Podcast 2007 Show Notes
#0044—November 2, 2007
Schmalfeldt: Welcome to episode 44 of NIH Research Radio with news about the ongoing medical research at the National Institutes of Health-the nation's medical research agency. I'm your host Bill Schmalfeldt. Coming up on this edition, we'll review the importance of taking part in clinical trials—especially in the search for a safe and effective HIV/AIDS vaccine. In a study of human brain tissue scientists have revealed that schizophrenia may occur, in part, because of a problem in an intermittent on-and-off switch for a gene involved in making a key chemical messenger in the brain. And Wally Akinso will tell us about a new web page designed to help older Americans deal with the death of a spouse. But first, what would you do if you hosted a chat, and more than ten-times the number of people took part than you expected? We'll find out next, on NIH Research Radio.
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More than 36,000 Students Ask NIDA Scientists about Drugs and Addiction
Schmalfeldt: When scientists from the National Institute on Drug Abuse scheduled an online chat about drug abuse and addiction with students, they expected a couple thousand kids to take part. Turns out that was a low estimate. WAY low!
Condon: We were actually pretty overwhelmed and shocked that 36-thousand students actually asked us questions. We estimated probably closer to three, tops, four thousand questions. And we were just overwhelmed. It really spoke to the need out there and the interest out there in our young people getting information about the signs of drug abuse and addiction.
Schmalfeldt: That was Dr. Timothy Condon, NIDA's Deputy Director. In all, there were more than 36-thousand questions submitted to the online chat from high school and middle school students from 49 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Guam. NIDA partnered with Scholastic, a popular in-school publication service, and promoted the chat through school distribution lists. More than 40 scientists and science writers who specialize in addiction issues took turns through out the day October 12th to answer questions as they were posted during a ten-hour period—sometimes as rapidly as six thousand questions per hour.
Condon: A lot of the young people asked how they could get help for a friend of theirs. They were asking about the effects of drugs and teen pregnancy. It was kind of a surprise to us but certainly something we learned about, not understanding what "rehab" is, and why do the celebrities come in and out of rehab so much—not really understanding what treatment is for this. It was a real positive experience also for all the people who were involved in it. They saw what they do—the research they conduct and the research they oversee—was actually having impact on educating these young people. So that was really a big benefit as well.
Schmalfeldt: Dr. Condon said plans are already underway for "Drug Facts Chat Day 2008." A transcript of this year's chat is online at www.drugabuse.gov/chat.
Schmalfeldt: Now Wally Akinso tells us about a new web resource designed to help people deal with the death of a spouse.
Dealing with the Death of a Spouse
Akinso: Faced with the death of a spouse, many older people feel that their entire world has changed. They may struggle with feelings of shock, sorrow, anger, fear, or even guilt. Grief can make everyday activities difficult. To help the elderly cope with grief, the National Institute on Aging has added Mourning the Death of a Spouse to its Age Page series of easy-to-read brochures on health topics and related concerns. Dr. Lis Nielsen from the NIA's Behavioral and Social Research Program talks about what the new publication provides for the elderly.
Nielsen: Losing a spouse or anyone you're deeply close to can be a transforming experience in your life on a lot of different levels. And so this publication looks at several of those areas in which people face challenges. First of all dealing with the emotions of grief alone which can be both painful and sometimes very confusing can be tremendously difficult. Helping people to understand that the kinds of feelings that they might experience may be in some cases extremely negative and strong, not just feeling lost but also feeling angry or fearful. It's important for people to understand that this emotional experience can be quite a rollercoaster. And that's on the emotional side, on the other side there are a lot of practical consequences that come along with losing a life partner. And that's someone who's filled many important roles in your life and that presents a whole other set of challenges both in terms of restructuring your social life, rethinking how you're going to deal with everyday responsibilities and in the longer term thinking about your finances or long-term planning for yourself. So on both of those levels this publication has a lot of insights to offer.
Akinso: For a free copy of this Age Page and other useful health information visit, www.nia.nih.gov/HealthInformation or call 1-800-222-2225. This is Wally Akinso at the National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.
Schmalfeldt: When we come back, we'll discuss the importance of clinical trials in the search for a safe and effective HIV/AIDS vaccine—and how you can help. That's next on NIH Research Radio.
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Quest for an Effective HIV Vaccine Presents New Possibilities, Challenges
Schmalfeldt: You hear a lot of talk on NIH Research Radio about the importance of clinical trials. And if you live anywhere in the Washington DC area—especially if you ride the METRO trains—you can't help but notice the posters and billboards asking folks to consider participating in this very important research. Scientists are working to develop a safe and effective HIV vaccine. To succeed, they will need thousands of HIV-negative people to support HIV vaccine studies and encourage those who volunteer. You can't get HIV from the vaccine study, but you can help end the AIDS epidemic. Dr. Gary Nabel, director of the Dale and Betty Bumpers Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained the challenges facing researchers as they look for a vaccine.
Nabel: HIV as a target is really a formidable target. It's very difficult to make a vaccine against this virus because, in fact, it's not one virus—it's millions of different viruses. So whenever we try to develop any kind of vaccine, we have the problem of trying to provide enough of a stimulus to the immune system that it might recognize the millions of different variants that any individual could be infected with in the world. As if that weren't enough, the virus has also acquired the ability to evade neutralization by the immune system. And it seems to do this by changing the shape of some of the critical proteins on the surface of the virus. There's one particular protein that it uses to attach to cells called the "envelope", and that envelope protein never stays in the same form on the surface of that virus as it would during the process of infection. So, basically, we're dealing with a lot of diverse viruses and we're dealing with a virus that has learned to camouflage itself by changing its shape, and that's what really makes it a tremendous challenge.
