Skip to main content

Generic

A Rare Public Health Challenge

Posted on by

child's drawing of houses labeled Scleroderma, Sjogren's, CRMO, Vasculitis, Autoimmune Encephalitis, Cystic Fibrosis
Caption: More than 10,000 rare diseases affect nearly 400 million people across the globe. Credit: Christina Loccke, Lindsey Bergstrom and Sarah Theos

Most public health challenges may seem obvious. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, swept the globe and in some way touched the lives of everyone. But not all public health challenges are as readily apparent.

Rare diseases are a case in point. While individually each disease is rare, collectively rare diseases are common: More than 10,000 rare diseases affect nearly 400 million people worldwide. In the United States, the prevalence of rare diseases (over 30 million people) rivals or exceeds that of common diseases such as diabetes (37.3 million people), Alzheimer’s disease (6.5 million people), and heart failure (6.2 million people).

Shouldering the Burden of Rare Diseases

As with common diseases, the personal and economic burdens of rare diseases are immense. People who live with rare diseases often struggle for years before they receive an accurate diagnosis, with some remaining undiagnosed for a decade or longer. The diagnostic odyssey includes countless doctor visits, unnecessary tests and procedures, and wrong diagnoses. For people in rural and low-income communities, lack of access to care is an additional barrier to an accurate diagnosis. And a diagnosis often doesn’t lead to better health—only about 5 percent of rare diseases have U.S. Food and Drug Administration–approved treatments.

Collectively, the personal burdens of those with rare diseases impose a significant economic cost on the nation. When quantifying the health care expenses for people with rare diseases, we found that they have three to five times greater costs than those without rare diseases [1]. In the United States, the total direct medical costs for those with rare diseases is approximately $400 billion annually, a figure validated independently by the EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases. The EveryLife study also included indirect and non-medical costs, resulting in a higher total economic burden of nearly $1 trillion annually [2].

What’s even starker is that the true scope and impact of rare diseases actually may be greater because rare diseases aren’t easily visible in our health care system. Many of the diseases are too rare to have a code that identifies them in the electronic health record (EHR).

Speeding Up the Search for Solutions

Each and every day, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) works with patients, advocates, clinicians, and researchers to meet the public health challenge of rare diseases. Driving those conversations are three overarching goals to help people living with rare diseases get the high-quality care they need, faster:

1. Shorten the duration of the diagnostic odyssey by more than half. The diagnostic odyssey for someone with a rare disease takes on average seven years, and there are several ways we can speed the journey. For example, we are designing computational tools to detect rare genetic disorders from EHR data. This work is part of a broader research effort focused on using genetic analysis and machine learning to make it easier for health care providers to diagnose people with rare diseases correctly. Also, connecting patients more quickly with each other and the research community can hasten the search for answers. Check out the resources below to learn about rare diseases, find patient support organizations, and get involved in research efforts.

2. Develop treatments for more than one rare disease at a time. A key strategy is leveraging what rare diseases have in common. Some of our efforts build upon the fact that 80–85 percent of rare diseases are genetic. We can use this knowledge to develop genetic and molecular interventions for groups of rare diseases. Two programs—the Platform Vector Gene Therapy pilot project and the Bespoke Gene Therapy Consortium, which is part of the public-private Accelerating Medicines Partnership®—are streamlining the gene therapy development process. Their ultimate goal is to make gene therapies more accessible to many people with rare diseases. We also have joined in to advance the clinical application of genome editing for rare genetic diseases.

The NCATS-led Rare Diseases Clinical Research Network, which is supported across NIH, brings scientists together with rare disease organizations and patient advocacy groups to better understand common characteristics, which also might speed clinical research. With this in mind, we are adapting a clinical trial strategy used in cancer research to test a single therapy on multiple rare diseases.

