NIH Research Matters
January 9, 2012
2011 Research Highlights
NIH conducts and funds wide-ranging research to improve the nation's health. With NIH support, scientists across the country and around the world uncover basic biomedical advances and conduct the clinical and translational research that transforms discoveries into medical practice. Here's just a small sampling of the accomplishments made by NIH-supported scientists in 2011.
Prevention, Diagnosis and Treatment of Human Disease
When breast cancer has spread to nearby lymph nodes, many doctors believe that removing several more nodes provides better treatment. But an NIH-funded study found no difference in survival rates 5 years after surgery, whether patients had had about 2 or more than 10 lymph nodes removed. The finding may change the way early-stage breast cancer is treated in some patients.
Treating HIV-positive patients with anti-retroviral therapy early—before their T-cell counts start to drop—can significantly lower the risk of transmitting HIV. In a large NIH-funded clinical trial, researchers selected over 1,700 couples from around the world in which one partner was HIV-positive. Half the HIV-positive patients started anti-retroviral therapy immediately, while the other half received standard clinical treatment. Early therapy reduced the rate of HIV transmission by 96%.
Recurrent wheezing in children at risk for developing asthma can be controlled using far less medication by giving higher doses of an inhaled corticosteroid only as needed instead of lower doses every day. In an NIH-funded study, researchers found no significant differences in symptoms or number of doctor visits, but the children who took medication intermittently received one-third the total medication of those on a daily regimen.
Avian flu-fighting antibodies rose significantly in adults who received a DNA “primer” vaccine followed by an avian flu shot. In an NIH study, people given the primer, followed 6 months later with an inactivated H5N1 vaccine, had 4 times the amount of antibody of those who received 2 vaccine doses. The technique holds promise for blocking several strains of influenza.
A saliva sample from a newborn can be used to quickly and effectively detect cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection, a major cause of hearing loss in children. NIH-funded researchers, using a common technique called polymerase chain reaction, found CMV in liquid saliva samples in 100% of cases identified by the current standard. Better screening might lead to earlier treatment for affected babies.
A small NIH-funded clinical trial found that daily doses of an insulin nasal spray can slow memory loss and preserve thinking skills in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease. Patients given either a 20 IU (international units) or 40 IU dose of insulin directly to the nose showed improvement in general function, and those given the lower dose also showed improved memory.
About 1 in 3 candidates for kidney transplantation has a condition that causes their bodies to immediately reject transplanted organs. In an NIH-funded study, transplant patients underwent several rounds of plasmapheresis, a process that removes transplant-reactive antibodies from the blood, and received an “incompatible” organ. The patients had an 80% survival rate after 8 years, significantly higher than those who waited for a compatible transplant. The technique could lead to thousands more kidney transplants every year.
Specialized physical therapy and electrical stimulation to the spine enabled a man with a spinal cord injury to stand and move paralyzed muscles. After 2 years of physical therapy alone, doctors supported by NIH implanted electrodes in the paralyzed man's spinal cord. With electrical stimulation from the electrodes, the patient now has control of previously paralyzed muscles below the site of injury.
Promising Medical Advances
Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health
An NIH-funded study in mice showed how tobacco products may act as gateway drugs, opening the door for cocaine use. Researchers found that mice given nicotine for 7 days had specific changes in the brain that also occur with cocaine addiction. Mice with these changes had stronger reactions to subsequent cocaine use. The finding hints that lowering smoking rates might help reduce cocaine abuse.
A new type of test that detects “foreign” DNA in a patient's bloodstream may provide early clues to organ rejection. Using blood samples from 17 heart transplant recipients, NIH-funded researchers found that the test could identify increases in the amount of free-floating transplant DNA during rejection episodes even before a standard biopsy test indicated rejection. This technique could offer an alternative to the expensive and invasive biopsies now used to detect transplant failure.
Researchers devised a technique in mice that, with a single injection, protects the immune cells that HIV targets. NIH-funded scientists created a virus that expresses high levels of an HIV-neutralizing antibody. When injected into the muscles of special mice carrying human T-cells, the virus produced antibodies that prevented HIV from infecting the T-cells. With further development, the approach may one day prove effective at protecting people from HIV infection.
New NIH research suggests that Parkin, a protein linked to some cases of early-onset Parkinson's disease, regulates how cells in our bodies take up and process dietary fats. Mice lacking the Parkin gene didn't gain weight, even with age or a high-fat diet. These mice had lower levels of certain fat-transport proteins, which might affect the health of highly active neurons. Blood cells from patients enrolled at the NIH Parkinson's Clinic showed a similar pattern.
