Caption: Structure of parathyroid hormone-related protein (PTHrP), which has been implicated in cancer-related cachexia. Source:The Protein Data Bank
No matter how much high-calorie food they eat or nutritionally fortified shakes they drink, many people with cancer just can’t seem to maintain their body weight. They lose muscle and fat, sometimes becoming so weak that they can’t tolerate further treatment. Called cachexia, this progressive wasting syndrome has long troubled patients and their families, as well as baffled scientists searching for ways to treat or perhaps even prevent it.
Some previous studies [1-3] have observed that humans and mice suffering from cachexia have “activated” brown fat. This type of fat, as I explained in a previous post, has the ability to convert its chemical energy into heat to keep the body warm. Intrigued by these hints, a team led by Bruce Spiegelman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston recently decided to explore whether tumor cells might secrete molecules that spur similar brown fat-like activity, causing a gradual depletion of the body’s energy stores.
In these times of tight budgets and rapidly evolving science, we must consider new ways to invest biomedical research dollars to achieve maximum impact—to turn scientific discoveries into better health as swiftly as possible. We do this by thinking strategically about the areas of research that we support, as well as the process by which we fund that research.
Historically, most NIH-funded grants have been “project-based,” which means that their applications have clearly delineated aims for what will be accomplished during a defined project period. These research project grants typically last three to five years and vary in award amount. For example, the average annual direct cost of the R01 grant—the gold standard of NIH funding—was around $282,000 in FY 2013, with an average duration of about 4.3 years.
Caption: A real-time image of nanojuice as it passes through a mouse’s small intestine. A laser causes particles in the nanojuice to vibrate, creating vibrations picked up by an ultrasound detector that are then used to generate a black-and-white image. Rainbow colors are added afterward to reflect the depth of the intestine within the mouse’s abdomen: blue is closest to the surface and red is deepest. Credit: Jonathan Lovell, University at Buffalo
For those of you who love to try new juices, you’ve probably checked out acai, goji berry, and maybe even cold-pressed kale. But have you heard of nanojuice? While it’s not a new kind of health food, this scientific invention may someday help to improve human health through its power to visualize the action of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract in real-time.
It’s true that doctors already have many imaging tools at their disposal to examine various parts of the GI tract—all the way from throat to colon. These include invasive techniques, such as upper endoscopy and colonoscopy; as well as non-invasive approaches, such as ultrasound, magnetic resonance imaging, and X-ray procedures that may or may not involve swallowing a chalky liquid containing barium or other materials that are radio-opaque. There’s even a wireless capsule that can shoot videos as it travels all the way through the GI tract. None of these techniques, however, provides a non-invasive, real-time view of the wave-like muscle contractions that move food through the gut—a crucial process called peristalsis.
Caption: This image shows the uncontrolled growth of cells in squamous cell carcinoma. Credit: Markus Schober and Elaine Fuchs, The Rockefeller University, New York
For Markus Schober, science is more inspiring when the images are beautiful, even when the subject is not. So, when this biologist was at The Rockefeller University in New York and peered through his microscope at squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), both the diabolical complexity—and the beauty—of this common form of skin cancer caught his eye.
Schober wasn’t the only one who found the image compelling. A panel of judges from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences and the American Society for Cell Biology chose to feature it in their Life: Magnified exhibit, which recently opened at the Washington Dulles International Airport.
A few years ago, Debra Auguste, a chemical engineer then at Harvard University, was examining the statistics on breast cancer: the second most common cancer in women in the U.S. after lung cancer. She was disturbed to discover that of all the ethnic groups, African American women with breast cancer suffered the highest mortality rates—with 30.8% dying from the disease [1-3].
As an African American woman, Auguste was stunned by this correlation. She wondered whether there was some genetic aspect of breast cancer cells in African Americans that made these cancers more aggressive and more difficult to cure.