Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
It’s 2021—Happy New Year! Time sure flies in the blogosphere. It seems like just yesterday that I started the NIH Director’s Blog to highlight recent advances in biology and medicine, many supported by NIH. Yet it turns out that more than eight years have passed since this blog got rolling and we are fast approaching my 1,000th post!
I’m pleased that millions of you have clicked on these posts to check out some very cool science and learn more about NIH and its mission. Thanks to the wonders of social media software, we’ve been able to tally up those views to determine each year’s most-popular post. So, I thought it would be fun to ring in the New Year by looking back at a few of your favorites, sort of a geeky version of a top 10 countdown or the People’s Choice Awards. It was interesting to see what topics generated the greatest interest. Spoiler alert: diet and exercise seemed to matter a lot! So, without further ado, I present the winners:
2013: Fighting Obesity: New Hopes from Brown Fat. Brown fat, one of several types of fat made by our bodies, was long thought to produce body heat rather than store energy. But Shingo Kajimura and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, showed in a study published in the journal Nature, that brown fat does more than that. They discovered a gene that acts as a molecular switch to produce brown fat, then linked mutations in this gene to obesity in humans.
What was also nice about this blog post is that it appeared just after Kajimura had started his own lab. In fact, this was one of the lab’s first publications. One of my goals when starting the blog was to feature young researchers, and this work certainly deserved the attention it got from blog readers. Since highlighting this work, research on brown fat has continued to progress, with new evidence in humans suggesting that brown fat is an effective target to improve glucose homeostasis.
2014: In Memory of Sam Berns. I wrote this blog post as a tribute to someone who will always be very near and dear to me. Sam Berns was born with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, one of the rarest of rare diseases. After receiving the sad news that this brave young man had passed away, I wrote: “Sam may have only lived 17 years, but in his short life he taught the rest of us a lot about how to live.”
Affecting approximately 400 people worldwide, progeria causes premature aging. Without treatment, children with progeria, who have completely normal intellectual development, die of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, on average in their early teens.
From interactions with Sam and his parents in the early 2000s, I started to study progeria in my NIH lab, eventually identifying the gene responsible for the disorder. My group and others have learned a lot since then. So, it was heartening last November when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment for progeria. It’s an oral medication called Zokinvy (lonafarnib) that helps prevent the buildup of defective protein that has deadly consequences. In clinical trials, the drug increased the average survival time of those with progeria by more than two years. It’s a good beginning, but we have much more work to do in the memory of Sam and to help others with progeria. Watch for more about new developments in applying gene editing to progeria in the next few days.
2015: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol. Readers absolutely loved this post. When the American Society of Cell Biology held its first annual video competition, called CellDance, my blog featured some of the winners. Among them was this captivating video from Alex Ritter, then working with cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The video stars a roving, specialized component of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. Their job is to seek out and destroy any foreign or detrimental cells. Here, these T cells literally convince a problem cell to commit suicide, a process that takes about 10 minutes from detection to death.
These cytotoxic T cells are critical players in cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. Cancer immunotherapy remains a promising area of research that continues to progress, with a lot of attention now being focused on developing immunotherapies for common, solid tumors like breast cancer. Ritter is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Ira Mellman, Genentech, South San Francisco. His focus has shifted to how cancer cells protect themselves from T cells. And video buffs—get this—Ritter says he’s now created even cooler videos that than the one in this post.
2016: Exercise Releases Brain-Healthy Protein. The research literature is pretty clear: exercise is good for the brain. In this very popular post, researchers led by Hyo Youl Moon and Henriette van Praag of NIH’s National Institute on Aging identified a protein secreted by skeletal muscle cells to help explore the muscle-brain connection. In a study in Cell Metabolism, Moon and his team showed that this protein called cathepsin B makes its way into the brain and after a good workout influences the development of new neural connections. This post is also memorable to me for the photo collage that accompanied the original post. Why? If you look closely at the bottom right, you’ll see me exercising—part of my regular morning routine!
2017: Muscle Enzyme Explains Weight Gain in Middle Age. The struggle to maintain a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge for many of us. While several risk factors for weight gain, such as counting calories, are within our control, there’s a major one that isn’t: age. Jay Chung, a researcher with NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and his team discovered that the normal aging process causes levels of an enzyme called DNA-PK to rise in animals as they approach middle age. While the enzyme is known for its role in DNA repair, their studies showed it also slows down metabolism, making it more difficult to burn fat.
Since publishing this paper in Cell Metabolism, Chung has been busy trying to understand how aging increases the activity of DNA-PK and its ability to suppress renewal of the cell’s energy-producing mitochondria. Without renewal of damaged mitochondria, excess oxidants accumulate in cells that then activate DNA-PK, which contributed to the damage in the first place. Chung calls it a “vicious cycle” of aging and one that we’ll be learning more about in the future.
2018: Has an Alternative to Table Sugar Contributed to the C. Diff. Epidemic? This impressive bit of microbial detective work had blog readers clicking and commenting for several weeks. So, it’s no surprise that it was the runaway People’s Choice of 2018.
Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a common bacterium that lives harmlessly in the gut of most people. But taking antibiotics can upset the normal balance of healthy gut microbes, allowing C. diff. to multiply and produce toxins that cause inflammation and diarrhea.
In the 2000s, C. diff. infections became far more serious and common in American hospitals, and Robert Britton, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wanted to know why. He and his team discovered that two subtypes of C. diff have adapted to feed on the sugar trehalose, which was approved as a food additive in the United States during the early 2000s. The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature, suggested that hospitals and nursing homes battling C. diff. outbreaks may want to take a closer look at the effect of trehalose in the diet of their patients.
2019: Study Finds No Benefit for Dietary Supplements. This post that was another one that sparked a firestorm of comments from readers. A team of NIH-supported researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, found that people who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to amounts that are available from food consumption. The researchers based their conclusion on an analysis of the well-known National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 survey data. The team, which reported its data in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess.
2020: Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19. Typically, my blog focuses on research involving many different diseases. That changed in 2020 due to the emergence of a formidable public health challenge: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Since last March, the blog has featured 85 posts on COVID-19, covering all aspects of the research response and attracting more visitors than ever. And which post got the most views? It was one that highlighted a study, published last June in the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggested the clues to people’s variable responses to COVID-19 may be found in our genes and our blood types.
The researchers found that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death. The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system.
In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.
That’s it for the blog’s year-by-year Top Hits. But wait! I’d also like to give shout outs to the People’s Choice winners in two other important categories—history and cool science images.
Top History Post: HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story. Published in August 2013, this post remains one of the blog’s greatest hits with readers. The post highlights science’s use of cancer cells taken in the 1950s from a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells had an amazing property not seen before: they could be grown continuously in laboratory conditions. The “new chapter” featured in this post is an agreement with the Lacks family that gives researchers access to the HeLa genome data, while still protecting the family’s privacy and recognizing their enormous contribution to medical research. And the acknowledgments rightfully keep coming from those who know this remarkable story, which has been chronicled in both book and film. Recently, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to honor her extraordinary life and examine access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups.
Top Snapshots of Life: A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells. My blog posts come in several categories. One that you may have noticed is “Snapshots of Life,” which provides a showcase for cool images that appear in scientific journals and often dominate Science as Art contests. My blog has published dozens of these eye-catching images, representing a broad spectrum of the biomedical sciences. But the blog People’s Choice goes to a very recent addition that reveals exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when they are infected with the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. This vivid image, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This image squeezed in just ahead of another highly popular post from Steve Ramirez, Boston University, in 2019 that showed “What a Memory Looks Like.”
As we look ahead to 2021, I want to thank each of my blog’s readers for your views and comments over the last eight years. I love to hear from you, so keep on clicking! I’m confident that 2021 will generate a lot more amazing and bloggable science, including even more progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic that made our past year so very challenging.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
More than half of U.S. adults take dietary supplements . I don’t, but some of my family members do. But does popping all of these vitamins, minerals, and other substances really lead to a longer, healthier life? A new nationwide study suggests it doesn’t.
