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The Amazing Brain: Seeing Two Memories at Once

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Light microscopy. Green at top and bottom with a middle blue layer showing cells.
Credit: Stephanie Grella, Boston University, MA

The NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative is revolutionizing our understanding of the human brain. As described in the initiative’s name, the development of innovative imaging technologies will enable researchers to see the brain in new and increasingly dynamic ways. Each year, the initiative celebrates some standout and especially creative examples of such advances in the “Show Us Your BRAINs! Photo & Video Contest. During most of August, I’ll share some of the most eye-catching developments in our blog series, The Amazing Brain.

In this fascinating image, you’re seeing two stored memories, which scientists call engrams, in the hippocampus region of a mouse’s brain. The engrams show the neural intersection of a good memory (green) and a bad memory (pink). You can also see the nuclei of many neurons (blue), including nearby neurons not involved in the memory formation.

This award-winning image was produced by Stephanie Grella in the lab of NIH-supported neuroscientist Steve Ramirez, Boston University, MA. It’s also not the first time that the blog has featured Grella’s technical artistry. Grella, who will soon launch her own lab at Loyola University, Chicago, previously captured what a single memory looks like.

To capture two memories at once, Grella relied on a technology known as optogenetics. This powerful method allows researchers to genetically engineer neurons and selectively activate them in laboratory mice using blue light. In this case, Grella used a harmless virus to label neurons involved in recording a positive experience with a light-sensitive molecule, known as an opsin. Another molecular label was used to make those same cells appear green when activated.

After any new memory is formed, there’s a period of up to about 24 hours during which the memory is malleable. Then, the memory tends to stabilize. But with each retrieval, the memory can be modified as it restabilizes, a process known as memory reconsolidation.

Grella and team decided to try to use memory reconsolidation to their advantage to neutralize an existing fear. To do this, they placed their mice in an environment that had previously startled them. When a mouse was retrieving a fearful memory (pink), the researchers activated with light associated with the positive memory (green), which for these particular mice consisted of positive interactions with other mice. The aim was to override or disrupt the fearful memory.

As shown by the green all throughout the image, the experiment worked. While the mice still showed some traces of the fearful memory (pink), Grella explained that the specific cells that were the focus of her study shifted to the positive memory (green).

What’s perhaps even more telling is that the evidence suggests the mice didn’t just trade one memory for another. Rather, it appears that activating a positive memory actually suppressed or neutralized the animal’s fearful memory. The hope is that this approach might one day inspire methods to help people overcome negative and unwanted memories, such as those that play a role in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health issues.

Links:

Stephanie Grella (Boston University, MA)

Ramirez Group (Boston University)

Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative (NIH)

Show Us Your BRAINs Photo & Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)

NIH Support: BRAIN Initiative; Common Fund


Unraveling the Role of the Skin Microbiome in Health and Disease

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broad areas of yellow with dots of magenta and green
Caption: Healthy human skin cells (yellow) are home to bacteria (bright pink), fungi (light blue), and other microorganisms. Credit: Alex Valm, University at Albany, NY

Human skin is home to diverse ecosystems including bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These microbial communities comprise hundreds of species and are collectively known as the skin microbiome. The skin microbiome is thought to play a vital role in fending off disease-causing microorganisms (pathogens), boosting barrier protection, and aiding immune defenses.

Maintaining a balanced skin microbiome involves a complex and dynamic interplay among microorganisms, immune cells, skin cells, and other factors. In general, bacteria far outnumber viral, fungal, or other microbial species on the skin. Bacterial communities, which are strongly influenced by conditions such as skin moisture, temperature, and pH, vary widely across the body. For example, facial cheek skin hosts mostly Cutibacterium along with a bit of the skin fungus Malassezia. The heel is colonized by different types of bacteria including Staphylococcus and Corynebacteria.

In some diseases, such as acne and eczema, the skin microbiome is altered. Typically, this means an increase in pathogenic microorganisms and a decrease in beneficial ones. An altered skin microbiome can also be associated with inflammation, severe disease symptoms, and changes in the human immune system.

Heidi H. Kong is working to understand the role of the skin microbiome in health and disease. She is a senior investigator in the Intramural Research Program at NIH’s National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) and an adjunct investigator at NIH’s National Cancer Institute (NCI).

More than a decade ago, Kong and Julie A. Segre, an intramural researcher at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute, analyzed the microbial makeup of healthy individuals. Kong swabbed the skin of these healthy volunteers in 20 different sites, from the forehead to the toenail. The study revealed that the surface of the human body provides various environmental niches, depending on whether the skin is moist, dry, or sebaceous (oily). Different bacterial species predominate in each niche. Kong and Segre were particularly interested in body areas that have predilections for disease. For example, psoriasis is often found on the outside of elbows and knees, and the back of the scalp.

Earlier this year, Kong and Segre published another broad analysis of the human skin microbiome [1] in collaboration with scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), United Kingdom. This new catalog, called the Skin Microbial Genome Collection, is thought to identify about 85 percent of the microorganisms present on healthy skin from 19 body sites. It documents more than 600 bacterial species—including 174 that were discovered during the study—as well as more than 6,900 viruses and some fungi, including three newly discovered species.

Kong’s work has provided compelling evidence that the human immune system plays a role in shaping the skin microbiome. In 2018, she, Segre, and colleagues from the intramural programs of NCI and NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases analyzed skin from eight different sites on 27 people with a rare primary immunodeficiency disease known as DOCK8 deficiency [2].

People with the condition have recurrent infections in the skin, sinuses, and airways, and are susceptible to different cancers. Kong and colleagues found that the skin of people with DOCK8 deficiency contains significantly more DNA viruses (90 percent of the skin microbiome on average) than people without the condition (6 or 7 percent of the skin microbiome).

Other researchers are hoping to leverage features of the microbiome to develop targeted therapies for skin diseases. Richard L. Gallo, a NIAMS grantee at the University of California, San Diego, is currently focused on acne and eczema (also called atopic dermatitis). Acne is associated with certain strains of Cutibacterium acnes (C. acnes, formerly called Propionibacterium acnes or P. acnes). Eczema is often associated with Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus).

Severe cases of acne and eczema are commonly treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics, which wipe out most of the bacteria, including beneficial species. The goal of microbiome-targeted therapy is to kill only the disease-associated bacteria and avoid increasing the risk that some strains will develop antibiotic resistance.

In 2020, Gallo and colleagues identified a strain of Staphylococcus capitis from healthy human skin (S. capitis E12) that selectively inhibits the growth of C. acnes without negatively impacting other bacteria or human skin cells [3]. S. capitis E12 produces four different toxins that act together to target C. acnes. The research team created an extract of the four toxins and tested it using animal models. In most cases, the extract was more potent at killing C. acnes—including acne-associated strains—than several commonly prescribed antibiotics (erythromycin, tetracycline, and clindamycin). And, unlike antibiotics, the extract does not appear to promote drug-resistance, at least for the 20 generations observed by the researchers.

Eczema is a chronic, relapsing disease characterized by skin that is dry, itchy, inflamed, and prone to infection, including by pathogens such as S. aureus and herpes virus. Although the cause of eczema is unknown, the condition is associated with human genetic mutations, disruption of the skin’s barrier, inflammation-triggering allergens, and imbalances in the skin microbiome.

In 2017, Gallo’s research team discovered that, in healthy human skin, certain strains of Staphylococcus hominis and Staphylococcus epidermis produce potent antimicrobial molecules known as lantibiotics [4]. These beneficial strains are far less common on the skin of people with eczema. The lantibiotics work synergistically with LL-37, an antimicrobial molecule produced by the human immune system, to selectively kill S. aureus, including methicillin-resistant strains (MRSA).

Gallo and his colleagues then examined the safety and therapeutic potential of these beneficial strains isolated from the human skin microbiome. In animal tests, strains of S. hominis and S. epidermis that produce lantibiotics killed S. aureus and blocked production of its toxin.

