On Thursday, July 25th, Curious Science Writers visited the National Institutes of Health (NIH) headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland to learn about cutting-edge research from scientists themselves and to understand the role that animals play. The NIH is the world’s largest biomedical research agency and its goal is to improve human health through innovative research and discovery.
One of our first tour stops was the NIH Clinical Center, which was established in 1953. This facility is the nation’s largest hospital devoted solely to clinical research, or medical studies involving human patients, to understand disease prevention and treatment. We learned that in 2018, around 1,600 clinical studies were conducted in the building. Current studies focus on a variety of health issues including cancer, heart and lung disease, blood disorders, alcoholism and drug abuse. Since its founding, the center has seen more than half a million patients. They come from across the United States and around the world. In all of these studies, the patients participated free of charge.
Next, we got a chance to learn about what it is like to conduct research at the NIH as we heard presentations from several scientists. Dr. Juan Amaral, M.D., a researcher in the Ocular & Stem Cell Translational Research Unit at the National Eye Institute, is currently attempting to develop treatments for age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a deterioration of the retina prevalent among America’s elderly citizens. Dr. Amaral and his colleagues have found success in using artificial retinal cells for functionally similar pig eyes, offering promise in curing AMD in humans. Like Dr. Amaral, Dr. Robert Hufnagel, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Medical Genetics and the Ophthalmic Genetics Unit of the National Eye Institute, conducts research on retinal diseases with the help of animals. Dr. Hufnagel and his lab are utilizing the gecko genome to advance their understanding of the fovea, a region of the retina, in hopes of breaking down foveal diseases.
From the famous blue and black dress (which some view as white and gold) that went viral on social media in 2015, to other visual illusions, sight-related phenomenons occur frequently in human culture. Dr. Bruce Cumming, M.D., Ph.D., chief of the Laboratory of Sensorimotor Research at the National Eye Institute, opened our eyes to the complexity of visual perception through his research with primates. During his talk, he demonstrated a test consisting of a series of black and white dots crossing a two-dimensional plane, which makes the entire image look like a rotating cylinder. Dr. Cumming’s lab staff shows this same animation to primates while monitoring their brain function. Eventually, his team has been able to predict brain activity in primates based on their reactions. This research in animals can open new avenues in understanding the human brain.
We also had the chance to hear from NIH veterinarian Tannia Clark, D.V.M., who explained why a tiny species of fish called zebrafish are commonly studied in health research labs. The NIH is home to the largest zebrafish facility in the country. The zebrafish genome is fully mapped and matches 70% of the DNA found in humans. Moreover, 84% of the genes known to correspond with human disease are present in these animals. These many characteristics make the fish a suitable model organism, but zebrafish are just one of the many animals at the NIH that play an integral part in research.
After we listened to the researchers’ presentations, Dr. James Pickel, Ph.D., director of the Transgenic Core at the National Institute of Mental Health, gave us a tour of the transgene facility. Transgenic animals are organisms that have foreign DNA introduced to their genome in order to express or suppress certain traits. Through transgenic animals like mice, rats, geckos and marmosets, scientists can research genetic influences on diseases. Dr. Pickel showed us a picture of rats containing fluorescent markers that could be used to track transplanted cells. We also had the privilege of watching a scientist alter the genome of a mouse embryo with a technique called CRISPR. The tour and explanation of the transgenic projects at the NIH served as a bridge between the animal world and our own as we learned of the vast implications of genetic modification.
In the Animal Tribute and Reflection Garden, there is an engraved plaque. Upon closer examination, we learned that it was bestowed in September of 2016 and dedicated by the Animal Research Advisory Committee to the research animals used by the NIH. It’s clear that the scientists’ care for these animals reaches beyond just kind words. The Office of Animal Care and Use ensures that animals live in the best environment with controlled temperatures and adequate nutrition and that research complies with all federal regulations. Dr. Stephen Denny, D.V.M., M.S., DACLAM, DACVPM, acting director for the Office of Animal Care and Use, emphasized the duty that scientists at the NIH have to take meticulous care of their animals. Researchers at the NIH and all over the world highly value their research animals and the sacrifices that they have made for the advancement of science.
To conclude our day, we toured the Central Animal Facility, which provided us the opportunity to see research animals and learn about how they are monitored and cared for. From the beginning, it was evident how seriously the researchers take their animals’ safety. Before entering, we had to put on a protective suit, booties, and an ever-stylish hair net to make sure we didn’t transmit any diseases to the lab animals — or vice versa. We visited the rats and mice Dr. Pickel breeds for other scientists and learned how the rodents’ cages have been designed for efficiency and comfort. Then, we saw the geckos that Dr. Hufnagel is using for his research. We learned how sensitive they are to their environment — a small shift in temperature or incubation period could change the gender of a gecko egg. We appreciated the privilege to see the animals and learn how they connect to the researchers’ investigations at the NIH. Overall, the enthusiasm of the researchers and their apparent joy for their work provided us with a wonderful insight into the world of the NIH.