“In my lab, we’ve been gene hunters—starting with visible phenotypes, or characteristics, and searching for the responsible genes,” says Miriam Meisler, Ph.D., the Myron Levine Distinguished University Professor at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. During her career, Dr. Meisler has identified the functions of multiple genes and has shown how geneticvariants, or mutations, can impact human health.
Becoming a Scientist
Dr. Meisler had a strong interest in science as a child, which she credits to “growing up at the time of Sputnik” and receiving encouragement from her father and excellent science teachers in high school and college. However, when she started her undergraduate studies at Antioch College in Yellow Spring, Ohio, she decided to explore the humanities and social sciences. After 2 years of sociology and anthropology classes, she returned to biomedical science and, at a student swap, symbolically traded her dictionary for a slide rule—a mechanical device used to do calculations that was eventually replaced by the electric calculator.
“My parents told me that I already wanted to be a scientist when I was 7 or 8 years old. I don’t remember ever considering anything else,” says Ry Young, Ph.D., a professor of biochemistry, biophysics, and biology at Texas A&M University, College Station.
Dr. Young has been a researcher for more than 45 years and is a leading expert on bacteriophages—viruses that infect bacteria. He and other scientists have shown that phages, as bacteriophages are often called, could help us fight bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. Antibiotic-resistant infections cause more than 35,000 deaths per year in the U.S., and new, effective treatments for them are urgently needed.
The cloud. To many, it’s a mysterious black hole that somehow transports photos and files from their old or lost phone to their new one. To some researchers, though, it’s an invaluable resource that allows them access to data analytics tools they wouldn’t otherwise have.
Scientists have begun using cloud computing to store, process, and analyze their data through online bioinformatics tools. Biological data sets are often large and hard to interpret, requiring complex calculating instructions—or algorithms—to understand them. Fortunately, these algorithms can run on local computers or remotely through cloud computing.
One advantage of cloud-based programs over local computers is the ability to analyze data without taking up the user’s personal storage space. With cloud-based storage, researchers can store their large data files, including their labeled notes called annotations. Another benefit is that users have easy access to software packages within the cloud for data analysis. The cloud also encourages collaboration among scientists by making it easy to share large amounts of data.
Have you ever wondered how research works? How scientists make discoveries about our health and the world around us? Whether they’re studying plants, animals, humans, or something else in our world, they follow the scientific method. But this method isn’t always—or even usually—a straight line, and often the answers are unexpected and lead to more questions. Let’s dive in to see how it all works.
Scientists often use research organisms to study life. Examples range from simple organisms like bacteria to more complex ones such as mice. NIGMS funds studies of research organisms to understand biological processes that are common to all organisms, including humans. Errors in these fundamental processes can cause disease, and better understanding of these malfunctions can aid in the development of potential treatments.
Research organisms may also reveal novel biological processes that can lead to important scientific or medical technologies. For example, researchers studying interactions between viruses and bacteria made a discovery that led to the CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene-editing system, which was recognized by the 2020 Nobel Prize in chemistry.
Proteins (such as hemoglobin, actin, and amylase) are workhorse molecules that contribute to virtually every activity in the body. Some of proteins’ many jobs include carrying oxygen from your lungs to the rest of your body (hemoglobin), allowing your muscles to move (actin and myosin), and digesting your food (amylase, pepsin, and lactase). All proteins are made up of chains of amino acids that fold into specific 3D structures, and each protein’s structure allows it to perform its distinct job. Proteins that are misfolded or misshapen can cause diseases such as Parkinson’s or cataracts.
While it’s straightforward to use the genetic code to predict amino acid sequences of proteins from gene sequences, the vast diversity of protein shapes and many factors that influence a protein’s 3D structure make it much more complicated to create simple folding rules that could be used to predict proteins’ structures from these sequences. Scientists have worked on this problem for nearly 50 years, and NIGMS has supported many of their efforts, including the Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction (CASP) program.
NIGMS’ Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program works toward more effective methods for patient screening, diagnosis, and treatment.
Translating lab discoveries into health care products requires large investments of time and resources. Through STTR funding, NIGMS supports researchers interested in transitioning their discoveries and/or inventions into products. Here are the stories of three researchers working with the XLerator Hub, one of the funded programs that supports six southeastern IDeA states and Puerto Rico.
Ending Diagnostic Delays for Endometriosis
Dr. Idhaliz Flores-Caldera. Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Flores-Caldera.
Idhaliz Flores-Caldera, Ph.D., a professor of basic sciences and OB-GYN at Ponce Health Sciences University in Puerto Rico, has studied endometriosis for nearly 20 years. Endometriosis occurs when endometrial tissue, which typically lines the uterus, grows elsewhere in the body. Dr. Flores-Caldera first had the idea for a noninvasive diagnostic test for the disorder about 10 years ago. But it was only when she learned about funding opportunities from the XLerator Hub that she saw a path to validating her preliminary research findings and eventually commercializing her test.
Dr. Flores-Caldera applied for and was accepted into the hub’s proof-of-concept program, Ideas to Products, which funds researchers to flesh out ideas they want to commercialize. “I am very appreciative of how the program has provided me with tools and knowledge about commercializing a product and the process of patenting a product,” she says. “In general, scientists aren’t educated on this important topic.”
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.
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.
During our Starting Your Own Lab webinar, attendees asked so many insightful questions that we ran out of time to respond to all of them. So we asked nine NIGMS early career investigators to tackle the most popular ones in short videos, which were featured on our social media. Now, you can watch the whole series on our YouTube channel.