New tools could catch disease outbreaks earlier - or predict them
Every year, the villages which lie in the so-called ‘Nipah belt’— which stretches along the western border between Bangladesh and India, brace themselves for the latest outbreak. For since 1998, when Nipah virus—a form of hemorrhagic fever most common in Bangladesh—first spilled over into humans, it has been a grim annual visitor to the people of this region.
With a 70 percent fatality rate, no vaccine, and no known treatments, Nipah virus has been dubbed in the Western world as ‘the worst disease no one has ever heard of.’ Currently, outbreaks tend to be relatively contained because it is not very transmissible. The virus circulates throughout Asia in fruit eating bats, and only tends to be passed on to people who consume contaminated date palm sap, a sweet drink which is harvested across Bangladesh.
But as SARS-CoV-2 has shown the world, this can quickly change.
“Nipah virus is among what virologists call ‘the Big 10,’ along with things like Lassa fever and Crimean Congo hemorrhagic fever,” says Noam Ross, a disease ecologist at New York-based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance. “These are pretty dangerous viruses from a lethality perspective, which don’t currently have the capacity to spread into broader human populations. But that can evolve, and you could very well see a variant emerge that has human-human transmission capability.”
That’s not an overstatement. Surveys suggest that mammals harbour about 40,000 viruses, with roughly a quarter capable of infecting humans. The vast majority never get a chance to do so because we don’t encounter them, but climate change can alter that. Recent studies have found that as animals relocate to new habitats due to shifting environmental conditions, the coming decades will bring around 300,000 first encounters between species which normally don’t interact, especially in tropical Africa and southeast Asia. All these interactions will make it far more likely for hitherto unknown viruses to cross paths with humans.
That’s why for the last 16 years, EcoHealth Alliance has been conducting ongoing viral surveillance projects across Bangladesh. The goal is to understand why Nipah is so much more prevalent in the western part of the country, compared to the east, and keep a watchful eye out for new Nipah strains as well as other dangerous pathogens like Ebola.
"There are a lot of different infectious agents that are sensitive to climate change that don't have these sorts of software tools being developed for them," says Cat Lippi, medical geography researcher at the University of Florida.
Until very recently this kind of work has been hampered by the limitations of viral surveillance technology. The PREDICT project, a $200 million initiative funded by the United States Agency for International Development, which conducted surveillance across the Amazon Basin, Congo Basin and extensive parts of South and Southeast Asia, relied upon so-called nucleic acid assays which enabled scientists to search for the genetic material of viruses in animal samples.
However, the project came under criticism for being highly inefficient. “That approach requires a big sampling effort, because of the rarity of individual infections,” says Ross. “Any particular animal may be infected for a couple of weeks, maybe once or twice in its lifetime. So if you sample thousands and thousands of animals, you'll eventually get one that has an Ebola virus infection right now.”
Ross explains that there is now far more interest in serological sampling—the scientific term for the process of drawing blood for antibody testing. By searching for the presence of antibodies in the blood of humans and animals, scientists have a greater chance of detecting viruses which started circulating recently.
Despite the controversy surrounding EcoHealth Alliance’s involvement in so-called gain of function research—experiments that study whether viruses might mutate into deadlier strains—the organization’s separate efforts to stay one step ahead of pathogen evolution are key to stopping the next pandemic.
“Having really cheap and fast surveillance is really important,” says Ross. “Particularly in a place where there's persistent, low level, moderate infections that potentially have the ability to develop into more epidemic or pandemic situations. It means there’s a pathway that something more dangerous can come through."
Scientists are searching for the presence of antibodies in the blood of humans and animals in hopes to detect viruses that recently started circulating.
In Bangladesh, EcoHealth Alliance is attempting to do this using a newer serological technology known as a multiplex Luminex assay, which tests samples against a panel of known antibodies against many different viruses. It collects what Ross describes as a ‘footprint of information,’ which allows scientists to tell whether the sample contains the presence of a known pathogen or something completely different and needs to be investigated further.
By using this technology to sample human and animal populations across the country, they hope to gain an idea of whether there are any novel Nipah virus variants or strains from the same family, as well as other deadly viral families like Ebola.
This is just one of several novel tools being used for viral discovery in surveillance projects around the globe. Multiple research groups are taking PREDICT’s approach of looking for novel viruses in animals in various hotspots. They collect environmental DNA—mucus, faeces or shed skin left behind in soil, sediment or water—which can then be genetically sequenced.
Five years ago, this would have been a painstaking work requiring bringing collected samples back to labs. Today, thanks to the vast amounts of money spent on new technologies during COVID-19, researchers now have portable sequencing tools they can take out into the field.
Christopher Jerde, a researcher at the UC Santa Barbara Marine Science Institute, points to the Oxford Nanopore MinION sequencer as one example. “I tried one of the early versions of it four years ago, and it was miserable,” he says. “But they’ve really improved, and what we’re going to be able to do in the next five to ten years will be amazing. Instead of having to carefully transport samples back to the lab, we're going to have cigar box-shaped sequencers that we take into the field, plug into a laptop, and do the whole sequencing of an organism.”
In the past, viral surveillance has had to be very targeted and focused on known families of viruses, potentially missing new, previously unknown zoonotic pathogens. Jerde says that the rise of portable sequencers will lead to what he describes as “true surveillance.”
“Before, this was just too complex,” he says. “It had to be very focused, for example, looking for SARS-type viruses. Now we’re able to say, ‘Tell us all the viruses that are here?’ And this will give us true surveillance – we’ll be able to see the diversity of all the pathogens which are in these spots and have an understanding of which ones are coming into the population and causing damage.”
But being able to discover more viruses also comes with certain challenges. Some scientists fear that the speed of viral discovery will soon outpace the human capacity to analyze them all and assess the threat that they pose to us.
“I think we're already there,” says Jason Ladner, assistant professor at Northern Arizona University’s Pathogen and Microbiome Institute. “If you look at all the papers on the expanding RNA virus sphere, there are all of these deposited partial or complete viral sequences in groups that we just don't know anything really about yet.” Bats, for example, carry a myriad of viruses, whose ability to infect human cells we understand very poorly.
Cultivating these viruses under laboratory conditions and testing them on organoids— miniature, simplified versions of organs created from stem cells—can help with these assessments, but it is a slow and painstaking work. One hope is that in the future, machine learning could help automate this process. The new SpillOver Viral Risk Ranking platform aims to assess the risk level of a given virus based on 31 different metrics, while other computer models have tried to do the same based on the similarity of a virus’s genomic sequence to known zoonotic threats.
However, Ladner says that these types of comparisons are still overly simplistic. For one thing, scientists are still only aware of a few hundred zoonotic viruses, which is a very limited data sample for accurately assessing a novel pathogen. Instead, he says that there is a need for virologists to develop models which can determine viral compatibility with human cells, based on genomic data.
“One thing which is really useful, but can be challenging to do, is understand the cell surface receptors that a given virus might use,” he says. “Understanding whether a virus is likely to be able to use proteins on the surface of human cells to gain entry can be very informative.”
As the Earth’s climate heats up, scientists also need to better model the so-called vector borne diseases such as dengue, Zika, chikungunya and yellow fever. Transmitted by the Aedes mosquito residing in humid climates, these blights currently disproportionally affect people in low-income nations. But predictions suggest that as the planet warms and the pests find new homes, an estimated one billion people who currently don’t encounter them might be threatened by their bites by 2080. “When it comes to mosquito-borne diseases we have to worry about shifts in suitable habitat,” says Cat Lippi, a medical geography researcher at the University of Florida. “As climate patterns change on these big scales, we expect to see shifts in where people will be at risk for contracting these diseases.”
Public health practitioners and government decision-makers need tools to make climate-informed decisions about the evolving threat of different infectious diseases. Some projects are already underway. An ongoing collaboration between the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and researchers in Brazil and Peru is utilizing drones and weather stations to collect data on how mosquitoes change their breeding patterns in response to climate shifts. This information will then be fed into computer algorithms to predict the impact of mosquito-borne illnesses on different regions.
The team at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies is using drones and weather stations to collect data on how mosquito breeding patterns change due to climate shifts.
Lippi says that similar models are urgently needed to predict how changing climate patterns affect respiratory, foodborne, waterborne and soilborne illnesses. The UK-based Wellcome Trust has allocated significant assets to fund such projects, which should allow scientists to monitor the impact of climate on a much broader range of infections. “There are a lot of different infectious agents that are sensitive to climate change that don't have these sorts of software tools being developed for them,” she says.
COVID-19’s havoc boosted funding for infectious disease research, but as its threats begin to fade from policymakers’ focus, the money may dry up. Meanwhile, scientists warn that another major infectious disease outbreak is inevitable, potentially within the next decade, so combing the planet for pathogens is vital. “Surveillance is ultimately a really boring thing that a lot of people don't want to put money into, until we have a wide scale pandemic,” Jerde says, but that vigilance is key to thwarting the next deadly horror. “It takes a lot of patience and perseverance to keep looking.”
This article originally appeared inOne Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are increasing vulnerabilities to infectious diseases by land and by sea. The magazine probes how scientists are making progress with leaders in other fields toward solutions that embrace diverse perspectives and the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and the planet.
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