Gallo’s group has now expanded their work to early studies in humans. In 2021, two independent phase 1 clinical trials [5,6] conducted by Gallo and his colleagues investigated the effects of these strains on people with eczema. These double-blind, placebo-controlled trials involved one-week of topical application of beneficial bacteria to the forearm of adults with S. aureus-positive eczema. The results demonstrated that the treatment was safe, showed a significant decrease in S. aureus, and improved eczema symptoms in most patients. This is encouraging news for those hoping to develop microbiome-targeted therapy for inflammatory skin diseases.

As research on the skin microbiome advances on different fronts, it will provide deeper insight into the multi-faceted microbial communities that are so critical to health and disease. One day, we may even be able to harness the microbiome as a source of therapeutics to alleviate inflammation, promote wound healing, or suppress certain skin cancers.

References:

[1] Integrating cultivation and metagenomics for a multi-kingdom view of skin microbiome diversity and functions. Saheb Kashaf S, Proctor DM, Deming C, Saary P, Hölzer M; NISC Comparative Sequencing Program, Taylor ME, Kong HH, Segre JA, Almeida A, Finn RD. Nat Microbiol. 2022 Jan;7(1):169-179.

[2] Expanded skin virome in DOCK8-deficient patients. Tirosh O, Conlan S, Deming C, Lee-Lin SQ, Huang X; NISC Comparative Sequencing Program, Su HC, Freeman AF, Segre JA, Kong HH. Nat Med. 2018 Dec;24(12):1815-1821.

[3] Identification of a human skin commensal bacterium that selectively kills Cutibacterium acnes. O’Neill AM, Nakatsuji T, Hayachi A, Williams MR, Mills RH, Gonzalez DJ, Gallo RL. J Invest Dermatol. 2020 Aug;140(8):1619-1628.e2.

[4] Antimicrobials from human skin commensal bacteria protect against Staphylococcus aureus and are deficient in atopic dermatitis. Nakatsuji T, Chen TH, Narala S, Chun KA, Two AM, Yun T, Shafiq F, Kotol PF, Bouslimani A, Melnik AV, Latif H, Kim JN, Lockhart A, Artis K, David G, Taylor P, Streib J, Dorrestein PC, Grier A, Gill SR, Zengler K, Hata TR, Leung DY, Gallo RL. Sci Transl Med. 2017 Feb 22;9(378):eaah4680.

[5] Development of a human skin commensal microbe for bacteriotherapy of atopic dermatitis and use in a phase 1 randomized clinical trial. Nakatsuji T, Hata TR, Tong Y, Cheng JY, Shafiq F, Butcher AM, Salem SS, Brinton SL, Rudman Spergel AK, Johnson K, Jepson B, Calatroni A, David G, Ramirez-Gama M, Taylor P, Leung DYM, Gallo RL. Nat Med. 2021 Apr;27(4):700-709.

[6] Use of autologous bacteriotherapy to treat Staphylococcus aureus in patients with atopic dermatitis: A randomized double-blind clinical trial. Nakatsuji T, Gallo RL, Shafiq F, Tong Y, Chun K, Butcher AM, Cheng JY, Hata TR. JAMA Dermatol. 2021 Jun 16;157(8):978-82.

Links:

Acne (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases/NIH)

Atopic Dermatitis (NIAMS)

Cutaneous Microbiome and Inflammation Laboratory, Heidi Kong (NIAMS)

Julie Segre (National Human Genome Research Institute/NIH)

Gallo Lab (University of California, San Diego)

[Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the cool science that they support and conduct. This is the fifth in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]


Preventing Glaucoma Vision Loss with ‘Big Data’

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Credit: University of California San Diego

Each morning, more than 2 million Americans start their rise-and-shine routine by remembering to take their eye drops. The drops treat their open-angle glaucoma, the most-common form of the disease, caused by obstructed drainage of fluid where the eye’s cornea and iris meet. The slow drainage increases fluid pressure at the front of the eye. Meanwhile, at the back of the eye, fluid pushes on the optic nerve, causing its bundled fibers to fray and leading to gradual loss of side vision.

For many, the eye drops help to lower intraocular pressure and prevent vision loss. But for others, the drops aren’t sufficient and their intraocular pressure remains high. Such people will need next-level care, possibly including eye surgery, to reopen the clogged drainage ducts and slow this disease that disproportionately affects older adults and African Americans over age 40.

Sally Baxter
Credit: University of California San Diego

Sally Baxter, a physician-scientist with expertise in ophthalmology at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), wants to learn how to predict who is at greatest risk for serious vision loss from open-angle and other forms of glaucoma. That way, they can receive more aggressive early care to protect their vision from this second-leading cause of blindness in the U.S..

To pursue this challenging research goal, Baxter has received a 2020 NIH Director’s Early Independence Award. Her research will build on the clinical observation that people with glaucoma frequently battle other chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. To learn more about how these and other chronic health conditions might influence glaucoma outcomes, Baxter has begun mining a rich source of data: electronic health records (EHRs).

In an earlier study of patients at UCSD, Baxter showed that EHR data helped to predict which people would need glaucoma surgery within the next six months [1]. The finding suggested that the EHR, especially information on a patient’s blood pressure and medications, could predict the risk for worsening glaucoma.

In her NIH-supported work, she’s already extended this earlier “Big Data” finding by analyzing data from more than 1,200 people with glaucoma who participate in NIH’s All of Us Research Program [2]. With consent from the participants, Baxter used their EHRs to train a computer to find telltale patterns within the data and then predict with 80 to 99 percent accuracy who would later require eye surgery.

The findings confirm that machine learning approaches and EHR data can indeed help in managing people with glaucoma. That’s true even when the EHR data don’t contain any information specific to a person’s eye health.

In fact, the work of Baxter and other groups have pointed to an especially important role for blood pressure in shaping glaucoma outcomes. Hoping to explore this lead further with the support of her Early Independence Award, Baxter also will enroll patients in a study to test whether blood-pressure monitoring smart watches can add important predictive information on glaucoma progression. By combining round-the-clock blood pressure data with EHR data, she hopes to predict glaucoma progression with even greater precision. She’s also exploring innovative ways to track whether people with glaucoma use their eye drops as prescribed, which is another important predictor of the risk of irreversible vision loss [3].

Glaucoma research continues to undergo great progress. This progress ranges from basic research to the development of new treatments and high-resolution imaging technologies to improve diagnostics. But Baxter’s quest to develop practical clinical tools hold great promise, too, and hopefully will help one day to protect the vision of millions of people with glaucoma around the world.

References:

[1] Machine learning-based predictive modeling of surgical intervention in glaucoma using systemic data from electronic health records. Baxter SL, Marks C, Kuo TT, Ohno-Machado L, Weinreb RN. Am J Ophthalmol. 2019 Dec; 208:30-40.

[2] Predictive analytics for glaucoma using data from the All of Us Research Program. Baxter SL, Saseendrakumar BR, Paul P, Kim J, Bonomi L, Kuo TT, Loperena R, Ratsimbazafy F, Boerwinkle E, Cicek M, Clark CR, Cohn E, Gebo K, Mayo K, Mockrin S, Schully SD, Ramirez A, Ohno-Machado L; All of Us Research Program Investigators. Am J Ophthalmol. 2021 Jul;227:74-86.

[3] Smart electronic eyedrop bottle for unobtrusive monitoring of glaucoma medication adherence. Aguilar-Rivera M, Erudaitius DT, Wu VM, Tantiongloc JC, Kang DY, Coleman TP, Baxter SL, Weinreb RN. Sensors (Basel). 2020 Apr 30;20(9):2570.

Links:

Glaucoma (National Eye Institute/NIH)

All of Us Research Program (NIH)

Video: Sally Baxter (All of Us Research Program)

Sally Baxter (University of California San Diego)

Baxter Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s Early Independence Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund


Taking a Closer Look at COVID-19’s Effects on the Brain

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MRI of a brain damaged by COVID-19
Caption: Magnetic resonance microscopy showing lower part of a COVID-19 patient’s brain stem postmortem. Arrows point to light and dark spots indicative of blood vessel damage with no signs of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Credit: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, NIH

While primarily a respiratory disease, COVID-19 can also lead to neurological problems. The first of these symptoms might be the loss of smell and taste, while some people also may later battle headaches, debilitating fatigue, and trouble thinking clearly, sometimes referred to as “brain fog.” All of these symptoms have researchers wondering how exactly the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, affects the human brain.

