Skip to main content

basic research

A Look Back at Science’s 2022 Breakthroughs

Posted on by

RSV vaccines near the finish. Virus fingered as cause of multiple sclerosis. AI gets creative.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Shutterstock/tobe24, Midjourney Inc.

Happy New Year! I hope everyone finished 2022 with plenty to celebrate, whether it was completing a degree or certification, earning a promotion, attaining a physical fitness goal, or publishing a hard-fought scientific discovery.

If the latter, you are in good company. Last year produced some dazzling discoveries, and the news and editorial staff at the journal Science kept a watchful eye on the most high-impact advances of 2022. In December, the journal released its list of the top 10 advances across the sciences, from astronomy to zoology. In case you missed it, Science selected NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as the 2022 Breakthrough of the Year [1].

This unique space telescope took 20 years to complete, but it has turned out to be time well spent. Positioned 1.5-million-kilometers from Earth, the JWST and its unprecedented high-resolution images of space have unveiled the universe anew for astronomers and wowed millions across the globe checking in online. The telescope’s image stream, beyond its sheer beauty, will advance study of the early Universe, allowing astronomers to discover distant galaxies, explore the early formation of stars, and investigate the possibility of life on other planets.

While the biomedical sciences didn’t take home the top prize, they were well represented among Science’s runner-up breakthroughs. Some of these biomedical top contenders also have benefited, directly or indirectly, from NIH efforts and support. Let’s take a look:

RSV vaccines nearing the finish line: It’s been one of those challenging research marathons. But scientists last year started down the homestretch with the first safe-and-effective vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a leading cause of severe respiratory illness in the very young and the old.

In August, the company Pfizer presented evidence that its experimental RSV vaccine candidate offered protection for those age 60 and up. Later, they showed that the same vaccine, when administered to pregnant women, helped to protect their infants against RSV for six months after birth. Meanwhile, in October, the company GSK announced encouraging results from its late-stage phase III trial of an RSV vaccine in older adults.

As Science noted, the latest clinical progress also shows the power of basic science. For example, researchers have been working with chemically inactivated versions of the virus to develop the vaccine. But these versions have a key viral surface protein that changes its shape after fusing with a cell to start an infection. In this configuration, the protein elicits only weak levels of needed protective antibodies.

Back in 2013, Barney Graham, then with NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and colleagues, solved the problem [2]. Graham’s NIH team discovered a way to lock the protein into its original prefusion state, which the immune system can better detect. This triggers higher levels of potent antibodies, and the discovery kept the science—and the marathon—moving forward.

These latest clinical advances come as RSV and other respiratory viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, are sending an alarming number of young children to the hospital. The hope is that researchers will cross the finish line this year or next, and we’ll have the first approved RSV vaccine.

Virus fingered as cause of multiple sclerosis: Researchers have long thought that multiple sclerosis, or MS, has a viral cause. Pointing to the right virus with the required high degree of certainty has been the challenge, slowing progress on the treatment front for those in need. As published in Science last January, Alberto Ascherio, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, and colleagues produced the strongest evidence yet that MS is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a herpesvirus also known for causing infectious mononucleosis [3].

The link between EBV and MS had long been suspected. But it was difficult to confirm because EBV infections are so widespread, and MS is so disproportionately rare. In the recent study, the NIH-supported researchers collected blood samples every other year from more than 10 million young adults in the U.S. military, including nearly 1,000 who were diagnosed with MS during their service. The evidence showed that the risk of an MS diagnosis increased 32-fold after EBV infection, but it held steady following infection with any other virus. Levels in blood serum of a biomarker for MS neurodegeneration also went up only after an EBV infection, suggesting that the viral illness is a leading cause for MS.

Further evidence came last year from a discovery published in the journal Nature by William Robinson, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, CA, and colleagues. The NIH-supported team found a close resemblance between an EBV protein and one made in the healthy brain and spinal cord [4]. The findings suggest an EBV infection may produce antibodies that mistakenly attack the protective sheath surrounding our nerve cells. Indeed, the study showed that up to one in four people with MS had antibodies that bind both proteins.

This groundbreaking research suggests that an EBV vaccine and/or antiviral drugs that thwart this infection might ultimately prevent or perhaps even cure MS. Of note, NIAID launched last May an early-stage clinical trial for an experimental EBV vaccine at the NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, MD.

AI Gets Creative: Science’s 2021 Breakthrough of the Year was AI-powered predictions of protein structure. In 2022, AI returned to take another well-deserved bow. This time, Science singled out AI’s now rapidly accelerating entry into once uniquely human attributes, such as artistic expression and scientific discovery.

On the scientific discovery side, Science singled out AI’s continued progress in getting creative with the design of novel proteins for vaccines and myriad other uses. One technique, called “hallucination,” generates new proteins from scratch. Researchers input random amino acid sequences into the computer, and it randomly and continuously mutates them into sequences that other AI tools are confident will fold into stable proteins. This greatly simplifies the process of protein design and frees researchers to focus their efforts on creating a protein with a desired function.

AI research now engages scientists around world, including hundreds of NIH grantees. Taking a broader view of AI, NIH recently launched the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program. It will help to create greater diversity within the field, which is a must. A lack of diversity could perpetuate harmful biases in how AI is used, how algorithms are developed and trained, and how findings are interpreted to avoid health disparities and inequities for underrepresented communities.

And there you have it, some of the 2022 breakthroughs from Science‘s news and editorial staff. Of course, the highlighted biomedical breakthroughs don’t capture the full picture of research progress. There were many other milestone papers published in 2022 that researchers worldwide will build upon in the months and years ahead to make further progress in their disciplines and, for some, draw the attention of Science’s news and editorial staff. Here’s to another productive year in biomedical research, which the blog will continue to feature and share with you as it unfolds in 2023.

References:

[1] 2022 Breakthrough of the Year. Science. Dec 15, 2022.

[2] Structure of RSV fusion glycoprotein trimer bound to a prefusion-specific neutralizing antibody. McLellan JS, Chen M, Leung S, Kwong PD, Graham BS, et al. Science. 2013 May 31;340(6136):1113-1117.

[3] Longitudinal analysis reveals high prevalence of Epstein-Barr virus associated with multiple sclerosis. Bjornevik K, Cortese M, Healy BC, Kuhle J, Mina MJ, Leng Y, Elledge SJ, Niebuhr DW, Scher AI, Munger KL, Ascherio A. Science. 2022 Jan 21;375(6578):296-301.

[4] Clonally expanded B cells in multiple sclerosis bind EBV EBNA1 and GlialCAM. Lanz TV, Brewer RC, Steinman L, Robinson WH, et al. Nature. 2022 Mar;603(7900):321-327.

Links:

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH)

Multiple Sclerosis (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Barney Graham (Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta)

Alberto Ascherio (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston)

Robinson Lab (Stanford Medicine, Stanford, CA)

Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Consortium to Advance Health Equity and Researcher Diversity (AIM-AHEAD) Program (NIH)

James Webb Space Telescope (Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA, Greenbelt, MD)


The Chemistry Clicked: Two NIH-Supported Researchers Win 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Posted on by

Illustrations of Carolyn R. Bertozzi and K. Barry Sharpless drawn by Niklas Elmehed

Through the years, NIH has supported a total of 169 researchers who have received or shared 101 Nobel Prizes. That’s quite a testament to the world-leading science that NIH pursues and its continued impact on improving human health and well-being.

Those numbers include the news late last week that the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was shared by two long-time grantees for their work on a transformative scientific approach known as “click chemistry.” This form of chemistry has made it possible for researchers to snap together, like LEGO pieces, molecular building blocks to form hybrid biomolecules, often with easy-to-track imaging agents attached. Not only has click chemistry expanded our ability to explore the molecular underpinnings of a wide range of biological processes, but it has provided us with new tools for developing drugs, diagnostics, and a wide array of “smart” materials.

For K. Barry Sharpless, Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA, October 5, 2022 marked the second time that he’s received an early-morning congratulatory call from The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The first such call came in 2001, when Sharpless got the news that he was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of asymmetric catalytic reactions.

This time around, Sharpless was recognized for his groundbreaking studies in the mid-1990s with click chemistry, a term that he coined himself. His initial work established click chemistry as a fast-and-reliable way to attach molecules of interest in the lab [1]. He and co-recipient Morten Meldal, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who is not funded by NIH, then independently introduced a copper-catalyzed click that further refined the chemistry and helped popularize it across biology and the material sciences [2,3].

