Tracing the start of COVID-19 in GA

At a time when COVID-19 appears to be receding in much of Georgia, it’s worth revisiting the start of the pandemic in early 2020. Emory virologist Anne Piantadosi and colleagues have a paper in Viral Evolution on the earliest SARS-CoV-2 genetic sequences detected in Georgia. Analyzing relationships between those virus sequences and samples from other states and countries can give us an idea about where the first COVID-19 infections in Georgia came from. We can draw Read more

Reddit as window into opioid withdrawal strategies

Drug abuse researchers are using the social media site Reddit as a window into the experiences of people living with opioid addiction. Abeed Sarker in Emory's Department of Biomedical Informatics has a paper in Clinical Toxicology focusing on the phenomenon of “precipitated withdrawal,” in collaboration with emergency medicine specialists from Penn, Rutgers and Mt Sinai. Precipitated withdrawal is a more intense form of withdrawal that can occur when someone who was using opioids starts medication-assisted treatment Read more

CROI: HIV cure report and ongoing research

The big news out of CROI (Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections) was a report of a third person being cured of HIV infection, this time using umbilical cord blood for a hematopoetic stem cell transplant. Emory’s Carlos del Rio gave a nice overview of the achievement for NPR this morning. As del Rio explains, the field of HIV cure research took off over the last decade after Timothy Brown, known as “the Berlin patient,” Read more

Rafi Ahmed

How antiviral antibodies become part of immune memory

Weapons production first, research later. During wartime, governments follow these priorities, and so does the immune system.

When fighting a bacterial or viral infection, an otherwise healthy person will make lots of antibodies, blood-borne proteins that grab onto the invaders. The immune system also channels some of its resources into research: storing some antibody-making cells as insurance for a future encounter, and tinkering with the antibodies to improve them.

In humans, scientists know a lot about the cells involved in immediate antibody production, called plasmablasts, but less about the separate group of cells responsible for the “storage/research for the future” functions, called memory B cells. Understanding how to elicit memory B cells, along with plasmablasts, is critical for designing effective vaccines.

EbolaBcells

Activated B cells (blue) and plasmablasts (red) in patients hospitalized for Ebola virus infection, with a healthy donor for comparison. From Ellebedy et al Nature Immunology (2016).

Researchers at Emory Vaccine Center and Stanford’s Department of Pathology have been examining the precursors of memory B cells, called activated B cells, after influenza vaccination and infection and during Ebola virus infection. The Ebola-infected patients were the four who were treated at Emory University Hospital’s Serious Communicable Disease Unit in 2014.

The findings were published Monday, August 15 in Nature Immunology.

“Ebola virus infection represents a situation when the patients’ bodies were encountering something they’ve never seen before,” says lead author Ali Ellebedy, PhD, senior research scientist at Emory Vaccine Center. “In contrast, during both influenza vaccination and infection, the immune system generally is relying on recall.”

Unlike plasmablasts, activated B cells do not secrete antibodies spontaneously, but can do so if stimulated. Each B cell carries different rearrangements in its DNA, corresponding to the specificity and type of antibody it produces. The rearrangements allowed Ellebedy and his colleagues to track the activated B cells, like DNA bar codes, as an immune response progresses. Read more

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Mulligan WABE interview on Ebola vaccine research

A recent WABE “Closer Look” interview with Mark Mulligan, executive director of the Emory Vaccine Center’s Hope Clinic, covers a lot of ground. It starts off with a segment — also aired on Marketplace — from reporter Michell Eloy, who visited the Hope Clinic’s lab. We hear a machine processing blood samples from a study testing an experimental Ebola vaccine and a roundup of Ebola vaccine developments.

We also hear from Carl Davis, postdoc in Rafi Ahmed’s lab, who is part of the DARPA-funded team research project studying the utility of antibodies from Ebola survivors. [Other recent news on this topic from The Scientist.]

Then, reporters Rose Scott and Jim Burress discuss several different Ebola vaccines with Mulligan. One is based on chimpanzee adenovirus, was tested at the Hope Clinic and elsewhere in the USA and the UK, and then in Liberia. While this vaccine was safe and it appears to stimulate the immune system appropriately, the outbreak fizzled out (a good thing!) before it was possible to tell if the vaccine protected people from Ebola infection. Read more

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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

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General-heavy army disastrous in immune battle

Immunologists have identified two big groups of T cells: “helper” CD4+ cells and “killer” CD8+ cells.* The helper cells can produce immune regulatory molecules and promote antibody responses, while the killer cells recognize and destroy virally-infected cells.

A vaccine against a virus that stimulates only helper CD4+ cells leads to uncontrolled lethal inflammation in mice once the animals are challenged with the virus, a recent paper in Science shows. Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed is a co-author.

Senior author Dan Barouch, from Harvard/Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, tells The Scientist that CD4+ cells are like generals directing the battle of the immune system and “if you just have strategic generals and no soldiers, it turns out to be worse than having no army at all.” Rebalancing the system with antiviral CD8+ T cells or antibodies helps limit the problems.

The findings mesh with work by Yerkes investigators [Guido Silvestri and colleagues] suggesting that HIV vaccines that boost CD4+ cells in gateway mucosal tissues lead to higher rates of infection. In both cases, the lesson is: having more helper CD4+ T cells around actually does not help. Read more

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Connections between starvation and immunological memory

Researchers at Emory have been revealing several connections between cells’ responses to starvation and immunological memory. The latest example of this is a paper in Nature Immunology from Rafi Ahmed’s lab, showing that the cellular process of autophagy (literally: self-consumption) is essential for forming and maintaining memory T cells.

