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A More Precise Way to Knock Out Skin Rashes

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A man scratches a rash on his arm, an immune cell zooms from the rash. Single-cell RNA data leads to Diagnosis

The NIH is committed to building a new era in medicine in which the delivery of health care is tailored specifically to the individual person, not the hypothetical average patient as is now often the case. This new era of “precision medicine” will transform care for many life-threatening diseases, including cancer and chronic kidney disease. But what about non-life-threatening conditions, like the aggravating rash on your skin that just won’t go away?

Recently, researchers published a proof-of-principle paper in the journal Science Immunology demonstrating just how precision medicine for inflammatory skin rashes might work [1]. While more research is needed to build out and further refine the approach, the researchers show it’s now technologically possible to extract immune cells from a patient’s rash, read each cell’s exact inflammatory features, and relatively quickly match them online to the right anti-inflammatory treatment to stop the rash.

The work comes from a NIH-funded team led by Jeffrey Cheng and Raymond Cho, University of California, San Francisco. The researchers focused their attention on two inflammatory skin conditions: atopic dermatitis, the most common type of eczema, which flares up periodically to make skin red and itchy, and psoriasis vulgaris. Psoriasis causes skin cells to build up and form a scaly rash and dry, itchy patches. Together, atopic dermatitis and psoriasis vulgaris affect about 10 percent of U.S. adults.

While the rashes caused by the two conditions can sometimes look similar, they are driven by different sets of immune cells and underlying inflammatory responses. For that reason, distinct biologic therapies, based on antibodies and proteins made from living cells, are now available to target and modify the specific immune pathways underlying each condition.

While biologic therapies represent a major treatment advance for these and other inflammatory conditions, they can miss their targets. Indeed, up to half of patients don’t improve substantially on biologics. Part of the reason for that lack of improvement is because doctors don’t have the tools they need to make firm diagnoses based on what precisely is going on in the skin at the molecular and cellular levels.

To learn more in the new study, the researchers isolated immune cells, focusing primarily on T cells, from the skin of 31 volunteers. They then sequenced the RNA of each cell to provide a telltale portrait of its genomic features. This “single-cell analysis” allowed them to capture high-resolution portraits of 41 different immune cell types found in individual skin samples. That’s important because it offers a much more detailed understanding of changes in the behavior of various immune cells that might have been missed in studies focused on larger groupings of skin cells, representing mixtures of various cell types.

Of the 31 volunteers, seven had atopic dermatitis and eight had psoriasis vulgaris. Three others were diagnosed with other skin conditions, while six had an indeterminate rash with features of both atopic dermatitis and psoriasis vulgaris. Seven others were healthy controls.

The team produced molecular signatures of the immune cells. The researchers then compared the signatures from the hard-to-diagnose rashes to those of confirmed cases of atopic dermatitis and psoriasis. They wanted to see if the signatures could help to reach clearer diagnoses.

The signatures revealed common immunological features as well as underlying differences. Importantly, the researchers found that the signatures allowed them to move forward and classify the indeterminate rashes. The rashes also responded to biologic therapies corresponding to the individuals’ new diagnoses.

Already, the work has identified molecules that help to define major classes of human inflammatory skin diseases. The team has also developed computer tools to help classify rashes in many other cases where the diagnosis is otherwise uncertain.

In fact, the researchers have launched a pioneering website called RashX. It is enabling practicing dermatologists and researchers around the world to submit their single-cell RNA data from their difficult cases. Such analyses are now being done at a small, but growing, number of academic medical centers.

While precision medicine for skin rashes has a long way to go yet before reaching most clinics, the UCSF team is working diligently to ensure its arrival as soon as scientifically possible. Indeed, their new data represent the beginnings of an openly available inflammatory skin disease resource. They ultimately hope to generate a standardized framework to link molecular features to disease prognosis and drug response based on data collected from clinical centers worldwide. It’s a major effort, but one that promises to improve the diagnosis and treatment of many more unusual and long-lasting rashes, both now and into the future.