For Carolyn R. Bertozzi of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, it is her first Nobel. Bertozzi was recognized for expanding the use of click chemistry with so-called bioorthogonal chemistry, which is a copper-free version of the approach that can be used inside living cells without the risk of metal-associated toxicities [4,5].

Bertozzi’s work has been especially interesting to me because of her focus on glycans, which I’ve studied throughout my career. Glycans are the carbohydrate molecules that coat the surfaces of our cells and most secreted proteins. They are essential to life, and, in higher organisms, play fundamental roles in basic processes such as metabolism, immunity, and cellular communication.

Glycans also remain poorly understood, largely because, until recently, they have been so difficult for basic scientists to study with traditional techniques. That has changed with development of new tools to study glycans and the enzymes that assemble them. My long-time collaborator, Kelly Ten Hagen, a senior investigator at NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, and I collaborated with Carolyn on identifying small molecules that inhibit the enzyme responsible for the first step in mucin-type O-glycosylation [6]

In the early 2000s, Bertozzi and her team introduced bioorthogonal chemistry, which enabled researchers to label glycans and visualize them in a range of cells and living organisms. Her team’s pioneering approach quickly became an essential tool in basic science labs around the world that study glycans, leading to a number of stunning discoveries that would have otherwise been difficult or impossible.

For clinical researchers, click chemistry has emerged as a workhorse in drug discovery and the improved targeting of cancer chemotherapies and other small-molecule drugs. The approach also is being used to improve delivery of antibody-based therapies and to create new biomaterials. Meanwhile, in the material sciences, click chemistry has been used to solve a number of problems in working with polymers and to expand their industrial uses.

Click chemistry is an excellent example of how advances in basic science can build the foundation for a wide range of practical applications, including those aimed at improving human health. It also highlights the value of strong, sustained public funding for fundamental research, and NIH is proud to have supported Sharpless continuously since 1975 and Bertozzi since 1999. I send my sincere congratulations to both of these most-deserving scientists.

References:

[1] Click Chemistry: Diverse chemical function from a few good reactions. Kolb, HC, Finn, MG, Sharpless, KB. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2001, 40 (11), 2004–2021

[2] A stepwise huisgen cycloaddition process: Copper(I)-catalyzed regioselective “Llgation” of azides and terminal alkynes. Rostovtsev VV, Green LG, Fokin VV, Sharpless KB. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2002, 41 (14), 2596–2599.

[3] Peptidotriazoles on solid phase: [1,2,3]-Triazoles by regiospecific copper(I)-catalyzed 1,3-dipolar cycloadditions of terminal alkynes to azides. Tornøe CW, Sengeløv H, Meldal M. J. Org. Chem. 2002, 67 (9), 3057–3064.

[4] A strain-promoted [3 + 2] azide−alkyne cycloaddition for covalent modification of biomolecules in living systems. Agard NJ, Prescher JA, Bertozzi CR. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2004, 126 (46), 15046–15047

[5] In vivo imaging of membrane associated glycans in developing zebrafish. Laughlin ST, Baskin JM, Amacher SL, Bertozzi CR. Science 2008, 320 (5876), 664–667.

[6] Small molecule inhibitors of mucin-type O-glycosylation from a uridine-based library. Hang, HC, Yu, C, Ten Hagen, KG, Tian, E, Winans, KA, Tabak, LA, Bertozzi, Chem Biol. 2004 Jul;11(7):1009-1016.

Links:

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2022 (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm)

Video: Announcement of the 2022 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (YouTube)

Click Chemistry and Bioorthogonal Chemistry (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences)

Sharpless Lab (Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA)

Bertozzi Group (Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA)

NIH Support:

K. Barry Sharpless: National Institute of General Medical Sciences

Carolyn R. Bertozzi: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of General Medical Sciences


Understanding Long-Term COVID-19 Symptoms and Enhancing Recovery

Posted on by

RECOVER: Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery. An Initiative Funded by the National Institutes of Health

We are in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and across the world, most restrictions have lifted, and society is trying to get back to “normal.” But for many people—potentially millions globally—there is no getting back to normal just yet.

