NIH Research Matters
January 7, 2013
2012 Research Highlights
NIH conducts and funds wide-ranging research to improve the nation's health. With NIH support, scientists across the country and around the world uncover basic biomedical advances and conduct the clinical and translational research that transforms discoveries into medical practice. Groundbreaking NIH-funded research often receives top scientific honors. In 2012, these honors included the Nobel Prize in chemistry and several Lasker awards. Here is just a small sampling of the research accomplishments made by NIH-supported scientists in 2012:
Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Human Disease
Experts recommend that older women have regular bone density tests to screen for osteoporosis. But it had been unclear how often to repeat the tests. An NIH-supported study of nearly 5,000 women reported that patients with healthy bone density on their first test might safely wait 15 years before getting rescreened. These findings can help guide doctors in their bone screening recommendations.
Small daily doses of egg powder might help children with egg allergy to eat the food safely. An NIH-funded study showed that most children could eat eggs while receiving the experimental therapy. Some could continue eating eggs even after the treatment ended. Although promising, this approach is still in development and shouldn't be tried at home.
An NIH-supported study of data from over a quarter of a million people confirmed that high blood pressure and other traditional risk factors for cardiovascular disease substantially raise the chance of major cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke over the course of a lifetime. The finding reinforces the importance of controlling these risk factors.
Paralyzed patients were able to reach and grasp objects by controlling a robotic arm with their thoughts. NIH-funded researchers taught 2 patients who were paralyzed by stroke—a 58-year-old woman and a 66-year-old man—to mentally control a robotic limb. The advance may help restore some independence and improve quality of life for people who've lost use of their limbs.
Drug delivery into muscle using an autoinjector—akin to the EpiPen that treats serious allergic reactions—can quickly and effectively stop prolonged epileptic seizures. The finding, funded primarily by NIH, offers first responders a safe and fast therapeutic tool during an emergency. Autoinjectors may also provide quick therapy during a widespread crisis, such as a chemical or biological attack.
An experimental technique developed with NIH support can distinguish between different types of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and track disease progression. The method could allow for more accurate diagnoses and lead to more effective treatments for COPD.
Researchers supported primarily by NIH found that programs to prevent or delay type 2 diabetes make sound economic sense. Despite the money spent on these interventions, they lower overall medical care costs and improve quality of life. Diabetes currently costs the nation an estimated $174 billion per year, including $116 billion in medical expenses and $58 billion in indirect costs like disability and work loss.
Scientists finally found out how sulfa drugs—the first class of antibiotics ever discovered—work at the molecular level. The NIH-supported finding offers insights into designing more robust antibiotic therapies that also avoid side effects and other problems associated with sulfa drugs.
Promising Medical Advances
Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health
Researchers long believed that women are born with a fixed number of young egg cells, or oocytes, that must last through their reproductive years. NIH-supported scientists were able to isolate egg-producing stem cells from the ovaries of women and observe these cells giving rise to oocytes. The finding may point the way toward improved treatments for female infertility.
Scientists isolated antibodies that protect mice against a variety of lethal influenza B viruses. One of them also guards against influenza A viruses. A universal influenza vaccine—one effective against multiple strains for several years—would have an enormous impact on public health. This NIH-funded accomplishment points the way toward approaches to combat all influenza A and B viruses.
Drugs designed to target unique tumor proteins hold great promise for cancer treatment. However, many tumors become resistant to treatment over time. NIH-supported researchers showed that surrounding cells can help tumors develop resistance to drugs. The finding may change the way researchers approach the treatment of many cancers.
Malaria kills more than a half million people and infects over 200 million each year. An international team of scientists reported that a first-line treatment for malaria is losing its effectiveness in parts of Asia. They also found regions of the parasite’s genome that seem to underlie its drug resistance. The NIH-supported studies may offer clues to help block the spread of hard-to-treat malaria.
An experimental method allowed kidney transplant recipients to eventually stop taking harsh immune-suppressing medications, even though they’d received mismatched organs. The findings from this NIH-supported study may one day reduce the need for anti-rejection drugs and lead to more options for patients awaiting organ transplants.
Heart cells derived from human stem cells can protect injured guinea pig hearts against abnormal rhythms, according to a study partly funded by NIH. Similar heart cell transplants might one day hold promise for treating damaged human hearts.
Mice that were unable to smell from birth gained the ability to smell when NIH-funded researchers used gene therapy to regrow structures called cilia on cells that detect odor. The approach might one day lead to treatments for related human genetic disorders.
Insights from the Lab
Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research
A worldwide research consortium created a view of the human genome that extends well beyond our genes. The NIH-funded ENCODE project involved over 1,600 sets of experiments on 147 types of tissue. Scientists catalogued many aspects of gene regulation that can affect function. The project’s ultimate goal is to identify all functional elements in the human genome, including genes and the DNA in between.
The human body is host to trillions of microbes. Most are beneficial, but some can cause illness. NIH-funded investigators are using genomic techniques to study these microbial communities and their genes—collectively known as the microbiome. In a series of reports, scientists from nearly 80 institutions described 5 years of research that offers insights into how our microbes affect human health.
NIH-funded scientists discovered a system of tiny channels in the mouse brain that seem to quickly and efficiently remove waste products. Malfunction of this “glymphatic system” slows the clearance of amyloid beta, a brain protein that builds up in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. The finding may lead to new ways of treating neurodegenerative disorders.
Patients with multiple sclerosis (MS) have elevated levels of an unusual immune cell called lymphoid tissue inducer, NIH-funded researchers reported. Patients receiving an experimental MS drug (daclizumab) proved to have lower numbers of these cells, and additional evidence linked the cells to MS-related brain inflammation. Lymphoid tissue inducer cells may be a promising target for future therapies.
NIH-supported researchers developed a way to use silk to store and distribute vaccines and antibiotics without having to keep them cold. Refrigeration can account for up to 80% of the cost of vaccines. The new silk-based film helps stabilize vaccines and drugs stored for months at warmer temperatures. The technique could lower costs and help expand the use of these lifesaving medical tools around the world.
A landmark NIH-funded study showed that nerve fibers in the brain aren't just a tangle of overlapping wires. Rather, they form a highly structured 3-D grid, with nerve pathways running parallel to each other and crossing each other at right angles. The finding is part of a larger effort called the Human Connectome Project, which is mapping connections between the brain’s 100 billion neurons.
Social rank has broad effects on gene regulation, especially in the immune system, according to a study in rhesus macaques. By studying social groups of female monkeys, NIH-funded scientists identified nearly 1,000 genes whose expression levels varied with social hierarchy. The results provide insight into the long observed links between social stress and physiology.
Cryo-electron microscopy uses radiation to look at the surfaces of viruses, but radiation can destroy the tiny structures within. NIH-supported scientists turned the problem of radiation damage into an asset by taking and then superimposing many “snapshots” of viruses under increasing doses of radiation. They used the technique to clearly visualize the inner structure of a virus. The method may yield insights that suggest new therapeutic strategies.
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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.