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Applied Biotechnology, Immunology, Infectious Disease, Research, Technology

Artificial spleen shown to filter dangerous pathogens from blood

Artificial spleen shown to filter dangerous pathogens from blood

79118_webOur spleens filter out toxins from our blood and help us fight infections. But serious infections can overpower our bodies’ ability to fight them off, especially among older adults whose immune systems are weaker. Now, a research team led by Donald Ingber, MD, PhD, of Harvard has come up with an artificial “biospleen” that can trap bacteria, fungi and viruses and remove them from circulating blood. Science Magazine describes the device in a news story:

The team first needed a way to capture nasties. They coated tiny magnetic beads with fragments of a protein called mannose-binding lectin (MBL). In our bodies, MBL helps fight pathogens by latching onto them. Ingber and colleagues showed that the sticky beads could grab a variety of microbes in the test tube.

With that key challenge out of the way, the researchers were ready to design the rest of the system. They engineered a microchiplike device a little bigger than a deck of cards that works somewhat like a dialysis machine. As blood enters the device, it receives a dose of the magnetic beads, which snatch up bacteria, and then fans out into 16 channels. As the blood flows across the device, a magnet pulls the beads—and any microbes or toxins stuck to them—out of the blood, depositing them in nearby channels containing saline.

The researchers first tested their device with donated human blood tainted with bacteria. They found that filtering the blood through the device five times could eliminate 90% of the microbes.

The device improved survival rates in rats and may decrease the incidence of sepsis, a dangerous side effect of severe infections. The researchers also found that the device could filter the total volume of blood in an adult human – about 5 liters or (1.3 gallons) – in about five hours.

Previously: Our aging immune systems are still in business, but increasingly thrown out of balance
Image, of the magnetic MBL-coated nanobeads beads capturing pathogens, from Harvard University Wyss Institute

Cancer, In the News, NIH, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices

NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices

The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, MD, this morning weighed in on a topic that has garnered much attention lately: the type of surgery that women diagnosed with breast cancer choose. The post, found at the NIH Director’s blog, describes a recent study by Stanford researchers published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association that examined survival rates after three different types of breast cancer surgery for women diagnosed with cancer in one breast: a lumpectomy (removal of the just the affected tissue, usually followed by radiation therapy), a single mastectomy (removal of the whole affected breast), and double mastectomy (removal of the unaffected breast along with the affected one.)

In a previous post we wrote in detail about the study and the finding that the number of double mastectomies in California have increased dramatically. However, except for women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, the procedure does not appear to improve survival rates for women who undergo the surgery compared with women who choose other types of breast surgery. Collins notes:

It isn’t clear exactly what prompted this upsurge in double mastectomy, which is more expensive, risky, and prone to complications than other two surgical approaches. But [researchers] Kurian and Gomez suggest that when faced with a potentially life-threatening diagnosis of cancer in one breast—and fears about possibly developing cancer in the other—women may assume that the most aggressive surgery is the best. The researchers also said it’s also possible that new plastic surgery techniques that achieve breast symmetry through bilateral reconstruction may make double mastectomy more appealing to some women.

Despite its recent upsurge in popularity, the study found double mastectomy conferred no survival advantage over the less aggressive approach of lumpectomy followed by radiation.

Collins also points out that the slightly worse survival rates of women who undergo single mastectomies probably reflect the fact that poorer women were more likely to have this surgery and is evidence of yet another health disparity linked to economic status.

Previously: Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies – but not any survival benefit

Medical Education, Medical Schools, Stanford News, Videos

Stanford students design “enrichments” for lions, giraffe and kinkajou at the San Francisco Zoo

Stanford students design "enrichments" for lions, giraffe and kinkajou at the San Francisco Zoo

My job took me to the zoo.

It was a rather unorthodox assignment for a medical writer, but one of our faculty at Stanford medical school was teaching a rather unorthodox class at the San Francisco Zoo. A dozen Stanford sophomores signed up to spend two intensive weeks there learning about animal welfare and behavior and designing “enrichments” to make life more interesting for the lions, a giraffe and a kinkajou at the zoo.

These included a “Poop Shooter” to lob animal poop into the lion’s cage, a urine-soaked scratcher for a lone giraffe and a “Robo-Flower” to automatically dispense smoothies to the kinkajou, a tree-dwelling rainforest mammal that looks like a cross between a squirrel and a raccoon.

“Zoo animals have pretty good welfare already,” said Stanford’s Joseph Garner, PhD, an associate professor of comparative medicine who helped design and lead the class. “So it’s not about fixing things. It’s about how we can turn this animal on a little. How can we help the keepers manage the animal and improve the experience for guests.”

“It’s like if you lived in the same room your whole life. We want to change it up, keep it fresh and interesting – something novel,” said student Jennifer Ren.

For Floyd the giraffe, the students shook things up a bit by building a scratcher soaked in female giraffe urine to make it appealing to him. Instead of lurking in a corner of his paddock near the female enclosure, Floyd ventured out into his large pad to explore his new toy, where he was a lot more visible to zoo-goers.

“The giraffe is one of the largest and strongest animals on the planet, so building something that he is not going destroy in 30 seconds is a real challenge,” Garner said.

For the lions, the students adapted a conveyor-belt system to periodically shoot giraffe poop into the lion’s cage, where the male lion in particular found the aromatic pellets extremely interesting.

“Lions lie around all day watching and waiting. But when the zoo put the enrichment in, it was like somebody just flipped a switch,” Garner said. “The male lion was up and about and smelling and searching for the giraffe droppings, and performing all of this wonderful lion behavior.”

The students took their assignments very seriously, videotaping the animals’ responses and designing charts and graphs to measure the results, which they presented at a zoo ceremony last Friday in which they were celebrated for their contributions.

The students said they came away with a whole new perspective on zoos and wildlife behavior, as well as a gratifying sense of having designed something to improve the animals’ lives.

Previously: How horsemanship techniques can help doctors improve their art
Photo in featured entry box by Norbert von der Groeben

Cancer, Men's Health

So my life will be shorter than I’d hoped – what should I do differently?

We’ve partnered with Inspire, a company that builds and manages online support communities for patients and caregivers, to launch a patient-focused series here on Scope. Once a month, patients affected by serious and often rare diseases share their unique stories; this month’s column comes from Dave Staudenmaier.

“The news of your demise has been greatly exaggerated,” joked the surgeon when realizing I might have a rare slow-growing cancer instead of the horrifically aggressive and deadly adenocarcinoma of the pancreas that everyone thought I had.

He was right. I had “stage 4” Pancreatic Neuroendocrine Tumor metastasized to my liver. This was good news because it’s a slow-growing cancer.

Figuring out what to do with my life – not getting surgery – is what’s most urgent and important to me

It’s also the cancer that Steve Jobs had (and died from).

I fired my surgeon and my oncologist. Not because of his humor, but because of the urgency he placed on taking out my duodenum, gallbladder, spleen, part of my stomach and my entire pancreas in a “procedure” called a Whipple. No other options were considered or offered. No calls to a PNET specialist were made – so I found one on my own.

I was also told: There is no cure. There is no remission. Treatment options are limited and inconsistent. It’s possible that surgery might have bought me more time – but my new care team understood that I favored quality of life (hence my decision to opt out of surgery) over length of my life. And thankfully, some new treatments not available in Steve Jobs’ time have worked to shrink my tumors by sixty percent.

Though we’re fighting to keep the tumors from growing again for as long as possible, it sure looks like I won’t be around as long as I’d hoped. And though the drugs are helping control this beast, I know they won’t help forever and there will be pain and fatigue and other quality-of-life issues. So figuring out what to do with my life – not getting surgery – is what’s most urgent and important to me.

My work.  Should I quit my job like so many of my fellow PNET patients have? No way! I love my job, and it has only gotten better since my diagnosis. Seemingly by providence, last year my position was changed and I now head development of patient engagement software for the large health-care solutions firm I work for. I have the opportunity to directly help tens of millions of patients – patients like me.

My family. I have a wife and three teenagers. How can I create more time to make  memories with them while I still feel good? I now pay someone else to mow my lawn and perform those other maintenance services that previously consumed much of my weekend time. We live in Florida where there’s a lot of fun things to do as a family, so we do it – spending more time together than we used to. We also blew some savings for a family vacation to Turks and Caicos. We’ve never vacationed like that before and it was awesome – something that created good memories. I want to do something like that again.

My everyday life. Fewer things to worry about means less stress. After I was diagnosed, we gave away more stuff than we kept and we don’t miss it. All bills are now auto-paid so we don’t think about them and can’t miss a payment. We have one debit card and one credit card, and we pay for most things in cash.  And we learned to say “no,” as we limited our obligations to maximize our free time. I’ve also tried new things:  So far I’ve learned how to ride a horse and how to cook. Up next, skeet shooting.

I continue to rethink and reprioritize my life, and I’m thankful that my new care team understands what’s important to me and provides treatment that aligns with my goals.

Dave Staudenmaier is Senior Director of Development for Greenway Health, where he leads an awesome team creating software products benefiting patients and physicians. Dave continues to fight PNET with the support of his wife of 23 years and three children.

Previously: Managing a prostate cancer diagnosis: From leader to follower, and back again and A rare cancer survivor’s journey to thriving and advocating

Immunology, Microbiology, Public Health, Research

Gut bacteria may influence effectiveness of flu vaccine

Gut bacteria may influence effectiveness of flu vaccine

flu_shotPast research has shown that the microbes living in your gut can dictate how body fat is stored, hormone response and glucose levels in the blood, which can ultimate set the stage for obesity and diabetes. Now new research suggests that the colonies of bacteria in our intestine play an important role in your body’s response to the flu vaccine.

In the study, Emory University immunologist Bali Pulendran, PhD, and colleagues followed up on a unexpected finding in a 2011 paper: the gene that codes for a protein called toll-like receptor 5 (TLR5) was associated with strong vaccine response. Science News reports that in the latest experiment:

[Researchers] gave the flu vaccine to three different groups: mice genetically engineered to lack the gene for TLR5, germ-free mice with no microorganisms in their bodies, and mice that had spent 4 weeks drinking water laced with antibiotics to obliterate most of their microbiome.

Seven days after vaccination, all three groups showed significantly reduced concentrations of vaccine-specific antibodies in their blood—up to an eightfold reduction compared with vaccinated control mice, the group reports online … in Immunity. The reduction was less marked by day 28, as blood antibody levels appeared to rebound. But when the researchers observed the mice lacking Tlr5 on the 85th day after vaccination, their antibodies seemed to have dipped again, suggesting that without this bacterial signaling, the effects of the flu vaccine wane more quickly.

Previously: The earlier the better: Study makes vaccination recommendations for next flu pandemic, Working to create a universal flu vaccine and Tiny hitchhikers, big health impact: Studying the microbiome to learn about disease
Photo by Queen’s University

Patient Care, Research, Technology

How can health-care providers better leverage social media to improve patient care?

How can health-care providers better leverage social media to improve patient care?

A growing number of Americans are turning to the Internet for health information and many are using social media tools to engage with patients like themselves or health-care providers. But findings recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research suggests that a significant portion of the health-related content on social networking sites is irrelevant or devoted to marketing or promotion of products, events and institutions. Study authors also warned that social media can quickly spread misinformation to a broad audience.

In the study, Stanford medical student Akhilesh Pathipati and colleagues analyzed Facebook search results for common medical conditions. Pathipati explains in a Sacramento Bee opinion piece how health-care providers can adopt social media strategies to address the  concerns mentioned above. He writes:

Providers should build online support systems that reach all patients. A PricewaterhouseCoopers poll found that 40 percent of respondents would use social media to cope with chronic medical conditions. If patients are embarrassed by having a stigmatized illness though, they may lack that coping mechanism.

In the short term, providers may want to set up private groups on social networking sites in which patients can interact with other affected individuals. Setting up an anonymous network may prove to be even more useful, as anonymity has been shown to help people share more about their health. The long-term goal should be to find ways to reduce the stigma associated with certain illnesses.

Previously: Lack of adoption of social media among health-policy researchers = missed opportunity, More reasons for doctors and researchers to take the social-media plunge and A reminder to young physicians that when it comes to social media, “it’s no longer about you”

Global Health, Public Health, Stanford News

Should we worry? Stanford’s global health chief weighs in on Ebola

Should we worry? Stanford's global health chief weighs in on Ebola

13717624625_c584569b9b_kAs Ebola rampages across western Africa, Stanford Magazine sat down with Michele Barry, MD, who directs Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health. Barry knows Ebola well: she’s fought it when it appeared in Uganda several years ago.

In the interview, which is posted on Medium as part of an experiment with digital communications methods, Barry shared her surprise at the momentum of the epidemic. The disease has caused more than 2,200 deaths during the past nine months in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen cases of a separate strain double in past week. “I think this goes back to just a very fragmented health infrastructure in the West African countries affected, a lack of personal preventive equipment on the ground and the inability to quickly educate a population that is not health literate,” she said.

Should we be worried of the epidemic spreading stateside? She responds:

I think Ebola easily could be transported here by airplane by an infected patient. The Nigeria outbreak is a result of air transport of an infected individual. But I think we have the facilities to support such patients safely. We have personal protective equipment, easily mobilized mechanisms for decontamination and isolation. I think there is no reason to be worried about it spreading in the U.S.

