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.
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."