Under the electronic microscope, the Ebola particles looked like tiny round bubbles floating inside human cells. Except these Ebola particles couldn't get free from their confinement.
They were trapped inside their bubbles, unable to release their RNA into the human cells to start replicating. These cells stopped the Ebola infection. And they did it on their own, without any medications, albeit in a petri dish of immunologist Adam Lacy-Hulbert. He studies how cells fight infections at the Benaroya Research Institute in Seattle, Washington.
These weren't just any ordinary human cells. They had a specific gene turned on—namely CD74, which typically wouldn't be on. Lacy-Hulbert's team was experimenting with turning various genes on and off to see what made cells fight viral infections better. One particular form of the CD74 gene did the trick. Normally, the Ebola particles would use the cells' own proteases—enzymes that are often called "molecular scissors" because they slice proteins—to cut the bubbles open. But CD74 produced a protein that blocked the scissors from cutting the bubbles, leaving Ebola trapped.
"When that gene turns on, it makes the protein that interferes with Ebola replication," Lacy-Hulbert says. "The protein binds to those molecular scissors and stops them from working." Even better, the protein interfered with coronaviruses too, including SARS-CoV-2, as the team published in the journal Science.
This begs the question: If one can turn on cells' viral resistance in a lab, can this be done in a human body so we that we can better fight Ebola, coronaviruses and other viral scourges?
Recent research indeed shows that our ability to fight viral infections is written in our genes. Genetic variability is at least one reason why some coronavirus-infected people don't develop symptoms while others stay on ventilators for weeks—often due to the aberrant response of their immune system, which went on overdrive to kill the pathogen. But if cells activate certain genes early in the infection, they might successfully stop viruses from replicating before the immune system spirals out of control.
"If my father who is 70 years old tests positive, I would recommend he takes interferon as early as possible."
When we talk about fighting infections, we tend to think in terms of highly specialized immune system cells—B-cells that release antibodies and T-cells that stimulate inflammatory responses, says Lacy-Hulbert. But all other cells in the body have the ability to fight infections too via different means. When cells detect the presence of a pathogen, they release interferons—small protein molecules named so because they set off a genetic chain reaction that interferes with viral replication. These molecules work as alarm signals to other cells around them. The neighboring cells transduce these signals inside themselves and turn on genes responsible for cellular defenses.
"There are at least 300 to 400 genes that are stimulated by type I interferons," says professor Jean-Laurent Casanova at Rockefeller University.
Scientists don't yet know exactly what all of these genes do, but they change the molecular behavior of the cells. "The cells go into a dramatic change and start producing hundreds of proteins that interfere with viral replication on the inside," explains Qian Zhang, a researcher at Casanova's lab. "Some block the proteins the virus needs and some physically tether the virus."
Some cells produce only small amount of interferon, enough to alert their neighbors. Others, such microphages and monocytes, whose jobs are to detect foreign invaders, produce a lot, injecting interferons into the blood to sound the alarm throughout the body. "They are professional cells so their jobs [are] to detect a viral or bacterial infection," Zhang explains.
People with impaired interferon responses are more vulnerable to infections, including influenza and coronaviruses. In two recent studies published in the journal Science, Casanova, Zhang and their colleagues found that patients who lacked a certain type of interferon had more severe Covid-19 symptoms and some died from it. The team ran a genetic comparison of blood samples from patients hospitalized with severe coronavirus cases against those with the asymptomatic infections.
They found that people with severe disease had rare variants in the 13 genes responsible for interferon production. More than three percent of them had a genetic mutation resulting in non-functioning genes. And over ten percent had an autoimmune condition, in which misguided antibodies neutralized their interferons, dampening their bodies' defenses—and these patients were predominantly men. These discoveries help explain why some young and seemingly healthy individuals require life support, while others have mild symptoms or none. The findings also offer ways of stimulating cellular resistance.
A New Frontier in the Making
The idea of making human cells genetically resistant to infections—and possibly other stressors like cancer or aging—has been considered before. It is the concept behind the Genome Project-write or GP-write project, which aims to create "ultra-safe" versions of human cells that resist a variety of pathogens by way of "recoding" or rewriting the cells' genes.
To build proteins, cells use combinations of three DNA bases called codons to represent amino acids—the proteins' building blocks. But biologists find that many of the codons are redundant so if they were removed from all genes, the human cells would still make all their proteins. However, the viruses, whose genes would still include these eliminated redundant codons, would no longer successfully be able to replicate inside human cells.
In 2016, the GP-Write team successfully reduced the number of Escherichia coli's codons from 64 to 57. Recoding genes in all human cells would be harder, but some recoded cells may be transplanted into the body, says Harvard Medical School geneticist George Church, the GP-Write core founding member.
"You can recode a subset of the body, such as all of your blood," he says. "You can also grow an organ inside a recoded pig and transplant it."
Church adds that these methods are still in stages that are too early to help us with this pandemic.
LeapsMag exclusively interviewed Church in 2019 about his latest progress with DNA recoding:
The Push for Clinical Trials
In the meantime, interferons may prove an easier medicine. Lacy-Hulbert thinks that interferon gamma might play a role in activating the CD74 gene, which gums up the molecular scissors. There also may be other ways to activate that gene. "So we are now thinking, can we develop a drug that mimics that actual activity?" he says.
Some interferons are already manufactured and used for treating certain diseases, including multiple sclerosis. Theoretically, nothing prevents doctors from prescribing interferons to Covid patients, but it must be done in the early stages of infection—to stimulate genes that trigger cellular defenses before the virus invades too many cells and before the immune systems mobilizes its big guns.
"If my father who is 70 years old tests positive, I would recommend he takes interferon as early as possible," says Zhang. But to make it a mainstream practice, doctors need clear prescription guidelines. "What would really help doctors make these decisions is clinical trials," says Casanova, so that such guidelines can be established. "We are now starting to push for clinical trials," he adds.
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.