If you follow my blog, you know that I like to feature spectacular images that scientists have created during the course of their research. These images are rarely viewed outside the lab, but some are so worthy of artistic merit and brimming with educational value that they deserve a wider audience. That’s one reason why the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) launched its BioArt contest. Of the 12 winners in 2013, I’m proud to report that 11 received support from NIH. In fact, I’m so proud that I plan to showcase their work in an occasional series entitled “Snapshots of Life.” Continue reading to see the first installment—enjoy! Continue reading
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Until recently, we’d never have dreamed of mentioning the famous opening line of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities in the context of U.S. biomedical research. But now those words ring all too true.
The “best of times” reflects the amazing technological advances and unprecedented scientific opportunities that exist right now. We’ve never had a better chance to make rapid progress in preventing, diagnosing, and curing human disease. But the “worst of times” is the other reality: NIH’s ability to support vital research at more than 2,500 universities and organizations across the nation is reeling from a decline in funding that threatens our health, our economy, and our standing as the world leader in biomedical innovation.
The brand new $3 million Breakthrough Prize in the Life Sciences  delivered a very nice reward and well deserved recognition to eleven exceptionally creative scientists who have devoted their careers to biology and medicine. And, with five awards to be given each year, I hope this inspires other life scientists to embark on innovative and high-risk endeavors.
For this inaugural round, I’m proud to say that nine of the eleven winners were NIH grant recipients—some for more than three decades. Now, you may not have heard of most of these scientists. Quite frankly, that’s a shame. These folks have discovered fundamental principles of biology—everything from cancer causing genes to techniques for creating stem cells. These discoveries have boosted our understanding of health and disease, and led to the development of many drugs and therapies.
So these individuals really should be household names—and more of that kind of recognition would be a good thing to inspire youth to explore careers in science. In the United States, virtually everyone can list names of multiple movie stars and athletes, but two-thirds of Americans can’t name a single living scientist .
Today is International Rare Disease Day. In honor of the occasion, I’d like to pay tribute to a few real-life heroes whose struggles have forever changed the landscape of rare disease research.
Folk singer Woody Guthrie is best known for his song, “This Land Is Your Land.” Written more than 70 years ago, “This Land” has taken its place among our nation’s great anthems, setting forth a vision of inclusiveness that has inspired generations of Americans to “sing along.” But the last couple of verses are often omitted. Here’s a version of one of them:
As I was walkin’—I saw a sign there
And that sign said—no trespassin’
But on the other side … it didn’t say nothin’!
Now that side was made for you and me!
These verses brought into the foreground those whom society had marginalized. “This Land” reminded us of their existence, challenged us to live up to our ideals—and include all people in our best vision of ourselves.
Woody performing one version of “This Land”:
Even as he was singing about inclusiveness, Woody Guthrie was starting a long battle against a disease that increasingly cast him outside mainstream society: Huntington’s disease. In most cases—and as was indeed the case for Woody—symptoms of Huntington’s disease do not appear until adulthood. Gradually, this rare, inherited neurological disorder seizes control of its sufferer’s body, mind—and even voice. In 1965, 13 years after he was diagnosed, Woody fell mute. He had long since lost his ability to play guitar. Two years later, he died at the age of 55.
Last Friday, I and NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research Dr. Sally Rockey visited the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. We were there to see what NIH could do to try to help the biomedical researchers whose work has been disrupted—and laboratories devastated—by Superstorm Sandy, which slammed into the Northeast coast about a month ago.
From what we saw during our visit, I can tell you the damage is truly appalling. The violent surge of water from the East River at 31st Street topped all predictions and came with great swiftness, bursting through concrete walls and blowing open iron doors. The lab animal facility was quickly submerged, and thousands of valuable mice and rats were lost. Central facilities for electrical power and heating in an older building were severely damaged; this will take many months to repair since the flood also exposed vast amounts of asbestos.
We met with NYU leadership in a chilly conference room to learn of their 24/7 efforts to respond to this unprecedented disaster. Then, we toured some of the labs that are unusable because the infrastructure has been essentially obliterated. Dr. Rockey and I also met with faculty, staff, and postdocs in a town meeting and expressed our solidarity with this beleaguered community. We promised to use all available tools from NIH to help: altering submission deadlines for grant applications, allowing researchers to negotiate new specific aims, and extending training periods for trainees whose research projects have been seriously affected. Soon, NIH will issue an opportunity for NYU researchers who have lost precious equipment or supplies to apply for additional funding through Administrative Supplements.
My hat is off to NYU Langone’s Chief Scientific Officer Dr. Dafna Bar-Sagi and her colleagues for leading the recovery effort. They are engaged in a heroic endeavor that will extend over many months, possibly years, as they construct a new animal facility. While the road ahead is long, there is no doubt from what we saw on Friday that the scientists at NYU are determined and resilient. All of us should do whatever we can to help this vital part of our nation’s biomedical research community during these terribly difficult circumstances.