Hi everyone, I’m Larry Tabak. I’ve served as NIH’s Principal Deputy Director for over 11 years, and I will be the acting NIH director until a new permanent director is named. In my new role, my day-to-day responsibilities will certainly increase, but I promise to carve out time to blog about some of the latest research progress on COVID-19 and any other areas of science that catch my eye.
I’ve also invited the directors of NIH’s Institutes and Centers (ICs) to join me in the blogosphere and write about some of the cool science in their research portfolios. I will publish a couple of posts to start, then turn the blog over to our first IC director. From there, I envision alternating between posts from me and from various IC directors. That way, we’ll cover a broad array of NIH science and the tremendous opportunities now being pursued in biomedical research.
Since I’m up first, let’s start where the NIH Director’s Blog usually begins each year: by taking a look back at Science’s Breakthroughs of 2021. The breakthroughs were formally announced in December near the height of the holiday bustle. In case you missed the announcement, the biomedical sciences accounted for six of the journal Science’s 10 breakthroughs. Here, I’ll focus on four biomedical breakthroughs, the ones that NIH has played some role in advancing, starting with Science’s editorial and People’s Choice top-prize winner:
Breakthrough of the Year: AI-Powered Predictions of Protein Structure
The biochemist Christian Anfinsen, who had a distinguished career at NIH, shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, for work suggesting that the biochemical interactions among the amino acid building blocks of proteins were responsible for pulling them into the final shapes that are essential to their functions. In his Nobel acceptance speech, Anfinsen also made a bold prediction: one day it would be possible to determine the three-dimensional structure of any protein based on its amino acid sequence alone. Now, with advances in applying artificial intelligence to solve biological problems—Anfinsen’s bold prediction has been realized.
But getting there wasn’t easy. Every two years since 1994, research teams from around the world have gathered to compete against each other in developing computational methods for predicting protein structures from sequences alone. A score of 90 or above means that a predicted structure is extremely close to what’s known from more time-consuming work in the lab. In the early days, teams more often finished under 60.
In 2020, a London-based company called DeepMind made a leap with their entry called AlphaFold. Their deep learning approach—which took advantage of 170,000 proteins with known structures—most often scored above 90, meaning it could solve most protein structures about as well as more time-consuming and costly experimental protein-mapping techniques. (AlphaFold was one of Science’s runner-up breakthroughs last year.)
This year, the NIH-funded lab of David Baker and Minkyung Baek, University of Washington, Seattle, Institute for Protein Design, published that their artificial intelligence approach, dubbed RoseTTAFold, could accurately predict 3D protein structures from amino acid sequences with only a fraction of the computational processing power and time that AlphaFold required . They immediately applied it to solve hundreds of new protein structures, including many poorly known human proteins with important implications for human health.
The DeepMind and RoseTTAFold scientists continue to solve more and more proteins [1,2], both alone and in complex with other proteins. The code is now freely available for use by researchers anywhere in the world. In one timely example, AlphaFold helped to predict the structural changes in spike proteins of SARS-CoV-2 variants Delta and Omicron . This ability to predict protein structures, first envisioned all those years ago, now promises to speed fundamental new discoveries and the development of new ways to treat and prevent any number of diseases, making it this year’s Breakthrough of the Year.
Anti-Viral Pills for COVID-19
The development of the first vaccines to protect against COVID-19 topped Science’s 2020 breakthroughs. This year, we’ve also seen important progress in treating COVID-19, including the development of anti-viral pills.
First, there was the announcement in October of interim data from Merck, Kenilworth, NJ, and Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, Miami, FL, of a significant reduction in hospitalizations for those taking the anti-viral drug molnupiravir  (originally developed with an NIH grant to Emory University, Atlanta). Soon after came reports of a Pfizer anti-viral pill that might target SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, even more effectively. Trial results show that, when taken within three days of developing COVID-19 symptoms, the pill reduced the risk of hospitalization or death in adults at high risk of progressing to severe illness by 89 percent .
On December 22, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for Pfizer’s Paxlovid to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in people age 12 and up at high risk for progressing to severe illness, making it the first available pill to treat COVID-19 . The following day, the FDA granted an EUA for Merck’s molnupiravir to treat mild-to-moderate COVID-19 in unvaccinated, high-risk adults for whom other treatment options aren’t accessible or recommended, based on a final analysis showing a 30 percent reduction in hospitalization or death .
Additional promising anti-viral pills for COVID-19 are currently in development. For example, a recent NIH-funded preclinical study suggests that a drug related to molnupiravir, known as 4’-fluorouridine, might serve as a broad spectrum anti-viral with potential to treat infections with SARS-CoV-2 as well as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) .
Monoclonal antibodies are artificially produced versions of the most powerful antibodies found in animal or human immune systems, made in large quantities for therapeutic use in the lab. Until recently, this approach had primarily been put to work in the fight against conditions including cancer, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. That changed in 2021 with success using monoclonal antibodies against infections with SARS-CoV-2 as well as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and other infectious diseases. This earned them a prominent spot among Science’s breakthroughs of 2021.
Monoclonal antibodies delivered via intravenous infusions continue to play an important role in saving lives during the pandemic. But, there’s still room for improvement, including new formulations highlighted on the blog last year that might be much easier to deliver.
CRISPR Fixes Genes Inside the Body
One of the most promising areas of research in recent years has been gene editing, including CRISPR/Cas9, for fixing misspellings in genes to treat or even cure many conditions. This year has certainly been no exception.
CRISPR is a highly precise gene-editing system that uses guide RNA molecules to direct a scissor-like Cas9 enzyme to just the right spot in the genome to cut out or correct disease-causing misspellings. Science highlights a small study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at Intellia Therapeutics, Cambridge, MA, and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, Tarrytown, NY, in which six people with hereditary transthyretin (TTR) amyloidosis, a condition in which TTR proteins build up and damage the heart and nerves, received an infusion of guide RNA and CRISPR RNA encased in tiny balls of fat . The goal was for the liver to take them up, allowing Cas9 to cut and disable the TTR gene. Four weeks later, blood levels of TTR had dropped by at least half.
In another study not yet published, researchers at Editas Medicine, Cambridge, MA, injected a benign virus carrying a CRISPR gene-editing system into the eyes of six people with an inherited vision disorder called Leber congenital amaurosis 10. The goal was to remove extra DNA responsible for disrupting a critical gene expressed in the eye. A few months later, two of the six patients could sense more light, enabling one of them to navigate a dimly lit obstacle course . This work builds on earlier gene transfer studies begun more than a decade ago at NIH’s National Eye Institute.
Last year, in a research collaboration that included former NIH Director Francis Collins’s lab at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), we also saw encouraging early evidence in mice that another type of gene editing, called DNA base editing, might one day correct Hutchinson-Gilford Progeria Syndrome, a rare genetic condition that causes rapid premature aging. Preclinical work has even suggested that gene-editing tools might help deliver long-lasting pain relief. The technology keeps getting better, too. This isn’t the first time that gene-editing advances have landed on Science’s annual Breakthrough of the Year list, and it surely won’t be the last.
The year 2021 was a difficult one as the pandemic continued in the U.S. and across the globe, taking far too many lives far too soon. But through it all, science has been relentless in seeking and finding life-saving answers, from the rapid development of highly effective COVID-19 vaccines to the breakthroughs highlighted above.
As this list also attests, the search for answers has progressed impressively in other research areas during these difficult times. These groundbreaking discoveries are something in which we can all take pride—even as they encourage us to look forward to even bigger breakthroughs in 2022. Happy New Year!
 CRISPR-Cas9 in vivo gene editing for transthyretin amyloidosis. Gillmore JD, Gane E, Taubel J, Kao J, Fontana M, Maitland ML, Seitzer J, O’Connell D, Walsh KR, Wood K, Phillips J, Xu Y, Amaral A, Boyd AP, Cehelsky JE, McKee MD, Schiermeier A, Harari O, Murphy A, Kyratsous CA, Zambrowicz B, Soltys R, Gutstein DE, Leonard J, Sepp-Lorenzino L, Lebwohl D. N Engl J Med. 2021 Aug 5;385(6):493-502.
Over the past few years, there’s been a great deal of excitement about the power of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM) for mapping the structures of large biological molecules like proteins and nucleic acids. Now comes word of another absolutely incredible use of cryo-EM: determining with great ease and exquisite precision the structure of the smaller organic chemical compounds, or “small molecules,” that play such key roles in biological exploration and drug development.
The new advance involves a cryo-EM technique called microcrystal-electron diffraction (MicroED). As detailed in a preprint on ChemRxiv.org  and the journal Angewandte Chemie , MicroED has enabled researchers to take the powdered form of commercially available small molecules and generate high-resolution data on their chemical structures in less than a half-hour—dramatically faster than with traditional methods!
If you have a smartphone, you’ve probably used it to record a video or two. But could you use it to produce a video that explains a complex scientific topic in 2 minutes or less? That was the challenge posed by the RCSB Protein Data Bank last spring to high school students across the nation. And the winning result is the video that you see above!
This year’s contest, which asked students to provide a molecular view of diabetes treatment and management, attracted 53 submissions from schools from coast to coast. The winning team—Andrew Ma, George Song, and Anirudh Srikanth—created their video as their final project for their advanced placement (AP) biology class at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, Princeton Junction, NJ.
When Dmitry Lyumkis headed off to graduate school at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA, he had thoughts of becoming a synthetic chemist. But he soon found his calling in a nearby lab that imaged proteins using a technique known as single-particle cryo-electron microscopy (EM). Lyumkis was amazed that the team could take a purified protein, flash-freeze it in liquid nitrogen, and then fire electrons at the protein, capturing the resulting image with a special camera. Also amazing was the sophisticated computer software that analyzed the raw 2D camera images, merging the data and reconstructing it into 3D representations of the protein.
The work was profoundly complex, but Lyumkis thrives on solving extremely difficult puzzles. He joined the Scripps lab to become a structural biologist and a few years later used single-particle cryo-EM to help determine the atomic structure of a key protein on the surface of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS. The protein had been considered one of the greatest challenges in structural biology and a critical target in developing an AIDS vaccine .
Now, Lyumkis has plans to take single-particle cryo-EM to a whole new level—literally. He wants to develop new methods that allow it to model the atomic structures of much smaller proteins. Right now, single-particle cryo-EM has worked with proteins as small as roughly 150 kilodaltons, a measure of a protein’s molecular weight (the approximate average mass of a protein is 53 kDa). Lyumkis plans to drop that number well below 100 kDa, noting that if his new methods work as he hopes, there should be very little, if any, lower size limit to get the technique to work. He envisions generating within a matter of days or weeks the precise structure of an average-sized protein involved in a disease, and then potentially handing it off as an atomic model for drug developers to target for more effective treatment.