Scientific advancements have expanded the face of human health. Where there was once treatment of symptoms and guesswork about the cause of disease, there is now prevention and prediction of disease onset.
PNNL’s biomedical research, which helps anchor the laboratory’s biology capabilities, is focused on investigating common biological mechanisms that govern the behavior of diverse biological systems in both humans and in the environment. Because PNNL’s biological expertise is so broad, the lab can shift research priorities in response to changing national needs.
PNNL scientists are dissecting biological processes to better understand pathways that maintain—or degrade—human health. Goals include early disease detection, better treatment, and strategies that mitigate potential health impacts from environmental exposures.
To accomplish this, researchers leverage PNNL’s strengths in signature science. This involves an in-depth examination of a biological system—the human body in some cases and environmental situations in others—at the molecular level, exploring biomarkers that indicate change.
PNNL scientists specialize in the development and use of omics technologies, such as metabolomics, lipidomics, and genomics, to gain an unprecedented look at activity at the molecular level. The resulting massive amounts of data demand powerful computational tools that help scientists understand the results.
PNNL has been a research resource for the National Institutes of Health, developing technologies that are critical to both human health and environmental research. The advanced ion mobility mass spectrometry capability, for example, increases the number of samples, such as blood or tissue, that can be analyzed, and in less time than before. And the data—the output—is of higher quality because of increased sensitivity and precision. This and other technologies have proven useful in environmental research for the Department of Energy as well.
Using omics technologies, researchers are examining many molecular and cellular measurements that can offer clues that indicate a potential problem.
PNNL is part of several efforts to identify health problems before symptoms. The Early Detection Research Network, which focuses on prostate, pancreatic, ovarian, and esophageal cancer, has a primary mission to discover and validate biomarkers to help detect cancer at its earliest stages. And the National Cancer Institute’s Proteomics Tumor Analysis Consortium pioneered integrated proteogenomic analysis to reveal information about colorectal, breast, and ovarian cancer.
Metabolomics and inflammatory diseases
Humans’ metabolism and immune systems are inextricably linked, and research into either often yields useful information for both.
PNNL is working to bridge the gap in Type I diabetes research by identifying molecular markers that predict progression of the disease in children. At the molecular level, there is also the challenge of measuring single cells. PNNL researchers developed a new measurement capability to investigate single cells, yielding crucial information about insulin pathways.
Exploring what’s in and around us, and how it affects us
An area that touches on both health and environmental research is exposure science—environment, workplace, and industrial elements that affect human health. For the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, PNNL researchers are measuring and modeling the potential health consequences of human exposure to agents in the environment, such as byproducts of energy production, biological agents, chemicals, and nanomaterials. This work is extending to defense health as PNNL, industry, academia, and branches of the U.S. military work together to protect soldiers from exposures as they defend our country.
Dengue, measles, canine distemper, Hendra, Nipah, and Ebola are just a few virulent viruses that affect populations all over the world. Researchers must understand the pathways and signatures of each so they can predict their severity and develop therapeutic targets for treatment.
During the 2017 Ebola outbreak that caused more than 11,000 deaths in West Africa, PNNL researchers demonstrated that by identifying molecular signatures, they could distinguish the virus’ outcomes, thereby predicting patient survival after infection. This information allowed emergency responders to develop a triage strategy in the field—a major win for health care providers that contributed to their success at halting a fast-moving epidemic.