In search of clues, researchers at NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) have now conducted the first in-depth examinations of human brain tissue samples from people who died after contracting COVID-19. Their findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggest that COVID-19’s many neurological symptoms are likely explained by the body’s widespread inflammatory response to infection and associated blood vessel injury—not by infection of the brain tissue itself [1].

The NIH team, led by Avindra Nath, used a high-powered magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner (up to 10 times as sensitive as a typical MRI) to examine postmortem brain tissue from 19 patients. They ranged in age from 5 to 73, and some had preexisting conditions, such as diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease.
The team focused on the brain’s olfactory bulb that controls our ability to smell and the brainstem, which regulates breathing and heart rate. Based on earlier evidence, both areas are thought to be highly susceptible to COVID-19.

Indeed, the MRI images revealed in both regions an unusual number of bright spots, a sign of inflammation. They also showed dark spots, which indicate bleeding. A closer look at the bright spots showed that tiny blood vessels in those areas were thinner than normal and, in some cases, leaked blood proteins into the brain. This leakage appeared to trigger an immune reaction that included T cells from the blood and the brain’s scavenging microglia. The dark spots showed a different pattern, with leaky vessels and clots but no evidence of an immune reaction.

While those findings are certainly interesting, perhaps equally noteworthy is what Nath and colleagues didn’t see in those samples. They could find no evidence in the brain tissue samples that SARS-CoV-2 had invaded the brain tissue. In fact, several methods to detect genetic material or proteins from the virus all turned up empty.

The findings are especially intriguing because there has been some suggestion based on studies in mice that SARS-CoV-2 might cross the blood-brain barrier and invade the brain. Indeed, a recent report by NIH-funded researchers in Nature Neuroscience showed that the viral spike protein, when injected into mice, readily entered the brain along with many other organs [2].

Another recent report in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, which used mouse and human brain tissue, suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may indeed directly infect the central nervous system, including the brain [3]. In autopsies of three people who died from complications of COVID-19, the NIH-supported researchers detected signs of SARS-CoV-2 in neurons in the brain’s cerebral cortex. This work was done using the microscopy-based technique of immunohistochemistry, which uses antibodies to bind to a target, in this case, the virus’s spike protein. Also last month, in a study published in the journal Neurobiology of Disease, another NIH-supported team demonstrated in a series of experiments in cell culture that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein could cross a 3D model of the blood-brain barrier and infect the endothelial cells that line blood vessels in the brain [4].

Clearly, more research is needed, and NIH’s National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke has just launched the COVID-19 Neuro Databank/Biobank (NeuroCOVID) to collect more clinical information, primarily about COVID-19-related neurological symptoms, complications, and outcomes. Meanwhile, Nath and colleagues continue to explore how COVID-19 affects the brain and triggers the neurological symptoms often seen in people with COVID-19. As we learn more about the many ways COVID-19 wreaks havoc on the body, understanding the neurological symptoms will be critical in helping people, including the so-called Long Haulers bounce back from this terrible viral infection.

References:

[1] Microvascular Injury in the Brains of Patients with Covid-19. Lee MH, Perl DP, Nair G, Li W, Maric D, Murray H, Dodd SJ, Koretsky AP, Watts JA, Cheung V, Masliah E, Horkayne-Szakaly I, Jones R, Stram MN, Moncur J, Hefti M, Folkerth RD, Nath A. N Engl J Med. 2020 Dec 30.

[2] The S1 protein of SARS-CoV-2 crosses the blood-brain barrier in mice. Rhea EM, Logsdon AF, Hansen KM, Williams LM, Reed MJ, Baumann KK, Holden SJ, Raber J, Banks WA, Erickson MA. Nat Neurosci. 2020 Dec 16.

[3] Neuroinvasion of SARS-CoV-2 in human and mouse brain. Song E, Zhang C, Israelow B, et al. J Exp Med (2021) 218 (3): e20202135.

[4] The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein alters barrier function in 2D static and 3D microfluidic in-vitro models of the human blood-brain barrier. Buzhdygan TP, DeOre BJ, Baldwin-Leclair A, Bullock TA, McGary HM, Khan JA, Razmpour R, Hale JF, Galie PA, Potula R, Andrews AM, Ramirez SH. Neurobiol Dis. 2020 Dec;146:105131.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Avindra Nath (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Mental Health


The People’s Picks for Best Posts

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It’s 2021—Happy New Year! Time sure flies in the blogosphere. It seems like just yesterday that I started the NIH Director’s Blog to highlight recent advances in biology and medicine, many supported by NIH. Yet it turns out that more than eight years have passed since this blog got rolling and we are fast approaching my 1,000th post!

I’m pleased that millions of you have clicked on these posts to check out some very cool science and learn more about NIH and its mission. Thanks to the wonders of social media software, we’ve been able to tally up those views to determine each year’s most-popular post. So, I thought it would be fun to ring in the New Year by looking back at a few of your favorites, sort of a geeky version of a top 10 countdown or the People’s Choice Awards. It was interesting to see what topics generated the greatest interest. Spoiler alert: diet and exercise seemed to matter a lot! So, without further ado, I present the winners:

2013: Fighting Obesity: New Hopes from Brown Fat. Brown fat, one of several types of fat made by our bodies, was long thought to produce body heat rather than store energy. But Shingo Kajimura and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, showed in a study published in the journal Nature, that brown fat does more than that. They discovered a gene that acts as a molecular switch to produce brown fat, then linked mutations in this gene to obesity in humans.

What was also nice about this blog post is that it appeared just after Kajimura had started his own lab. In fact, this was one of the lab’s first publications. One of my goals when starting the blog was to feature young researchers, and this work certainly deserved the attention it got from blog readers. Since highlighting this work, research on brown fat has continued to progress, with new evidence in humans suggesting that brown fat is an effective target to improve glucose homeostasis.

2014: In Memory of Sam Berns. I wrote this blog post as a tribute to someone who will always be very near and dear to me. Sam Berns was born with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, one of the rarest of rare diseases. After receiving the sad news that this brave young man had passed away, I wrote: “Sam may have only lived 17 years, but in his short life he taught the rest of us a lot about how to live.”

Affecting approximately 400 people worldwide, progeria causes premature aging. Without treatment, children with progeria, who have completely normal intellectual development, die of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, on average in their early teens.

From interactions with Sam and his parents in the early 2000s, I started to study progeria in my NIH lab, eventually identifying the gene responsible for the disorder. My group and others have learned a lot since then. So, it was heartening last November when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment for progeria. It’s an oral medication called Zokinvy (lonafarnib) that helps prevent the buildup of defective protein that has deadly consequences. In clinical trials, the drug increased the average survival time of those with progeria by more than two years. It’s a good beginning, but we have much more work to do in the memory of Sam and to help others with progeria. Watch for more about new developments in applying gene editing to progeria in the next few days.

2015: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol. Readers absolutely loved this post. When the American Society of Cell Biology held its first annual video competition, called CellDance, my blog featured some of the winners. Among them was this captivating video from Alex Ritter, then working with cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The video stars a roving, specialized component of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. Their job is to seek out and destroy any foreign or detrimental cells. Here, these T cells literally convince a problem cell to commit suicide, a process that takes about 10 minutes from detection to death.

These cytotoxic T cells are critical players in cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. Cancer immunotherapy remains a promising area of research that continues to progress, with a lot of attention now being focused on developing immunotherapies for common, solid tumors like breast cancer. Ritter is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Ira Mellman, Genentech, South San Francisco. His focus has shifted to how cancer cells protect themselves from T cells. And video buffs—get this—Ritter says he’s now created even cooler videos that than the one in this post.

2016: Exercise Releases Brain-Healthy Protein. The research literature is pretty clear: exercise is good for the brain. In this very popular post, researchers led by Hyo Youl Moon and Henriette van Praag of NIH’s National Institute on Aging identified a protein secreted by skeletal muscle cells to help explore the muscle-brain connection. In a study in Cell Metabolism, Moon and his team showed that this protein called cathepsin B makes its way into the brain and after a good workout influences the development of new neural connections. This post is also memorable to me for the photo collage that accompanied the original post. Why? If you look closely at the bottom right, you’ll see me exercising—part of my regular morning routine!

