One Year In, Our Biggest Lessons and Unsolved Mysteries about COVID-19
On the one-year anniversary of the World Health Organization declaring SARS-CoV-2 a global pandemic, it's hard to believe that so much and yet so little time has passed. The past twelve months seem to have dragged by, with each day feeling like an eternity, yet also it feels as though it has flashed by in a blur.
Nearly everyone I've spoken with, from recent acquaintances to my closest friends and family, have reported feeling the same odd sense of disconnectedness, which I've taken to calling "pandemic relativity." Just this week, Ellen Cushing published a piece in The Atlantic about the effects of "late-stage pandemic" on memory and cognitive function. Perhaps, thanks to twelve months of living this way, we have all found it that much more difficult to distill the key lessons that will allow us to emerge from the relentless, disconnected grind of our current reality, return to some semblance of normalcy, and take the decisive steps needed to ensure the mistakes of this pandemic are not repeated in the next one.
As a virologist who studies SARS-CoV-2 and other emerging viruses, and who sometimes writes and publicly comments on my thoughts, I've been asked frequently about what we've learned as we approach a year of living in suspension. While I always come up with an answer, the truth is similar to my perception of time: we've learned a lot, but at the same time, that's only served to highlight how much we still don't know. We have uncovered and clarified many scientific truths, but also revealed the limits of our scientific knowledge.
The Most Important Lessons Learned
The dangers of false dichotomies.
From the early days, we have been guilty of binary thinking, and this has touched nearly every aspect of the pandemic. The following statements are not true, but the narratives are all too common: The only outcomes of COVID-19 are full recovery or death. Masks either work perfectly or they don't work at all. Transmission only occurs entirely by droplets or is entirely airborne. Children are either complete immune or they are equally as susceptible as adults. Vaccines either completely protect against infection and illness or they are completely useless. Any true student of biology can tell you that there are very rarely binary certainties that apply to every situation, but sensible public health advice can be rapidly derailed by discussing biological realities that exist on a continuum as if they are all categorically true or false.
It's a natural impulse to reduce complex systems to a choice of two options, and also to seek absolute certainty. A challenge for all scientists is how to communicate uncertainty when many people are understandably frustrated at this point and sick of hearing "we don't know." If we don't know now, when will we know? How much do we need to know to make good decisions? When will we get back to "normal"? In trying to simplify complex scientific concepts, we've made them hopelessly complicated. An important lesson going forward is that we should move away from black and white conversations about the emerging science and embrace the shades of gray, with all the nuance and uncertainty that entails.
Novel pandemic viruses can be controlled without a vaccine or effective antiviral therapeutics, and there is no one right way to do so.
Coronaviruses are very different from influenza.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the superficial similarities between SARS-CoV-2 and influenza viruses have inevitably led to comparisons: both are primarily respiratory viruses with some symptoms in common, both have a relatively low overall mortality rate, both are zoonotic viruses that spilled over into the human population from animals, both are enveloped viruses that use RNA, rather than DNA, as their genetic material.
But these similarities disguise the fact that these are two fundamentally different pathogens. They have very different biology at virtually every step of the viral replication cycle, or the process that a virus goes through when it infects a cell and transforms it into a virus factory. SARS-CoV-2 enters cells by interacting with a protein on cell surfaces called ACE-2, while influenza viruses interact with a sugar molecule called sialic acid that "decorates" cell surface proteins. This means the viruses infect different types of cells in the respiratory tract and throughout the body. They also encode vastly different types of viral proteins meant to subvert and hijack the cells they infect: the genome of influenza virus is less than half the size of the genome of SARS-CoV-2, and encodes fewer than half as many viral proteins that can interact with the host cell.
As a result, these viruses each interact with host cells in unique ways and induce different responses to infection. The host response to infection is critically important for determining disease severity in both influenza and COVID-19, with the most severe disease associated with an uncontrolled inflammatory response that results in damaging the lungs and other affected tissues. Indeed, comparative studies have now shown that COVID-19 and influenza infection induce very different host response profiles in infected cells, leading to fundamentally different diseases. Our early reliance on pandemic response plans and public health strategies designed for influenza virus was a mistake, and this will be critical to preparedness and improved response plans going forward.
