Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Most of us think of mucus as little more than slimy and somewhat yucky stuff that’s easily ignored until you come down with a cold like the one I just had. But, when it comes to our health, there’s much more to mucus than you might think.
Mucus covers the moist surfaces of the human body, including the eyes, nostrils, lungs, and gastrointestinal tract. In fact, the average person makes more than a liter of mucus each day! It houses trillions of microbes and serves as a first line of defense against the subset of those microorganisms that cause infections. For these reasons, NIH-funded researchers, led by Katharina Ribbeck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, are out to gain a greater understanding of the biology of healthy mucus—and then possibly use that knowledge to develop new therapeutics.
Ribbeck’s team used a scanning electron microscope to take the image of mucus you see above. You’ll notice right away that mucus doesn’t look like simple slime at all. In fact, if you could zoom into this complex web, you’d discover it’s made up of mucin proteins and glycans, which are sugar molecules that resemble bottle brushes.
Ribbeck and her colleagues recently discovered that the glycans in healthy mucus play a long-overlooked role in “taming” bacteria that might make us ill . This work builds on their previous findings that mucus interferes with bacterial behavior, preventing these bugs from attaching to surfaces and communicating with each other .
In their new study, published in Nature Microbiology, Ribbeck, lead author Kelsey Wheeler, and their colleagues studied mucus and its interactions with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. This bacterium is a common cause of serious lung infections in people with cystic fibrosis or compromised immune systems.
The researchers found that in the presence of glycans, P. aeruginosa was rendered less harmful and infectious. The bacteria also produced fewer toxins. The findings show that it isn’t just that microbes get trapped in a tangled web within mucus, but rather that glycans have a special ability to moderate the bugs’ behavior. The researchers also have evidence of similar interactions between mucus and other microorganisms, such as those responsible for yeast infections.
The new study highlights an intriguing strategy to tame, rather than kill, bacteria to manage infections. In fact, Ribbeck views mucus and its glycans as a therapeutic gold mine. She hopes to apply what she’s learned to develop artificial mucus as an anti-microbial therapeutic for use inside and outside the body. Not bad for a substance that you might have thought was nothing more than slimy stuff.
 Mucin glycans attenuate the virulence of Pseudomonas aeruginosa in infection. Wheeler KM, Cárcamo-Oyarce G, Turner BS, Dellos-Nolan S, Co JY, Lehoux S, Cummings RD, Wozniak DJ, Ribbeck K. Nat Microbiol. 2019 Oct 14.
 Mucins trigger dispersal of Pseudomonas aeruginosa biofilms. Co JY, Cárcamo-Oyarce, Billings N, Wheeler KM, Grindy SC, Holten-Andersen N, Ribbeck K. NPJ Biofilms Microbiomes. 2018 Oct 10;4:23.
Cystic Fibrosis (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)
Video: Chemistry in Action—Katharina Ribbeck (YouTube)
Katharina Ribbeck (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)
NIH Support: National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; National Institute of General Medical Sciences; National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
As a kid who was home-schooled on a Virginia farm in the 1950s, I wasn’t around other kids very much, and so didn’t get exposed to measles. And there was no vaccine yet. Later on as a medical resident, I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t immune. So when I was hospitalized with a severe febrile illness at age 29, it took a while to figure out the diagnosis. Yes, it was measles. I have never been that sick before or since. I was lucky not to have long-term consequences, and now I’m learning that there may be even more to consider.
With the big push to get kids vaccinated, you’ve probably heard about some of the very serious complications of measles: hearing-threatening ear infections, bronchitis, laryngitis, and even life-threatening forms of pneumonia and encephalitis. But now comes word of yet another way in which the measles can be devastating—one that may also have long-term consequences for a person’s health.
In a new study in the journal Science, a research team, partly funded by NIH, found that the measles virus not only can make children deathly ill, it can cause their immune systems to forget how to ward off other common infections . The virus does this by wiping out up to nearly three-quarters of the protective antibodies that a child’s body has formed in response to past microbial invaders and vaccinations. This immune “amnesia” can leave a child more vulnerable to re-contracting infections, such as influenza or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), that they may have been protected against before they came down with measles.
The finding comes as yet another reason to feel immensely grateful that, thanks to our highly effective vaccination programs, most people born in the U.S. from the 1960s onward should never have to experience the measles.
There had been hints that the measles virus might somehow suppress a person’s immune system. Epidemiological evidence also had suggested that measles infections might lead to increased susceptibility to infection for years afterwards . Scientists had even suspected this might be explained by a kind of immune amnesia. The trouble was that there wasn’t any direct proof that such a phenomenon actually existed.
In the new work, the researchers, led by Michael Mina, Tomasz Kula, and Stephen Elledge, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston, took advantage of a tool developed a few years ago in the Elledge lab called VirScan . VirScan detects antibodies in blood samples acquired as a result of a person’s past encounters with hundreds of viruses, bacteria, or vaccines, providing a comprehensive snapshot of acquired immunity at a particular moment in time.
To look for evidence of immune amnesia following the measles, the research team needed blood samples gathered from people both before and after infection. These types of samples are currently hard to come by in the U.S. thanks to the success of vaccines. By partnering with Rik de Swart, Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, Netherlands, they found the samples that they needed.
During a recent measles outbreak in the Netherlands, de Swart had gathered blood samples from children living in communities with low vaccination rates. Elledge’s group used VirScan with 77 unvaccinated kids to measure antibodies in samples collected before and about two months after their measles infections.
That included 34 children who had mild infections and 43 who had severe measles. The researchers also examined blood samples from five children who remained uninfected and 110 kids who hadn’t been exposed to the measles virus.
The VirScan data showed that the infected kids, not surprisingly, produced antibodies to the measles virus. But their other antibodies dropped and seemed to be disappearing. In fact, depending on the severity of measles infection, the kids showed on average a loss of around 40 percent of their antibody memory, with greater losses in children with severe cases of the measles. In at least one case, the loss reached a whopping 73 percent.
This all resonates with me. I do recall that after my bout with the measles, I seemed to be coming down with a lot of respiratory infections. I attributed that to the lifestyle of a medical resident—being around lots of sick patients and not getting much sleep. But maybe it was more than that.
The researchers suggest that the loss of immune memory may stem from the measles virus destroying some of the long-lived cells in bone marrow. These cells remember past infections and, based on that immunological memory, churn out needed antibodies to thwart reinvading viruses.
Interestingly, after a measles infection, the children’s immune systems still responded to new infections and could form new immune memories. But it appears the measles caused long term, possibly permanent, losses of a significant portion of previously acquired immunities. This loss of immune memory put the children at a distinct disadvantage should those old bugs circulate again.
It’s important to note that, unlike measles infection, the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine does NOT compromise previously acquired immunity. So, these findings come as yet another reminder of the public value of measles vaccination.
Prior to 1963, when the measles vaccine was developed, 3 to 4 million Americans got the measles each year. As more people were vaccinated, the incidence of measles plummeted. By the year 2000, the disease was declared eliminated from the U.S.
Unfortunately, measles has made a come back, fueled by vaccine refusals. In October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an estimated 1,250 measles cases in the United States so far in 2019, surpassing the total number of cases reported annually in each of the past 25 years .
Around the world, measles continues to infect 7 million people each year, leading to an estimated 120,000 deaths. Based on the new findings, Elledge’s team now suspects the actual toll of the measles may be five times greater, due to the effects of immune amnesia.
The good news is those numbers can be reduced if more people get the vaccine, which has been shown repeatedly in many large and rigorous studies to be safe and effective. The CDC recommends that children should receive their first dose by 12 to 15 months of age and a second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. Older people who’ve been vaccinated or have had the measles previously should consider being re-vaccinated, especially if they live in places with low vaccination rates or will be traveling to countries where measles are endemic.
 Measles virus infection diminishes preexisting antibodies that offer protection from other pathogens. Mina MJ, Kula T, Leng Y, Li M, de Vries RD, Knip M, Siljander H, Rewers M, Choy DF, Wilson MS, Larman HB, Nelson AN, Griffin DE, de Swart RL, Elledge SJ. et al. Science. 2019 Nov 1; 366 (6465): 599-606.
 Long-term measles-induced immunomodulation increases overall childhood infectious disease mortality. Mina MJ, Metcalf CJE, De Swart RL, Osterhaus ADME, Grenfell BT. Science. 2015 May 8; 348(6235).
 Viral immunology. Comprehensive serological profiling of human populations using a synthetic human virome. Xu GJ, Kula T, Xu Q, Li MZ, Vernon SD, Ndung’u T, Ruxrungtham K, Sanchez J, Brander C, Chung RT, O’Connor KC, Walker B, Larman HB, Elledge SJ. Science. 2015 Jun 5;348(6239):aaa0698.
 Measles cases and outbreaks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Oct. 11, 2019.
