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Aging, Ethics, Medicine and Society, Research, Science, Stanford News

Golden years? Researcher explores longevity research and the companies banking on its success

Golden years? Researcher explores longevity research and the companies banking on its success

Elderly Japanese woman for Scott blog postAlthough I haven’t had a birthday yet this year, the transition to writing 2015 on all my checks (whoops, did I just date myself there? ahem) has made me feel older. Coincidentally, I’ve also been working on an article for an upcoming issue of Stanford Medicine magazine about aging and longevity. So, yeah. I’ve been thinking a lot about the passage of time.

That’s why I was really interested to learn that Stanford bioethicist Christopher Scott, PhD, teamed up with Nature Biotechnology senior editor Laura DeFrancesco to c0-author a feature article examining the commercialization of longevity research. The article layers research advances with the rise and fall (and rise again) of companies and organizations that have tossed their hats into the anti-aging ring since the 1990s. With it, Scott and DeFrancesco paint a picture of a dynamic field on the brink of something big. As Scott explained in an email to me:

Aging research, as we knew it in the 1990s and 2000’s, is being abandoned in favor of something much more ambitious. The central features of longevity research include an embrace of big data, a pivot away from studies hoping to find aging genes, a recognition that aging is best thought of a collection of diseases, not just one disease.

I’m fascinated by how quickly this new direction has taken off, especially since classic aging research yielded so little, and became saddled with hype. Longevity research has that same feel to it, and from an ethics and policy perspective one question is whether the promise of healthy lifespans will outrun the reality of the science.

And there’s the rub. As Scott points out, it’s not enough to just live long. No one wants a prolonged, but unhealthy, old age. We need to live long and well. The concept that gained ground is “healthspan” rather than “lifespan.” And from Google’s Calico to Craig Venter’s Human Longevity, Inc , there are a lot of bright minds (and plenty of $) focused on this problem. But there’s a lot at stake.

As Scott explained:

These are highly consequential decisions (funding research, creating new companies, establishing new scientific disciplines), technological inventions, and social changes that are being pursued on the tacit assumption that such decisions, inventions, and changes do lead to a healthier, longer life and the promise of a better future. In ethics, I think these assumptions are largely unexplored and unacknowledged.

The article is a fascinating cross-section of a rapidly growing field, but, as Scott points out, there are still many questions that scientists haven’t addressed. It’s well worth the time to read, whether you’re a writer on a deadline or just a person trying to figure out how to gracefully change that “4” into a “5” on …all your paperwork.

Previously: Exploring the value of longevity with bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel , Tick tock goes the clock – is aging the biggest illness of all? and Researchers aim to extend how long – and how well – we live
Photo by Maya Stone

Autism, Genetics, Research, Stanford News

Unlocking autism’s secrets: Stanford researchers point fingers at a brain cell dark horse

Unlocking autism’s secrets: Stanford researchers point fingers at a brain cell dark horse

Snyder smilingGeneticist Michael Snyder, PhD, has a thing for ‘omes.’ He’s studied genomes, transcriptomes, proteomes and microbiomes. Each term represents looking at something (DNA, RNA, proteins or microorganisms on a grand scale, throughout an entire organism). Most recently he’s been known for combining omics information to generate a dynamic picture of his own changing health over time (he termed the analysis a “integrative personal omics profile, or iPOP, but really, the siren call of “the Snyder-ome” is almost too great to resist).

Now he and postdoctoral scholar Jingjing Li, PhD, have turned their attention to the human “interactome,” a database that includes information about more than 69,000 protein interactions. They’ve used sophisticated algorithms to identify who in the brain is playing nicely with whom, and identified a particular group that seems to play an important role in the development of autism in a part of the brain called the corpus callosum. Importantly, the analysis points a finger at a new cell type in the brain — the oligodendrocytes. These serve as kind of a pit crew for the neurons, coating them in an insulating material to keep electrical signals between cells running smoothly. They’ve published their work today in Molecular Systems Biology.

