NIH Research Matters
December 28, 2009
2009 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 2009.
Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Human Disease
Heart-healthy diets that reduce calorie intake—regardless of differing proportions of fat, protein or carbohydrate—can help overweight and obese adults achieve and maintain weight loss, according to an NIH-funded study. Over 800 adults were assigned to 1 of 4 diets that reduced their calorie intake and contained various levels of fat, protein and carbohydrate. All 4 groups achieved similar weight loss after 6 months and also after 2 years.
An experimental anti-cocaine vaccine significantly reduced cocaine use in a clinical trial. This NIH-funded study was the first successful demonstration of a vaccine against an illegal drug of abuse. The vaccine stimulates the production of antibodies that attach to cocaine molecules and prevent them from crossing the blood-brain barrier, thereby inhibiting or blocking cocaine-induced euphoria. Participants with the highest antibody levels had the greatest reductions in cocaine use.
Three young adults who received gene therapy for a blinding eye condition remained healthy and maintained visual gains one year later, NIH-supported researchers reported. One patient also noticed a visual improvement that helped her perform daily tasks. This is a promising advance for patients with Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), an inherited disorder with no approved treatment. The results also demonstrate the clinical potential of gene therapy for treating inherited blindness.
Patients with low back pain who had acupuncture improved more than those who got typical medical care, an NIH-funded study found. But surprisingly, "imitation" acupuncture—which used toothpicks to stimulate acupuncture points but didn't break the skin—brought as much improvement as the real thing. The finding raises questions about how acupuncture relieves pain.
NIH-funded scientists reported that deep brain stimulation improves quality of life for Parkinson's patients and leads to more daily hours without troubling movement symptoms than standard medical care. But on the down side, brain stimulation also carries a greater risk of serious adverse events, such as infection from the surgery. This clinical study of 255 patients with advanced Parkinson's disease was the largest of its kind to date.
The widely prescribed blood-thinning drug warfarin (Coumadin) can help prevent blood clots that lead to heart attack, stroke or even death in certain patients. But determining the proper dosage for each patient can be difficult. An NIH-funded clinical trial showed that genetic tests can help doctors fine-tune warfarin dosing for individual patients. The findings may eventually help prevent the life-threatening dangers of improper dosing.
An NIH-funded study linked higher vitamin C intake with a lower risk of gout. Vitamin C supplements, the results imply, may help to prevent this condition, which develops when uric acid crystals accumulate in joints to cause swelling and pain. Researchers looked at nearly 47,000 men who did not have gout at the start. After 20 years, those with more vitamin C intake were least likely to have gout.
Nearly one-third of adults nationwide are obese. One contributing factor may be the “built environment”—that is, access to stores that sell healthy foods and to resources that support physical activity. An NIH-funded study looked at data on over 13,000 residents of New York City. The scientists showed that ready access to healthy food outlets such as supermarkets and natural food stores was significantly linked to reduced weight status.
Promising Medical Advances
Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health
Babies have a type of fat called brown fat, but scientists thought it disappeared by adulthood. NIH-funded researchers showed that not only do adults have it, but it may be important to weight control. Brown fat burns up chemical energy to create heat. Whole-body scans of about 2,000 adults found that the less brown fat tissue they had, the higher their body mass index tended to be.
NIH-funded research teams identified several genetic factors that affect the risk of autism spectrum disorders. The scientists used genome-wide association studies, which involve scanning genomes—entire sets of DNA—to find small differences between people who have a disorder and people who don't. Understanding how these genetic variations affect brain development will suggest new strategies for diagnosing and treating autism spectrum disorders.
The time of day that chemotherapy drugs are taken is already known to affect the drugs' effectiveness and side effects. NIH-funded researchers uncovered the reason: the body's ability to repair DNA damage fluctuates with the time of day. The results show that it might be possible to take advantage of the body's circadian rhythms to develop better methods of hitting cancer cells when they're least able to recover.
