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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Treating Zika Infection: Repurposed Drugs Show Promise

Zika researcher

Caption: An NCATS researcher dispenses Zika virus into trays for compound screening in a lab using procedures that follow strict biosafety standards.
Credit: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, NIH

In response to the health threat posed by the recent outbreak of Zika virus in Latin America and its recent spread to Puerto Rico and Florida, researchers have been working at a furious pace to learn more about the mosquito-borne virus. Considerable progress has been made in understanding how Zika might cause babies to be born with unusually small heads and other abnormalities and in developing vaccines that may guard against Zika infection.

Still, there remains an urgent need to find drugs that can be used to treat people already infected with the Zika virus. A team that includes scientists at NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS) now has some encouraging news on this front. By testing 6,000 FDA-approved drugs and experimental chemical compounds on Zika-infected human cells in the lab, they’ve shown that some existing drugs might be repurposed to fight Zika infection and prevent the virus from harming the developing brain [1]. While additional research is needed, the new findings suggest it may be possible to speed development and approval of new treatments for Zika infection.

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Zika Vaccine: Two Candidates Show Promise in Mice

 

Zika Virus

Caption: Zika virus (red), isolated from a microcephaly case in Brazil. The virus is associated with cellular membranes in the center.
Credit: NIAID

Last February, the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency over concerns about very serious birth defects in Brazil and their possible link to Zika virus. But even before then, concerns about the unprecedented spread of Zika virus in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America had prompted NIH-funded scientists to step up their efforts to combat this emerging infectious disease threat. Over the last year, research aimed at understanding the mosquito-borne virus has progressed rapidly, and we now appear to be getting closer to a Zika vaccine.

In a recent study in the journal Nature, researchers found that a single dose of either of two experimental vaccines completely protected mice against a major viral strain responsible for the Zika outbreak in Brazil [1]. Caution is certainly warranted when extrapolating these (or any other) findings from mice to people. But, taking into account the fact that researchers have already developed safe and effective human vaccines for several related viruses, the new work represents a very encouraging milestone on the road toward a much-needed Zika vaccine for humans.

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Snapshots of Life: Portrait of Zika Virus

Cross section of the Zika virus


Credit: David Goodsell, The Scripps Research Institute

This lively interplay of shape and color is an artistic rendering of the Zika virus preparing to enter a cell (blue) by binding to its protein receptors (green). The spherical structures (pink) represent two Zika viruses in a blood vessel filled with blood plasma cells (tan). The virus in the middle in cross section shows viral envelope proteins (red) studding the outer surface, with membrane proteins (pink) embedded in a fatty layer of lipids (light purples). In the innermost circle, you can see the viral genome (yellow) coiled around capsid proteins (orange).

This image was sketched and hand-painted with watercolors by David Goodsell, a researcher and illustrator at The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA. Goodsell put paint and science to paper as part of the “Molecule of the Month” series run by RCSB Protein Data Bank (PDB), which NIH co-supports with the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The PDB, which contains structural data on thousands of proteins and small molecules, uses its “Molecule of the Month” series to help students visualize a molecule or virus and to encourage their exploration of structural biology and its applications to medicine.

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