As Snyder explained in our release:

This is our first glimpse of autism’s underlying biological framework, and it implicates a cell type and region of the brain that have not been extensively studied in this disease. Until now, we’ve suspected that autism could be the result of defects in the neurons themselves. Now it appears that the oligodendrocytes can contribute to the problem by inhibiting neuronal signaling through poor cellular differentiation and myelination.

Snyder, who also directs Stanford’s Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine, and Li hope that the finding will allow researchers to broaden their net to the corpus callosum, which helps the two halves of the brain communicate with one another. As psychiatrist and study co-author, Joachim Hallmayer, MD, commented:

Autism is an extremely heterogeneous disease. Many genes have been implicated, but environment also plays a role. This study suggests a possible way to subdivide patients into smaller, more homogenous populations based on which genes are mutated. Some of these may be very easy to treat, based on their mechanism, while others may be much more difficult. For those in this category, it’s possible we could one day find a way to train or improve the connection between the brain’s hemispheres.

It will be fascinating to see where this research goes next. In the meantime, here’s hoping the New Year-ome treats you and yours well!

Previously: New imaging analysis reveals distinct features of the autistic brain, Omics’ profiling coming soon to a doctor’s office near you? and A conversation with autism activist and animal behavior expert Temple Grandin
Photo of Snyder by Steve Fisch

Genetics, Neuroscience, Research, Science, Stanford News

Yeast advance understanding of Parkinson’s disease, says Stanford study

Yeast advance understanding of Parkinson's disease, says Stanford study

It’s amazing to me that the tiny, one-celled yeast can be such a powerful research tool. Now geneticist Aaron Gitler, PhD, has shown that the diminutive organism can even help advance the understanding of Parkinson’s disease and aid in identifying new genes involved in the disorder and new pathways and potential drug targets. He published his findings today in Neuron and told me in an email:

Parkinson’s disease is associated with many genetic and environmental susceptibility factors. Two of the newest Parkinson’s disease genes, EIF4G1 and VPS35, encode proteins involved in protein translation (the act of making protein from RNA messages) and protein sorting (shuttling proteins to the correct locations inside the cell), respectively. We used unbiased yeast genetic screens to unexpectedly discover a strong genetic interaction between these two genes, suggesting that the proteins they encode work together.

The proteins, EIF4G1 and VPS35, have changed very little from yeast to humans. Gitler and his colleagues showed that VPS35 interacts functionally with another protein implicated in Parkinson’s disease, alpha-synuclein, in yeast, round worms and even laboratory mice. As Gitler described:

Together, our findings connect three seemingly distinct Parkinson’s disease genes and provide a path forward for understanding how these genes might contribute to the disease and for identifying therapeutic interventions. More generally, our approach underscores the power of simple model systems for interrogating even complex human diseases.

Previously: Researchers pinpoint genetic suspects in ALS and In Stanford/Gladstone study, yeast genetics further ALS research

Aging, NIH, Public Health, Research, Science, Stanford News

Tick tock goes the clock – is aging the biggest illness of all?

Tick tock goes the clock - is aging the biggest illness of all?

3821120232_d1452b4109_zIt’s an uncomfortable truth that aging is the single biggest risk factor for many chronic diseases. It’s also completely out of our control. (The alternative is, well, not so fun to contemplate.) But although we all think we’d like to live longer, longevity in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing. Living longer rapidly loses its appeal if you’re too sick or feeble to really enjoy your extra “golden” years.

But researchers from many scientific disciplines are now working to understand how and why our bodies tend to break down as time passes. The Trans-NIH Geroscience Interest Group (a group of researchers from numerous NIH institutes) interested in aging held a summit in 2013 to explore mechanisms of aging and identify common themes that could serve as research targets. The thought is that understanding, and slowing, aging may be an efficient way to tackle many chronic diseases simultaneously.

