December 21, 2015

2015 Research Highlights — Clinical Breakthroughs

Prevention, Diagnosis, and Treatment of Human Disease

With NIH support, scientists across the United States and the world conduct wide-ranging research to improve the health of our nation. Groundbreaking NIH-funded research often receives top scientific honors. In 2015, these honors included 3 NIH-supported Nobel Prize winners and 2 NIH-funded recipients of top awards from the Lasker Foundation. Here’s just a small sampling of the research accomplishments made by NIH-supported scientists in 2015.

Full 2015 NIH Research Highlights List

Doctor taking woman’s blood pressure.

Comparing blood pressure control targets

A large clinical study revealed that adults treated at a target blood pressure level lower than commonly recommended (less than 120 mm Hg systolic, compared to the 140 mm Hg standard) had a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and death. While there were some adverse effects with the lower target, the results suggest that, in this population of adults age 50 and older, the benefits outweighed the risks.

Large group of women standing side by side.

Breast cancer tumor test to tailor treatments

Not all women with early-stage breast cancer need to receive chemotherapy, which can be costly and inconvenient. Researchers determined that a gene expression-based test could successfully identify women with a specific type of breast cancer who didn’t need to undergo chemotherapy. In the future, gene testing may be used to help guide treatment choices.

Illustration of DNA, blood cells, and a blood vessel.

Genetics help predict heart disease risk, statin benefits

Researchers found that a set of genetic variants could identify people at risk for coronary heart disease, even after adjusting for traditional risk factors such as age, cholesterol levels, and smoking history. The set of variants also predicted the people who would benefit most from statin therapy, which lowers LDL cholesterol. The findings may one day lead to targeted therapies for patients at risk for heart disease. 

voluntary movement before and after treatmentoluntary movement before and after treatment

Paralyzed men gain movement without surgery

Last year, researchers reported that a surgically implanted stimulating device allowed men to regain some leg movement after spinal cord injuries. In further work, the team used a noninvasive treatment to help 5 men with complete muscle paralysis in the lower body voluntarily move their legs in a step-like pattern. The treatment, called transcutaneous stimulation, may help reactivate dormant nerve connections between the brain and spinal cord.

Man looking out a window.

Biomarkers and questionnaires predict suicide risk

Finding a way to objectively measure a person’s risk for suicide is an important step in suicide prevention. Researchers identified several genes in blood whose activity is related to suicidal thoughts and actions in men with psychiatric disorders. The team also developed 2 apps that use questionnaires to measure risk factors for suicide. By combining the two, the scientists developed a tool that may help clinicians predict which patients are likely to attempt suicide.

Stethoscope on dollar bills and medical forms.

End-of-life costs for dementia far greater than for other diseases

Health care costs can rise dramatically with age—especially for long-term conditions like heart disease or dementia. Researchers determined that health care costs for people with dementia were significantly higher in their last years of life than for those who died from other diseases, including cancer and heart disease. The findings provide important insights into the financial burden that families and society may face for end-of-life care for older adults.

Girl eating a peanut butter sandwich.

Peanut consumption in infancy lowers peanut allergy

The standard approach to food allergy prevention is for infants at high risk for allergy to avoid allergenic foods, such as peanuts. In a closely monitored trial, infants who regularly consumed peanut-containing foods from infancy to age 5 were less likely to become allergic to peanuts than those who avoided peanut entirely. The researchers are continuing to monitor the children to determine if protection against peanut allergy persists.

Illustration of the body’s nervous system.

Immune system reset may halt multiple sclerosis progression

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system. Interim results from a clinical trial suggest that depleting and then re-establishing the immune system can alleviate a type of early-stage MS. With further development and evaluation, this approach could become an option for treating people with this often-debilitating disease.