NIH scientists developed a noninvasive technique that uses light to wipe out cancerous cells in mice without harming surrounding tissue. The researchers coupled a near-infrared fluorescent dye to cancer-specific antibodies. In mice, the antibodies bound to tumors. Near-infrared light, which can pass through an inch of tissue, then activated the dye and killed the cancer cells. This novel method might eventually be used to treat tumors in humans.
Scientists were able to eliminate tinnitus—a persistent ringing in the ears—in rats. Rats with noise-damaged hearing display tinnitus-like symptoms. NIH-funded researchers used nerve stimulation, paired with a series of tones above and below the pitch of the tinnitus ringing, to retrain the rats’ brains. After the treatment, the rats no longer showed any tinnitus symptoms, suggesting that the ringing in their ears was permanently gone. The finding gives hope for a future tinnitus cure in humans.
A genetically engineered fungus could help prevent malaria transmission. NIH-funded researchers modified a naturally occurring fungus to kill the malaria parasite inside infected mosquitoes. The modified fungus significantly reduced both the number of infected mosquitoes and the number of parasites in each mosquito still infected, but didn’t kill the mosquitoes themselves. The advance might offer a new line of defense for combating a disease that affects nearly 300 million people worldwide.
Scientists reported that a single dose of an experimental gene therapy boosted production of a missing blood-clotting factor in people with hemophilia. In an NIH-funded study, 6 patients with severe hemophilia received infusions of a modified virus carrying a normal gene for the blood-clotting factor. After treatment, all the patients had higher levels of the factor in their blood, and 4 of the 6 patients no longer needed regular infusions of the blood-clotting factor to treat bleeding.
Insights from the Lab
Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research
A new study gave insight into the roots of sleepiness. When NIH-funded researchers deprived rats of sleep, they caught neurons in the thinking part of the animals' brains taking catnaps. The longer the rats were awake, the more neurons they saw having brief “off” periods, which was linked to more difficulty touching a target. The study suggests that lowered performance in tired people might be due to neurons nodding off.
In a novel approach, researchers used computers and genomic data to find new applications for existing FDA-approved drugs. Computer algorithms correctly paired diseases with their current treatments, and also found new disease-drug pairs. Two of these drugs were tested in rodent models and effectively treated the paired disease. This new method represents a major step forward in drug discovery.
In male baboons, higher social rank generally brings lower stress. But a 9-year NIH-funded study of 125 baboons found an exception: the highest-ranked males had higher stress levels than second-ranking males. The researchers found that the top-ranked males spent significantly more energy guarding fertile females and behaving aggressively toward other males. The finding suggests that life at the very top can be more costly than previously thought.
An analysis of gene expression in the brain suggested that autism blurs the molecular differences that normally distinguish different brain regions. In an NIH-funded study, researchers found that of the hundreds of genes expressed at different levels between the frontal and temporal cortexes in normal brains, only 8 genes were expressed differentially in brains from people with autism. The finding may point to a common molecular basis for autism spectrum disorders.
The retrovirus previously tied to prostate cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome is unlikely to be responsible for either, according to an NIH study. Scientists found that the original patients and early patient tissue samples didn’t contain XMRV, while later samples grown in the lab did carry the virus. The link to human disease was apparently due to contamination of samples while the tissues were grown in mice.
Why can some people weather difficult times with little trouble while others crumble? An NIH-funded study suggested that the answer lies—at least in part—in your genes. Scientists found that people with 1 or 2 copies of a variant OXTR gene were less optimistic, had lower self-esteem and felt less control over their environment than those with 2 copies of a different variant. The gene is likely one of many that affect psychological resilience.
Scientists discovered how a common gut bacterium sends a “do not attack” signal to the immune system. Using mice with only one type of microbe in their intestines, the NIH-funded researchers found that a friendly gut bacterium uses a molecule called Polysaccharide A to activate certain cells in the mouse intestine. Those cells then turn down the immune response. The finding helps explain how our bodies distinguish between harmful microbes and those essential for health.
A massive NIH-supported effort to sequence and compare 29 mammalian genomes shed new light on the “dark matter” of the genome, the over 98% of DNA that doesn't code for proteins. Scientists found that 5% of the genome is more similar than expected, or “constrained” by evolution. The study revealed previously undiscovered DNA segments that code for RNA and protein, and millions of other elements that may control gene expression.
Editor: Harrison Wein, Ph.D.
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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.