Creative Minds: Complex Solutions to Inflammation

Hao Wu

Hao Wu

For nearly 20 years, Hao Wu has studied innate immunity, our body’s first line of defense against infection. One of her research specialties is the challenging technique of X-ray crystallography, which she uses to capture the atomic structure of key molecules that drive an inflammatory response. But for this method to work, the proteins have to be coaxed to form regular crystals—and that has often proven to be prohibitively difficult. Wu, now at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, can be relentless in her attempts to crystallize difficult molecular structures, and this quality has helped her make a number of important discoveries. Among them is the seminal finding that innate immune cells process and internalize signals to handle invading microbes much differently than previously thought.

Innate immune cells, which include macrophages and neutrophils, patrol the body non-specifically, keeping a look out for signs of anything unusual. Using protein receptors displayed on their surfaces, these cells can sense distinctive molecular patterns on microbes, prompting an immediate response at the site of infection.

Wu has shown that these cells form previously unknown protein complexes that mediate the immune response [1, 2]. She received an NIH Director’s 2015 Pioneer Award to help translate her expertise in the structural biology of these signaling complexes into the design of new kinds of anti-inflammatory treatments. This award helps exceptionally creative scientists to pioneer transformative approaches to major challenges in biomedical and behavioral research.

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Meet Alex—Before and After NIH Clinical Trial

Photo of an infant with mottled skin adjacent to a photo of young man with clear skin being examined by a female doctor.

Caption: Alex, then and now, with Dr. Goldbach-Mansky
Credit: Kate Barton and Susan Bettendorf (NIH)

Alex Barton recently turned 17. That’s incredible because Alex was born with a rare, often fatal genetic disease and wasn’t expected to reach his teenage years.

When Alex was born, he looked like he’d been dipped in boiling water: his skin was bright red and blistered. He spent most of his time sleeping. When awake, he screamed in agony from headaches, joint pain, and rashes. After a torturous 14 months, a rheumatologist told his mother that Alex suffered from Neonatal-Onset Multisystem Inflammatory Disease (NOMID). The doctor showed her a brief and scary paragraph in a medical text. Kate Barton, Alex’s mother, admitted that it “knocked her over like a freight train.” Continue reading