3. Make it easier and more efficient for scientists to discover and develop treatments for rare diseases. NCATS develops ways for new treatments to reach people more quickly. Repurposing drugs, for example, is revealing already-approved drugs that may work for rare diseases. Programs such as Therapeutics for Rare and Neglected Diseases and Bridging Interventional Development Gaps move basic research discoveries in the lab closer to becoming new drugs. Ambitious initiatives, such as the Biomedical Data Translator, unite data from biomedical research, clinical trials, and EHRs to find treatments for rare diseases faster.

The COVID-19 pandemic showed us the power of working together to solve public health challenges. Let’s now come together to address the public health challenge of rare diseases. If you want to get involved, please join us at Rare Disease Day at NIH 2023 on February 28. You’ll hear personal stories, learn about the latest research, and discover helpful resources. I hope to see you there!

References:

[1] The IDeaS initiative: pilot study to assess the impact of rare diseases on patients and healthcare systems. Tisdale A, Cutillo CM, Nathan R, Russo P, Laraway B, Haendel M, Nowak D, Hasche C, Chan CH, Griese E, Dawkins H, Shukla O, Pearce DA, Rutter JL, Pariser AR. Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases. 2021 Oct 22; ;16(1):429.

[2] The national economic burden of rare disease in the United States in 2019. Yang G, Cintina I, Pariser A, Oehrlein E, Sullivan J, Kennedy A. Orphanet Journal of Rare Diseases. 2022 Apr 12;17(1):163.

Links:

Rare Disease Day at NIH 2023 (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center (NCATS)

Toolkit for Patient-Focused Therapy Development (NCATS)

Rare Diseases Registry Program (NCATS)

Rare Diseases Research and Resources (NCATS)

Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 23rd in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Celebrating the Power of Connection This Holiday Season

Posted on by

Happy holidays to one and all! This short science video brings to mind all those twinkling lights now brightening the night, as we mark the beginning of winter and shortest day of the year. This video also helps to remind us about the power of connection this holiday season.

It shows a motor neuron in a mouse’s primary motor cortex. In this portion of the brain, which controls voluntary movement, heavily branched neural projections interconnect, sending and receiving signals to and from distant parts of the body. A single motor neuron can receive thousands of inputs at a time from other branching sensory cells, depicted in the video as an array of blinking lights. It’s only through these connections—through open communication and cooperation—that voluntary movements are possible to navigate and enjoy our world in all its wonder. One neuron, like one person, can’t do it all alone.

This power of connection, captured in this award-winning video from the 2022 Show Us Your Brains Photo and Video contest, comes from Forrest Collman, Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle. The contest is part of NIH’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative.

In the version above, we’ve taken some liberties with the original video to enhance the twinkling lights from the synaptic connections. But creating the original was quite a task. Collman sifted through reams of data from high-resolution electron microscopy imaging of the motor cortex to masterfully reconstruct this individual motor neuron and its connections.

Those data came from The Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICrONS) program, supported by the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). It’s part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, one of NIH’s governmental collaborators in the BRAIN Initiative.

The MICrONS program aims to better understand the brain’s internal wiring. With this increased knowledge, researchers will develop more sophisticated machine learning algorithms for artificial intelligence applications, which will in turn advance fundamental basic science discoveries and the practice of life-saving medicine. For instance, these applications may help in the future to detect and evaluate a broad range of neural conditions, including those that affect the primary motor cortex.

Pretty cool stuff. So, as you spend this holiday season with friends and family, let this video and its twinkling lights remind you that there’s much more to the season than eating, drinking, and watching football games.

The holidays are very much about the power of connection for people of all faiths, beliefs, and traditions. It’s about taking time out from the everyday to join together to share memories of days gone by as we build new memories and stronger bonds of cooperation for the years to come. With this in mind, happy holidays to one and all.

Links:

NIH BRAIN Initiative Unveils Detailed Atlas of the Mammalian Primary Motor Cortex,” NIH News Release, October 6, 2021

Forrest Collman (Allen Institute for Brain Science, Seattle)

MICroNS Explorer

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

Show Us Your Brains Photo and Video Contest (BRAIN Initiative)


This Is Why NIH Invests in Global Health Research

Posted on by

Young girl getting immunized
Caption: Global partnerships fostered by NIH’s Fogarty International Center speed translation of scientific discoveries into lifesaving biomedical products. Credit: Gabe Bienczycki, PATH, Seattle

Efforts over the past few years to end the COVID-19 pandemic clearly reveal how global health impacts individual wellbeing and national security. At NIH, the Fogarty International Center helps the other institutes become engaged with global health research, which investigates the dual burden of infectious disease and non-communicable disease.

Global health research also encompasses data science, economics, genetics, climate change science, and many other disciplines. For more than 50 years, Fogarty has been building partnerships among institutions in the U.S. and abroad, while training the next generation of scientists focused on universal health needs.

America’s investment in Fogarty has paid rich dividends

During the pandemic, in particular, we’ve seen researchers trained by our programs make scientific discoveries that contributed to international security. Take Jessica Manning, a former Fogarty fellow who now conducts malaria research in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Her team at the Ministry of Health sequenced the viral strain of SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, infecting the first Cambodian patient and documented early the spread of this novel coronavirus outside of China.

Similarly, Christian Happi, director of the African Centre of Excellence for the Genomics of Infectious Disease, Ede, Nigeria, sequenced the first SARS-CoV-2 genome in Africa. Happi was able to do it by adapting the sequencing and analytical pipelines that he’d created back when he was a Fogarty grantee studying Ebola.

In Botswana, Sikhulile Moyo leveraged the skills he’d acquired while supported by a Fogarty HIV research training grant with Max Essex, Harvard School of Public Health, Cambridge, MA, to track COVID-19 mutations for his country’s Ministry of Health. Last November, he alerted the world of a new Omicron variant. Within six weeks, Omicron became the dominant global strain, challenging the ability of COVID vaccines to control its spread. In the Dominican Republic, William Duke, a national commission member, used what he’d learned as a Fogarty trainee to help create a national COVID-19 intervention plan to prevent and control the disease.

Fogarty’s fostering of global health leaders is one way we advance scientific expertise while ensuring our nation’s biosecurity. Another is by finding effective ways to study abroad the same health conditions that affect our own population.

Research conducted in Colombia, for example, may provide clues for preventing Alzheimer’s disease in the U.S. Fogarty support brought together neuroscientists Kenneth Kosik, University of California, Santa Barbara, and Francisco Lopera, University of Antioquia, Colombia, to study members of the largest-known family with an early-onset, rapidly progressive form of the disease. Over the years, Kosik and Lopera have trained local scientists, explored gene therapy targets, investigated biomarkers to monitor disease progression, and conducted drug trials in search of a cure for Alzheimer’s.

Researchers in other fields also discover unique opportunities to investigate populations with high rates of disease. Siana Nkya, a Fogarty grantee based in Tanzania, has devoted her career to studying the genetic determinants of sickle cell disease, which affects many people around the world, including in the U.S. We hope that US-African partnerships might develop improved, affordable treatments and a cure for all patients with this devastating disease. Similarly, people in the U.S. have access to state-of-the-art HIV treatment studies in places around the globe where incidence rates are higher.

Fogarty has supported many milestone achievements in HIV research over the years. Among them is a study that took place in nine countries. The research, led by Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, established that antiretroviral therapy can prevent sexual transmission of HIV-1 among couples in which one person is infected and the other is not. In fact, this research informs current HIV treatment recommendations worldwide, including in the U.S.

Americans will also undoubtedly benefit from projects funded by Fogarty’s Global Brain and Nervous System Disorders Research across the Lifespan program. For example, psychologist Tatiana Balachova, University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City, has designed an intervention for women in Russia to prevent fetal alcohol spectrum disorders. In another project in South Africa, Sandra and Joseph Jacobson, Wayne State University, Detroit, conducted the first-ever prospective longitudinal study of the syndrome. Findings from both projects are ripe for translation within an American context.

Other examples of Global Brain program investigations with broad implications in our own country include studying early psychosis in China; capacity building for schizophrenia research in Macedonia; exploring family consequences from the Zika virus in Brazil; and studying dementia and related health and social challenges in Lebanon.

These are just a few examples of Fogarty’s work and its unique mission. What is most remarkable about Fogarty is that just under 90 percent of our grants are co-funded by at least one other NIH institute, center, or office. Collaboration, both within borders and across them, is Fogarty’s formula for success.

Links:

Fogarty International Center (NIH)

Overview of Brain Disorders: Research Across the Lifespan (Fogarty)

Former Fogarty Scholar Dr Jessica Manning Helps Cambodia Respond to COVID (Fogarty)

Christian Happi: Former Fogarty Grantee Leads COVID-19 Genomics Work in Africa (Fogarty)

Sikhulile Moyo: Fogarty Fellow Recognized for Omicron Discovery (Fogarty)

William Duke: Former Fogarty HIV Trainee Helps Lead Dominican Republic’s COVID Response (Fogarty)

Kenneth Kosic and Francisco Lopera: NIH Support Spurs Alzheimer’s Research in Colombia (Fogarty)

Former Fogarty fellow Siana Nkya Tackles Sickle Cell Disease in Tanzania (Fogarty)

Tatiana Balachova: Researchers Tackle Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Russia (Fogarty)

Sandra and Joseph Jacobson: Fetal Alcohol Exposure Research Supported by NIAAA in South Africa, Ukraine and Russia Improves Prevention, Outcomes (Fogarty)

Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 22nd in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Clinical Center Doctors Testing 3D-Printed Miniature Ventilator

Posted on by

Small plastic device next to a thumbdrive
Caption: A USB flash drive (front) next to the 3D-printed miniature ventilator (back). Credit: William Pritchard, Clinical Center, NIH

Here at the NIH Clinical Center, we are proud to be considered a world-renowned research hospital that provides hope through pioneering clinical research to improve human health. But what you may not know is that our doctors are constantly partnering with public and private sectors to come up with innovative technologies that will help to advance health outcomes.

I’m excited to bring to you a story that is perfect example of the ingenuity of our NIH doctors working with global strategic partners to create potentially life-saving technologies. This story begins during the COVID-19 pandemic with the global shortage of ventilators to help patients breathe. Hospitals had a profound need for inexpensive, easy-to-use, rapidly mass-produced resuscitation devices that could be quickly distributed in areas of critical need.

Through strategic partnerships, our Clinical Center doctors learned about and joined an international group of engineers, physicians, respiratory therapists, and patient advocates using their engineering skills to create a ventilator that was functional, affordable, and intuitive. After several iterations and bench testing, they devised a user-friendly ventilator.

Transparent plastic mini ventilator
Caption: The miniature ventilator connected to an oxygen line (asterisk) and the breathing tube to the patient (crosshatch). The exhaust (dagger) is recessed to prevent accidental blockage. Credit: William Pritchard, Clinical Center, NIH

Then, with the assistance of 3D-printing technology, they improved the original design and did something pretty incredible: the team created the smallest single-patient ventilator seen to date. The device is just 2.4 centimeters (about 1 inch) in diameter with a length of 7.4 centimeters (about 3 inches).

A typical ventilator in a hospital obviously is much larger and has a bellows system. It fills with oxygen and then forces it into the lungs followed by the patient passively exhaling. These systems have multiple moving parts, valves, hoses, and electronic or mechanical controls to manage all aspects of the oxygen flow into the lungs.

But our miniature, 3D-printed ventilator is single use, disposable, and has no moving parts. It’s based on principles of fluidics to ventilate patients by automatically oscillating between forced inspiration and assisted expiration as airway pressure changes. It requires only a continuous supply of pressurized oxygen.

The possibilities of this 3D-printed miniature ventilator are broad. The ventilators could be easily used in emergency transport, potentially treating battlefield casualties or responding to disasters and mass casualty events like earthquakes.

