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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.

January 22, 2008

2007 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 2007.


Clinical Breakthroughs

Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Human Disease

a photo of a young woman smilingEstablished Drug Bests Newcomer in Treating Female Infertility
Researchers reported that infertility arising from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is better treated with an established ovulation-inducing drug (clomiphene) than with an increasingly popular alternative (metformin). The NIH-funded study was the largest, most comprehensive effort to date comparing the 2 drugs' abilities to promote pregnancy in women with PCOS, a hormonal disorder that affects about 1 in 15 women and is the leading cause of infertility.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a young boy using an inhalerInhaled Steroids Best Treatment for Children With Asthma
An NIH-funded study tested the effectiveness and safety of 3 different asthma medicines in nearly 300 school-age children. The scientists found that inhaled corticosteroids are the most effective initial daily therapy for children with mild to moderate persistent asthma.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a doctor consulting with a female patientMRI Increases Detection of Second Cancer in Opposite Breast
When a woman is newly diagnosed with cancer in one breast, there's up to a 10% chance that clinical exams and mammography will miss a tumor growing in the opposite breast. An NIH-funded study found that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can help to detect these overlooked cancers in the opposite breast at the time of initial diagnosis, which may also lead to earlier treatment.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a teenage girl gazing out of a windowDepressed Adolescents Respond Best to Combination Treatment
A major clinical trial found that a combination of antidepressant medication and “talk therapy,” or psychotherapy, appears to be more effective for treating teens with major depressive disorder than medication or psychotherapy alone. The NIH-funded study enrolled 439 adolescents who had major depression. At both 4 months and 9 months after therapy began, response rates to the combination treatment significantly outpaced the 2 single-treatment approaches.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a salt shaker and spilled saltLower Sodium Decreases Long-Term Cardiovascular Risk
Several studies had already shown that lowering your salt intake helps to prevent high blood pressure, or hypertension. But a new NIH-funded analysis found that less sodium can also prevent heart disease. The researchers examined clinical trial data from studies of more than 3,000 adults with pre-hypertension. Men and women who reduced their salt intake had a 25% lower risk of total cardiovascular disease over the next 10 to 15 years.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a little girl standing by the oceanDiagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorder
Autism is rarely diagnosed before 3 years of age, but the sooner it is identified and treated the better the outcome for the child. NIH-supported scientists found that it's possible to detect autism in some children as young as 14 months of age, the earliest the disorder has ever been diagnosed. In other children, definite signs of autism can be seen by about 2, the researchers said. Their diagnoses were based on close assessment of the children's social and communication skills.
Research Matters | PubMed

an image of a large cluster of circular virusesVaccine Shows Promise in Preventing Hepatitis E
An experimental vaccine—originally created and tested over the past 2 decades by NIH scientists—appears safe and effective in preventing hepatitis E, a sometimes-deadly viral disease prevalent in developing countries. A clinical trial involving nearly 2,000 healthy adults in Nepal, where the virus is widespread, found that the vaccine was nearly 96% effective in preventing hepatitis E during a follow-up period of about 2 years.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a worried manTreating Depression in Patients with Bipolar Disorder
Patients with bipolar disorder have severe mood swings between mania and depression. Treatment typically involves mood-stabilizing drugs like lithium or valproate. Two separate reports—both part of a large-scale NIH-funded study of bipolar disorder—looked at how well patients with depression responded when additional treatments were added to their mood-stabilizing therapy. One found that adding an antidepressant medication was no more effective than a sugar pill in reducing depression. (NIH press release | PubMed). The other reported that patients tended to get well faster and stay well if they received intensive psychotherapy for several months. (NIH press release | PubMed).