Based on an analysis of survey data gathered from more than 27,000 people over a six-year period, the NIH-funded study found that individuals who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to food consumption.
The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess . For instance, people who took more than 1,000 milligrams of supplemental calcium per day were more likely to die of cancer than those who didn’t.
The researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, were intrigued that so many people take dietary supplements, despite questions about their health benefits. While the overall evidence had suggested no benefits or harms, results of a limited number of studies had suggested that high doses of certain supplements could be harmful in some cases.
To take a broader look, Zhang’s team took advantage of survey data from tens of thousands of U.S. adults, age 20 or older, who had participated in six annual cycles of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010. NHANES participants were asked whether they’d used any dietary supplements in the previous 30 days. Those who answered yes were then asked to provide further details on the specific product(s) and how long and often they’d taken them.
Just over half of participants reported use of dietary supplements in the previous 30 days. Nearly 40 percent reported use of multivitamins containing three or more vitamins.
Nutrient intake from foods was also assessed. Each year, the study’s participants were asked to recall what they’d eaten over the last 24 hours. The researchers then used that information to calculate participants’ nutrient intake from food. Those calculations indicated that more than half of the study’s participants had inadequate intake of vitamins D, E, and K, as well as choline and potassium.
Over the course of the study, more than 3,600 of the study’s participants died. Those deaths included 945 attributed to cardiovascular disease and 805 attributed to cancer. The next step was to look for any association between the nutrient intake and the mortality data.
The researchers found the use of dietary supplements had no influence on mortality. People with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were less likely to die. However, that relationship only held for nutrient intake from food consumption.
People who reported taking more than 1,000 milligrams of calcium per day were more likely to die of cancer. There was also evidence that people who took supplemental vitamin D at a dose exceeding 10 micrograms (400 IU) per day without a vitamin D deficiency were more likely to die from cancer.
It’s worth noting that the researchers did initially see an association between the use of dietary supplements and a lower risk of death due to all causes. However, those associations vanished when they accounted for other potentially confounding factors.
For example, study participants who reported taking dietary supplements generally had a higher level of education and income. They also tended to enjoy a healthier lifestyle. They ate more nutritious food, were less likely to smoke or drink alcohol, and exercised more. So, it appears that people who take dietary supplements are likely to live a longer and healthier life for reasons that are unrelated to their supplement use.
While the study has some limitations, including the difficulty in distinguishing association from causation, and a reliance on self-reported data, its findings suggest that the regular use of dietary supplements should not be recommended for the general U.S. population. Of course, this doesn’t rule out the possibility that certain subgroups of people, including perhaps those following certain special diets or with known nutritional deficiencies, may benefit.
These findings serve up a reminder that dietary supplements are no substitute for other evidence-based approaches to health maintenance and eating nutritious food. Right now, the best way to live a long and healthy life is to follow the good advice offered by the rigorous and highly objective reviews provided by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force . Those tend to align with what I hope your parents offered: eat a balanced diet, including plenty of fruits, veggies, and healthy sources of calcium and protein. Don’t smoke. Use alcohol in moderation. Avoid recreational drugs. Get plenty of exercise.
 Trends in Dietary Supplement Use Among US Adults From 1999-2012. Kantor ED, Rehm CD, Du M, White E, Giovannucci EL. JAMA. 2016 Oct 11;316(14):1464-1474.
 Association among dietary supplement use, nutrient intake, and mortality among U.S. adults. Chen F, Du M, Blumberg JB, Ho Chui KK, Ruan M, Rogers G, Shan Z, Zeng L, Zhang. Ann Intern Med. 2019 Apr 9. [Epub ahead of print].
 Vitamin Supplementation to Prevent Cancer and CVD: Preventive Medication. U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, February 2014.
Healthy Eating Plan (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta)
U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (Rockville, MD)
Fang Fang Zhang (Tufts University, Boston)
NIH Support: National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities