December 31, 2010

2010 Research Highlights — Insights from the Lab

Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research

NIH has about 6,000 staff scientists and supports more than 325,000 researchers at more than 3,000 institutions in the United States and around the world. Here's just a small sampling of the accomplishments made by NIH-supported scientists in 2010.

Molecular model of CXCR4 structure

Structure of Receptor Involved in Cancer, HIV Infection

NIH-funded scientists determined the 3-dimensional structure of a protein involved in HIV infection and many forms of cancer. Using X-ray crystallography, the scientists captured snapshots of the protein, called CXCR4, bound to molecules that inhibit its activity. The images reveal how CXCR4 molecules form closely linked pairs, with inhibitors bound to their sides. The accomplishment could point to ways of locking out HIV and stalling cancer's spread. PubMed Abstract »

Image of blood vessels in lung

Making a Lung Replacement

NIH-funded researchers made transplantable lung grafts for rats. The team built on recent advances in decellularization—the process of removing cells from a structure but leaving the architecture of the original tissue intact. The scientists showed that the engineered lungs functioned in the animals. They were also able to decellularize human lung segments while preserving their architecture. The study could pave the way for the development of an engineered human lung. PubMed Abstract »

llustration of a man’s head with images of Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe inside

Controlling Computers with Your Mind

A brain-computer interface let people control pictures on a computer screen by activating just a few brain cells. NIH-funded scientists monitored brain cell activity via wires that sent information from patients’ brains to a computer. In a simple computer game, participants were able to use their thoughts to control the images on the monitor nearly 70% of the time. The findings shed light on how single brain cells contribute to attention and conscious thought. PubMed Abstract »

Electron micrograph of rod-shaped bacteria

Gut Bacteria May Influence Metabolic Syndrome

An NIH-funded study suggested that gut microbes, along with part of the immune system, may contribute to metabolic syndrome. Mice lacking an important immune receptor grew heavier than control mice and developed several features of metabolic syndrome. When gut microbes from these mice were transplanted into control mice, the recipient mice overate, became obese and diabetic. The next step will be to explore how gut microbes affect people's eating behavior. PubMed Abstract »

Photos of a porous scaffold with and without a thin layer of new cartilage.

Coaxing the Body’s Cells to Repair Damaged Joints

NIH-supported scientists developed a technique to regenerate damaged leg joints in rabbits. The researchers created porous scaffolds in the shape of leg bone tips and added a gel to aid cartilage development. By 3 to 4 weeks after surgery, the rabbits could move around almost as well as normal rabbits. Within 4 months, both bone and cartilage had regenerated. The accomplishment could point the way toward joint renewal in humans. PubMed Abstract »

Photo of Dr. Svante Pääbo holding a Neanderthal skull

Neanderthal Genome Sequenced

An international research team, including NIH scientists, produced the first whole-genome sequence of the Neanderthal genome—the closest evolutionary relative to humans. Neanderthal DNA is 99.7% identical to present-day human DNA and 98.8% identical to chimpanzee DNA. Present-day human DNA is also 98.8% identical to chimpanzee. The analysis suggests that up to 2% of the genome of present-day people outside of Africa originated in Neanderthals or their ancestors. PubMed Abstract »

Photo of flexible, ribbon-like electrodes adhering to a plastic model of the brain

Silk Helps Make Ultrathin Brain Interface

NIH-funded scientists developed ultrathin flexible implants made with a silk base that dissolves once it makes contact with the brain, allowing the electrode array to collapse into the brain’s grooves and stretch over its rounded surfaces. The ultrathin implants can record brain activity more faithfully than thicker implants. The new technology allows for closer interaction between machines and living tissue, paving the way for more advanced implantable devices. PubMed Abstract »

Photo of a young woman studying

Stress Hormone Causes Epigenetic Changes

Researchers found that chronic exposure to a stress hormone altered DNA in the brains of mice, prompting changes in gene expression. NIH-supported scientists found that giving mice a stress hormone caused epigenetic modifications—changes to DNA that don’t alter sequences but influence gene expression—to a gene that has been tied to posttraumatic stress disorder and mood disorders in people. The finding provides clues into how stress might affect behavior. PubMed Abstract »