December 21, 2016

2016 Research Highlights — Promising Medical Advances

Findings with Potential for Enhancing Human Health

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 2016, these honors included 1 NIH-supported Nobel Prize winner and 5 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 2016. For more health and medical research findings from NIH, visit NIH Research Matters.

Full 2016 NIH Research Highlights List

Zika virus

Zika research advances quickly

The Zika virus has spread worldwide since 2015, but there are no vaccines or effective treatments. This year, researchers decoded the structure of the virus, providing clues to how it enters human cells. They identified novel ways to inhibit Zika, testing a human-derived antibody in mice and screening for promising compounds. Five experimental vaccines were evaluated in monkeys, with one now being tested in people.

Hand gripping glass of water.

Spinal cord stimulation helps paralyzed people move hands

More than a quarter of a million Americans are living with spinal cord injuries. Spinal cord damage can lead to serious disabilities, including paralysis. In a proof-of-concept study, electrical stimulation of the spinal cord helped 2 people with quadriplegia improve voluntary movement and use of their hands. The study represents the first step in using the approach to improve hand function for people with cervical spinal cord injury.

Illustration of inner ear anatomy

Developing novel ear infection treatments

Ear infections are the most common reason parents bring their children to the doctor’s office. Infections are often treated with a 7–10 day course of oral antibiotics. But getting young children to take the medication can be difficult. Researchers designed an easier way to administer ear infection medication by engineering a gel to deliver antibiotics directly into the ear. This method was used to successfully treated ear infections in chinchillas.

Smiling doctor talking with man in a hospital room.

Biomarker signatures of prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the second most common cancer in men in the United States. More than half of prostate cancers don’t become life-threatening, but doctors don’t have a way to reliably predict which will likely to cause problems. Researchers discovered biomarkers in urine samples that were unique to 2 different prostate cancer stages. The findings suggest a noninvasive way to diagnose prostate cancer and assess tumor progression.

Illustration of scissors cutting DNA.

Gene editing shows promise in different disease models

Gene-editing techniques like CRISPR/Cas9 can successfully replace faulty genes, and scientists have been exploring their therapeutic potential. This year, NIH-funded scientists showed the approach holds promise as a gene therapy for 3 diseases in animal or cell models: Duchenne muscular dystrophy (in mice); sickle cell disease (in blood stem cells from affected people); and the inherited eye disorder retinitis pigmentosa (in rats).

A computer model of the synthesized pain relieving compound PZM21 (blue) docked with the mu opioid receptor (grey).

Designing more effective opioids

Opioids are a class of powerful pain-relieving drugs that are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor. However, they’re frequently misused because they also produce euphoria. Researchers used computer simulations to screen millions of molecules for opioid-like pain-relieving properties. The analyses allowed them to create a molecule that effectively alleviates pain in mice, but with fewer side effects than the opioid morphine.

Illustration of artery narrowed by plaque.

When HDL cholesterol doesn’t protect against heart disease

High-density lipoproteins (HDL) are thought to help remove cholesterol from the body. Higher levels of HDL have been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. However, scientists discovered a genetic mutation that raises HDL cholesterol levels but also increases the risk for heart disease. The findings suggest that levels of HDL cholesterol may not be as important as how well it functions to remove cholesterol from the body.

Group of older adults socializing outdoors.

Redefining health and well-being in older adults

Many traditional models for assessing health in older adults focus on disease. However, health is more than just the absence of disease. It also includes your physical, psychological, and social well-being. Researchers developed a “comprehensive model” to assess health that includes measures of health behaviors; psychological health; sensory function; and frailty. The findings may help doctors better assess and manage the quality of life and health of older adults.