As a fan of the long-running animated sitcom The Simpsons, I’ve witnessed the bumbling Homer Simpson cause several near-meltdowns at the nuclear power plant where he works. Serious problems can arise at such facilities when the wrong person gains access to them, and the same applies to the energy-producing mitochondria that power our cells. A new IRP study has revealed how a protein known to harm neurons gains entry into mitochondria in order to wreak cell-killing havoc.
Decades of public health campaigns have made the health consequences of smoking common knowledge. However, for the few women who smoke while pregnant, the habit can affect not only their own bodies but also those of their unborn children. Intriguingly, according to a new study led by IRP researchers, so-called ‘epigenetic’ changes to DNA that can alter the behavior of genes differ significantly in smoking mothers compared to their babies, suggesting that maternal smoking may have unique, long-lasting effects on the way a child’s body functions.
It’s an unfortunate reality that nearly everyone knows somebody whose life has been affected by cancer. However, a discovery by two researchers who met by chance years ago might one day help more cancer patients overcome their disease. Two scientific teams led by the IRP’s Craig Thomas, Ph.D., a group leader at the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), and Daniel Starczynowski, Ph.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, recently published a study describing a possible breakthrough in the fight against acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a form of cancer responsible for nearly 11,000 deaths per year in the United States.
If you ever tried planting an apple tree in the desert or growing avocados in New England, you would quickly figure out that such plants need a particular environment in order to thrive. Cancerous tumors are no different, and IRP researchers recently found strong evidence that a molecule naturally produced in the body can suppress the growth and spread of a particularly lethal form of breast cancer via both direct effects on the cancer and by altering its surroundings.
Online and print publications are constantly touting momentous discoveries by superstar scientists like CRISPR-Cas9 co-discover Jennifer Doudna or the IRP’s own Kevin Hall, who changed the way we think about weight loss. It can be easy to forget that today’s biomedical pioneers were once young researchers toiling to establish themselves in the competitive environment of modern science.
Each year, a small, exceptionally promising group of scientific up-and-comers become Lasker Clinical Research Scholars through a highly competitive program jointly funded by the NIH and the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation. The program presents early-stage physician-scientists with the opportunity to carry out independent clinical research at the NIH for five to ten years. The 2019 class of Lasker Scholars consists of five extremely talented researchers who are now beginning a critical new phase in their careers. Let’s meet them.
The NIH IRP is world-renowned for its high-risk, high-reward biomedical research. While the NIH may be best known for its clinical and biomedical research on topics from cancer to allergies to addiction, IRP investigators have also produced a rich body of work conducted in the area of social and behavioral research (SBR). In this post, I will describe how SBR furthers the NIH’s goals of improving human health with some examples of the excellent work done by SBR investigators in the IRP.
The disease known as human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, attacks and destroys cells vital to the immune system. This leaves the millions of people living with HIV less able to fight other infections and can lead to an extremely severe form of immune system deficiency called acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which was responsible for nearly 770,000 deaths in 2018 alone. As of 2019, there are approximately 37.9 million people around the world living with HIV/AIDS.
Although HIV/AIDS has been recognized as a serious public health crisis, finding effective treatments, or a vaccine to prevent infection in the first place, is not a simple task. The HIV virus has many different types and strains — similar to the flu — which makes developing vaccines and treatments extremely challenging, as the virus is constantly changing. At the NIH, there are a number of ongoing collaborative research projects aimed at providing new options for those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and those at risk for contracting the virus in the future.
When people think of skin health, they often think of protecting it from harmful UV rays or finding ways to avoid the fine lines and wrinkles that often come with aging and sun exposure. However, there are many factors and illnesses that impact skin health, including eczema, a chronic condition that affects tens of millions of Americans and causes the skin to become red and so itchy that it can interfere with patients’ sleep.
To combat such conditions, IRP researchers have spent decades investigating what causes them in humans through techniques such as immunology, genetics, molecular biology, and structural biology. In a 2014 study of healthy volunteers, IRP investigators Julia Segre, Ph.D., and Heidi Kong, M.D., M.H.Sc., used the latest genomic techniques to investigate the collection of microorganisms living on healthy human skin, known as the skin microbiome, in an attempt to understand how this collection of bacteria, fungi, and viruses may contribute to skin health. From their interdisciplinary research, the team was able to show that the array of microbes living on human skin is extremely diverse, varying greatly from individual to individual and between different areas of the body. This research opened doors for additional studies exploring how changes in the skin microbiome contribute to both common and rare skin diseases.
