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In the News

Research advances from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Intramural Research Program (IRP) often make headlines. Read the news releases that describe our most recent findings:

Thursday, August 17, 2017

NIH researchers reveal novel insights into how sex-specific reproductive systems arise.

A protein called COUP-TFII determines whether a mouse embryo develops a male reproductive tract, according to researchers at the National Institutes of Health and their colleagues at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston. The discovery, which appeared online August 18 in the journal Science, changes the long-standing belief that an embryo will automatically become female unless androgens, or male hormones, in the embryo make it male.

Humphrey Hung-Chang Yao, Ph.D., head of the Reproductive Developmental Biology Group at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of NIH, studies how male and female mouse embryos acquire their sex-specific reproductive systems. He said all early-stage mammalian embryos, regardless of their sex, contain structures for both male and female reproductive tracts. For a mouse or human to end up with the reproductive tract of one sex after birth, the other tract has to disintegrate.

The normal female mouse embryo (top) contains only the female reproductive tract, highlighted in pink. The female mouse embryo without COUP-TFII (bottom) has both male, in blue, and female reproductive tracts. 

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Previously unknown category of neuron responds to pulling of a single hair.

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health have identified a class of sensory neurons (nerve cells that electrically send and receive messages between the body and brain) that can be activated by stimuli as precise as the pulling of a single hair. Understanding basic mechanisms underlying these different types of responses will be an important step toward the rational design of new approaches to pain therapy. The findings were published in the journal Neuron.

“Scientists know that distinct types of neurons detect different types of sensations, such as touch, heat, cold, pain, pressure, and vibration,” noted Alexander Chesler, Ph.D., lead author of the study and principal investigator with the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s (NCCIH) Division of Intramural Research (DIR). “But they know more about neurons involved with temperature and touch than those underlying mechanical pain, like anatomical pain related to specific postures or activities.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

After herpesviruses infect a cell, their genomes are assembled into specialized protein structures called nucelosomes. Many cellular enzyme complexes can modulate these structures to either promote or inhibit the progression of infection. Scientists studying how one of these complexes (EZH2/1) regulated herpes simplex virus (HSV) infection unexpectedly found that inhibiting EZH2/1 suppressed viral infection. The research group, from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health, then demonstrated that EZH2/1 inhibitors also enhanced the cellular antiviral response in cultured cells and in mice.

Once a person has been infected with a herpesvirus, the virus persists in a latent form, sometimes reactivating to cause recurrent disease. Two-thirds of the global population are infected with HSV-1, and at least 500 million are infected with HSV-2, according to the World Health Organization. 

The spread of herpes simplex virus infection (green, top) is suppressed in cells treated with EZH2/1 inhibitors (GSK126 or GSK343).

Friday, August 11, 2017

NIH-led clinical trial suggests that drug slows progression of rare neurological disease.

An experimental drug appears to slow the progression of Niemann-Pick disease type C1 (NPC1), a fatal neurological disease, according to results of a clinical study led by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. The study appears in The Lancet.

NPC1 is a rare genetic disorder that primarily affects children and adolescents, causing a progressive decline in neurological and cognitive functions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any treatments for the condition.

Caption: Niemann-Pick disease type C1, a lipid storage disorder, as seen in a mouse cerebellum.

Monday, August 7, 2017

A new study identifies genes that are necessary in cancer cells for immunotherapy to work, addressing the problem of why some tumors don’t respond to immunotherapy or respond initially but then stop as tumor cells develop resistance to immunotherapy.

NCI researchers have identified genes that are essential for cancer cells to be killed by T cells.

The study, from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), was led by Nicholas Restifo, M.D., a senior investigator with NCI’s Center for Cancer Research, with coauthors from NCI; Georgetown University, Washington D.C.; the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; New York University, New York City; and the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. It was published online in Nature on August 7, 2017. NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Thursday, August 3, 2017

In a new study from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, researchers found a higher than expected prevalence of cancer at baseline screening in individuals with Li-Fraumeni syndrome (LFS), a rare inherited disorder that leads to a higher risk of developing certain cancers. The research demonstrates the feasibility of a new, comprehensive cancer screening protocol for this high-risk population.

Part of a representative image of a whole body MRI of an LFS patient. Arrow denotes lesion found to be lung adenocarcinoma.
Caption: Part of a representative image of a whole body MRI of an LFS patient. Arrow denotes lesion found to be lung adenocarcinoma

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Study analyzes how virus is spread sexually and from mother to fetus.

National Institutes of Health scientists have developed a mouse model to study Zika virus transmitted sexually from males to females, as well as vertically from a pregnant female to her fetus. They are using the model to study how and when the virus is spread, including how the virus crosses the placenta, as well as to investigate potential treatments to block virus transmission.

Placenta from Zika-infected mouse showing heavy virus infection (green fluorescence) on the maternal side and limited infection on the fetal side. The yellow line designates maternal vs fetal tissue, and the insert shows infection of virus (arrow) on the fetal side of the placenta.
Caption: Placenta from Zika-infected mouse showing heavy virus infection (green fluorescence) on the maternal side and limited infection on the fetal side. The yellow line designates maternal vs fetal tissue, and the insert shows infection of virus (arrow) on the fetal side of the placenta.

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Tuesday, August 1, 2017

NIMHD will fund three awards to support minority health and health disparities research.

Three postdoctoral fellows within the NIH Intramural Research Program have been selected to receive the first William G. Coleman Jr., Ph.D., Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Innovation Award.  This competitive award seeks to support innovative research ideas and concepts - proposing potential for high impact in areas of minority health and health disparities research. Award recipients receive $15,000, each for supplies and services to be used in FY 2017.

While progress has been made in recent years to address existing inequities in health care and research among minorities; health disparities persist. The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of the National Institutes of Health, seeks to improve the health status of minorities and other health disparity populations.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Three-part series airing in August portrays the hopes and setbacks of patients, doctors, and nurses seeking cures.

On August 10, Discovery will premiere First in Human, a three-part documentary on the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, providing an unprecedented, first-hand look at the successes and setbacks that are a part of developing brand-new medicines that may ultimately benefit millions worldwide. Over a period of a year, film crews embedded within the hospital follow four patients who volunteered to participate in experimental treatments in the hopes they will help them, or others in the future. The series also follows the dedicated doctors and nurses who carry out the research while caring for the patients. Narrated by Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory,” “Hidden Figures,”), First in Human will air August 10, 17 and 24 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

“For thousands of patients around the world, NIH is known as the National Institutes of Hope and I am delighted that Discovery’s series will educate the public on the bravery of our volunteer patients who are our partners in scientific discovery,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. “This film depicts, in a very poignant way, the difficult decisions faced by many suffering from disease, and the profound contribution of research participants to improving treatments for all.”

Dr. Terry Fry, Head of the Hematologic Malignancies Section at the National Cancer Institute, discusses immunotherapy treatment with research participant Bo Cooper. 
Caption: Dr. Terry Fry, Head of the Hematologic Malignancies Section at the National Cancer Institute, discusses immunotherapy treatment with research participant Bo Cooper. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) have produced the first direct evidence that parts of our brains implicated in mental disorders may be shaped by a “residual echo” from our ancient past. The more a person’s genome carries genetic vestiges of Neanderthals, the more certain parts of his or her brain and skull resemble those of humans’ evolutionary cousins that went extinct 40,000 years ago, says NIMH’s Karen Berman, M.D. NIMH is part of the National Institutes of Health.

In particular, the parts of our brains that enable us to use tools and visualize and locate objects owe some of their lineage to Neanderthal-derived gene variants that are part of our genomes and affect the shape of those structures – to the extent that an individual harbors the ancient variants. But this may involve trade-offs with our social brain. The evidence from MRI scans suggests that such Neanderthal-derived genetic variation may affect the way our brains work today – and may hold clues to understanding deficits seen in schizophrenia and autism-related disorders, say the researchers.

MRI data shows (left) areas of the skull preferentially affected by the amount of Neanderthal-derived DNA and (right) areas of the brain’s visual system in which Neanderthal gene variants influenced cortex folding (red) and gray matter volume (yellow).
Caption: MRI data shows (left) areas of the skull preferentially affected by the amount of Neanderthal-derived DNA and (right) areas of the brain’s visual system in which Neanderthal gene variants influenced cortex folding (red) and gray matter volume (yellow). Michael Gregory, M.D., NIMH Section on Integrative Neuroimaging

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