Now the group, which includes Stanford geneticist Anne Brunet, PhD; neurologist Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD; and Thomas Rando, MD, PhD, has released the conclusions of the summit and outlined a plan for the work that lies ahead. (Rando is the director of the Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Stanford.) Many of the findings focus  on a concept called “healthspan,” which designates the portion of a person’s lifespan in which he or she is relatively healthy and fully functional. From the Cell article:

While life expectancy continues to rise, healthspan is not keeping pace because current disease treatment often decreases mortality without preventing or reversing the decline in overall health.  Elders are sick longer, often coping with multiple chronic diseases simultaneously.  Thus, there is an urgent need to extend healthspan.

The researchers identified seven intertwined “pillars of aging” for targeted research, including adaptation to stress, stem cells and regeneration, metabolism, macromolecular damage, inflammation, epigenetics and a concept called proteostasis, which describes the intricate dance in which proteins are made, transported and degraded within a cell. They suggest the creation of an Aging Research Initiative that works to merge the emerging field of geroscience with research on chronic disease and to search for therapeutic interventions that could extend both lifespan and healthspan.

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Aging, Men's Health, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Viva la hedgehog! Signaling protein also shown to be important in prostate growth

Viva la hedgehog! Signaling protein also shown to be important in prostate growth

6111053153_5b14f4570d_zOk, so it may *appear* that this post is just an excuse to post a cute hedgehog picture. After all, who could resist that little face? But this is really meant to be a quick shout-out to Stanford developmental biologist Philip Beachy, PhD, who has shown yet again that the signalling protein called hedgehog is critically important during many aspects of development.

In Beachy’s latest work, published earlier this week in Nature Cell Biology, he and his colleagues show that the precise control of when and where the hedgehog protein is made dictates the branching of tubules in the adult prostate (you may remember other recent work from Beachy’s lab about the role that hedgehog plays in bladder cancer, and what that could mean for patients). The findings of the current research suggest that aberrant hedgehog signalling could play a role in the prostatic hyperplasia, or non-cancerous enlargement of the prostate, which often happens as men age.

Previously: Drug may prevent bladder cancer progression, say Stanford researchers, Cellular culprit identified for invasive bladder cancer, according to Stanford study and Bladder infections – How does your body repair the damage?
Photo by Tiffany Bailey

Genetics, Pediatrics, Research, Science, Stanford News

Move over CRISPR, there's a new editor in town: Stanford-devised approach cures hemphilia in mice

Move over CRISPR, there's a new editor in town: Stanford-devised approach cures hemphilia in mice

A lot of attention has been paid lately to the idea of genome editing. This technique allows researchers to precisely modify an animal’s DNA to replace one version of a gene with another, or to add a working copy for a mutated gene. An approach called CRISPR/Cas9 in particular has garnered interest with its ease of use, ability to modify multiple genes, and relatively quick turnaround time when making specific strains of laboratory animals like mice for study.

Now pediatrician and geneticist Mark Kay, MD, PhD, has published  in Nature a new way to conduct genome editing that could give CRISPR a run for its money because it could be both safer and longer-lasting than other methods. As described in our press release:

The approach differs from that of other hailed techniques because it doesn’t require the co-delivery of an enzyme called an endonuclease to clip the recipient’s DNA at specific locations. It also doesn’t rely on the co-insertion of genetic “on” switches called promoters to activate the new gene’s expression.

Inclusion of endonucleases and promoters run the risk of a gamut of adverse effects in the recipient, from cancers if the promoter turns on the wrong gene in the genome to an unwanted immune response geared toward the foreign proteins. The researchers in Kay’s lab, including postdoctoral scholar and study lead author Adi Barzel, PhD, found a way around their use, and showed that it worked to enable mice with hemophilia to produce a missing blood clotting factor:

The technique devised by the researchers uses neither nucleases to cut the DNA nor a promoter to drive expression of the clotting factor gene. Instead, the researchers hitch the expression of the new gene to that of a highly expressed gene in the liver called albumin. The albumin gene makes the albumin protein, which is the most abundant protein in blood. It helps to regulate blood volume and to allow molecules that don’t easily dissolve in water to be transported in the blood.

The researchers used a modified version of a virus commonly used in gene therapy called adeno-associated virus, or AAV. In the modified version, called a viral vector, all viral genes are removed and only the therapeutic genes remain. They also relied on a biological phenomenon known as homologous recombination to insert the clotting factor gene near the albumin gene. By using a special DNA linker between the genes, the researchers were able to ensure that the clotting factor protein was made hand-in-hand with the highly expressed albumin protein.

As Kay, who is also a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute, the Stanford Child Health Research Institute and Stanford Bio X, explained, the integration of the clotting factor gene is key to the successful treatment (other clinical trials involving gene therapy for hemophilia rely on the expression of a free floating, unintegrated gene in the nucleus):

The real issue with AAV is that it’s unclear how long gene expression will last when the gene is not integrated into the genome. Infants and children, who would benefit most from treatment, are still growing, and an unintegrated gene could lose its effectiveness because it’s not copied from cell to cell. Furthermore, it’s not possible to re-administer the treatment because patients develop an immune response to AAV. But with integration we could get lifelong expression without fear of cancers or other DNA damage.

Previously: Gene “editing” could correct a host of genetic disorders, Policing the editor: Stanford scientists devise way to monitor CRISPR effectiveness and Both a doctor and a patient: Stanford physician talks about his hemophilia

NIH, Research, Science Policy, Stanford News

Shake up research rewards to improve accuracy, says Stanford's John Ioannidis

Shake up research rewards to improve accuracy, says Stanford's John Ioannidis

currencyLab animals such as mice and rats can be trained to press a particular lever or to exhibit a certain behavior to get a coveted food treat. Ironically the research scientists who carefully record the animals’ behavior really aren’t all that different. Like mice in a maze, researchers in this country are rewarded for specific achievements, such as authoring highly cited papers in big name journals or overseeing large labs pursuing multiple projects. These rewards come in the form of promotions, government grants and prestige among a researcher’s peers.

Unfortunately, the achievements do little to ensure that the resulting research findings are accurate. Stanford study-design expert John Ioannidis, MD, DSci, has repeatedly pointed out serious flaws in much published research (in 2005 he published what was to be one of the most highly-accessed and most highly-cited papers ever in the biomedical field “Why most published research findings are false”).”

Today, Ioannidis published another paper in PLoS Medicine titled “How to make more published research true.” He explores many topics that could be addressed to improve the reproducibility and accuracy of research. But the section that I found most interesting was one in which he argues for innovative, perhaps even disruptive changes to the scientific reward system. He writes:

 The current system does not reward replication—it often even penalizes people who want to rigorously replicate previous work, and it pushes investigators to claim that their work is highly novel and significant. Sharing (data, protocols, analysis codes, etc.) is not incentivized or requested, with some notable exceptions. With lack of supportive resources and with competition (‘‘competitors will steal my data, my ideas, and eventually my funding”) sharing becomes even disincentivized. Other aspects of scientific citizenship, such as high-quality peer review, are not valued.

Instead he proposes a system in which simply publishing a paper has no merit unless the study’s findings are subsequently replicated by other groups. If the results of the paper are successfully translated into clinical applications that benefit patients, additional “currency” units would be awarded. (In the example of the mice in the maze, the currency would be given in the form of yummy food pellets. For researchers, it would be the tangible and intangible benefits accrued by those considered to be successful researchers). In contrast, the publication of a paper that was subsequently refuted or retracted would result in a reduction of currency units for the authors. Peer review and contributions to the training and education of others would also be rewarded.

The concept is really intriguing, and some ideas would really turn the research enterprise in this country on its head. What if a researcher were penalized (fewer pellets for you!) for achieving an administrative position of power… UNLESS he or she also increased the flow of reliable, reproducible research? As described in the manuscript:

[In this case] obtaining grants, awards, or other powers are considered negatively unless one delivers more good-quality science in proportion. Resources and power are seen as opportunities, and researchers need to match their output to the opportunities that they have been offered—the more opportunities, the more the expected (replicated and, hopefully, even translated) output. Academic ranks have no value in this model and may even be eliminated: researchers simply have to maintain a non-negative balance of output versus opportunities. In this deliberately provocative scenario, investigators would be loath to obtain grants or become powerful (in the current sense), because this would be seen as a burden. The potential side effects might be to discourage ambitious grant applications and leadership.

Ioannidis, who co-directs with Steven Goodman, MD, MHS, PhD, the new  Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford, or METRICS, is quick to acknowledge that these types of changes would take time, and that the side effects of at least some of them would likely make them impractical or even harmful to the research process. But, he argues, this type of radical thinking might be just what’s needed to shake up the status quo and allow new, useful ideas to rise to the surface.

Previously: Scientists preferentially cite successful studies, new research shows, Re-analyses of clinical trial results rare, but necessary, say Stanford researchers  and John Ioannidis discusses the popularity of his paper examining the reliability of scientific research
Photo by Images Money

Dermatology, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

The politics of destruction: Short-lived RNA helps stem cells turn on a dime

The politics of destruction: Short-lived RNA helps stem cells turn on a dime

Many stem cells live a life of monotony, biding their time until they’re needed to repair tissue damage or propel the growth of a developing embryo. But when the time is right, they must spring into action without hesitation. Like Clark Kent in a phone booth, they fling aside their former identity to become the needed skin, muscle, bone or other cell types.

Now researchers at Stanford, Harvard and the University of California-Los Angeles have learned that embryonic stem cells in mice and humans chemically tag RNA messages encoding key stem-cell genes. The tags tell the cell not to let the messages linger, but to degrade them quickly. Getting rid of those messages allows the cells to respond more nimbly to their new marching orders. As dermatology professor Howard Chang, MD, PhD, explained to me in an email:

Until now, we’ve not fully understood how RNA messages within the cell dissipate. In many cases, it was thought to be somewhat random. This research shows that embryonic stem cells actively tag RNA messages that they may later need to forget. In the absence of this mechanism, the stem cells are never able to forget they are stem cells. They are stuck and cannot become brain, heart or gut, for example.

Chang, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute, is a co-senior author of a paper describing the research, which was published today in Cell Stem Cell. He shares senior authorship with Yi Xing, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics at UCLA, and Cosmas Giallourakis, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard. Lead authorship is shared by postdoctoral scholars Pedro Batista, PhD, of Stanford, and Jinkai Wang, PhD, of UCLA; and by senior research fellow Benoit Molinie, PhD, of Harvard.

Messenger RNAs are used to convey information from the genes in a cell’s nucleus to protein-making factories in the cytoplasm. They carry the instructions necessary to assemble the hundreds of thousands of individual proteins that do the work of the cell. When, where and how long each protein is made is a carefully orchestrated process that controls the fate of the cell. For example, embryonic stem cells, which can become any cell in the body, maintain their “stemness” through the ongoing production of proteins known to confer pluripotency, a term used to describe how these cells can become any cell in the body.

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Cancer, Clinical Trials, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Drug may prevent bladder cancer progression, say Stanford researchers

Drug may prevent bladder cancer progression, say Stanford researchers

Bladder cancer is an insidious foe. About 70 percent of the time the condition is diagnosed while still confined to the bladder lining (in these cases, it’s known as a “carcinoma in situ,” or CIS). However, a subset of these localized cancers will go on to invade tissue surrounding the bladder and become much more deadly.

Now, developmental biologist Philip Beachy, PhD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, and his colleagues have found that low doses of a drug called FK506 currently used to prevent the rejection of transplanted organs can prevent the progression of CIS into invasive bladder cancer in mice. Beachy collaborated with collaborated with urologist Joseph Liao, MD, and pulmonary specialist Edda Spiekerkoetter, MD, to conduct the research, which was published today in Cancer Cell. As Beachy explains in our release:

This could be a boon to the management of bladder cancer patients. Bladder cancer is the most expensive cancer to treat per patient because most patients require continual monitoring. The effective prevention of progression to invasive carcinoma would be a major advance in the treatment of this disease.

Beachy and Liao are members of the Stanford Cancer Institute. Together they’re hoping to initiate clinical trials of FK506 in people with CIS to learn whether the drug can also prevent progression to invasive cancer in humans.

The findings of the current study build upon previous research into the disease in Beachy’s laboratory and a long-time interest by Beachy in a molecular signaling pathway governed by a protein called sonic hedgehog. Beachy identified the first hedgehog protein in 1992; the protein (and the hedgehog pathway) have since been shown to play a vital role in embryonic developments and many types of cancers. Sonic hedgehog, Beachy has found, is produced by specialized stem cells in the bladder as a way to communicate with neighboring cells. They learned it’s required for the formation of CIS, but that it must also be lost in order for the cancer cells to invade other tissues. As Beachy explained in our release:

This was a very provocative finding. It was clear that these [sonic-hedgehog-expressing] bladder stem cells were the source of the intermediate cancers, or carcinomas in situ, that remain confined to the bladder lining. However, it was equally clear that sonic hedgehog expression must then be lost in order for those cancer cells to be able to invade surrounding tissue. We wondered whether the loss of this expression leads to increased tumor cell growth.

The researchers found that sonic hedgehog expression works in a loop with another class of proteins called BMPs. (You can read more about this in our release.) FK506 works by activating the BMP portion of the pathway in the absence of sonic hedgehog. Ten out of ten mice with CIS who received a low dose of the drug (low enough not to cause immunosuppression) were protected from developing invasive bladder cancer after five months of exposure to the carcinogen. In contrast, seven of nine mice receiving a placebo did develop the invasive form of the disease within the same time period.

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Cancer, Clinical Trials, In the News, NIH, Patient Care, Research

National Cancer Institute looking for "Exceptional Responders"

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHope is a powerful force in cancer treatment. For patients and their families, the hope is that, no matter how unlikely, the treatment plan will cure the patient and eradicate the disease. Sadly, this is sometimes a long shot. But sometimes, against all odds, the therapy is unusually successful. Now the National Cancer Institute is trying to learn why.

This week the institute launched a study into the phenomena of “Exceptional Responders” – that is, cancer patients who have a unique response to treatments (primarily chemotherapy) that have not been effective for most other patients. As they describe in a Q&A about the effort:

For this initiative, exceptional responders will be identified among patients enrolled in early-phase clinical trials in which fewer than 10 percent of the patients responded to the treatments being studied; patients who were treated with drugs not found to be generally effective for their disease; patients who were treated in later-phase clinical trials of single agents or combinations; and even patients who were treated with established therapies. In this pilot study, malignant tissue (and normal tissue, when possible) and clinical data will be obtained from a group of exceptional responders and analyzed in detail. The goal is to determine whether certain molecular features of the malignant tissue can predict responses to the same or similar drugs.

The researchers would like to obtain tumor samples, as well as normal tissue, from about 100 exceptional responders. They’ll compare DNA sequences and RNA transcript levels and other molecular measurements to try to understand why these patients were such outliers in their response to treatment. In at least one previous case, an exceptional responder with bladder cancer led researchers to discover a new molecular pathway involved in the development of the disease, and suggested new therapeutic approaches for other similar patients.

Do you know someone who might qualify for the study? More from the Q&A:

Patients who believe they may be exceptional responders should contact their physicians or clinical trialists to see if they can assist in submitting tissue for consideration. […] Investigators who have tissue from a potential exceptional responder should send an email to NCIExceptionalResponders@mail.nih.gov. The email should include a short description of the case, without patient identifiers; information about whether tissue collected before the exceptional response is available; whether informed consent was given to use tissue for research; and the patient’s vital status.

Photo by pol sifter

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