Promising Medical Advances

Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health

an image of a blue-green fibrous mass in the brainSoaking Up Toxic Protein to Stop Alzheimer's Disease
Scientists used a variant version of a protein called sLRP to soak up a toxic protein from the bloodstream and prevent its buildup in the brains of mice. The toxic protein, called amyloid-beta, forms dense deposits in the brain called plaques that have been linked to the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. The NIH-funded researchers studied a strain of mice known to develop Alzheimer-like symptoms. Mice treated with the sLRP variant protein had improved learning and memory, and amyloid-beta plaques in their brains were reduced by about 90%.
Research Matters | PubMed

an illustration of a silhouette of people behind colorful combinations of A, T, C, and GNew Risk Factors Identified for Type 2 Diabetes
A collaborative effort by 3 international research teams uncovered new clues about why some people develop type 2 diabetes and others don't. The research relied on a relatively new method, called a genome-wide association study, which rapidly and cost effectively analyzes and compares genetic differences between people with and without specific illnesses. The scientists identified 4 new genetic risk factors for type 2 diabetes and confirmed 6 other genetic variants previously associated with the disease.
Research Matters | PubMed 1 | PubMed 2 | PubMed 3

an illustration of DNAGene Variants That Help Control HIV Infection
The first genome-wide association study of an infectious disease, conducted by an international group of researchers and funded in part by NIH, offered a new understanding of why some people can suppress virus levels following HIV infection. The scientists identified several genetic variants associated with the amount of virus, or viral load, in a patient's bloodstream. Other variants were linked to disease progression. The findings provide new avenues for developing vaccines and improved therapies to fight HIV infection.
Research Matters | PubMed

an illustration of a silhouette of people in diverse primary colorsSecond-Generation Map of Human Genetic Variation
The International HapMap Consortium published analyses of its second-generation map of human genetic variation, which contains more than 3.1 million genetic variants—3 times the number reported in the initial HapMap of 2005. The new HapMap includes DNA data from 4 diverse populations, based in Nigeria, China, Japan and Utah in the United States. The improved HapMap will help researchers find DNA variants that influence the risk of disease and other traits.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a frustrated man lying awake in bedLack of Sleep Disrupts Brain's Emotional Controls
Experience tells us that sleepless nights can lead to overwrought emotions. Now NIH-funded scientists have a better understanding of why this occurs. Their imaging studies showed that lack of sleep can lead to greater activation of the brain's emotional centers and disrupt the brain circuits that tame emotional responses. The findings suggest that sleep restores the brain's emotional circuits and prepares people for the next day's challenges and social interactions.
Research Matters | PubMed

an illustration of an antibody in contact with a critical target on HIVHIV's Potential Weak Spot
Scientists identified a tiny, unchanging region on an AIDS virus protein that may be the key to neutralizing the virus. A multi-site research team, including NIH scientists, used X-ray crystallography to take detailed 3-D snapshots of an antibody grabbing onto this stable viral region, which HIV uses to latch onto and infect T cells. The discovery of this potential viral weak spot could have a profound impact on the development of an AIDS vaccine.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of waterfowl flying over a lakePredicting Future Bird Flu Mutations
To foretell how the avian flu virus might one day jump from birds to humans, NIH scientists have been looking at the molecular shapes of viral molecules to see how they latch onto cells. They found that just 2 mutations to the viral H5 protein could change the shape in a binding region and make it easier for the avian H5N1 virus to latch onto human cells. These studies could help researchers prepare vaccines and therapies against deadly flu viruses before they mutate and begin to spread in the human population.
Research Matters | PubMed

an image of human-derived heart muscle cells (yellow) thriving alongside normal heart muscle cells in a rat heartStem Cell Treatment Repairs Damaged Rat Hearts
NIH-funded researchers developed a procedure for repairing damaged rat hearts by using cells generated in a dish from human embryonic stem cells. When the human-derived cells were implanted into the damaged hearts of rats, new heart muscle was incorporated into the heart tissue within a month. Further testing showed that the treatment thickened the heart's walls and improved their ability to contract. The accomplishment brings scientists a step closer to a treatment for people who have had heart attacks.
Research Matters | PubMed


Insights from the Lab

Exciting Advances in Basic Research

a photo of stacks of clear plastic culture flasks with red liquidVersatile Human Stem Cells Created Without Embryos
By modifying only 4 genes in human skin cells, NIH-supported researchers found that they could "reprogram" the cells to give them the characteristics of embryonic stem cells. This major advance could open doors to innovative therapies in the future, where people's own cells might be reprogrammed and used to repair their damaged tissues and organs. The breakthrough might also eventually put to rest the ethical controversy surrounding stem cells.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a rhesus macaque searching for pests on a mateEmbryonic Stem Cell Milestone Achieved in Primates
Researchers achieved a major milestone in embryonic stem cell research, isolating embryonic stem cells for the first time from a cloned primate embryo. The scientists, funded by NIH, showed that the stem cells could turn into heart or nerve cells in the laboratory and had other characteristics of established embryonic stem cell lines. The technique, if developed in humans, could potentially be used to make personalized stem cells to treat diseases without worry of rejection by the patient's immune system.
Research Matters | PubMed

an illustration of the brain inside of the headTracking Neural Progenitor Cells in the Human Brain
Scientists developed the first noninvasive technique for detecting neural progenitor cells in the living human brain. Neural progenitor cells give birth to neurons and other types of brain cells. This new imaging method may eventually point to improved treatments and diagnostics for a host of brain-related disorders, including depression, Parkinson's disease and brain tumors.
Research Matters | PubMed

an illustration of a 3-dimensional model of a proteinStructure of Common Drug Target Unveiled
More than 40 years after beta blockers were first used clinically, NIH-funded scientists finally got a close-up, 3-dimensional look at the drugs' molecular target: the β2-adrenergic receptor. The receptor is one of a family of proteins called G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), which carry signals across the cell membrane. GPCRs control critical bodily functions, several of our senses and the action of about half of today's pharmaceuticals. Better understanding of the receptor's molecular shape promises to help speed the discovery of new drugs and illuminate many aspects of human health and disease.
Research Matters | PubMed 1 | PubMed 2

an image of a cluster of multicoloered teardrop-shaped cellsBrain Connections Revealed
Using a clever genetic trick to generate dozens of different colors, NIH-supported researchers visualized hundreds of cells and their connections to each other in the brain. The scientists developed DNA constructs, which they call “Brainbows,” that randomly rearrange themselves to activate genes for different-colored fluorescent proteins. When the researchers created transgenic mice with Brainbows, individual neurons in the brain had distinctive colors, allowing them to accurately trace specific cells and their interactions with each other. This new tool will help scientists better understand how the brain and nervous system work.
Research Matters
| PubMed

an illustration of a silhouette of rhesus macaque on a background of the letters A, C, T, and G, which represent the chemical components of the genome.Monkey Genome Gives Insight into Humans
An international team of more than 170 scientists sequenced the genome of the rhesus macaque monkey and compared it to both the chimpanzee and human genomes. Their analysis revealed that the 3 primate species share about 93% of their DNA. The team also identified nearly 200 genes that appear to play key roles in differences between the species. These include genes involved in hair formation, the immune response and cell communication.
Research Matters
| PubMed

An image of three rows of tubular stereocilia on hair cell surface.Proteins Pair to Form Crucial Hearing Structure
NIH scientists and their collaborators identified 2 proteins that appear to pair up at the precise location in the ear where sound vibrations are turned into electrical signals. The investigators also showed that a known deafness-causing mutation seemed to disrupt interactions between the 2 proteins, called cadherin 23 and protocadherin 15. The findings may eventually help scientists develop more precise treatments for hearing loss, a condition that affects more than 32 million people in the United States alone.
Research Matters | PubMed

a photo of a mouse touching a blue panel.Genetically Altered Mice See a More Colorful World
By giving mice the gene that allows people to see red hues, scientists created rodents that can see a wider range of colors. Mouse eyes normally have only 2 types of light-detecting photoreceptors, sensitive to blue and green light. NIH-funded scientists created genetically engineered mice that also had photoreceptors for red light, which are found in most primates. Tests showed that the altered mice could perceive different colors better than normal mice. The study suggests that the brains of mammals can quickly adapt to new sensory information. It also provides clues to the evolution of color vision.
Research Matters | PubMed

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