Creative Minds: Exploring the Role of Immunity in Hypertension

Meena Madhur

Meena Madhur / Credit: John Russell

If Meena Madhur is correct, people with hypertension will one day pay as much attention to their immune cell profiles as their blood pressure readings. A physician-researcher at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, Madhur is one of a growing number of scientists who thinks the immune system contributes to—or perhaps even triggers—hypertension, which increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, kidney disease, and other serious health problems.

About one of every three adult Americans currently have hypertension, yet a surprising number don’t know they have it and less than half have their high blood pressure under control—leading many health experts to refer to the condition as a “silent killer”[1,2]. For many folks, blood pressure control can be achieved through lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, exercising, limiting salt intake, and taking blood pressure medicines prescribed by their health-care provider. Unfortunately, such measures don’t work for everyone, and some people continue to suffer damage to their kidneys and blood vessels from poorly controlled hypertension.

Madhur wants to know whether the immune system might be playing a role, and whether this might hold some clues for developing new, more targeted ways of treating high blood pressure. To get such answers, this practicing cardiologist will use her 2016 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award to conduct sophisticated, single-cell analyses of the immune systems of people with and without hypertension. Her goal is to produce the most comprehensive catalog to date of which human immune cells might be involved in hypertension.

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A New Tool in the Toolbox: New Method Traces Free-Floating DNA Back to Its Source


Caption: DNA (blue) loops around nucleosomes (gray) and is bound by transcription factors (red), proteins that switch genes on and off and act in a tissue-specific manner. When cells die, enzymes (scissors) chop up areas between the nucleosomes and transcription factors, releasing DNA fragments in unique patterns. By gathering the released DNA fragments in blood, researchers can tell which types of cells produced them.
Credit: Shendure Lab/University of Washington

When cells die, scissor-like enzymes snip their DNA into tiny fragments that leak into the bloodstream and other bodily fluids. Researchers have been busy in recent years working on ways to collect these free-floating bits of DNA and explore their potential use in clinical care.

These approaches, sometimes referred to as “liquid biopsies,” hinge on the ability to distinguish specific DNA fragments from the body’s normal background of “cell-free” DNA, most of which comes from dying white blood cells. Seeking other sources for cell-free DNA in particular situations is beginning to bear fruit, however. Current applications include: 1) a test in maternal blood to look for DNA from the fetus (actually from the fetal component of the placenta), which provides a means of detecting a possible genetic abnormality; 2) a test in a cancer patient’s blood to look for cancer-specific mutations, as a way of assessing response to treatment or early signs of relapse; and 3) a test in an organ transplant recipient, where increasing abundance of DNA fragments from the donor can be an early sign of rejection.

But recent proposals have been floated about looking for cell-free DNA in healthy individuals, as an early sign of some health problems. Suppose something was found—how could you know the source? Now a team of NIH-funded researchers has devised a new method that uses distinctive features of DNA packaging to provide an additional layer of information about the origins of free-floating DNA, vastly expanding the potential uses for such tests [1].

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Introducing AMP: The Accelerating Medicines Partnership

Pie charts showing AMP targets reducing failures due to efficacy

Caption: Lack of efficacy currently accounts for more than half of all drug failures in Phase II clinical studies (left). If AMP’s target validation efforts improve efficacy by 90% (right), the success rate will rise significantly.

It would seem like there’s never been a better time for drug development. Recent advances in genomics, proteomics, imaging, and other technologies have led to the discovery of more than a thousand risk factors for common diseases—biological changes that ought to hold promise as targets for drugs.

But this deluge of new opportunities has to be put in context: drug development is a terribly difficult business. To the dismay of researchers, drug companies, and patients alike, the vast majority of drugs entering the development pipeline fall by the wayside. The most distressing failures occur when a drug is found to be ineffective in the later stages of development—in Phase II or Phase III clinical studies—after years of work and millions of dollars have already been spent [1]. Why is this happening? One major reason is that we’re not selecting the right biological changes to target from the start.

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Meet Alex—Before and After NIH Clinical Trial

Photo of an infant with mottled skin adjacent to a photo of young man with clear skin being examined by a female doctor.

Caption: Alex, then and now, with Dr. Goldbach-Mansky
Credit: Kate Barton and Susan Bettendorf (NIH)

Alex Barton recently turned 17. That’s incredible because Alex was born with a rare, often fatal genetic disease and wasn’t expected to reach his teenage years.

When Alex was born, he looked like he’d been dipped in boiling water: his skin was bright red and blistered. He spent most of his time sleeping. When awake, he screamed in agony from headaches, joint pain, and rashes. After a torturous 14 months, a rheumatologist told his mother that Alex suffered from Neonatal-Onset Multisystem Inflammatory Disease (NOMID). The doctor showed her a brief and scary paragraph in a medical text. Kate Barton, Alex’s mother, admitted that it “knocked her over like a freight train.” Continue reading

NIH Research Leads to New Rheumatoid Arthritis Drug

x-ray image of hands

X-ray image of the hands of a patient with rheumatoid arthritis. Note that the joints at the base of the fingers are eroded — and some, like the index finger on both hands, are actually dislocated.
Copyright (2012) American College of Rheumatology.

About 1.5 million [1] people in the US suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA). It is a chronic illness in which the immune system, which protects us from viral and bacterial invaders, turns on our own body and viciously attacks the membranes that line our joints. The consequences can be excruciating: pain, swelling, stiffness, and decreased mobility.  Over time, the joints can become permanently contorted, as in this X-ray image.

There are several RA medications on the market, but I want to tell you about a new one called tofacitinib, a pill which the FDA approved late last year [2]. The drug works by targeting a protein called Janus kinase 3, which was discovered by John O’Shea and colleagues here at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS) 20 years ago [3]. As I mentioned in a previous post it takes a really long time to go from a basic discovery to a drug—in most cases nearly 15 years. This drug has been even longer in the making! Shortly after discovering Janus kinase 3 in 1993, NIAMS researchers also revealed its role in inflammation, leading to a public-private collaboration with Pfizer that has now culminated in the approval of tofacitinib.

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