Biomedical researchers are at the forefront of scientific innovation, seeking answers to the world’s most pressing questions in human health. For 37 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has encouraged these pursuits by supporting promising, early-career biomedical scientists tackling these challenges and driving medical breakthroughs.
This year, a total of 38 researchers join the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences, Pew Latin American Fellows Program in the Biomedical Sciences, and Pew-Stewart Scholars Program for Cancer Research. They will receive multiyear grants to pursue scientific interests in the United States and Latin America at a time when biomedical science has never been more critical.
Infectious disease prevention and treatment
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the immune system in the fight against infectious diseases.
Several members of the 2022 class are studying the intricacies of this essential defense mechanism. One scientist will explore how bacterial exposure changes the body’s circadian rhythm—the cellular clock regulating activities such as sleeping and eating—and influences immune system function, particularly in how the body fights infections. Another will investigate how parents pass on disease-fighting knowledge to their children through what is known as “immune memory,” a process that can enhance their offsprings’ responses when exposed to the same pathogen. And another scientist will study how structural changes in cell surface molecules drive white blood cells to curb infections.
A separate group will investigate how to prevent and treat certain diseases. One scientist will study how immune cells respond to viral hemorrhagic fevers, while another will examine how Ebola enters host cells. Others will explore a new, promising class of antibiotics that targets the production of essential bacterial proteins, as well as a potential “universal vaccine” for rapidly mutating viruses such as HIV, SARS-CoV-2, and influenza.
Wonders of the brain
From walking and talking to sleeping and socializing, the brain is critical to the human body’s most essential tasks. But much is still unknown about how this complex organ coordinates with other bodily systems.
Scientists in this year’s class will explore how the brain and gut work together to ensure that the body has needed nutrition, and also which neurological processes are at play when individuals experience physical pain. One researcher will use schooling fish to explore how the brain processes visual information to inform movement, while another will seek to determine how neurons detect pheromones to decipher social engagement cues.
Because the brain controls functions from learning and memory to social behaviors, disturbances to the neural system can cause dire consequences. Some scientists will investigate mechanisms that contribute to neuronal dysfunction and potential strategies to keep this from occurring. For example, one researcher will explore how memory-encoding cells that are activated by negative experiences affect the development of Alzheimer’s disease. Another will examine how mutations in enzymes involved in protein clearance disrupt neuronal function and survival.
Decoding cancer development
Cancers develop when abnormal cells proliferate uncontrollably and spread throughout the body unchecked. The 2022 class is studying different elements of this complex disease—exploring mechanisms that drive cancer initiation and novel strategies to control its progression.
Cancer cells are highly reliant on the metabolic process for the energy they need to grow and spread. One researcher will examine the dependence of cancer cells on the lysosome—a specialized cellular structure—to fuel their demand for nutrients. Another will build a novel system to study how cancer cells adapt to new metabolic pathways to evade therapy. And one is looking at the compounds produced in the breakdown of nutrients used by acute lymphoblastic leukemia cells for clues about how treatment resistance mechanisms arise.
Researchers also are studying different aspects of the immune system response to cancer. One class member is examining how sensory neurons regulate an immune response to lung cancer, while another is investigating the effect a new immunotherapy has on T-cells and their ability to attack skin cancer.
Finally, a group will explore the role of genetic variations in cancer. Members of the 2022 class will study how mutations in a cell receptor that binds sugars contributes to the formation of aggressive cancers and also how accumulation of mutations promotes the risk for blood cancer development. Another researcher will look at how genetic variation can help protect us from cancer—using wolves in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, surrounding the failed nuclear power plant, as a novel case study.
Unraveling the human genome
The genome is a tightly packed set of instructions that determines everything from peoples’ physical traits to their behavioral tendencies. Careful regulation is needed to maintain the integrity of our genetic material and prevent a myriad of human diseases.
Members of the 2022 class are studying mechanisms that regulate proper gene expression. One will examine how DNA structural rearrangements are coordinated, while another will study how some novel and overlooked structures within the genome contribute to the maintenance of our genetic code. And one researcher will examine specialized genome sequences to understand how variations of gene products arise.
Researchers are also investigating the cellular machines that help accurately distribute and separate chromosomes during cell division, as well as how these specialized complexes ensure that DNA in the mitochondria—the powerhouses of the cell—is replicated with fidelity. Finally, some scientists are studying how disruptions or defects in proteins that help safeguard and maintain the genome contribute to the development of blood and bone cancers.
Intestinal health and disease
The gut is home to trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that coexist in a community, also known as the microbiome. Some components of the microbiome are present at birth, but exposure to environmental elements and diet as we age diversifies the makeup of this community.
One class member will explore how different lipids in human milk are processed by gut bacteria to promote health in babies. Another will examine how early antibiotic exposure can disrupt the composition of the microbiome and how these changes may contribute to weight gain later in life.
Gut health can be influenced by other factors as well. A member of the class will explore how brain signals may impact intestinal inflammation. Another scientist will investigate how factors such as age can alter nutrient transport by intestinal cells and lead to the development of metabolic and intestinal disturbances in the elderly.
Kara Coleman is the project director and Jennifer Villa is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs.