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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.

Clinical Breakthroughs

Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Human Disease

Photo of woman on a scale.

Weight Loss Depends on Less Calories, Not Nutrient Mix

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.
PubMed Abstract: Comparison of weight-loss diets with different compositions of fat, protein, and carbohydrates.

Photo of a man receiving an injection.

Cocaine Vaccine Shows Promise for Treating Addiction

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.
PubMed Abstract: Cocaine vaccine for the treatment of cocaine dependence in methadone-maintained patients: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled efficacy trial.

Photo of a retina.

Gene Therapy Shows Promise for Eye Condition

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.
PubMed Abstract: Human RPE65 gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis: persistence of early visual improvements and safety at 1 year.

Photo of a man clutching his lower back.

Acupuncture-Like Treatments Improve Low Back Pain

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.
PubMed Abstract: A randomized trial comparing acupuncture, simulated acupuncture, and usual care for chronic low back pain.

Three-dimensional rendering of neurons connecting to one another.

Deep Brain Stimulation Curbs Parkinson Symptoms

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.
PubMed Abstract: Bilateral deep brain stimulation vs best medical therapy for patients with advanced Parkinson disease: a randomized controlled trial.

Image of clotted red blood cells.

Genetic Tests Help Optimize Doses of Blood-Thinning Drug

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.
PubMed Abstract: Estimation of the warfarin dose with clinical and pharmacogenetic data.

Photo of a pair of bare feet.

Vitamin C May Reduce Gout Risk

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.
PubMed Abstract: Vitamin C intake and the risk of gout in men: a prospective study.

Photo of hand holding a red apple.

Neighborhood Food Options Linked to Obesity in Big Apple

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.
PubMed Abstract: Neighborhood food environment and walkability predict obesity in New York City.

Promising Medical Advances

Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health

Globular fat cells.

Overlooked “Brown Fat” Tied to Obesity

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.
PubMed Abstract: Identification and importance of brown adipose tissue in adult humans.

Photo of a little boy.

Autism Tied to Genes That Influence Brain Cell Connections

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.
PubMed Abstract: Autism genome-wide copy number variation reveals ubiquitin and neuronal genes.  PubMed Abstract: Common genetic variants on 5p14.1 associate with autism spectrum disorders.  PubMed Abstract: A genome-wide association study of autism reveals a common novel risk locus at 5p14.1.  PubMed Abstract: A genome-wide linkage and association scan reveals novel loci for autism.

Photo of a clock.

Time of Day Can Be Critical in Chemotherapy

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.
PubMed Abstract: Circadian oscillation of nucleotide excision repair in mammalian brain.

Transmission electron micrograph of round virus particles.

Virus Linked to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

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.
PubMed Abstract: Detection of an infectious retrovirus, XMRV, in blood cells of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome.

Photo of woman taking a deep breath.

How Ozone Harms Lungs

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.
PubMed Abstract: Hyaluronan mediates ozone-induced airway hyperresponsiveness in mice.

Photo of woman looking worried.

Technique Blocks a Conditioned Fear in Humans

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.
PubMed Abstract: Preventing the return of fear in humans using reconsolidation update mechanisms.

Photo of a monkey.

Monkey DNA Swap May Block Mitochondrial Disease

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.
PubMed Abstract: Mitochondrial gene replacement in primate offspring and embryonic stem cells.

Photo of a man lying awake in bed.

Lack of Sleep Linked to Alzheimer's Plaques in Mice

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.
PubMed Abstract: Amyloid-beta dynamics are regulated by orexin and the sleep-wake cycle.

Insights from the Lab

Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research

Cluster of rounded blue virions.

Catching Flu's Drift

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.
PubMed Abstract: Hemagglutinin receptor binding avidity drives influenza A virus antigenic drift.

Cluster of long, thin cells around a central mass.

Reprogrammed Human Stem Cells Clear Another Hurdle

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.
PubMed Abstract: Human induced pluripotent stem cells free of vector and transgene sequences.

Photo of several people from India.

Landmark Studies Look at Genetics of Africans, Indians

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.
PubMed Abstract: The genetic structure and history of Africans and African Americans.  PubMed Abstract: Reconstructing Indian population history.

Illustration of the human rhinovirus.

Understanding a Common Cold Virus

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.
PubMed Abstract: Sequencing and analyses of all known human rhinovirus genomes reveal structure and evolution.

Image of rod-shaped bacteria.

Wide Variety of Bacteria Mapped Across the Human Body

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.
PubMed Abstract: Bacterial community variation in human body habitats across space and time.

Illustration of an HIV virus.

Insights into How HIV Evades Immune System

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.
PubMed Abstract: Structural basis of immune evasion at the site of CD4 attachment on HIV-1 gp120.

Illustation of an alcohol molecule bound to a protein.

Alcohol's Site of Action Revealed

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.
PubMed Abstract: A discrete alcohol pocket involved in GIRK channel activation.

Scanning electron micrograph of a human egg.

Scientists Detect Key Proteins Needed for Ovulation

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.
PubMed Abstract: MAPK3/1 (ERK1/2) in ovarian granulosa cells are essential for female fertility.

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About NIH Research Matters

Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
Assistant Editors: Vicki Contie, Carol Torgan, Ph.D.

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.

ISSN 2375-9593

This page last reviewed on January 7, 2013

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