Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
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.
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Watch this brief video and you might guess you’re seeing an animated line drawing, gradually revealing a delicate take on a familiar system: the internal structures of the human body. But this movie doesn’t capture the work of a talented sketch artist. It was created using the first 3D, full-body imaging device using positron emission tomography (PET).
The device is called an EXPLORER (EXtreme Performance LOng axial REsearch scanneR) total-body PET scanner. By pairing this scanner with an advanced method for reconstructing images from vast quantities of data, the researchers can make movies.
For this movie in particular, the researchers injected small amounts of a short-lived radioactive tracer—an essential component of all PET scans—into the lower leg of a study volunteer. They then sat back as the scanner captured images of the tracer moving up the leg and into the body, where it enters the heart. The tracer moves through the heart’s right ventricle to the lungs, back through the left ventricle, and up to the brain. Keep watching, and, near the 30-second mark, you will see in closer focus a haunting capture of the beating heart.
This groundbreaking scanner was developed and tested by Jinyi Qi, Simon Cherry, Ramsey Badawi, and their colleagues at the University of California, Davis . As the NIH-funded researchers reported recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, their new scanner can capture dynamic changes in the body that take place in a tenth of a second . That’s faster than the blink of an eye!
This movie is composed of frames captured at 0.1-second intervals. It highlights a feature that makes this scanner so unique: its ability to visualize the whole body at once. Other medical imaging methods, including MRI, CT, and traditional PET scans, can be used to capture beautiful images of the heart or the brain, for example. But they can’t show what’s happening in the heart and brain at the same time.
The ability to capture the dynamics of radioactive tracers in multiple organs at once opens a new window into human biology. For example, the EXPLORER system makes it possible to measure inflammation that occurs in many parts of the body after a heart attack, as well as to study interactions between the brain and gut in Parkinson’s disease and other disorders.
EXPLORER also offers other advantages. It’s extra sensitive, which enables it to capture images other scanners would miss—and with a lower dose of radiation. It’s also much faster than a regular PET scanner, making it especially useful for imaging wiggly kids. And it expands the realm of research possibilities for PET imaging studies. For instance, researchers might repeatedly image a person with arthritis over time to observe changes that may be related to treatments or exercise.
Currently, the UC Davis team is working with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco to use EXPLORER to enhance our understanding of HIV infection. Their preliminary findings show that the scanner makes it easier to capture where the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS, is lurking in the body by picking up on signals too weak to be seen on traditional PET scans.
While the research potential for this scanner is clearly vast, it also holds promise for clinical use. In fact, a commercial version of the scanner, called uEXPLORER, has been approved by the FDA and is in use at UC Davis . The researchers have found that its improved sensitivity makes it much easier to detect cancers in patients who are obese and, therefore, harder to image well using traditional PET scanners.
As soon as the COVID-19 outbreak subsides enough to allow clinical research to resume, the researchers say they’ll begin recruiting patients with cancer into a clinical study designed to compare traditional PET and EXPLORER scans directly.
As these researchers, and other researchers around the world, begin to put this new scanner to use, we can look forward to seeing many more remarkable movies like this one. Imagine what they will reveal!
 First human imaging studies with the EXPLORER total-body PET scanner. Badawi RD, Shi H, Hu P, Chen S, Xu T, Price PM, Ding Y, Spencer BA, Nardo L, Liu W, Bao J, Jones T, Li H, Cherry SR. J Nucl Med. 2019 Mar;60(3):299-303.
 Subsecond total-body imaging using ultrasensitive positron emission tomography. Zhang X, Cherry SR, Xie Z, Shi H, Badawi RD, Qi J. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2020 Feb 4;117(5):2265-2267.
 “United Imaging Healthcare uEXPLORER Total-body Scanner Cleared by FDA, Available in U.S. Early 2019.” Cision PR Newswire. January 22, 2019.
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) (NIH Clinical Center)
EXPLORER Total-Body PET Scanner (University of California, Davis)
Cherry Lab (UC Davis)
Badawi Lab (UC Davis Medical Center, Sacramento)
NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering; Common Fund
Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins
Obesity—which affects about 4 in 10 U.S. adults—increases the risk for lots of human health problems: diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and even anxiety and depression . It’s also been associated with increased accumulation of senescent cells, which are older cells that resist death even as they lose the ability to grow and divide.
Now, NIH-funded researchers have found that when lean mice are fed a high-fat diet that makes them obese, they also have more senescent cells in their brain and show more anxious behaviors . The researchers could reduce this obesity-driven anxiety using so-called senolytic drugs that cleared away the senescent cells. These findings are among the first to provide proof-of-concept that senolytics may offer a new avenue for treating an array of neuropsychiatric disorders, in addition to many other chronic conditions.
