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NIAID Celebrates 50 Years of Advancing Knowledge and Improving Health

On the Front Page...

This year, NIAID celebrates 50 years of "Advancing Knowledge and Improving Health" with a commemorative scientific symposium on Thursday, Nov. 19 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Natcher Conference Center auditorium. Everyone is invited to hear distinguished investigators from NIH and elsewhere speak about current knowledge and future research goals related to the institute's emphasis areas: allergy, immunology and infectious diseases.


"NIAID scientists and grantees have been in the forefront of basic and clinical research in immunology and infectious diseases since the creation of the institute," says Dr. Anthony Fauci, NIAID director. "As we celebrate 50 years of outstanding research accomplishments, NIAID has enhanced its efforts in finding new tools for the diagnosis, treatment, prevention and control of immunologic, infectious and allergic diseases."

The immune system is at the core of NIAID's research mission. NIAID research has established many of the basic principles in this field. Advances in which the institute has played an important role include:

  • The first description of the molecular structure of immunoglobulins, also known as antibodies;
  • The definition of the role of the thymus in immunologic processes and delineation of the role of T and B lymphocytes;
  • The description of the basic chemistry and function of the complement system, another important component of the immune system;
  • An understanding of how the genes of B cells are able to produce an array of antibodies against foreign antigens;
  • The discovery of the role of T cells in recognizing antigens.

Today, NIAID grantees are developing ways to induce tolerance to transplanted organs and tissue grafts in order to prevent rejection by the recipient's immune system. New approaches to inducing tolerance could revolutionize the field of transplantation in the next century and benefit tens of thousands of patients whose lives could be saved or improved by a donated organ. In addition, the growing knowledge of immunologic tolerance will help in understanding and treating other conditions such as cancer, autoimmune conditions, and allergic and infectious diseases.

People with pollen allergies often develop sensitivities to other troublemakers that are present year round, such as the dust mite (shown at left, magnified many times its actual microscopic size).

Allergic Diseases

Allergic diseases are among the major causes of illness and disability, affecting as many as 40 million to 50 million Americans. NIAID grantees contributed significantly to the understanding of allergic diseases by identifying the IgE antibody as the factor responsible for immediate hypersensitivity in allergic disease, and by describing the complex structure of the receptor on allergy-causing cells to which IgE antibodies attach. Among many other important advances, NIAID-supported research led to the discovery of the chemical structure of the leukotrienes, important mediators of inflammation and potent stimulators of muscle contraction and mucus secretion.

Pollen, such as the ragweed pollen being collected below circa 1970, is one of the fertilizing elements of flowering plants, trees or grasses. These microscopic grains, if sticky, can be carried by insects. If the pollen grains are light, they can be transported by air. When inhaled by allergic individuals, the airborne variety, which is abundant, causes the itching, swollen eyes, runny nose and sneezing associated with hay fever.

Infectious Diseases

As the 21st century approaches, it is clear that the world remains vulnerable to infectious diseases, old and new. In addition to diseases that have been in existence throughout history, more than 30 newly recognized diseases have emerged in the last two decades. Infectious diseases are the world's leading cause of mortality and the third leading cause of death in the United States.

In addition to their human toll, the financial burdens of infectious diseases are enormous. Costs associated with infectious disease have been estimated to exceed $120 billion annually in the United States alone.

Over the past half-century, NIAID researchers have made numerous groundbreaking contributions to infectious disease research. NIAID's scientists and grantees have identified infectious agents and have developed vaccines, diagnostics, and therapies for most of the important human pathogens. For example, NIAID-supported scientists have identified or isolated the agents responsible for many diseases including hepatitis A; respiratory infections caused by adenoviruses, parainfluenzaviruses and respiratory syncytial virus; pneumonia caused by Mycoplasma pneumoniae; Lyme disease; and enteropathogenic E. coli.

In the late 1970's and early 1980's, NIAID research led to the landmark development of the first antiviral drugs for herpes simplex infections and influenza, paving the way for antiviral therapies for HIV/AIDS.

The institute has also had major success in developing and evaluating new and improved vaccines. Many of these vaccines have had a profound impact on health, such as the new vaccines for Haemophilus influenzae type b, a serious type of meningitis that was a major cause of mental retardation, deafness, and even death among infants and young children. Today this disease has been virtually eliminated through widespread use of vaccines.

NIAID research also led to the development of the new vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, rubella, pneumococcal pneumonia, and rotavirus, a leading cause of infant diarrhea worldwide, as well as improved vaccines for whooping cough, rabies and a number of other illnesses.

Inexpensive, rapid and accurate diagnostic tests are critical to the practice of medicine. NIAID basic and applied research has contributed to developing many diagnostic tests. Among these are urine tests to quickly detect such sexually transmitted diseases as chlamydia and gonorrhea.

Computer model of HIV, the cause of AIDS


"The era of the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been a time of both great excitement and frustration in the struggle to find ways to successfully manage the disease," recalls Fauci. "NIAID research has been translated into significant advances that have improved the prognoses of people living with this disease. Many HIV-infected people in this country are leading longer and healthier lives.

"Through intensive basic research we now know more about the biology of the AIDS virus and how it works than is known about many diseases that have been around for hundreds of years," Fauci adds. "In addition, we established a treatment evaluation network that has tested virtually every approved therapy we have today. We have shown the effectiveness of a treatment regimen for pregnant women to reduce the chances their babies will be born infected with HIV; and we have tested dozens of candidate HIV vaccines."

NIAID continues its commitment to finding the therapies and vaccines of the future so that diseases like HIV, malaria, tuberculosis, and many others will seem as remote as smallpox and polio are today.

Fauci says, "As we pause to celebrate the extraordinary impact of NIAID's research activities over the past 50 years, we realize that much has been accomplished. However, many challenges remain, and it is clear that the things we do as an institute -- research into immunology, microbiology, infectious and allergic diseases -- are more important than ever before."

NIAID Profiles in Science

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID since 1984, first came to NIH in 1968 as a clinical associate in NIAID's Laboratory of Clinical Investigation (LCI). He became head of the clinical physiology section, LCI, in 1974, deputy clinical director in 1977, and chief of the Laboratory of Immunoregulation in 1980 -- a position he still holds. Fauci has made many contributions to basic and clinical research on the pathogenesis and treatment of immune-mediated diseases. He has pioneered the field of human immunoregulation by making a number of basic scientific observations that serve as the basis for current understanding of the regulation of the human immune response. He is also widely recognized for delineating the precise mechanisms whereby immunosuppressive agents modulate the human immune response. Among his accomplishments is the development of effective therapies for formerly fatal diseases such as polyarteritis nodosa, Wegener's granulomatosis, and lymphomatoid granulomatosis. Since AIDS appeared in the 1980's, Fauci has made seminal contributions to the understanding of how the AIDS virus destroys the body's defenses leading to its susceptibility to deadly infections. He has also delineated the mechanisms of induction of HIV expression by endogenous cytokines. Furthermore, he has been instrumental in developing strategies for the therapy and immune reconstitution of patients with this serious disease. He continues to devote much of his time to identifying the nature of the immunopathogenic mechanisms of HIV infection and the scope of the body's immune responses to the AIDS retrovirus.

Since the late 1950's, Dr. Albert Kapikian of NIAID's Laboratory of Infectious Diseases (LID) has studied the viral causes of disease. He pioneered the use of immune electron microscopy to discover, detect and characterize important viruses of human disease such as the Norwalk virus, which causes epidemic gastroenteritis, and the hepatitis A virus. A major part of his career has been devoted to studying rotavirus, the leading cause of life-threatening diarrhea in children under the age of 2. Shortly after the discovery of rotavirus almost 25 years ago by Australian investigators, Kapikian and his colleagues first identified it in the United States in stool samples taken from young patients at Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. Over the years, as head of the epidemiology section in LID, he led the NIAID team that developed and patented an oral vaccine against rotavirus. With the assistance of many outside collaborators, the vaccine was tested in nearly 18,000 people in the U.S. and abroad and this year was licensed by the Food and Drug Administration for use in protecting babies. Worldwide, rotavirus diarrhea affects 130 million infants and children each year, some 18 million of whom have moderate to severe disease, resulting in 873,000 deaths. Studies indicate that the widespread use of the vaccine would not eliminate the virus, but will dramatically reduce the incidence of severe disease.

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