Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Category: Immunology

“Do No Harm to Whom?” Challenge Trials & COVID-19

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DAVIDE BONAZZI / SALZMANART

Imagine: you wake on a chilly November morning, alarm blaring, for your 8:30 am class. You toss aside the blankets and grab your phone. Shutting the alarm off reveals a Washington Post notification. But this isn’t your standard election headline. You almost drop your phone in shock. It can’t be, you think. This is too good to be true. It’s not — a second later, you get a text from the SymMon app, notifying you of your upcoming appointment in the Bryan Center.

A vaccine for COVID-19 is finally available, and you’re getting one.

This scenario could be less far-fetched than one might think: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told officials to prepare for a vaccine as soon as November 1st. To a country foundering due to the economic and social effects of COVID-19, this comes as incredible news — a bright spot on a bleak horizon. But to make a vaccine a reality, traditional phase 3 clinical trials may not be enough. What are challenge trials? Should they be used? What’s at stake, and what are the ethical implications of the path we choose?

At Duke Science and Society’s “Coronavirus Conversations: The Science and Ethics of Human Challenge Trials for COVID-19” on Aug. 24, Kim Krawiec of the Duke School of Law posed these and other questions to three experts in health.

Dr. Marc Lipsitch, Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, began by comparing traditional phase 3 trials and challenge trials. 

In both kinds of trials, vaccines are tested for their “safety and ability to provoke an immune response” in phases 1 and 2. In phase 3 trials, large numbers (typically thousands or tens of thousands) of individuals are randomly assigned either the vaccine being tested or a placebo. Scientists observe how many vaccinated individuals become infected compared to participants who received a placebo. This information enables scientists to assess the efficacy — as well as rarer side effects — of the vaccine. 

Marc Lipsitch

In challenge trials, instead of random assignment, small numbers of low-risk individuals are deliberately infected in order to more directly study the efficacy of vaccine and treatment candidates. Though none are underway yet, the advocacy group 1Day Sooner has built a list of more than 35,000 volunteers willing to participate.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an Infectious Disease Specialist, Associate Professor of Medicine, and Clinical Expert In Respiratory and Infectious Disease at the Duke Medical School, provided an overview of the current vaccine landscape.

Cameron Wolfe

There are currently at least 150 potential vaccine candidates, from preclinical to approved stages of development. Two vaccines, developed by Russia’s Gamelaya Research Institute and China’s CanSinoBIO, have skipped phase 3, but are little more than an idiosyncrasy to Dr. Wolfe, as there is “minimal clarity about their safety and efficacy.” Three more vaccines of interest — Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine, and Oxford and AstraZeneca’s adenovirus vaccine — are all in phase 3 trials with around 30,000 enrollees. Scientists will be watching for a “meaningful infection and a durable immune response.”

Dr. Nir Eyal, the Henry Rutgers Professor of Bioethics and Director of The Center for Population-Level Bioethics at Rutgers University, explained how challenge trials could fit into the vaccine roadmap.

According to Dr. Eyal, challenge trials would most likely be combined with phase 3 trials. One way this could look is the use of challenge trials to weed out vaccine candidates before undergoing more expensive phase 3 trials. Additionally, if phase 3 trials fail to produce meaningful results about efficacy, a challenge trial could be used to obtain information while still collecting safety data from the more comprehensive phase 3 trial.

Nir Eyal

Dr. Eyal emphasized the importance of challenge trials for expediting the arrival of the vaccine. According to his own calculations, getting a vaccine — and making it widely available — just one month sooner would avert the loss of 720,000 years of life and 40 million years of poverty, mostly concentrated in the developing world. (Dr. Eyal stressed that his estimate is extremely conservative as it neglects many factors, including loss of life from avoidance of child vaccines, cancer care, malaria treatment, etc.) Therefore, speed is of “great humanitarian value.”

Dr. Wolfe added that because phase 3 trials rely on a lot of transmission, if the US gets better at mitigating the virus, “the distinction between protective efficacy and simple placebo will take longer to see.” A challenge study, however, is “always a well defined time period… you can anticipate when you’ll get results.” 

The panelists then discussed the ethics of challenge trials in the absence of effective treatment — as Krawiec put it, “making people sick without knowing if we can make them better.”

Dr. Wolfe pointed to the flu, citing challenge trials that have been conducted even though current treatments are not uniformly effective (“tamiflu is no panacea”). He then conceded that the biggest challenge is not a lack of effective therapies, but the current inability to “say to a patient, ‘you will not have a severe outcome.’ It varies so much from person to person, I guess.” (See one troubling example of that variance.)

Dr. Eyal acknowledged the trouble of informed consent when the implications are scarcely known, but argued that “in extraordinary times, business as usual is no longer the standard.” He asserted that if people volunteer with full understanding of what they are committing to, there is no reason to assume they are less informed than when making other decisions where the outcome is as yet unknown. 

Dr. Lipsitch compared this to the military: “we are not cheating if we cannot provide a roadmap of future wars because they are not yet known to us.” Rather, we commend brave soldiers (and hope they come home safe). 

Furthermore, Dr. Eyal asserted that “informed consent is not a comprehensive understanding of the disease,” lest much of the epidemiological research from the 1970s be called into question too. Instead, volunteers should be considered informed as long as they comprehend questions like, “‘we can’t give you an exact figure yet; do you understand?’”

Agreeing, Dr. Wolfe stated that when critics of challenge trials ask, isn’t your mission to do no harm?, he asks, “Do no harm in regards to whom?” “Who is in front of you matters,” Dr. Wolfe confirmed, “that’s why we put up safeguards. But as clinicians it can be problematic [to stop there]. It’s not just about the patient, but to do no harm in regards to the broader community.”

The experts then discussed what they’d like to see in challenge trials.

Dr. Wolfe said he’d like to see challenge trials carried out with a focus on immunology components, side effect profiles, and a “barrage” of biological safety and health standards for hospitals and facilities. 

Dr. Eyal stated the need for exclusion criteria (young adults, perhaps age 20-25, with no risk factors), a “high high high” quality of informed consent ideally involving a third party, and access to therapies and critical care for all volunteers, even those without insurance. 

Dr. Lipsitch stressed the scientific importance of assessing participants from a “virological, not symptom bent.” He mused that the issue of viral inoculum was a thorny one — should scientists “titrate down” to where many participants won’t get infected and more volunteers will be needed overall? Or should scientists keep it concentrated, and contend with the increased risk? 

Like many questions pondered during the hour — from the ideal viral strain to use to the safest way to collect information about high risk patients — this one remained unanswered. 

So don’t mark November 1st on your calendar just yet. But if you do get that life-changing notification, there’s a chance you’ll have human challenge trials to thank.

Post By Zella Hanson

Duke Scientists Studying the Shape of COVID Things to Come

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The novel coronavirus pandemic has now resulted in more than 3 million confirmed cases globally and is pushing scientists to share ideas quickly and figure out the best ways to collaborate and contribute to solutions.

SARS-CoV-2 surface proteins illustrated by We Are Covert, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, Duke researchers across the School of Medicine came together for an online symposium consisting of several short presentations to summarize the latest of what is known about the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

This daylong event was organized by faculty in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and researchers from different fields to share what they know about the virus and immunity to guide vaccine design. This conference highlighted the myriad new research pathways that Duke researchers are launching to better understand this pandemic virus.

One neat area of research is understanding viral processes within cells to identify steps at which antivirals may block the virus. Stacy Horner’s Laboratory studies how RNA viruses replicate inside human cells. By figuring out how viruses and cells interact at the molecular level, Horner can inform development of antivirals and strategies to block viral replication. Antivirals stop infections by preventing the virus from generating more of copies of itself and spreading to other cells. This controls damage to our cells and allows the immune system to catch up and clear the infection.

At the symposium, Horner explained how the SARS-CoV viral genome consists of 29,891 ribonucleotides, which are the building blocks of the RNA strand. The viral genome contains 14 areas where the RNA code can be transcribed into shorter RNA sequences for viral protein production. Though each RNA transcript generally contains the code for a single protein, this virus is intriguing in that it uses RNA tricks to code for up to 27 proteins. Horner highlighted two interesting ways that SARS-CoV packs in additional proteins to produce all the necessary components for its replication and assembly into new viral progeny.

The first way is through slippery sequences on the RNA genome of the virus. A ribosome is a machine inside the cell that runs along a string of RNA to translate its code into proteins that have various functions. Each set of 3 ribonucleotides forms one amino acid, a building block of proteins. In turn, a string of amino acids assembles into a distinct structure that gives rise to a functional protein.

One way that SARS-CoV-2 packs in additional proteins is with regions of its RNA genome that make the ribosome machinery slip back by one ribonucleotide. Once the ribosome gets offset it reads a new grouping of 3 ribonucleotides and creates a different amino acid for the same RNA sequence. In this way, SARS-CoV-2 makes multiple proteins from the same piece of RNA and maximizes space on its genome for additional viral proteins.

An example of an RNA ‘hairpin’ structure, which might fool a ribosome to jump across the sequence rather than reading around the little cul de sac. (Ben Moore, via Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, the RNA genome of SARS-CoV-2 has regions where the single strand of RNA twists over itself and connects with another segment of RNA farther along the code to form a new protein. These folds create structures that look like diverse trees made of repetitive hairpin-like shapes. If the ribosome runs into a fold, it can hop from one spot in the RNA to another disjoint piece and attach a new string of amino acids instead of the ones directly ahead of it on the linear RNA sequence. This is another way the SARS-CoV-2 packs in extra proteins with the same piece of RNA.

Horner said a step-by-step understanding of what the virus needs to survive at each step of its replication cycle will allow us to design molecules that are able to block these crucial steps.

Indeed, shapes of molecules can determine their function inside the cell. Three Duke teams are pursuing detailed investigation of SARS-CoV-2 protein structures that might guide development of complementarily shaped molecules that can serve as drugs by interfering with viral processes inside cells.

Some Duke faculty who participated in the virtual viral conference. (L-R from, top) Stacy Horner, Nick Heaton, Micah Luftig, Sallie Permar, Ed Miao and Georgia Tomaras. (image: Tulika Singh)

For example the laboratory of Hashim Al-Hashimi, develops computational models to predict the diversity of structures produced by these tree-like RNA folds to identify possible targets for new therapeutics. Currently, the Laboratories of Nicholas Heaton and Claire Smith are teaming up to identify novel restriction factors inside cells that can stop SARS-CoV-2.

However, it is not just the structures of viral components expressed inside the cells that matter, but also those on the outside of a virus particle. In Latin, corona means a crown or garland, and coronaviruses have been named for their distinctive crown-like spikes that envelop each virus particle. The viral protein that forms this corona is aptly named the “Spike” protein.

This Spike protein on the viral surface connects with a human cell surface protein (Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, abbreviated as ACE2) to allow the virus to enter our cells and cause an infection. Heaton proposed that molecules designed to block this contact, by blocking either the human cell surface protein or the viral Spike protein, should also be tested as possible therapies.

One promising type of molecule to block this interaction is an antibody. Antibodies are “Y” shaped molecules that are developed as part of the immune response in the body by the second week of coronavirus infection. These molecules can detect viral proteins, bind with them, and prevent viruses from entering cells. Unlike several other components on our immune defense, antibodies are shaped to specifically latch on to one type of virus. Teams of scientists at Duke led by Dr. Sallie Permar, Dr. Georgia Tomaras, and Dr. Genevieve Fouda are working to characterize this antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 infection and identify the types of antibodies that confer protection.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Chris Woods is leading an effort to test whether plasma with antibodies from people who have recovered can prevent severe coronavirus disease in acutely infected patients.

Indeed, there are several intriguing research questions to resolve in the months ahead. Duke scientists are forging new plans for research and actively launching new projects to unravel the mysteries of SARS-CoV-2. With Duke laboratory scientists rolling up their sleeves and gowning up to conduct research on the novel coronavirus, there will be soon be many more vaccine and therapeutic interventions to test.

Guest post by Tulika Singh, MPH, PhD Candidate in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (T: @Singh_Tulika)

Duke’s Fundamental Research Can Turn Viruses Into Marvels

The COVID-19 epidemic has impacted the Duke research enterprise in profound ways. Nearly all laboratory-based research has been temporarily halted, except for research directly connected to the fight against COVID-19. It will take much time to return to normal, and that process of renewal will be gradual and will be implemented carefully.

Trying to put this situation into a broader perspective, I thought of the 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner published in Harper’s magazine, entitled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Flexner was the founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and in that essay, he ruminated on much of the type of knowledge acquired at research universities —  knowledge motivated by no objective other than the basic human desire to understand. As Flexner said, the pursuit of this type of knowledge sometimes leads to surprises that transform the way we see that which was previously taken for granted, or for which we had previously given up hope. Such knowledge is sometimes very useful, in highly unintended ways.

