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Excellence in Science Mentoring Honored in Washington, D.C.

Wed, 2018-09-19 09:09

Six NIGMS grantees are among this year’s winners of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEM). The award was established by the White House in 1995. This year, it went to 27 individuals and 14 organizations.

PAESMEM recipients were honored during a 3-day event in Washington, D.C. The event featured a gala presentation ceremony and a White House tour. In addition, each winner received a $10,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which manages PAESMEM on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The event also included the first-ever White House State-Federal STEM Education Summit. During the summit, awardees joined leaders in education and workforce development from across the nation, including U.S. territories and several Native American tribes, to discuss trends and future priorities in STEM education. The discussions will inform the development of the next Federal STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan, which must be updated every 5 years according to the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010.

The six NIGMS-supported PAESMEM winners are listed below. In this blog, we will highlight the work of each one, starting with Ann L. Chester and John A. Pollock.

  • Ann L. Chester, Ph.D., West Virginia University
  • John K. Haynes, Ph.D., Morehouse College
  • John A. Pollock, Ph.D., Duquesne University
  • Elba Elisa Serrano, Ph.D., New Mexico State University
  • Virginia Shepherd, Ph.D., Vanderbilt University
  • Maria da Graça H. Vicente, Ph.D., Louisiana State University
Ann L. Chester, Ph.D., West Virginia University Credit: West Virginia University.

Much of Ann Chester’s career has been devoted to encouraging students of underrepresented racial or economic status to pursue careers in the health sciences. By integrating local community issues into health and science education, she engages young people in research about real-world issues that impact them and their loved ones.

An assistant vice president for education partnerships at the West Virginia University (WVU) Health Sciences Center, Chester is also founder and director of the Health Sciences & Technology Academy (HSTA), a West Virginia mentoring program. HSTA began as a pilot program in 1994 and has been funded in part by the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program since 1997. It continues to help high school students overcome social and financial challenges so they can enter college and earn STEM-based undergraduate and graduate degrees.

HSTA students. Credit: Health Sciences & Technology Academy.

Chester has organized a supportive HSTA network of teachers, community members, and higher-education faculty to mentor generations of West Virginian students. Since 1998, 99 percent of HSTA graduates have attended college, and 84 percent of college graduates continue to live and work in West Virginia, further enriching local communities and economies.

HSTA has inspired similar programs across the country, including at Clemson University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Alaska, and the University of Pittsburgh. It has been so successful that TEDx invited Chester to give a presentation about the program in April 2018.

Additionally, Chester leads the WVU Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP), which supports the work of HSTA at a college level. The summer program, started in 1985 for students living in communities that are medically underserved, guides students toward careers in health care. Out of the 500 or so HCOP students, 68 percent earned degrees in the health professions.

Chester’s Presidential award is one of several she has received for her work. Other honors include the West Virginia University School of Medicine’s Dean’s Award for Excellence in Service to the Community (2011), Ethel and Gerry Heebink Award for Distinguished Service to WVU (2015), WVU Mary Catherine Buswell Award for Outstanding Service for Women (2016), and Women in Science and Health Advanced Career Award (2017).

John A. Pollock, Ph.D., Duquesne University Credit: Duquesne University.

John Pollock is passionate about mentoring. Along with teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in neuroscience and biology, and conducting scientific research, he’s mentored more than 150 students. About a quarter of these students have been from racial or ethnic groups underrepresented in STEM fields. Nearly all his mentees have successfully pursued graduate degrees.

Bringing Pollock’s efforts full circle, many of his former students have gone on to help underserved communities. They are now leaders in fields that include law, science, medicine, biomedical research, and teaching.

In addition to nudging students upward in their pursuit of education and careers, Pollock reaches down to impact the lives of the youngest members of the future STEM workforce. He helps organize science summer camps for Pittsburgh children from underserved areas; creates museum, planetarium, and travelling exhibits; and volunteers weekly as a reading tutor for 4- and 5-year-olds.

Furthermore, Pollock develops media resources to educate youth in STEM education and health literacy. He is founding director of A Partnership in Neuroscience Education, which has received funding from the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program since 2000. The program specializes in creating educational products that make science engaging and fun for teachers, students, and learners of all ages. These resources include videos, TV shows, video games, and award-winning apps for young people and the general public. One such app is the Darwin Synthetic Interview.

