December 30, 2008

Rocket Boy — i on NIH — episode #0017, segment 2

During the season of gift-giving, many youngsters may have had toy rocket ships on their wish-lists. In this eye-to-eye interview, we learn how one boy didnt send a letter to the North Pole to get a rocket, rather to the NIH to fund a rocket. We talked to Terence Boylan, who with his friend Bruce Cook, asked for an NIH grant back in April of 1957. Since Terences father was a physician and medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, the nine-year-old thought NIH was the place to go for money. Dr. Ernest Allen received Terences letter, and helped reward the youngsters request with ten dollars.


Welcome to “i on NIH”!

Featured in this month's episode are segments about opportunities and awards for young researchers and an in-depth interview with Terence Boylan, the “Rocket Boy” who received funding from an NIH researcher to build a rocket at the age of nine.

From the national institutes of health in Bethesda, Maryland — America's premiere medical research agency — this is “i on NIH”!

Covering health-research topics important to you and the nation, this public service vodcast is your information source from inside all 27 institutes and centers at NIH.

Half an hour, once a month, we'll show you the excitement of advances and the important information that comes from medical research.

And now, here's your host, Joe Balintfy.

Host: Welcome to the 17th episode of I on NIH. We have a feature report and interview in this episode. The report is about opportunities and awards young researchers. We’ll also have an interview with someone who got an NIH grant at the age of 9, sort of. But first, we have the NIH Research Update with Harrison Wein. What do you have for us this month, Harrison?

Harrison: Great to be here, Joe. Today I’ll give you an update on dietary supplements and prostate cancer, Ginkgo and dementia, and gut microbes and weight.

Joe: OK. So the first study is about dietary supplements and prostate cancer. What did the study show?

Harrison: There were actually two studies that appeared together, Joe. One looked at selenium and vitamin E supplements; the other looked at vitamin E and C. And what’s interesting is what they didn’t find: any protection against prostate cancer.

Joe: So these supplements don’t help. Why did the researchers think there would be protection in the first place?

Harrison: Some older studies had found that prostate cancer risk might be reduced in people taking these supplements. And this has happened several times in the past few years, Joe. A small study or an observational study might find some link between a dietary supplement and a disease or condition. But to really see if the supplement is having an effect, you’ve got to test it in a randomized clinical trial.

Joe: And what’s the difference between an observational study and a clinical trial?

Harrison: An observational study looks at different groups of people — say one with prostate cancer and one without — and then tries to figure out the differences between the groups. That kind of study can’t really tell you for sure if there’s a connection. But it can give researchers ideas for possible links to test in a clinical trial. A clinical trial divides people into groups. One group might get the supplement and the other a look-alike sugar pill..

Joe: And these new studies were clinical trials?

Harrison: Yes, and they found no connection between the supplements and prostate cancer. But keep in mind that they were testing pills, not meals. In general, if you eat a healthy diet, you shouldn't need to supplement it. But that phrase “healthy diet” is the key. There’s a growing body of evidence that a low-fat diet with lots of fruits and vegetables lowers your risk of cancer.

Joe: Now, you had another story about dietary supplements as well. What’s this one on?

Harrison: Yes, this is a similar story. Some small studies suggested that Ginkgo biloba might improve memory and help to prevent Alzheimer's disease. I once tried it myself, but I kept forgetting to take the pills.

Joe: Very funny Harrison. How was this study done and what did it find?

Harrison: The researchers enrolled over 3,000 participants, age 75 or older, with normal cognition or mild cognitive impairment. They were randomly assigned to receive ginkgo extract or a placebo. Ginkgo didn’t seem to have an effect on dementia in general or Alzheimer's disease in particular.

Joe: But ginkgo is supposed to have other beneficial effects, isn’t it?

Harrison: Some say it can help with cardiovascular disease, cancer, depression and other age-related conditions. The researchers are going to continue to analyze the data for information on those. But for now, it seems another supplement doesn’t live up to the hype.

Joe: OK. Now, switching gears, you mentioned gut microbes and weight. First, what do microbes do in the gut and what’s this study about them?

Harrison: Bacteria that live in our gut help us digest our food, prevent infections and may even affect our risk of developing autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes. A new study has found that obese and lean twins have clear differences in the communities of microbes living in their guts.

Joe: So why does it matter if obese twins have a different mix of gut bacteria than lean twins?

Harrison: Well, despite the diversity of bacterial species living in their guts, everyone in the study shared a core set of microbial genes — they call it a “core microbiome.” These represent around 95% of the total microbe DNA sequences. But the researchers found differences between obese and lean people in over 300 bacterial genes. These differences can help scientists understand the role that our gut microbes may play in obesity and its related diseases.

Joe: Good stuff Harrison. Where can people find out more about these three studies we talked about?

Harrison: You can read about these and many other research studies in “NIH Research Matters.” Go to the NIH home page and look for the link on the right-hand side, under “In the News” that says, “eColumn: NIH Research Matters.”

Joe: And what’s in this month’s health newsletter?

Harrison: In the January “NIH News in Health” you can read about diseases like arthritis that get worse when the weather gets colder. We’ve also got a story about how computers can help us understand ourselves.

Joe: And where can people find that?

Harrison: It’s at news-in-health-dot-nih-dot-gov.

Joe: Thank you very much Harrison.

Harrison: Thank you.

Host: Now for our first report. The National Institutes of Health recently announced that it has increased its support of high-impact, medical research with the NIH Director’s Pioneer and New Innovator Awards.

Zerhouni: And these are the recipients of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Awards…

Joe: Forty-seven scientists received Pioneer and New Innovator Awards in 2008. The grants total around 138 million dollars over five years. I on NIH talked to NIH Director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni after the award ceremony, and before he stepped down as director. He says these awards enable recipients to pursue exceptionally innovative approaches that could transform biomedical and behavioral science. For example…

Zerhouni: I’m fascinated by there’s a young fellow his name is Karl Deisseroth from Stanford and he came up with an idea, which I think is revolutionary and that is that he can excite neurons through very specific wavelengths of light and he can do it to specific neurons so that this is the first time we’re going to be able to study complex neural science and how neurons are interacting in life, in vivo.

Deisseroth: Psychiatry’s a field that has experienced challenges historically because there hasn’t been an influx of new technology into it. A lot of the tools are, while helpful, haven’t quite kept pace with the rapid movement of engineering and optical tools, electrical engineering tools.

Joe: Dr. Deissroth’s work basically combines bioengineering and psychiatry in studying the brain. He explains that trying to control cells within the brain is very difficult.

Deisseroth: One way to think of the brain is like a symphony. There are many different kinds of instruments. There are piccolos and bassoons, and the conductor is able to elicit appropriate music from each of the categories of instrument. Now we can’t do that. At least, we hadn’t been able to until recently with the brain. All we have are very crude tools, tools like pills like anti-depressant medications which go everywhere in the brain, affect all the cells that are in the brain without much discrimination as to what type they are. Conversely we can also use electrodes. We can stick in effectively a wire and try to use electricity to drive parts of the brain, but that’s also very crude because that again doesn’t discriminate between the piccolos and the bassoons. And what we’ve done is we’ve been able to make the particular kinds of instrument, the particular kinds of cell in the brain sensitive to light and so we can drive them with millisecond precision. We can stay on the time scale, the very rapid electrical time scale of the brain. But we can control the individual subtypes of cells as they operate and so we can start to move towards speaking the real language of the brain.

Joe: Another researcher studying the brain, and more specifically language, who is an award recipient is Dr. Erich Jarvis from Duke University Medical Center.

Jarvis: I’m studying the brain mechanisms that develop and control circuits for imitating sounds. And the reason why is that that ability of imitating sounds, what we call vocal learning is the fundamental behavior that’s necessary for speech in humans or spoken language.

