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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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Emily Whitehead

Caption: Cancer survivor Emily Whitehead with her dog Lucy.
Credit: Emily Whitehead Foundation

Tremendous progress continues to be made against the Emperor of All Maladies, cancer. One of the most exciting areas of progress involves immunotherapy, a treatment strategy that harnesses the natural ability of the body’s own immune cells to attack and kill tumor cells. A lot of extremely hard work has gone into this research, so I was thrilled to learn that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just announced today its first approval of a promising type of immunotherapy called CAR-T cell therapy for kids and young adults with B-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL)—the most common childhood cancer in the U.S.

ALL is a cancer of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Its treatment with chemotherapy drugs, developed with NIH support, has transformed ALL’s prognosis in kids from often fatal to largely treatable: about 90 percent of young patients now recover. But for those for whom the treatment fails, the prognosis is grim.

In the spring of 2012, Emily Whitehead of Philipsburg, PA was one such patient. The little girl was deathly ill, and her parents were worried they’d run out of options. That’s when doctors at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia gave Emily and her parents new hope. Carl June and his team had successfully treated three adults with their version of CAR-T cell therapy, which is grounded in initial basic research supported by NIH [1,2]. Moving forward with additional clinical tests, they treated Emily—their first pediatric patient—that April. For a while, it was touch and go, and Emily almost died. But by May 2012, her cancer was in remission. Today, five years later, 12-year-old Emily remains cancer free and is thriving. And I’ve had the great privilege of getting to know Emily and her parents over the last few years.


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Ebola virus

Caption: Ebola virus (green) is shown on cell surface.
Credit: National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIH

There are new reports of an outbreak of Ebola virus disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This news comes just two years after international control efforts eventually contained an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, though before control was achieved, more than 11,000 people died—the largest known Ebola outbreak in human history [1]. While considerable progress continues to be made in understanding the infection and preparing for new outbreaks, many questions remain about why some people die from Ebola and others survive.

Now, some answers are beginning to emerge thanks to a new detailed analysis of the immune responses of a unique Ebola survivor, a 34-year-old American health-care worker who was critically ill and cared for at the NIH Special Clinical Studies Unit in 2015 [2]. The NIH-led team used the patient’s blood samples, which were drawn every day, to measure the number of viral particles and monitor how his immune system reacted over the course of his Ebola infection, from early symptoms through multiple organ failures and, ultimately, his recovery.

The researchers identified unexpectedly large shifts in immune responses that preceded observable improvements in the patient’s symptoms. The researchers say that, through further study and close monitoring of such shifts, health care workers may be able to develop more effective ways to care for Ebola patients.


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Micaela Martinez

Micaela Martinez

It’s an inescapable conclusion from the book of Ecclesiastes that’s become part of popular culture thanks to folk legends Pete Seeger and The Byrds: “To everything (turn, turn, turn), there is a season.” That’s certainly true of viral outbreaks, from the flu-causing influenza virus peaking each year in the winter to polio outbreaks often rising in the summer. What fascinates Micaela Martinez is, while those seasonal patterns of infection have been recognized for decades, nobody really knows why they occur.

Martinez, an infectious disease ecologist at Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, thinks colder weather conditions and the tendency for humans to stay together indoors in winter surely play a role. But she also thinks an important part of the answer might be found in a place most hadn’t thought to look: seasonal changes in the human immune system. Martinez recently received an NIH Director’s 2016 Early Independence Award to explore fluctuations in the body’s biological rhythms over the course of the year and their potential influence on our health.


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Rural Uganda village gathering

Caption: Village in the East Africa nation of Uganda
Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the early 1960s, reports began to surface that some children living in remote villages in East Africa were suffering mysterious episodes of “head nodding.” The condition, now named nodding syndrome, is recognized as a rare and devastating form of epilepsy. There were hints that the syndrome might be caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which is transmitted through the bites of blackflies. But no one had been able to tie the parasitic infection directly to the nodding heads.

Now, NIH researchers and their international colleagues think they’ve found the missing link. The human immune system turns out to be a central player. After analyzing blood and cerebrospinal fluid of kids with nodding syndrome, they detected a particular antibody at unusually high levels [1]. Further studies suggest the immune system ramps up production of that antibody to fight off the parasite. The trouble is those antibodies also react against a protein in healthy brain tissue, apparently leading to progressive cognitive dysfunction, neurological deterioration, head nodding, and potentially life-threatening seizures.

The findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, have important implications for the treatment and prevention of not only nodding syndrome, but perhaps other autoimmune-related forms of epilepsy. As people in the United States and around the globe today observe the 10th anniversary of international Rare Disease Day, this work provides yet another example of how rare disease research can shed light on more common diseases and fundamental aspects of human biology.


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