A year after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, collaborative efforts among pharma/biotech and academic researchers have led to remarkable progress in vaccine development. These efforts include novel mRNA vaccine technology, as well as more conventional approaches using adenoviral vectors. While vaccine deployment understandably has captured the spotlight in the fight against COVID-19, there remains an urgent need to develop therapeutic agents directed against SARS-CoV-2.
In the March 12 issue of Science, an editorial by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), examines lessons learned over the past 12 months (1). Collins points out that many clinical trials of potential therapeutics were not designed to suit a public health emergency. Some were poorly designed or underpowered, yet they received considerable publicity—as was the case with hydroxychloroquine. Collins advises developing antiviral agents targeted at all major known classes of pathogens, to head off the next potential pandemic before it becomes one. A news feature in the same issue discusses the current state of coronavirus drug development (2).
The present crop of drug candidates is remarkably diverse, including repurposed drugs that were originally developed to treat diseases quite different from COVID-19. Typically, however, the mainstream candidates belong to two broad classes: small-molecule antiviral agents and large-molecule monoclonal antibodies (mAbs).
Among the one trillion or so species that share space on our planet, complex relationships have emerged over time. Such relationships, in which two or more species closely interact, are collectively termed symbiosis. Although it’s commonly assumed that symbiotic relationships are mutually beneficial, this example constitutes only one type of symbiosis (known as mutualism). The traditional predator-prey relationship, clearly a one-sided arrangement, is also an example of symbiosis.
The sheer diversity of microbial species has led to the development of many well-characterized relationships with plants and animals. Perhaps the best-known example of mutualism in this context is the process of nitrogen fixation. In this process, various types of bacteria that live in water, soil or root nodules convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms that are readily used by plants. On the other hand, some types of bacteria-plant relationships are parasitic: the bacteria rely on the plant for survival but end up damaging their host. Parasitic relationships can have devastating ecological and economic consequences when they affect food crops.
COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts are underway in several countries. Recently, the Serum Institute of India celebrated the nationwide rollout of its Covishield vaccine, kicking off the country’s largest ever vaccination program. Meanwhile, many other vaccines against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 are in either preclinical studies or clinical trials. At present, 19 vaccine candidates are in Phase 3 clinical trials, while 8 vaccines have been granted emergency use authorization (EUA) in at least one country.
The global war against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 rages on, spearheaded by efforts to develop effective and safe vaccines. At the time of writing, over 100 COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials were listed in the clinicaltrials.gov database. Recent attention has focused on mRNA vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. If licensed, they would become the first mRNA vaccines for human use.
Multiple battles are being fought in the war against the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Currently, there are nearly 3,000 clinical trials listed in the World Health Organization (WHO) database, either underway or in the recruiting stage, for vaccines and antiviral drugs. Two recent announcements of data from phase 3 vaccine trials, by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, have offered some hope for global efforts to fight the pandemic. At the time of writing, Pfizer and BioNTech had submitted an application for emergency use authorization (EUA) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and Moderna had planned to do so shortly.
Both vaccines are mRNA-based, as opposed to most conventional vaccines against established diseases that are protein-based. Typically, the key ingredient in viral vaccines is either part of an inactivated virus, or one or more expressed proteins (antigens) that are a part of the virus. These protein antigens are responsible for eliciting an immune response that will fight future infection by the actual virus. Another approach is to use a replication-deficient viral vector (such as adenovirus) to deliver the gene encoding the antigen into human cells. This method was used for the coronavirus vaccine developed by Oxford University in collaboration with AstraZeneca; phase 3 interim data were announced on the heels of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna announcements. All three vaccines target the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, because it is the key that unlocks a path of entry into the host cell.
Cervical cancer is a major health problem for women, and it is currently the fourth most common cancer in women globally (1). A worldwide analysis of cancer estimates from the Global Cancer Observatory 2018 database showed that cervical cancer disproportionally affects lower-resource countries, on the basis of their Human Development Index; it was the leading cause of cancer-related death in women in many African countries (1).