They are still living with the long-term effects of a COVID-19 infection, known as the post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), including Long COVID. These people continue to experience debilitating fatigue, shortness of breath, pain, difficulty sleeping, racing heart rate, exercise intolerance, gastrointestinal and other symptoms, as well as cognitive problems that make it difficult to perform at work or school.

This is a public health issue that is in desperate need of answers. Research is essential to address the many puzzling aspects of Long COVID and guide us to effective responses that protect the nation’s long-term health.

For the past two years, NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), and my National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) along with several other NIH institutes and the office of the NIH Director, have been leading NIH’s Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) initiative, a national research program to understand PASC.

The initiative studies core questions such as why COVID-19 infections can have lingering effects, why new symptoms may develop, and what is the impact of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, on other diseases and conditions? Answering these fundamental questions will help to determine the underlying biologic basis of Long COVID. The answers will also help to tell us who is at risk for Long COVID and identify therapies to prevent or treat the condition.

The RECOVER initiative’s wide scope of research is also unprecedented. It is needed because Long COVID is so complex, and history indicates that similar post infectious conditions have defied definitive explanation or effective treatment. Indeed, those experiencing Long COVID report varying symptoms, making it highly unlikely that a single therapy will work for everyone, underscoring the need to pursue multiple therapeutic strategies.

To understand Long COVID fully, hundreds of RECOVER investigators are recruiting more than 17,000 adults (including pregnant people) and more than 18,000 children to take part in cohort studies. Hundreds of enrolling sites have been set up across the country. An autopsy research cohort will also provide further insight into how COVID-19 affects the body’s organs and tissues.

In addition, researchers will analyze electronic health records from millions of people to understand how Long COVID and its symptoms change over time. The RECOVER initiative is also utilizing consistent research protocols across all the study sites. The protocols have been carefully developed with input from patients and advocates, and they are designed to allow for consistent data collection, improve data sharing, and help to accelerate the pace of research.

From the very beginning, people suffering from Long COVID have been our partners in RECOVER. Patients and advocates have contributed important perspectives and provided valuable input into the master protocols and research plans.

Now, with RECOVER underway, individuals with Long COVID, their caregivers, and community members continue to serve a critical role in the Initiative. The National Community Engagement Group (NCEG) has been established to make certain that RECOVER meets the needs of all people affected by Long COVID. The RECOVER Patient and Community Engagement Strategy outlines all the approaches that RECOVER is using to engage with and gather input from individuals impacted by Long COVID.

The NIH recently made more than 40 awards to improve understanding of the underlying biology and pathology of Long COVID. There have already been several important findings published by RECOVER scientists.

For example, in a recent study published in the journal Lancet Digital Health, RECOVER investigators used machine learning to comb through electronic health records to look for signals that may predict whether someone has Long COVID [1]. As new findings, tools, and technologies continue to emerge that help advance our knowledge of the condition, the RECOVER Research Review (R3) Seminar Series will provide a forum for researchers and our partners with up-to-date information about Long COVID research.

It is important to note that post-viral conditions are not a new concept. Many, but not all, of the symptoms reported in Long COVID, including fatigue, post-exertional malaise, chronic musculoskeletal pain, sleep disorders, postural orthostatic tachycardia (POTS), and cognitive issues, overlap with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS).

ME/CFS is a serious disease that can occur following infection and make people profoundly sick for decades. Like Long COVID, ME/CFS is a heterogenous condition that does not affect everybody in the same way, and the knowledge gained through research on Long COVID may also positively impact the understanding, treatment, and prevention of POTS, ME/CFS, and other chronic diseases.

Unlike other post-viral conditions, people who experience Long COVID were all infected by the same virus—albeit different variants—at a similar point in time. This creates a unique opportunity for RECOVER researchers to study post-viral conditions in real-time.

The opportunity enables scientists to study many people simultaneously while they are still infected to monitor their progress and recovery, and to try to understand why some individuals develop ongoing symptoms. A better understanding of the transition from acute to chronic disease may offer an opportunity to intervene, identify who is at risk of the transition, and develop therapies for people who experience symptoms long after the acute infection has resolved.

