Did researchers finally find a way to lick COVID?
Already vaccinated and want more protection from COVID-19? A protein found in ice cream could help, some research suggests, though there are a bunch of caveats.
The protein, called lactoferrin, is found in the milk of mammals and thus in dairy products, including ice cream. It has astounding antiviral properties that have been taken for granted and remain largely unexplored because it is a natural product, meaning that it cannot be patented and exploited by pharmaceutical companies.
Jonathan Sexton runs a drug screening program at the University of Michigan where cells are infected with a pathogen and then exposed to a library of the thousands of small molecule drug compounds – which can enter the body more easily than drugs with heavier molecules – approved by the FDA. In addition, the library includes compounds that passed phase 1 safety studies but later proved ineffective against the targeted disease. Each drug is dissolved in a solvent for exposure to the cells in the laborious testing process made feasible by robotic automation.
When COVID hit, researchers scrambled to identify any approved drug that might help fight the infection. Sexton decided to screen the drug library as well as some dietary supplements against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Sexton says that the grunt work fell to Jesse Wotring, “a very talented PhD student,” who pulled lactoferrin off the shelf. But the regular solvent used in the testing process would destroy the protein, so he had to take another approach and do all the work by hand.
“We were agnostic,” says Sexton, who didn't have a strong interest in lactoferrin or any of the other compounds in the library, but the data was quite clear; lactoferrin “consistently produced the best efficacy...it was the absolute home run.” The findings were published in separate papers last year and in February.
It turns out that lactoferrin has several different mechanisms of action against SARS-CoV-2, inhibiting the virus from entering cells, moving around within them and replicating. Lactoferrin also modulates the overall immune response, which makes it difficult for the virus to simultaneously mutate resistance to the protein at every step of replication. “It has broad efficacy against every [SARS-CoV-2] variant that we've tested,” he says.
From bench to bedside
Sexton's initial interest was to develop a drug for the acute phase of COVID infection, to treat a hospitalized patient or prevent that hospitalization. But with the quick approval of vaccines and drugs to treat the disease, he increasingly focused on ways to better prevent infection and inhibit spread of the virus.
“If you can get lactoferrin to persist in your upper GI tract, then it may very well prevent the primary infection, and that's what we're really interested in.” He reasoned that a chewing gum formula might release enough lactoferrin into the mucosal tissue of the mouth and upper airways to inhibit replication and give the immune system a chance to knock out the virus before it can establish a foothold. It could also reduce the amount of virus spread through talking.
To get enough lactoferrin to have a possible beneficial effect, one would have to drink gallons of milk a day, “and that would have other undesirable consequences, like getting extremely obese,” says Sexton. Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for severe COVID disease.
Testing that theory has been difficult. The easiest way would be a “challenge trial,” where volunteers take the drug, or in this case gum, are exposed to the pathogen, and protection is measured. Some COVID challenge studies have been conducted in Europe but the FDA remains hesitant to allow such a study in the U.S. A traditional prevention study would be like a vaccine trial, involving thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of volunteers over a period of months or years, and it would be very expensive. No one has stepped forward to foot the bill.
So the next step for Sexton is a clinical trial of newly diagnosed COVID patients who will be given standard of care treatment, and layered on top of that they will receive either lactoferrin, probably in pill form, or a placebo. He has identified initial funding. “We would study their viral load over time as well as their symptoms.”
One issue the FDA is grappling with in considering the proposed trial is that it typically decides whether to approve drugs from a factory by applying a rigorous standard, called good manufacturing practices, while food products, which are the source of lactoferrin, are produced under somewhat different standards. The agency still has not finalized rules on how to deal with natural products used as drugs, such as fecal transplants, convalescent plasma, or medical marijuana.
Sexton is frustrated by the delay because lactoferrin derived from bovine milk whey has been used for many decades as a protein supplement by athletes, it is a large component of most infant formula, and the largest number of clinical studies of lactoferrin involve premature infants. There is no question of its safety, he says.
Do it yourself
So what can you do while waiting for regulatory wheels to spin and clinical trial data to be generated?
Could a dose of Ben & Jerry's provide some protection against SARS-CoV-2?
Sexton chuckles at the suggestion. He supposes it couldn't hurt. But to get enough lactoferrin to have a possible beneficial effect, one would have to drink gallons of milk a day, “and that would have other undesirable consequences, like getting extremely obese.” Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for severe COVID disease.
Pseudo-milk products made from soy, almonds, oats, or other plant products do not contain lactoferrin; it has to come from a teat. So that rules them out.
Whey-based protein shakes might be a useful way to add lactoferrin to the diet.
Probably the best option is to take conventional gelatin capsules of lactoferrin that are widely available wherever supplements are sold. Sexton calculates that about a gram a day, four 250 milligram capsules, should do it. He advises two in the morning and two a night. “You really want to take them on an empty stomach...your stomach treats [the lactoferrin protein] like it would a steak” and chops it for absorption in the intestine, which you do not want. About 70 percent of lactoferrin can get through an empty stomach, but eating food cranks up digestive gastric acids and the amount of intact lactoferrin that gets through to the gut plummets.
Sexton cautions, “We have not determined clinical efficacy yet,” and he is not offering advice as a physician, but in the spirit of harm reduction, he realizes that some people are going to try things that might help them. Lactoferrin “is remarkably safe. And so people have to make their own decisions about what they are willing to take and what they are not,” he says.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”