Another product that Pollock created and produced is the TV show Scientastic! The show explores science, health, and social issues through the perspective of young people, blending live-action and animation. The plot mixes fictional story arcs with interviews from real doctors and scientists in and around Pittsburgh. One SEPA-funded episode, Scientastic! Are You Sleeping? is a two-time winner of the Emmy Award and comes with an accompanying viewing guide and lesson plan.

Scene from Scientastic! Are You Sleeping? Credit: Planet Earth Television.

In addition to the Presidential award, Pollock is the recipient of the Darwin Evolution/Revolution Award, NIH (2008); Carnegie Science Award, Special Achievement in Education (2011); Duquesne University Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching (2013); and the Bayer School of Natural and Environmental Sciences Award for Excellence in Scholarship (2017). The Apple Corporation also named Pollock an Apple Distinguished Educator in 2017.

Interview With a Scientist – Rommie Amaro: Computational and Theoretical Model Builder

Wed, 2018-08-15 14:21

Many researchers who search for anti-cancer drugs have labs filled with chemicals and tissue samples. Not Rommie Amaro . Her work uses computers to analyze the shape and behavior of a protein called p53. Defective versions of p53 are associated with more human cancers than any other malfunctioning protein.

The goal of Amaro’s work is to find ways to restore the function of defective p53 protein in cancer cells. Her research team at the University of California, San Diego, discovered how to do just    that—according to their computer models, at least—by fitting small molecules into a pocket in malfunctioning p53 proteins. Amaro founded a biotechnology company to bring this computational work closer to a real cure for cancer.

She also explained her research in the 2017 DeWitt Stetten Jr. Lecture titled Computing Cures: Discovery Through the Lens of a Computational Microscope.

NIGMS has supported Amaro’s work since 2006 under P41GM103426, U01GM111528, R25GM114821, and F32GM077729.

Americans Fighting the Opioid Crisis in Their Own Backyards

Wed, 2018-08-01 14:39

Credit: New York Times article, Jan. 19, 2016.

The United States is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic. The rates of opioid addiction, babies born addicted to opioids, and overdoses have skyrocketed in the past decade. No population has been hit harder than rural communities. Many of these communities are in states with historically low levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIGMS’ Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program builds research capacities in these states by supporting basic, clinical, and translational research, as well as faculty development and infrastructure improvements. IDeA-funded programs in many states have begun prioritizing research focused on reducing the burden of opioid addiction. Below is a snapshot of three of these programs, and how they are working to help their communities:

Vermont Center on Behavior and Health

Because there are generally fewer treatment resources in rural areas compared to larger cities, it can take longer for people addicted to opioids in rural settings to get the care they need. The Vermont Center on Behavior and Health works to address this need and its major implications.

“One very disconcerting trend we’re seeing with this recent crisis is that opioid-addicted individuals are being placed on wait lists lasting months to a year without any kind of treatment,” says Vermont Center on Behavior and Health director Stephen Higgins. “And it’s very unlikely that anyone who is opioid addicted is just going to abstain while they are on a wait list.”

In urban areas, buprenorphine—an approved medication for opioid addiction that can prevent or reduce withdrawal symptoms—is generally dispensed by trained physicians at treatment clinics. Unfortunately, many rural communities don’t have enough physicians and clinics to serve patients in need. While waiting for treatment, patients are at risk of premature death, overdose, and contracting diseases such as HIV.

Stacey Sigmon, a faculty member in the Vermont Center on Behavior Health, has developed a method to help tackle this problem: a modified version of a tamper-proof device that delivers daily doses of buprenorphine. The advantage of using the modified device is that it makes each day’s dose available during a preprogrammed 3-hour window within the patient’s home, eliminating the need to visit a clinic.

During a study, participants in the treatment group received interim buprenorphine from the device. They also received daily calls to assess drug use, craving, and withdrawal. Participants in the control group didn’t receive buprenorphine. They remained on the waiting list of their local clinic and didn’t receive phone calls. The results, published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), indicate that the device works. Participants who received the interim buprenorphine treatment submitted a higher percentage of drug test specimens that were negative for opioids than those in the control group at 4 weeks (88 percent vs. 0 percent), 8 weeks (84 percent vs. 0 percent), and 12 weeks (68 percent vs. 0 percent). Sigmon and colleagues are currently testing the device with a much larger group of participants.

