2015's medical milestones and scientific advances in Baltimore

A look back at advances in Baltimore's medical and science communities in 2015

Two local scientists discovered information about a protein that may one day lead to a cure or treatment for a rare neurological disease.

Other area researchers made major advances in quests to develop vaccines for vexingly deadly viruses.

A large team of hometown scientists designed and built a spacecraft that reached the farthest frontier of the solar system and, for the first time ever, explored Pluto. And another team built a 16-foot, 4.5-ton telescope that will search for signs of energy produced by the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.

Looking back at new developments in health, science, and technology this year, one thing is clear — 2015 was a banner year for medical milestones, scientific breakthroughs and technological advances at local universities and biotech companies.

New vaccines

As new cases of HIV again begin to climb in the gay and transgender communities, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine said in October they would begin human trials on a vaccine to prevent the disease.

It's a significant step in the battle to stem the virus that attacks the immune system and causes AIDS because many other vaccine trials have found they don't work in people or don't work well enough.

Like a few dozen other possible vaccines still being investigated, this one will go through rigorous human testing for safety and effectiveness over the next several years, according to Dr. Robert Gallo, director of Maryland's Institute for Human Virology.

Institute scientists, including Gallo, who helped discover the human immunodeficiency virus and develop the HIV blood test, have been working on a vaccine to prevent infection for about two decades and have found some success in animal tests.

Researchers have been frustrated because of the ability of HIV/AIDS to mutate and evade treatment, but this vaccine is designed to be more effective against the multiple strains of the virus by attacking a common protein at the moment of infection.

About 1.2 million are living in the United States with HIV and about 50,000 people are infected each year, with the largest number of cases identified in gay and bisexual men.

While HIV/AIDS has become a disease that can be managed, Ebola remains a deadly threat.

As the West African Ebola outbreak that began in 2013 continued into 2015, infecting more than 28,000 people and killing more than 11,000, researchers in Maryland and elsewhere raced to find a vaccine for the disease.

The Baltimore company Profectus BioSciences said in April that trials on primates showed a vaccine it was developing was effective against a virulent strain found in the outbreak. The company hopes to start human trials soon.

The company joined other private biotechnology firms and universities in investigating promising preventive therapies and treatments, including Gaithersburg-based Emergent BioSolutions, which produced a booster in its East Baltimore facility to go with another leading Ebola vaccine candidate developed by GlaxoSmithKline and the National Institutes of Health. Trials of that vaccine were launched by the NIH in Bethesda and the University of Maryland.

Rockville-based Optimal Research LLC also has been testing a vaccine for Johnson & Johnson. And another candidate being developed by Merck was being tested at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring as well as in Africa.

None of the vaccines has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration despite the progress, though researchers hope to be prepared for the next outbreak, if not to prevent one. Some new cases were reported in West Africa even after declarations that the outbreak was over.

Understanding ALS

Thanks to money raised from 2014's ubiquitous Ice Bucket Challenge, two Johns Hopkins School of Medicine researchers learned a lot more about a protein linked to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a rare neurological illness better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The protein, known as TDP-43, clumps up and moves outside the nucleus of the brain cells and nerve cells of people with the lethal neurological degenerative disorder, but no one understood the role it played.

The researchers, Jonathan Ling and Philip Wong, determined that the protein serves as a kind of editor, preventing gibberish from being inserted into the nucleus, which is essentially the instruction manual for the cells. When TDP-43 clumps up and exits the cells, its contributes to their death and likely to the disease.

While the research was done in mice and is preliminary, the researchers say it's an important advancement in the search for a treatment for the nearly 30,000 Americans affected by ALS. More than 5,000 people are newly diagnosed each year. There is no cure for the disease and most people live two to five years after diagnosis.

The research also has treatment implications for frontotemporal dementia, or FTD, another neurodegenerative disorder that affects around 50,000 people in the U.S. and shortens life spans.

Reaching into space

A NASA spacecraft reached its destination in July after a 3 billion-mile, decadelong journey — and it's still going.

New Horizons flew within 8,000 miles of Pluto on July 14, making a flurry of observations that quickly transformed human knowledge of the dwarf planet at the edge of our solar system. The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel managed the mission.

The spacecraft, the size of a baby grand piano, captured images showing a curious heart-shaped formation across the center of one of Pluto's hemispheres. Scientists named it Tombaugh Regio, after Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, and later analysis showed it to contain shifting glaciers of frozen nitrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. Observations of Pluto suggest there may be tectonic activity beneath the surface. Other images revealed Pluto's moons in some detail, particularly the largest of them, Charon.

Observations of Pluto's tenuous atmosphere meanwhile showed that the thin layer of gases was being stripped away into space faster than scientists thought. Data also suggested that to a person standing on the surface of Pluto, the sky would appear blue, as it does on Earth.

Scientists expect to continue downloading and analyzing data from New Horizons into the new year, but after that, the mission may not be over. New Horizons fired its thrusters in a series of maneuvers in October and November, directing it toward another object floating in the Kuiper belt at the edge of the solar system. That extended mission could be approved in 2016 and begin in 2017.

Echoes of the Big Bang

Scientists at Johns Hopkins started a journey to the beginning of the universe in November when they shipped the first of four new telescopes to Chile.

Once the 16-foot, 4.5-ton telescope — built at Hopkins' Homewood campus — is mounted atop a 17,000-foot mountain, it will begin scanning the sky early next year for signs of energy that came out of the Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago.

The $14 million Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor mission, backed by the National Science Foundation, will explore the cosmic microwave background, the oldest light in the universe, which glows faintly in between stars and galaxies. Understanding that radiation is key to explaining how the universe formed.

Scientists chose the Atacama Desert in northern Chile for the CLASS telescopes, as they are known, because it's one of the driest places on the planet and far from any big cities, which means fewer clouds and less radio interference to obscure their view. Plus, its elevation puts it closer to space.

Hopkins will send three more CLASS telescopes to Chile over the next two years. Each will look for the distant waves of energy at a different frequency.

A crew of researchers will monitor the telescopes' observations and record the data in a shipping container-turned-lab 26 miles away, at a more hospitable 8,000 feet of elevation.

Buried within that information, Hopkins scientists hope, is the answer to how it all began.

mcohn@baltsun.com

sdance@baltsun.com

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