CELEBRATING OUR SCIENTISTS|
NIH Honors Intramural Community at 30th Research Festival
“This field is just bursting wide open with opportunity and potential,” NIH director Dr. Francis Collins told an inquisitive audience member about epigenomics. His talk kicked off the 30th NIH Research Festival, held Sept. 14-16 in the Clinical Center.
Each year around this time, intramural researchers emerge from their labs to check out the work of their peers. While much attention is often lavished on extramural grantees throughout the country and world, Research Festival honors the nearly 6,000 investigators doing groundbreaking work in the CC and across campus every day.
Research Festival is designed in a way “that engages most of the community, doesn’t totally intrude on people’s research time, but gives people the opportunity to get out and get to know each other,” said NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman.
This year, symposia highlighted the intramural community’s progress in precision medicine, inflammation and chronic disease, the microbiome and computational biology, to name a few topics. Postdocs and institute directors displayed and discussed their scientific posters. And investigators learned about new technologies and how to make their labs greener.
The Epigenome & Diabetes
Collins took off his director’s hat and spoke as an impassioned geneticist and intramural scientist, touting his lab’s recent advances in type 2 diabetes research. The disease afflicts some 30 million Americans and 80 million are at high risk, or pre-diabetic. Exacerbating the condition is chronic over-nutrition. “Insulin resistance inspired by obesity puts further stress on the pancreas…and ultimately beta cells fail to keep up and glucose rises,” he said.
Collins noted that researchers have had a tough time identifying contributing genetic variants because type 2 diabetes is not inherited in a predictable way. His NHGRI lab, in collaboration with the University of Michigan and Finnish investigators, has embarked on a genome-wide association study (GWAS). Globally, they’ve analyzed more than 30,000 DNA samples. Working with other groups, they have found at least 86 risk variants, called SNPs, for type 2 diabetes.
“The good news is we’ve been successful in utilizing this strategy to nail down a long list of risk factors for this complex polygenic condition,” Collins said.
But they almost had to guess which genes are involved because more than 90 percent of the variants discovered by GWAS are non-coding. Instead, they are regulatory variants.
Through genotyping and RNA-sequencing of relevant tissues, they’re starting to identify the target genes of these variants, which could provide a critical lead to new drug targets. Of these tissues, pancreatic islet cells seem to hold a big piece of the puzzle.
Searching through the non-coding parts of the genome can be daunting, but by utilizing epigenomic methods that allow identification of the parts that are functionally active, the Collins lab uncovered a theme. “Stretch enhancers,” so named because they contain DNA elements that enhance transcription of nearby genes and stretch over long distances, were discovered in areas of tissue-specific gene expression, said Collins. In type 2 diabetes, 61 of 86 GWAS signals fell within an islet stretch enhancer. Using methods that provide “footprints” of potential transcription factor binding, the lab zeroed in on the protein RFX6, which is only expressed in the pancreatic islet.
“We think we’re onto something here,” Collins said. “We’ve discovered a general phenomenon of pancreatic biology—variations in stretch enhancers in the islet—that play a role in type 2 diabetes. By having these technologies and these insights, we’re beginning to shed light on inherited risks and what we can do about that toward the development of interventions and new treatments.”
To Investigators: Use Your Imagination
Want to try out some innovative tools to expand your research potential? The NIH Library challenges NIH investigators to use some of its latest technology and think up novel ways to use these gadgets for basic and clinical research. Library staff is available to train and assist and then the sky’s the limit.
“We’re a world-class library that supports resources people need to do research in traditional ways, but we also go above and beyond to help create the ideal lab scenario,” said Kathleen McGlaughlin, communications librarian. “We want investigators to ask themselves: ‘How can I solve my research problem with this technology?’”
The NIH Library has 3-D printers that create colorful casts. Create a plastic gene or a brain or heart model. One NIH doctor used 3-D printing to create a protein model with a specific mutation for his patient, to help him understand his diagnosis, said Medha Bhagwat, bioinformatics support program coordinator.
Some investigators stopped by the NIH Library to test out virtual reality headsets. The stations featured games, a virtual underwater experience and a hospital room simulation. Several ICs are already testing out such realistic physical simulations for patient rehabilitation, such as allowing patients to practice certain tasks before they’re released from the hospital. VR technology has the potential to test medical students in a virtual clinic, provide surgical training and foster doctor-patient interactions remotely.
“We’ll make this technology available to you,” said McGlaughlin. “Use your imagination.”
The NIH Library also just launched a self-service digital production studio. NIH’ers can sample data visualizations and software, including smartpens, and try out the various recording gadgets to create presentations, or perhaps podcasts or tutorials, said Derek McDowell, NIH Library reference assistant. To learn more, visit nihlibrary.nih.gov/techhub.
Laboratories generate a lot of disposables; many people don’t realize how much of that waste is recyclable or can be repurposed. At the Green Labs Expo, the Division of Environmental Protection’s Jacqueline McGauley and the Office of Research Facilities’ John Prom told investigators and staff about ways to reduce waste, safely dispose of solvents and how to properly recycle batteries, fluorescent light bulbs and thermometers. They also reminded NIH’ers to donate or seek out surplus solvents and equipment via NIH FreeStuff, http://stuff.nih.gov.
Research Festival enlightened and inspired and got researchers of all ages thinking about the future of their fields. Following his talk, Collins had some advice for that inquisitive audience member.
“Anybody who wants to work in this field, or virtually any other area in the way biology is going, needs to get very sophisticated about the computational part because that is clearly where the big insights are going to come from,” he said. “Big data sets are out there, made increasingly available because NIH is insisting on that kind of open data access. But the exciting and difficult part is making the most out of it, designing the right algorithms, building the right programs and knowing how to code and then coming up with those biological insights that otherwise might have been missed.”
Plaque Commemorates Research Animals
The NIH intramural animal research advisory committee and the IC animal program directors dedicated a plaque that commemorates “research animals and the NIH animal care and use community that have contributed to our exceptional biomedical research advances” at a Sept. 16 ceremony on the Clinical Center’s south lawn. NIH director Dr. Francis Collins presented remarks at the program, part of Research Festival.
“I hope, going forward, when the next breakthrough happens here on the NIH campus—some big development that has big promise for human health—that people will walk by this plaque and recognize how we got there,” Collins said. “The animals that we depended on are also part of that celebration...we can look back on their contribution and their sacrifice and be truly grateful.”
Collins understands how important animals are to research. His laboratory studies Hutchinson-Gilford progeria syndrome, an exceedingly rare progressive disorder that causes children to age rapidly. Progeria affects roughly 250 children worldwide.
After discovering the cause of the syndrome, he began studying potential treatments. With help from the “wonderful” animal care staff at NHGRI, including its retired animal program director Dr. Shelley Hoogstraten-Miller, Collins’ lab developed mouse models of progeria. One therapeutic showed enough promise in mouse models to be tested in a clinical trial. Results from the trial suggest the drug extends the lives of patients by 4 or 5 years. A second complementary therapy is currently being tested.
“All of this is dependent on that mouse model and all of those animals that have been involved in this research,” Collins said.
He thanked staff involved in animal care at NIH. “I’m impressed and touched every day by what I see,” he concluded. “A lot of people don’t know about it, but I know about it. Thank you to all of you.”
The ceremony also featured remarks by NIH deputy director for intramural research Dr. Michael Gottesman, NEI senior investigator Dr. Rachel Caspi and Hoogstraten-Miller. Dr. Terri Clark, director of the NIH Office of Animal Care and Use, hosted the ceremony.
Clark credited Hoogstraten-Miller for coming up with the idea to permanently recognize the contributions of research animals. The plaque, which features the NIH Office of Animal Care and Use logo along with the words, “With recognition and gratitude to the research animals and the NIH animal care and use community that have contributed to our biomedical research advances,” is affixed atop a tree-shaded stone near the CC’s south entry. Two benches surround the mulched area where the memorial sits.—Eric Bock
Today’s Scientists, Tomorrow’s Leaders
What, exactly, goes on in NIH’s 200 intramural research labs? How are they different from university labs and why should a young investigator start a career here?
“NIH is an amazing opportunity,” NIH director Dr. Francis Collins told 29 early career researchers visiting NIH for the 2016 Future Research Leaders Conference (FRLC).
The event is sponsored by NIH’s inaugural chief officer for scientific workforce diversity Dr. Hannah Valantine. Her office invited 29 scientists from across the country to Bethesda for two important reasons: to introduce them to the unique work environment at NIH and to connect NIH intramural scientists to great talent.
In opening remarks, Valantine emphasized the human side of science. “Connecting people with common scientific interests is as important as the science itself,” she said.
And that is what the FRLC did. An intense 3-day experience featured talks from top leadership, including Collins, Valantine, IRP head Dr. Michael Gottesman and NHLBI director Dr. Gary Gibbons. Participants gave research talks, presented posters and met one-on-one with NIH scientific directors and branch chiefs—about 100 meetings were held. A half-day seminar on NIH grant process and meetings with NIH program and review staff rounded out the schedule.
Most conference participants are from underrepresented groups in the sciences. Most are past recipients of NIH-funded diversity supplements, which enable NIH-funded researchers at universities to bring diverse students and postdocs into their labs for research experiences and mentoring.
The FRLC is intentionally embedded within the NIH Research Festival, giving attendees the opportunity to fully engage with this annual celebration of NIH science.
Said attendee Esther Obeng, from Harvard Medical School, “I’ve met a lot of wonderful people…People that had been here for years and told me why they haven’t left…what they loved about NIH.”—Alison Davis