“This tool is now available to other rural states that are also being devastated by this crisis and are not so far along in beefing up treatment capacity,” says Higgins.

Vermont Center on Behavior Health’s Stacey Sigmon with the tamper-proof buprenorphine delivery device she used in her NEJM study.

In another attempt at alleviating the crunch in treatment capacity, the Vermont Center is preparing to launch a pilot experiment to deliver medication-assisted treatment in the emergency department. Patients presenting opioid misuse issues—e.g., overdose, swelling from using contaminated needles—would get immediate treatment and continue returning to the ER for treatment until a slot opens up at an opioid clinic.

In a different study, Higgins and Sigmon, along with University of Vermont colleagues, addressed another problem associated with opioid misuse—in utero exposure. Nearly 80 percent of all pregnancies in opioid-addicted women are unintended. Higgins and Sigmon found that financial incentives paired with strategies that reduce barriers to introducing contraception—providing contraception without requiring a physical exam and supplying it during the initial visit—greatly increased birth control adherence.

West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute

The West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute (WVCTSI), funded by an IDeA Clinical and Translational Research (CTR) award, strives to bring the best care possible to residents, many of whom live in rural communities. WVCTSI concentrates on five priority health areas, including addiction and resultant emerging epidemics such as hepatitis B, C, and HIV.

Because opioid overdoses have hit West Virginia particularly hard in recent years, WVCTSI has placed a special emphasis on the study of opioid use disorder (OUD), medically assisted treatment for OUD, and emerging epidemics resulting from OUD.

Age-Adjusted Resident Drug Overdose Mortality Rate in West Virginia and United States, 2001-2014. Credit: WV Health Statistics Center, Vital Surveillance System, and CDC Wonder.

“The IDeA-CTR is a major stimulus to build research infrastructure that will impact health outcomes in West Virginia, including individuals with OUD,” says WVCTSI director Sally Hodder, M.D.

WVCTSI takes a broad approach to studying opioid addiction, with research in the following areas:

Public health. Approaches include using large databases of electronic medical records to model overdose risk and factors that predict overdose deaths. The CTR has also funded focus groups in five communities across West Virginia. The sessions have hosted up to 20 community stakeholders to discuss underrecognized insights about the opioid crisis and to share deeper strategic concepts that might not otherwise come to the surface. “The idea is that opioid addiction may take a slightly different form in every community,” says Hodder. “And it will be interesting to see what similarities and differences there are among these communities, and what we can learn from them.”

Laboratory science. The CTR has been working with a group of multidisciplinary investigators to shift treatment standards for OUD toward precision medicine. Ongoing studies include investigating opioid misuse in pregnancy as well as genetic variants in mothers and newborns that inform the health of babies born with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS). In an effort to understand the long-term effects of prenatal opioid exposure on cognition, language, and emotional regulation, CTR researchers at Marshall University School of Medicine perform psychiatric evaluations and cognitive testing of children born with NOWS. (To learn more about NOWS, read this story from the PBS NewsHour that was funded in part by NIGMS’s Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) program.)

In deep brain stimulation (DBS), electrodes implanted in the brain can deliver electrical stimulation to specific regions to fine-tune brain activity. Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Hellerhoff.

Clinical science. The CTR supports novel strategies to treat OUD. In collaboration with Ali Rezai, a neurosurgeon at West Virginia University, the CTR is gearing up to assess deep brain stimulation (DBS) for treatment-resistant OUD. DBS has previously been used to successfully treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, tremor, and dystonia. In this case, Rezai and his team would implant stimulating electrodes in the brain to modify activity in the nucleus accumbens, a region heavily involved in the brain’s reward circuitry.

Northern New England Clinical and Translational Research Network

Managed by Maine Medical Center Research Institute and the University of Vermont, The Northern New England Clinical and Translational Research (NNE-CTR) Network is a group of academic institutions with portfolios that include research on health issues in rural populations. The network collaborates with the University of Southern Maine, and its partners include Dartmouth Synergy and Tufts University School of Medicine.

Projects funded by the NNE-CTR will place special focus on addiction research. “The center-wide goal is investigating and addressing health care disparities in rural populations,” says NNE-CTR co-director Cliff Rosen.

One way that the NNE-CTR plans to support research into improving the health of opioid-addicted people in rural populations is through various pilot projects, the most successful of which may receive additional funding. “We were a little concerned about whether we would be able to get a significant number of applications for these projects,” says NNE-CTR’s other co-director Gary Stein. “We were hoping, initially, to be able to get 10 or 15 good proposals. We received 35, eight of which focus on the opioid crisis in New England. We were absolutely amazed, and to us this is real validation of an interest in engagement.”

The Vermont Center of Behavior and Health is funded by NIGMS grant P20GM103644. The West Virginia Clinical and Translational Science Institute is funded by NIGMS grant U54GM104942. The Northern New England Clinical and Translational Research Network is funded by NIGMS grant U54GM115516.

To learn more about the opioid crisis in America, visit the PBS NewsHour website to watch segments and read stories on various aspects of the epidemic. The videos and stories were funded in part by NIGMS’ Science Education Partnership Awards (SEPA) program.

Broadcast videos

A community overwhelmed by opioids (10/2/17) 
The overwhelming problems faced by Huntington, West Virginia, where the opioid crisis has produced first-responder burnout and overflowing courts, hospitals, and foster care networks. Medical school professor Dr. James Becker told the NewsHour he is seeing rare disease complications and alarming overdose rates.

Understanding the science of pain, with the help of virtual reality (10/4/17) 
The mechanics and science of addiction and the multidisciplinary approach—including hypnosis and virtual reality—being taken by those at the University of Washington, the first institution to treat pain as a problem, not just a symptom of something else.

Synthetic opioids are driving an overdose crisis (10/11/17) 
The catastrophe of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that’s roughly 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and that everyone from clinics to the DEA’s special testing lab in Northern Virginia are trying to get a handle on. Fentanyl was responsible for 80 percent of the overdoses in Massachusetts in 2016.

How an opioid addiction can eat your heart alive (4/30/18) 
The heart valve problems of addicts who often face repeat surgeries if they can’t stop taking opioids, as seen from the perspectives of surgeons and a bioethicist.

Website stories

Saving the babies of the opioid epidemic (10/2/17) 
The problems faced by addicted newborns who end up in NICU facilities, dosed with methadone and clonidine to get them past their withdrawal. The focus of this segment is the neonatal therapeutic unit at Cabell County-Huntington Hospital in southern West Virginia.

How to safely dispose of pain medication (10/4/17) 
A reminder of how NOT to dispose of opioids and alternative safe-disposal methods.

How treating opioids with more opioids has divided the recovery community (10/5/17) 
The division among professionals who want to treat addicts with suboxone and other medication assistance and those who insist on a drug-free recovery, as played out in Naples, Florida.

How a brain gets hooked on opioids (10/9/17) 
A detailed look on how a brain gets hooked on opioids and how chronic pain patients who deal with mood disorders are at high risk.

Interview with a Scientist: Julius Lucks, Shape Seeker

Wed, 2018-07-18 09:34

While DNA acts as the hard drive of the cell, storing the instructions to make all of the proteins the cell needs to carry out its various duties, another type of genetic material, RNA, takes on a wide variety of tasks, including gene regulation, protein synthesis, and sensing of metals and metabolites. Each of these jobs is handled by a slightly different molecule of RNA. But what determines which job a certain RNA molecule is tasked with? Primarily its shape. Julius Lucks, a biological and chemical engineer at Northwestern University, and his team study the many ways in which RNA can bend itself into new shapes and how those shapes dictate the jobs the RNA molecule can take on.

In this video, Luck describes a sequencing technology, called Shape-Seq, that he has created to help identify the shape of any given molecule of RNA. With this information in hand, Lucks’ lab can figure out how certain RNA molecules may impact various aspects of human health, and may inspire the development of new treatments for disease.

Dr. Lucks’ work is funded in part by the NIH under grant 7DP2GM110838.

Interview with a Scientist: Elhanan Borenstein, Metagenomics Systems Biology

Wed, 2018-07-11 09:05


Cataloging the human microbiome—the complete collection of bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses that live in and on our bodies—is an enormous task. Most estimates put the number of organisms who call us home on par with the number of our own cells. Imagine trying to figure out how the billions of critters influence each other and, ultimately, impact our health. Elhanan Borenstein, a computer scientist-cum-genomicist at the University of Washington, and his team are not only tackling this difficult challenge, they are also trying to obtain a systems-level understanding of the collective effect of all of the genes, proteins, and metabolites produced by the numerous species within the microbiome.

In this video, Borenstein describes the models of the microbiome he and his team create, and how they can be used to predict impacts on the microbiome resulting from a number of conditions, including dietary changes. His goal is to use these models to design synthetic microbiomes composed of certain species at certain abundances that can be transferred to a person to confer specific health benefits.

Dr. Borenstein’s work is funded in part by the NIH under grant 5R01GM124312.

Molecular Fireworks: How Microtubules Form Inside Cells

Tue, 2018-07-03 09:03
       Microtubules sprout from one another. Credit: Petry lab, Princeton University.

The red spray pictured here may look like fireworks erupting across the night sky on July 4th, but it’s actually a rare glimpse of tiny protein strands called microtubules sprouting and growing from one another in a lab. Microtubules are the largest of the molecules that form a cell’s skeleton. When a cell divides, microtubules help ensure that each daughter cell has a complete set of genetic information from the parent. They also help organize the cell’s interior and even act as miniature highways for certain proteins to travel along.

As their name suggests, microtubules are hollow tubes made of building blocks called tubulins. Scientists know that a protein called XMAP215 adds tubulin proteins to the ends of microtubules to make them grow, but until recently, the way that a new microtubule starts forming remained a mystery.

Sabine Petry and her colleagues at Princeton University developed a new imaging method for watching microtubules as they develop and found an important clue to the mystery. They adapted a technique called total internal reflection fluorescence (TIRF) microscopy, which lit up only a tiny sliver of a sample from frog egg (Xenopus) tissue. This allowed the scientists to focus clearly on a few of the thousands of microtubules in a normal cell. They could then see what happened when they added certain proteins to the sample.

Petry and her team knew already that a special tubulin known as gamma-tubulin is necessary to form a new microtubule. However, it was only after they added XMAP215 as well as gamma-tubulin to the sample that they saw new microtubules form and grow, as shown in the video. It turned out that XMAP215 plays two roles in microtubule development—helping form new tubules and helping them grow longer. Petry’s co-author, Akanksha Thawani, a Princeton University graduate student, noted that understanding XMAP215’s double role may give scientists a way to precisely target errors in cell division and cytoskeleton assembly that underlie diseases such as cancer.

In parallel to Petry’s research, Fred Chang and his colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco, recently found that XMAP215 is critical for microtubule formation in living yeast cells, an important independent confirmation of XMAP215’s importance.

Petry’s research is supported in part by NIGMS through grants 1DP2GM12349301, 1F32GM119195-01 and 1F32GM119195. Chang’s research is supported in part by NIGMS through grants R01GM069670 and R01GM115185.

Interview With a Scientist: Andrew Goodman, Separating Causation and Correlation in the Microbiome

Wed, 2018-06-27 09:13

You’ve likely heard some variation of the statistic that there are at least as many microbial cells in our body as human cells. You may have also heard that the microscopic bugs that live in our guts, on our skins, and every crevice they can find, collectively referred to as the human microbiome, are implicated in human health. But do these bacteria, fungi, archaea, protists, and viruses cause disease, or are the specific populations of microbes inside us a result of our state of health? That’s the question that drives the research in the lab of Andrew Goodman , associate professor of microbial pathogenesis at Yale University.

In this video, Goodman talks about how he uses a variety of traditional microbiology tools, as well as computational and systems biology approaches, to separate causation and correlation with regard to our microbiomes. These tools allow Goodman and his colleagues to selectively turn on and off microbial genes to understand how the timing and expression levels impact host/microbiome interactions. One goal of this research is to learn these interactions influence how people respond to drugs. Along similar lines, Goodman thinks his research can help clinicians choose the most effective medications for patients given their microbiomes or even alter a patient’s microbiome to make certain drugs more effective. 

Dr. Goodman’s work is funded in part by the NIH under grants 4DP2GM105456 and 5R35GM118159.

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