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NINDS Director’s Message – A Celebration of Science

I took part in the recent "Celebration of Science," an extraordinary event in Washington, DC that showcased some of the amazing advances in biomedical science and their impact on the lives of patients. The Celebration, organized by FasterCures and the Milken Foundation, was held September 7-9th. It brought together more than 1,000 leaders in science and science policy from government, industry, philanthropies and academia and featured a full day of presentations at the NIH along with virtual tours of NIH laboratories. The presentations are now available on the NIH website and are well worth watching.

One particularly moving session provided an overview of HIV-AIDS research emphasizing how, in just three decades, the disease has been transformed from a death sentence into a chronic (though still quite serious) illness. Dawn Averitt Bridge, founder of the Well Project for women living with HIV and AIDS, shared a personal and moving account of being diagnosed with AIDS at age 19 in 1988. At that time, more than half of all people ever diagnosed with AIDS had died. Thanks to highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), Bridge is alive and well, and thanks to perinatal AIDS prevention methods developed in the 1990s, she is the mother of two vibrant, HIV-negative children.

Most striking to me was the fact that nearly half of the presentations featured during the visit to NIH focused on the brain. Susan Lindquist of the Whitehead Institute discussed how her research on protein folding is yielding insights into Parkinson’s, ALS and other neurological disorders marked by an accumulation of abnormal proteins within nerve cells. Daniel Reich, an investigator at NINDS, and Kafui Dzirasa, an investigator at Duke University, described state-of-the-art brain imaging methods that are being used in discovery science and in clinical applications, from mapping the circuitry of the human brain, to monitoring the effects of investigational drugs for Alzheimer’s disease. Geoff Ling, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Paul F. Pasquina, a colonel in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, described how breakthroughs in prosthetic technology are providing new highly articulated legs, arms and hands to soldiers who have suffered battlefield amputations.

While the event made it clear that there are many reasons to celebrate, we also need to recognize that significant challenges – and exciting possibilities – remain. Despite progress in treating AIDS and suppressing HIV replication, the virus can persist in the brain and cause cognitive impairment. HIV vaccines are now in clinical trials, and in new collaborative efforts, neuroscientists and immunologists are working together to understand how HIV affects the brain. While we can describe the reasons for protein aggregation in neurodegenerative diseases, we don’t fully understand the relationship between aggregates and neuronal death. Small studies have shown that, with brain-computer interface technology, individuals paralyzed from brain and spinal cord injuries can control prosthetic limbs with their thoughts but it will require a lot more work to develop neuroprosthetics with enough durability, portability and precision-control to serve as assistive devices.

As we move forward, we face the reality that while scientific opportunities have never been more exciting, our resources are finite. The good news is that the Celebration of Science included many members of Congress, including Sen. Harry Reid (Majority Leader, R-Nevada), Rep. Eric Cantor (House Majority Leader, R-Virginia), Rep. Nancy Pelosi (House Minority Leader, D-Calif.), and Rep. Steny Hoyer (House Minority Whip, D-Maryland), all of whom pledged continuing bipartisan support for biomedical research and for young scientists. Many political and scientific leaders at the event also expressly recognized the importance of investing in science at all levels of inquiry, from basic to translational to clinical studies. As Mr. Cantor said in the NIH session, “All of us have been confronted with disease or challenged with health issues in our families, and in many instances, the cure is yet to be discovered. There’s nothing greater than the impact of that reality.”

Last Modified October 5, 2012