December 28, 2009

2009 Research Highlights — Promising Medical Advances

Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health

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.

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »

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 »