Transmission is situational.
Another way in which SARS-CoV-2 is very different from influenza is how it spreads through a population, which is relevant to how it is transmitted. Early on, many people focused on the fact that the basic reproduction number (R0) of SARS-CoV-2 was between 2 and 4, similar to the 1918 influenza pandemic. R0 describes the number of people that an infected person will transmit the virus to, but this is an average.
Another key measurement epidemiologists use to look at spread is dispersion, or patterns of transmission. If R0 is 2, and you have a population of 10 people, does that mean that all 10 people transmitted the virus to exactly 2 people? Or did 4 of the people each transmit to 5 people, with the other 6 of the 10 transmitting to nobody? In both situations, the average number of new infections is still 2, but the latter situation is described as overdispersion. While influenza is typically not very overdispersed, SARS-CoV-2 is heavily overdispersed. This is reflected in the high frequency of "superspreading events", where many people are infected at the same time.
Superspreading events are highly dependent on circumstances that need to align to create a conducive environment for transmission. SARS-CoV-2 is primarily transmitted by either inhalation of infectious aerosols (smaller respiratory particles suspended in the air) or direct contact with infectious droplets (larger respiratory particles that can be transferred from the body to the nose or mouth). This means that transmission is more likely to occur in situations with increased exposure risk. The risk is additive, with the likelihood of transmission being higher with more potential sources of virus (people from different households), higher respiratory particle emissions (lack of masks and/or shouting or singing), a physical environment that concentrates potentially infectious particles (an enclosed, poorly ventilated indoor space), close physical proximity (crowding), and increased exposure time.
We have seen repeatedly that when these conditions are met, such as in crowded bars or restaurants, gyms, cruise ships, buses, or weddings, superspreading can occur. The good news, however, is that identifying all these different risk factors has also allowed us to identify methods to mitigate transmission, and these are also additive: masks, physical distancing, avoiding enclosed spaces, limiting interactions with people outside your household, improving ventilation, and practicing good hand hygiene all reduce exposure risk.
Presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission are critical to controlling a pandemic.
Another critical early mistake was assuming that SARS-CoV-2 would be transmitted only by symptomatic people. This was an understandable assumption to make, as people infected with "classic" SARS-CoV reliably developed fevers and could be identified based on body temperature and symptom screening. However, by March 2020, it was apparent that symptom-based screening was inadequate. The symptoms of COVID-19 fall along a very broad spectrum, ranging from completely asymptomatic infection to lethal pneumonia, with everything from loss of taste and smell to "COVID toes" to diarrhea to kidney failure to strokes in between.
Furthermore, last spring several studies showed that viral loads in the nose and throat were highest at the time of symptom onset, suggesting that people were likely to be contagious before they would be aware that they were sick. This created a tremendous challenge that repeatedly thwarted efforts to control community transmission in many countries, including the U.S. Without sufficient testing and surveillance, and with prevalence too high to enable robust contact tracing, efforts to identify and quarantine exposed people were unsuccessful. While the percentage of cases resulting from silent asymptomatic or presymptomatic transmission is still not precisely determined, it may account for nearly half of new infections and has been observed repeatedly. However, our policies have not caught up, and overeager reopening and blanket lifting of mask mandates often fail to account for contagious people who don't realize they are infected. Unfortunately, it's now also well-established that prematurely letting up on precautions can drive new surges in case numbers.
There's more than one way to stop a pandemic. While we've certainly seen examples of failed pandemic responses by looking at the U.S. and most of Western Europe, there have been a number of other countries that have very effectively controlled the pandemic within their borders. This hasn't been a one-size-fits-all approach, either. China infamously instituted a draconian lockdown in late January after the pandemic quickly spread from Wuhan to the rest of the country. A number of other countries, including Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, have implemented various combinations of policy measures (travel restrictions, lockdowns), epidemiological approaches (contact tracing, isolation and quarantine), data collection (testing capacity and surveillance), and mitigation measures (mask availability and mandates, exposure risk reduction education campaigns), that have effectively kept prevalence low and in some cases eliminated COVID-19 altogether. It shows that novel pandemic viruses can be controlled without a vaccine or effective antiviral therapeutics, and also that there is no one right way to do so.
We can develop safe, effective vaccines in record time.
Last March, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci estimated that a vaccine might be available in 12 to 18 months. At the time this was thought to be an extremely optimistic estimate, given that vaccines typically take years to design, develop, and test to ensure they are safe and effective. So how did we go from the drawing board to authorized vaccines, which so far appear to be very safe and effective, in less than a year? In part this is due to streamlining the clinical trial process, allowing previously sequential steps in the pipeline to occur simultaneously, such as phase 3 clinical trials and manufacturing.
The expedited trial process also built upon previous studies with the vaccine technologies, including extensive preclinical studies and clinical trials that tested mRNA (Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna) and adenovirus-vectored (Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca) vaccines against other viruses, including MERS-CoV, a cousin of SARS-CoV-2. Prior to the phase 3 clinical trials "reading out" (amassing enough data to enable a statistically robust appraisal of their safety and efficacy), our expectations were modest, hoping for 50 to 60% protection against COVID-19. Thus far, all the vaccines that have completed phase 3 trials have exceeded that expectation. While future vaccines will likely still take years to fully evaluate, we can apply the achievements of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines to make the regulatory process more efficient for other vaccines, as well as develop ways to further expedite the process in emergencies without compromising safety or effectiveness. A more efficient regulatory environment could improve access to other technologies, such as promising new tests and therapeutics, as well.
The Biggest Unknowns
While we have made extraordinary strides forward in better understanding SARS-CoV-2 and both the triumphs and the failures of the response to the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime, the lessons we've learned have highlighted the many questions that remain. We will be studying many aspects of the pandemic for decades. Long after SARS-CoV-2 is finished with humanity on a global scale, we will not be finished with it. Some of these remaining questions won't have easy answers, and in fact may not even be answerable. But it is critical to engage with these questions as we move into a post-pandemic future.
The origin of SARS-CoV-2.
This topic is as confusing and murky as it is contentious, proving to be as confounding to science as it is disruptive to geopolitics. Multiple hypotheses abound: SARS-CoV-2 emerged into the human population naturally, passing from an infected animal to an unlucky human in the wrong place at the wrong time in a process called zoonotic spillover. This natural origin hypothesis is considered the most likely, as this is overwhelmingly the most common path for novel viruses to emerge in the human population.
Tracing SARS-CoV-2 back to its source is critical for both understanding how this pandemic began and preventing the emergence of SARS-CoV-3, which almost certainly is circulating in wildlife along with a frighteningly large number of other potential pandemic pathogens.
However, the evidence supporting this hypothesis is scant, and limited to genetic analyses that don't indicate anything artificial or engineered about the SARS-CoV-2 genome, as well as some very small studies suggesting that people who live close to bat caves in southern China have antibodies to closely related viruses. Such uncertainty has led to several other hypotheses, including that the virus emerged from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, either through accident or design. While there is far more speculation than evidence affirming any laboratory origin hypothesis, neither can be definitively excluded and both should be fairly investigated. In addition, the Chinese government has suggested that SARS-CoV-2 was imported via frozen seafood from Europe or North America. This hypothesis strains credulity, given that the most closely related viruses have been identified in China and transmission by indirect contact (with contaminated objects, or fomites, is thought to be uncommon), but it still should be ruled out objectively.
About the only thing most experts agree on is that SARS-CoV-2 evolved from an ancestral betacoronavirus that likely was circulating in bats. However, because we have not yet found that ancestral virus in nature, we are left still looking. Sometimes origin investigations into zoonotic origins can take decades, since we live in a big world, with many wild animals carrying many different viruses at different times in their lives. Trying to find the immediate forbear of SARS-CoV-2 in wildlife is like seeking a very specific tiny needle in a planet-sized haystack that is also littered with other tiny needles.
To further complicate matters, there is the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 did not spill over from bats to humans directly, but stopped off in another species along the way. Intermediary species have been involved in the transmission of both SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, and we already know that SARS-CoV-2 can infect other animal species, including minks, dogs, and cats.
And if the science weren't complex enough, conducting any type of origin investigation, but particularly a rigorous independent investigation of lab origin theories, depends on other countries maintaining a productive diplomatic relationship with the Chinese government. That relationship erodes every time another piece is published outside China that treats laboratory origin as a foregone conclusion. Tracing SARS-CoV-2 back to its source is critical for both understanding how this pandemic began and preventing the emergence of SARS-CoV-3, which almost certainly is circulating in wildlife along with a frighteningly large number of other potential pandemic pathogens. But it won't be easy and we need to prepare ourselves for the possibility of a very long and arduous search for answers.
The long-term consequences of COVID-19.
While it is not clear how common "long COVID" is, one thing is certain: it has impacted a substantial number of COVID-19 survivors' lives. It remains unknown what predisposes a person to this outcome, now dubbed post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC). Nor does anyone truly know how long it lasts, or even what the most common presentation of it looks like. Many patients have reported a diverse array of symptoms, some very severe, that have persisted for months.
PASC can range from recurring neurological problems to hair and tooth loss to permanent lung injury. Some people have reported relapsing pain and severe fatigue similar to myalgic encephalomyelitis or chronic fatigue syndrome. Even more troubling, PASC can be severe in patients who reported having extremely mild acute COVID-19. Last month, the National Institutes of Health announced plans to study PASC in detail, but it may be some time before we know the cause (or causes) of PASC, much less how to treat it and ameliorate its impact on those suffering from it. But the potential for long-term debilitating illness persisting long after the resolution of acute SARS-CoV-2 infection suggests that even when the pandemic is behind us, public health will continue to struggle with the legacy of COVID-19.
Immune correlates of protection and durability.
While vaccine trials were designed to sacrifice little in the way of assessing short-term efficacy, they did not assess the length of time that protective immunity will last. This was because of the urgency of the situation, and allowed us to begin vaccinating as soon as we learned that the vaccines were safe and effective in the short term. Durability studies are one reason why normally vaccine trials can take over a decade, as unfortunately the only way to assess how long a vaccine lasts is to wait and see when protection begins to wane.
Furthermore, because the virus is novel and the technologies underlying the vaccine platforms are being used for the first time at population scale, we haven't yet defined correlates of protection for the vaccines. Correlates of protection are easily measurable features, such as antibody levels or cell counts, that can be used as surrogates for vaccine function. In other words, what we are missing is the knowledge of how many antibodies, or T-cells, does your immune system actually need to protect you from infection? We know that a high number is protective, but the question is how high.
Until we have enough data to define these correlates, we have to continue to follow trial participants and analyze observational studies of vaccinated individuals, which can be tedious as well as time-consuming. So it may be some time before we can advise people confidently about how long vaccine protection will last beyond a year or so, based on the duration of immune function in people who have recovered from natural SARS-CoV-2 infection. The good news is that protective immune responses can be easily restored with a booster shot, but that will present major logistical challenges if needed while global immunization efforts are still underway.
What price will we pay for nationalizing vaccine responses?
Finally, one of the biggest questions as we move into the post-pandemic future in the developed world is what the decision to respond nationally, rather than as a cooperative global community, will cost us in terms of truly ending the pandemic. Without question, in countries like the U.S., which will have enough vaccine doses in the next few months to vaccinate every American who wants one, the pandemic will end for most people's daily lives. But globally, the reality is very different. Many countries have yet to administer a single dose of any vaccine. While this may not seem relevant to people who do not intend to travel to those countries, it is relevant to every human being on earth. None of us are safe until all of us are safe.
Viruses infect their hosts regardless of what passport they carry. Pandemics, by definition, are global epidemics, and thus impact the global population. If people are vaccinated only in certain countries, SARS-CoV-2 can continue to circulate in populations with less immunization and fewer barriers to infection. As the U.S. today reaches this grim anniversary along with the rest of the world, we would do well to remember the lessons we've learned as we forge ahead with filling the remaining gaps in our knowledge.
Tiny, tough “water bears” may help bring new vaccines and medicines to sub-Saharan Africa
Microscopic tardigrades, widely considered to be some of the toughest animals on earth, can survive for decades without oxygen or water and are thought to have lived through a crash-landing on the moon. Also known as water bears, they survive by fully dehydrating and later rehydrating themselves – a feat only a few animals can accomplish. Now scientists are harnessing tardigrades’ talents to make medicines that can be dried and stored at ambient temperatures and later rehydrated for use—instead of being kept refrigerated or frozen.
Many biologics—pharmaceutical products made by using living cells or synthesized from biological sources—require refrigeration, which isn’t always available in many remote locales or places with unreliable electricity. These products include mRNA and other vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and immuno-therapies for cancer, rheumatoid arthritis and other conditions. Cooling is also needed for medicines for blood clotting disorders like hemophilia and for trauma patients.
Formulating biologics to withstand drying and hot temperatures has been the holy grail for pharmaceutical researchers for decades. It’s a hard feat to manage. “Biologic pharmaceuticals are highly efficacious, but many are inherently unstable,” says Thomas Boothby, assistant professor of molecular biology at University of Wyoming. Therefore, during storage and shipping, they must be refrigerated at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (35 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit). Some must be frozen, typically at -20 degrees Celsius, but sometimes as low -90 degrees Celsius as was the case with the Pfizer Covid vaccine.
For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
The costly cold chain
The logistics network that ensures those temperature requirements are met from production to administration is called the cold chain. This cold chain network is often unreliable or entirely lacking in remote, rural areas in developing nations that have malfunctioning electrical grids. “Almost all routine vaccines require a cold chain,” says Christopher Fox, senior vice president of formulations at the Access to Advanced Health Institute. But when the power goes out, so does refrigeration, putting refrigerated or frozen medical products at risk. Consequently, the mRNA vaccines developed for Covid-19 and other conditions, as well as more traditional vaccines for cholera, tetanus and other diseases, often can’t be delivered to the most remote parts of the world.
To understand the scope of the challenge, consider this: In the U.S., more than 984 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine have been distributed so far. Each one needed refrigeration that, even in the U.S., proved challenging. Now extrapolate to all vaccines and the entire world. For Covid, fewer than 73 percent of the global population received even one dose. The need for refrigerated or frozen handling was partially to blame.
Globally, the cold chain packaging market is valued at over $15 billion and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033.
Freeze-drying, also called lyophilization, which is common for many vaccines, isn’t always an option. Many freeze-dried vaccines still need refrigeration, and even medicines approved for storage at ambient temperatures break down in the heat of sub-Saharan Africa. “Even in a freeze-dried state, biologics often will undergo partial rehydration and dehydration, which can be extremely damaging,” Boothby explains.
The cold chain is also very expensive to maintain. The global pharmaceutical cold chain packaging market is valued at more than $15 billion, and is expected to exceed $60 billion by 2033, according to a report by Future Market Insights. This cost is only expected to grow. According to the consulting company Accenture, the number of medicines that require the cold chain are expected to grow by 48 percent, compared to only 21 percent for non-cold-chain therapies.
Tardigrades to the rescue
Tardigrades are only about a millimeter long – with four legs and claws, and they lumber around like bears, thus their nickname – but could provide a big solution. “Tardigrades are unique in the animal kingdom, in that they’re able to survive a vast array of environmental insults,” says Boothby, the Wyoming professor. “They can be dried out, frozen, heated past the boiling point of water and irradiated at levels that are thousands of times more than you or I could survive.” So, his team is gradually unlocking tardigrades’ survival secrets and applying them to biologic pharmaceuticals to make them withstand both extreme heat and desiccation without losing efficacy.
Boothby’s team is focusing on blood clotting factor VIII, which, as the name implies, causes blood to clot. Currently, Boothby is concentrating on the so-called cytoplasmic abundant heat soluble (CAHS) protein family, which is found only in tardigrades, protecting them when they dry out. “We showed we can desiccate a biologic (blood clotting factor VIII, a key clotting component) in the presence of tardigrade proteins,” he says—without losing any of its effectiveness.
The researchers mixed the tardigrade protein with the blood clotting factor and then dried and rehydrated that substance six times without damaging the latter. This suggests that biologics protected with tardigrade proteins can withstand real-world fluctuations in humidity.
Furthermore, Boothby’s team found that when the blood clotting factor was dried and stabilized with tardigrade proteins, it retained its efficacy at temperatures as high as 95 degrees Celsius. That’s over 200 degrees Fahrenheit, much hotter than the 58 degrees Celsius that the World Meteorological Organization lists as the hottest recorded air temperature on earth. In contrast, without the protein, the blood clotting factor degraded significantly. The team published their findings in the journal Nature in March.
Although tardigrades rarely live more than 2.5 years, they have survived in a desiccated state for up to two decades, according to Animal Diversity Web. This suggests that tardigrades’ CAHS protein can protect biologic pharmaceuticals nearly indefinitely without refrigeration or freezing, which makes it significantly easier to deliver them in locations where refrigeration is unreliable or doesn’t exist.
The tricks of the tardigrades
Besides the CAHS proteins, tardigrades rely on a type of sugar called trehalose and some other protectants. So, rather than drying up, their cells solidify into rigid, glass-like structures. As that happens, viscosity between cells increases, thereby slowing their biological functions so much that they all but stop.
Now Boothby is combining CAHS D, one of the proteins in the CAHS family, with trehalose. He found that CAHS D and trehalose each protected proteins through repeated drying and rehydrating cycles. They also work synergistically, which means that together they might stabilize biologics under a variety of dry storage conditions.
“We’re finding the protective effect is not just additive but actually is synergistic,” he says. “We’re keen to see if something like that also holds true with different protein combinations.” If so, combinations could possibly protect against a variety of conditions.
Before any stabilization technology for biologics can be commercialized, it first must be approved by the appropriate regulators. In the U.S., that’s the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Developing a new formulation would require clinical testing and vast numbers of participants. So existing vaccines and biologics likely won’t be re-formulated for dry storage. “Many were developed decades ago,” says Fox. “They‘re not going to be reformulated into thermo-stable vaccines overnight,” if ever, he predicts.
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits.
Instead, this technology is most likely to be used for the new products and formulations that are just being created. New and improved vaccines will be the first to benefit. Good candidates include the plethora of mRNA vaccines, as well as biologic pharmaceuticals for neglected diseases that affect parts of the world where reliable cold chain is difficult to maintain, Boothby says. Some examples include new, more effective vaccines for malaria and for pathogenic Escherichia coli, which causes diarrhea.
Tallying up the benefits
Extending stability outside the cold chain, even for a few days, can have profound health, environmental and economic benefits. For instance, MenAfriVac, a meningitis vaccine (without tardigrade proteins) developed for sub-Saharan Africa, can be stored at up to 40 degrees Celsius for four days before administration. “If you have a few days where you don’t need to maintain the cold chain, it’s easier to transport vaccines to remote areas,” Fox says, where refrigeration does not exist or is not reliable.
Better health is an obvious benefit. MenAfriVac reduced suspected meningitis cases by 57 percent in the overall population and more than 99 percent among vaccinated individuals.
Lower healthcare costs are another benefit. One study done in Togo found that the cold chain-related costs increased the per dose vaccine price up to 11-fold. The ability to ship the vaccines using the usual cold chain, but transporting them at ambient temperatures for the final few days cut the cost in half.
There are environmental benefits, too, such as reducing fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Cold chain transports consume 20 percent more fuel than non-cold chain shipping, due to refrigeration equipment, according to the International Trade Administration.
A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University compared the greenhouse gas emissions of the new, oral Vaxart COVID-19 vaccine (which doesn’t require refrigeration) with four intramuscular vaccines (which require refrigeration or freezing). While the Vaxart vaccine is still in clinical trials, the study found that “up to 82.25 million kilograms of CO2 could be averted by using oral vaccines in the U.S. alone.” That is akin to taking 17,700 vehicles out of service for one year.
Although tardigrades’ protective proteins won’t be a component of biologic pharmaceutics for several years, scientists are proving that this approach is viable. They are hopeful that a day will come when vaccines and biologics can be delivered anywhere in the world without needing refrigerators or freezers en route.
Man Who Got the First Fecal Transplant to Cure Melanoma Shares His Experience
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
"I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads," Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" --Diwakar Davar.
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center in Pittsburgh, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar and his team knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of Clostridioides difficile, a persistant intestinal infection, and they wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
The ABCDE of melanoma detection
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy. Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first oral fecal microbiota product for C. difficile, hopefully paving the way for more.
An older version of this hit article was first published on May 18, 2021