As we age, senescent cells accumulate in many parts of the body . But cells can also enter a senescent state at any point in life in response to major stresses, such as DNA damage or chronic infection. Studies suggest that having lots of senescent cells around, especially later in life, is associated with a wide variety of chronic conditions, including osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, vascular disease, and general frailty.
Senescent cells display a “zombie”-like behavior known as a senescence-associated secretory phenotype (SASP). In this death-defying, zombie-like state, the cells ramp up their release of proteins, bioactive lipids, DNA, and other factors that, like a zombie virus, induce nearby healthy cells to join in the dysfunction.
In fact, the team behind this latest study, led by James Kirkland, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN, recently showed that transplanting small numbers of senescent cells into young mice is enough to cause them weakness, frailty, and persistent health problems. Those ill effects were alleviated with a senolytic cocktail, including dasatinib (a leukemia drug) and quercetin (a plant compound). This drug cocktail overrode the zombie-like SASP phenotype and forced the senescent cells to undergo programmed cell death and finally die.
Previous research indicates that senescent cells also accumulate in obesity, and not just in adipose tissues. Moreover, recent studies have linked senescent cells in the brain to neurodegenerative conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease, and showed in mice that dasatinib and quercetin helps to alleviate neurodegenerative disease [4,5]. In the latest paper, published in the journal Cell Metabolism, Kirkland and colleagues asked whether senescent cells in the brain also could explain anxiety-like behavior in obesity.
The answer appears to be “yes.” The researchers showed that lean mice, if allowed to feast on a high-fat diet, grew obese and became more anxious about exploring open spaces and elevated mazes.
The researchers also found that the obese mice had an increase in senescent cells in the white matter near the lateral ventricle, a part of the brain that offers a pathway for cerebrospinal fluid. Those senescent cells also contained an excessive amount of fat. Could senolytic drugs clear those cells and make the obesity-related anxiety go away?
To find out, the researchers treated lean and obese mice with a senolytic drug for 10 weeks. The treatment didn’t lead to any changes in body weight. But, as senescent cells were cleared from their brains, the obese mice showed a significant reduction in their anxiety-related behavior. They lost their anxiety without losing the weight!
More preclinical study is needed to understand more precisely how the treatment works. But, it’s worth noting that clinical trials testing a variety of senolytic drugs are already underway for many conditions associated with senescent cells, including chronic kidney disease [6,7], frailty , and premature aging associated with bone marrow transplant .
As a matter of fact, just after the Cell Metabolism paper came out, Kirkland’s team published encouraging though preliminary, first-in-human results of the previously mentioned senolytic drug dasatinib in 14 people with age-related idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a condition in which lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred . Caution is warranted as we learn more about the associated risks and benefits, but it’s safe to say we’ll be hearing a lot more about senolytics in the years ahead.
 Adult obesity facts (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
 Obesity-induced cellular senescence drives anxiety and impairs neurogenesis. Ogrodnik M et al. Cell Metabolism. 2019 Jan 3.
 Aging, Cell Senescence, and Chronic Disease: Emerging Therapeutic Strategies. Tchkonia T, Kirkland JL. JAMA. 2018 Oct 2;320(13):1319-1320.
 Tau protein aggregation is associated with cellular senescence in the brain. Musi N, Valentine JM, Sickora KR, Baeuerle E, Thompson CS, Shen Q, Orr ME. Aging Cell. 2018 Dec;17(6):e12840.
 Clearance of senescent glial cells prevents tau-dependent pathology and cognitive decline. Bussian TJ, Aziz A, Meyer CF, Swenson BL, van Deursen JM, Baker DJ. Nature. 2018 Oct;562(7728):578-582.
 Inflammation and Stem Cells in Diabetic and Chronic Kidney Disease. ClinicalTrials.gov, Sep 2018.
 Senescence in Chronic Kidney Disease. Clinicaltrials.gov, Sep 2018.
 Alleviation by Fisetin of Frailty, Inflammation, and Related Measures in Older Adults (AFFIRM-LITE). Clinicaltrials.gov, Dec 2018.
 Hematopoietic Stem Cell Transplant Survivors Study (HTSS Study). Clinicaltrials.gov, Sep 2018.
 Senolytics in idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: Results from a first-in-human, open-label, pilot study. Justice JN, Nambiar AN, Tchkonia T, LeBrasseur K, Pascual R, Hashmi SK, Prata L, Masternak MM, Kritchevsky SB, Musi N, Kirkland JL. EBioMed. 5 Jan. 2019. [Epub ahead of print]
Healthy Aging (National Institute on Aging/NIH)
Video: Vail Scientific Summit James Kirkland Interview (Youtube)
James Kirkland (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN)
NIH Support: National Institute on Aging; National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke