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New Understanding of a Common Kidney Cancer

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Purple stained kidney tissue

Caption: Histologic image of clear cell kidney cancer
Slide courtesy of W. Marston Linehan, National Cancer Institute, NIH

Understanding how cancer cells shift into high gear—what makes them become more aggressive and unresponsive to treatment—is a key concern of cancer researchers. A new study reveals how this escalation occurs in the most common form of kidney cancer: clear cell renal cell carcinoma (ccRCC). The study shows that ccRCC tumors acquire specific mutations that encourage uncontrollable growth and shifts in energy use and production [1].

Conducted by researchers in the NIH-led The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Research Network, the study compared more than 400 ccRCC tumors from individual patients with healthy tissue samples from the same patients. Researchers were looking for differences in the gene activity and proteins in healthy vs. tumor tissue.

Fishing for Answers in Human Disease

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Images of both a wild type zebrafish and a vhnf1 mutant zebrafish. The mutant fish shows abnormal bulging in its upper body.

Caption: Researcher Zhaoxia Sun, at Yale, uses the zebrafish to study Polycystic Kidney Disease, which affects more than 600,000 Americans. Mutations in the zebrafish vhnf1 gene, and its human counterpart, cause cysts in both zebrafish and human kidneys (as shown by the large “bubble” seen in the mutant fish). [3]
Credit: Zhoaxia Sun, Biological & Biomedical Sciences, Yale University

Wouldn’t it be instructive if we could see the effect of a genetic mutation in real time, as the gene was misbehaving? Well, that’s one of the perks of using the zebrafish—a tiny, striped, transparent fish.

Just last month, an international team of scientists—funded in part by NIH—published the entire genetic code of the zebrafish [1]. This is a vital resource for understanding human health and disease. How does the genetic blueprint of a fish help us or accelerate drug discovery? Well, it turns out that more than 75% of the genes that have been implicated in human diseases have counterparts in the zebrafish. So, if we discover a mutation in a human, we can make the corresponding mutation in the zebrafish gene—and often get a pretty good idea of how the gene works, how the mutation causes havoc, and how it causes disease in humans. We can even use the zebrafish to test potential drug candidates, to see whether they can alter or fix the symptoms before moving on to mice or humans.

The Brain: Now You See It, Soon You Won’t

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A post mortem brain is a white, fatty, opaque, three-pound mass. Traditionally scientists have looked inside it by cutting the brain into thin slices, but the relationships and connections of the tens of billions of neurons are then almost impossible to reconstruct.   What if we could strip away the fat and study the details of the wiring and the location of specific proteins, in three dimensions? An NIH funded team at Stanford University has done just that, developing a breakthrough method for unmasking the brain.

Using a chemical cocktail, they infuse the brain with a hydrogel that locks in the brain’s form and structure in a type of matrix. Then the fatty layer that coats each nerve cell is stripped away, leaving a transparent brain (check out the transparent mouse brain below). The hydrogel prevents the brain from disintegrating into a puddle once the fat is gone.

Photo on the left shows an opaque mouse brain. Photo on the right (after CLARITY) shows a nearly transparent mouse brain.

Caption: CLARITY transforms a mouse brain at left into a transparent but still intact brain at right. Shown superimposed over a quote from the great Spanish neuroanatomist Ramon y Cajal.
Credit: Kwanghun Chung and Karl Deisseroth, Howard Hughes Medical Institute/Stanford University

New Prize Celebrates Biology Breakthroughs

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Faces of the NIH grantees receiving the Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences (as listed below)

NIH grantees receiving the Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences
(in order as listed below)

The brand new $3 million Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences [1] delivered a very nice reward and well deserved recognition to eleven exceptionally creative scientists who have devoted their careers to biology and medicine. And, with five awards to be given each year, I hope this inspires other life scientists to embark on innovative and high-risk endeavors.

For this inaugural round, I’m proud to say that nine of the eleven winners were NIH grant recipients—some for more than three decades. Now, you may not have heard of most of these scientists. Quite frankly, that’s a shame. These folks have discovered fundamental principles of biology—everything from cancer causing genes to techniques for creating stem cells. These discoveries have boosted our understanding of health and disease, and led to the development of many drugs and therapies.

So these individuals really should be household names—and more of that kind of recognition would be a good thing to inspire youth to explore careers in science. In the United States, virtually everyone can list names of multiple movie stars and athletes, but two-thirds of Americans can’t name a single living scientist [2].

Of Mice, Men, and Medicine

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Photo of someone holding the lab on a chip device next to a photo of two laboratory mice

Will a chip challenge the mouse?
Source: Wyss Institute and Bill Branson, NIH

The humble laboratory mouse has taught us a phenomenal amount about embryonic development, disease, and evolution. And, for decades, the pharmaceutical industry has relied on these critters to test the safety and efficacy of new drug candidates. If it works in mice, so we thought, it should work in humans. But when it comes to molecules designed to target a sepsis-like condition, 150 drugs that successfully treated this condition in mice later failed in human clinical trials—a heartbreaking loss of decades of research and billions of dollars. A new NIH-funded study [1] reveals why.

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