Pew-Funded Scientists Shape the Future of Biomedical Research

From infectious diseases to aging, scholars and fellows transform human health studies

Pew-Funded Scientists Shape the Future of Biomedical Research
HIV virus
Getty Images

Each year, The Pew Charitable Trusts welcomes a new class of promising scientists to its scholars and fellows programs in the biomedical sciences. Current and former Pew scholars and fellows—nearly 1,000 since the program began in 1985—have dedicated their careers to answering some of the most challenging questions in human health.

Over the past year, these investigators have pursued diverse research, and many have pioneered new avenues in their respective fields, from studying cholera, vision, and mosquito-borne illnesses to better understanding HIV and the aging process.  Read more about this innovative work below.

In June, 39 additional early-career researchers from across the United States and Latin America will join the ranks of Pew’s biomedical community.

Better ways to combat mosquito-borne illnesses

The number of insect-borne diseases reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tripled from 2004 to 2016. During this time, nine new pathogens spread by mosquitoes and ticks were discovered or introduced, including the West Nile virus, chikungunya, and Zika. Scholars and fellows in the Pew biomedical programs are tackling these public health threats from multiple angles. For example, Carolyn “Lindy” McBride, a 2015 Pew scholar from Princeton University, has been investigating genes and neuronal circuits that help dictate mosquito behaviors in an effort to understand why they bite humans. And although the first approved malaria vaccine was recently launched in sub-Saharan Africa, Erol Fikrig, a 1993 Pew scholar at Yale University, is working on a new vaccine that targets mosquitoes directly. Fikrig discovered that the saliva deposited by malaria-infected mosquitoes can affect parasite transmission, a novel finding that could aid in the fight against malaria. 

New methods for studying vision development

Scientists have long faced difficulties exploring how human eyes develop to see color, because so much of that process happens in the womb. But breakthroughs in the lab of Robert Johnston, a Pew biomedical scholar and an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University, have yielded new methods to overcome these obstacles and unravel more of sight’s mysteries. After successfully growing an artificial human retina from stem cells in a dish, Johnston and his team observed that the thyroid hormone was necessary for the retina to switch from building cone cells that would detect blue light to those that can perceive red or green light, which is needed for humans to see in color. The researchers plan to use these techniques to study color vision further as well as eye diseases, including macular degeneration, one of the leading causes of blindness.

Greater understanding of how HIV evolves

Like other pathogens, HIV develops new defenses to survive. For example, the virus sometimes hides in the immune system’s T-cells and switches to an inactive state—where current drug therapies have little effect—only to resume attacking the body months or years later. But Katherine A. Jones, a 1987 Pew scholar, and her group at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, found a drug that binds to and inhibits two proteins that are key to HIV’s reactivation. Although the compound is currently too toxic for human use, future modifications may help to stop HIV from propagating. And Pamela J. Bjorkman, a 1989 Pew scholar and 2017 Pew Innovation Fund investigator who studies how the immune system responds to HIV, is working to develop antibodies to neutralize the virus.

More accurate predictions of how people will age

Can science better gauge how our bodies age and why we age differently? Saket Navlakha, a current Pew biomedical scholar, is studying the use of computer algorithms to analyze genetic markers, revealing how our bodies weather the aging process. Using extracted RNA from skin cells, he and his research team devised a computer algorithm that could identify genetic signatures and patterns to more accurately predict a subject’s age. In the future, such predictions could help health care providers better monitor and predict the onset of age-related illness, in turn informing and improving the health care that seniors receive.

Improved data on how cholera-causing bacteria survives in water

Cecilia Silva-Valenzuela, a 2016 Pew Latin American fellow, returned to Chile to kick-start her independent research career after spending three years working in the lab of Andrew Camilli, a 1997 Pew biomedical scholar at Tufts University. While in the United States, Silva-Valenzuela studied Vibrio cholerae—the bacterium responsible for more than 1 million cholera cases a year—and discovered intriguing data on the bacterium’s survival strategies in aquatic settings. In her lab, she will expand her research to other Vibrio species and explore how they develop resistance to harsh environmental conditions and to therapeutic chemical and biological agents. This work is vital for developing new measures to prevent the spread of cholera in other vulnerable areas, as seen in the recent surge of cases in Yemen and around the world.

Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs.