December 31, 2011

2011 Research Highlights — Promising Medical Advances

Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health

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.

Photo of ashtray filled with cigarette stubs

Why Nicotine is a Gateway Drug

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. PubMed Abstract »

Digitally enhanced photograph of a human heart

Blood DNA Test Detects Heart Transplant Rejection

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. PubMed Abstract »

Illustration of a spherical virus

Antibodies Protect Against HIV in Mice

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. PubMed Abstract »

Normal mice store fat (in red) in the liver when fed a high-fat diet

Parkinson’s Protein May Regulate Fat Metabolism

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. PubMed Abstract »

Electron microscope image showing a cluster of misshapen cells

Targeted Light Therapy Destroys Cancer Cells

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. PubMed Abstract »

Photo of a young woman holding her ears with concern thumbnail

Tinnitus Cure May Lie in the Brain

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. PubMed Abstract »

Mosquito with glowing green areas throughout its body

Fungi Developed to Fight Malaria in Mosquitoes

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. PubMed Abstract »

Scanning electron micrograph of blood cells trapped in a fibrous mesh

Gene Therapy Helps Patients with Hemophilia

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. PubMed Abstract »