December 23, 2013

2013 Research Highlights — Insights from the Lab

Noteworthy Advances in Basic Research

With NIH support, scientists across the country and the world conduct wide-ranging research to improve the health of the nation. Groundbreaking NIH-funded research often receives top scientific honors. In 2013, all 3 recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and all 3 awardees of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, received NIH funding at different times in their careers. Four NIH-funded scientists also won awards from the Lasker Foundation in 2013. Here's just a small sampling of the research accomplishments made by NIH-supported scientists in 2013.

Seeing Into the Brain

Scientists seeking to understand the brain’s fine structure and connections have been faced with tradeoffs. To examine deeply buried structures, they had to cut brain tissue into extremely thin sections. This deforms the tissue and makes it difficult to study brain wiring and circuitry. NIH-funded scientists developed a new technique to preserve the brain’s 3-D structure down to the molecular level with a hydrogel. It allows for study of the brain’s inner workings at a scale never before possible. Pubmed Abstract »

Structure of a Potential Diabetes Drug Target

People with diabetes have difficulty maintaining blood glucose levels. The hormones insulin and glucagon are used by the body—and also used as medications—to help keep blood glucose in a safe range. An international team of researchers, funded in part by NIH, determined and analyzed the structure of the human glucagon receptor. The results may aid in the development of drugs for diabetes and other metabolic disorders. Pubmed Abstract »

How Sleep Clears the Brain

Sleep is important for storing memories, and also has a restorative function. Sleep helps reasoning, problem-solving, and other functions. However, the mechanisms behind these benefits have been unknown. An NIH-funded study in mice suggests that sleep helps restore the brain by flushing out toxins that build up during waking hours though a special series of channels in the brain. Pubmed Abstract »

Technique Forms Working Inner Ear Cells

Specialized cells in the inner ear detect head movements, gravity, and sound. Researchers know the general scheme of inner ear development, but deeper knowledge will be critical for developing novel therapies for hearing loss and balance disorders. Using an innovative 3-D culture system, NIH-funded researchers were able to coax mouse embryonic stem cells to form complex cells and structures seen in the inner ear. Pubmed Abstract »

Study Reveals New Targets for Parkinson’s Disease

Defects in mitochondria, our cells’ biological power plants, have been associated with certain neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, Charcot-Marie-Tooth syndrome, and the ataxias. NIH scientists used a novel approach, involving a protein tied to Parkinson’s disease, to identify dozens of genes that may contribute to disorders that involve mitochondria. Pubmed Abstract »

Therapeutic Nanoparticles from Grapefruit Jice

Nanoparticles are emerging as an efficient tool for drug delivery. Microscopic pouches of synthetic lipid can protect drug molecules within the body and deliver them to specific cells. However, these nanoparticles pose obstacles, including potential toxicity, environmental hazards, and large-scale production costs. NIH-funded researchers made nanoparticles from grapefruits and used them to deliver targeted drugs to treat cancer in mice. The technique may prove to be a safe and inexpensive alternative. Pubmed Abstract »

Understanding How We Speak

Speech disorders, such as stuttering, affect roughly 5% of children by the first grade. The underlying causes of most speech disorders, however, aren’t well understood. The process of speaking is one of the most complex actions humans perform. Scientists funded by NIH revealed the patterns of brain activity that produce human speech. The research may one day lead to new methods for treating speech disorders. Pubmed Abstract »

Scientists Recode Organism’s Genome

Living microbes can quickly and reliably produce proteins, the building blocks of the cell. This ability has long been harnessed to produce conventional proteins, such as insulin, for medical use. Synthetic biology seeks to redesign natural biological systems for new purposes. NIH-funded researchers developed a method to recode a bacterium’s genome to incorporate synthetic non-standard amino acids into its proteins. The technique can potentially turn microbes into efficient living factories that make novel compounds. Pubmed Abstract »