There are over 100 different types of cancer, with liver, breast, and colon cancers among the most common. At the NIH, researchers across the organization have long been committed to furthering cancer research in an effort to increase the number of cancer survivors. They consistently push the boundaries of this field each day in the hopes that their work could lead to better diagnoses, better treatment, and better outcomes for cancer patients.
A 2018 study by IRP senior investigator Tim Greten, M.D., and his IRP colleagues did just that and more. Their research pushed the norms of cancer research by studying how a treatment as simple as antibiotics affects cancerous liver tumors. By utilizing antibiotics to wipe out the collection of microorganisms living in the digestive tracts of mice — known as the gut microbiome — the team identified a link between the gut microbiome and the behavior of the liver’s immune cells, which play a role in defending the organ against cancer. The IRP team ultimately showed that antibiotic treatment reduced the development of liver tumors in these ‘germ-free’ mice, and it also reduced the likelihood that tumors in other areas of the body would metastasize — or spread — to the animals’ livers, a finding that could one day prove beneficial to future cancer patients.
Winter is fast approaching, bringing with it both picturesque snow flurries and raging blizzards. It's a good reminder that something that is desirable in moderate amounts can be downright dangerous in large quantities, and the systems that keep our cells healthy are no different. IRP researchers recently found a novel way to tamp down a runaway cellular process that can kill neurons, findings that may one day lead to new treatments for several debilitating neurological conditions.
In an era when 80-year-olds are running marathons while 30-year-olds suffer from obesity-induced heart attacks, inferring the condition of people’s bodies from their birth years is a bit outdated (pun intended). As a result, scientists and clinicians are increasingly examining biological signposts to gauge how well a person’s tissues are functioning. By looking at chemical markers on DNA, IRP researchers recently found that heavy alcohol use accelerates aging at the cellular level.
If you looked through my garbage, you would probably find a litany of apple cores (my favorite fruit) and a couple fundraising requests from my alma mater. Similarly, scientists can learn a lot about what is going on in cells by examining their trash. IRP researchers recently developed a blood test that may be able to predict Alzheimer’s disease years before the onset of symptoms by examining packages of waste products from neurons.
Breast cancer touches the lives of millions of Americans every year. In 2019 alone, researchers expect more than 300,000 American women to be diagnosed with breast cancer, along with more than 2,600 men. Roughly one out of every eight American women will develop invasive breast cancer at some point in her lifetime, making it the second most commonly diagnosed cancer in American women.
On October 9, in recognition of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the NIH Intramural Research Program (IRP) partnered with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) to host a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) with two prominent researchers in the NCI's Women's Malignancies Branch: Stanley Lipkowitz, M.D., Ph.D., and Alexandra Zimmer, M.D. Between Dr. Lipkowitz’s extensive knowledge of the cellular and molecular pathways involved in breast cancer and Dr. Zimmer’s expertise in the development of clinical trials for breast cancer treatments, the pair were able to offer intriguing insights on topics ranging from recent advances in breast cancer treatment to genetic and environmental factors that influence risk for the disease. Read on for some of the most interesting exchanges that took place, or check out the full AMA on Reddit.
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions in the U.S., affecting nearly seven percent of American adults each year. With the increasing social and economic pressures of the modern world likely contributing to depressive symptoms, it is more important now than ever to study depression and the factors that contribute to recovery.
A number of variables contribute to an individual’s overall mental health and response to treatment, including elements of nature and nurture that have long been studied at the NIH. In a 2013 study, researchers led by IRP senior investigator Francis McMahon, M.D., set out to understand the complex genetic factors that he believed might help explain why antidepressants are less effective for African Americans with depression than for other populations. His research revealed that differences in socioeconomics and health explained most of those differences in antidepressant response, and the remaining differences were explained by differences in genetic ancestry, rather than self-reported race. The discovery that genetics play a role in this health disparity could help close the gap and improve depression treatment for African Americans.
The National Academy of Sciences, a private society established in 1863, is made up of the United States’ most distinguished scientific scholars, including nearly 500 members who have won Nobel Prizes. Members of the NAS are elected by their peers and charged with the responsibility of providing independent, objective advice on national matters related to science and technology in an effort to further scientific innovation in the U.S.
IRP Senior Investigator Michael Gottesman, M.D., is one of four IRP researchers who were elected to the Academy over the past two years. At the NIH, Dr. Gottesman plays two very different but equally important roles, serving as Deputy Director for Intramural Research while also leading the Laboratory of Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI).
Just like Sonny needed Cher to achieve music super-stardom and Stephen Curry needed Kevin Durant to win back-to-back NBA championships, sometimes a cell or molecule in the human body needs a partner’s assistance to work optimally. IRP researchers recently showed that a synergy between a lab-designed drug and a molecule naturally produced in the body could make for a promising therapy for type 2 diabetes.