Chronic fatigue syndrome is a debilitating disease that affects millions of people in the United States, but no specific cause has yet been identified. A team of scientists at NIH and the Cleveland Clinic detected the DNA of a retrovirus called XMRV in the blood of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. The discovery raises the possibility that the virus may be a contributing factor in the disorder.
Ozone is a common urban air pollutant that can irritate the airways and cause wheezing. The mechanisms responsible for ozone's effects have been poorly understood. NIH researchers discovered that a sugar called hyaluronan is responsible for causing the airways to narrow and become irritated in the presence of ozone. The finding suggests new targets for treating wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
NIH-funded researchers developed a way to erase a fear memory in rats without using drugs. Some of their colleagues then used the technique to selectively block a conditioned fear memory in humans. The advance represents a safe, easily implemented way to prevent the return of a fearful memory. It may one day lead to improved therapies for the treatment of anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Most of our DNA is in the nuclei of our cells. But tiny structures called mitochondria in cells also contain some DNA. Defects in mitochondrial DNA cause several rare and deadly disorders. NIH-funded researchers developed a technique for exchanging DNA between egg cell nuclei while leaving mitochondria behind. The technique led to the birth of 4 healthy monkeys. The method may one day provide new options for preventing or treating mitochondrial disorders.
People with Alzheimer's disease often have trouble sleeping. A new study suggested that sleep problems may actually contribute to the disease. Alzheimer's disease is marked by dense “plaques”—made mostly of a protein called amyloid-beta—forming between brain cells. NIH-funded researchers found that disrupted sleep can lead to buildup of these plaques in mice. Amyloid-beta levels in both mice and people naturally fluctuate, they discovered, rising while awake and falling during sleep.
Insights from the Lab
Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research
Influenza viruses evade the immune system by constantly changing the shape of their outer proteins. New findings by NIH researchers yielded insights into the evolutionary forces that drive this shape shifting, or antigenic drift. If their model is correct, vaccinating more children against influenza could slow the rate of antigenic drift and extend how long seasonal flu vaccines remain effective.
Researchers funded by NIH developed a technique in which the genes used to reprogram human cells and give them the versatility of embryonic stem cells can be cleanly removed afterward. This advance could open doors to innovative therapies in the future, where people's own cells might be reprogrammed and used to repair damaged tissues and organs.
By analyzing genetic variation in people across Africa—and those of African descent around the world—NIH-funded researchers teased apart the complex evolutionary history of Africans and African Americans. A separate study reconstructed the ancestry of people across India. In addition to revealing important human population history, these studies set the stage for future research into the genetic and environmental risk factors for disease and drug response.
Rhinoviruses are a major cause of the common cold and may contribute to about half of asthma flare-ups. NIH-funded researchers completed sequencing the genomes of all the known rhinovirus types. These results provide a framework for tracking the movement and evolution of new viruses, and could prove valuable for developing medications and vaccines to combat the viruses in the future.
By analyzing bacterial communities in and on several people, scientists have begun to create an atlas of bacterial diversity that documents the different types of microbes that thrive in distinct regions of the human body. The NIH-funded investigators found wide variability in bacterial communities on each person and between people. The results set the stage for determining how changes in bacterial communities help to cause or prevent disease.
Vaccines typically work by triggering the immune system to produce antibodies that help to beat infections. But most antibodies can't latch onto and neutralize the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). An NIH-led research team discovered how the virus resists these antibodies. Their insights into how antibodies bind the virus may help bring researchers closer to creating an effective HIV vaccine.
Scientists knew that a membrane channel in brain cells was somehow activated by ethanol, the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. An NIH-funded study finally provided a molecular explanation for how alcohol produces its pleasant and intoxicating effects. The scientists showed that alcohol directly interacts with a specific nook of a channel protein. The breakthrough could lead to new treatments for alcohol abuse and dependence.
Ovulation—the release of a mature egg from an ovary—results from a complex series of biochemical events that aren't fully understood. NIH-funded researchers have identified 2 proteins that are essential for ovulation in mice. The finding not only advances our understanding of ovulation; it may one day lead to new treatments for infertility as well as new ways to prevent pregnancy by blocking release of the egg.
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.