As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds around the world, the call for cutting-edge research is louder than ever. Human health has become a top priority for scientists, policymakers, and the public, inspiring investment in vaccines and other novel solutions to the most complicated biomedical questions.
For 35 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported risk-taking among early career biomedical scientists. This year, 37 researchers join 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, receiving multiyear grants to pursue scientific interests in the United States and Latin America.
The 2020 scholars and fellows are embarking on groundbreaking research projects (visit our research pages for more) designed to advance human health at a time when the world needs scientific ingenuity the most
Uncovering immune defenses to dodge disease
Disease, caused by viral and bacterial infections and environmental triggers, poses a serious threat to public health. The immune system is the human body’s best line of defense against illness, and researchers in this year’s class will investigate how various immune factors work together to help thwart disease.
The influenza virus—known as the flu—can lead to other health complications, including secondary bacterial pneumonia. To uncover why this occurs, one researcher will assess how the flu alters the function of immune and lung cells to increase susceptibility to pneumonia.
HIV can also hide quietly inside humans and infect their immune cells, where the virus can remain dormant for a long period. However, the virus is known to emerge once a person’s immunity weakens. One researcher will explore how this occurs—work that may help to treat HIV and AIDS.
To better grasp the trajectory of diseases, researchers will also examine how environmental factors—such as diet, sleep, and stress—influence an animal’s ability to manage inflammatory chemicals during infection. By looking at how inflammation can trigger future infections and increase vulnerability to other diseases such as cancer and diabetes, researchers hope to uncover new treatment approaches.
Unveiling life—from conception to old age
Several researchers in the 2020 class will investigate human development and aging through the lens of gene activation, cellular function, and immunity.
Female mammals are born with a stockpile of oocytes, or egg cells, with mechanisms that protect them from protein deterioration and metabolic imbalances before fertilization. One researcher will evaluate this process, aiming to help slow or prevent the fertility clock from expiring.
Maternal antibodies found in a mother’s milk play an important role in early childhood development, helping infants to metabolize nutrients and protecting them from infection. These antibodies also foster beneficial gut bacteria, and one researcher will identify microbial species in the gut that help to regulate growth—work that could help address infant malnutrition.
Finally, scientists have observed that females typically live longer than males. To understand why, one researcher will assess whether sex-based differences in immunity affect the way we age. Researchers will also examine how cells remove toxic proteins, compartmentalize nutrients, and maintain the health of the mitochondria as we age—work that may inform how to extend healthy life spans and enhance the way we live.
Cancer, characterized by the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the body, is a complex disease that takes on many forms. Several researchers will explore how to better detect, prevent, and defend against this devastating disease.
To improve cancer detection methods, one researcher will examine unique sequences from cell-free DNA—which is shed by tumors—to help identify abnormal gene patterns associated with certain stages or types of cancers. This work could help devise a cheaper and more sensitive blood test to detect cancer.
Breast cancer affects about 2.1 million women globally each year. By investigating how normal cellular processes go awry—for example, how certain protein building blocks or RNA molecules are incorrectly modified during the development of breast cancer—researchers hope to identify new targets for small molecule drugs that could halt cancer’s growth and spread.
Cancers have also found unique ways to survive and thrive in the human body. For example, leukemia stem cells evade detection by cloaking themselves with proteins that render them invisible to the immune system. This year’s cancer researchers will investigate the many ways in which cancer resists therapy and is able to recur.
Mastering behavior and the brain
The brain is made up of more than 100 billion nerves that control all bodily functions and interpret signals from the outside world. Several researchers in this year’s class will inspect its structure and explore how it drives complex behaviors.
To analyze how different regions of the brain cooperate to make decisions, researchers will study how animals filter information from their surroundings and generate an appropriate behavioral response. For instance, one researcher will examine how an infant’s brain senses hunger and directs the child to cry out for food.
To better grasp how the brain develops, researchers will use single-cell technologies to construct a “family tree” of the human cerebral cortex—the brain’s outer layer—and then determine whether any branches of this cerebral family tree are missing or altered in people with autism or schizophrenia.
Finally, after identifying the neural circuits in the brain that regulate sugar cravings, researchers will assess whether artificially activating these sugar-sensing circuits can elevate mood, or if suppressing them triggers depression and anxiety—work that could develop new mental health therapies.
Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs, and Jennifer Villa is a principal associate supporting the programs.