Amy Jenkins was in her office at DARPA, a research and development agency within the Department of Defense, when she first heard about a respiratory illness plaguing the Chinese city of Wuhan. Because she's a program manager for DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, her colleagues started stopping by. "It's really unusual, isn't it?" they would say.
At the time, China had a few dozen cases of what we now call COVID-19. "We should maybe keep an eye on that," she thought.
Early in 2020, still just keeping watch, she was visiting researchers working on DARPA's Pandemic Prevention Platform (P3), a project to develop treatments for "any known or previously unknown infectious threat," within 60 days of its appearance. "We looked at each other and said, 'Should we be doing something?'" she says.
Fighting the Smallest Enemies<p>Jenkins, who's in her early 40s, first got into germs the way many 90s kids did: by reading <em>The Hot Zone</em>, a novel about a hemorrhagic fever gone rogue. It wasn't exactly the disintegrating organs that hooked her. It was the idea that "these very pathogens that we can't even see can make us so sick and bring us to our knees," she says. Reading about scientists facing down deadly disease, she wondered, "<em>How</em> do these things make you so sick?"</p><p>She chased that question in college, majoring in both biomolecular science and chemistry, and later became an antibody expert. Antibodies are proteins that hook to a pathogen to block it from attaching to your cells, or tag it for destruction by the rest of the immune system. Soon, she jumped on the "monoclonal antibodies" train—developing synthetic versions of these natural defenses, which doctors can give to people to help them battle an early-stage infection, and even to <a href="https://www.statnews.com/2021/01/21/eli-lilly-says-its-monoclonal-antibody-prevented-covid-19-in-clinical-trial/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><u>prevent</u></a> an infection from taking root after an exposure. </p><p>Jenkins likens the antibody treatments to the old aphorism about fishing: Vaccines teach your body how to fish, but antibodies simply <em>give</em> your body the pesca-fare. While that, as the saying goes, won't feed you for a lifetime, it will last a few weeks or months. Monoclonal antibodies thus are a promising preventative option in the immediate short-term when a vaccine hasn't yet been given (or hasn't had time to produce an immune response), as well as an important treatment weapon in the current fight. After former president Donald Trump contracted COVID-19, he received a monoclonal antibody treatment from biotech company Regeneron. </p><p>As for Jenkins, she started working as a DARPA Biological Technologies Office contractor soon after completing her postdoc. But it was a suit job, not a labcoat job. And suit jobs, at first, left Jenkins conflicted, worried about being bored. She'd give it a year, she thought. But the year expired, and bored she was not. Around five years later, in June 2019, the agency hired her to manage several of the office's programs. A year into that gig, the world was months into a pandemic.</p>
The Pandemic Pivot<p>At DARPA, Jenkins inherited five programs, including P3. P3 works by taking blood from recovered people, fishing out their antibodies, identifying the most effective ones, and then figuring out how to manufacture them fast. Back then, P3 existed to help with nebulous, future outbreaks: Pandemic X. Not <em>this</em> pandemic. "I did not have a crystal ball," she says, "but I will say that all of us in the infectious diseases and public-health realm knew that the next pandemic was coming."</p><p>Three days after a January 2020 meeting with P3 researchers, COVID-19 appeared in Seattle, then began whipping through communities. The time had come for P3 teams to swivel. "We had done this," she says. "We had practiced this before." But would their methods stand up to something unknown, racing through the global population? "The big anxiety was, 'Wow, this was real,'" says Jenkins.</p><p>While facing down that realness, Jenkins was also managing other projects. In one called PREPARE, groups develop "medical countermeasures" that modulate a person's genetic code to boost their bodies' responses to threats. Another project, NOW, envisions shipping-container-sized factories that can make thousands of vaccine doses in days. And then there's Prometheus—which means "forethought" in Greek, and is the name of the god who stole fire and gave it to humans. Wrapping up as COVID ramped up, Prometheus aimed to identify people who are contagious—with whatever—before they start coughing, and even if they never do.</p><p>All of DARPA's projects focus on developing early-stage technology, passing it off to other agencies or industry to put it into operation. The orientation toward a specific goal appealed to Jenkins, as a contrast to academia. "You go down a rabbit hole for years at a time sometimes, chasing some concept you found interesting in the lab," she says. That's good for the human pursuit of knowledge, and leads to later applications, but DARPA wants a practical prototype—stat.</p>
"Dual-Use" Technologies<p>That desire, though, and the fact that DARPA is a defense agency, present philosophical complications. "Bioethics in the national-security context turns all the dials up to 10+," says Jonathan Moreno, a medical ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania.</p><p>While developing antibody treatments to stem a pandemic seems straightforwardly good, all biological research—especially that backed by military money—requires evaluating potential knock-on applications, even those that might come from outside the entity that did the developing. As Moreno put it, "Albert Einstein wasn't thinking about blowing up Hiroshima." Particularly sensitive are so-called "dual-use" technologies—those tools that could be used for both benign and nefarious purposes, or are of interest to both the civilian and military worlds.</p><p>Moreno takes Prometheus itself as an example of "dual-use" technology. "Think about somebody wearing a suicide vest. Instead of a suicide vest, make them extremely contagious with something. The flu plus Ebola," he says. "Send them someplace, a sensitive environment. We would like to be able to defend against that"—not just tell whether Uncle Fred is bringing asymptomatic COVID home for Christmas. Prometheus, Jenkins says, had safety in mind from the get-go, and required contenders to "develop a risk mitigation plan" and "detail their strategy for appropriate control of information."</p><p>To look at a different program, if you can modulate genes to help healing, you probably know something (or know someone else could infer something) about how to <em>hinder</em> healing. Those sorts of risks are why PREPARE researchers got their own "ethical, legal, and social implications" panel, which meets quarterly "to ensure that we are performing all research and publications in a safe and ethical manner," says Jenkins.</p><p>DARPA as a whole, Moreno says, is institutionally sensitive to bioethics. The agency has ethics panels, and funded a 2014 National Academies assessment of how to address the "ethical, legal, and societal issues" around technology that has military relevance. "In the cases of biotechnologies where some of that research brushes up against what could legitimately be considered dual-use, that in itself justifies our investment," says Jenkins. "DARPA deliberately focuses on safety and countermeasures against potentially dangerous technologies, and we structure our programs to be transparent, safe, and legal."</p>
Going Fishing<p>In late February 2020, DARPA received a single blood sample from a recovered COVID-19 patient, in which P3 researchers could go fishing for antibodies. The day it arrived, Jenkins's stomach roiled. "We get one shot," she thought. </p><p>As scientists from the P3-funded AbCellera went through the processes they'd practiced, Jenkins managed their work, tracking progress and relaying results. Soon, the team had isolated a suitable protein: bamlanivimab. It attaches to and blocks off the infamous spike proteins on SARS-CoV-2—those sticky suction-cups in illustrations. Partnering with Eli Lilly in a manufacturing agreement, the biotech company brought it to clinical trials in May, just a few months after its work on the deadly pathogen began, after much of the planet became a hot zone.</p><p>On November 10—Jenkins's favorite day at the (home) office—the FDA provided Eli Lilly emergency use authorization for bamlanivimab. But she's only mutedly screaming (with joy) inside her heart. "This pandemic isn't 'one morning we're going to wake up and it's all over,'" she says. When it <em>is</em> over, she and her colleagues plan to celebrate their promethean work. "I'm hoping to be able to do it in person," she says. "Until then, I have not taken a breath."</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>