February 4 is World Cancer Day, a time to mark international efforts to prevent, detect, and treat cancer. Immunotherapy, one of the most significant advances in treating cancer, was pioneered here at NIH more than 30 years ago. Today, IRP senior investigator Claudia M. Palena, Ph.D., is pushing cancer immunotherapy forward with the discovery of a novel target for cancer vaccines.
IRP neuroscientist Shahriar SheikhBahaei, Ph.D., first became aware of his stutter when he was 5 years old. Years later, his career would revolve around studying the biological roots of his speech impediment. But before he could start his own lab focused on how the brain controls voluntary movement, he needed a leg up from NIH’s Independent Research Scholars (IRS) program.
Every January, gyms are flooded with new members using the beginning of a new year as a burst of motivation to get fit. When many of these new exercise enthusiasts abandon their new healthy habit within a couple months, they shouldn’t feel guilty, according to IRP postdoctoral fellow Ayland Letsinger, Ph.D. He believes there’s a genetic component behind our fluctuating interest in exercise, and he spends his days in his IRP lab investigating such biological factors behind the motivation to move.
“More people would rather binge-watch 'Stranger Things’ for three hours than do 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, and there may be a biological basis behind it,” he explains.
“To discover new things, you need new ways to see them,” says Bruce J. Tromberg, Ph.D., Director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB). That’s why he has spent the past 30 years of his career improving and inventing tools to help doctors and scientists conduct cutting-edge biomedical research and apply their findings to the task of saving lives. This past October, Dr. Tromberg was elected to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) for his contributions to the fields of biophotonics and biomedical optics, as well as his leadership in the biomedical engineering and imaging community.
Despite the many therapies that scientists have created to fight cancer, treating the disease is often still a frustrating game of cat and mouse. Just when doctors think they have managed to defeat their wily opponent, it comes roaring back as strong as ever. A new IRP study suggests a two-pronged approach that relies in part on an existing anti-cancer drug could more effectively thwart a particularly deadly form of brain cancer.
The IRP community is profoundly saddened by the recent passing of Ji Ming Wang, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Investigator and Head of the Chemoattractant Receptor and Signal Section in the Cancer Innovation Laboratory at NIH's National Cancer Institute (NCI). He died unexpectedly on December 24, 2022.
Dr. Wang studied the role of chemoattractant receptors in infection, inflammation, immune responses and cancer progression for over 30 years. In 1998, Ji Ming was the first to identify a critical role for the receptors in mediating cancer cell metastasis to distant organs. His later work focused on leukocyte infiltration, a hallmark of inflammation and cancer progression.
Aging wears down all parts of our bodies, from our bones to our brains. It’s no surprise, then, that it’s the main risk factor for neurological illnesses like Parkinson’s disease and dementia. However, the precise reason why has long remained a mystery. New IRP research suggests that the aged brain is a fertile ground for the spread of a harmful protein associated with several neurological diseases, and that the toxic protein itself ages immune cells in the brain.
In 1973, the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote a now-famous essay that declared, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” That sentiment has served as the guiding principle for the career of IRP senior investigator Eugene V. Koonin, Ph.D., who was elected to the National Academy of Medicine (NAM) in October 2022 for his contributions to the field of evolutionary biology.
Dr. Koonin’s pioneering efforts to identify clusters of similar genes found in different organisms passed down by a common ancestor — known as ‘homologous’ genes — has helped to unlock the secrets encoded in DNA and create a foundation for the systematic study of how genes evolve and function. His lab at the National Library of Medicine’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) uses a combination of genomic sequencing and mathematical modeling to compare genes across species and determine how they work and where they came from. From this information, his team can develop a systematic framework to show the relationship between genes as they evolved. It’s like drawing the tree of life, but on a genomic scale.
With all the dangerous viruses out there, from the seasonal flu to the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, people understandably want to make sure their immune systems are topped-up with disease-fighting antibodies that block viral invaders. However, when it comes to the viruses scientists are modifying to deliver gene therapy, having a robust immune response is actually an obstacle to getting healthy. In a new study, IRP researchers showed that most people’s immune systems don’t react to a particular harmless virus that can effectively deliver new genes to the liver and heart, making it a promising delivery vehicle for therapies designed to alleviate a life-threatening genetic condition.
Marketers make a living from the fact that merely seeing an advertisement for junk food can spur a sudden craving for potato chips or sugary cereal. Some people have an easier time than others resisting such urges, and over-consuming that sort of food can have problematic consequences for health. Findings from a recent IRP study suggest that stimulating a particular part of the brain might help people who struggle with obesity by enhancing their ability to control their desire to snack.
Eleven years ago, IRP senior investigator Hormuzd Katki, Ph.D., had a bit of an eureka moment during a press event announcing the results of the National Lung Cancer Screening Trial, which demonstrated that annual screenings cut the risks of dying from lung cancer in heavy smokers by 20 percent.
“It struck me as I read the trial results that not only was this a very important trial, but that it was possible that different people will have different benefits from lung cancer screening,” Dr. Katki remembers. “Even within this group of very high-risk smokers who were part of the trial, you can identify some people who get much more benefit than other people, and that has implications for who should be offered this kind of screening.”
When it comes to consuming a healthy diet, “everything in moderation” is a common piece of advice. In fact, evidence is accumulating that eating lots of a particular dietary fat thought to promote cardiovascular health may actually be problematic. A recent IRP study performed in mice suggests that vegetable oil made from a modified soybean may decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease by helping people strike the right balance in their consumption of two different types of fat.
Dr. Michael Gottesman has been a member of the NIH community since 1976. He has held many positions throughout his tenure, including spending 29 years as the Deputy Director of Intramural Research (DDIR). He stepped down as DDIR this past year and has returned to focusing solely on being Chief of the Lab of Cell Biology at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). Dr. Gottesman recently participated in an interview with the NIH Office of Technology Transfer, excerpts of which we are re-posting here on the "I Am Intramural" blog.
Anyone who has engaged in a marathon of gruesome Halloween movies knows that the human body can be portrayed in ways that are frightening. Even in real life, the tools and techniques researchers use to understand disease may seem like something out of a work of fiction. In honor of Halloween this year, let’s sneak inside the archives of the Office of NIH History & Stetten Museum to see the spookiest nooks and crannies of our collection. Whatever you do, don’t turn out the lights!
The liver has a difficult but important job. It serves as the central processing plant for all the food, drinks, and drugs we take in, separating and breaking them down into usable nutrients and toxic wastes that need to be removed from the body. It’s no surprise, then, that diseases affecting the liver can have life-threatening consequences. In particular, infections like hepatitis B and C and liver damage caused by alcohol, drugs, or fatty liver disease can all lead to liver cancer. Unfortunately, even though the presence of these conditions are harbingers of possible liver cancer, the disease often passes unnoticed until it is at an advanced, less treatable stage.
IRP senior investigator Xin Wei Wang, Ph.D., and his NIH research team are developing ways to detect liver cancers much earlier, when existing treatments are much more likely to stop their growth. In honor of Liver Cancer Awareness Month this October, I talked to Dr. Wang about his research and the novel blood test his lab has developed to predict liver cancer risk.
The complexities of cancer, which is actually a collection of many diseases, has made conquering it an enormous challenge. Fortunately, researchers in the NIH Intramural Research Program are up to the task. This year, four IRP investigators in NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI) have been recognized for their groundbreaking contributions to answering fundamental questions about the disease and the immune system’s response to similar threats.