This finding has some practical implications for vaccination and could point the way to additives that could boost vaccine effectiveness in elderly humans. Researchers at Oxford have demonstrated that autophagy is diminished in T cells from aged mice, and T cell responses could be boosted in older mice using the autophagy-inducing compound spermidine. Read more

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Key to universal flu vaccine: embrace the unfamiliar

Vaccine researchers have developed a strategy aimed at generating broadly cross-reactive antibodies against the influenza virus: embrace the unfamiliar.

In recent years, researchers interested in a “universal flu vaccine” identified a region of the viral hemagglutinin protein called the stem or stalk, which doesn’t mutate and change as much as other regions and could be the basis for a vaccine that is protective against a variety of flu strains.

In an Emory Vaccine Center study, human volunteers immunized against the avian flu virus H5N1 readily developed antibodies against the stem region of the viral hemagglutinin protein. In contrast, those immunized with standard seasonal trivalent vaccines did not, instead developing most of their antibodies against the more variable head region. H5N1, regarded as a potential pandemic strain, is not currently circulating in the United States and the volunteers had not been exposed to it before.

The results were published Monday, August 25 in PNAS.

The key to having volunteers’ bodies produce antibodies against the stem region seemed to be their immune systems’ unfamiliarity with the H5N1 type of virus, says lead author Ali Ellebedy, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Rafi Ahmed, PhD, director of Emory Vaccine Center and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar.

Note: for a counterpoint, check out this 2013 Science Translational Medicine paper on how vaccination that induces anti-stem antibodies contributes to enhanced respiratory disease in pigs.

Read more

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Unexpected effect on flu immunity

Immunologists reported recently that the drug rapamycin, normally used to restrain the immune system after organ transplant, has the unexpected ability to broaden the activity of a flu vaccine.

The results, published in Nature Immunology, indicate that rapamycin steers immune cells away from producing antibodies that strongly target a particular flu strain, in favor of those that block a wide variety of strains. The results could help in the effort to develop a universal flu vaccine.

This study was inspired by a 2009 Nature study from Koichi Araki and Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed, reports Jon Cohen in Science magazine. Read more

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Cancer’s shield: PD-1

Gina Kolata has a section front story in Tuesday’s New York Times exploring the potential of a relatively new class of anticancer drugs. The drugs break through “shields” built by cancers to ward off the threat posed by the patient’s immune system. Many are based on blocking PD-1, an immune regulatory molecule whose importance in chronic infections was first defined by Emory’s Rafi Ahmed.

Of course, not every cancer research development described as transformative in the New York Times lives up to the hype. But the clinical trial results, reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, are solid enough that the researchers Kolata talks with think they are seeing “a moment in medical history when everything changed.” [Winship Cancer Institute’s John Kauh was a co-author on one of the 2012 NEJM papers.]

Let’s take a moment to examine some of the roots of this story. Rafi Ahmed didn’t set out to study cancer. For the last two decades, he and his colleagues have been studying T cells, parts of the immune system that are critical for responding to infections. Read more

Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer, Immunology 2 Comments

A Human Vaccine Project?

Emory Vaccine Center director Rafi Ahmed, is a co-author on a recent Science paper advocating a “Human Vaccines Project”. Wayne Koff, chief scientific officer of IAVI (International Aids Vaccine Initiative) is lead author and several other vaccine experts are co-authors.

The idea behind a “Human Vaccine Project” is to combine efforts at developing vaccines for major (but very different) diseases such as influenza, dengue, HIV, hepatitis C, tuberculosis and malaria, with the rationale that what scientists working on those diseases have in common is the Ray Ban outlet challenge of working with the human immune system.

Technology has advanced to the point where whole genome-type approaches can be brought to bear on vaccine problems. The authors cite work by Bali Pulendran’s laboratory on “systems vaccinology” and their analysis of the yellow fever vaccine as an example.

One major puzzle confronting vaccine designers is to coax the immune system into producing broadly neutralizing antibodies against a rapidly mutating virus, whether it is Gafas Ray Ban outlet influenza or HIV. Our own Cynthia Derdeyn has been analyzing this problem through painstaking work following how the immune system pursues a twisting and turning HIV.

An interesting related tidbit:

There are hints that the reverse engineering of vaccines has taken a leap forward in the case of RSV (respiratory syncytial virus): Scientists at Scripps Research Institute have designed vaccine components by computer and have used them to provoke neutralizing antibodies in monkeys.

Also check out Mike King’s feature in Emory Health on HIV vaccine research.

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Excitement building over potential for universal flu vaccine

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, made a splash last week predicting the arrival of a universal flu vaccine in the next five years.

Francis Collins told USA Today he is "guardedly optimistic" about the possibility of long-term vaccination that could replace seasonal flu shots.

His prediction came at the same time as a report in Science identifying an antibody that can protect against several strains of the flu virus. Taking a look at the Science paper, how the scientists found the “super antibody” seems remarkably similar to how Emory’s Jens Wrammert, Rafi Ahmed and colleagues found a similar broadly protective antibody. Their results were published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine in January.

In both cases, the researchers started with someone who had been infected with the 2009 H1N1 swine origin flu virus, sifted through the antibodies that person produced and found some that reacted against several varieties of the flu virus. There must be something special about that 2009 pandemic strain!

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