What a Year It Was! A Look Back at Research Progress in 2017

I want to wish everyone a Happy New Year! Hope your 2018 is off to a great start.

Over the holidays, the journal Science published its annual, end-of-the-year list of research breakthroughs, from anthropology to zoology. I always look forward to seeing the list and reflecting on some of the stunning advances reported in the past 12 months. Last year was no exception. Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year, as chosen by its editors, was in the field of astrophysics. Scientists were able to witness the effects of the collision of two neutron stars—large stars with collapsed inner cores—smacking into each other 130 million light years away. How cool is that!

Numbered prominently among the nine other breakthroughs were five from biomedicine: gene therapy, gene editing, cancer immunotherapy, cryo-EM, and biology preprints. All involved varying degrees of NIH support, and all drew great interest from readers. In fact, three of the top four vote-getters in the “People’s Choice” category came from biomedicine. That includes the People’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year: gene therapy success. And so, in what has become a Director’s Blog tradition, I’ll kick off our new year of posts by taking a closer look at these biomedical breakthroughs—starting with the little girl in the collage above, and moving clockwise around the images:

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Twinkle, Twinkle Little Cryo-EM Star

The stars are out and shining this holiday season. But there are some star-shaped structures now under study in the lab that also give us plenty of reason for hope. One of them is a tiny virus called bacteriophage phi-6, which researchers are studying in an effort to combat a similar, but more-complex, group of viruses that can cause life-threatening dehydration in young children.

Thanks to a breakthrough technology called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), NIH researchers recently captured, at near atomic-level of detail, the 3D structure of this immature bacteriophage phi-6 particle in the process of replication. At the points of its “star,” key proteins (red) are positioned to transport clipped, single-stranded segments of the virus’ own genetic information into its newly made shell, or procapsid (blue). Once inside the procapsid, an enzyme (purple) will copy the segments to make the genetic information double-stranded, while another protein (yellow) will help package them. As the procapsid matures, it undergoes dramatic structural changes.

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Can Artificial Cells Take Over for Lost Insulin-Secreting Cells?

artificial beta cells

Caption: Artificial beta cell, made of a lipid bubble (purple) carrying smaller, insulin-filled vesicles (green). Imaged with cryo-scanning electron microscope (cryo-SEM) and colorized.
Credit: Zhen Gu Lab

People with diabetes have benefited tremendously from advances in monitoring and controlling blood sugar, but they’re still waiting and hoping for a cure. Some of the most exciting possibilities aim to replace the function of the insulin-secreting pancreatic beta cells that is deficient in diabetes. The latest strategy of this kind is called AβCs, short for artificial beta cells.

As you see in the cryo-SEM image above, AβCs are specially designed lipid bubbles, each of which contains hundreds of smaller, ball-like vesicles filled with insulin. The AβCs are engineered to “sense” a rise in blood glucose, triggering biochemical changes in the vesicle and the automatic release of some of its insulin load until blood glucose levels return to normal.

In recent studies of mice with type 1 diabetes, researchers partially supported by NIH found that a single injection of AβCs under the skin could control blood glucose levels for up to five days. With additional optimization and testing, the hope is that people with diabetes may someday be able to receive AβCs through patches that painlessly stick on their skin.

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Creative Minds: Preparing for Future Pandemics

Jonathan Abraham

Jonathan Abraham / Credit: ChieYu Lin

Growing up in Queens, NY, Jonathan Abraham developed a love for books and an interest in infectious diseases. One day Abraham got his hands on a copy of Laurie Garrett’s The Coming Plague, a 1990s bestseller warning of future global pandemics, and he sensed his life’s calling. He would help people around the world survive deadly viral outbreaks, particularly from Ebola, Marburg, and other really bad bugs that cause deadly hemorrhagic fevers.

Abraham, now a physician-scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, continues to chase that dream. With support from an NIH Director’s 2016 Early Independence Award, Abraham has set out to help design the next generation of treatments to enable more people to survive future outbreaks of viral hemorrhagic fever. His research strategy: find antibodies in the blood of known survivors that helped them overcome their infections. With further study, he hopes to develop purified forms of the antibodies as potentially life-saving treatments for people whose own immune systems may not make them in time. This therapeutic strategy is called passive immunity.

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Creative Minds: Breaking Size Barriers in Cryo-Electron Microscopy

Dmitry Lyumkis

Dmitry Lyumkis

When Dmitry Lyumkis headed off to graduate school at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, he had thoughts of becoming a synthetic chemist. But he soon found his calling in a nearby lab that imaged proteins using a technique known as single-particle cryo-electron microscopy (EM). Lyumkis was amazed that the team could take a purified protein, flash-freeze it in liquid nitrogen, and then fire electrons at the protein, capturing the resulting image with a special camera. Also amazing was the sophisticated computer software that analyzed the raw 2D camera images, merging the data and reconstructing it into 3D representations of the protein.

The work was profoundly complex, but Lyumkis thrives on solving extremely difficult puzzles. He joined the Scripps lab to become a structural biologist and a few years later used single-particle cryo-EM to help determine the atomic structure of a key protein on the surface of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. The protein had been considered one of the greatest challenges in structural biology and a critical target in developing an AIDS vaccine [1].

Now, Lyumkis has plans to take single-particle cryo-EM to a whole new level—literally. He wants to develop new methods that allow it to model the atomic structures of much smaller proteins. Right now, single-particle cryo-EM has worked with proteins as small as roughly 150 kilodaltons, a measure of a protein’s molecular weight (the approximate average mass of a protein is 53 kDa). Lyumkis plans to drop that number well below 100 kDa, noting that if his new methods work as he hopes, there should be very little, if any, lower size limit to get the technique to work. He envisions generating within a matter of days or weeks the precise structure of an average-sized protein involved in a disease, and then potentially handing it off as an atomic model for drug developers to target for more effective treatment.

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