Barry also recently launched a fundraising campaign to care for sickened healthcare workers. Many doctors and nurses are among the thousands of Ebola casualties, including her colleague who mentored residents in the Yale/Stanford Johnson & Johnson Scholars Program.

Later this month, the Center for Global Innovation in Global Health is hosting a panel discussion that will explore the Ebola outbreak from a multidisciplinary approach. The event will be held on Sept. 23 from 4 to 5:30 p.m. at the Bechtel Conference Center on campus.  Panelists include Barry: Doug Owens, MD, director of the Center for Health Policy in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies; Stanford microbiologist David Relman, MD; Stephen Stedman, PhD, Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and Paul Wise, MD, MPH, a professor of pediatrics at Stanford.

Previously: Biosecurity experts discuss Ebola and related public health concerns and policy implications, Stanford global health chief launches campaign to contain Ebola outbreak in Liberia
Photo by: European Commission

Events, Medicine and Literature, Medicine and Society, Patient Care, Stanford News

Abraham Verghese discusses stealing metaphors and the language of medicine at TEDMED

Abraham Verghese discusses stealing metaphors and the language of medicine at TEDMED

Abraham Verghese TEMED

Few of us pay close attention to metaphors used in the language of medicine. Instead, our focus is typically on words relating to symptoms, test results and diagnoses. But as Stanford physician and author Abraham Verghese, MD, explained last week at TEDMED in San Francisco (which was co-sponsored by Stanford Medicine), metaphors, particularly as they relate to medicine, are significant because “they explain our past… [and] share our present and, perhaps most importantly, the metaphors we pick predicate our future.”

Verghese took conference attendees through a “grand romp through medicine and metaphor” during a session titled “Stealing Smart,” which featured seven speakers and their stories on how stealing something from another field, such as the principles of video game design, could improve medicine. As a child with “no head for math,” Verghese was drawn to the written word and developed a love for metaphors. His physical and metaphorical journey into medicine originated with his childhood reading and, as he sheepishly admitted, his reading list “had a certain prurient bias.” In fact, he selected the novel that set the course of his life, Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham, because the title “had great promise.” Despite it’s lack of salacious content, the book made a lasting impression on Verghese.

He recalled reading about how the protagonist, a boy named Philip who was born with a clubfoot, overcame great adversity to become a physician. The character was intrigued at the variety of patients he meets in the wards of the hospital and marvels at their willingness to open up about their personal lives at a time of distress. In describing the doctor-patient relationship, the author writes, “There was humanity there in the rough.” Those words spoke deeply to young Verghese and “implied to [him] that not everyone could be a brilliant engineer, could be a brilliant artist, but anybody with a curiosity about the human condition, with a willingness to work hard, with an empathy for their fellow human being could become a great physician.” He added, “I came into [the profession] with the sense that medicine was a romantic passionate pursuit. I haven’t stopped feeling that way, and for someone who loved words anatomy was such fun.”

Verghese reveled in the abundance of medical metaphors throughout his training. The prevailing metaphor in anatomy was that of a house, while the overarching metaphor of physiology was that of a machine. When it came to describing symptoms, there was no shortage of metaphors: the “strawberry tongue” associated with scarlet fever, the “peau d’orange” appearance of the breast in breast cancer and the “apple-core” lesion of colon cancer. “That’s just the fruits – don’t get me started on the non-vegetarian stuff,” he joked.

But all of the metaphors noted in his talk are 60-100 years old, and when it came to naming one from more recent times Verghese was at a loss. He said:

In my lifetime, and I suspect in yours, we’ve seen so many new diseases – AIDS, SARS, Ebola, Lyme… We have so many new ways at looking inside the body and scanning the body, such as PET and MRI, and yet, strangely, not one new metaphor, that I can think of… It’s a strange paucity because we are so imaginative. The amount of science that has been done in the last 10 years eclipses anything that was done in the last 100 years. We’re not lacking in imagination, but we may be lacking in metaphorical imagination.

This dearth of metaphor has two consequences, he said. The first is that Congress isn’t funding biomedical research to the level that is necessary to advance new discoveries and treatments. The second is that patients are “not as enamored with our medicine and our science as we might think they should be,” he said. Verghese implored the audience to “create metaphors befitting our wonderful era discovery.” He encouraged those in the crowd and watching the livestream online to accept this challenge, saying, “I want to invite you to name things after yourself. Go ahead! Why not?”

As he closed the talk, Verghese shared the metaphor that has guided his life by saying:

It’s the metaphor of a calling. It’s the metaphor of a ministry of healing. It’s the metaphor of the great privilege we’re allowed, all of us with anything to do with health care, the privilege of being allowed into people’s lives when they are at their most vulnerable. It’s very much about the art of medicine. And we have to bring all the great science, all the big data, all the wonderful things that we’re going to be talking about [at this conference] to bear one human being to another… We have to love the sick. Each and everyone of them as if they were our own. And you know what? They are our own, because we are all humanity there in the rough.

Previously: Abraham Verghese urges Stanford grads to always remember the heritage and rituals of medicine, Inside Abraham Verghese’s bag, a collection of stories and Stanford’s Abraham Verghese honored as both author and healer

Grand Roundup

Grand Roundup: Top posts for the week of Sept. 7

The five most-read stories this week on Scope were:

Skin cancer linked to UV-caused mutation in new oncogene, say Stanford researchers: Researchers here have identified a previously unknown oncogene that drives the development of a common human skin cancer in response to exposure to sunlight.

Proteins from pond scum revolutionize neuroscience: This entry focuses on the work of Stanford bioengineering professor Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, who just won the Keio Prize in Medicine,

What makes a good doctor – and can data help us find one?: At Medicine X last Saturday, ProPublica reporter Charles Ornstein posed to conference attendees an important question: How do you find a doctor? “This is trickier than you think,” he said and proceeded to discuss how data can yield helpful information for those looking for (or assessing their current) physician.

At Medicine X, four innovators talk teaching digital literacy and professionalism in medical school: One of the highlights of last weekend’s Medicine X was “Fostering Digital Citizenship in Medical School,” where four esteemed panelists talked about the innovative programs they’ve put in place at their institutions. The physician-speakers all believe that things like understanding social media and knowing how to build one’s digital footprint are crucial skills for doctors-to-be.

Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscopeManu Prakash, PhD, assistant professor of bioengineering, has developed an ultra-low-cost paper microscope to aid disease diagnosis in developing regions. The device is further described in a technical paper.

And still going strong – the most popular post from the past:

What are the consequences of sleep deprivation?: Brandon Peters, MD, an adjunct clinical faculty member at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, explains how lack of sleep can negatively affect a person’s well-being in this Huffington Post piece.

Research, Sleep, Stanford News

William Dement: Stanford Medicine’s “Sandman”

William Dement: Stanford Medicine's "Sandman"

dement

Sixty years before he would be referred to as the “Father of Sleep Medicine,” William Dement, MD, PhD, got kicked out of a class for dozing off.  One of the world’s foremost sleep experts, Dement is profiled in the current issue of STANFORD magazine, with writer Nicholas Weiler describing how Dement blazed a trail for the field of sleep research and medicine.

From the piece:

When he arrived at Stanford, he set aside most of his research on dreams and shifted his focus to pathologies that affect sleep quality—and to the importance of optimal sleep in our daily lives. “It wasn’t until we realized there were sleep disorders,” he says, that people started paying attention to sleep research. In 1970, he founded the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, a center dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of these maladies. The clinic was soon inundated by patients complaining of extreme daytime sleepiness due not to narcolepsy or insomnia, but to a recently discovered disorder, sleep apnea, in which the patient’s airway would collapse during sleep, causing him to wake gasping for air hundreds of times each night.

Galvanized by the unexpected prevalence of undiagnosed sleep disorders, Dement spent the next decade working feverishly to raise the profile of sleep medicine as a clinical field. Before long, similar clinics were springing up all over the country, “and they were finding the same thing,” Dement says. Still, it wasn’t until 1993 that the first long-term epidemiological study found that 24 percent of men and 9 percent of women suffer from sleep apnea. Research at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and elsewhere has found strong correlations between sleep apnea and obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease, America’s leading cause of death.

Thanks to his work and the popular sleep class that he has taught since 1971 (more than 20,000 students have taken it!), Dement is well-respected and loved among his peers and students – something captured by this 2008 video.

Previously: Stanford docs discuss all things sleepCatching some Zzzs at the Stanford Sleep Medicine CenterThanks, Jerry: Honoring pioneering Stanford sleep research and Catching up on sleep science
Related: Stalking the netherworld of sleep and Dement keeps last class wide awake
Illustration, which originally appeared in STANFORD, by Gabriel Moreno

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