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Happy New Year: Looking Back at 2016 Research Highlights

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Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2016Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.

Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:


Cool Videos: Better Computation, Better Hope for Movement Disorders

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Video for OpenSimAvatar. Pick your Sim. The entertainment world has done an amazing job developing software that generates animated characters with strikingly realistic movement. But scientists have taken this one step further to create models that can help kids with cerebral palsy walk better, delay the onset of osteoarthritis, and even answer a question in the minds of children of all ages: How exactly did T. rex run?

That’s what the researchers behind this video—an entrant in the NIH Common Fund’s recent video competition—have done. They’ve developed OpenSim: a free software tool that combines state-of-the-art musculoskeletal modeling and dynamic computer simulations to produce highly accurate representations of the underlying biomechanics of motion. OpenSim was designed at the NIH-supported center for physics-based Simulation of Biological Structures (Simbios) at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA. And now, researchers around the world are using OpenSim to find more effective interventions for a variety of movement disorders.

Links:

NIH Common Fund Video Competition

OpenSim (Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA)

NIH Support: Common Fund; Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; National Institute for General Medical Sciences 


LabTV: Curious about Post-Traumatic Osteoarthritis

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LabTV-Avery White

If you like sports and you like science, I think you’ll enjoy meeting Avery White, an undergraduate studying biomedical engineering at the University of Delaware in Newark. In this LabTV profile, we catch up with White as she conducts basic research that may help us better understand—and possibly prevent—the painful osteoarthritis that often pops up years after knee injuries from sports and other activities.

Many athletes, along with lots of regular folks, are familiar with the immediate and painful consequences of tearing the knee’s cartilage (meniscus) or anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). Most also know that such injuries can usually be repaired by surgery. Yet, many people aren’t aware of the longer-term health threat posed by ACL and meniscus tears: a substantially increased risk of developing osteoarthritis years down the road—in some individuals, even as early as age 30. While treatments are available for such post-traumatic osteoarthritis, including physical therapy, pain medications, and even knee-replacement surgery, more preventive options are needed to avoid these chronic joint problems.

White’s interest in this problem is personal. She’s a volleyball player herself, her sister tore her ACL, and her mother damaged her meniscus. After spending a summer working in a lab, this Wilmington, DE native has grown increasingly interested in the field of tissue engineering. She says it offers her an opportunity to use “micro” cell biology techniques to address a “macro” challenge: finding ways to encourage the body to generate healthy new cells that may prevent or reverse injury-induced osteoarthritis.

What’s up next for White? She says maybe a summer internship in a lab overseas, and, on the more distant horizon, graduate school with the goal of earning a Ph.D.

Links:

LabTV

University of Delaware Biomedical Engineering

Science Careers (National Institute of General Medical Sciences/NIH)

Careers Blog (Office of Intramural Training/NIH)

Scientific Careers at NIH


Reprogramming Genes to Keep Joints Healthy

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Caption: [Left] The knee joint of a normal mouse that endured an ACL-type injury. The injury triggered osteoarthritis and caused the cartilage on the femur (red) and tibia (green) to degrade, allowing the bones to sandwich together. [Right] This is the knee joint of a mouse that received gene therapy after the ACL injury. The cartilage is thick and healthy, and covers the bones completely, providing a cushion.

Credit: Brendan Lee and Zhechao Ruan, Department of Molecular and Human Genetics,
Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, TX

Our joints are pretty amazing marvels of engineering, but they don’t last forever. As we age, or if we suffer certain injuries, the smooth, slippery white cartilage covering the ends of our bones begins to fray and degrade. This causes osteoarthritis (OA), or ‘wear-and-tear’ arthritis. As the cartilage thins and disappears, the bones can even grow spurs that grate against each other, causing swelling and pain. It’s a major cause of disability, and there’s currently no cure—other than joint replacement, which is a pretty big deal and isn’t available for all joints. About 27 million Americans already have osteoarthritis; about 1 in 2 will suffer from some form of the disease over their lifetime. Those are lousy odds.