Reference:

[1] Classification of human chronic inflammatory skin disease based on single-cell immune profiling. Liu Y, Wang H, Taylor M, Cook C, Martínez-Berdeja A, North JP, Harirchian P, Hailer AA, Zhao Z, Ghadially R, Ricardo-Gonzalez RR, Grekin RC, Mauro TM, Kim E, Choi J, Purdom E, Cho RJ, Cheng JB. Sci Immunol. 2022 Apr 15;7(70):eabl9165. {Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

The Promise of Precision Medicine (NIH)

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

Psoriasis (NIAMS/NIH)

RashX (University of California, San Francisco)

Raymond Cho (UCSF)

Jeffrey Cheng (UCSF)

NIH Support: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


Human Brain Compresses Working Memories into Low-Res ‘Summaries’

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Stimulus images are disks of angled lines. A thought bubble shows similar angles in her thoughts
Credit: Adapted from Kwak Y., Neuron (2022)

You have probably done it already a few times today. Paused to remember a password, a shopping list, a phone number, or maybe the score to last night’s ballgame. The ability to store and recall needed information, called working memory, is essential for most of the human brain’s higher cognitive processes.

Researchers are still just beginning to piece together how working memory functions. But recently, NIH-funded researchers added an intriguing new piece to this neurobiological puzzle: how visual working memories are “formatted” and stored in the brain.

The findings, published in the journal Neuron, show that the visual cortex—the brain’s primary region for receiving, integrating, and processing visual information from the eye’s retina—acts more like a blackboard than a camera. That is, the visual cortex doesn’t photograph all the complex details of a visual image, such as the color of paper on which your password is written or the precise series of lines that make up the letters. Instead, it recodes visual information into something more like simple chalkboard sketches.

The discovery suggests that those pared down, low-res representations serve as a kind of abstract summary, capturing the relevant information while discarding features that aren’t relevant to the task at hand. It also shows that different visual inputs, such as spatial orientation and motion, may be stored in virtually identical, shared memory formats.

The new study, from Clayton Curtis and Yuna Kwak, New York University, New York, builds upon a known fundamental aspect of working memory. Many years ago, it was determined that the human brain tends to recode visual information. For instance, if passed a 10-digit phone number on a card, the visual information gets recoded and stored in the brain as the sounds of the numbers being read aloud.

Curtis and Kwak wanted to learn more about how the brain formats representations of working memory in patterns of brain activity. To find out, they measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while participants used their visual working memory.

In each test, study participants were asked to remember a visual stimulus presented to them for 12 seconds and then make a memory-based judgment on what they’d just seen. In some trials, as shown in the image above, participants were shown a tilted grating, a series of black and white lines oriented at a particular angle. In others, they observed a cloud of dots, all moving in a direction to represent those same angles. After a short break, participants were asked to recall and precisely indicate the angle of the grating’s tilt or the dot cloud’s motion as accurately as possible.

It turned out that either visual stimulus—the grating or moving dots—resulted in the same patterns of neural activity in the visual cortex and parietal cortex. The parietal cortex is a part of the brain used in memory processing and storage.

These two distinct visual memories carrying the same relevant information seemed to have been recoded into a shared abstract memory format. As a result, the pattern of brain activity trained to recall motion direction was indistinguishable from that trained to recall the grating orientation.

This result indicated that only the task-relevant features of the visual stimuli had been extracted and recoded into a shared memory format. But Curtis and Kwak wondered whether there might be more to this finding.

To take a closer look, they used a sophisticated model that allowed them to project the three-dimensional patterns of brain activity into a more-informative, two-dimensional representation of visual space. And, indeed, their analysis of the data revealed a line-like pattern, similar to a chalkboard sketch that’s oriented at the relevant angles.

The findings suggest that participants weren’t actually remembering the grating or a complex cloud of moving dots at all. Instead, they’d compressed the images into a line representing the angle that they’d been asked to remember.

Many questions remain about how remembering a simple angle, a relatively straightforward memory formation, will translate to the more-complex sets of information stored in our working memory. On a technical level, though, the findings show that working memory can now be accessed and captured in ways that hadn’t been possible before. This will help to delineate the commonalities in working memory formation and the possible differences, whether it’s remembering a password, a shopping list, or the score of your team’s big victory last night.

