The world as we know it has forever changed. With a greater focus on science and technology than before, experts in the biotech and life sciences spaces are grappling with what comes next as SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 illness, has spread and mutated across the world.
Even with vaccines being distributed, so much still remains unknown.
Better Diagnostic Testing for COVID<p>Expect improvements in COVID diagnostic testing and the ability to test at home.</p><p>There are currently <a href="https://www.fda.gov/consumers/consumer-updates/coronavirus-disease-2019-testing-basics" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>three types of coronavirus tests</u></a>. The molecular test—also known as the RT-PCR test, detects the virus's genetic material, and is highly accurate, but it can take days to receive results. There are also antibody tests, done through a blood draw, designed to test whether you've had COVID in the past. Finally, there's the quick antigen test that isn't as accurate as the PCR test, but can identify if people are going to infect others.</p><p>Last month, Lucira Health secured the U.S. FDA Emergency Use Authorization for the first prescription molecular diagnostic test for COVID-19 that can be performed at home. On December 15<sup>th</sup>, the Ellume Covid-19 Home Test received authorization as the first over-the-counter COVID-19 diagnostic antigen test that can be done at home <em>without</em> a prescription. The test uses a nasal swab that is connected to a smartphone app and returns results in 15-20 minutes. Similarly, the BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card Home Test received authorization on Dec. 16 for its 15-minute antigen test that can be used within the first seven days of onset of COIVD-19 symptoms. </p><p>Home testing has the possibility to impact the pandemic pretty drastically, Auclair says, but there are other considerations: the type and timing of test that is administered, how expensive is the test (and if it is financially feasible for the general public) and the ability of a home test taker to accurately administer the test.</p>
Rise of mRNA-based Vaccines and Therapies<p>A year ago, vaccines weren't being talked about like they are today.</p><p>"But clearly vaccines are the talk of the town," Auclair says. "The reason we got a vaccine so fast was there was so much money thrown at it." </p><p>A vaccine can take more than 10 years to fully develop, according to the <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/vaccine-development-barriers-coronavirus/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>World Economic Forum</u></a>. Prior to the new COVID vaccines, which were remarkably developed and tested in under a year, the fastest vaccine ever made was for mumps -- and it took four years. </p><p>"Normally you have to produce a protein. This is typically done in eggs. It takes forever," says Catherine Dulac, a neuroscientist and developmental biologist at Harvard University who won the 2021 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. "But an mRNA vaccine just enabled [us] to skip all sorts of steps [compared with burdensome conventional manufacturing] and go directly to a product that can be injected into people." </p><p>Non-traditional medicines based on genetic research are in their infancy. With mRNA-based vaccines hitting the market for the first time, look for more vaccines to be developed for whatever viruses we don't currently have vaccines for, like dengue virus and Ebola, Auclair says.</p><p>"There's a whole bunch of things that could be explored now that haven't been thought about in the past," Auclair says. "It could really be a game changer."</p>
Vaccine Innovation over the last 140 years.
Max Roser/Our World in Data (Creative Commons license)
Advancements in Cell and Gene Therapies<p>CRISPR, a type of gene editing, is going to be huge in 2021, especially after the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna in October for pioneering the technology. </p><p>Right now, CRISPR <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30114543/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>isn't completely precise</u></a> and can cause deletions or rearrangements of DNA. </p><p>"It's definitely not there yet, but over the next year it's going to get a lot closer and you're going to have a lot of momentum in this space," Auclair says. "CRISPR is one of the technologies I'm most excited about and 2021 is the year for it."</p><p>Gene therapies are typically used on<u> rare genetic diseases</u>. They work by replacing the faulty dysfunctional genes with corrected DNA codes. </p><p>"Cell and gene therapies are really where the field is going," Auclair says. "There is so much opportunity....For the first time in our life, in our existence as a species, we may actually be able to cure disease by using [techniques] like gene editing, where you cut in and out of pieces of DNA that caused a disease and put in healthy DNA," Auclair says.</p><p>For example, Spinal Muscular Atrophy is a rare genetic disorder that leads to muscle weakness, paralysis and death in children by age two. As of last year, afflicted children can take a gene therapy drug called Zolgensma that targets the missing or nonworking SMN1 gene with a new copy. </p><p>Another recent breakthrough uses gene editing for sickle cell disease. Victoria Gray, a mom from Mississippi who was exclusively <a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/12/15/944184405/1st-patients-to-get-crispr-gene-editing-treatment-continue-to-thrive" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>followed by NPR</u></a>, was the first person in the United States to be successfully treated for the genetic disorder with the help of CRISPR. She has continued to improve since her landmark treatment on July 2, 2019 and her once-debilitating pain has greatly eased. </p><p>"This is really a life-changer for me," she told NPR. "It's magnificent."</p>
More Monoclonal Antibody Therapies<p>Look for more customized drugs to personalize medicine even more in the biotechnology space.</p><p>In 2019, <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/statement-fda-commissioner-scott-gottlieb-md-and-peter-marks-md-phd-director-center-biologics" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>the FDA</u></a> anticipated receiving more than 200 Investigational New Drug (IND) applications in 2020. But with COVID, the number of INDs skyrocketed to 6,954 applications for the 2020 fiscal year, which ended September 30, 2020, <a href="https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/fdatrack/view/track.cfm?program=cber&id=CBER-All-IND-and-IDEs-recieved-and-actions" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>according to the FDA's online tracker.</u></a> Look for antibody therapies to play a bigger role.</p><p>Monoclonal antibodies are lab-grown proteins that mimic or enhance the immune system's response to fight off pathogens, like viruses, and they've been used to treat cancer. Now they are being used to <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-monoclonal-antibodies-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>treat patients with COVID-19</u></a>. </p><p>President Donald Trump received a monoclonal antibody cocktail, called REGEN-COV2, which later received <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-monoclonal-antibodies-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>FDA emergency use authorization</u></a>.</p><p>A newer type of monoclonal antibody therapy is Antibody-Drug Conjugates, also called ADCs. It's something we're going to be hearing a lot about in 2021, Auclair says. </p><p>"Antibody-Drug Conjugates is a monoclonal antibody with a chemical, we consider it a chemical warhead on it," Auclair says. "The monoclonal antibody binds to a specific antigen in your body or protein and delivers a chemical to that location and kills the infected cell."</p>
Moving Beyond Male-Centric Lab Testing<p>Scientific testing for biology has, until recently, focused on testing males. Dulac, a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University, challenged that idea to find brain circuitry behind sex-specific behaviors.</p><p>"For the longest time, until now, all the model systems in biology, are male," Dulac says. "The idea is if you do testing on males, you don't need to do testing on females."</p><p>Clinical models are done in male animals, as well as fundamental research. Because biological research is always done on male models, Dulac says the outcomes and understanding in biology is geared towards understanding male biology. </p><p>"All the drugs currently on the market and diagnoses of diseases are biased towards the understanding of male biology," Dulac says. "The diagnostics of diseases is way weaker in women than men." </p><p>That means the treatment isn't necessarily as good for women as men, she says, including what is known and understood about pain medication. </p><p>"So pain medication doesn't work well in women," Dulac says. "It works way better in men. It's true for almost all diseases that I know. Why? because you have a science that is dominated by males."</p><p>Although some in the scientific community challenge that females are not interesting or too complicated with their hormonal variations, Dulac says that's simply not true.</p><p>"There's absolutely no reason to decide 50% of life forms are interesting and the other 50% are not interesting. What about looking at both?" says Dulac, who was awarded the $3 million <a href="https://breakthroughprize.org/News/60" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences</u></a> in September for connecting specific neural mechanisms to male and female parenting behaviors. </p>