Infection by human papillomavirus (HPV), a double-stranded DNA virus, is the leading cause of cervical cancer. Many types of HPV have been identified, and at least 14 high-risk HPV types are cancer-causing, according to a World Health Organization (WHO) fact sheet. Of these types, HPV-16 and HPV-18 are responsible for 70% of cervical cancers and pre-cancerous cervical lesions. HPV infection is sexually transmitted, most commonly by skin-to-skin genital contact. Although the majority of HPV infections are benign and resolve within a year or two, persistent infection in women, together with other risk factors, can lead to the development of cervical cancer [reviewed in (2)].
The development of NanoLuc® luciferase technology has provided researchers with new and better tools to study endogenous biology: how proteins behave in their native environments within cells and tissues. This small (~19kDa) luciferase enzyme, derived from the deep-sea shrimp Oplophorus gracilirostris, offers several advantages over firefly or Renilla luciferase. For an overview of NanoLuc® luciferase applications, see: NanoLuc® Luciferase Powers More than Reporter Assays.
The small size of NanoLuc® luciferase, as well the lack of a requirement for ATP to generate a bioluminescent signal, make it particularly attractive as a reporter for in vivo bioluminescent imaging, both in cells and live animals. Expression of a small reporter molecule as a fusion protein is less likely to interfere with the biological function of the target protein. NanoLuc® Binary Technology (NanoBiT®) takes this approach a step further by creating a complementation reporter system where one subunit is just 11 amino acids in length. This video explains how the high-affinity version of NanoBiT® complementation (HiBiT) works:
With the COVID-19 pandemic far from over in the United States and worldwide, the battle against the disease continues to intensify. Much hope has been pinned on vaccine development. However, vaccines are a long-term, preventative strategy. The immediate need for drugs to fight COVID-19 has accelerated efforts for a variety of potential treatments (see The Race to Develop New Therapeutics Against Coronaviruses).
The Remdesivir Origin Story
One drug that has received widespread attention is remdesivir. It was developed from research by Gilead Sciences that began in 2009, originally targeting hepatitis C virus (HCV) and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) (1). At present, remdesivir is classified as an investigational new drug (IND) and has not been approved for therapeutic use anywhere in the world.
Transcriptional activation of genes within the nucleus of eukaryotic cells occurs by a variety of mechanisms. Typically, these mechanisms rely on the interaction of regulatory proteins (transcriptional activators or repressors) with specific DNA sequences that control gene expression. Upon DNA binding, regulatory proteins also interact with other proteins that are part of the RNA polymerase II transcriptional complex.
One type of transcriptional activation relies on inducing a conformational change in chromatin, the DNA-protein complex that makes up each chromosome within a cell. In a broad sense, “extended” or loosely wound chromatin is more accessible to transcription factors and can signify an actively transcribed gene. In contrast, “condensed” chromatin hinders access to transcription factors and is characteristic of a transcriptionally inactive state. Acetylation of lysine residues in histones—the primary constituents of the chromatin backbone—results in opening up the chromatin and consequent gene activation. Disruption of histone acetylation pathways is implicated in many types of cancer (1).
They existed 3.5 billion years before humans evolved on Earth. They’re neither dead nor alive. Their genetic material is embedded in our own DNA, constituting close to 10% of the human genome. They can attack most forms of life on our planet, from bacteria to plants to animals. And yet, if it wasn’t for them, humans might never have existed.
No, that’s not the blurb for a new Hollywood blockbuster, although recent developments have proven, once again, that truth is decidedly more bizarre than fiction. Now that “coronavirus” has become a household word, the level of interest in all things virus-related is growing at an unprecedented rate. At the time of writing, coronavirus and COVID-19 topics dominated search traffic on Google, as well as trends on social media. A recent FAQ on this blog addresses many of the questions we hear on these topics.