2017: Muscle Enzyme Explains Weight Gain in Middle Age. The struggle to maintain a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge for many of us. While several risk factors for weight gain, such as counting calories, are within our control, there’s a major one that isn’t: age. Jay Chung, a researcher with NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and his team discovered that the normal aging process causes levels of an enzyme called DNA-PK to rise in animals as they approach middle age. While the enzyme is known for its role in DNA repair, their studies showed it also slows down metabolism, making it more difficult to burn fat.

Since publishing this paper in Cell Metabolism, Chung has been busy trying to understand how aging increases the activity of DNA-PK and its ability to suppress renewal of the cell’s energy-producing mitochondria. Without renewal of damaged mitochondria, excess oxidants accumulate in cells that then activate DNA-PK, which contributed to the damage in the first place. Chung calls it a “vicious cycle” of aging and one that we’ll be learning more about in the future.

2018: Has an Alternative to Table Sugar Contributed to the C. Diff. Epidemic? This impressive bit of microbial detective work had blog readers clicking and commenting for several weeks. So, it’s no surprise that it was the runaway People’s Choice of 2018.

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a common bacterium that lives harmlessly in the gut of most people. But taking antibiotics can upset the normal balance of healthy gut microbes, allowing C. diff. to multiply and produce toxins that cause inflammation and diarrhea.

In the 2000s, C. diff. infections became far more serious and common in American hospitals, and Robert Britton, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wanted to know why. He and his team discovered that two subtypes of C. diff have adapted to feed on the sugar trehalose, which was approved as a food additive in the United States during the early 2000s. The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature, suggested that hospitals and nursing homes battling C. diff. outbreaks may want to take a closer look at the effect of trehalose in the diet of their patients.

2019: Study Finds No Benefit for Dietary Supplements. This post that was another one that sparked a firestorm of comments from readers. A team of NIH-supported researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, found that people who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to amounts that are available from food consumption. The researchers based their conclusion on an analysis of the well-known National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 survey data. The team, which reported its data in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess.

2020: Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19. Typically, my blog focuses on research involving many different diseases. That changed in 2020 due to the emergence of a formidable public health challenge: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Since last March, the blog has featured 85 posts on COVID-19, covering all aspects of the research response and attracting more visitors than ever. And which post got the most views? It was one that highlighted a study, published last June in the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggested the clues to people’s variable responses to COVID-19 may be found in our genes and our blood types.

The researchers found that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death. The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system.

In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.

That’s it for the blog’s year-by-year Top Hits. But wait! I’d also like to give shout outs to the People’s Choice winners in two other important categories—history and cool science images.

Top History Post: HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story. Published in August 2013, this post remains one of the blog’s greatest hits with readers. The post highlights science’s use of cancer cells taken in the 1950s from a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells had an amazing property not seen before: they could be grown continuously in laboratory conditions. The “new chapter” featured in this post is an agreement with the Lacks family that gives researchers access to the HeLa genome data, while still protecting the family’s privacy and recognizing their enormous contribution to medical research. And the acknowledgments rightfully keep coming from those who know this remarkable story, which has been chronicled in both book and film. Recently, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to honor her extraordinary life and examine access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups.

Top Snapshots of Life: A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells. My blog posts come in several categories. One that you may have noticed is “Snapshots of Life,” which provides a showcase for cool images that appear in scientific journals and often dominate Science as Art contests. My blog has published dozens of these eye-catching images, representing a broad spectrum of the biomedical sciences. But the blog People’s Choice goes to a very recent addition that reveals exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when they are infected with the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. This vivid image, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This image squeezed in just ahead of another highly popular post from Steve Ramirez, Boston University, in 2019 that showed “What a Memory Looks Like.”

As we look ahead to 2021, I want to thank each of my blog’s readers for your views and comments over the last eight years. I love to hear from you, so keep on clicking! I’m confident that 2021 will generate a lot more amazing and bloggable science, including even more progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic that made our past year so very challenging.


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