December 28, 2009

2009 Research Highlights — Insights from the Lab

Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research

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.

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 »

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 »

a group of 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 »

an 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 »

Illustration of round virus with blunt spikes

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 »

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 »

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 »