While refining a concept is important, the key is converting it to actual use, which our doctors are doing admirably in their preclinical and clinical studies. NIH’s William Pritchard, Andrew Mannes, Brad Wood, John Karanian, Ivane Bakhutashvili, Matthew Starost, David Eckstein, and medical student Sheridan Reed studied and have already tested the ventilators in swine with acute lung injury, a common severe outcome in a number of respiratory threats including COVID-19.

In the study, the doctors tested three versions of the device built to correspond to mild, moderate, and severe lung injury. The respirators provided adequate support for moderate and mild lung injuries, and the doctors recall how amazing it was initially to witness a 190-pound swine ventilated by this miniature ventilator.

The doctors believe that the 3D-printed miniature ventilator is a potential “game changer” from start to finish since it is lifesaving, small, simple to use, can be easily and inexpensively printed and stored, and does not require additional maintenance. They recently published their preclinical trial results in the journal Science Translational Medicine [1].

The NIH team is preparing to initiate first-in-human trials here at the Clinical Center in the coming months. Perhaps, in the not-too-distant future, a device designed to help people breathe could fit into your pocket next to your phone and keys.

Reference:

[1] In-line miniature 3D-printed pressure-cycled ventilator maintains respiratory homeostasis in swine with induced acute pulmonary injury. Pritchard WF, Karanian JW, Jung C, Bakhutashvili I, Reed SL, Starost MF, Froelke BR, Barnes TR, Stevenson D, Mendoza A, Eckstein DJ, Wood BJ, Walsh BK, Mannes AJ. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Oct 12;14(666):eabm8351.

Links:

Clinical Center (NIH)

Andrew Mannes (Clinical Center)

Bradford Wood (Clinical Center)

David Eckstein (Clinical Center)

Note: Dr. Lawrence Tabak, who performs the duties of the NIH Director, has asked the heads of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog to highlight some of the interesting science that they support and conduct. This is the 21st in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Gratitude for Biomedical Progress and All Those Who Make It Possible

Posted on by

Group of people holding hands around a dinner table
Credit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com

It’s good for our health to eat right, exercise, and get plenty of rest. Still, many other things contribute to our sense of wellbeing, including making it a point to practice gratitude whenever we can. With this in mind, I can’t think of a better time than Thanksgiving to recognize just a few of the many reasons that I—and everyone who believes in the mission of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—have to be grateful.

First, I’m thankful for the many enormously talented people with whom I’ve worked over the past year while performing the duties of the NIH Director. Particular thanks go to those on my immediate team within the Office of the Director. I could not have taken on this challenge without their dedicated support.

I’m also gratified by the continued enthusiasm and support for biomedical research from so many different corners of our society. This includes the many thousands of unsung, patient partners who put their time, effort, and, in some cases, even their lives on the line for the sake of medical progress and promising treatment advances. Without them, clinical research—including the most pivotal clinical trials—simply wouldn’t be possible.

I am most appreciative of the continuing efforts at NIH and across the broader biomedical community to further enable diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within the biomedical research workforce and in all the work that NIH supports.

High on my Thanksgiving list is the widespread availability of COVID-19 bivalent booster shots. These boosters not only guard against older strains of the coronavirus, but also broaden immunity to the newer Omicron variant and its many subvariants. I’m also tremendously grateful for everyone who has—or soon will—get boosted to protect yourself, your loved ones, and your communities as the winter months fast approach.

Another big “thank you” goes out to all the researchers studying Long COVID, the complex and potentially debilitating constellation of symptoms that strikes some people after recovery from COVID-19. I look forward to more answers as this work continues and we certainly couldn’t do it without our patient partners.

I’d also like to express my appreciation for the NIH’s institute and center directors who’ve contributed to the NIH Director’s Blog to showcase NIH’s broad and diverse portfolio of promising research.

Finally, a special thanks to all of you who read this blog. As you gather with family and friends to celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday, I hope the time you spend here gives you a few more reasons to feel grateful and appreciate the importance of NIH in turning scientific discovery into better health for all.


Next Page