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The People’s Picks for Best Posts

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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.


Panel Finds Exercise May Lower Cancer Risk, Improve Outcomes

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Mature woman doing moderate exercise
Credit: gettyimages/vgajic

Exercise can work wonders for your health, including strengthening muscles and bones, and boosting metabolism, mood, and memory skills. Now comes word that staying active may also help to lower your odds of developing cancer. 

After reviewing the scientific evidence, a panel of experts recently concluded that physical activity is associated with reduced risks for seven common types of cancer: colon, breast, kidney, endometrial, bladder, stomach, and esophageal adenocarcinoma. What’s more, the experts found that exercise—both before and after a cancer diagnosis—was linked to improved survival among people with breast, colorectal, or prostate cancers.

About a decade ago, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) convened its first panel of experts to review the evidence on the role of exercise in cancer. At the time, there was limited evidence to suggest a connection between exercise and a reduced risk for breast, colon, and perhaps a few other cancer types. There also were some hints that exercise might help to improve survival among people with a diagnosis of cancer.

Today, the evidence linking exercise and cancer has grown considerably. That’s why the ACSM last year convened a group of 40 experts to perform a comprehensive review of the research literature and summarize the level of the evidence. The team, including Charles Matthews and Frank Perna with the NIH’s National Cancer Institute, reported its findings and associated guidelines and recommendations in three papers just published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise and CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians [1,2,3].

Here are some additional highlights from the papers:

Ÿ There’s moderate evidence to support an association between exercise and reduced risk for some other cancer types, including cancers of the lung and liver.

Ÿ While the optimal amount of exercise needed to reduce cancer risk is still unclear, being physically active is clearly one of the most important steps in general that people of all ages and abilities can take.

Ÿ Is sitting the new smoking? Reducing the amount of time spent sitting also may help to lower the risk of some cancers, including endometrial, colon, and lung cancers. However, there’s not enough evidence to draw clear conclusions yet.

Ÿ Every cancer survivor should, within reason, “avoid inactivity.” There’s plenty of evidence to show that aerobic and resistance exercise training improves many cancer-related health outcomes, reducing anxiety, depression, and fatigue while improving physical functioning and quality of life.

Ÿ Physical activity before and after a diagnosis of cancer also may help to improve survival in some cancers, with perhaps the greatest benefits coming from exercise during and/or after cancer treatment.

Based on the evidence, the panel recommends that cancer survivors engage in moderate-intensity exercise, including aerobic and resistance training, at least two to three times a week. They should exercise for about 30 minutes per session.

The recommendation is based on added confirmation that exercise is generally safe for cancer survivors. The data indicate exercise can lead to improvements in anxiety, depression, fatigue, overall quality of life, and in some cases survival.

The panel also recommends that treatment teams and fitness professionals more systematically incorporate “exercise prescriptions” into cancer care. They should develop the resources to design exercise prescriptions that deliver the right amount of exercise to meet the specific needs, preferences, and abilities of people with cancer.

The ACSM has launched the “Moving Through Cancer” initiative. This initiative will help raise awareness about the importance of exercise during cancer treatment and help support doctors in advising their patients on those benefits.

It’s worth noting that there are still many fascinating questions to explore. While exercise is known to support better health in a variety of ways, correlation is not the same as causation. Questions remain about the underlying mechanisms that may help to explain the observed associations between physical activity, lowered cancer risk, and improved cancer survival.

An intensive NIH research effort, called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), is underway to identify molecular mechanisms that might explain the wide-ranging benefits of physical exercise. It might well shed light on cancer, too.

As that evidence continues to come in, the findings are yet another reminder of the importance of exercise to our health. Everybody—people who are healthy, those with cancer, and cancer survivors alike—should make an extra effort to remain as physically active as our ages, abilities, and current health will allow. If I needed any more motivation to keep up my program of vigorous exercise twice a week, guided by an experienced trainer, here it is!

References:

[1] Exercise Is Medicine in Oncology: Engaging Clinicians to Help Patients Move Through Cancer. Schmitz KH, Campbell AM, Stuiver MM, Pinto BM, Schwartz AL, Morris GS, Ligibel JA, Cheville A, Galvão, DA, Alfano CM, Patel AV, Hue T, Gerber LH, Sallis R, Gusani NJ, Stout NL, Chan L, Flowers F, Doyle C, Helmrich S, Bain W, Sokolof J, Winters-Stone KM, Campbell KL, Matthews CE.  CA Cancer J Clin. 2019 Oct 16 [Epub ahead of publication]

[2] American College of Sports Medicine Roundtable Report on Physical Activity, Sedentary Behavior, and Cancer Prevention and Control. Patel AV, Friedenreich CM, Moore SC, Hayes SC, Silver JK, Campbell KL, Gerber LH, George SM, Fulton JE, Denlinger C, Morris GS, Hue T, Schmitz KH, Matthews CE. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]

[3] Exercise Guidelines for Cancer Survivors: Consensus Statement from International Multidisciplinary Roundtable. Campbell KL, Winters-Stone KM, Wiskemann J, May AM, Schwartz AL, Courneya KS, Zucker DS, Matthews CE, Ligibel JA, Gerber LH, Morris GS, Patel AV, Hue TF, Perna FM, Schmitz KH. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Oct 16. [Epub ahead of publication]

Links:

Physical Activity and Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Moving Through Cancer (American College of Sports Medicine, Indianapolis, IN)

American College of Sports Medicine

Charles Matthews (NCI)

Frank Perna (NCI)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute


On Your Marks, Get Set

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NIH Relay Race 2019
It was my job to blow the whistle starting the 36th Annual NIH Institute Challenge Relay on September 18,2019. The relay race involved registered teams of five runners from many NIH institutes, centers, and offices. Each runner completed the same half-mile loop on the NIH campus and then passed the baton to the next team member. All teams included male and female runners with at least two team members of the same sex. It’s always a fun event and an annual reminder of the importance of exercise and staying fit. The race is sponsored by the NIH Recreation and Welfare Association. Credit: NIH

‘Exercise Hormone’ Tied to Bone-Strengthening Benefits

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Exercise
Credit: gettyimages/kali9

There’s no doubt that exercise is good for us—strengthening our muscles, helping us maintain a healthy weight, maybe even boosting our moods and memories. There’s also been intriguing evidence that exercise may help build strong bones.

Now, an NIH-funded study is shedding light on the mechanism behind exercise’s bone-strengthening benefits [1]. The new work—which may lead to new approaches for treating osteoporosis, a disease that increases the risk of bone fracture—centers on a hormone called irisin that is secreted by muscles during exercise.

In a series of mouse experiments, the researchers found that irisin works directly on a common type of bone cell, stimulating the cells to produce a protein that encourages bones to thin. However, this chain of molecular events ultimately takes a turn for the better and reverses bone loss.

Bruce Spiegelman’s lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University Medical School, Boston, first discovered the irisin hormone in 2012 [2]. In the years since, evidence has accumulated suggesting a connection between irisin and many of the benefits that come with regular workouts. For example, delivering low doses of irisin—sometimes called “the exercise hormone”—increase bone density and strength in mice.

But how does irisin act on bones? The answer hasn’t been at all clear. A major reason is the protein receptor on our cells that binds and responds to irisin wasn’t known.

In the new study reported in the journal Cell, Spiegelman’s team has now identified irisin’s protein receptor, called αVβ5 integrin. Those receptors are present on the surface of osteocytes, the most common cell type found in mature bone tissue.

The researchers went on to show that irisin helps osteocytes to live longer. It also leads the bone cells to begin secreting a protein called sclerostin, known for its role in preparing bones for remodeling and rebuilding by first breaking them down. Interestingly, previous studies also showed sclerostin levels increase in response to the mechanical stresses that come with exercise.

To further explore the role of irisin in mouse studies, the researchers gave the animals the hormone for six days. And indeed, after the treatment, the animals showed higher levels of sclerostin in their blood.

The findings suggest that irisin could form the basis of a new treatment for osteoporosis, a condition responsible for almost nine million fractures around the world each year. While it might seem strange that a treatment intended to strengthen bone would first encourage them to break down, this may be similar to the steps you have to follow when fixing up a house that has weakened timbers. And Spiegelman notes that there’s precedent for such a phenomenon in bone remodeling—treatment for osteoporosis, parathyroid hormone, also works by thinning bones before they are rebuilt.

That said, it’s not yet clear how best to target irisin for strengthening bone. In fact, locking in on the target could be a little complicated. The Speigelman lab found, for example, that mice prone to osteoporosis following the removal of their ovaries were paradoxically protected from weakening bones by the inability to produce irisin.

This new study fits right in with other promising NIH-funded efforts to explore the benefits of exercise. One that I’m particularly excited about is the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), which aims to develop a comprehensive map of the molecular changes that arise with physical activity, leading to a range of benefits for body and mind.

Indeed, the therapeutic potential for irisin doesn’t end with bone. In healthy people, irisin circulates throughout the body. In addition to being produced in muscle, its protein precursor is produced in the heart and brain.

The hormone also has been shown to transform energy-storing white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. In the new study, Spiegelman’s team confirms that this effect on fat also depends on the very same integrin receptors present in bone. So, these new findings will no doubt accelerate additional study in Speigelman’s lab and others to explore the many other benefits of irisin—and of exercise—including its potential to improve our moods, memory, and metabolism.

References:

[1] Irisin Mediates Effects on Bone and Fat via αV Integrin Receptors. Kim H, Wrann CD, Jedrychowski M, Vidoni S, Kitase Y, Nagano K, Zhou C, Chou J, Parkman VA, Novick SJ, Strutzenberg TS, Pascal BD, Le PT, Brooks DJ, Roche AM, Gerber KK, Mattheis L, Chen W, Tu H, Bouxsein ML, Griffin PR, Baron R, Rosen CJ, Bonewald LF, Spiegelman BM. Cell. 2018 Dec 13;175(7):1756-1768. 

[2] A PGC1-α-dependent myokine that drives brown-fat-like development of white fat and thermogenesis. Boström P, Wu J, Jedrychowski MP, Korde A, Ye L, Lo JC, Rasbach KA, Boström EA, Choi JH, Long JZ, Kajimura S, Zingaretti MC, Vind BF, Tu H, Cinti S, Højlund K, Gygi SP, Spiegelman BM. Nature. 2012 Jan 11;481(7382):463-8.

Links:

Osteoporosis (NIH)

Guide to Physical Activity (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Spiegelman Lab (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston)

Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity in Humans (Common Fund/NIH)

Video: MoTrPAC (Common Fund)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Study Suggests Light Exercise Helps Memory

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Fitness group doing tai chi in park

Credit: iStock/Wavebreakmedia

How much exercise does it take to boost your memory skills? Possibly a lot less than you’d think, according to the results of a new study that examined the impact of light exercise on memory.

In their study of 36 healthy young adults, researchers found surprisingly immediate improvements in memory after just 10 minutes of low-intensity pedaling on a stationary bike [1]. Further testing by the international research team reported that the quick, light workout—which they liken in intensity to a short yoga or tai chi session—was associated with heightened activity in the brain’s hippocampus. That’s noteworthy because the hippocampus is known for its involvement in remembering facts and events.


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