Tag: COVID-19

Empowering Biomedical Research in Rural West Virginia

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Public health crises often disproportionately impact rural America. Sally L. Hodder, M.D., works to alleviate these disparities, especially regarding the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. She’s the director of the West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (WVCTSI), the associate vice president of clinical and translational research, and a professor of medicine at West Virginia University.

A headshot of Dr. Sally Hodder.
Dr. Sally Hodder. Credit: West Virginia University.

Dr. Hodder’s work is focused in West Virginia, but her results are valuable assets to researchers across the country. Not only does treating chronic diseases in rural populations contribute to the overall understanding of those diseases, but engaging with and involving people in those communities in research makes science more accessible to them. Dr. Hodder says, “When folks participate in the science, when there is good community discussion about the trial designs and the results, then I think those populations may be more trusting of the results.”

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Advancing American Indian and Alaska Native Health Through Research, Training, and Engagement

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American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations have long experienced health disparities such as higher rates of diabetes, certain cancers, and mental health conditions than those of other Americans. One contributing factor in these disparities is underrepresentation of AI/AN populations in biomedical science—as study participants, researchers, and health professionals. Unfamiliarity with health care options and opportunities, coupled with a distrust of biomedical research resulting from unethical studies in the past, have exacerbated this underrepresentation.

NIGMS-supported researchers, including Native scientists, are partnering with AI/AN Tribes to help reduce health disparities by conducting research focused on AI/AN health priorities and building infrastructure that supports research in those communities. They’re also preparing Native students to pursue careers in science and medicine. In this post, you’ll meet four scientists advancing AI/AN health.

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Science Snippet: Lipids in the Limelight

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A large blue oval surrounded by small yellow circles.
Spheres of lipids (yellow) inside a cell. The nucleus is shown in blue. Credit: James Olzmann, University of California, Berkeley.

Have you ever wondered why your cells don’t spill into each other or what keeps your skin separate from your blood? The answer to both is lipids—a diverse group of organic compounds that don’t dissolve in water. They’re one of the four major building blocks of our bodies, along with proteins, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids. Types of lipids include:

  • Fats, necessary for our bodies’ long-term energy storage and insulation. Some essential vitamins are fat soluble, meaning they must be associated with fat molecules to be effectively absorbed.
  • Phospholipids, which make up a large part of cell and organelle membranes.
  • Waxes, which help protect delicate surfaces. For instance, earwax protects the skin of the ear canal.
  • Steroids, including cholesterol, a precursor to many hormones, which helps maintain the fluidity of cell membranes.
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The League of VetaHumanz: Encouraging Kids to Use Their Powers for Good!

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Dr. San Miguel standing in front of a van full of boxes wearing a mask and a cape.
Pink Phoenix, alter ego of Dr. Sandra San Miguel, preparing to pass out Vaccine SuperPower Packs described later in this post. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Sandra San Miguel.

“I’m Pink Phoenix, leader of the Vetahumanz League of superheroes, and it’s the best job in the world.” The League of VetaHumanz is a superhero league for veterinarians, founded and led by Pink Phoenix, the alter ego of Sandra San Miguel, D.V.M., Ph.D. Through support from the NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program, the league seeks to diversify the veterinary profession.

Members of the league work with elementary students across the country to give them a sense of belonging to the veterinary profession. “I’m most proud of bringing people together who share the mission and vision with all their heart,” Pink Phoenix remarks. “Nobody can just be a member of the league. You have to earn the cape.” The league has over 400 certified role models throughout the country who are either veterinarians—VetaHumanz—or veterinary school students—VetaHumanz in training.

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Public Alerted to Omicron in New Mexico Through Quick Detection

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A sphere with spikes on the outside cut open to reveal a long strand.
Genetic material inside a virus. Credit: iStock.

Over the past 2 years, you’ve probably heard a lot about the spread of SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—and the emergence of variants. The discovery and tracking of these variants is possible thanks to genomic surveillance, a technique that involves sequencing and analyzing the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 virus particles from many COVID-19 patients. Genomic surveillance has not only shed light on how SARS-CoV-2 has evolved and spread, but it has also helped public health officials decide when to introduce measures to help protect people.

In December 2021, the NIGMS-supported SARS-CoV-2 genomic surveillance program at the University of New Mexico Health Science Center (UNM HSC) in Albuquerque detected the first known case of the Omicron variant in the state, which enabled a rapid public health response. The program’s co-leaders, assistant professors Darrell Dinwiddie, Ph.D., and Daryl Domman, Ph.D., were watching on high alert for it to enter New Mexico, and when it did, they were poised to quickly identify it:

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Pathways: The Vaccine Science Issue

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A magazine cover showing a cross-section of a sphere with spikes on its surface and a coil inside. Text reads: “The spike protein. What does it have to do with the COVID-19 vaccines? (Find out inside.)”
Cover of Pathways student magazine.

NIGMS is pleased to bring you Pathways: The Vaccine Science Issue [PDF], which explains how the messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines for COVID-19 work and how they were developed. Building on years of research, scientists were able to create these vaccines, thoroughly test them, and get them to the public as quickly as possible—while still making sure they were safe and effective.

Pathways, designed for students in grades 6 through 12, aims to build awareness of basic biomedical science and its importance to health while inspiring careers in research. All materials in the collection are available online for free.

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Researcher Shares Science en Español and Builds a Community

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A headshot of Dr. Ramos-Benítez.
Dr. Marcos Ramos-Benítez. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Ramos-Benítez.

“For me, science is the perfect way to harmonize creative thinking and critical thinking,” says Marcos Ramos-Benítez, Ph.D., a fellow in the NIGMS Postdoctoral Research Associate Training (PRAT) program.

Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.

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Navajo Students Engage With Public Health Research Through NARCH

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Navajo students are contributing to public health efforts in diabetes, COVID-19, domestic violence, and maternal and child health through the Navajo Native American Research Center for Health (NARCH) Partnership. “Our goal is to really enhance the educational pathways available to Navajo students from high school to graduate school and beyond,” says Mark Bauer, Ph.D., a co-director of the Navajo NARCH Partnership and professor at Diné College—a tribal college on the Navajo Nation. (Diné means “the people” and is how Navajo people refer to themselves in their native language.)

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COVID-19 Vaccine and Therapeutic Trials ACTIV-ate in West Virginia

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Hands in medical gloves drawing liquid from a vial into a syringe with a model of SARS-CoV-2 in the background. ACTIV clinical trials will evaluate the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines. Credit: iStock.

Since the virus that causes COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2, was first reported in late 2019, scientists have launched hundreds of studies on strategies for diagnosis, prevention, and treatment. To prioritize the most promising vaccine and therapeutics candidates, streamline clinical trials, and coordinate regulatory processes, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Foundation for the NIH have established the Accelerating COVID-19 Therapeutic Interventions and Vaccines (ACTIV) partnership. ACTIV brings together eight government entities, 20 biopharmaceutical companies, and four nonprofit organizations.

The public-private partnership provides infrastructure, subject matter expertise, and funding to efficiently bring the most promising therapeutics and vaccines into clinical trials. Five ACTIV therapeutic trials are underway. NIGMS-supported Institutional Development Award Program Infrastructure for Clinical and Translational Research (IDeA-CTR) networks reach historically underserved areas and populations, which are important participants in such trials.

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Fight Against COVID-19 Aided by Sepsis Researchers

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Oblong light-blue structures with red spots in the middle connected to the surface of a sphere. Spike proteins on the surface of a coronavirus. Credit: David Veesler, University of Washington.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from many areas of biomedical science have worked together to learn how this new disease affects the human body, how to prevent its spread, and how to treat it. Severe cases of COVID-19 and cases of sepsis share many symptoms. Sepsis is the body’s overactive and extreme response to an infection. It’s unpredictable and can progress rapidly. Without prompt treatment, it can lead to tissue damage, organ failure, and death.

Sepsis has similarities with some cases of COVID-19, most likely because the two conditions trigger the same reactions at the cellular level. Researchers have studied these reactions in sepsis for many years.

“When we look back on 2020 and the speed with which progress was made against COVID-19, two features will stand out,” says John Younger, M.D., a member of the NIGMS Advisory Council who recently co-chaired a working group on advancing sepsis research. “The first is how quickly the biotechnology community came together to develop vaccine candidates. The second, and arguably the most immediately impactful, is how caregivers and clinical researchers were able to rapidly refine the care of COVID-19 patients based on decades of experience with sepsis.”

This post highlights a few of the many sepsis researchers supported by NIGMS who are applying their expertise to COVID-19.

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