Gregory Gray, MD MPH
Gregory Gray, MD MPH

The 1918 influenza pandemic led to 500 million confirmed cases, and 50 million deaths. In the Century since, consider how far we have come in our understanding of epidemics, and how that knowledge has impacted our ability to respond. People like Greg Gray, a professor of medicine and member of the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), have been quietly studying viruses for many years, including how viruses at domestic animal farms and food markets can leap from animals to humans. Many believe the COVID-19 virus started from a bat and was transferred to a human. Dr. Gray has been a global leader in studying this mechanism of a potential viral pandemic, doing much of his work in Asia, and that experience makes him uniquely positioned to provide understanding of our current predicament.

From the health-policy perspective, Mark McClellan, Director of the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy, has been a leading voice in understanding viruses and the best policy responses to an epidemic. As a former FDA director, he has experience bringing policy to life, and his voice carries weight in the halls of Washington. Drawing on faculty from across Duke and its extensive applied policy research capacity, the Margolis Center has been at the forefront in guiding policymakers in responding to COVID-19.

Through knowledge accrued by academic leaders like Drs. Gray and McClellan, one notes with awe the difference in how the world has responded to a viral threat today, relative to 100 years ago. While there has been significant turmoil in many people’s lives today, as well as significant hardship, the number of global deaths caused by COVID-19 has been reduced substantially relative to 1918.

One of the seemingly unusual aspects of COVID-19 is that a substantial fraction of the population infected by the virus has no symptoms. However, those asymptomatic individuals shed the virus and infect others. While most people have no or mild symptoms, other people have very adverse effects to COVID-19, some dying quickly.

This heterogeneous response to COVID-19 is a characteristic of viruses studied by Chris Woods, a professor medicine in infectious diseases. Dr. Woods, and his colleagues in the Schools of Medicine and Engineering, have investigated this phenomenon for years, long before the current crisis, focusing their studies on the genomic response of the human host to a virus. This knowledge of viruses has made Dr. Woods and his colleagues leading voices in understanding COVID-19, and guiding the clinical response.

A team led by Greg Sempowski, a professor of pathology in the Human Vaccine Institute is working to isolate protective antibodies from SARS-CoV-2-infected individuals to see if they may be used as drugs to prevent or treat COVID-19. They’re seeking antibodies that can neutralize or kill the virus, which are called neutralizing antibodies.

Barton Haynes,MD
Barton Haynes, MD

Many believe that only a vaccine for COVID-19 can truly return life to normal. Human Vaccine Institute Director Barton Haynes, and his colleagues are at the forefront of developing that vaccine to provide human resistance to COVID-19. Dr. Haynes has been focusing on vaccine research for numerous years, and now that work is at the forefront in the fight against COVID-19.

Engineering and materials science have also advanced significantly since 1918. Ken Gall, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science has led Duke’s novel application of 3D printing to develop methods for creatively designing personal protective equipment (PPE). These PPE are being used in the Duke hospital, and throughout the world to protect healthcare providers in the fight against COVID-19.

Much of the work discussed above, in addition to being motivated by the desire to understand and adapt to viruses, is motivated from the perspective that viruses must be fought to extend human life.

In contrast, several years ago Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, academics at Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute, respectively, asked a seemingly useless question. They wanted to understand how bacteria defended themselves against a virus. What may have made this work seem even more useless is that the specific class of viruses (called phage) that infect bacteria do not cause human disease. Useless stuff! The kind of work that can only take place at a university. That basic research led to the discovery of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), a bacterial defense system against viruses, as a tool for manipulating genome sequences. Unexpectedly, CRISPR manifested an almost unbelievable ability to edit the genome, with the potential to cure previously incurable genetic diseases.

Charles Gersbach, a professor of Biomedical Engineering, and his colleagues at Duke are at the forefront of CRISPR research for gene and cell therapy. In fact, he is working with Duke surgery professor and gene therapy expert Aravind Asokan to engineer another class of viruses, recently approved by the FDA for other gene therapies, to deliver CRISPR to diseased tissues. Far from a killer, the modified virus is essential to getting CRISPR to the right tissues to perform gene editing in a manner that was previously thought impossible. There is hope that CRISPR technology can lead to cures for sickle cell and other genetic blood disorders. It is also being used to fight cancer and muscular dystrophy, among many other diseases and it is being used at Duke by Dr. Gersbach in the fight against COVID-19. 

David Ashley, Ph.D.
David Ashley, Ph.D.

