February 22, 2013
NIH Podcast Episode #0183
Balintfy: Welcome to episode 183 of the new NIH Research Radio. The new NIH Research Radio is your source for weekly news and information about the ongoing medical research at the National Institutes of Health – NIH . . . Turning Discovery Into Health®. I'm your host Joe Balintfy, and coming up in this episode our news summary at the end of the program includes items on
- a discovery into the development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, and
- risks associated with elevated blood sugar during pregnancy.
But first, our feature story...
The importance of basic research
Balintfy: The importance of basic research. I’m talking with Dr. Judith Greenberg, the acting director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences, or NIGMS.
Greenberg: We are the basic science institute, which means that we support research that’s not directed at a particular disease or organ system or a stage of life, but rather we support the fundamental underlying mechanisms of the body and try to understand how cells work, what the molecular mechanisms are. And we have a long history of turning the research that we do into cures and preventions for many, many diseases.
Balintfy: In a way, I guess you can’t really tell how basic research may help?
Greenberg: We never know really what the payoffs are going to be, but I can say that over the years, we’ve seen many, many advances and we are always thrilled when we can report that in our 50-year history, we’ve supported 75 investigators who have gotten Nobel Prizes as a result of our research support.
Balintfy: Is there some research you would highlight from the past 50 years?
Greenberg: Well sure. We for example have been in the forefront of supporting research on the structure of proteins, the structure at the atomic level and this is very important because understanding in great detail the structure of a protein means that you can begin to understand how proteins interact with each other and with other molecules in cells to understand how cells work. Also understanding the structure is extremely helpful in designing drugs for particular disorders.
Balintfy: Do you have other examples of NIGMS research you could mention, Dr. Greenberg?
Greenberg: Well, one that’s been very interesting over about the last ten years is we’ve been modeling the outbreak of infectious diseases and this is a way of looking at how a disease is spread with the idea that eventually we might be able to better predict the spread and prevent infectious diseases.
Balintfy: Same way meteorologists use modeling to predict the weather?
Greenberg: Exactly. Another area that I think is really kind of exciting is imaging of single molecules within cells and being able to see actually how one molecule might move or interact with another structure in a cell. These are pretty exciting things. We’re also very interested in looking at variation of sequence of genes. This is becoming very useful for identifying appropriate drugs in different people and using what’s often called personalized medicine.
Balintfy: Is there an example that you can walk through the basic research discovery to a treatment or therapy?
Greenberg: One of the really amazing discoveries that goes back perhaps 20 years was the discovery in worms of small RNAs. These very, very small 22-nucleotide molecules were able to turn off the expression of genes, in other words to silence the genes and this was totally unexpected. And it turns out that these little, these small RNAs are found in all organisms, humans included, and they in fact do silence genes and the small RNAs are being used as therapeutic agents now.
Balintfy: In general, is basic research being done anywhere other than NIH?
Greenberg: Well it certainly is not being done by the private sector. The drug companies and the biotech companies are more interested in things that are going to have near term applications. So nobody is going to be looking at something that you have to scratch your head and say ‘why are we doing this.’ But surprisingly, some of the most important findings have come out of very, very unexpected corners of our research.
Balintfy: Basic research sounds like a long term investment.
Greenberg: Let me also tell you, we’ve talked a lot about basic research but NIGMS also has a couple of other very important missions. One is research training and NIGMS is responsible for training, supporting the training of predoctoral and postdoctoral scholars and these are graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at universities and medical schools throughout the country. We in fact support about a quarter of all of the trainees that NIH supports. We have a big impact on the next generation of biomedical scientists. We have another mission of increasing the diversity of the biomedical workforce. So we have a number of programs because we think it’s very important to have many, many different kinds of views among our scientists and we need to have greater diversity.
Balintfy: So it’s not just the science then, but scientists as well.
Greenberg: Exactly. Exactly. We always have to look ahead. We’re only as good as the next generation of scientists that are going to be doing this kind of research.
Balintfy: You mentioned NIGMS’s 50-year history. Last year 2012 was actually the anniversary. I know there were several special events through the year, but is there one that stands out?
Greenberg: Well I’d like to highlight one thing that we did that was unusual for us. We had what we called cell day and this was an open chat room where we invited middle school and high school students and their teachers to send us questions and we had a room full of scientists who responded to their questions. These questions were all over the place but mainly had to do with how cells function, how genes work, how cells move, many, many kinds of questions and it was wonderful to see the kinds of things that young people are thinking about.
Balintfy: With NIGMS’s 50th anniversary behinds us, what are some things that you’re looking ahead to, Dr. Greenberg?
Greenberg: Well I can give you a couple of examples. One is that these days with so much data being generated from many kinds of studies, we all see it as increasingly important to have the tools and the databases and the techniques to be able to analyze the data in a very high throughput way. So this is something that we’re clearly increasing our emphasis in. Another is the microbiome. There’s been a lot of interest lately in understanding the bacteria that live in us and on us and what NIGMS is particularly interested in is the dynamics of how these bacteria interact with each other and with the human body and this an absolutely fascinating question that we’re only just beginning to get answers to.
Balintfy: Thanks to Dr. Judith Greenberg, acting director of the NIH’s National Institute of General Medical Sciences. For more about NIGMS, basic research and training, visit www.nigms.nih.gov.
And coming up fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and elevated blood sugar during pregnancy. That’s next on NIH Research Radio.
(BREAK FOR PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT)
Balintfy: Now for some recent news headlines from NIH, here’s Craig Fritz.
Fritz: NIH-funded scientists have made a discovery into the development of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. The new research in cells and mice, points to genes that may be susceptible to the disorders and may open new avenues for developing drugs to prevent alcohol damage to the fetal brain. Researchers say prenatal alcohol exposure is the leading preventable cause of birth defects and developmental disorders in the United States. Scientists note that fetal alcohol spectrum disorders can include the distinct pattern of facial features associated with fetal alcohol syndrome as well as intellectual disabilities, speech and language delays, and poor social skills.
Researchers funded by NIH plan to determine whether elevated blood sugar during pregnancy influences levels of body fat in children later in life and development of diabetes in mothers after giving birth. The new research is based on a previous study from 2001 to 2005 that looked at over 23,000 mother-child pairs and found that a mother’s elevated blood sugar levels were associated with her newborn’s birth weight and body fat. The new study will recruit 7,000 of the original mother-child pairs and will measure their height, weight, blood pressure, body fat, blood sugar, insulin, and blood fats.
For this NIH news update, I’m Craig Fritz.
Balintfy: You can get more information on these news items at www.nih.gov/news.
Balintfy: And that’s it for this episode of the new NIH Research Radio. Please join us again next Friday, March first when our next edition will be available. Coming up in that episode…
Youth who were infected with HIV since birth were having sexual activity actually at very similar to children and youth that are not infected.
Balintfy: If you have any questions or comments about this program, or have a story suggestion for a future episode, please let me know. Send an email to NIHRadio@mail.nih.gov. Also, please consider following NIH Radio via Twitter @NIHRadio, or on Facebook. Until next week, I'm your host, Joe Balintfy. Thanks for listening.
Announcer: 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.
About This Podcast
Spokesperson: Dr. Judith Greenberg
Topic: basic research, research, health, disease, model, infectious disease, proteins, imaging, molecule, cell, genes, gene sequence, drug, drugs, personalized medicine, discovery, therapy, RNA, small RNA, training, research training, scientist, diversity, fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, gestational diabetes mellitus
Curiosity Creates Cures: The Value and Impact of Basic Research