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Credit: Ning Wang, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

As tumor cells divide and grow, they push, pull, and squeeze one another. While scientists have suspected those mechanical stresses may play important roles in cancer, it’s been tough to figure out how. That’s in large part because there hadn’t been a good way to measure those forces within a tissue. Now, there is.

As described in Nature Communications, an NIH-funded research team has developed a technique for measuring those subtle mechanical forces in cancer and also during development [1]. Their ingenious approach is called the elastic round microgel (ERMG) method. It relies on round elastic microspheres—similar to miniature basketballs, only filled with fluorescent nanoparticles in place of air. In the time-lapse video above, you see growing and dividing melanoma cancer cells as they squeeze and spin one of those cell-sized “balls” over the course of 24 hours.


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Credit: Itamar Terem, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and Samantha Holdsworth, University of Auckland, New Zealand

Though our thoughts can wander one moment and race rapidly forward the next, the brain itself is often considered to be motionless inside the skull. But that’s actually not correct. When the heart beats, the pumping force reverberates throughout the body and gently pulsates the brain. What’s been tricky is capturing these pulsations with existing brain imaging technologies.

Recently, NIH-funded researchers developed a video-based approach to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that can record these subtle movements [1]. Their method, called phase-based amplified MRI (aMRI), magnifies those tiny movements, making them more visible and quantifiable. The latest aMRI method, developed by a team including Itamar Terem at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA, and Mehmet Kurt at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, NJ. It builds upon an earlier method developed by Samantha Holdsworth at New Zealand’s University of Auckland and Stanford’s Mahdi Salmani Rahimi [2].


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We live in a world energized by technological advances, from that new app on your smartphone to drones and self-driving cars. As you can see from this video, NIH-supported researchers are also major contributors, developing a wide range of amazing biomedical technologies that offer tremendous potential to improve our health.

Produced by the NIH’s National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB), this video starts by showcasing some cool fluorescent markers that are custom-designed to light up specific cells in the body. This technology is already helping surgeons see and remove tumor cells with greater precision in people with head and neck cancer [1]. Further down the road, it might also be used to light up nerves, which can be very difficult to see—and spare—during operations for cancer and other conditions.

Other great things to come include:

  • A wearable tattoo that detects alcohol levels in perspiration and wirelessly transmits the information to a smartphone.
  • Flexible coils that produce high quality images during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) [2-3]. In the future, these individualized, screen-printed coils may improve the comfort and decrease the scan times of people undergoing MRI, especially infants and small children.
  • A time-release capsule filled with a star-shaped polymer containing the anti-malarial drug ivermectin. The capsule slowly dissolves in the stomach over two weeks, with the goal of reducing the need for daily doses of ivermectin to prevent malaria infections in at-risk people [4].
  • A new radiotracer to detect prostate cancer that has spread to other parts of the body. Early clinical trial results show the radiotracer, made up of carrier molecules bonded tightly to a radioactive atom, appears to be safe and effective [5].
  • A new supercooling technique that promises to extend the time that organs donated for transplantation can remain viable outside the body [6-7]. For example, current technology can preserve donated livers outside the body for just 24 hours. In animal studies, this new technique quadruples that storage time to up to four days.
  • A wearable skin patch with dissolvable microneedles capable of effectively delivering an influenza vaccine. This painless technology, which has produced promising early results in humans, may offer a simple, affordable alternative to needle-and-syringe immunization [8].

If you like what you see here, be sure to check out this previous NIH video that shows six more awesome biomedical technologies that your tax dollars are helping to create. So, let me extend a big thanks to you from those of us at NIH—and from all Americans who care about the future of their health—for your strong, continued support!


[1] Image-guided surgery in cancer: A strategy to reduce incidence of positive surgical margins. Wiley Interdiscip Rev Syst Biol Med. 2018 Feb 23.

[2] Screen-printed flexible MRI receive coils. Corea JR, Flynn AM, Lechêne B, Scott G, Reed GD, Shin PJ, Lustig M, Arias AC. Nat Commun. 2016 Mar 10;7:10839.

[3] Printed Receive Coils with High Acoustic Transparency for Magnetic Resonance Guided Focused Ultrasound. Corea J, Ye P, Seo D, Butts-Pauly K, Arias AC, Lustig M. Sci Rep. 2018 Feb 21;8(1):3392.

[4] Oral, ultra-long-lasting drug delivery: Application toward malaria elimination goals. Bellinger AM, Jafari M1, Grant TM, Zhang S, Slater HC, Wenger EA, Mo S, Lee YL, Mazdiyasni H, Kogan L, Barman R, Cleveland C, Booth L, Bensel T, Minahan D, Hurowitz HM, Tai T, Daily J, Nikolic B, Wood L, Eckhoff PA, Langer R, Traverso G. Sci Transl Med. 2016 Nov 16;8(365):365ra157.

[5] Clinical Translation of a Dual Integrin avb3– and Gastrin-Releasing Peptide Receptor–Targeting PET Radiotracer, 68Ga-BBN-RGD. Zhang J, Niu G, Lang L, Li F, Fan X, Yan X, Yao S, Yan W, Huo L, Chen L, Li Z, Zhu Z, Chen X. J Nucl Med. 2017 Feb;58(2):228-234.

[6] Supercooling enables long-term transplantation survival following 4 days of liver preservation. Berendsen TA, Bruinsma BG, Puts CF, Saeidi N, Usta OB, Uygun BE, Izamis ML, Toner M, Yarmush ML, Uygun K. Nat Med. 2014 Jul;20(7):790-793.

[7] The promise of organ and tissue preservation to transform medicine. Giwa S, Lewis JK, Alvarez L, Langer R, Roth AE, et a. Nat Biotechnol. 2017 Jun 7;35(6):530-542.

[8] The safety, immunogenicity, and acceptability of inactivated influenza vaccine delivered by microneedle patch (TIV-MNP 2015): a randomised, partly blinded, placebo-controlled, phase 1 trial. Rouphael NG, Paine M, Mosley R, Henry S, McAllister DV, Kalluri H, Pewin W, Frew PM, Yu T, Thornburg NJ, Kabbani S, Lai L, Vassilieva EV, Skountzou I, Compans RW, Mulligan MJ, Prausnitz MR; TIV-MNP 2015 Study Group.


National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIH)

Center for Wearable Sensors (University of California, San Diego)

Hyperpolarized MRI Technology Resource Center (University of California, San Francisco)

Center for Engineering in Medicine (Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston)

Center for Drug Design, Development and Delivery (Georgia Tech University, Atlanta)

NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

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Each time your cells divide, telomeres—complexes of specialized DNA sequences, RNA, and protein that protect the tips of your chromosomes—shorten just a bit.  And, as the video shows, that shortening renders the genomic information on your chromosomes more vulnerable to changes that can drive cancer and other diseases of aging.

Consequently, over the last few decades, much research has focused on efforts to understand telomerase, a naturally occurring enzyme that helps to replace the bits of telomere lost during cell division. But there’s been a major hitch: until recently, scientists hadn’t been able to determine telomerase’s molecular structure in detail—a key step in figuring out exactly how the enzyme works. Now, thanks to better purification methods and an exciting technology called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), NIH-funded researchers and their colleagues have risen to the challenge to produce the most detailed view yet of human telomerase in its active form [1].

This structural biology advance is a critical step toward learning more about the role of telomerase in cancers, as well as genetic conditions linked to telomerase deficiencies. It’s also an important milestone in the quest for drugs targeting telomerase in different ways, perhaps to slow the growth of cancerous cells or to boost the proliferative capacity of life-giving adult stem cells.

One reason telomerase has been so difficult to study in humans is that the enzyme isn’t produced at detectable levels in the vast majority of our cells. To get around this problem, the team led by Eva Nogales and Kathleen Collins at the University of California, Berkeley, first coaxed human cells in the lab to produce larger quantities of active telomerase. They then used fluorescent microscopy, along with extensive knowledge of the enzyme’s biochemistry, to develop a multi-step purification process that yielded relatively homogenous samples of active telomerase.

The new study is also yet another remarkable example of how cryo-EM microscopy has opened up new realms of scientific possibility. That’s because, in comparison to other methods, cryo-EM enables researchers to solve complex macromolecular structures even when only tiny amounts of material are available. It can also produce detailed images of molecules, like telomerase, that are extremely flexible and hard to keep still while taking a picture of their structure.

As described in Nature, the researchers used cryo-EM to capture the structure of human telomerase in unprecedented detail. Their images reveal two lobes, held together by a flexible RNA tether. One of those lobes contains the highly specialized core enzyme. It uses an internal RNA template as a guide to make the repetitive, telomeric DNA that’s added at the tips of chromosomes. The second lobe, consisting of a complex of RNA and RNA-binding proteins, plays important roles in keeping the complex stable and properly in place.

This new, more-detailed view helps to explain how mutations in particular genes may lead to telomerase-related health conditions, including bone marrow failure, as well as certain forms of anemia and pulmonary fibrosis. For example, it reveals that a genetic defect known to cause bone marrow failure affects an essential protein in a spot that’s especially critical for telomerase’s proper conformation and function.

This advance will also be a big help for designing therapies that encourage telomerase activity. For example, it could help to boost the success of bone marrow transplants by rejuvenating adult stem cells. It might also be possible to reinforce the immune systems of people with HIV infections. While telomerase-targeted treatments surely won’t stop people from growing old, new insights into this important enzyme will help to understand aging better, including why some people appear to age faster than others.

As remarkable as these new images are, the researchers aren’t yet satisfied. They’ll continue to refine them down to the minutest structural details. They say they’d also like to use cryo-EM to understand better how the complex attaches to chromosomes to extend telomeres. Each new advance in the level of atomic detail will not only make for amazing new videos, it will help to advance understanding of human biology in health, aging, and disease.


[1] Cryo-EM structure of substrate-bound human telomerase holoenzyme. Nguyen THD, Tam J, Wu RA, Greber BJ, Toso D, Nogales E, Collins K. Nature. 2018 April 25. [Epub ahead of publication]


High Resolution Electron Microscopy (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Nogales Lab (University of California, Berkeley)

Collins Lab (University of California, Berkeley)

NIH Support: National Institute of General Medical Sciences   

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The stars are out and shining this holiday season. But there are some star-shaped structures now under study in the lab that also give us plenty of reason for hope. One of them is a tiny virus called bacteriophage phi-6, which researchers are studying in an effort to combat a similar, but more-complex, group of viruses that can cause life-threatening dehydration in young children.

Thanks to a breakthrough technology called cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), NIH researchers recently captured, at near atomic-level of detail, the 3D structure of this immature bacteriophage phi-6 particle in the process of replication. At the points of its “star,” key proteins (red) are positioned to transport clipped, single-stranded segments of the virus’ own genetic information into its newly made shell, or procapsid (blue). Once inside the procapsid, an enzyme (purple) will copy the segments to make the genetic information double-stranded, while another protein (yellow) will help package them. As the procapsid matures, it undergoes dramatic structural changes.


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