Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Last week was a big one for both NIH and me. Not only did I announce my plans to step down as NIH Director by year’s end to return to my lab full-time, I was reminded by the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prizes of what an honor it is to be affiliated an institution with such a strong, sustained commitment to supporting basic science.
This year, NIH’s Nobel excitement started in the early morning hours of October 4, when two NIH-supported neuroscientists in California received word from Sweden that they had won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. One “wake up” call went to David Julius, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who was recognized for his groundbreaking discovery of the first protein receptor that controls thermosensation, the body’s perception of temperature. The other went to his long-time collaborator, Ardem Patapoutian, Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, for his seminal work that identified the first protein receptor that controls our sense of touch.
But the good news didn’t stop there. On October 6, the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to NIH-funded chemist David W.C. MacMillan of Princeton University, N.J., who shared the honor with Benjamin List of Germany’s Max Planck Institute. (List also received NIH support early in his career.)
The two researchers were recognized for developing an ingenious tool that enables the cost-efficient construction of “greener” molecules with broad applications across science and industry—including for drug design and development.
Then, to turn this into a true 2021 Nobel Prize “hat trick” for NIH, we learned on October 12 that two of this year’s three Nobel winners in Economic Sciences had been funded by NIH. David Card, an NIH-supported researcher at University of California, Berkley, was recognized “for his empirical contributions to labor economics.” He shared the 2021 prize with NIH grantee Joshua Angrist of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, and his colleague Guido Imbens of Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, “for their methodological contributions to the analysis of causal relationships.” What a year!
The achievements of these and NIH’s 163 past Nobel Prize winners stand as a testament to the importance of our agency’s long and robust history of investing in basic biomedical research. In this area of research, scientists ask fundamental questions about how life works. The answers they uncover help us to understand the principles, mechanisms, and processes that underlie living organisms, including the human body in sickness and health.
What’s more, each advance builds upon past discoveries, often in unexpected ways and sometimes taking years or even decades before they can be translated into practical results. Recent examples of life-saving breakthroughs that have been built upon years of fundamental biomedical research include the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 and the immunotherapy approaches now helping people with many types of cancer.
Take the case of the latest Nobels. Fundamental questions about how the human body responds to medicinal plants were the initial inspiration behind the work of UCSF’s Julius. He’d noticed that studies from Hungary found that a natural chemical in chili peppers, called capsaicin, activated a subgroup of neurons to create the painful, burning sensation that most of us have encountered from having a bit too much hot sauce. But what wasn’t known was the molecular mechanism by which capsaicin triggered that sensation.
In 1997, having settled on the best experimental approach to study this question, Julius and colleagues screened millions of DNA fragments corresponding to genes expressed in the sensory neurons that were known to interact with capsaicin. In a matter of weeks, they had pinpointed the gene encoding the protein receptor through which capsaicin interacts with those neurons . Julius and team then determined in follow-up studies that the receptor, later named TRPV1, also acts as a thermal sensor on certain neurons in the peripheral nervous system. When capsaicin raises the temperature to a painful range, the receptor opens a pore-like ion channel in the neuron that then transmit a signal for the unpleasant sensation on to the brain.
In collaboration with Patapoutian, Julius then turned his attention from hot to cold. The two used the chilling sensation of the active chemical in mint, menthol, to identify a protein called TRPM8, the first receptor that senses cold [2, 3]. Additional pore-like channels related to TRPV1 and TRPM8 were identified and found to be activated by a range of different temperatures.
Taken together, these breakthrough discoveries have opened the door for researchers around the world to study in greater detail how our nervous system detects the often-painful stimuli of hot and cold. Such information may well prove valuable in the ongoing quest to develop new, non-addictive treatments for pain. The NIH is actively pursuing some of those avenues through its Helping to End Addiction Long-termSM (HEAL) Initiative.
Meanwhile, Patapoutian was busy cracking the molecular basis of another basic sense: touch. First, Patapoutian and his collaborators identified a mouse cell line that produced a measurable electric signal when individual cells were poked. They had a hunch that the electrical signal was generated by a protein receptor that was activated by physical pressure, but they still had to identify the receptor and the gene that coded for it. The team screened 71 candidate genes with no luck. Then, on their 72nd try, they identified a touch receptor-coding gene, which they named Piezo1, after the Greek word for pressure .
Patapoutian’s group has since found other Piezo receptors. As often happens in basic research, their findings have taken them in directions they never imagined. For example, they have discovered that Piezo receptors are involved in controlling blood pressure and sensing whether the bladder is full. Fascinatingly, these receptors also seem to play a role in controlling iron levels in red blood cells, as well as controlling the actions of certain white blood cells, called macrophages.
Turning now to the 2021 Nobel in Chemistry, the basic research of MacMillan and List has paved the way for addressing a major unmet need in science and industry: the need for less expensive and more environmentally friendly catalysts. And just what is a catalyst? To build the synthetic molecules used in drugs and a wide range of other materials, chemists rely on catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.
It was long thought there were only two major categories of catalysts for organic synthesis: metals and enzymes. But enzymes are large, complex proteins that are hard to scale to industrial processes. And metal catalysts have the potential to be toxic to workers, as well as harmful to the environment. Then, about 20 years ago, List and MacMillan, working independently from each other, created a third type of catalyst. This approach, known as asymmetric organocatalysis [5, 6], builds upon small organic molecule catalysts that have a stable framework of carbon atoms, to which more active chemical groups can attach, often including oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, or phosphorus.
Organocatalysts have gone on to be applied in ways that have proven to be more cost effective and environmentally friendly than using traditional metal or enzyme catalysts. In fact, this precise new tool for molecular construction is now being used to build everything from new pharmaceuticals to light-absorbing molecules used in solar cells.
That brings us to the Nobel Prize in the Economic Sciences. This year’s laureates showed that it’s possible to reach cause-and-effect answers to questions in the social sciences. The key is to evaluate situations in groups of people being treated differently, much like the design of clinical trials in medicine. Using this “natural experiment” approach in the early 1990s, David Card produced novel economic analyses, showing an increase in the minimum wage does not necessarily lead to fewer jobs. In the mid-1990s, Angrist and Imbens then refined the methodology of this approach, showing that precise conclusions can be drawn from natural experiments that establish cause and effect.
Last year, NIH added the names of three scientists to its illustrious roster of Nobel laureates. This year, five more names have been added. Many more will undoubtedly be added in the years and decades ahead. As I’ve said many times over the past 12 years, it’s an extraordinary time to be a biomedical researcher. As I prepare to step down as the Director of this amazing institution, I can assure you that NIH’s future has never been brighter.
 The capsaicin receptor: a heat-activated ion channel in the pain pathway. Caterina MJ, Schumacher MA, Tominaga M, Rosen TA, Levine JD, Julius D. Nature 1997:389:816-824.
 Identification of a cold receptor reveals a general role for TRP channels in thermosensation. McKemy DD, Neuhausser WM, Julius D. Nature 2002:416:52-58.
 A TRP channel that senses cold stimuli and menthol. Peier AM, Moqrich A, Hergarden AC, Reeve AJ, Andersson DA, Story GM, Earley TJ, Dragoni I, McIntyre P, Bevan S, Patapoutian A. Cell 2002:108:705-715.
 Piezo1 and Piezo2 are essential components of distinct mechanically activated cation channels. Coste B, Mathur J, Schmidt M, Earley TJ, Ranade S, Petrus MJ, Dubin AE, Patapoutian A. Science 2010:330: 55-60.
 Proline-catalyzed direct asymmetric aldol reactions. List B, Lerner RA, Barbas CF. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 122, 2395–2396 (2000).
 New strategies for organic catalysis: the first highly enantioselective organocatalytic Diels-AlderReaction. Ahrendt KA, Borths JC, MacMillan DW. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2000, 122, 4243-4244.
Curiosity Creates Cures: The Value and Impact of Basic Research (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2021 (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden)
Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (YouTube)
The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2021 (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet)
Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (YouTube)
The Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (The Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet)
Video: Announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences (YouTube)
Julius Lab (University of California San Francisco)
The Patapoutian Lab (Scripps Research, La Jolla, CA)
Benjamin List (Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany)
The MacMillan Group (Princeton University, NJ)
David Card (University of California, Berkeley)
Joshua Angrist (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
David Julius: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
Ardem Patapoutian: National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke; National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
David W.C. MacMillan: National Institute of General Medical Sciences
David Card: National Institute on Aging; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Joshua Angrist: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
The coronavirus 2019 (COVD-19) pandemic has brought into sharp focus many of the troubling things that we already knew about health disparities in the United States but have failed to address. With the bright light now shining on this important issue, it is time to talk about the role research can play in reducing the disproportionate burden of COVID-19, as well as improving the health of all people in our great nation.
