Skip to main content

precision medicine

Celebrating NIH Science, Blogs, and Blog Readers!

Posted on by

Happy holidays to one and all! As you may have heard, this is my last holiday season as the Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—a post that I’ve held for the past 12 years and four months under three U.S. Presidents. And, wow, it really does seem like only yesterday that I started this blog!

At the blog’s outset, I said my goal was to “highlight new discoveries in biology and medicine that I think are game changers, noteworthy, or just plain cool.” More than 1,100 posts, 10 million unique visitors, and 13.7 million views later, I hope you’ll agree that goal has been achieved. I’ve also found blogging to be a whole lot of fun, as well as a great way to expand my own horizons and share a little of what I’ve learned about biomedical advances with people all across the nation and around the world.

So, as I sign off as NIH Director and return to my lab at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), I want to thank everyone who’s ever visited this Blog—from high school students to people with health concerns, from biomedical researchers to policymakers. I hope that the evidence-based information that I’ve provided has helped and informed my readers in some small way.

In this my final post, I’m sharing a short video (see above) that highlights just a few of the blog’s many spectacular images, many of them produced by NIH-funded scientists during the course of their research. In the video, you’ll see a somewhat quirky collection of entries, but hopefully you will sense my enthusiasm for the potential of biomedical research to fight human disease and improve human health—from innovative immunotherapies for treating cancer to the gift of mRNA vaccines to combat a pandemic.

Over the years, I’ve blogged about many of the bold, new frontiers of biomedicine that are now being explored by research teams supported by NIH. Who would have imagined that, within the span of a dozen years, precision medicine would go from being an interesting idea to a driving force behind the largest-ever NIH cohort seeking to individualize the prevention and treatment of common disease? Or that today we’d be deep into investigations of precisely how the human brain works, as well as how human health may benefit from some of the trillions of microbes that call our bodies home?

My posts also delved into some of the amazing technological advances that are enabling breakthroughs across a wide range of scientific fields. These innovative technologies include powerful new ways of mapping the atomic structures of proteins, editing genetic material, and designing improved gene therapies.

So, what’s next for NIH? Let me assure you that NIH is in very steady hands as it heads into a bright horizon brimming with exceptional opportunities for biomedical research. Like you, I look forward to discoveries that will lead us even closer to the life-saving answers that we all want and need.

While we wait for the President to identify a new NIH director, Lawrence Tabak, who has been NIH’s Principal Deputy Director and my right arm for the last decade, will serve as Acting NIH Director. So, keep an eye out for his first post in early January!

As for me, I’ll probably take a little time to catch up on some much-needed sleep, do some reading and writing, and hopefully get out for a few more rides on my Harley with my wife Diane. But there’s plenty of work to do in my lab, where the focus is on type 2 diabetes and a rare disease of premature aging called Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome. I’m excited to pursue those research opportunities and see where they lead.

In closing, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to each of you for your interest in hearing from the NIH Director—and supporting NIH research—over the past 12 years. It’s been an incredible honor to serve you at the helm of this great agency that’s often called the National Institutes of Hope. And now, for one last time, Diane and I take great pleasure in sending you and your loved ones our most heartfelt wishes for Happy Holidays and a Healthy New Year!


Teaching the Immune System to Attack Cancer with Greater Precision

Posted on by

Needle in a vial. Cancer cell in the background
Credit: PhotobyTawat/Shutterstock/Tom Deerink, National Institute of General Medical Sciences, NIH

To protect humans from COVID-19, the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines program human cells to translate the injected synthetic messenger RNA into the coronavirus spike protein, which then primes the immune system to arm itself against future appearances of that protein. It turns out that the immune system can also be trained to spot and attack distinctive proteins on cancer cells, killing them and leaving healthy cells potentially untouched.

While these precision cancer vaccines remain experimental, researchers continue to make basic discoveries that move the field forward. That includes a recent NIH-funded study in mice that helps to refine the selection of protein targets on tumors as a way to boost the immune response [1]. To enable this boost, the researchers first had to discover a possible solution to a longstanding challenge in developing precision cancer vaccines: T cell exhaustion.

The term refers to the immune system’s complement of T cells and their capacity to learn to recognize foreign proteins, also known as neoantigens, and attack them on cancer cells to shrink tumors. But these responding T cells can exhaust themselves attacking tumors, limiting the immune response and making its benefits short-lived.