Disease Research on Single Cells<p>To better understand how diseases manifest in the body's cell and tissues, many researchers are looking at single-cell biology. Cells are the most fundamental building blocks of life. Much still needs to be learned. </p><p>"A remarkable development this year is the massive use of analysis of gene expression and chromosomal regulation at the single-cell level," Dulac says. </p><p>Much is focused on the <a href="https://www.humancellatlas.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Human Cell Atlas</u></a> (HCA), a global initiative to map all cells in healthy humans and to better identify which genes associated with diseases are active in a person's body. Most estimates put the number of cells around 30 trillion. </p><p>Dulac points to work being conducted by the <a href="https://braininitiative.nih.gov/brain-programs/cell-census-network-biccn" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Cell Census Network (BICCN) Brain Initiative</u></a>, an initiative by the National Institutes of Health to come up with an atlas of cell types in mouse, human and non-human primate brains, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's funding of single-cell biology projects, including those focused on <a href="https://chanzuckerberg.com/rfa/single-cell-analysis-inflammation/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>single-cell analysis of inflammation.</u></a></p><p>"Our body and our brain are made of a large number of cell types," Dulac says. "The ability to explore and identify differences in gene expression and regulation in massively multiplex ways by analyzing millions of cells is extraordinarily important."</p>
Converting Plastics into Food<p>Yep, you heard it right, plastics may eventually be turned into food. The <a href="https://www.darpa.mil/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency</u></a>, better known as DARPA, is funding a project—formally titled "Production of Macronutrients from Thermally Oxo-Degraded Wastes"—and asking researchers how to do this.</p><p>"When I first heard about this challenge, I thought it was absolutely absurd," says Dr. Robert Brown, director of the Bioeconomy Institute at Iowa State University and the project's principal investigator, who is working with other research partners at the University of Delaware, Sandia National Laboratories, and the American Institute of Chemical Engineering (AIChE)/RAPID Institute. </p><p>But then Brown realized plastics will slowly start oxidizing—taking in oxygen—and microorganisms can then consume it. The oxidation process at room temperature is extremely slow, however, which makes plastics essentially not biodegradable, Brown says.</p><p>That changes when heat is applied at brick pizza oven-like temperatures around 900-degrees Fahrenheit. The high temperatures get compounds to oxidize rapidly. Plastics are synthetic polymers made from petroleum—large molecules formed by linking many molecules together in a chain. Heated, these polymers will melt and crack into smaller molecules, causing them to vaporize in a process called devolatilization. Air is then used to cause oxidation in plastics and produce oxygenated compounds—fatty acids and alcohols—that microorganisms will eat and grow into single-cell proteins that can be used as an ingredient or substitute in protein-rich foods. </p><p>"The caveat is the microorganisms must be food-safe, something that we can consume," Brown says. "Like supplemental or nutritional yeast, like we use to brew beer and to make bread or is used in Australia to make Vegemite."</p><p>What do the microorganisms look like? For any home beer brewers, it's the "gunky looking stuff you'd find at the bottom after the fermentation process," Brown says. "That's cellular biomass. Like corn grown in the field, yeast or other microorganisms like bacteria can be harvested as macro-nutrients."</p><p>Brown says DARPA's ReSource program has challenged all the project researchers to find ways for microorganisms to consume any plastics found in the waste stream coming out of a military expeditionary force, including all the packaging of food and supplies. Then the researchers aim to remake the plastic waste into products soldiers can use, including food. The project is in the first of three phases.</p><p>"We are talking about polyethylene, polypropylene, like PET plastics used in water bottles and converting that into macronutrients that are food," says Brown.</p>
Renewed Focus on Climate Change<p><u><a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/climate/science" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Union of Concerned Scientists</a></u> say carbon dioxide levels are higher today than any point in at least 800,000 years.</p>
In late March, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was ramping up in the United States, David Fajgenbaum, a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, devised a 10-day challenge for his lab: they would sift through 1,000 recently published scientific papers documenting cases of the deadly virus from around the world, pluck out the names of any drugs used in an attempt to cure patients, and track the treatments and their outcomes in a database.
Before late 2019, no one had ever had to treat this exact disease before, which meant all treatments would be trial and error. Fajgenbaum, a pioneering researcher in the field of drug repurposing—which prioritizes finding novel uses for existing drugs, rather than arduously and expensively developing new ones for each new disease—knew that physicians around the world would be embarking on an experimental journey, the scale of which would be unprecedented. His intention was to briefly document the early days of this potentially illuminating free-for-all, as a sidebar to his primary field of research on a group of lymph node disorders called Castleman disease. But now, 11 months and 29,000 scientific papers later, he and his team of 22 are still going strong.
On a Personal Mission<p>In the science and medical world, Fajgenbaum lives a dual existence: he is both researcher and subject, physician and patient. In July 2010, when he was a healthy and physically fit 25-year-old finishing medical school, he began living through what would become a recurring, unprovoked, and overzealous immune response that repeatedly almost killed him.</p><p>His lymph nodes were inflamed; his liver, kidneys, and bone marrow were faltering; and he was dead tired all the time. At first his doctors mistook his mysterious illness for lymphoma, but his inflamed lymph nodes were merely a red herring. A month after his initial hospitalization, pathologists at Mayo Clinic finally diagnosed him with idiopathic multicentric Castleman disease—a particularly ruthless form of a class of lymph node disorders that doesn't just attack one part of the body, but many, and has no known cause. It's a rare diagnosis within an already rare set of disorders. Only about 1,500 Americans a year receive the same diagnosis. </p><p>Without many options for treatment, Fajgenbaum underwent recurring rounds of chemotherapy. Each time, the treatment would offer temporary respite from Castleman symptoms, but bring the full spate of chemotherapy side effects. And it wasn't a sustainable treatment for the long haul. Regularly dousing a person's cells in unmitigated toxicity was about as elegant a solution to Fajgenbaum's disease as bulldozing a house in response to a toaster fire. The fire might go out (though not necessarily), but the house would be destroyed.</p><p>A swirl of exasperation and doggedness finally propelled Fajgenbaum to take on a crucial question himself: Among all of the already FDA-approved drugs on the market, was there something out there, labeled for another use, that could beat back Castleman disease and that he could tolerate long-term? After months of research, he discovered the answer: sirolimus, a drug normally prescribed to patients receiving a kidney transplant, could be used to suppress his overactive immune system with few known side effects to boot.</p><p>Fajgenbaum became hellbent on devoting his practice and research to making similar breakthroughs for others. He founded the Castleman Disease Collaborative Network, to coordinate the research of others studying this bewildering disease, and directs a laboratory consumed with studying cytokine storms—out-of-control immune responses characterized by the body's release of cytokines, proteins that the immune system secretes and uses to communicate with and direct other cells. </p><p>In the spring of 2020, when cytokine storms emerged as a hallmark of the most severe and deadly cases of COVID-19, Fajgenbaum's ears perked up. Although SARS-CoV-2 itself was novel, Fajgenbaum already had almost a decade of experience battling the most severe biological forces it brought. Only this time, he thought, it might actually be easier to pinpoint a treatment—unlike Castleman disease, which has no known cause, at least here a virus was clearly the instigator. </p>
Thinking Beyond COVID<p>The week of March 13, when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, Fajgenbaum found himself hoping that someone would make the same connection and apply the research to COVID. "Then like a minute later I was like, 'Why am I hoping that someone, somewhere, either follows our footsteps, or has a similar background to us? Maybe we just need to do it," he says. And the CORONA Project was born—first as a 10-day exercise, and later as the robust, interactive tool it now is. </p><p>All of the 400 treatments in the CORONA database are examples of repurposed drugs, or off-label uses: physicians are prescribing drugs to treat COVID that have been approved for a different disease. There are no bonafide COVID treatments, only inferences. The goal for people like Fajgenbaum and Stone is to identify potential treatments for further study and eventual official approval, so that physicians can treat the disease with a playbook in hand. When it works, drug repurposing opens up a way to move quickly: A range of treatments could be available to patients within just a few years of a totally new virus entering our reality compared with the 12 - 19 years new drug development takes.</p><p>"Companies for many decades have explored the use of their products for not just a single indication but often for many indications," says Stone. "'Supplemental approvals' are all essentially examples of drug repurposing, we just didn't call it that. The challenge, I think, is to explore those opportunities more comprehensively and systematically to really try to understand the full breadth of potential activity of any drug or molecule."</p>
The left column shows the path of a repurposed drug, and on the right is the path of a newly discovered and developed drug.
Cures Within Reach
A Confounding Virus<p>The FDA declined to comment on what drugs it was fast-tracking for trials, but Fajgenbaum says that based on the CORONA Project's data, which includes data from smaller trials that have already taken place, he feels there are three drugs that seem the most clearly and broadly promising for large-scale studies. Among them are <a href="https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30503-8/fulltext" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>dexamethasone</u></a>, which is a steroid with anti-inflammatory effects, and <a href="https://www.fda.gov/news-events/press-announcements/coronavirus-covid-19-update-fda-authorizes-drug-combination-treatment-covid-19" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>baricitinib</u></a>, a rheumatoid arthritis drug, both of which have enabled the sickest COVID-19 patients to bounce back by suppressing their immune systems. The third most clearly promising drug is <a href="https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/full-dose-blood-thinners-decreased-need-life-support-improved-outcome-hospitalized-covid-19-patients" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>heparin</u></a>, a blood thinner, which a recent trial showed to be most helpful when administered at a full dose, more so than at a small, preventative dose. (On the flipside, Fajgenbaum says "it's a little sad" that in the database you can see hydroxychloroquine is still the most-prescribed drug being tried as a COVID treatment around the world, despite over the summer being <a href="https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa2021801" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>debunked</u></a> widely as an effective treatment, and continuously since then.)