Zerhouni: Dr. Erich Jarvis is trying to understand how hearing and voice interact and found that in fact in the brain those are intertwined. So the way we’ve learned how to speak came from our ability to hear, but more importantly to find that these nerve fibers were integrated with our voice fibers, if you will, that’s a simple way to explain it for the general public. But what it meant is that genes were turned on or off depending on what you heard. That’s why when you can’t hear, you can’t speak. And he showed the genetic basis in the molecular, genetic and neural basis of that.

Jarvis: The difference that the Pioneer Award has made for me and the folks in my lab who work with me is that we have a lot more freedom of thinking. It’s not only just freedom to do the experiments and to take the funds and go in that direction or that direction and should we find something interesting, but it’s also just freedom of thought. We don’t — we’re not bounded by, you know, what kind of project that we are proposing to do. So basically Elias Zerhouni and I really give him credit for this, has basically said go with your — go where the gold is at, basically. Do the best science that you can do and don’t worry about, you know, what others are thinking. Worry about what you’re doing. And so because of that it has energized my laboratory.

Joe: Dr. Frances Jensen is using her Pioneer Award to examine how seizures in early life change the developing brain.

Jensen: Well, we’re working on trying to understand how epilepsy, which people think of largely as just seizures, actually can alter memory and other cognitive function. We’re specifically interested in children, infants and children and young adults where we see that epilepsy is not just seizures that actually people can have problems with their memory, and we’re trying to understand how the process of epilepsy alters memory and other cognitive functions. What’s unusual about this research is that we’ve put where we’re linking two diseases that were thought to be relatively separate. And it looks right now, and it’s work from my laboratory, but also work that’s out in the field in other laboratories that more and more is looking like that these two diseases actually are linked. And I think that there’s some exciting things that can happen as a result of addressing this linkage. Probably being able to take new information from autism and look for new therapeutic targets in autism and think maybe they might apply to epilepsy, too, and vice versa, taking some of the conventional things we know about epilepsy and saying, “Hey, maybe those things will actually be useful in treating autism,” or at least the development or the progressive deficits that occur in autism. But we don’t know yet.

Joe: Dr. Zerhouni emphasizes that the pioneer awards are for high risk, high impact study. Another example of a researcher pursuing such research is Dr. Nathan Wolfe, who studies pandemics like influenza or SARS and HIV.

Wolfe: We don’t really understand how these pandemics are born, but our objective is to try to reach back to that moment where a pandemic really starts and trying to capture it before it explodes into something with devastating consequences to the planet.

Joe: Dr. Wolfe says that the most important infectious diseases of humanity actually have their origins in animal population. So he and his research group have set up sort of listening posts in sites in Africa and Asia to monitor viruses that may jump from animals into human populations.

Wolfe: You know cardiology at one time in the ’40s or ’50s you would sit with your cardiologist and they would say well, we’re just going to wait for a heart attack and then we’ve got some good things we can do with it. That’s currently the state of the art when it comes to pandemics, but I think there’s increasingly a movement of people, and our research group sort of represents part of this movement. We’re saying that’s just not going to be good enough. We’re going to have to invest energy, however high risk, in trying to prevent these things before they have the sort of devastating consequences that they do.

Joe: For more information on the Director’s Pioneer Awards and New Innovator Awards, plus the awardees, visit website You can also hear more of the interview with Dr. Zerhouni on the NIH Research Radio podcast. Look for Episode #72 from November 28, 2008.

Host: During the season of gift-giving, many youngsters may have had toy rocket ships on their wish-lists. In this eye-to-eye interview, we learn how one boy didn’t send a letter to the North Pole to get a rocket, rather to the NIH to fund a rocket. We talked to Terence Boylan, who with his friend Bruce Cook, asked for an NIH grant back in April of 1957. Since Terence’s father was a physician and medical researcher at the University of Buffalo, the nine-year-old thought NIH was the place to go for money. Dr. Ernest Allen received Terence’s letter, and helped reward the youngster’s request with ten dollars.

