NIH Research Matters
December 22, 2008
2008 Research Highlights
NIH has nearly 6,000 NIH staff scientists and supports more than 325,000 researchers with competitive grants to all 50 states, the territories and more than 90 countries around the world. Here's just a small sampling of the accomplishments made by NIH-supported scientists in 2008.
Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Human Disease
Two large NIH-funded clinical trials found that taking vitamin E, vitamin C or selenium does not reduce the risk of prostate cancer or other cancers in older men, as some previous studies had suggested. The results highlight the fact that dietary supplements can sometimes seem beneficial in small observational studies, but large, carefully controlled trials are needed to test whether they really live up to their hoped-for benefits.
People with type 2 diabetes need to keep their blood sugar from getting too high. But a large NIH-funded clinical trial found that tighter control isn't always better. A therapeutic strategy designed to aggressively control blood sugar in adults with diabetes who are also at high risk for cardiovascular disease not only failed to reduce the risk of major cardiovascular events; it actually raised patients' risk of death.
Spouses, friends, siblings and co-workers usually decide to light up or stub out their cigarettes for good around the same time, an NIH-funded study found. Married couples seemed to exert the greatest influence on each other. When one spouse quit smoking, the otherís likelihood of smoking dropped by nearly 70%. A better understanding of how social ties affect smoking behavior may lead to more effective ways to prevent or reduce smoking.
Preterm infants born to mothers receiving intravenous magnesium sulfate-a common treatment to delay labor-are less likely to develop cerebral palsy than those whose mothers don't receive it, according to NIH-supported research. The study, involving more than 2,200 pregnant women, is the largest, most comprehensive effort to date to examine the link between the often-used drug and cerebral palsy.
Traditional laser therapy proved more effective than newer steroid injections for treating people with diabetes who have abnormal swelling in the eye, a condition called diabetic macular edema. About 700 patients were studied in the NIH-funded clinical trial, which showed that laser therapy protected against vision loss and had far fewer side effects than the corticosteroid treatments.
Even if your weight is in the normal range, your risk of death increases if your waist is wide, according to research by NIH scientists. The investigators studied nearly a quarter-million people over age 50. Those with the largest waists had about a 25% higher mortality risk than those with a normal-sized waist. Normal-weight people with large waists had a 20% higher risk of death than those with both a normal weight and waist size.
Physical activity levels sharply declined in a large group of American children between the ages of 9 and 15, according to a long-term study by NIH-supported scientists. At ages 9 and 11, more than 90% of the children met recommended activity levels—at least 60 minutes of physical activities most days of the week. By age of 15, however, only 31% met the recommended level on weekdays, and only 17% on weekends.
A little housecleaning may help to reduce asthma symptoms in people who have both asthma and allergies, suggests a study by NIH scientists and their colleagues. A survey of more than 2,500 people showed that allergy-triggering substances, called allergens, were common in most homes. Households with asthmatic people were more likely to have higher levels of multiple allergens, including those from dog, cat, mouse and dust mite.
Promising Medical Advances
Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health
For the first time, researchers have identified genetic variations that are strongly associated with certain kidney diseases that disproportionately affect African Americans. The results of this NIH-funded research may eventually lead to new therapies or diagnostic tools to identify people at higher risk various types of kidney disease.
For the first time, scientists have shown that a direct artificial connection from the brain to muscles can restore wrist movement in monkeys whose arms have been temporarily anesthetized. The results of this NIH-funded study have promising implications for prosthetic design, although clinical applications are still probably at least a decade away.
Genome-Wide Studies Shed Light on Several Disorders
In 2008, NIH-funded scientists identified genetic variations
that put people at risk for several common and complex disorders,
cancer, gout, lung
cancer, schizophrenia, glioblastoma and blood cholesterol and lipid levels. Their successes relied on genome-wide association studies (GWAS), which scan the genomes of large numbers of people to find genetic variations associated with a particular disease. By analyzing hundreds or thousands of genomes, GWAS analyses can detect infrequent but significant links to disease that might be obscured in smaller studies. One NIH-funded GWAS even examined the genetic make-up of smokers. The results suggested that certain genetic variants can affect smokers' chances for successful quitting and may also help determine which type of treatment would be most likely to help them quit.
