Creative Minds: Teaming Math and Science for an HIV Cure

Alison Hill

Alison Hill

You may have heard about young mathematicians who’ve helped to design cooler cars, smarter phones, and even more successful sports teams. But do you know about the young mathematician who is helping to find a cure for the estimated 35 million people worldwide infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)? If not, I’d like to introduce you to Alison Hill, a mathematical biologist at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.

Recognized this year by Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 as one of the most important young innovators in healthcare, Hill is teaming with clinicians to develop sophisticated mathematical tools to predict which experimental drugs might work to clear HIV from the body once and for all. While current treatments are able to reduce some patients’ HIV burden to very low or even undetectable levels, it is eradication of this viral reservoir that stands between such people living with a serious, but controllable chronic disease and actually being cured.

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Creative Minds: Building a Better Electronic Health Record

Doctor with tablet

Stock photo

Is 5 too few and 40 too many? That’s one of many questions that researcher David Chan is asking about the clinical reminders embedded into those electronic health record (EHR) systems increasingly used at your doctor’s office or local hospital. Electronic reminders, which are similar to the popups that appear when installing software on your computer, flag items for healthcare professionals to consider when they are seeing patients. Depending on the type of reminder used in the EHR—and there are many types—these timely messages may range from a simple prompt to write a prescription to complex recommendations for follow-up testing and specialist referrals.

Chan became interested in this topic when he was a resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, where he experienced the challenges of seeing many patients and keeping up with a deluge of health information in a primary-care setting. He had to write prescriptions, schedule lab tests, manage chronic conditions, and follow up on suggested lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and smoking cessation. In many instances, he says electronic reminders eased his burden and facilitated his efforts to provide high quality care to patients.

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Creative Minds: Interpreting Your Genome

Artist's rendering of a doctor with a patient and a strand of DNA

Credit: Jane Ades, National Human Genome Research Institute, NIH

Just this year, we’ve reached the point where we can sequence an entire human genome for less than $1,000. That’s great news—and rather astounding, since the first human genome sequence (finished in 2003) cost an estimated $400,000,000!  Does that mean we’ll be able to use each person’s unique genetic blueprint to guide his or her health care from cradle to grave?  Maybe eventually, but it’s not quite as simple as it sounds.

Before we can use your genome to develop more personalized strategies for detecting, treating, and preventing disease, we need to be able to interpret the many variations that make your genome distinct from everybody else’s. While most of these variations are neither bad nor good, some raise the risk of particular diseases, and others serve to lower the risk. How do we figure out which is which?

Jay Shendure, an associate professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, has an audacious plan to figure this out, which is why he is among the 2013 recipients of the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award.

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Creative Minds: Can Microbes Influence Mental Health?

Photo of a young woman

Elaine Hsiao
Credit: NIH Common Fund

While sitting in microbiology class as a college sophomore, Elaine Hsiao was stunned to learn that the human gut held between as much as 6 pounds of bacteria—twice the weight of an adult human brain. She went on to learn during her graduate studies in neurobiology that these microbes had co-evolved with humans and played important roles in our bodies, aiding digestion and immune function, for example. But more intriguing to her, by far, was new research that suggested that gut bacteria might even be influencing our thoughts, moods, and behavior.

Now a senior research fellow at the California Institute of Technology, Hsiao is launching her own effort to explore how these microbes can affect brain function—a very creative endeavor made possible through NIH’s Early Independence Award program—also known as the “skip the postdoc” award.

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