In another seemingly bizarre use of a virus, a modified form of the polio virus is being used at Duke to fight glioblastoma, a brain tumor. That work is being pursued within the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, for which David Ashley is the Director. The use of modified polio virus excites the innate human immune system to fight glioblastoma, and extends life in ways that were previously unimaginable. But there are still many basic-science questions that must be overcome. The remarkable extension of life with polio-based immunotherapy occurs for only 20% of glioblastoma patients. Why? Recall from the work of Dr. Woods discussed above, and from our own observation of COVID-19, not all people respond to viruses in the same way. Could this explain the mixed effectiveness of immunotherapy for glioblastoma? It is not known at this time, although Dr. Ashley feels it is likely to be a key factor. Much research is required, to better understand the diversity in the host response to viruses, and to further improve immunotherapy.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge that is disrupting all aspects of life. Through fundamental research being done at Duke, our understanding of such a pandemic has advanced markedly, speeding and improving our capacity to respond. By innovative partnerships between Duke engineers and clinicians, novel methods are being developed to protect frontline medical professionals. Further, via innovative technologies like CRISPR and immunotherapy — that could only seem like science fiction in 1918 (and as recently as 2010!) — viruses are being used to save lives for previously intractable diseases.

Viruses can be killers, but they are also scientific marvels. This is the promise of fundamental research; this is the impact of Duke research.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Post by Lawrence Carin, Vice President for Research

#UniqueScientists Is Challenging Stereotypes About Who Becomes a Scientist

University of North Carolina cell biologist Efra Rivera-Serrano says he doesn’t look like a stereotypical scientist: he’s gay, Puerto Rican, and a personal trainer.

Known on Twitter as @NakedCapsid or “the guy who looks totally buff & posts microscopy threads,” he tweets about virology and cell biology and aims to make science more accessible to the non-science public.

But science communication encompasses more than posting the facts of viral transmission or sending virtual valentines featuring virus-infected cells, Rivera-Serrano says. As a science communicator, he’s also committed to conveying truths that are even more rarely expressed in the science world today. He’s committed to diversity.

Rivera-Serrano’s path through academia has been far from linear — largely because of the microaggressions (which are sometimes not so micro) that he’s faced within educational institutions. He’s been approached while shopping by a construction work recruiter and told by a graduate adviser in biology to “stop talking like a Puerto Rican.”

Efra Rivera-Serrano, Ph.D.
He’s a scientist at UNC—and also a personal trainer.
Photo from @NakedCapsid Twitter

And the worst part is that he’s far from being the only one in this kind of position. That’s why Rivera-Serrano holds one simple question close to heart:

What would a cell do?

“I use this question to shape the way I tackle problems,” Rivera-Serrano says. After all, a key component of virology is the importance of intercellular communication in controlling disease spread. Similarly, a major goal of diversity-related science communication is “priming” others to fight stereotypes and biases about who belongs in science.

Virology’s “herd immunity” theory operates under the principle that higher vaccination rates mean fewer infections. For some viruses, a 90% vaccination rate is all it takes to completely eradicate an infection from existing in a population. Rivera-Serrano, therefore, hopes to use inclusive science communication as a vaccination tool of sorts to combat discriminatory practices and ideologies in science. He isn’t looking for 100% of the world to agree with him—only enough to make it work.

Herd immunity places value on community rather than individuals.
Image by Tkarcher via Wikimedia Commons

This desire for “inclusive science communication” led Rivera-Serrano to found Unique Scientists, a website that showcases and celebrates diverse scientists from across the globe. Scientists from underrepresented backgrounds can submit a biography and photo to the site and have them published for the world’s aspiring scientists to see.

Some Unique Scientists featured on Rivera-Serrano’s site!

Generating social herd immunity needs to start from an early age, and Unique Scientists has proven itself useful for this purpose. Before introducing the website, school teachers asked their students to draw a scientist. “It’s usually a man who’s white with crazy hair,” according to Rivera-Serrano. Then, they were given the same instructions after browsing through the site, and the results were remarkable.

“Having kids understand pronouns or see an African American in ecology—that’s all something you can do,” Rivera-Serrano explains. It doesn’t take an insane amount of effort to tackle this virus.

What it does take, though, is cooperation. “It’s not a one-person job, for sure,” Rivera-Serrano says. But maybe we can get there together.

by Irene Park

Flu No More: The Search for a Universal Vaccine

Chances are, you’ve had the flu. 

Body aches, chills, congestion, and cough—for millions across the globe, these symptoms are all too familiar.

For some, though, the flu leads to serious complications. Last year, as many as 647,000 Americans were hospitalized due to flu-related illness, with an additional 61,000 deaths.

Countless hours of lost productivity also accompany the illness. Including hospitalization costs, estimates for the flu’s total economic burden range from 10 to 25 billion dollars each year.

Flu prevention efforts have yielded mixed results. For many viruses, vaccines provide protection that lasts a lifetime, building up a network of antibodies primed to neutralize future infections. Influenza viruses, however, mutate quickly, rendering vaccines from years past ineffective. As a result, new vaccines are constantly in development. 

Every year, researchers predict which flu viruses are likely to dominate the upcoming flu season. Based on these predictions, new vaccines target these specific strains. Consequentially, the effectiveness of these vaccines vary with the prediction. When a vaccine is a good match for the dominant flu strain, it can lower rates of infection by 40-50%. When it isn’t, its preventative power is far lower; in 2014, for example, the yearly influenza vaccine was only 19% effective

Peter Palese, Ph. D, might have a better solution. Working at the Icahn School of Medicine, Palese and his team are developing a vaccine that takes a new approach to flu prevention. 

Just before classes ended last month, Palese spoke at the Duke Influenza Symposium, a showcase of Duke’s current research on influenza. The symposium is part of Duke’s larger push to improve the efficacy of flu vaccination.

Palese’s vaccines work by redirecting the immune response to the influenza virus. Traditional vaccines create antibodies that target hemagglutinins, proteins found on the outermost part of influenza viruses. Hemagglutinins are divided into two regions: a head domain and a stalk domain (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Left: General influenza structure. Right: Hemagglutinins are divided into two regions: a head domain and a stalk. The head domain is prone to mutation and undergoes rapid change while the stalk domain is more resistant to mutation.
Source: Frontiers in Immunology

In a traditional vaccination, the head domain is immunodominant—that is, the antibodies produced by vaccines preferentially target and neutralize the head domains. However, the head domain is highly prone to mutation and varies between different strains of influenza. As a result, antibodies for one strain of the virus provide no protection against other strains.

The new vaccines pioneered by Palese and his team instead target the stalk domain, a part of hemagglutinin that mutates far slower than the head domain. The stalk is also conserved across different subtypes of the influenza virus. As a result, these vaccines should theoretically provide long-lasting protection against most strains of influenza.

Testing in ferret, mice, and guinea pigs have produced promising results. And early human trials suggest that this new kind of vaccination grants broad immunity against influenza. But long-term results remain unclear—and more trials are underway. “We would love to say it works,” Palese says. “But give us 10 years.”

In the meantime, the seasonal flu vaccine is our best option.“The recommendation to vaccinate everyone is the right policy,” Palese tells us.

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

How the Flu Vaccine Fails

Influenza is ubiquitous. Every fall, we line up to get our flu shots with the hope that we will be protected from the virus that infects 10 to 20 percent of people worldwide each year. But some years, the vaccine is less effective than others.

Every year, CDC scientists engineer a new flu virus. By examining phylogenetic relationships, which are based on shared common ancestry and relatedness, researchers identify virus strains to target with a vaccine for the following flu season.

Sometimes, they do a good job predicting which strains will flourish in the upcoming flu season; other times, they pick wrong.

Pekosz’s work has identified why certain flu seasons saw less effective vaccines.

Andrew Pekosz, PhD, is a researcher at Johns Hopkins who examines why we fail to predict strains to target with vaccines. In particular, he examines years when the vaccine was ineffective and the viruses that were most prevalent to identify properties of these strains.

A virus consists of RNA enclosed in a membrane. Vaccines function by targeting membrane proteins that facilitate movement of the viral genome into host cells that it is infecting. For the flu virus, this protein is hemagglutinin (HA). An additional membrane protein called neuraminidase (NA) allows the virus to release itself from a cell it has infected and prevents it from returning to infected cells.  

The flu vaccine targets proteins on the membrane of the RNA virus. Image courtesy of scienceanimations.com.

Studying the viruses that flourished in the 2014-2015 and 2016-2017 flu seasons, Pekosz and his team have identified mutations to these surface proteins that allowed certain strains to evade the vaccine.

In the 2014-2015 season, a mutation in the HA receptor conferred an advantage to the virus, but only in the presence of the antibodies present in the vaccine. In the absence of these antibodies, this mutation was actually detrimental to the virus’s fitness. The strain was present in low numbers in the beginning of the flu season, but the selective pressure of the vaccine pushed it to become the dominant strain by the end.

The 2016-2017 flu season saw a similar pattern of mutation, but in the NA protein. The part of the virus membrane where the antibody binds, or the epitope, was covered in the mutated viral strain. Since the antibodies produced in response to the vaccine could not effectively identify the virus, the vaccine was ineffective for these mutated strains.

With the speed at which the flu virus evolves, and the fact that numerous strains can be active in any given flu season, engineering an effective vaccine is daunting. Pekosz’s findings on how these vaccines have previously failed will likely prove invaluable at combating such a persistent and common public health concern.

Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin
Post by undergraduate blogger Sarah Haurin


Tiny Bubbles of Bacterial Mischief

Margarethe (Meta) Kuehn studies vesicles — little bubbles that bud off bacterial membranes. All sorts of things may be tightly packed into these bubbles: viruses, antigens, and information a bacterium will need to make cells vulnerable to infection.

But why do bacteria produce these small membrane vesicles in the first place? Why not spread out to nearby cells themselves?

Jenny and Meta met last month on the Duke campus.

“The short answer is that we don’t know yet,” explains Kuehn, an associate professor of biochemistry at Duke. “But we speculate that it is due to their small size. These vesicles, which serve as delivery ‘bombs,’ can pass through pores that are too small for bacteria to fit through.”

Originally a chemistry major, Kuehn always had an interest in biochemistry. As an undergraduate, she worked in protein purification and then in the infectious disease division of a children’s hospital. There, she learned about pathogenic bacteria and how they secrete proteins to give themselves access to host cells.

Kuehn’s lab studies the mysterious world of bacterial vesicle production,focusing on the genetic, biochemical, and functional features of vesicles. So far, they have identified specific proteins and genes involved in the vesiculation process.

With a fine filter, they showed that vesicles can fit through holes to reach mammalian cells where a bacterium cannot.

Kuehn wonders why the bacteria don’t just use soluble proteins, which are even smaller than vesicles. They must have some reason for preferring the cell’s vesicles. Currently, they believe that vesicles can serve as nice packages — a whole bolus of information delivered together.

Basic anatomy of a vesicle, a bubble-like  membrane-bound package used by cells to move things around.

Not only will this new insight into extracellular vesicles of gram-negative bacteria aid in identifying new medicines, vesicles are also being used for vaccine delivery.

“They are really good antigen vehicles,” reveals Kuehn, “The more we know how they are made, the better we can design effective vaccines for humans.”

According to Kuehn, the amazing part about studying these pathogens is that, “You are never done. You never know it all. Every single pathogen, they each do things differently.” What keeps Kuehn going, she explains, is that the search never ends.

“There is never really a defined end point; you have to come to grips with the fact that you will never know that whole answer.”

Guest Post by Jenny Huang, NCSSM 2019

HIV Can Be Treated, But Stigma Kills

Three decades ago, receiving an HIV diagnosis was comparable to being handed a death sentence. But today, this is no longer the case.

Advances in HIV research have led to treatments that can make the virus undetectable and untransmittable in less than six months, a fact that goes overlooked by many. Treatments today can make HIV entirely manageable for individuals.

However, thousands of Americans are still dying of HIV-related causes each year, regardless of the fact that HIV treatments are accessible and effective. So where is the disconnect coming from?

On the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day, The Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity at Duke University hosted a series of events surrounding around this year’s international theme: “Know Your Status.”

One of these events was a panel discussion featuring three prominent HIV/AIDS treatment advocates on campus, Dr. Mehri McKellar, Dr. Carolyn McAllaster, and Dr. Kent Weinhold, who answered questions regarding local policy and current research at Duke.

From left to right: Kent Weinhold, Carolyn McAllaster, Mehri McKellar and moderator Jesse Mangold in Duke’s Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity

The reason HIV continues to spread and kill, Dr. McKellar explained, is less about accessibility, and more about stigma. Research has shown that stigma shame leads to poor health outcomes in HIV patients, and unfortunately, stigma shame is a huge problem in communities across the US.

Especially in the South, she said, there is very little funding for initiatives to reduce stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, and people are suffering as a result.

In 2016, the CDC reported that the South was responsible for 52 percent of all new HIV diagnoses and 47 percent of all HIV-related deaths in the US.

If people living with HIV don’t feel supported by their community and comfortable in their environment, it makes it very difficult for them to obtain proper treatment. Dr. McKellar’s patients have told her that they don’t feel comfortable getting their medications locally because they know the local pharmacist, and they’re ashamed to be picking up HIV medications from a familiar face.