Schmalfeldt: Dr. Nabel said the search for a vaccine is something of a medical detective story, with different leads being followed as new clues are discovered. The chase is complicated by the fact that this culprit—the HIV virus—is different from any virus medical researchers have ever done battle against.
Nabel: HIV has infected now more than 60-million people. And in contrast to almost every other virus that we've generated vaccines for, we don't have any documented cases of natural immunity to this virus. Typically when we manufacture a vaccine that's what we count on - we count on examples from nature to follow, and then we mimic what nature normally does. So, in a way, we're really developing a new paradigm for vaccine development. And it's really one of the greatest scientific challenges of our generation—perhaps in medical history—because this virus has shown that, despite the fact that it can infect large, large numbers of people, the human body has not yet figured out a way to counteract it.
Schmalfeldt: The NIAID launched the first HIV vaccine trial in Bethesda, Maryland 20 years ago. And along with the challenges researchers face, the quest for an effective HIV vaccine presents some exciting new possibilities. For instance, according to scientists at the NIAID, the first successful preventive HIV vaccines, if administered prior to HIV infection, may reduce HIV levels in the body, thereby delaying the progression to AIDS and the need to start retroviral drugs. These vaccines might also reduce the chance that a person infected with HIV would pass on the virus to other people. Dr. Nabel said he's optimistic about the future.
Nabel: Just being in a position to be able to do those trials now with pretty good vaccine candidates, and with some of really the latest technology both in vaccine production and in measurements of human immune responses is quite a tribute to the many dedicated scientists and actually the many dedicated vaccine volunteers who've participated in the studies that are ongoing.
Schmalfeldt: Vital to the search for an effective vaccine is the collaboration between the academic and private sector, government researchers, non-governmental organizations and the thousands of volunteers who have decided that they want to be part of the generation that ends AIDS. One of those volunteers is "Amber"—to maintain her privacy, we're just using her first name. She explained why she chose to be part of the search for a vaccine. "Amber": I know that there's a heavy burden to find a vaccine for HIV and I wanted to be part of that discovery or that solution to HIV. So, you read a lot in papers about how HIV affects different families and the communities, especially myself as an African-American woman, just the rates of HIV are higher in that population and in other minority populations. And I just wanted to have some part in finding the solution.
Schmalfeldt: "Amber" believes that the day isn't far off when researchers will announce a safe and effective vaccine for HIV. She says there will be a certain sense of pride and satisfaction for having helped in the search.
"Amber": It's going to feel great. I'm going to feel, like, this is wonderful. They've gotten enough people involved, they were able to do what they needed to do from volunteers like myself, and I'll just feel really elated and glad that there's finally a solution.
Schmalfeldt: In the coming years, several major clinical trials testing different vaccine candidates and approaches will be completed. Later this year, there are plans to launch an 85-hundred person trial in the United States, Latin America, the Caribbean and Sub-Saharan Africa. Although none of these trials is expected to lead immediately to a licensed vaccine, Dr. Nabel said each study adds to the body of knowledge that helps shape future vaccine efforts.
Nabel: This is going to be a long road. I think that these initial studies will hopefully allow us to put a stake in the ground to say that it is possible to generate immunity and to tell us what mechanisms may be most effective. And then it will be up to us to refine that going down the road. So we've made a lot of progress, we're doing things that simply were not possible five years ago. And in the realm of vaccine development, the kinds of progress you've seen in that time frame are truly unprecedented. Having said that, we need to dig in for the long haul because this will be an iterative process. We will build on the knowledge that we gain in each step.
Schmalfeldt: For more information on how you can be part of the generation that ends AIDS, log on to www.bethegeneration.org.
Schmalfeldt: When NIH Research Radio continues, a story about some new clues in the fight against a crippling mental disorder. That's next on NIH Research Radio.
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How Schizophrenia Develops: Major Clues Discovered
Schmalfeldt: In a study of human brain tissue, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, scientists have revealed that schizophrenia may occur, in part, because of a problem in an intermittent on-and-off switch for a gene involved in making a key chemical messenger in the brain. The researchers discovered that the gene, known as GAD1, is turned on at increasingly high rates during normal development of the prefrontal cortex—that's the part of the brain responsible for higher functions like thinking and decision-making. However, this normal increase may not be happening in people with schizophrenia. When the GAD1 gene is turned on, it produces an enzyme that helps regulate the flow of electrical traffic that enables brain cells to communicate with each other. The more this gene is turned on, the more of this enzyme it can produce. Abnormalities in the production of this enzyme are known to play a role in the development of schizophrenia. Identifying the mechanisms involved in schizophrenia may lead to potential new targets for medication. The results of the study were published in the October 17 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.
Schmalfeldt: And with that, we come to the end of this episode of NIH Research Radio. Please join us on Friday, November 16th when episode 45 of NIH Research Radio will be available for download. These stories are also available on the NIH Radio News Service website. www.nih.gov/news/radio. Our daily 60-second feature, NIH Health Matters is heard on radio stations nationwide, as well as on XM Satellite Radio, the HealthStar Radio Network and online at www.federalnewsradio.com. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please feel free to contact me. The info is right there on the podcast web page. That e-mail address email@example.com—once again, our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Bill Schmalfeldt. NIH Research Radio is a presentation of the NIH Radio News Service, part of the News Media Branch, Office of Communications and Public Liaison in the Office of the Director at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, an agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
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This page was last reviewed on November 15, 2007 .