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.]
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.