Happy New Year: Looking Back at 2016 Research Highlights

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:

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DNA Barcodes Could Streamline Search for New Drugs to Combat Cancer

Cells labeled with barcodesA little more than a decade ago, researchers began adapting a familiar commercial concept to genomics: the barcode. Instead of the black, printed stripes of the Universal Product Codes (UPCs) that we see on everything from package deliveries to clothing tags, they used short, unique snippets of DNA to label cells. These biological “barcodes” enable scientists to distinguish one cell type from another, in much the same way that a supermarket scanner recognizes different brands of cereal.

DNA barcoding has already empowered single-cell analysis, including for nerve cells in the brain. Now, in a new NIH-supported study, DNA barcoding helps in the development of a new method that could greatly streamline an increasingly complex and labor-intensive process: screening for drugs to combat cancer.

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Taking Control: Learn More About Accessing Your Health Information

Woman looking at electronic medical records on her smartphone

Credit: Lydia Polimeni, NIH

Usually, I share cool science advances and major medical breakthroughs on this blog. But, today, I’d like to share something a little different, something of great importance for both your health and the advancement of biomedical research: new guidelines on how you can access your own health information.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule has long supported the right of individuals to request and obtain copies of their medical records and other health information maintained by health-care professionals, medical facilities, and health insurance plans. However, due to the increasing use of online health-information technology and growing interest among Americans in being active participants in health-related decisions, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently issued much-anticipated guidance that serves to answer common questions and clarify key issues regarding access to health information under HIPAA. Think of it as a valuable personal roadmap for navigating a part of health care that is all-too-often confusing and frustrating!

Among the many reasons that people need easy, affordable access to their health records is to empower them to take more control over decisions regarding their health. Such information can help individuals improve their ability to monitor chronic conditions, stick with treatment plans, track progress in wellness programs, and identify and correct erroneous information. In addition, some people may want such access so they can directly contribute their health information to biomedical research projects. One such endeavor is the new, NIH-led Precision Medicine Initiative Cohort, in which 1 million or more volunteers will agree to share data, including information from their health records. Maintaining the security and privacy of individual information will be of paramount importance. In return, participants will have the highest levels of access to their study results, along with summarized results from across the cohort.

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Happy New Year … and a Look Back at a Memorable 2015

Four NIH-supported science breakthroughs for 2015A new year has arrived, and it’s going to be an amazing one for biomedical research. But before diving into our first “new science” post of 2016, let’s take a quick look back at 2015 and some of its remarkable accomplishments. A great place to reflect on “the year that was” is the journal Science’s annual Top 10 list of advances in all of scientific research worldwide. Four of 2015’s Top 10 featured developments directly benefited from NIH support—including Science’s “Breakthrough of the Year,” the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing technique. Here’s a little more on the NIH-assisted breakthroughs:

CRISPR Makes the Cut: I’ve highlighted CRISPR/Cas9 in several posts. This gene-editing system consists of a short segment of RNA that is attached to an enzyme. The RNA is preprogrammed to find a distinct short sequence of DNA and deliver the enzyme, which acts like a scalpel to slice the sequence out of the genome. It’s fast and pretty precise. Although CRISPR/Cas9 isn’t brand-new—it’s been under development as a gene-editing tool for a few years—Science considered 2015 to be “the year that it broke away from the pack.”

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Big Data Study Reveals Possible Subtypes of Type 2 Diabetes

Computational model

Caption: Computational model showing study participants with type 2 diabetes grouped into three subtypes, based on similarities in data contained in their electronic health records. Such information included age, gender (red/orange/yellow indicates females; blue/green, males), health history, and a range of routine laboratory and medical tests.
Credit: Dudley Lab, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York

In recent years, there’s been a lot of talk about how “Big Data” stands to revolutionize biomedical research. Indeed, we’ve already gained many new insights into health and disease thanks to the power of new technologies to generate astonishing amounts of molecular data—DNA sequences, epigenetic marks, and metabolic signatures, to name a few. But what’s often overlooked is the value of combining all that with a more mundane type of Big Data: the vast trove of clinical information contained in electronic health records (EHRs).

In a recent study in Science Translational Medicine  [1], NIH-funded researchers demonstrated the tremendous potential of using EHRs, combined with genome-wide analysis, to learn more about a common, chronic disease—type 2 diabetes. Sifting through the EHR and genomic data of more than 11,000 volunteers, the researchers uncovered what appear to be three distinct subtypes of type 2 diabetes. Not only does this work have implications for efforts to reduce this leading cause of death and disability, it provides a sneak peek at the kind of discoveries that will be made possible by the new Precision Medicine Initiative’s national research cohort, which will enroll 1 million or more volunteers who agree to share their EHRs and genomic information.

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