions of people with heart failure or other conditions. If heart muscle is damaged by a heart attack, the damaged or dead cells do not regenerate. Other scientists have shown they can create human heart tissue from induced pluripotent stem cells (example), but the Emory team showed that it is possible to avoid stem cells and the technologies required to create them, such as viruses. 

“Direct reprogramming into tissues that contain multiple cell types has not previously been reported, and it could open new pathways in the regenerative medicine field,” Yoon says. “It could serve as a platform for cell-based therapy by avoiding the problems of current stem cell-based approaches, and for disease modeling and drug development.”

First author Jaeyeaon Cho, PhD – currently at Yonsei University

Yoon is also part of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. First author Jaeyeaon Cho, PhD was a post-doctoral fellow at Emory and is currently a research assistant professor at Yonsei University College of Medicine in South Korea. Emory faculty members Rebecca Levit, MD and Hee Cheol Cho, PhD are co-authors on the paper.

Applying a combination of growth factors, regulatory microRNA and vitamins, the Emory researchers could create tissue that contains cardiac muscle, along with blood vessels containing endothelial cells and smooth muscle cells, and fibroblasts. In culture, the four cell types weave themselves together, bypassing any need to build heart tissue from separate components.

When transplanted onto the damaged heart of a mouse after a simulated heart attack, cells from the engineered tissue can migrate into the host heart, and improve its functioning. 

“In some previous studies, when a tissue patch composed of engineered cells and supportive biomaterials was transplanted to the damaged heart, there was little or no migration of cells from the patch to the host heart,” Yoon says.

From Cho et al. Nature Biomed Eng (2021). Migration of rCVT (reprogrammed cardiovascular tissue) into the host heart, 2 weeks after implantation. The white lines outline the heart muscle wall; only the implanted tissue fluoresces green, because of green fluorescent protein.

The critical elements of the direct reprogramming approach are microRNAs, which are “master keys” that control several genes at once. The researchers discovered the potential of one microRNA fortuitously; a pilot study examined the effect of applying several microRNAs active in the heart to fibroblasts. Unexpectedly, one of them generated endothelial cell and smooth muscle along with cardiac muscle cells.

The Emory researchers say that their engineered tissue does not exactly mimic natural heart tissue. The cardiac muscle cells do spontaneously contract, but they display immature characteristics. But after transplantation, the engrafted cells mature and integrate into the host heart. Over 16 weeks, the engrafted cells become indistinguishable from the host cardiac muscle cells. The researchers checked whether their transplanted tissue induced cardiac arrhythmias in the mice – a danger when introducing immature cells into the damaged heart — and they did not.

Yoon says it took almost 9 years to complete the project; an important next step is to test direct reprogramming with human cells.

This work was supported by grants from the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (R01HL150877, R61HL 154116, R01HL125391) and a American Heart Association Transformative Project Award.

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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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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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Detecting vulnerable plaque with a laser-induced whisper

A relatively new imaging technique called photoacoustic imaging or PAI detects sounds produced when laser light interacts with human tissues. Working with colleagues at Michigan State, Emory immunologist Eliver Ghosn’s lab is taking the technique to the next step to visualize immune cells within atherosclerotic plaques.

The goal is to more accurately spot vulnerable plaque, or the problem areas lurking within arteries that lead to clots, and in turn heart attacks and strokes. A description of the technology was recently published in Advanced Functional Materials

“I believe we are now closer to developing a more precise method to diagnose and treat life-threatening atherosclerotic plaques,” Ghosn says. “Our method could be deployed in combination with IVUS to significantly improve its accuracy and sensitivity, or it could be used non-invasively.”

From science fiction movies, we might think lasers come with a “pow” sound. Photoacoustic imaging is more like listening for a whisper: sounds associated with heat generated by a laser pulse when it is absorbed by tissue.

Earlier this year, the FDA approved a photoacoustic imaging system for detection of breast cancer. Several companies are developing photoacoustic imaging systems, and what we might call “plain vanilla” PAI is currently being tested on carotid artery plaque in clinical studies in Europe.

Ghosn’s approach, developed with biomedical engineer Bryan Smith at Michigan State, adds specificity by adding nanoparticle probes taken up by macrophages, the immune cells that accumulate within atherosclerotic plaques. The nanoparticles, administered before imaging, act as contrast agents.

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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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