Joe: Terence Boylan was here at NIH earlier this year and we started by asking, how did you receive this grant?

Boylan: I don’t think technically it was a grant. They approved it, but they couldn’t fund it with NIH money, so they did it out of their own pocket. Which I thought was great. Ernest Allen must have been a really kind, wonderful man because he not only saw the humor in that, you know a nine-year-old kid writing for $10 to build a rocket ship with his friend back in Buffalo. But he also saw the sort of I guess energy that must have been behind a kid wanting so much to do something like that.

Joe: What was it like to receive a letter, and actually money, from the NIH — what happened?

Boylan: It was all Ernest Allen, but it was also the thrill that he responded, okay, which then leads to a newspaper article. So you’re a little bit famous at school for a couple of day’s right. Well everyone’s talking about you. But it made us feel like we had to do it now because it was official. It was somebody believed in us so we couldn’t let them down. So we had to build a rocket. And we actually were a little afraid for a while that we weren’t going to be able to pull it off, we weren’t going to be able to make one that would actually go up, and it would be just a like a dud. That rocket that finally took off was an n enormous relief. It was like, “We did it, yes!”

Joe: So the rocket actually took off?

Boylan: It did, much to our surprise. We shot up about 20 duds, or you know, semi-duds. They’d go up and spin around like this and hit the earth. Some of them went up and went sideways. One hit the garage. I hit my father’s car once with one of them. And we had one that went straight into a tree. It just went up into a cherry tree and sat there fizzing in the branches. Eventually we figured out how to make them go a little straighter, and as they got more stable – we were building all the time, a rather large one. It was about four feet tall. We were building a big one. But we kept shooting little ones to improve the stability, which a lot of it comes from the fins and nozzle as you know, but a lot of it comes from the launching, the way you shoot it up. When we got to that big one that we were building all along, we just crossed our fingers. But it completely blew our minds. It shot up the curtain rod and just kept on going until it disappeared. It was like, “Wait a minute, where’s our rocket, what happened?” And it was quite a thrill.

Joe: Now as an adult looking back, do you see any parallels between your experience and those of researchers?

Boylan: For researchers I would say there is so much trial and error going on. There are probably so many little set backs that anybody that hears that story would probably say “That’s how I feel when all my research is — and I’m hitting dud after dud after dud.” But one day the rocket will go up. If it inspired one researcher to stay at it, it would be really great. I think kids respond to a triumph after everything goes wrong. And I think the kids laughed today when I told them that our first rocket was a complete disaster and that we really had no idea what we were doing. I think they sort of felt like, yeah I felt that way too. And when the rocket finally goes up, it’s all that much sweeter because you had to go through it all.

Joe: Is there something to be learned from your childhood experience?

Boylan: You know, for kids I think the important thing — I mean if I could give any piece of advice that’s benefited me, it’s that, what is obvious to you is not really always obvious to everyone else. It may just because — it may be just obvious to you because that’s the way you particularly think. I know a lot of kids that won’t raise their hand in class because they think, well I know that answer, but so does everyone else right. But it’s just maybe one thing they know. It’s also true in the way you think about a problem. It’s obvious to you how to solve it, but it isn’t obvious to everyone else, and most kids think if they know it, everyone must know it. It’s sort of the way you go. I think that to go after something that seems clear to you is a really great place to begin anything. You see where you want to go with it. You decide, I know how to do this, even if I have to figure it out our invent it; I know how to get there. Do that thing because you might be the only one in your whole group that does know how to do that. And it may not be clear to you that you’re the only one.

Joe: Thanks to Terence Boylan, who is currently Chairman of the Board of the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Maine. Also thanks to the Center for Scientific Review. For more on the Rocket Boy Story, the First Kid to Get an NIH “Grant” – visit

Host: And that’s it for another episode on i on NIH. Thanks for tuning in and please watch again next time. We’ll be back again next month with another episode. For i on NIH, I’m Joe Balintfy.


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