The RECOVER initiative will soon announce clinical trials, leveraging data from clinicians and patients in which symptom clusters were identified and can be targeted by various interventions. These trials will investigate therapies that are indicated for other non-COVID conditions and novel treatments for Long COVID.

Through extensive collaboration across the multiple NIH institutes and offices that contribute to the RECOVER effort, our hope is critical answers will emerge soon. These answers will help us to recognize the full range of outcomes and needs resulting from PASC and, most important, enable many people to make a full recovery from COVID-19. We are indebted to the over 10,000 subjects who have already enrolled in RECOVER. Their contributions and the hard work of the RECOVER investigators offer hope for the future to the millions still suffering from the pandemic.

Reference:

[1] Identifying who has long COVID in the USA: a machine learning approach using N3C data. Pfaff ER, Girvin AT, Bennett TD, Bhatia A, Brooks IM, Deer RR, Dekermanjian JP, Jolley SE, Kahn MG, Kostka K, McMurry JA, Moffitt R, Walden A, Chute CG, Haendel MA; N3C Consortium. Lancet Digit Health. 2022 Jul;4(7):e532-e541.

Links:

COVID-19 Research (NIH)

Long COVID (NIH)

RECOVER: Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (NIH)

NIH builds large nationwide study population of tens of thousands to support research on long-term effects of COVID-19,” NIH News Release, September 15, 2021.

Director’s Messages (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

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 18th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


Climate Change and Health Initiative to Expand Research, Build Resiliency

Posted on by

A woman and child in a small boat paddling through flood waters
Credit: Athawit Ketsak/Shutterstock

Climate change is a global process that affects human health in a variety of complex ways. Wildfires, heat waves, hurricanes, floods, and other climate-related weather events can result in illness, injury, and death. Indirect health threats are cause for concern, too. For example, changes in temperature and rainfall can affect the lifecycle of mosquitoes that transmit diseases such as malaria and dengue fever, thereby paving the way for new outbreaks.

Environmental disruptions worsened by climate change can reduce air quality, diminish water resources, and increase exposure to higher temperatures and pathogens. As a result, we see greater health risks in susceptible individuals such as children, the elderly, the poor, and people with underlying conditions, both in America and around the world.

For decades, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and other NIH institutes and centers (ICs) have advanced important research into how climate change affects health. But expanding knowledge in this area and addressing other key challenges will require much more collaboration. The time is now for an all-hands-on-deck scientific effort—across NIH and the wider biomedical research community—that spans many interconnected disciplines and fields of inquiry.

That is why I am excited to join forces with several other IC directors to launch the NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative. By working together, NIH institutes and centers can harness their technologies, innovative research approaches, and talent to advance the science of climate change and health. Through this timely effort, we will promote resilience in vulnerable communities because our research will help them to understand, prepare for, and recover from climate-related health challenges.

Our Strategic Framework outlines why it is important to go beyond studying the health effects of climate change. We must involve impacted communities in solutions-focused research that empowers them, health care practitioners, and health and social services agencies to reduce climate-related health risks. By generating scientific evidence for public health action, we can use a health equity approach to boost climate resiliency among at-risk groups, whether in the U.S. or low- and middle-income countries.

At the heart of the initiative is a push for transdisciplinary, team-based science that boosts training, research capacity, and community engagement. Our immediate goals are to use existing grant programs to strengthen research infrastructure and enhance communication, internally and externally.

Also, with dedicated support from several ICs and the Office of the Director (OD), NIH is funding a research coordinating center and a community engagement program. The coordinating center will help NIH scientists collaborate and manage data. And the community engagement program will empower underserved populations by encouraging two-way dialogue in which both scientists and community members learn from each other. That inclusive approach will improve research and mitigation efforts and reduce health disparities.

In addition, several Notices of Special Interest are now open for applications. The NIH invites scientists to submit research proposals outlining how they plan either to study the health effects of climate change or develop new technologies to mitigate those effects. Also, with OD support, a Climate and Health Scholars Program will launch later this year. Scientists working on important research will share their expertise and methodologies with the NIH community, spurring opportunities for further collaboration.