In recent weeks, we’ve seen a growing list of disturbing statistics about how blacks, Hispanics, tribal communities, and some other racial, ethnic, and disadvantaged socioeconomic groups are bearing the brunt of COVID-19. One of the latest studies comes from a research team that analyzed county-by-county data gathered about a month ago. Their findings? The 22 percent of U.S. counties that are disproportionately black accounted for 52 percent of our nation’s COVID-19 cases and 58 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In a paper awaiting peer review, the team, led by Emory University, Atlanta, and amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, Washington, DC., noted that neither the size of the county nor whether it was urban or rural mattered .
Recently, I had an opportunity to discuss the disparate burden of COVID-19 with Dr. Eliseo Pérez-Stable, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). Besides leading an institute, Dr. Pérez-Stable is a widely recognized researcher who studies various factors that contribute to health disparities. Our conversation took place via videoconferencing, with him linking in from his home in Washington, D.C., and me from my home in nearby Maryland. Here’s a condensed transcript of our chat:
Collins: Eliseo, you and I recently had a chance to have a pretty intense discussion with the Congressional Black Caucus about health disparities and the COVID-19 pandemic. So, could you start off with a little bit about what populations are being hit hardest?
Pérez-Stable: Collecting data about disease incidence and mortality on the basis of race and ethnicity and other important demographic factors, like socioeconomic status, had really been absent in this pandemic until recently.
Part of that I think is entirely understandable. Hospitals were pressed with a surge of very sick patients, and there was a certain amount of fear and panic in the community. So, people were not completing all these forms that usually get turned in to the health departments and then forwarded to the CDC. If you go back in history, similar things happened in the early 1980s with the HIV epidemic. We weren’t collecting data on race and other sociodemographic variables initially. But, with time, we did complete these data and a picture emerged.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, obviously, the outcomes are much faster, with over 60,000 deaths in just a matter of three months. And we started to see reports, initially out of Connecticut, Milwaukee, Chicago, and New Orleans, that African Americans were dying at a disproportionate rate.
Now, the initial—and I think still the most likely—explanation for this higher mortality relates to two factors. The first is a higher rate of co-morbidities. We know that if you have cardiovascular disease, more than mild obesity, or diabetes, you’re more likely to get severe COVID-19 and potentially die from it. So, we could have just said, “Aha! It’s obvious why this population, and others with higher rates of co-morbidities might be expected to have higher rates of severe disease and higher mortality.”
But there is a second factor that relates to getting infected, for which we have much-less clear data. There was recently a map in The Washington Post showing the distribution of the rate of COVID-19 infections in Washington, D.C., by ward. The highest rates are in the wards that are east of the Anacostia River, which are about 90 percent African American. So, there is an appearance of a correlation between the proportion of African Americans in the community and the rate of Covid-19 infection. Now why could that be?
Collins: Yes, what explains that?
Pérez-Stable: Well, I think crowding is part of it, certainly in this neighborhood. A second option would be multiple families living under one roof.
Collins: So, you can’t exactly practice physical distancing very well in that situation.
Pérez-Stable: Absolutely. You and I can go into our respective rooms, probably have our respective bathrooms, and socially and physically isolate from the rest of the household if need be. Many people can’t do that. They have three generations in one small apartment, all using one bathroom, maybe two bedrooms for six or eight people.
So, we do face different conditions by which one casual infection can lead to much more community transmission. But much information still needs to be ascertained and there does seem to be some regional variance. For example, in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Atlanta, the reports, at least initially, are worse than they are in Connecticut or Florida. Also, New York City, which has been the epicenter of the U.S. for this pandemic, has an increased rate of infections and mortality among Latino-Hispanic populations as well. So, it isn’t isolated to an African-American issue.
Collins: What about access to healthcare?
Pérez-Stable: Again, we can postulate based on a little bit of anecdote and a little bit of data. I’m a general internist by background, and I can see the enormous impact this pandemic has had on healthcare settings.
First, elective ambulatory visits and elective admissions to the hospital have been postponed, delayed, or cancelled. About 90 percent of ambulatory care is occurring through telemedicine or telephone connections, so in-person visits are occurring only for really urgent matters or suspected COVID-19.
If you have health insurance and can use systems, you can probably, through telephone triage with a nurse, get either approval or nonapproval for being tested [for COVID-19], drive to a place, get tested by someone wearing protective equipment, and never actually have to visit with anyone. And you’ll get your result now back as soon as one day, depending on the system. Now, if you’re insured, but don’t really know how to use systems, navigating all these things can be a huge challenge. So, that could be a factor.
