Snapshots of Life: Seeing, from Eye to Brain

Credit: Xueting Luo and Kevin Park, University of Miami

Fasten your seat belts! We’re going to fly through the brain of a mouse. Our tour guide is Kevin Park, an NIH-funded neuroscientist at the University of Miami, who has developed a unique method to visualize neurons in an intact brain. He’s going to give us a rare close-up of the retinal ganglion cells that carry information from the eye to the brain, where the light signals are decoded and translated.

To make this movie, Park has injected a fluorescent dye into the mouse eye; it is taken up by the retinal cells and traces out the nerve pathways from the optic nerve into the brain.

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Snapshots of Life: The Dance of Development

Credit: Amanda L. Zacharias and John I. Murray, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania

This video may look like an aerial shot of a folk dance: first a lone dancer, then two, then four, until finally dozens upon dozens of twirling orbs pack the space in a frenzy of motion. But what you’re actually viewing is an action shot of one of biology’s most valuable models for studying development: the round worm, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans).

Taking advantage of time-lapse technology, this video packs into 38 seconds the first 13 hours of this tiny worm’s life, showing its development from a single cell into the larval, or juvenile stage, with 558 cells. (If you are wondering why C. elegans doesn’t look very worm-like at the end of this video, it’s because the organism develops curled up inside a transparent shell—and after it breaks out of that shell, it squirms quickly away.)

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Copy-editing the Genome: Extreme Personalized Medicine?

COOL TOOL. See how the TALE protein (rainbow colored) recognizes the target DNA site and wraps around the double helix. When this TALE protein is fused to a nuclease (the scissors), creating a TALEN, the hybrid protein will clip the DNA at the target site. Credit: Jeffry D. Sander, Massachusetts General Hospital

If I made a spelling mistake in this blog, and you were my copy editor, you’d want to fix it quickly. You’d delete the wrong letter and insert the correct one. Well, DNA is a language too, with just four letters in its alphabet; and disease can occur with just one letter out of place if it’s in a vulnerable position (think sickle cell anemia or the premature aging disease, progeria). Wouldn’t it be great for tomorrow’s physicians to be able to do what the copy editor does? That is, if they could fix a genetic mutation quickly and efficiently, without messing up the rest of the text?

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Tackling the Bottlenecks in the Drug Development Pipeline

Can you believe the average length of time from target discovery to approval of a new drug currently averages about 14 years? That is WAY too long. Even more shocking is that the failure rate exceeds 95 percent, and the cost per successful drug surpasses $2 billion, after adjusting for all of the failures. The National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences was specifically established one year ago to apply innovative scientific approaches to the bottlenecks in the pipeline. An example of game-changing innovation is the NCATS collaboration with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop a biochip for testing drug safety. Devices like this and other tissue chips may someday reduce the amount of animal and human clinical trials necessary to determine if a drug works. That could be a huge step toward making drug development faster and cheaper—which is better for all of us.

Mobile Health: Figuring Out What Works

This week, I was excited to join some of the world’s top experts on technology and health at the 2012 mHealth Summit. It’s a booming field, with a recent Pew survey finding 11% of cell phone users and 19% of smart phone users now have at least one health app on their mobile devices.

Among the hot topics at this year’s Summit was the need for rigorous research to determine which of these apps actually serve to improve health—and which don’t! To learn more, check out this video featuring NIH-supported researcher Charlene Quinn.

Dr. Quinn’s work focuses on mHealth approaches aimed at managing diabetes, but her message is relevant to all of us who’d like to use our smart phones, iPads, and other mobile devices to improve our health.