Biomedical researchers are at the heart of nearly every medical advancement. From cutting-edge cancer treatments to breakthrough discoveries about emerging viruses, these scientists use creativity and ingenuity to explore new horizons in human health and medicine. And for nearly 40 years, The Pew Charitable Trusts has supported more than 1,000 early-career researchers committed to this work.
This year, 37 promising 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. These scientists will receive multiyear grants to pursue their interests, ranging from cell biology and immune system function to how pregnancies develop.
Exploring the building blocks of life
Cells make up all living organisms, and several scientists are investigating how they function. For example, researchers will look at mitochondria—organelles within a cell that generate energy and heat. Two will research how mitochondria can be harnessed to treat obesity and diabetes, while another will explore the role they play in a cell’s natural ability to undergo cell death. Others will examine how a cell assesses its external environment and uses these cues for proper function—either through antenna-like appendages called cilia or by engulfing surrounding materials.
Researchers are also exploring how cells play different roles in specific organs. One investigator will study how a gene in cardiac muscle cells leads to proper development of the aorta, which could improve understanding of the genetic risk factors behind aortic aneurysms. Another researcher will look at how cells that sense bodily forces such as pressure and stretch affect how the gastrointestinal tract functions. Meanwhile, another will explore specialized cells in the brain’s hippocampus to understand how animals adapt based on changing environments and new experiences—research that could inform approaches to conditions associated with learning and memory impairment.
Cancer remains a leading cause of death, and many 2023 class members are studying what causes this disease to develop and persist. One scientist will explore a class of novel proteins that contribute to pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, while two researchers will focus on the development of childhood cancers, specifically acute myeloid leukemia and pediatric liver cancer. Others are looking at metastasis—where cancerous cells spread throughout the body. One is studying metabolic adaptations in metastatic cancer, while another will examine how metastatic cancer cells adapt to survive harmful oxidative stress. Finally, one member will study cachexia, a cancer-associated metabolic disorder marked by muscle atrophy and extreme weight loss.
Developing and improving cancer treatments is also top of mind for this new class of investigators. One will work to manipulate immune cells to help make immunotherapies more effective. In a similar vein, a researcher is using chemistry to develop cancer drugs with fewer side effects, and another hopes to identify new drug targets, such as proteins that will lead to better therapies to improve therapeutic interventions for epithelial ovarian cancer, a deadly disease with few treatment options.
Learning from creative animal models
Researchers from the 2023 class are exploring a wide range of creatures—from mosquitos to mollusks—that can offer important insights into human health. For instance, one scientist will examine the genetic cues that cause different chicken breeds to develop varying facial decorations, work that could lead to therapies for craniofacial conditions. Another will study the unique regenerative properties of the colorful, shell-less mollusk called a nudibranch, which could advance science around regeneration, where the body rebuilds tissues and organs.
Meanwhile, an investigator is using a unique species of hamster to decode the genetics behind hibernation during extreme conditions, which can aid our understanding of metabolism and organ preservation for transplantation. And one will investigate how mosquitos use their sense of smell to distinguish humans from other animals, research that could shed light on ways to halt the spread of mosquito-borne illnesses.
Understanding the complex immune system
The immune system protects the body from outside threats, such as viruses and bacteria, and determining friends from foes is its first step. Two scientists are examining the biology behind this important skill. One is focused on how specific cells educate the immune system to remain tolerant of one’s own tissues. Another is studying how a group of immune cells distinguish beneficial bacteria from those that are pathogenic—research that could help unveil treatments for autoimmune disorders.
Other scientists will explore the side effects of inflammation, which is triggered when the immune system launches an attack on a perceived threat. One researcher will study inflammatory proteins in bacteria that defend against viruses, which could lead to strengthening vaccines that target viral infections, and a scientist will unravel the epigenetic alterations that direct the body’s response to toxins and allergens. Another investigator will research eosinophilic esophagitis, an allergic reaction that causes esophageal swelling and impairment, while one will study how a high-fat diet promotes inflammation of stress-sensitive immune cells and induces childhood obesity.
Some members of this new class are studying the gut microbiome, the community of beneficial bacteria in the intestine essential to the immune system. One will delve into why inflammatory conditions harm healthy gut bacteria and allow “bad” bacteria to thrive, while another researcher will study the different components that allow bacteria to thrive and adapt to samples from patients with inflammatory bowel disease. And an investigator will explore the microbiome’s connection to our circadian rhythm, the internal clock that regulates the human body in tandem with the time of day.
Other scientists are exploring the biology behind the immune system’s response to viruses by looking at why HIV persists indefinitely in humans even during treatment and designing a vaccine that protects against multiple coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2 variants.
Optimizing health during pregnancy
Finally, several investigators are conducting research into the different stages of development during pregnancy. One researcher is exploring the genetics that govern embryo implantation—research that could unveil how to prevent infertility and miscarriage. Another is researching how embryos respond to mechanical signals from the local environment, which may inform treatments for developmental disorders.
As a pregnancy progresses, the placenta supplies the growing embryo with nutrients and oxygen. This process has long been difficult to study, but one investigator is engineering cutting-edge technologies to replicate this process in a lab setting. This approach could lead to new methods for detecting and treating preeclampsia. Finally, a scientist is studying how maternal malnutrition can disrupt a fetus’s brain and behavioral growth—research that could inform future public health measures for nutrition and childhood development.
Kara Coleman is the project director of and Donna Dang is a principal officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs.