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Boldly Going Where No Science Has Gone Before

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It was an amazing experience to touch base once again with Kate Rubins, a NASA astronaut aboard the International Space Station. Connecting via live downlink on March 26, 2021, we discussed how space-based research can enable valuable biomedical advances on our planet. For example, over the past five years, NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences has funded a series of tissue chip payloads that have launched to the orbiting laboratory. Rubins, who is a biologist and infectious disease expert, has facilitated three of these projects: Cardinal Heart from Stanford University, Electrical Stimulation of Human Myocytes in Microgravity from the University of Florida, and Cartilage-Bone-Synovium from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


The People’s Picks for Best Posts

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It’s 2021—Happy New Year! Time sure flies in the blogosphere. It seems like just yesterday that I started the NIH Director’s Blog to highlight recent advances in biology and medicine, many supported by NIH. Yet it turns out that more than eight years have passed since this blog got rolling and we are fast approaching my 1,000th post!

I’m pleased that millions of you have clicked on these posts to check out some very cool science and learn more about NIH and its mission. Thanks to the wonders of social media software, we’ve been able to tally up those views to determine each year’s most-popular post. So, I thought it would be fun to ring in the New Year by looking back at a few of your favorites, sort of a geeky version of a top 10 countdown or the People’s Choice Awards. It was interesting to see what topics generated the greatest interest. Spoiler alert: diet and exercise seemed to matter a lot! So, without further ado, I present the winners:

2013: Fighting Obesity: New Hopes from Brown Fat. Brown fat, one of several types of fat made by our bodies, was long thought to produce body heat rather than store energy. But Shingo Kajimura and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, showed in a study published in the journal Nature, that brown fat does more than that. They discovered a gene that acts as a molecular switch to produce brown fat, then linked mutations in this gene to obesity in humans.

What was also nice about this blog post is that it appeared just after Kajimura had started his own lab. In fact, this was one of the lab’s first publications. One of my goals when starting the blog was to feature young researchers, and this work certainly deserved the attention it got from blog readers. Since highlighting this work, research on brown fat has continued to progress, with new evidence in humans suggesting that brown fat is an effective target to improve glucose homeostasis.

2014: In Memory of Sam Berns. I wrote this blog post as a tribute to someone who will always be very near and dear to me. Sam Berns was born with Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, one of the rarest of rare diseases. After receiving the sad news that this brave young man had passed away, I wrote: “Sam may have only lived 17 years, but in his short life he taught the rest of us a lot about how to live.”

Affecting approximately 400 people worldwide, progeria causes premature aging. Without treatment, children with progeria, who have completely normal intellectual development, die of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, on average in their early teens.

From interactions with Sam and his parents in the early 2000s, I started to study progeria in my NIH lab, eventually identifying the gene responsible for the disorder. My group and others have learned a lot since then. So, it was heartening last November when the Food and Drug Administration approved the first treatment for progeria. It’s an oral medication called Zokinvy (lonafarnib) that helps prevent the buildup of defective protein that has deadly consequences. In clinical trials, the drug increased the average survival time of those with progeria by more than two years. It’s a good beginning, but we have much more work to do in the memory of Sam and to help others with progeria. Watch for more about new developments in applying gene editing to progeria in the next few days.

2015: Cytotoxic T Cells on Patrol. Readers absolutely loved this post. When the American Society of Cell Biology held its first annual video competition, called CellDance, my blog featured some of the winners. Among them was this captivating video from Alex Ritter, then working with cell biologist Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz of NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The video stars a roving, specialized component of our immune system called cytotoxic T cells. Their job is to seek out and destroy any foreign or detrimental cells. Here, these T cells literally convince a problem cell to commit suicide, a process that takes about 10 minutes from detection to death.

These cytotoxic T cells are critical players in cancer immunotherapy, in which a patient’s own immune system is enlisted to control and, in some cases, even cure the cancer. Cancer immunotherapy remains a promising area of research that continues to progress, with a lot of attention now being focused on developing immunotherapies for common, solid tumors like breast cancer. Ritter is currently completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the laboratory of Ira Mellman, Genentech, South San Francisco. His focus has shifted to how cancer cells protect themselves from T cells. And video buffs—get this—Ritter says he’s now created even cooler videos that than the one in this post.

2016: Exercise Releases Brain-Healthy Protein. The research literature is pretty clear: exercise is good for the brain. In this very popular post, researchers led by Hyo Youl Moon and Henriette van Praag of NIH’s National Institute on Aging identified a protein secreted by skeletal muscle cells to help explore the muscle-brain connection. In a study in Cell Metabolism, Moon and his team showed that this protein called cathepsin B makes its way into the brain and after a good workout influences the development of new neural connections. This post is also memorable to me for the photo collage that accompanied the original post. Why? If you look closely at the bottom right, you’ll see me exercising—part of my regular morning routine!

2017: Muscle Enzyme Explains Weight Gain in Middle Age. The struggle to maintain a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge for many of us. While several risk factors for weight gain, such as counting calories, are within our control, there’s a major one that isn’t: age. Jay Chung, a researcher with NIH’s National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and his team discovered that the normal aging process causes levels of an enzyme called DNA-PK to rise in animals as they approach middle age. While the enzyme is known for its role in DNA repair, their studies showed it also slows down metabolism, making it more difficult to burn fat.

Since publishing this paper in Cell Metabolism, Chung has been busy trying to understand how aging increases the activity of DNA-PK and its ability to suppress renewal of the cell’s energy-producing mitochondria. Without renewal of damaged mitochondria, excess oxidants accumulate in cells that then activate DNA-PK, which contributed to the damage in the first place. Chung calls it a “vicious cycle” of aging and one that we’ll be learning more about in the future.

2018: Has an Alternative to Table Sugar Contributed to the C. Diff. Epidemic? This impressive bit of microbial detective work had blog readers clicking and commenting for several weeks. So, it’s no surprise that it was the runaway People’s Choice of 2018.

Clostridium difficile (C. diff) is a common bacterium that lives harmlessly in the gut of most people. But taking antibiotics can upset the normal balance of healthy gut microbes, allowing C. diff. to multiply and produce toxins that cause inflammation and diarrhea.

In the 2000s, C. diff. infections became far more serious and common in American hospitals, and Robert Britton, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, wanted to know why. He and his team discovered that two subtypes of C. diff have adapted to feed on the sugar trehalose, which was approved as a food additive in the United States during the early 2000s. The team’s findings, published in the journal Nature, suggested that hospitals and nursing homes battling C. diff. outbreaks may want to take a closer look at the effect of trehalose in the diet of their patients.

2019: Study Finds No Benefit for Dietary Supplements. This post that was another one that sparked a firestorm of comments from readers. A team of NIH-supported researchers, led by Fang Fang Zhang, Tufts University, Boston, found that people who reported taking dietary supplements had about the same risk of dying as those who got their nutrients through food. What’s more, the mortality benefits associated with adequate intake of vitamin A, vitamin K, magnesium, zinc, and copper were limited to amounts that are available from food consumption. The researchers based their conclusion on an analysis of the well-known National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) between 1999-2000 and 2009-2010 survey data. The team, which reported its data in the Annals of Internal Medicine, also uncovered some evidence suggesting that certain supplements might even be harmful to health when taken in excess.

2020: Genes, Blood Type Tied to Risk of Severe COVID-19. Typically, my blog focuses on research involving many different diseases. That changed in 2020 due to the emergence of a formidable public health challenge: the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Since last March, the blog has featured 85 posts on COVID-19, covering all aspects of the research response and attracting more visitors than ever. And which post got the most views? It was one that highlighted a study, published last June in the New England Journal of Medicine, that suggested the clues to people’s variable responses to COVID-19 may be found in our genes and our blood types.

The researchers found that gene variants in two regions of the human genome are associated with severe COVID-19 and correspondingly carry a greater risk of COVID-19-related death. The two stretches of DNA implicated as harboring risks for severe COVID-19 are known to carry some intriguing genes, including one that determines blood type and others that play various roles in the immune system.

In fact, the findings suggest that people with blood type A face a 50 percent greater risk of needing oxygen support or a ventilator should they become infected with the novel coronavirus. In contrast, people with blood type O appear to have about a 50 percent reduced risk of severe COVID-19.

That’s it for the blog’s year-by-year Top Hits. But wait! I’d also like to give shout outs to the People’s Choice winners in two other important categories—history and cool science images.

Top History Post: HeLa Cells: A New Chapter in An Enduring Story. Published in August 2013, this post remains one of the blog’s greatest hits with readers. The post highlights science’s use of cancer cells taken in the 1950s from a young Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. These “HeLa” cells had an amazing property not seen before: they could be grown continuously in laboratory conditions. The “new chapter” featured in this post is an agreement with the Lacks family that gives researchers access to the HeLa genome data, while still protecting the family’s privacy and recognizing their enormous contribution to medical research. And the acknowledgments rightfully keep coming from those who know this remarkable story, which has been chronicled in both book and film. Recently, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives passed the Henrietta Lacks Enhancing Cancer Research Act to honor her extraordinary life and examine access to government-funded cancer clinical trials for traditionally underrepresented groups.

Top Snapshots of Life: A Close-up of COVID-19 in Lung Cells. My blog posts come in several categories. One that you may have noticed is “Snapshots of Life,” which provides a showcase for cool images that appear in scientific journals and often dominate Science as Art contests. My blog has published dozens of these eye-catching images, representing a broad spectrum of the biomedical sciences. But the blog People’s Choice goes to a very recent addition that reveals exactly what happens to cells in the human airway when they are infected with the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. This vivid image, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, comes from the lab of pediatric pulmonologist Camille Ehre, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This image squeezed in just ahead of another highly popular post from Steve Ramirez, Boston University, in 2019 that showed “What a Memory Looks Like.”

As we look ahead to 2021, I want to thank each of my blog’s readers for your views and comments over the last eight years. I love to hear from you, so keep on clicking! I’m confident that 2021 will generate a lot more amazing and bloggable science, including even more progress toward ending the COVID-19 pandemic that made our past year so very challenging.


More Progress Toward Gene Editing for Kids with Muscular Dystrophy

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Normal and treated muscles with DMD
Caption: Muscles of untreated mouse model of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (left) compared to muscles of similar mice one year after gene-editing treatment (right). Dystrophin production (green) is restored in treated animals, despite therapy-related immune response to the Cas9 editing enzyme (dark spots in white inset). Credit: Charles Gersbach, Duke University, Durham, NC

Thanks to CRISPR and other gene editing technologies, hopes have never been greater for treating or even curing Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) and many other rare, genetic diseases that once seemed tragically out of reach. The latest encouraging news comes from a study in which a single infusion of a CRISPR editing system produced lasting benefits in a mouse model of DMD.

There currently is no way to cure DMD, an ultimately fatal disease that mainly affects boys. Caused by mutations in a gene that codes for a critical protein called dystrophin, DMD progressively weakens the skeletal and heart muscles. People with DMD are usually in wheelchairs by the age of 10, with most dying before the age of 30.

The exquisite targeting ability of CRISPR/Cas9 editing systems rely on a sequence-specific guide RNA to direct a scissor-like, bacterial enzyme (Cas9) to just the right spot in the genome, where it can be used to cut out, replace, or repair disease-causing mutations. In previous studies in mice and dogs, researchers directly infused CRISPR systems directly into the animals bodies. This “in vivo” approach to gene editing successfully restored production of functional dystrophin proteins, strengthening animals’ muscles within weeks of treatment.

But an important question remained: would CRISPR’s benefits persist over the long term? The answer in a mouse model of DMD appears to be “yes,” according to findings published recently in Nature Medicine by Charles Gersbach, Duke University, Durham, NC, and his colleagues [1]. Specifically, the NIH-funded team found that after mice with DMD received one infusion of a specially designed CRISPR/Cas9 system, the abnormal gene was edited in a way that restored dystrophin production in skeletal and heart muscles for more than a year. What’s more, lasting improvements were seen in the structure of the animals’ muscles throughout the same time period.

As exciting as these results may be, much more research is needed to explore both the safety and the efficacy of in vivo gene editing before it can be tried in humans with DMD. For instance, the researchers found that older mice that received the editing system developed an immune response to the bacterially-derived Cas9 protein. However, this response didn’t prevent the CRISPR/Cas9 system from doing its job or appear to cause any adverse effects. Interestingly, younger animals didn’t show such a response.

It’s worth noting that the immune systems of mice and people often respond quite differently. But the findings do highlight some possible challenges of such treatments, as well as approaches to reduce possible side effects. For instance, the latest findings suggest CRISPR/Cas9 treatment might best be done early in life, before an infant’s immune system is fully developed. Also, if it’s necessary to deliver CRISPR/Cas9 to older individuals, it may be beneficial to suppress the immune system temporarily.

Another concern about CRISPR technology is the potential for damaging, “off-target” edits to other parts of the genome. In the new work, the Duke team found that its CRISPR system made very few “off-target” edits. However, the system did make a surprising number of complex edits to the targeted dystrophin gene, including integration of the viral vector used to deliver Cas9. While those editing “errors” might reduce the efficacy of treatment, researchers said they didn’t appear to affect the health of the mice studied.

It’s important to emphasize that this gene editing research aimed at curing DMD is being done in non-reproductive (somatic) cells, primarily muscle tissue. The NIH does not support the use of gene editing technologies in human embryos or human reproductive (germline) cells, which would change the genetic makeup of future offspring.

As such, the Duke researchers’ CRISPR/Cas9 system is designed to work optimally in a range of muscle and muscle-progenitor cells. Still, they were able to detect editing of the dystrophin-producing gene in the liver, kidney, brain, and other tissues. Importantly, there was no evidence of edits in the germline cells of the mice. The researchers note that their CRISPR system can be reconfigured to limit gene editing to mature muscle cells, although that may reduce the treatment’s efficacy.

It’s truly encouraging to see that CRISPR gene editing may confer lasting benefits in an animal model of DMD, but a great many questions remain before trying this new approach in kids with DMD. But that time is coming—so let’s boldly go forth and get answers to those questions on behalf of all who are affected by this heartbreaking disease.

Reference:

[1] Long-term evaluation of AAV-CRISPR genome editing for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Nelson CE, Wu Y, Gemberling MP, Oliver ML, Waller MA, Bohning JD, Robinson-Hamm JN, Bulaklak K, Castellanos Rivera RM, Collier JH, Asokan A, Gersbach CA. Nat Med. 2019 Feb 18.

Links:

Muscular Dystrophy Information Page (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke/NIH)

Gersbach Lab (Duke University, Durham, NC)

Somatic Cell Genome Editing (Common Fund/NIH)

NIH Support: National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering


‘Exercise Hormone’ Tied to Bone-Strengthening Benefits

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Exercise
Credit: gettyimages/kali9

There’s no doubt that exercise is good for us—strengthening our muscles, helping us maintain a healthy weight, maybe even boosting our moods and memories. There’s also been intriguing evidence that exercise may help build strong bones.

Now, an NIH-funded study is shedding light on the mechanism behind exercise’s bone-strengthening benefits [1]. The new work—which may lead to new approaches for treating osteoporosis, a disease that increases the risk of bone fracture—centers on a hormone called irisin that is secreted by muscles during exercise.

In a series of mouse experiments, the researchers found that irisin works directly on a common type of bone cell, stimulating the cells to produce a protein that encourages bones to thin. However, this chain of molecular events ultimately takes a turn for the better and reverses bone loss.

Bruce Spiegelman’s lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard University Medical School, Boston, first discovered the irisin hormone in 2012 [2]. In the years since, evidence has accumulated suggesting a connection between irisin and many of the benefits that come with regular workouts. For example, delivering low doses of irisin—sometimes called “the exercise hormone”—increase bone density and strength in mice.

But how does irisin act on bones? The answer hasn’t been at all clear. A major reason is the protein receptor on our cells that binds and responds to irisin wasn’t known.

In the new study reported in the journal Cell, Spiegelman’s team has now identified irisin’s protein receptor, called αVβ5 integrin. Those receptors are present on the surface of osteocytes, the most common cell type found in mature bone tissue.

The researchers went on to show that irisin helps osteocytes to live longer. It also leads the bone cells to begin secreting a protein called sclerostin, known for its role in preparing bones for remodeling and rebuilding by first breaking them down. Interestingly, previous studies also showed sclerostin levels increase in response to the mechanical stresses that come with exercise.

To further explore the role of irisin in mouse studies, the researchers gave the animals the hormone for six days. And indeed, after the treatment, the animals showed higher levels of sclerostin in their blood.

The findings suggest that irisin could form the basis of a new treatment for osteoporosis, a condition responsible for almost nine million fractures around the world each year. While it might seem strange that a treatment intended to strengthen bone would first encourage them to break down, this may be similar to the steps you have to follow when fixing up a house that has weakened timbers. And Spiegelman notes that there’s precedent for such a phenomenon in bone remodeling—treatment for osteoporosis, parathyroid hormone, also works by thinning bones before they are rebuilt.

That said, it’s not yet clear how best to target irisin for strengthening bone. In fact, locking in on the target could be a little complicated. The Speigelman lab found, for example, that mice prone to osteoporosis following the removal of their ovaries were paradoxically protected from weakening bones by the inability to produce irisin.

This new study fits right in with other promising NIH-funded efforts to explore the benefits of exercise. One that I’m particularly excited about is the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity Consortium (MoTrPAC), which aims to develop a comprehensive map of the molecular changes that arise with physical activity, leading to a range of benefits for body and mind.

Indeed, the therapeutic potential for irisin doesn’t end with bone. In healthy people, irisin circulates throughout the body. In addition to being produced in muscle, its protein precursor is produced in the heart and brain.

The hormone also has been shown to transform energy-storing white fat into calorie-burning brown fat. In the new study, Spiegelman’s team confirms that this effect on fat also depends on the very same integrin receptors present in bone. So, these new findings will no doubt accelerate additional study in Speigelman’s lab and others to explore the many other benefits of irisin—and of exercise—including its potential to improve our moods, memory, and metabolism.

References:

[1] Irisin Mediates Effects on Bone and Fat via αV Integrin Receptors. Kim H, Wrann CD, Jedrychowski M, Vidoni S, Kitase Y, Nagano K, Zhou C, Chou J, Parkman VA, Novick SJ, Strutzenberg TS, Pascal BD, Le PT, Brooks DJ, Roche AM, Gerber KK, Mattheis L, Chen W, Tu H, Bouxsein ML, Griffin PR, Baron R, Rosen CJ, Bonewald LF, Spiegelman BM. Cell. 2018 Dec 13;175(7):1756-1768. 

[2] A PGC1-α-dependent myokine that drives brown-fat-like development of white fat and thermogenesis. Boström P, Wu J, Jedrychowski MP, Korde A, Ye L, Lo JC, Rasbach KA, Boström EA, Choi JH, Long JZ, Kajimura S, Zingaretti MC, Vind BF, Tu H, Cinti S, Højlund K, Gygi SP, Spiegelman BM. Nature. 2012 Jan 11;481(7382):463-8.

Links:

Osteoporosis (NIH)

Guide to Physical Activity (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute/NIH)

Spiegelman Lab (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston)

Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity in Humans (Common Fund/NIH)

Video: MoTrPAC (Common Fund)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke


Gene Editing in Dogs Boosts Hope for Kids with Muscular Dystrophy

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Dystrophin before and after treatment

Caption: A CRISPR/cas9 gene editing-based treatment restored production of dystrophin proteins (green) in the diaphragm muscles of dogs with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.
Credit: UT Southwestern

CRISPR and other gene editing tools hold great promise for curing a wide range of devastating conditions caused by misspellings in DNA. Among the many looking to gene editing with hope are kids with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), an uncommon and tragically fatal genetic disease in which their muscles—including skeletal muscles, the heart, and the main muscle used for breathing—gradually become too weak to function. Such hopes were recently buoyed by a new study that showed infusion of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing system could halt disease progression in a dog model of DMD.

As seen in the micrographs above, NIH-funded researchers were able to use the CRISPR/Cas9 editing system to restore production of a critical protein, called dystrophin, by up to 92 percent in the muscle tissue of affected dogs. While more study is needed before clinical trials could begin in humans, this is very exciting news, especially when one considers that boosting dystrophin levels by as little as 15 percent may be enough to provide significant benefit for kids with DMD.


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