The refocusing of medical research to COVID-19 is unprecedented in human history. Seven months ago, we barely were aware that the virus existed, and now a torrent of new information greets us each day online.
There are many unanswered questions about COVID-19, but perhaps the most fascinating is whether we even need to directly go after the virus itself.
Clinicaltrials.gov, the most commonly used registry for worldwide medical research, listed 1358 clinical trials on the disease, including using scores of different potential drugs and multiple combinations, when I first wrote this sentence. The following day that number of trials had increased to 1409. Laboratory work to prepare for trials presents an even broader and untabulated scope of activity.
Most trials will fail or not be as good as what has been discovered in the interim, but the hope is that a handful of them will yield vaccines for prevention and treatments to attenuate and ultimately cure the deadly infection.
The first impulse is to grab whatever drugs are on the shelf and see if any work against the new foe. We know their safety profiles and they have passed some regulatory hurdles. Remdesivir is the first to register some success against SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the disease. The FDA has granted it expedited-use status, pending presentation of data that may lead to full approval of the drug.
Most observers see it as a treatment that might help, but not one that by itself is likely to break the back of the pandemic. Part of that is because it is delivered though IV infusion, which requires hospitalization, and as with most antiviral drugs, appears to be most beneficial when started early in disease. "The most effective products are going to be that ones that are developed by actually understanding more about this coronavirus," says Margaret "Peggy" Hamburg, who once led the New York City public health department and later the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Combination therapy that uses different drugs to hit a virus at different places in its life cycle have proven to work best in treating HIV and hepatitis C, and likely will be needed with this virus as well. Most viruses are simply too facile at evolving resistance to a single drug, and so require multiple hits to keep them down.
Laboratory work suggests that other drugs, both off-the-shelf and in development, particularly those to treat HIV and hepatitis, might also be of some benefit against SARS-CoV-2. But the number of possible drug combinations is mind-bogglingly large and the capacity to test them all right now is limited.
Viruses are simple quasi-life forms. Effective treatments are more likely to be specific to a given virus, or at best its close relatives. That is unlike bacteria, where broad-spectrum antibiotics often can be used against common elements like the bacterial cell wall, or can disrupt quorum sensing signals that bacteria use to function as biofilms.
More than a decade ago, virologist Benhur Lee's lab at UCLA (now at Mt. Sinai in New York City) stumbled upon a broad-spectrum antiviral approach that seemed to work against all enveloped viruses they tested. The list ranged from the common flu to HIV to Ebola.
Other researchers grabbed this lead to develop a compound that worked quite well in cell cultures, but when they tried it in animals, a frustrating snag emerged; the compound needed to be activated by light. As the greatest medical need is to counter viruses deep inside the body, the research was put on the shelf. So Lee was surprised to learn recently that a company has inquired about rights to develop the compound not as a treatment but as a possible disinfectant. The tale illustrates both the unanticipated difficulties of drug development and that one never knows how knowledge ultimately might be put to use.
Remdesivir is a failed drug for Ebola that has found new life with SARS-CoV-2. It targets polymerase, an enzyme that the virus produces to use host cell machinery to replicate itself, and since the genetic sequence of polymerase is very similar among all of the different coronaviruses, scientists hope that the drug might be useful against known members of the family and others that might emerge in the future.
But nature isn't always that simple. Viral RNA is not a two-dimensional assemblage of genes in a flat line on a table; rather it is a three-dimensional matrix of twists and turns where a single atom change within the polymerase gene or another gene close by might change the orientation of the RNA or a molecular arm within it and block a drug from accessing the targeted binding site on the virus. One drug might need to bind to a large flat surface, while another might be able to slip a dagger-like molecular arm through a space in the matrix to reach its binding target.
That is why a broad-spectrum antiviral is so hard to develop, and why researchers continue to work on a wide variety of compounds that target polymerase as a binding site.
Additionally, it has taken us decades to begin to recognize the unintended consequences of broad-spectrum rather than narrowly targeted antibiotics on the gut microbiome and our overall health. Will a similar issue potentially arise in using a broad-spectrum antiviral?
"Off-target side effects are always of concern with drugs, and antivirals are no exception," says Yale University microbiologist Ben Chen. He believes that "most" bacteriophages, the viruses that infect bacteria and likely help to maintain stability in the gut microbial ecosystem, will shrug off such a drug. However, a few families of phages share polymerases that are similar to those found in coronaviruses. While the immediate need for treatment is great, we will have to keep a sharp eye out for unanticipated activity in the body's ecosystem from new drugs.
Is an Antiviral Needed?
There are many unanswered questions about COVID-19, but perhaps the most fascinating is whether we even need to directly go after the virus itself. Mounting evidence indicates that up to half the people who contract the infection don't seem to experience significant symptoms and their immune system seems to clear the virus.
The most severe cases of COVID-19 appear to result from an overactive immune response that damages surrounding tissue. Perhaps downregulating that response will be sufficient to reduce the disease burden. Several studies are underway using approved antibodies that modulate an overly active immune response.
One of the most surprising findings to date involves the monoclonal antibody leronlimab. It was originally developed to treat HIV infection and works modestly well there, but other drugs are better and its future likely will be mainly to treat patients who have developed resistance to those other drugs.
The response has been amazingly different in patients in the U.S. with COVID-19 who were given emergency access to leronlimab – two injections a week apart, though the company believes that four might be better. The immune response and inflammatory cytokines declined significantly, T cell counts were maintained, and surprisingly the amount of virus in the blood declined too. Data from the first ten patients is available in a preprint while the paper undergoes peer review for publication. Data from an additional fifty patients will be added.
"We got lucky and hit the bulls' eye from a mile away," says Jay Lalezari, the chief science officer of Cytodyn, the company behind leronlimab. Dr. Jay, as he is widely known in San Francisco, built an adoring fan base running many of the early-phase drug studies for treating HIV. While touting leronlimab, Lalezari suspects it might best be used as part of a combination therapy.
The small, under-capitalized firm is struggling for attention in the vast pool of therapies proposed to treat COVID-19. It faces the added challenge of gaining acceptance because it is based on a different approach and mechanism of action, which involves a signaling molecule important to immune cell migration, than what most researchers and the FDA anticipate as being relevant to counter SARS-CoV-2.
All of the therapeutics under development will face some common sets of issues. One is the pressure to have results yesterday, because people are dying. The rush to disseminate information "make me worry that certain things will become entrenched as truth, even in the scientific community, without the actual scientific documentation that ordinarily scientists would demand," says Hamburg.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the biggest problem for drug and vaccine makers is not which therapeutics or vaccine platform to pursue."
Lack of standardization in assays and laboratory operations makes it difficult to compare results between labs studying SARS-CoV-2. In the long run, this will slow down the iterative process of research that builds upon what has gone before. And the shut down of supply chains, from chemicals to cell lines to animals to air shipment, has the potential to further hobble research.
Almost all researchers consult with the FDA in putting together their clinical trials. But the agency is overwhelmed with the surge of activity in the field, and is even less capable of handling novel approaches that fall outside of its standard guidance.
"It is becoming increasingly clear that the biggest problem for drug and vaccine makers is not which therapeutics or vaccine platform to pursue. It is that conventional clinical development paths are far too lengthy and cumbersome to address the current public health threat," John Hodgson wrote in Nature Biotechnology.
Another complicating factor with this virus is the broad range of organ and tissue types it can infect. That has implications for potential therapies, which often vary in their ability to enter different tissues. At a minimum, it complicates the drug development process.
Remdesivir has become the de facto standard of care. Ideally, clinical trials are conducted using the existing standard of care rather than a placebo as the control group. But shortages of the drug make that difficult and further inhibit learning what is the best treatment regimen for regular clinical care.
"Understandably, we all really want to respond to COVID-19 in a much, much more accelerated fashion," says Hamburg. But ultimately that depends upon "the reality of understanding the nature of the disease. And that is going to take a bit more time than we might like or wish."
[This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.