 

HIV/AIDS Diagnoses and Deaths in the US 1981-2007 (photo from the CDC)

In North Carolina, the law previously required HIV-positive individuals to disclose their status and use a condom with sexual partners, even if they had received treatment and could no longer transmit the virus. Violating this law resulted in prosecution and a prison sentence for many individuals, which only enforced the negative stigma surrounding HIV. Earlier this year, Dr. McAllaster helped efforts to create and pass a new version of the law, which will make life a lot easier for people living with HIV in North Carolina.

So what is Duke doing to help the cause? Well, In 2005, Duke opened the Center for AIDS Research (also known as CFAR), which is now directed by Dr. Kent Weinhold. In the last decade, they have focused their efforts mainly on improving the efficacy of the HIV vaccine. The search for a successful vaccine has been long and frustrating for CFAR and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, but Dr. Weinhold is optimistic that they will be able to reach the realistic goal of 60 percent effectiveness in the future, although he shied away from predicting any sort of timeline for this outcome.

Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP (photo from NIAID)

Duke also opened a PrEP Clinic in 2016 to provide preventative treatment for individuals who might be at risk of getting HIV. PrEP stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, and it is a medication that is taken before exposure to HIV to prevent transmission of the virus. Put into widespread use, this treatment is another way to reduce negative HIV stigma.

The problem persists, however, that the people who most need PrEP aren’t getting it. The group that has the highest incidence of HIV is males who are young, black and gay. But the group most commonly receiving PrEP is older, white, gay men. Primary care doctors, especially in the South, often won’t prescribe PrEP either. Not because they can’t, but because they don’t support it, or don’t know enough about it.

And herein lies the problem, the panelists said: Discrimination and bias are often the results of inadequate education. The more educated people are about the truth of living with HIV, and the effectiveness of current treatments, the more empathetic they will be towards HIV-positive individuals.

There’s no reason for the toxic shame that exists nationwide, and attitudes need to change. It’s important for us to realize that in today’s world, HIV can be treated, but stigma kills.

Post by Anne Littlewood

MyD88: Villain of Allergies and Asthma

Even if you don’t have allergies yourself, I guarantee you can list at least three people you know who have allergies. Asthma, a respiratory disorder commonly associated with allergies, afflicts over 300 million individuals worldwide.

Seddon Y. Thomas, PhD of the NIEHS

Seddon Y. Thomas, PhD of the NIEHS

Seddon Y. Thomas who works at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has been exploring how sensitization to allergens occurs. The work, which she described at a recent  session of the Immunology Seminar Series, specifically focuses on the relationship between sensitization and the adaptor molecule MyD88.

MyD88 transfers signals between some of the proteins and receptors that are involved in immune responses to foreign invaders. Since allergies entail inflammation caused by an immune response, Thomas recognized that MyD88 played a role in the immune system’s sensitization to inhaled allergens.

Her research aims to discover how MyD88 alters conventional dendritic cells (cDCs) which are innate immune cells that drive allergic inflammation. MyD88 signaling in cDCs sometimes preserves open chromatin — the availability of DNA for rapid replication — which allows gene changes to happen quickly and in turn causes allergic sensitization. Open chromatin regions permit the DNA manipulation that can lead to allergies and asthma. 

Florescence microscopy image of mouse dendritic cells with mRNA-loaded blood cells.

To conduct her experiments, Thomas examines what happens in mice when she deletes MyD88 from lung epithelial cells and from antigen-presenting cells. Lung epithelial cells form a protective tissue where inhaled air meets the lung and protects from foreign invaders. But sometimes it takes its job a little too seriously and reacts strongly to allergens.

Similarly, antigen-presenting cells are involved in the immune system’s mission to protect the body, but can become confused about who the enemy is. When the signaling adaptor MyD88 is removed from lung epithelial cells, the number of eosinophils, inflammatory white blood cells, decreases. When it is removed from antigen-presenting cells, another type of white blood cell, neutrophils, also decreases.

Thomas said this shows that MyD88 is necessary for the inflammation in the lungs that causes asthma and allergies.

In her future research, Thomas wishes to explore dendritic cell gene expression, the molecular pathways controlling gene expression, and how specific types of lung epithelial cells adjust immune responses. Because MyD88 plays a role in the genetic changes, it makes sense to continue research on the genetic side.    

Post by Lydia Goff            

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