LabTV: Curious About Improving American Indian Health

Deana Around HimNovember is National American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month, and so I can’t think of a better time to introduce you to Deana Around Him, a social and behavioral health researcher active in efforts to improve the health of infants and children in native communities. Deana is a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, where she grew up with her mother and sisters after losing her father to a car accident when she was only 3 years old.

Deana’s father was a pharmacist, and, as a child, Deana thought that she would follow in his footsteps. But after participating in the National Youth Leadership Forum for Medicine one summer in high school, she set her sights instead on a career in medicine and made her way to Brown University, Providence, RI. Attending an Ivy League school was something she “never in her wildest dreams imagined” as a kid.

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Creative Minds: Fighting Cancer with Supercomputers

Amanda Randles

Amanda Randles

After graduating college with degrees in physics and computer science, Amanda Randles landed her dream first job. She joined IBM in 2005 to work on its Blue Gene Project, which had just unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer. So fast, in fact, it’s said that a scientist with a calculator would have to work nonstop for 177,000 years to perform the operations that Blue Gene could complete in one second. As a member of the applications team, Randles was charged with writing new code to make the next model run even faster.

Randles left IBM in 2009 for graduate school, with the goal to apply her supercomputing expertise to biomedical research. She spent the next several years developing the necessary algorithms to produce a high-resolution 3D model of the human cardiovascular system, complete with realistic blood flow. Now, an assistant professor at Duke University, Durham, NC, and a 2014 NIH Director’s Early Independence awardee, Randles will build on her earlier work to attempt something even more challenging: simulating the movement of cancer cells through the circulation to predict where a tumor is most likely to spread. Randles hopes all of her late nights writing code will one day lead to software that helps doctors stage cancer more precisely and gives patients accurate personalized computer simulations that put an earlier, potentially life-saving bullseye on secondary tumors.

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Protecting Kids: Developing a Vaccine for Respiratory Syncytial Virus

Baby at the Doctor's OfficeVaccines are one of biomedicine’s most powerful and successful tools for protecting against infectious diseases. While we currently have safe and effective vaccines to prevent measles, mumps, and a great many other common childhood diseases, we still lack a vaccine to guard against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)—a leading cause of pneumonia among infants and young children.

Each year, more than 2 million U.S. children under the age of 5 require medical care for pneumonia and other potentially life-threatening lower respiratory infections caused by RSV [1,2]. Worldwide, the situation is even worse, with more than 30 million infections estimated to occur annually, most among kids in developing countries, where as many as 200,000 deaths may result [3]. So, I’m pleased to report some significant progress in biomedical research’s long battle against RSV: encouraging early results from a clinical trial of an experimental vaccine specifically designed to outwit the virus.

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LabTV: Curious about Pancreatic Cancer

Lindsey Briton

Growing up in Blacksburg, VA, Lindsey Brinton was constantly asking her parents how everything worked. She took this expansive natural curiosity with her to the University of Virginia, where she earned undergraduate degrees in French literature and biomedical engineering. Now a Ph.D. candidate at UVA in the lab of Kimberly Kelly—and the subject of our latest LabTV video—Brinton is posing interesting questions about pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the most difficult cancers to treat, in part, because it often spreads early and is diagnosed too late. Brinton’s research is focused on the cells that surround the tumor, the so-called stroma, and on the risk of metastasis. She wonders whether these cells display unique targets on their surface that, once discovered, can be exploited to kill the tumor cells. It’s certainly challenging research. Failures far outnumber successes. But as Brinton points out, endurance, perseverance, and keeping your eye on the big picture can lead to success.

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Big Data Study Reveals Possible Subtypes of Type 2 Diabetes

Computational model

Caption: Computational model showing study participants with type 2 diabetes grouped into three subtypes, based on similarities in data contained in their electronic health records. Such information included age, gender (red/orange/yellow indicates females; blue/green, males), health history, and a range of routine laboratory and medical tests.
Credit: Dudley Lab, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about how “Big Data” stands to revolutionize biomedical research. Indeed, we’ve already gained many new insights into health and disease thanks to the power of new technologies to generate astonishing amounts of molecular data—DNA sequences, epigenetic marks, and metabolic signatures, to name a few. But what’s often overlooked is the value of combining all that with a more mundane type of Big Data: the vast trove of clinical information contained in electronic health records (EHRs).

In a recent study in Science Translational Medicine  [1], NIH-funded researchers demonstrated the tremendous potential of using EHRs, combined with genome-wide analysis, to learn more about a common, chronic disease—type 2 diabetes. Sifting through the EHR and genomic data of more than 11,000 volunteers, the researchers uncovered what appear to be three distinct subtypes of type 2 diabetes. Not only does this work have implications for efforts to reduce this leading cause of death and disability, it provides a sneak peek at the kind of discoveries that will be made possible by the new Precision Medicine Initiative’s national research cohort, which will enroll 1 million or more volunteers who agree to share their EHRs and genomic information.

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