In this latest study, published in the journal Cell, Tyler Jacks and Megan Burger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, help to explain this phenomenon of T cell exhaustion. The researchers found in mice with lung tumors that the immune system initially responds as it should. It produces lots of T cells that target many different cancer-specific proteins.

Yet there’s a problem: various subsets of T cells get in each other’s way. They compete until, eventually, one of those subsets becomes the dominant T cell type. Even when those dominant T cells grow exhausted, they still remain in the tumor and keep out other T cells, which might otherwise attack different neoantigens in the cancer.

Building on this basic discovery, the researchers came up with a strategy for developing cancer vaccines that can “awaken” T cells and reinvigorate the body’s natural cancer-fighting abilities. The strategy might seem counterintuitive. The researchers vaccinated mice with neoantigens that provide a weak but encouraging signal to the immune cells responsible for presenting the distinctive cancer protein target, or antigen, to T cells. It’s those T cells that tend to get suppressed in competition with other T cells.

When the researchers vaccinated the mice with one of those neoantigens, the otherwise suppressed T cells grew in numbers and better targeted the tumor. What’s more, the tumors shrank by more than 25 percent on average.

Research on this new strategy remains in its early stages. The researchers hope to learn if this approach to cancer vaccines might work even better when used in combination with immunotherapy drugs, which unleash the immune system against cancer in other ways.

It’s also possible that the recent and revolutionary success of mRNA vaccines for preventing COVID-19 actually could help. An important advantage of mRNA is that it’s easy for researchers to synthesize once they know the specific nucleic acid sequence of a protein target, and they can even combine different mRNA sequences to make a multiplex vaccine that primes the immune system to recognize multiple neoantigens. Now that we’ve seen how well mRNA vaccines work to prompt a desired immune response against COVID-19, this same technology can be used to speed the development and testing of future vaccines, including those designed precisely to fight cancer.

Reference:

[1] Antigen dominance hierarchies shape TCF1+ progenitor CD8 T cell phenotypes in tumors. Burger ML, Cruz AM, Crossland GE, Gaglia G, Ritch CC, Blatt SE, Bhutkar A, Canner D, Kienka T, Tavana SZ, Barandiaran AL, Garmilla A, Schenkel JM, Hillman M, de Los Rios Kobara I, Li A, Jaeger AM, Hwang WL, Westcott PMK, Manos MP, Holovatska MM, Hodi FS, Regev A, Santagata S, Jacks T. Cell. 2021 Sep 16;184(19):4996-5014.e26.

Links:

Cancer Treatment Vaccines (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

The Jacks Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute


A Race-Free Approach to Diagnosing Chronic Kidney Disease

Posted on by

A black woman looking off-screen. Anatomical kidneys appear next to her
Credit: True Touch Lifestyle; crystal light/Shutterstock

Race has a long and tortured history in America. Though great strides have been made through the work of leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to build an equal and just society for all, we still have more work to do, as race continues to factor into American life where it shouldn’t. A medical case in point is a common diagnostic tool for chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition that affects one in seven American adults and causes a gradual weakening of the kidneys that, for some, will lead to renal failure.

The diagnostic tool is a medical algorithm called estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR). It involves getting a blood test that measures how well the kidneys filter out a common waste product from the blood and adding in other personal factors to score how well a person’s kidneys are working. Among those factors is whether a person is Black. However, race is a complicated construct that incorporates components that go well beyond biological and genetic factors to social and cultural issues. The concern is that by lumping together Black people, the algorithm lacks diagnostic precision for individuals and could contribute to racial disparities in healthcare delivery—or even runs the risk of reifying race in a way that suggests more biological significance than it deserves.

That’s why I was pleased recently to see the results of two NIH-supported studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine that suggest a way to take race out of the kidney disease equation [1, 2]. The approach involves a new equation that swaps out one blood test for another and doesn’t ask about race.

For a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic issues and access to healthcare, CKD disproportionately affects the Black community. In fact, Blacks with the condition are also almost four times more likely than whites to develop kidney failure. That’s why Blacks with CKD must visit their doctors regularly to monitor their kidney function, and often that visit involves eGFR.

The blood test used in eGFR measures creatinine, a waste product produced from muscle. For about the past 20 years, a few points have been automatically added to the score of African Americans, based on data showing that adults who identify as Black, on average, have a higher baseline level of circulating creatinine. But adjusting the score upward toward normal function runs the risk of making the kidneys seem a bit healthier than they really are and delaying life-preserving dialysis or getting on a transplant list.

A team led by Chi-yuan Hsu, University of California, San Francisco, took a closer look at the current eGFR calculations. The researchers used long-term data from the Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort (CRIC) Study, an NIH-supported prospective, observational study of nearly 4,000 racially and ethnically diverse patients with CKD in the U.S. The study design specified that about 40 percent of its participants should identify as Black.

To look for race-free ways to measure kidney function, the researchers randomly selected more than 1,400 of the study’s participants to undergo a procedure that allows kidney function to be measured directly instead of being estimated based on blood tests. The goal was to develop an accurate approach to estimating GFR, the rate of fluid flow through the kidneys, from blood test results that didn’t rely on race.

Their studies showed that simply omitting race from the equation would underestimate GFR in Black study participants. The best solution, they found, was to calculate eGFR based on cystatin C, a small protein that the kidneys filter from the blood, in place of the standard creatinine. Estimation of GFR using cystatin C generated similarly accurate results but without the need to factor in race.

The second NIH-supported study led by Lesley Inker, Tufts Medical Center, Boston, MA, came to similar conclusions. They set out to develop new equations without race using data from several prior studies. They then compared the accuracy of their new eGFR equations to measured GFR in a validation set of 12 other studies, including about 4,000 participants.

Their findings show that currently used equations that include race, sex, and age overestimated measured GFR in Black Americans. However, taking race out of the equation without other adjustments underestimated measured GFR in Black people. Equations including both creatinine and cystatin C, but omitting race, were more accurate. The new equations also led to smaller estimated differences between Black and non-Black study participants.

The hope is that these findings will build momentum toward widespread adoption of cystatin C for estimating GFR. Already, a national task force has recommended immediate implementation of a new diagnostic equation that eliminates race and called for national efforts to increase the routine and timely measurement of cystatin C [3]. This will require a sea change in the standard measurements of blood chemistries in clinical and hospital labs—where creatinine is routinely measured, but cystatin C is not. As these findings are implemented into routine clinical care, let’s hope they’ll reduce health disparities by leading to more accurate and timely diagnosis, supporting the goals of precision health and encouraging treatment of CKD for all people, regardless of their race.

References:

[1] Race, genetic ancestry, and estimating kidney function in CKD. Hsu CY, Yang W, Parikh RV, Anderson AH, Chen TK, Cohen DL, He J, Mohanty MJ, Lash JP, Mills KT, Muiru AN, Parsa A, Saunders MR, Shafi T, Townsend RR, Waikar SS, Wang J, Wolf M, Tan TC, Feldman HI, Go AS; CRIC Study Investigators. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.

[2] New creatinine- and cystatin C-based equations to estimate GFR without race. Inker LA, Eneanya ND, Coresh J, Tighiouart H, Wang D, Sang Y, Crews DC, Doria A, Estrella MM, Froissart M, Grams ME, Greene T, Grubb A, Gudnason V, Gutiérrez OM, Kalil R, Karger AB, Mauer M, Navis G, Nelson RG, Poggio ED, Rodby R, Rossing P, Rule AD, Selvin E, Seegmiller JC, Shlipak MG, Torres VE, Yang W, Ballew SH,Couture SJ, Powe NR, Levey AS; Chronic Kidney Disease Epidemiology Collaboration. N Engl J Med. 2021 Sep 23.

[3] A unifying approach for GFR estimation: recommendations of the NKF-ASN Task Force on Reassessing the Inclusion of Race in Diagnosing Kidney Disease. Delgado C, Baweja M, Crews DC, Eneanya ND, Gadegbeku CA, Inker LA, Mendu ML, Miller WG, Moxey-Mims MM, Roberts GV, St Peter WL, Warfield C, Powe NR. Am J Kidney Dis. 2021 Sep 22:S0272-6386(21)00828-3.

Links:

Chronic Kidney Disease (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases/NIH)

Explaining Your Kidney Test Results: A Tool for Clinical Use (NIDDK)

Chronic Renal Insufficiency Cohort Study

Chi-yuan Hsu (University of California, San Francisco)

Lesley Inker (Tufts Medical Center, Boston)

NIH Support: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases


In Missouri for Grand Opening of Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health Building

Posted on by

What an honor it was to join other national, state, and local dignitaries for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony of the Roy Blunt NextGen Precision Health building at the University of Missouri, Columbia. I briefly addressed those present and watching online about the great potential of precision medicine to build a personalized approach to medicine and transform the future of health care. This impressive, 265,000-square-foot facility will now serve as the hub of the University of Missouri’s NextGen initiative, which will help to help accelerate that future of precision medicine. After all the opening remarks were concluded, Senator Roy Blunt performed the ceremonial ribbon cutting. The grand-opening ceremony took place on October 19. Credit: University of Missouri, Columbia

From Electrical Brain Maps to Learning More About Migraines

Posted on by

Rainbo Hultman
Credit: University of Iowa Health Care

One of life’s greatest mysteries is the brain’s ability to encode something as complex as human behavior. In an effort to begin to unravel this mystery, neuroscientists often zoom in to record the activities of individual neurons. Sometimes they expand their view to look at a specific region of the brain. But if they zoom out farther, neuroscientists can observe many thousands of neurons across the entire brain firing at once to produce electrical oscillations that somehow translate into behaviors as distinct as a smile and a frown. The complexity is truly daunting.

Rainbo Hultman, University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, Iowa City, realized years ago that by zooming out and finding a way to map all those emergent signals, she could help to change the study of brain function fundamentally. She also realized doing so offered her an opportunity to chip away at cracking the complicated code of the electrical oscillations that translate into such complex behaviors. To pursue her work in this emerging area of “electrical connectomics,” Hultman recently received a 2020 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to study the most common human neurological disorder: migraine headaches.

A few years ago, Hultman made some impressive progress in electrical connectomics as a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Kafui Dzirasa at Duke University, Durham, NC. Hultman and her colleagues refined a way to use electrodes to collect electrical field potentials across an unprecedented seven separate mouse brain regions at once. Using machine learning to help make sense of all the data, they uncovered a dynamic, yet reproducible, electrical brain network encoding depression [1].

What’s more, they found that the specific features of this brain-wide network could predict which mice subjected to chronic stress would develop signs of major depressive disorder. As Hultman noted, when measured and mapped in this way, the broad patterns of electrical brain activity, or “Electome factors,” could indicate which mice were vulnerable to stress and which were more resilient.

Moving on to her latest area of research, Hultman is especially intrigued by the fact that people who endure regular migraine attacks often pass through a characteristic sequence of symptoms. These symptoms can include a painful headache on one side of the head; visual disturbances; sensitivity to light, odors, or sound; mood changes; nausea; trouble speaking; and sometimes even paralysis. By studying the broad electrical patterns and networks associated with migraine in mice—simultaneously capturing electrical recordings from 14 brain regions on a millisecond timescale—she wants to understand how brain circuits are linked and work together in ways that produce the complex sequences of migraine symptoms.

More broadly, Hultman wants to understand how migraine and many other disorders affecting the brain lead to a state of heightened sensory sensitivity and how that emerges from integrated neural circuits in the brain. In her studies of migraine, the researcher suspects she might observe some of the same patterns seen earlier in depression. In fact, her team is setting up its experiments to ensure it can identify any brain network features that are shared across important disease states.

By the way, I happen to be one of many people who suffer from migraines, although fortunately not very often in my case. The visual aura of flashing jagged images that starts in the center of my visual field and then gradually moves to the periphery over about 20 minutes is pretty dramatic—a free light show! I’ve wondered what the electrical component of that must be like. But, even with treatment, the headache that follows can be pretty intense.

Hultman also has seen in her own life and family how debilitating migraines can be. Her goal isn’t just to map these neural networks, but to use them to identify where to target future therapeutics. Ultimately, she hopes her work will pave the way for more precise approaches for treating migraine and other brain disorders that are based on the emergent electrical characteristics of each individual’s brain activity. It’s a fascinating proposition, and I certainly look forward to where this research leads and what it may reveal about the fundamentals of how our brains encode complex behaviors and emotions.

Reference:

[1] Brain-wide electrical spatiotemporal dynamics encode depression vulnerability. Hultman R, Ulrich K, Sachs BD, Blount C, Carlson DE, Ndubuizu N, Bagot RC, Parise EM, Vu MT, Gallagher NM, Wang J, Silva AJ, Deisseroth K, Mague SD, Caron MG, Nestler EJ, Carin L, Dzirasa K. Cell. 2018 Mar 22;173(1):166-180.e14.

Links:

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

Laboratory for Brain-Network Based Molecular Medicine (University of Iowa, Iowa City)

Hultman Project Information (NIH RePORTER)

NIH Director’s New Innovator Award (Common Fund)

NIH Support: Common Fund; National Institute of Mental Health


Next Page