December 22, 2020

2020 Research Highlights — Promising Medical Findings

Results with Potential for Enhancing Human Health

With NIH support, scientists across the United States and around the world conduct wide-ranging research to discover ways to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability. Groundbreaking NIH-funded research often receives top scientific honors. In 2020, these honors included one of NIH’s own scientists and another NIH-supported scientist who received Nobel Prizes. Here’s just a small sample of the NIH-supported research accomplishments in 2020.

Full 2020 NIH Research Highlights List

New approaches to COVID-19

As the global pandemic unfolded, researchers worked at unprecedented speed to develop new treatments and vaccines. Scientists studied antibodies from the blood of people who recovered from COVID-19 and identified potent, diverse ones that neutralize SARS-CoV-2. Some antibody treatments have now been given emergency use authorization by the FDA, with many others in development. However, such antibodies—called monoclonal antibodies—are difficult to produce and must be given intravenously. NIH-researchers have been pursuing other approaches, including using antibodies from llamas, which are only about a quarter of the size of a typical human antibody and could be delivered directly to the lungs using an inhaler. Computer-designed “miniproteins” and other antiviral compounds are also under investigation.

Universal mosquito vaccine tested

Most mosquito bites are harmless. But some mosquitoes carry pathogens, like bacteria and viruses, that can be deadly. A small trial showed that a vaccine against mosquito saliva—designed to provide broad protection against mosquito-borne diseases—is safe and causes a strong immune response in healthy volunteers. More studies are needed to test its effectiveness against specific diseases.

Machine learning detects early signs of osteoarthritis

Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It results when cartilage, the tissue that cushions the ends of the bones, breaks down. People with osteoarthritis can have joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. Some develop serious pain and disability from the disease. Using artificial intelligence and MRI scans, scientists identified signs of osteoarthritis three years before diagnosis. The results suggest a way to identify people who may benefit from early interventions.

Advances in restoring vision

Several common eye diseases, such as age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa, damage the retina, the light-sensitive tissue in the eye. They can eventually lead to vision loss. Two studies looked at ways to restore vision in mouse models. Researchers reprogrammed skin cells into light-sensing eye cells that restored sight in mice. The technique may lead to new approaches for modeling and treating eye diseases. Other scientists restored vision in blind mice by using gene therapy to add a novel light-sensing protein to cells in the retina. The therapy will soon be tested in people.

Blood protein signatures change across lifespan

The bloodstream touches all the tissues of the body. Because of the constant flow of proteins through the body, some blood tests measure specific proteins to help diagnose diseases. Researchers determined that the levels of nearly 400 proteins in the blood can be used to determine people’s age and relative health. More research is needed to understand if these protein signatures could help identify people at greater risk of age-related diseases.

Understanding HIV’s molecular mechanisms

More than a million people nationwide are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. HIV attacks the immune system by destroying immune cells vital for fighting infection. Researchers uncovered key steps in HIV replication by reconstituting and watching events unfold outside the cell. The system may be useful for future studies of these early stages in the HIV life cycle. In other work, experimental treatments in animal models of HIV led to the viruses emerging from their hiding places inside certain cells—a first step needed to make HIV vulnerable to the immune system.

Test distinguishes Parkinson’s disease from related condition

A protein called alpha-synuclein plays a major role in Parkinson’s disease as well as other brain disorders. Early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and another disease involving alpha-synuclein, multiple system atrophy, can be similar. Researchers created a test using cerebrospinal fluid that can distinguish between these two diseases with 95% accuracy. The results have implications for the early diagnosis and treatment of these conditions and may help in the development of new targeted therapies.

Understanding allergic reactions to skin care products

Personal care products like makeup, skin cream, and fragrances commonly cause rashes called allergic contact dermatitis. It’s not well understood how chemical compounds in personal care products trigger such allergic reactions. Scientists gained new insight into how personal care products may cause immune responses that lead to allergic responses in some people. Understanding how compounds in these products trigger immune reactions could lead to new ways to prevent or treat allergic contact dermatitis.