Going forward, any additional support from the White House, Congress, and the public will allow NIH to further expand the initiative. For example, we urgently need to test novel interventions for reducing heat stress among agricultural workers and to scale up early-warning systems for climate-related weather events. There is also opportunity to use laboratory-based and clinical methodologies to expand knowledge of how climate factors, such as heat and humidity, affect key cellular systems, including mitochondrial function.

To fill those and other research gaps, we must draw on an array of skill sets and fields of inquiry. Therefore, our Strategic Framework outlines the importance of supporting adaptation research, basic and mechanistic studies, behavioral and social sciences research, data integration, disaster research response, dissemination and implementation science, epidemiology and predictive modeling, exposure and risk assessment, and systems science. Tapping into those areas will help us tackle climate-related health challenges and develop effective solutions.

In recent years, in-depth reports and assessments have provided conclusive evidence that climate change is significantly altering our environment and impacting human health. Although the science of climate change and health has progressed, much work remains. We hope that the Climate Change and Health Initiative expands scientific partnerships and capacity throughout NIH and across the global biomedical and environmental health sciences communities. Greater collaboration will spur new knowledge, interventions, and technologies that help humanity manage the health effects of climate change and strengthen health equity.

(Note: The Initiative’s Executive Committee includes the following IC directors: Richard Woychik, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences [chair]; Diana Bianchi, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; Gary Gibbons, National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; Roger Glass, Fogarty International Center; Joshua Gordon, National Institute of Mental Health; Eliseo Pérez-Stable, National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities; and Shannon Zenk, National Institute of Nursing Research.)

Links:

Environmental Health Topic: Climate Change (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences /NIH)

NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative (NIH)

NIH Climate Change and Health Initiative Strategic Framework (NIH)

Research Coordinating Center to Support Climate Change and Health Community of Practice (NIH)

Research Opportunity Announcement: Alliance for Community Engagement—Climate Change and Health (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute / NIH)

Notice of Special Interest: Climate Change and Health (NIH)

Notice of Special Interest: Innovative Technologies for Research on Climate Change and Human Health Small Business Technology Transfer (R41/R42 Clinical Trial Option) (NIH)

Notice of Special Interest: Innovative Technologies for Research on Climate Change and Human Health, R43/R44 Small Business Innovation Research (R43/R44 Clinical Trial Optional) (NIH)

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 14th in the series of NIH IC guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.


NCI Support for Basic Science Paves Way for Kidney Cancer Drug Belzutifan

Posted on by

Belzutifan, Shrinking kidney cancer. woman with superimposed kidney tumor. Arrows suggest shrinking

There’s exciting news for people with von Hippel-Lindau (VHL) disease, a rare genetic disorder that can lead to cancerous and non-cancerous tumors in multiple organs, including the brain, spinal cord, kidney, and pancreas. In August 2021, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved belzutifan (Welireg), a new drug that has been shown in a clinical trial led by National Cancer Institute (NCI) researchers to shrink some tumors associated with VHL disease [1], which is caused by inherited mutations in the VHL tumor suppressor gene.

As exciting as this news is, relatively few people have this rare disease. The greater public health implication of this advancement is for people with sporadic, or non-inherited, clear cell kidney cancer, which is by far the most common subtype of kidney cancer, with more than 70,000 cases and about 14,000 deaths per year. Most cases of sporadic clear cell kidney cancer are caused by spontaneous mutations in the VHL gene.

This advancement is also a great story of how decades of support for basic science through NCI’s scientists in the NIH Intramural Research Program and its grantees through extramural research funding has led to direct patient benefit. And it’s a reminder that we never know where basic science discoveries might lead.

Belzutifan works by disrupting the process by which the loss of VHL in a tumor turns on a series of molecular processes. These processes involve the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) transcription factor and one of its subunits, HIF-2α, that lead to tumor formation.

The unraveling of the complex relationship among VHL, the HIF pathway, and cancer progression began in 1984, when Bert Zbar, Laboratory of Immunobiology, NCI-Frederick; and Marston Linehan, NCI’s Urologic Oncology Branch, set out to find the gene responsible for clear cell kidney cancer. At the time, there were no effective treatments for advanced kidney cancer, and 80 percent of patients died within two years.

Zbar and Linehan started by studying patients with sporadic clear cell kidney cancer, but then turned their focus to investigations of people affected with VHL disease, which predisposes a person to developing clear cell kidney cancer. By studying the patients and the genetic patterns of tumors collected from these patients, the researchers hypothesized that they could find genes responsible for kidney cancer.

Linehan established a clinical program at NIH to study and manage VHL patients, which facilitated the genetic studies. It took nearly a decade, but, in 1993, Linehan, Zbar, and Michael Lerman, NCI-Frederick, identified the VHL gene, which is mutated in people with VHL disease. They soon discovered that tumors from patients with sporadic clear cell kidney cancer also have mutations in this gene.

Subsequently, with NCI support, William G. Kaelin Jr., Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, discovered that VHL is a tumor suppressor gene that, when inactivated, leads to the accumulation of HIF.

Another NCI grantee, Gregg L. Semenza, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Baltimore, identified HIF as a transcription factor. And Peter Ratcliffe, University of Oxford, United Kingdom, discovered that HIF plays a role in blood vessel development and tumor growth.

Kaelin and Ratcliffe simultaneously showed that the VHL protein tags a subunit of HIF for destruction when oxygen levels are high. These results collectively answered a very old question in cell biology: How do cells sense the intracellular level of oxygen?

Subsequent studies by Kaelin, with NCI’s Richard Klausner and Linehan, revealed the critical role of HIF in promoting the growth of clear cell kidney cancer. This work ultimately focused on one member of the HIF family, the HIF-2α subunit, as the key mediator of clear cell kidney cancer growth.

The fundamental work of Kaelin, Semenza, and Ratcliffe earned them the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. It also paved the way for drug discovery efforts that target numerous points in the pathway leading to clear cell kidney cancer, including directly targeting the transcriptional activity of HIF-2α with belzutifan.

Clinical trials of belzutifan, including several supported by NCI, demonstrated potent anti-cancer activity in VHL-associated kidney cancer, as well as other VHL-associated tumors, leading to the aforementioned recent FDA approval. This is an important development for patients with VHL disease, providing a first-in-class therapy that is effective and well-tolerated.

We believe this is only the beginning for belzutifan’s use in patients with cancer. A number of trials are now studying the effectiveness of belzutifan for sporadic clear cell kidney cancer. A phase 3 trial is ongoing, for example, to look at the effectiveness of belzutifan in treating people with advanced kidney cancer. And promising results from a phase 2 study show that belzutifan, in combination with cabozantinib, a widely used agent to treat kidney cancer, shrinks tumors in patients previously treated for metastatic clear cell kidney cancer [2].

This is a great scientific story. It shows how studies of familial cancer and basic cell biology lead to effective new therapies that can directly benefit patients. I’m proud that NCI’s support for basic science, both intramurally and extramurally, is making possible many of the discoveries leading to more effective treatments for people with cancer.

References:

[1] Belzutifan for Renal Cell Carcinoma in von Hippel-Lindau Disease. Jonasch E, Donskov F, Iliopoulos O, Rathmell WK, Narayan VK, Maughan BL, Oudard S, Else T, Maranchie JK, Welsh SJ, Thamake S, Park EK, Perini RF, Linehan WM, Srinivasan R; MK-6482-004 Investigators. N Engl J Med. 2021 Nov 25;385(22):2036-2046.

[2] Phase 2 study of the oral hypoxia-inducible factor 2α (HIF-2α) inhibitor MK-6482 in combination with cabozantinib in patients with advanced clear cell renal cell carcinoma (ccRCC). Choueiri TK et al. J Clin Oncol. 2021 Feb 20;39(6_suppl): 272-272.

Links:
Von Hippel-Lindau Disease (Genetic and Rare Diseases Information Center/National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)

Clear Cell Renal Cell Carcinoma (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Belzutifan Approved to Treat Tumors Linked to Inherited Disorder VHL, Cancer Currents Blog, National Cancer Institute, September 21, 2021.

The Long Road to Understanding Kidney Cancer (Intramural Research Program/NIH)

[Note: Acting NIH Director Lawrence Tabak has asked the heads of NIH’s institutes and centers to contribute occasional guest posts to the blog as a way to highlight some of the cool science that they support and conduct. This is the first in the series of NIH institute and center guest posts that will run until a new permanent NIH director is in place.]


Next Page