People are also afraid to come to clinic, they’re afraid to show up at the emergency room, because they’re afraid to get infected. So, they’re worried about going in, unless they get very sick. And when they get very sick, they may be coming in with more advanced cases [of COVID-19].
So, telephone triage, advice from clinicians on the phone, is critical. We are seeing some doctors base their decisions on whether a person is able to breathe okay on the phone, able to say a whole sentence without catching their breath. These kinds of basic things that we learned in clinical medicine training are coming into play in a big way now, because we just cannot provide the kind of care, even in the best of circumstances, that people may need.
Of course, uninsured patients will have even more barriers, although everyone in the healthcare system is trying their best to help patients when they need to be helped, rather than depend on insurance triage.
Collins: A big part of trying to keep the disease from spreading has been access to testing so that people, even those with mild symptoms, can find out if they have this virus and, if so, quarantine and enable public health workers to check out their contacts. I’m guessing, from what you said, that testing has been happening a lot less in urban communities that are heavily populated by African Americans and that further propagates the spread of the disease. Am I right?
Pérez-Stable: So far, most testing has been conducted on the basis of symptoms. So, if you have enough symptoms that you may potentially need to be hospitalized, then you get tested. Also, if you’re a healthcare worker who had contact with a COVID-19 patient, you might be tested, or if there’s someone you’ve been very close to that was infected, you may be tested. So, I don’t think so much it’s a matter of disproportionate access to testing by one group or another, as much as that the overall triage and selection criteria for testing have been rather narrow. Up until now, it has not been a simple process to get tested for COVID-19. As we scale up and get better point-of-care tests and much easier access to getting tested, I think you’ll see dissemination across the board.
Collins: It’s interesting we’re talking about this, because this is an area that Congress recently came to NIH and said, “We want you to do something about the testing by encouraging more technology, particularly technology that can be distributed to the point-of-care, and that is out in the community.”
Everyone wants a test that gives you a quick turnaround, an answer within an hour, instead of maybe a day or two. A big part of what NIH is trying to do is to make sure that if we’re going to develop these new testing technologies, they get deployed in places that otherwise might not have much access to testing—maybe by working through the community health centers. So, we’re hoping we might be able to make a contribution there.
Pérez-Stable: The economic factors in this pandemic are also huge. A significant proportion of the population that we’re referring to—the disparity population, the minorities, the poor people—work in service jobs where they’re on the front line. They were the restaurant servers and people in the kitchen, they’re still the bus drivers and the Uber drivers, and those who are working in pharmacies and supermarkets.
On the one hand, they are at higher risk for getting infected because they’re in more contact with people. On the other hand, they’re really dependent on this income to maintain their household. So, if they test positive or get exposed to COVID-19, we really do have a challenge when we ask them to quarantine and not go to work. They’re not in a position where they have sick leave, and they may be putting themselves at risk for being laid off.
Collins: Eliseo, you’ve been studying health disparities pretty much your whole research career. You come from a community where health disparities are a reality, having been born in Cuba and being part of the Latino community. Did you expect that COVID-19 would be this dramatic in the ways in which it has so disproportionately affected certain groups?
Pérez-Stable: I can’t say that I did. My first thought as a physician was to ask: “Is there any reason to think that an infectious agent like COVID-19 would disproportionally infect or impact any population?” My gut answer was “No.” Infectious diseases usually seem to affect all people; sort of equal opportunity invaders. There are some data that would say that influenza and pneumonia are not any worse among African Americans or Latinos than among whites. There are some slight differences in some regions, but not much.
Yet I know this a question that NIH-funded scientists are interested in addressing. We need to make sure that there aren’t any particular susceptibility factors, possibly related to genetics or the lung epithelium, that lead to such different COVID-19 outcomes in different individuals. Clearly, something must be going on, but we don’t know what that is. Maybe one of those factors tracks through race or ethnicity because of what those social constructs represent.
I recently listened to a presentation by Rob Califf, former FDA Commissioner, who spoke about how the pandemic has created a spotlight on our disparities-creating system. I think much of the time this disparities-creating system is in the background; it doesn’t really affect most people’s daily lives. Now, we’re suddenly hit with a bucket of cold water called COVID-19, and we’re saying what is going on and what can we do about it to make a difference. I hope that, once we begin to emerge from this acute crisis, we take the opportunity to address these fundamental issues in our society.
Collins: Indeed. Let’s talk about what you’re doing at NIMHD to support research to try to dig into both the causes of health disparities and the interventions that might help.
Pérez-Stable: Prompted by your motivation, we started talking about how minority health and health disparities research could respond to this pandemic. In the short-term, we thought along the lines of how can we communicate mitigation interventions, such as physical distancing, in a more effective way to our communities? We also asked what we could do to enhance access to healthcare for our populations, both to manage chronic conditions and for diagnosis and treatment of acute COVID-19.
We also considered in the mid- and long-term effects of economic disruption—this surge of unemployment, loss of jobs, loss of insurance, loss of income—on people’s health. Worries include excess use of alcohol and other substances, and worsening of mental and emotional well-being, particularly due to severe depression and chronic mental disorders not being well controlled. Intimate partner violence has already been noted to increase in some countries, including France, Spain, and the United States, that have gone on physical distancing interventions. Similarly, child abuse can be exacerbated under these circumstances. Just think of 24/7 togetherness as a test of how people can hold it together all the time. I think that that can bring out some fragility. So, interventions to address these, that really activate our community networks and community-based organizations, are real strengths. They build on the resilience of the community to highlight how we can get through this difficult period of time.
I feel optimistic that science will bring answers, in the form of both therapies and vaccines. But in the meantime, we have a way to go and we a lot to do.
Collins: You mentioned the promise of vaccines. The NIH is working intensively on this, particularly through a partnership called ACTIV, Accelerating Covid-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines. We hope that in several more months, we’ll be in a position to begin testing these vaccines on a large scale, after having some assurances about their safety and efficacy. From our conversation, it sounds like we should be trying to get early access to those vaccines to people at highest risk, including those in communities with the heaviest burden. But how will that be received? There hasn’t always been an easy relationship between researchers, particularly government researchers, and the African-American community.
Pérez-Stable: I think we have learned from our historical experiences that mistrust of the system is real. To try to pretend that it isn’t there is a big mistake. Address these concerns upfront, obtain support from thought leaders in the community, and really work hard to be inclusive. In addition to vaccines, we need participation in any clinical trials that are coming up for therapeutics.
We also need research on how optimally to communicate this with all the different segments of the population. This includes not just explaining what it means to be eligible for vaccine trials or therapeutic trials, but also discussing the consequences of, say, getting tested, whether it be a viral or antibody test. What does the information mean for them?
Most people just want to know “Am I clear of the virus or not?” That certainly could be part of the answer, but many may require more nuanced responses. Then there’s behavior. If I’m infected and I recover, am I safe to go back out and do things that other people shouldn’t do? We’d love to be able to inform the population about that. But, as you know, we don’t really have the answers to that just yet.
Collins: Good points. How do we make sure, when we’re trying to reach out to populations that have shouldered such a heavy burden, that we’re actually providing information in a fashion that is readily understood?
Pérez-Stable: One thing to keep in mind is the issue of language. About 5 to 10 percent of U.S. adults don’t speak English well. So, we really have to address the language barrier. I also want to highlight the challenge that some tribal nations are facing. Navajo country has had particular challenges with COVID-19 infections in a setting of minimal medical infrastructure. In fact, there are communities that have to go and get their water for the day at a distant site, so they don’t have modern plumbing. How can we recommend frequent hand washing to someone who doesn’t even have running water at home? These are just a few examples of the diversity of our country that need to be addressed as we deal with this pandemic.
Collins: Eliseo, you’ve given us a lot to think about in an obviously very serious situation. Anything you’d like to add?
Pérez-Stable: In analyzing health outcomes, researchers often think about responses related to a metabolic pathway or to a gene or to a response to a particular drug. But as we use the power of science to understand and contain the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d like to re-emphasize the importance of considering race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, the built environment, the social environment, and systems. Much of the time these factors may only play secondary roles, but, as in all science related to humans, I think they have to be considered. This experience should be a lesson for us to learn more about that.
Collins: Thank you for those wonderful, inspiring words. It was good to have this conversation, Eliseo, because we are the National Institutes of Health, but that has to be health for everybody. With COVID-19, we have an example where that has not turned out to be the case. We need to do everything we can going forward to identify ways to change that.
 Assessing Differential Impacts of COVID-19 on Black Communities. Millet GA et al. MedRxiv. Preprint posted on May 8, 2020.
Coronavirus (COVID-19) (NIH)
Director’s Corner (National Institute on Minority Health and Disparities/NIH)
COVID-19 and Racial/Ethnic Disparities. Webb Hooper M, Nápoles AM, Pérez-Stable EJ.JAMA. 2020 May 11.
amfAR Study Shows Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Black Americans, amfAR News Release, May 5, 2020.