39 Scientists Lead the Charge to Transform Human Health

Pew’s 2019 biomedical scholars and fellows work to solve complex medical challenges

39 Scientists Lead the Charge to Transform Human Health

Scientific research has revolutionized modern medicine, but countless challenges remain in understanding the mechanisms to cure disease and improve human health. For nearly 35 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported groundbreaking research among early career biomedical scientists who are dedicated to solving the world’s most complicated health questions. This year, Pew welcomed 39 researchers to the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, the Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences, and the Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research. These programs award multiyear grants to promising researchers in the United States and Latin America. 

The 2019 scholars and fellows are undertaking ambitious research projects, such as examining how the sensory processes work, studying the interaction between hosts and microorganisms, and exploring different strategies for combating cancer (visit our biomedical directories for the full list). Their research holds incredible promise to advance biomedical breakthroughs and promote human health.

Uncovering the senses

Humans use the senses—sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch—to process signals from the environment to the brain. Several scientists in the 2019 class are embarking on research to uncover how sensory information is transmitted, processed, stored, and relayed—work that may improve the study of disorders that can disrupt these vital processes.

For example, according to the World Health Organization, an estimated 1.3 billion people live with some form of visual impairment. Over the next few years, Pew-funded scientists will explore how movement-associated neurochemicals allow insects and animals alike to rapidly process and respond to visual cues. By dissecting the structure of the transport system that helps relay light signals from the retina, they hope to discover how mutations in this system could impair vision.

Mechanisms affecting how we process sound are another area of inquiry among scientists today. For example, researchers in this year’s class will explore how specific neurons communicate and regulate auditory circuits. Other work will examine how disruption of sensory input during development affects auditory processing later in life, and how the brain filters and controls a mix of sound signals to help humans maintain focus or shift their attention. This work has the potential to drive novel approaches to treat sensory disorders such as schizophrenia and autism, as well as auditory deficits following brain injury.

The sense of smell is so powerful that, when processed by the brain, it can transport people to specific memories or places. To better understand this phenomenon, one researcher will study how the brain tags and represents the significance of scent, and how fear- or anxiety-provoking situations may influence this process. By examining how this event unfolds, scientists will explore new methods to help patients who are experiencing severe anxiety or trauma.

Finally, touch—whether shared between people or used to distinguish objects—shapes how organisms move and interact with the world. Researchers will investigate how spinal circuits encode and relay the sensation of touch from the skin and how the brain coordinates responses and movements. Results from these studies will ultimately improve how scientists grasp the mechanisms behind human interaction.

Understanding microorganisms

Microorganisms—including bacteria and fungi—are found nearly everywhere on Earth and play a vital role in the everyday lives of their animal and plant hosts. To further uncover the systems that connect these intertwined communities, several researchers will study the relationship between humans and gut microbes. Specifically, they will seek to uncover which chemicals from microbes support human metabolism and nutrition, which directly interact with human cells, and how the gut’s cells distinguish between good and harmful intestinal bacteria.

Other researchers will investigate the relationship between microbes and disease, including why only certain tick species carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. Additional work will focus on the role that a plant’s immune system plays against invading viruses, including how a certain bacterium can mimic a plant-specific hormone to leave rice plants vulnerable to infections. This research may help scientists uncover new strategies for producing disease-resistant food crops, as well as innovative approaches for curbing the transmission of infectious diseases.

Combating cancer

Cancer, a complex disease characterized by uncontrolled cellular growth, accounts for about one in every six deaths globally. Researchers will work to expose the many different routes that cancers take to sustain growth, escape detection by the immune system, and resist existing therapies.

The immune system defends the body against tumors, pathogens, viruses, and other foreign agents. However, cancers have developed sophisticated methods to suppress and thwart this protective mechanism. In response, the 2019 class of researchers will further probe the function of specialized immune cells—including dendritic cells, regulatory T-cells, and tumor-associated macrophages—in the tumor environment and how they can be exploited to fight cancer. They will work to determine how immune responses are developed and activated against growing cancer, and why some individuals respond better to immunotherapies. This work will be critical to pinpointing new therapeutic targets and boosting immune system defenses against cancer.

In many cases, cancer development has been attributed to a gene’s mutation or modification, which alters the way proteins and cellular systems function. From working to identify novel inhibitors that can halt mutant proteins in lung cancer, to mapping crucial gene-to-gene interactions that can identify vulnerable targets in acute myeloid leukemia, researchers will work to unearth new concepts that may have tremendous impact on cancer diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.

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

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