Researchers devised a fast new technique for producing human monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) that can roam the bloodstream to target and destroy infectious microbes. Using the new method, NIH-funded scientists created fully human influenza-fighting antibodies in a matter of weeks, rather than the months typically needed to generate mAbs.
After your teen years, the number of fat cells in your body probably stays the same for the rest of your life, even if you gain or lose weight, according to an NIH-funded study. The fat cells simply get bigger or smaller as your weight changes. The findings may help to explain why it can be so hard for some people to drop pounds and keep them off.
NIH-supported scientists identified a molecule that holds promise for treating schistosomiasis, a sometimes-deadly disease that afflicts more than 200 million people worldwide. The new compound, called furoxan, can destroy all 3 major species of the microscopic parasitic worms that cause schistosomiasis in humans. Furoxan also blocked all stages of the Schistosoma worm's development in infected mice.
Once youíve been infected with a herpesvirus, like the virus that causes cold sores, it takes up permanent residence in your body, hiding quietly in your nerve cells until the next outbreak. NIH-funded scientists discovered tiny molecules, called microRNAs, that seem to help the cold sore virus stay inactive and protected. The finding may eventually lead to new strategies for treating persistent herpesvirus infections.
NIH-funded researchers produced the first sequence-based map of “structural” variations in the human genome, including gains, losses and rearrangements of long stretches of DNA. Structural variations have already been linked to HIV susceptibility, coronary heart disease, schizophrenia and autism. The map will help researchers better understand how these variations contribute to human health and disease.
Insights from the Lab
Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research
NIH scientists identified a small antibody fragment thatís highly effective at neutralizing the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The antibody strongly binds to different versions of the HIV envelope protein and prevents a wide range of HIV strains from entering immune cells. The finding may ultimately lead to new therapies against HIV and other viruses.
NIH-funded scientists developed a new technique that converts adult cells into versatile stem cells that can grow into a wide variety of cell types. This approach uses a common cold virus to insert 4 transformative genes into mouse cells. The new method sidesteps the cancer-causing potential of a previously developed technique, which used a different kind of virus to deliver the stem cell-generating genes.
Most cancer deaths result from metastasis, the spread of cancer from a tumor to other parts of the body. Researchers have long thought that metastasis comes at a late stage of cancer. NIH-funded studies of genetically altered mice now suggest that metastasis may start long before that. Normal cells may travel to other parts of the body early in the cancer process and then later become malignant.
Since West Nile virus first appeared in the United States a decade ago, itís become a seasonal epidemic that flares up each summer. Unfortunately, our understanding of the virus on a molecular level has been limited. A study by NIH-funded scientists identified over 300 human genes that play a role in West Nile virus infection. The findings reveal several potential targets for antiviral therapies.
By building an extensive computer network of molecular relationships, NIH-funded researchers uncovered completely unexpected connections between diseases. The metabolic disease network pinpointed 193 pairs of diseases that are metabolically linked and tend to occur together. This research broadens the study of disease by moving beyond single genes to consider multiple genes or proteins at the same time.
NIH researchers and their colleagues have figured out how to add the equivalent of color to MRI. The scientists engineered different microscopic magnetic particles that give off distinct signals in an MRI scan. Computers can convert these signals into a rainbow of colors. With further development, the technique may produce MRI scans that better distinguish between the bodyís internal structures and cell types.
Tiny parasites that cause the tropical disease leishmaniasis may take advantage of the bodyís initial defenses by hiding and surviving inside the fast-acting immune cells sent to devour them, according to a study by NIH scientists. The research provides a new view of the earliest stages of Leishmania infection, which affects about 12 million people worldwide.
NIH-funded researchers discovered that an experimental cholesterol-fighting drug may also prove useful as an antibiotic that beats back staph infections. The scientists showed that the cholesterol drug can strip Staphylococcus aureus bacteria of their golden color, weakening bacterial defenses and making them more to susceptible to killing by the immune systems of mice.
NIH Research Matters
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About NIH Research Matters
Harrison Wein, Ph.D., Editor
Vicki Contie, Assistant Editor
NIH Research Matters is a weekly update of NIH research highlights from the Office of Communications and Public Liaison, Office of the Director, National Institutes of Health.