Creative Minds: A New Way to Look at Cancer

Bradley Bernstein

Bradley Bernstein

Inside our cells, strands of DNA wrap around spool-like histone proteins to form a DNA-histone complex called chromatin. Bradley Bernstein, a pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University, and Broad Institute, has always been fascinated by this process. What interests him is the fact that an approximately 6-foot-long strand of DNA can be folded and packed into orderly chromatin structures inside a cell nucleus that’s just 0.0002 inch wide.

Bernstein’s fascination with DNA packaging led to the recent major discovery that, when chromatin misfolds in brain cells, it can activate a gene associated with the cancer glioma [1]. This suggested a new cancer-causing mechanism that does not require specific DNA mutations. Now, with a 2016 NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, Bernstein is taking a closer look at how misfolded and unstable chromatin can drive tumor formation, and what that means for treating cancer.

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Nanodiamonds Shine in Root Canal Study

Nanodiamonds

Caption: An artistic rendering of nanodiamonds
Credit: Ho Lab

When the time comes to get relief from a dental problem, we are all glad that dentistry has come so far—much of the progress based on research supported by NIH’s National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. Still, almost no one looks forward to getting a root canal. Not only can the dental procedure be uncomfortable and costly, there’s also a risk of failure due to infection or other complications. But some NIH-supported researchers have now come up with what may prove to be a dazzling strategy for reducing that risk: nanodiamonds!

That’s right, these researchers decided to add tiny diamonds—so small that millions could fit on the head of the pin—to the standard filler that dentists use to seal off a tooth’s root. Not only are these nanodiamonds extremely strong, they have unique properties that make them very attractive vehicles for delivering drugs, including antimicrobials that help fight infections of the sealed root canal.

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Creative Minds: Using Machine Learning to Understand Genome Function

Anshul Kundaje

Anshul Kundaje / Credit: Nalini Kartha

Science has always fascinated Anshul Kundaje, whether it was biology, physics, or chemistry. When he left his home country of India to pursue graduate studies in electrical engineering at Columbia University, New York, his plan was to focus on telecommunications and computer networks. But a course in computational genomics during his first semester showed him he could follow his interest in computing without giving up his love for biology.

Now an assistant professor of genetics and computer science at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, Kundaje has received a 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to explore not just how the human genome sequence encodes function, but also why it functions in the way that it does. Kundaje even envisions a time when it might be possible to use sophisticated computational approaches to predict the genomic basis of many human diseases.

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FDA Approves First CAR-T Cell Therapy for Pediatric Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia

Emily Whitehead

Caption: Cancer survivor Emily Whitehead with her dog Lucy.
Credit: Emily Whitehead Foundation

Tremendous progress continues to be made against the Emperor of All Maladies, cancer. One of the most exciting areas of progress involves immunotherapy, a treatment strategy that harnesses the natural ability of the body’s own immune cells to attack and kill tumor cells. A lot of extremely hard work has gone into this research, so I was thrilled to learn that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced today its first approval of a promising type of immunotherapy called CAR-T cell therapy for kids and young adults with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)—the most common childhood cancer in the U.S.

ALL is a cancer of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Its treatment with chemotherapy drugs, developed with NIH support, has transformed ALL’s prognosis in kids from often fatal to largely treatable: about 90 percent of young patients now recover. But for those for whom the treatment fails, the prognosis is grim.

In the spring of 2012, Emily Whitehead of Philipsburg, PA was one such patient. The little girl was deathly ill, and her parents were worried they’d run out of options. That’s when doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia gave Emily and her parents new hope. Carl June and his team had successfully treated three adults with their version of CAR-T cell therapy, which is grounded in initial basic research supported by NIH [1,2]. Moving forward with additional clinical tests, they treated Emily—their first pediatric patient—that April. For a while, it was touch and go, and Emily almost died. But by May 2012, her cancer was in remission. Today, five years later, 12-year-old Emily remains cancer free and is thriving. And I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know Emily and her parents over the last few years.

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You’ll Want to See This! “First in Human” Debuts August 10

For over 60 years, the NIH Clinical Center—the world’s largest hospital dedicated to clinical research—has been at the forefront of developing treatments for our most deadly and damaging diseases. It’s here at our “House of Hope” in Bethesda, MD, where, among many other medical firsts, chemotherapy was first used to treat cancerous tumors, gene therapy underwent its first human tests, surgeons first successfully replaced the heart’s mitral valve, and the first anti-viral drug for HIV/AIDS met with early success.

Now, in a Discovery Channel documentary called First in Human, millions of people all around the globe will get a chance to see the doctors, nurses, and other staff of NIH’s remarkable research hospital in action. Narrated by Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons, the three-part series debuts at 9 p.m.-11 p.m., ET, Thursday, August 10. The second and third segments will air at the same time on August 17 and 24. For a sneak peak, check out the video clip above!

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