Creative Minds: Harnessing Technologies to Study Air Pollution’s Health Risks

Perry Hystad

Perry Hystad
Credit: Hannah O’Leary, Oregon State University

After college, Perry Hystad took a trip to India and, while touring several large cities, noticed the vast clouds of exhaust from vehicles, smoke from factories, and soot from biomass-burning cook stoves. As he watched the rapid urban expansion all around him, Hystad remembers thinking: What effect does breathing such pollution day in and day out have upon these people’s health?

This question stuck with Hystad, and he soon developed a profound interest in environmental health. In 2013, Hystad completed his Ph.D. in his native Canada, studying the environmental risk factors for lung cancer [1, 2, 3]. Now, with the support of an NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, Hystad has launched his own lab at Oregon State University, Corvallis, to investigate further the health impacts of air pollution, which one recent analysis indicates may contribute to as many as several million deaths worldwide each year [4].

Continue reading

Hitting the Right Target? Lab Studies Suggest Epigenetic Drug May Fight Childhood Brain Cancer

Faces of DIPG

Caption: Remembering a few of the many children who’ve died of DIPG; Left, Lyla Nsouli and parents; upper right, Andrew Smith and mom; lower right, Alexis Agin and parents.
Credits: Nsouli, Smith, and Agin families

Every year in the United States, several hundred children and their families receive a devastating diagnosis: diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG). Sadly, this inoperable tumor of the brain stem, little known by the public, is almost always fatal, and efforts to develop life-saving treatments have been hampered by a lack of molecular data to identify agents that might specifically target DIPG. In fact, more than 200 clinical trials of potential drugs have been conducted in DIPG patients without any success.

Now, using cell lines and mouse models created with tumor tissue donated by 16 DIPG patients, an international research coalition has gained a deeper understanding of this childhood brain cancer at the molecular level. These new preclinical tools have also opened the door to identifying more precise targets for DIPG therapy, including the exciting possibility of using a drug already approved for another type of cancer.

Continue reading

What Is Obesity? Metabolic Signatures Offer New Comprehensive View

Silhouettes over an NMR

Credit: Adapted from Elliott, P et al., Sci Transl Med. 2015 Apr 29;7(285)

As obesity has risen in the United States and all around the world, so too have many other obesity-related health conditions: diabetes, heart disease, stroke, cancer, and maybe even Alzheimer’s disease. But how exactly do those extra pounds lead to such widespread trouble, and how might we go about developing better ways to prevent or alleviate this very serious health threat?

In a new study in Science Translational Medicine [1], researchers performed sophisticated analyses of the molecules excreted in human urine to produce one of the most comprehensive pictures yet of the metabolic signature that appears to correlate with obesity. This work provides a fascinating preview of things to come as researchers from metabolomics, microbiomics, and a wide variety of other fields strive to develop more precise approaches to managing and preventing disease.

Continue reading

Snapping Together a New Microlab

Microlabs

Credit:  Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

Just as the computational power of yesterday’s desktop computer has been miniaturized to fit inside your mobile phone, bioengineers have shrunk traditional laboratory instruments to the size of a dime. To assemble a “snap lab” like the one you see above, all scientists have to do is click together some plastic components in much the same way that kids snap together the plastic bricks in their toy building sets.

The snap lab, developed by an NIH-funded team led by Noah Malmstadt at the University of Southern California (USC) Viterbi School of Engineering, Los Angeles, is an exciting example of a microfluidic circuit—tiny devices designed  to test just a single drop of blood, saliva, or other fluids. Such devices have the potential to make DNA analysis, microbe detection, and other biomedical tests easier and cheaper to perform.

Continue reading

Tracing the Neural Circuitry of Appetite

MC4R PVH neurons-the heart of hunger

Caption: A stylized image of the MC4R-expressing neurons (in red) within the brain’s PVH, which is the “heart of hunger”
Credit: Michael Krashes, NIDDK, NIH

If you’ve ever skipped meals for a whole day or gone on a strict, low-calorie diet, you know just how powerful the feeling of hunger can be. Your stomach may growl and rumble, but, ultimately, it’s your brain that signals when to start eating—and when to stop. So, learning more about the brain’s complex role in controlling appetite is crucial to efforts to develop better ways of helping the millions of Americans afflicted with obesity [1].

Thanks to recent technological advances that make it possible to study the brain’s complex circuitry in real-time, a team of NIH-funded researchers recently made some important progress in understanding the neural basis for appetite. In a study published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, the researchers used a variety of innovative techniques to control activity in the brains of living mice, and identified one particular circuit that appears to switch hunger off and on [2].

Continue reading