</p><p>One of the confounding attributes of SARS-CoV-2 is its ability to cause such a huge spectrum of outcomes. It's unlikely a silver bullet treatment will emerge under that reality, so the database also helps surface drugs that seem most promising for a specific population. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2773108" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Fluvoxamine</u></a>, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor used to treat obsessive compulsive disorder, showed promise in the recovery of outpatients—those who were sick, but not severely enough to be hospitalized. <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2772185" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>Tocilizumab</u></a>, which was actually developed for Castleman disease, the disease Fajgenbaum is managing, was initially written off as a COVID treatment because it failed to benefit large portions of hospitalized patients, but now seems to be effective if used on intensive care unit patients within 24 hours of admission—these are some of the sickest patients with the highest risk of dying. </p><p>Other than fluvoxamine, most of the drugs labeled as promising do skew toward targeting hospitalized patients, more than outpatients. One reason, Fajgenbaum says, is that "if you're in a hospital it's very easy to give you a drug and to track you, and there are very objective measurements as to whether you die, you progress to a ventilator, etc." Tracking outpatients is far more difficult, especially when folks have been routinely asked to stay home, quarantine, and free up hospital resources if they're experiencing only mild symptoms. </p><p>But the other reason for the skew is because COVID is very unlike most other diseases in terms of the human immune response the virus triggers. For example, if oncology treatments show some benefit to people with the highest risk of dying, then they usually work extremely well if administered in the earlier stages of a cancer diagnosis. Across many diseases, this dialing backward is a standard approach to identifying promising treatments. With COVID, all of that reasoning has proven moot. </p><p>As we've seen over the last year, COVID cases often start as asymptomatic, and remain that way for days, indicating the body is mounting an incredibly weak immune response initially. Then, between days five and 14, as if trying to make up for lost time, the immune system overcompensates by launching a major inflammatory response, which in the sickest patient can lead to the type of cytokine storms that helped Fajgenbaum realize his years of Castleman research might be useful during this public health crisis. Because of this phased response, you can't apply the same treatment logic to all cases.</p><p>"In COVID, drugs that work late tend to not work if given early, and drugs that work early tend to not work if given late," says Fajgenbaum. "Generally this … is not a commonplace thing for a virus." </p>
Thursday, March 11th, 2021 at 12:30pm - 1:45pm EST
On the one-year anniversary of the global declaration of the pandemic, this virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines. Planned topics include the effect of the new circulating variants on the vaccines, what we know so far about transmission dynamics post-vaccination, how individuals can behave post-vaccination, the myths of "good" and "bad" vaccines as more alternatives come on board, and more. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
SPEAKERS:<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://leaps.org/media-library/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY3Mzc4NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjYwNjU4NX0.Tdrh5pze5P4XxgiJK3J4JFrsrijfabIzNJz-AATghDE/image.jpg?width=534&coordinates=365%2C3%2C299%2C559&height=462" id="87554" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b6c7311be7aec25807f9af19b683bf1d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="534" data-height="462" />
Dr. Paul Offit speaking at Communicating Vaccine Science.commons.wikimedia.org<p><strong><a href="https://www.research.chop.edu/people/paul-a-offit" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Paul Offit, M.D.</a>, is the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine for infants, and he has lent his expertise to the advisory committees that review data on new vaccines for the CDC and FDA.</strong></p>
Dr. Monica Gandhi
UCSF Health<p><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi"></a><strong><a href="https://profiles.ucsf.edu/monica.gandhi" target="_blank">Dr. Monica Gandhi, M.D., MPH,</a> is Professor of Medicine and Associate Division Chief (Clinical Operations/ Education) of the Division of HIV, Infectious Diseases, and Global Medicine at UCSF/ San Francisco General Hospital.</strong></p>
Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh, FACP, FIDSA
Yale Medicine<p><strong><a href="https://medicine.yale.edu/profile/onyema_ogbuagu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Onyema Ogbuagu, MBBCh</a>, is an infectious disease physician at Yale Medicine who treats COVID-19 patients and leads Yale's clinical studies around COVID-19. He ran Yale's trial of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.</strong></p>
Dr. Eric Topol
Dr. Topol's Twitter<p><strong><a href="https://www.scripps.edu/faculty/topol/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Dr. Eric Topol, M.D.</a>, is a cardiologist, scientist, professor of molecular medicine, and the director and founder of Scripps Research Translational Institute. He has led clinical trials in over 40 countries with over 200,000 patients and pioneered the development of many routinely used medications.</strong></p>