Reference:

[1] Unveiling the abstract format of mnemonic representations. Kwak Y, Curtis CE. Neuron. 2022, April 7; 110(1-7).

Links:

Working Memory (National Institute of Mental Health/NIH)

The Curtis Lab (New York University, New York)

NIH Support: National Eye Institute


All of Us: Release of Nearly 100,000 Whole Genome Sequences Sets Stage for New Discoveries

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Diverse group of cartoon people with associated DNA

Nearly four years ago, NIH opened national enrollment for the All of Us Research Program. This historic program is building a vital research community within the United States of at least 1 million participant partners from all backgrounds. Its unifying goal is to advance precision medicine, an emerging form of health care tailored specifically to the individual, not the average patient as is now often the case. As part of this historic effort, many participants have offered DNA samples for whole genome sequencing, which provides information about almost all of an individual’s genetic makeup.

Earlier this month, the All of Us Research Program hit an important milestone. We released the first set of nearly 100,000 whole genome sequences from our participant partners. The sequences are stored in the All of Us Researcher Workbench, a powerful, cloud-based analytics platform that makes these data broadly accessible to registered researchers.

The All of Us Research Program and its many participant partners are leading the way toward more equitable representation in medical research. About half of this new genomic information comes from people who self-identify with a racial or ethnic minority group. That’s extremely important because, until now, over 90 percent of participants in large genomic studies were of European descent. This lack of diversity has had huge impacts—deepening health disparities and hindering scientific discovery from fully benefiting everyone.

The Researcher Workbench also contains information from many of the participants’ electronic health records, Fitbit devices, and survey responses. Another neat feature is that the platform links to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to provide more details about the communities where participants live.

This unique and comprehensive combination of data will be key in transforming our understanding of health and disease. For example, given the vast amount of data and diversity in the Researcher Workbench, new diseases are undoubtedly waiting to be uncovered and defined. Many new genetic variants are also waiting to be identified that may better predict disease risk and response to treatment.

To speed up the discovery process, these data are being made available, both widely and wisely. To protect participants’ privacy, the program has removed all direct identifiers from the data and upholds strict requirements for researchers seeking access. Already, more than 1,500 scientists across the United States have gained access to the Researcher Workbench through their institutions after completing training and agreeing to the program’s strict rules for responsible use. Some of these researchers are already making discoveries that promote precision medicine, such as finding ways to predict how to best to prevent vision loss in patients with glaucoma.

Beyond making genomic data available for research, All of Us participants have the opportunity to receive their personal DNA results, at no cost to them. So far, the program has offered genetic ancestry and trait results to more than 100,000 participants. Plans are underway to begin sharing health-related DNA results on hereditary disease risk and medication-gene interactions later this year.

This first release of genomic data is a huge milestone for the program and for health research more broadly, but it’s also just the start. The program’s genome centers continue to generate the genomic data and process about 5,000 additional participant DNA samples every week.

The ultimate goal is to gather health data from at least 1 million or more people living in the United States, and there’s plenty of time to join the effort. Whether you would like to contribute your own DNA and health information, engage in research, or support the All of Us Research Program as a partner, it’s easy to get involved. By taking part in this historic program, you can help to build a better and more equitable future for health research and precision medicine.

Note: Joshua Denny, M.D., M.S., is the Chief Executive Officer of NIH’s All of Us Research Program.

Links:

All of Us Research Program (NIH)

All of Us Research Hub

Join All of Us (NIH)


Finding the ‘Tipping Point’ to Permanent Kidney Damage

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left: A ring of DAPI surrounds clusters of CDH1 and PODXL. right - a ring of DAPI surrounds a matrix of PDGFRβ
Caption: Kidney organoids. Left, markers of the kidney’s filtering units called nephrons (purple, light blue, green); right, markers of the kidney’s connective tissue, or stroma (red and yellow). Credit: Gupta N., Science Trans. Med (2022)

Healthy human kidneys filter more than 30 gallons of blood each day on average, efficiently removing extra fluid and harmful toxins from the body. If injured, the kidneys have a remarkable capacity for repair. And, yet, in more than one in seven U.S. adults, including disproportionately people with diabetes and hypertension, the daily wear and tear on these vital organs has passed a “tipping point” toward irreparable damage and the onset of chronic kidney disease (CKD) [1].

Defining this tipping point has been a major challenge for a variety of technical reasons. But in a study just published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, researchers have discovered a molecular switch involved in controlling the transition from normal tissue repair to incomplete, or permanent, damage [2]. The NIH-supported researchers also suggest a possible drug candidate to control this switch and slow the progression of CKD.

Also impressive is that the team broke through these longstanding technical problems without probing or testing a single person with CKD. They made their discovery using kidney organoids, or miniature human kidneys, that are grown in a lab dish and naturally model the repair process that takes place in our bodies.

The latest findings come from a team led by Ryuji Morizane, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston. The researchers recognized that earlier studies in animal models had identified processes involved in kidney injury and repair. But so far, there’s been limited success in translating those discoveries into clinical advances. That’s because many potential treatments that have appeared safe and effective in animal models have proven to be either damaging to the kidneys or ineffective when studied in humans.

To continue the search, the Morizane lab generated human kidney organoids from induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and other sources that include multiple essential renal tissue types. Using their tiny human kidneys, Morizane and colleagues, including first author Navin Gupta, sought the molecules responsible for the transition from complete to incomplete kidney repair.

The team repeatedly exposed kidney organoids to the cancer chemotherapy drug cisplatin, which can damage the kidneys as an unwanted side effect. Afterwards, examining single cells from the organoid, the researchers looked for underlying changes in gene activity associated with the transition from kidney repair to permanent kidney damage.

All told, their studies identified 159 genes in 29 different pathways that activate when kidneys fully repaired themselves. They found that many of those genes, including two called FANCD2 and RAD51, grew less active as kidney damage became irreversible. These genes encode proteins that are known to play a role in a process whereby cells repair broken strands of DNA.

Further study of stored biopsied kidney tissue from people with diabetic kidney disease, the most common cause of kidney failure, corroborated the organoid data tying a loss of FANCD2 activity to incomplete repair of kidney tissue. That’s encouraging because it suggests the new discoveries made in kidney organoids exposed to cisplatin may be relevant to people suffering from various forms of kidney injury.

One of the big advantages of organoid studies is the ability to rapidly screen for promising new drug candidates in the lab. And, indeed, the researchers found that a drug candidate called SCR7 helped to maintain FANCD2 and RAD51 activity in chemotherapy-injured organoids, preventing irreversible damage.

While much more study is needed, the findings suggest a potentially promising new way to prevent the kidneys from reaching their “tipping point” into permanent damage, CKD, and the risk for kidney failure. They also suggest that further studies in kidney organoids may lead to treatments targeting other kidney diseases.

These latest findings also highlight important progress in human tissue engineering, with implications for a wide range of conditions. In addition to making fundamental new biomedical discoveries as this new study has done, one of the great hopes of such efforts, including NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences’ Tissue Chip for Drug Screening, is to improve predictions of whether new drug candidates will be safe or toxic in humans, speeding advances toward the most promising new therapies.

March happens to be National Kidney Month, and it’s especially important to raise awareness because 90 percent of people with CKD don’t even know they have it. So, if you or a loved one is at risk for CKD, be vigilant. Meanwhile, the work continues through studies like this one to find better leads to help control CKD.

References:

[1] Chronic kidney disease in the United States, 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

[2] Modeling injury and repair in kidney organoids reveals that homologous recombination governs tubular intrinsic repair. Gupta N, Matsumoto T, Hiratsuka K, Garcia Saiz E, Galichon P, Miyoshi T, Susa K, Tatsumoto N, Yamashita M, Morizane R. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Mar 2;14(634):eabj4772

Links:

Chronic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

National Kidney Month 2022 (NIDDK)

Morizane Lab (Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA)

Tissue Chip for Screening (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences


How COVID-19 Immunity Holds Up Over Time

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Antibody protection. Graph showing gradient of many antibodies early and less as time goes on

More than 215 million people in the United States are now fully vaccinated against the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 [1]. More than 40 percent—more than 94 million people—also have rolled up their sleeves for an additional, booster dose. Now, an NIH-funded study exploring how mRNA vaccines are performing over time comes as a reminder of just how important it will be to keep those COVID-19 vaccines up to date as coronavirus variants continue to circulate.

The results, published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, show that people who received two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines did generate needed virus-neutralizing antibodies [2]. But levels of those antibodies dropped considerably after six months, suggesting declining immunity over time.

The data also reveal that study participants had much reduced protection against newer SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Delta and Omicron. While antibody protection remained stronger in people who’d also had a breakthrough infection, even that didn’t appear to offer much protection against infection by the Omicron variant.

The new study comes from a team led by Shan-Lu Liu at The Ohio State University, Columbus. They wanted to explore how well vaccine-acquired immune protection holds up over time, especially in light of newly arising SARS-CoV-2 variants.

This is an important issue going forward because mRNA vaccines train the immune system to produce antibodies against the spike proteins that crown the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. These new variants often have mutated, or slightly changed, spike proteins compared to the original one the immune system has been trained to detect, potentially dampening the immune response.

In the study, the team collected serum samples from 48 fully vaccinated health care workers at four key time points: 1) before vaccination, 2) three weeks after the first dose, 3) one month after the second dose, and 4) six months after the second dose.

They then tested the ability of antibodies in those samples to neutralize spike proteins as a correlate for how well a vaccine works to prevent infection. The spike proteins represented five major SARS-CoV-2 variants. The variants included D614G, which arose very soon after the coronavirus first was identified in Wuhan and quickly took over, as well as Alpha (B.1.1.7), Beta (B.1.351), Delta (B.1.617.2), and Omicron (B.1.1.529).

The researchers explored in the lab how neutralizing antibodies within those serum samples reacted to SARS-CoV-2 pseudoviruses representing each of the five variants. SARS-CoV-2 pseudoviruses are harmless viruses engineered, in this case, to bear coronavirus spike proteins on their surfaces. Because they don’t replicate, they are safe to study without specially designed biosafety facilities.

At any of the four time points, antibodies showed a minimal ability to neutralize the Omicron spike protein, which harbors about 30 mutations. These findings are consistent with an earlier study showing a significant decline in neutralizing antibodies against Omicron in people who’ve received the initial series of two shots, with improved neutralizing ability following an additional booster dose.

The neutralizing ability of antibodies against all other spike variants showed a dramatic decline from 1 to 6 months after the second dose. While there was a marked decline over time after both vaccines, samples from health care workers who’d received the Moderna vaccine showed about twice the neutralizing ability of those who’d received the Pfizer vaccine. The data also suggests greater immune protection in fully vaccinated healthcare workers who’d had a breakthrough infection with SARS-CoV-2.

In addition to recommending full vaccination for all eligible individuals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends everyone 12 years and up should get a booster dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines at least five months after completing the primary series of two shots [3]. Those who’ve received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine should get a booster at least two months after receiving the initial dose.

While plenty of questions about the durability of COVID-19 immunity over time remain, it’s clear that the rapid deployment of multiple vaccines over the course of this pandemic already has saved many lives and kept many more people out of the hospital. As the Omicron threat subsides and we start to look forward to better days ahead, it will remain critical for researchers and policymakers to continually evaluate and revise vaccination strategies and recommendations, to keep our defenses up as this virus continues to evolve.

References:

[1] COVID-19 vaccinations in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 27, 2022.

[2] Neutralizing antibody responses elicited by SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccination wane over time and are boosted by breakthrough infection. Evans JP, Zeng C, Carlin C, Lozanski G, Saif LJ, Oltz EM, Gumina RJ, Liu SL. Sci Transl Med. 2022 Feb 15:eabn8057.

[3] COVID-19 vaccine booster shots. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Feb 2, 2022.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Shan-Lu Liu (The Ohio State University, Columbus)

NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development


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