Measles (MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia/National Library of Medicine/NIH)
Measles History (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Vaccines (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIAID)
Vaccines Protect Your Community (Vaccines.gov)
Elledge Lab (Harvard Medical School, Boston)
NIH Support: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Sending one identical twin into space while the other stays behind on Earth might sound like the plot of a sci-fi thriller. But it’s actually a setup for some truly fascinating scientific research!
As part of NASA’s landmark Twins Study, Scott Kelly became the first U.S. astronaut to spend nearly a year in “weightless” microgravity conditions aboard the International Space Station. Meanwhile, his identical twin, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, remained earthbound. Researchers put both men—who like all identical twins shared the same genetic makeup at birth—through the same battery of biomedical tests to gauge how the human body responds to life in space. The good news for the future of space travel is that the results indicated that health is “mostly sustained” during a prolonged stay in space.
Reporting in the journal Science, the Twins Study team, which included several NIH-funded researchers, detailed many thousands of differences between the Kelly twins at the molecular, cellular, and physiological levels during the 340-day observation period. However, most of Scott’s measures returned to near pre-flight levels within six months of rejoining Mark on Earth.
Over the past nearly 60 years, 559 people have flown in space. While weightless conditions are known to speed various processes associated with aging, few astronauts have remained in space for more than a few months at a time. With up to three year missions to the moon or Mars planned for the future, researchers want to get a better sense of how the human body will hold up under microgravity conditions for longer periods.
To get a more holistic answer, researchers collected a variety of biological samples from the Kelly twins before, during, and after Scott’s spaceflight. All told, more than 300 samples were collected over the course of 27 months.
Multiple labs around the country used state-of-the art tools to examine those samples in essentially every way they could think of doing. Those analyses offer a remarkably detailed view of changes in an astronaut’s biology and health while in space.
With so much data, there were lots of interesting findings to report, including many changes in the expression of Scott’s genes that weren’t observed in his twin. While most of these changes returned to preflight levels within six months of Scott’s return to Earth, about 7 percent of his genes continued to be expressed at different levels. These included some related to DNA repair and the immune system.
Despite those changes in immunity-related gene expression, his immune system appeared to remain fully functional. His body responded to the flu vaccine administered in space just as would be expected back home on Earth.
Scott also had some measurable changes in telomeres—complexes of specialized DNA sequences, RNA, and protein that protect the tips of our chromosomes. These generally shorten a bit each time cells divide. But during the time in space, the telomeres in Scott’s white blood cells measured out at somewhat greater length.
Potentially, this is because some of his stem cells, which are younger and haven’t gone through as many cell divisions, were being released into the blood. Back on Earth, his telomere lengths returned to an average length within six months of his return. Over the course of the study, the earthbound telomeres of his twin brother Mark remained stable.
Researchers also uncovered small but significant changes to Scott’s gut microbiome, the collection of microbes that play important roles in digestion and the immune system. More specifically, there was a shift in the ratio of two major groups of bacteria. Once back on Earth, his microbiome quickly shifted back to its original preflight state.
The data also provided some metabolic evidence suggesting that Scott’s mitochondria, the cellular powerhouses that supply the body with energy, weren’t functioning at full capacity in space. While further study is needed, the NIH-funded team led by Kumar Sharma, University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio, suggests that changes in the mitochondria might underlie changes often seen in space to the human cardiovascular system, kidneys, and eyes.
Of course, such a small, two-person study makes it hard to draw any general conclusions about human health in space. But the comparisons certainly help to point us in the right direction. They provide a framework for understanding how the human body responds on a molecular and cellular level to microgravity over time. They also may hold important lessons for understanding human health and precision medicine down here on Earth.
I look forward to future space missions and their contributions to biomedical research. I’m also happy to report, it will be a short wait.
Last year, I highlighted the Tissue Chips in Space Initiative. It’s a unique collaboration between NIH and NASA in which dozens of human tissue chips—tiny, 3D devices bioengineered to model different tissues and organs—will be sent to the International Space Station to study the accelerated aging that occurs in space.
The first tissue chips were sent to the International Space Station last December. And I’m pleased to report that more were aboard recently when the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft made a resupply run to the International Space Station. On May 8, astronauts there successfully completed offloading miniaturized tissue chips of the lungs, bone marrow, and kidneys, enabling more truly unique science in low gravity that couldn’t be performed down here on Earth.
 The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight. Garrett-Bakelman FE, Darshi M, Green SJ, Gur RC, Lin L, Macias BR, et. al. Science. 2019 Apr 12;364(6436).
Twins Study (NASA)
Launches and Landings (NASA. Washington, D.C.)
Kumar Sharma (University of Texas Health Science Center, San Antonio)
Tissue Chips in Space (National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences/NIH)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases