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Aging, Pain, Palliative Care, Research, Stanford News

How would you like to die? Tell your doctor in a letter

How would you like to die? Tell your doctor in a letter

writing a letterAsking patients how they would like to die is not a question that comes easy to most doctors. Not surprisingly, most of us – doctors and patients alike – prefer to avoid the topic completely. That’s not good, says VJ Periyakoil, MD, director of palliative care education and training at Stanford.

As I wrote in an Inside Stanford Medicine article on Periyakoil’s new study on end-of-life conversations:

End-of-life conversations help clarify for doctors what matters most to patients in their waning days of life… “What are their hopes, wants, needs and fears? Do they want to die at the hospital on a machine? Do they want to die at home? We can’t know unless we have a conversation,” she said.

Her study, published today in PLOS One, surveyed more than 1,000 medical residents and found that most balk at talking with seriously ill patients about what’s important to them in their final days, especially if the patient’s ethnicity is different than their own. Of those surveyed, 99.99 percent reported barriers, with 86 percent rating them as very challenging.

The upshot for Periyakoil, as she explains in a New York Times column published today, is that if we want to have a say in how we die, we should start that conversation ourselves.

To get these conversations started far and wide, she has launched the Stanford Letter Project – a campaign to empower all adults to take the initiative to talk to their doctor about what matters most to them at life’s end. The project’s website hosts templates for a letter about this to your doctor to get the conversation rolling. The templates are in Mandarin, Spanish and Tagalog as well as English – and Periyakoil says translations in additional languages will be available soon.

Previously: In honor of National Healthcare Decisions Day: A reminder for patients to address end-of-life issues, Study: Doctors would choose less aggressive end-of-life care for themselvesAsking the hardest questions: Talking with doctors while terminally ill, On a mission to transform end-of-life care and The importance of patient/doctor end-of-life discussions
Photo by Gioia De Antoniis

Applied Biotechnology, Clinical Trials, FDA, Research, Stanford News

An inside look at drug development

An inside look at drug development

B0008664 Assorted pills, tablets and capsules

How are drugs born? If you’re really curious about this, you’d be fascinated by the weekly meetings of industry experts and academic researchers taking part in Stanford’s drug-development training program known as SPARK.

A recently published book, A Practical Guide to Drug Development in Academia, crystallizes the sessions. Even if you’re not a scientist dreaming of curing cancer with your latest discovery, you might find it interesting.

In his recent review of the book for Nature Chemical Biology, industrial medicinal chemist Derek Lowe, PhD, writes:

I would actually welcome it if this book’s intended audience were broadened even more. Younger scientists starting out in the drug industry would benefit from reading it and getting some early exposure to parts of the process that they’ll eventually have to understand. Journalists covering the industry (especially the small startup companies) will find this book a good reality check for many an over-hopeful press release. Even advanced investors who might want to know what really happens in the labs will find information here that might otherwise be difficult to track down in such a concentrated form.

Lowe also wrote about the book last week on his blog, In the Pipeline, where an interesting discussion has begun.

Previously: SPARK program helps researchers cross the “valley of death” between drug discovery and development and Accelerating the translation of biomedical research into clinical applications.
Photograph from Wellcome Images

Cancer, Stanford News

Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who touched countless lives with his writing, dies at 37

Stanford neurosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, who touched countless lives with his writing, dies at 37

Paul K and daughter - fixedNeurosurgeon and writer Paul Kalanithi, MD, passed away on Monday. A death is almost always sad, but for me this one is indescribably so – though if he were alive he might convince me of a positive angle.

Kalanithi died at 37 of lung cancer less than a year after finishing his neurosurgery residency at Stanford. During the roughly two years between his diagnosis and death, he spent time as a surgeon saving lives and passing his skills and insights to neurosurgery trainees. But I came to meet him through my work as editor of Stanford Medicine magazine, which published an essay he crafted. His words changed how I think about my life – and, based on the many letters and emails I’ve received, changed how many people looked at theirs as well.

After his diagnosis he wrote essays for The New York Times and Stanford Medicine about his changing perception of mortality and time and the joy he continued to find in life. I interviewed him for a video produced for our magazine, talking with him at his apartment and meeting his wife and baby girl. My colleagues also got to know him by working on stories about his life and illness; just a few days ago, Paul Costello shared on Scope a 45-minute conversation the two had last fall.

Kalanithi’s message, to appreciate every moment, sounds corny when I write it, but in his eloquent words it hits home. In the obituary I wrote today, I shared this excerpt from his Stanford Medicine essay – words he wrote for his infant daughter:

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

Previously: Stanford neurosurgeon/cancer patient Paul Kalanithi: “I can’t go on. I will go on.”For this doctor couple, the Super Bowl was about way more than football, A neurosurgeon’s journey from doctor to cancer patient, Stop skipping dessert:” A Stanford neurosurgeon and cancer patient discusses facing terminal illness and No one wants to talk about dying but we all need to
Image – a screenshot from a Stanford Medicine video – from Mark Hanlon

Aging, Cancer, Emergency Medicine, Medical Education, Pregnancy, Stanford News

Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time’s intersection with health

Stanford Medicine magazine reports on time's intersection with health

Why is it that giant tortoises typically live for 100 years but humans in the United States are lucky to make it past 80? And why does the life of an African killifish zip past in a matter of months?

I’ve often mused about the variability of life spans and I figure pretty much everyone else has too. But while editing the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine’s special report on time and health, “Life time: The long and short of it,” I learned that serious scientists believe the limits are not set in stone.

“Ways of prolonging human life span are now within the realm of possibility,” says professor of genetics Anne Brunet, PhD, in “The Time of Your Life,” an article on the science of life spans. My first thought was, wow! Then I wondered if some day humans could live like the “immortal jellyfish,” which reverts back to its polyp state, matures and reverts again, ad infinitum. Now that would be interesting.

Also covered in the issue:

  • “Hacking the Biological Clock”: An article on attempts to co-opt the body’s timekeepers to treat cancer, ease jetlag and reverse learning disabilities.
  • “Time Lines”: A Q&A with bestselling author and physician Abraham Verghese, MD, on the timeless rituals of medicine. (The digital edition includes audio of an interview with Verghese.)
  • “Tick Tock”: A blow-by-blow account of the air-ambulance rescue of an injured toddler.
  • “Before I Go”: An essay about the nature of time from a young neurosurgeon who is now living with an advanced form of lung cancer. (The neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi, MD, is featured in the video above, and our digital edition also includes audio of an interview with him.)

The issue also includes a story about the danger-fraught birth of an unusual set of triplets and an excerpt from the new biography of Nobel Prize-winning Stanford biochemist Paul Berg, PhD, describing the sticky situation he found himself in graduate school.

Previously Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system, Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery and Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions.

Cardiovascular Medicine, Immunology, Medicine and Literature, Stanford News, Surgery

Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2014

Stanford Medicine magazine's big reads of 2014

brain attackThis year’s most-read Stanford Medicine magazine stories were all about the heart, surgery and the immune system – the themes of this year’s three issues. The top 10 (as determined by pageviews on our website):

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2013 and Stanford Medicine magazine’s big reads of 2012
Illustration, from the article “Brain attack” in the Fall 2014 magazine issue, by Jeffrey Decoster

Immunology, Mental Health, Stanford News

Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system

Stanford Medicine magazine traverses the immune system

cover_fall2014_2If you want to understand the human immune system, try studying humans – not mice. That’s what Mark Davis, PhD, urges in a special report on the immune system in the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.

For decades, most research on the immune system has used mice. Davis, director of Stanford’s Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection, launched Stanford’s Human Immune Monitoring Center a few years ago to change the immunology research paradigm.

“Inbred mice have not, in most cases, been a reliable guide for developing treatments for human immunological diseases,” Davis says in the special report, titled “Balancing act: The immune system.”

As the editor of the magazine, I wanted to feature a story that showed how human-focused immunology research plays out. So I was glad to learn that the center is in the midst of its largest study so far – one to figure out the cause of chronic fatigue syndrome. A team led by Stanford professor of infectious diseases José Montoya, MD, is looking for meaningful patterns in the components of blood samples gathered from 200 patients with chronic fatigue syndrome and 400 healthy subjects.

“It’s like dumping a hundred different puzzles on the floor and trying to find two pieces that fit,” Davis says in our story. We also have a video about a patient’s seven-year battle with chronic fatigue, from despair to recovery.

Also covered in this issue:

  • “I can eat it”: on a revolutionary treatment for food allergies
  • “Brain attack”: on the struggle to help children with psychiatric illness caused by a malfunctioning immune system – a condition known as PANS or PANDAS
  • “When bones collide”: on a new view on the cause of osteoarthritis: autoinflammation
  • “My rendezvous with insanity”: a Q&A with Susannah Cahalan, author of Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, her memoir of surviving an autoimmune attack on her brain
  • “The swashbuckler”: on look back to the early days of molecular biology when Mark Davis cracked one of the greatest mysteries of the immune system

The issue also includes an article on efforts at the VA Palo Alto Health Care System to use peer-support services to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a story on the growing concern that biomedical research results are often erroneous and efforts being made to solve the problem.

The issue was funded in part by the Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery, Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions and From womb to world: Stanford Medicine Magazine explores new work on having a baby.
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster

Medicine and Literature, Stanford News, Surgery

Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery

Stanford Medicine magazine opens up the world of surgery

surgeon hands - 560

It used to be “big hole, big surgeon” — but no more, according to Stanford’s chair of surgery, Tom Krummel, MD, who’s one of the surgeons featured in Stanford Medicine magazine’s report on surgery and life in the operating room, “Inside job: Surgeons at work.”

During his career of more than 30 years, Krummel has seen a massive shift from open surgeries to minimally invasive procedures — major surgeries conducted with tools that work through small openings.

“We do the same big operation. We just don’t make a big hole,” he said in the article leading off the report.

In the same issue, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, neurosurgeon Sanjay Gupta, MD, talks about why he’s “doubling down” on his support for medical marijuana.

As the editor, I’m biased — but I think it’s worth a read, along with the rest of the issue, which includes:

The issue also includes a report on research on Alzheimer’s disease, and an excerpt from Surgeon General’s Warning, a new book by Associated Press medical reporter Mike Stobbe on the fall from power of the U.S. surgeon general. The digital edition offers audio interviews with Gupta, Stobbe, Stanford surgeon and humanitarian-aid volunteer Sherry Wren, MD, and photographer Max Aguilera-Hellweg, MD.

Previously: The vanishing U.S. surgeon general: A conversation with AP reporter Mike Stobbe, Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions, From womb to world: Stanford Medicine Magazine explores new work on having a baby and Factoring in the environment: A report from Stanford Medicine magazine
Photo by Max Aguilera-Hellweg

Obesity, Research, Stanford News

Secrets of fat cells discovered

Secrets of fat cells discovered

fat_and_skinnyWhy aren’t we all drowning in fat? Before talking with Mary Teruel, PhD, this question certainly never occurred to me. (On a personal level, though, I admit I’ve wondered about the opposite!) But after our conversation I saw why it’s such a good question — and how great it is that Teruel has come up with an answer.

Normally your body replaces about 10 percent of your fat cells a year, explained Teruel, a Stanford assistant professor of chemical and systems biology. Little by little, the old ones die, and new ones develop from flat, spindly precursor cells.

Teruel knew, based on her previous experiments, that the switch that triggers the conversion of precursor cells into fat cells is an “on-off” sort, not a dimmer which can be dialed up and down.

Here’s what’s going on in a little more detail: The switch controls the amount of PPAR-gamma in a cell. PPAR-gamma is a nuclear receptor protein that is the master regulator of fat-cell development. In precursor cells, the switch is in the “off-state” and there’s no PPAR-gamma in the cell, but when the cell senses a stimulus that can cause fat cell development, the switch flips to the “on-state” and the cell rapidly makes huge amounts of PPAR-gamma which then turns on hundreds of downstream genes that create a full-fledged fat cell over a period of up to 12 days.

So here’s what was puzzling Teruel: Every human has a large number of precursor cells that all sense the same stimulus, but rather than all converting at once to fat cells (causing us to “drown in fat”) for a given strong stimulus, only a few cells develop into fat cells at any given time, allowing a healthy, constant renewal of our fat tissue. What allows this slow, controlled renewal of fat cells, as well as prevents the unhealthy situation in which all fat cells would turn back into precursors when PPAR-gamma drops below the threshold needed to flip the switch on?
If you can manipulate the rate fat cells mature, you could do a lot for obesity.
Experiments she did with postdoctoral researcher Robert Ahrends, PhD, and colleagues, explain, and provide clues about how to control the rate at which fat forms.

The answer, they discovered, has two parts. First of all, they discovered that the master fat-regulator switch has multiple layers of feedback. Teruel, who has a PhD in aeronautical engineering, explains that these multiple layers allow the body to control the rate of fat cell formation much as a pilot would control the pitch of an aircraft. Second, they found that not all precursor cells are alike — they vary in the quantity they carry of PPAR-gamma and other regulatory proteins.

This realization is a big deal. For one thing, it gives researchers new ideas for treating obesity and diabetes — so far, conditions that resist effective treatment without serious side effects.

“If you can manipulate the rate fat cells mature, you could do a lot for obesity,” she pointed out.

“This might be the heart of how you treat disease,” said Teruel. “We can’t just use one drug for treatment. Disease is more complicated than people think. It would be like trying to control an airplane and only being able to turn the rudder. This might work in a car or boat, but an airplane can move in three-dimensions, and a change in any one dimension affects the other two. Only controlling one dimension is a sure way to crash the plane.”

Teruel’s Stanford website has more info about her research as well as a striking depiction of a fat cell’s development.

They published the results of their studies on Friday in the journal Science (subscription required). They were supported by Stanford University New Faculty Startup Funds, the National Institutes of Health (grant P50GM107615), the German Research Foundation, and the American Heart Association.

Previously: Early findings show nutrigenomics could make weight loss more efficient, Study shows banning soda purchases using food stamps would reduce obesity and type-2 diabetes, Fed Up: A documentary looks for answers about childhood obesity
Photo by Jason Eppink

Imaging, Ophthalmology, Research, Stanford News, Technology

Instagram for eyes: Stanford ophthalmologists develop low-cost device to ease image sharing

Instagram for eyes: Stanford ophthalmologists develop low-cost device to ease image sharing

eye-phoneThis probably won’t grab as many headlines as the news of a smartphone that wakes you up with the sizzle and smell of bacon, but it should!

A team of Stanford scientists is using 3D printing to create inexpensive adapters that make it easy to use a smartphone and an ordinary examination lens to capture high-quality images of the front and back of the eye. And – what seems to me as just as important – providing a nearly effortless way to share those images.

“Think Instagram for the eyes,” said one of the developers, assistant professor of ophthalmology Robert Chang, MD.

This is a big deal because most primary-care doctors have no good way to see into patients’ eyes, and no easy way to share the images. The usual eye-imaging instruments are expensive and hard to use, and even ophthalmologists who have the equipment and know-how find capturing and sharing the images slow going.

As one of Chang’s fellow developers, Stanford ophthalmology resident Dave Myung, MD, PhD, told me when I interviewed him for an article in Inside Stanford Medicine:

“A picture is truly worth a thousand words… Imagine a car accident victim arriving in the emergency department with an eye injury resulting in a hyphema – blood inside the front of her eye. Normally the physician would have to describe this finding in her electronic record with words alone. Smartphones today not only have the camera resolution to supplement those words with a high-resolution photo, but also the data-transfer capability to upload that photo securely to the medical record in a matter of seconds.”

The scientists describe the adapters, currently dubbed the EyeGo, in two articles in the new issue (volume 3, issue 1) of Journal of Mobile Technology in Medicine. And you can read my story to learn more about the development process, including how Myung pieced together the first prototype (with plastic bits he ordered from the Internet and a few Legos), how mechanical engineering graduate student Alex Jais created the first printed model on his own 3D printer, and how residents Lisa He, MD, and Brian Toy, MD, are leading studies to test them out.

Those interested in using an EyeGo adapter for research or beta-testing can e-mail the team at eyegotech@gmail.com.

Previously: Image of the Week: Sigmoid volvulus and Treating common forms of blindness using tissue generated with ink-jet printing technology
Photograph by Dave Myung

Cardiovascular Medicine, Research, Stanford News, Technology, Transplants

Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions

Mysteries of the heart: Stanford Medicine magazine answers cardiovascular questions

spring14_magazine-coverThe heart is a paradoxical organ. It declares its presence with that distinctive thump thump, yet its moment-to-moment condition is really hard to decipher. But as I learned while editing the just-published Stanford Medicine magazine special report “Mysteries of the heart,” new technologies and research are making it easier to assess heart health and diagnose disease. With heart disease the No. 1 cause of death worldwide, that’s good news.

The issue, published during American Heart Month, was supported in part by the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute. Among its contents:

  • A change of heart“: An interview with former vice president Dick Cheney on having “virtually everything done to me that you could do to a heart patient,” culminating with a transplant.
  • Fresh starts for hearts“: A feature on using stem cells to revolutionize cardiac care, and a family for which new treatments can’t come soon enough.
  • The ultramarathoner’s heart“: Visionary computer designer Mike Nuttall’s exploits as an ultramarathoner, despite having severe heart disease (online only).
  • Hiding in plain sight“: The story of a man born with high cholesterol — a surprisingly common but hidden and deadly condition.
  • Switching course“: A piece detailing the untangling of a heart surgery that saves babies, but threatens their lives in adulthood.
  • The heart gadgeteers“: A report on the new wave of heart- and fitness-monitoring devices, and why it’s hard to integrate them into the medical system.
  • Easy does it“: An article on an alternative to open-heart surgery to replace aortic valves.
  • Dear Dr. Shumway”: Catching up with a kid who in 1968 wrote to transplant pioneer Norman Shumway, MD, for advice — on his frog heart transplant.

The issue also includes articles on the use of big data in medicine, which will be the focus of the Big Data in Biomedicine conference May 21-23 at Stanford.

Previously: From womb to world: Stanford Medicine Magazine explores new work on having a babyFactoring in the environment: A report from Stanford Medicine magazine and New issue of Stanford Medicine magazine asks, What do we know about blood?
Illustration by Jason Holley

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