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Bioengineering, Research, Stanford News, Technology

An advancement in optogenetics: Switching off cells with light now as easy as switching them on

An advancement in optogenetics: Switching off cells with light now as easy as switching them on

Earlier this week, the New York Times featured Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, and his work in optogenetics, which involves precisely turning select brain cells on or off with flashes of light. Today, Deisseroth and colleagues share in the journal Science an advancement in the field. As Tom Abate explains in a release:

Optogenetics gave researchers a powerful investigational technique to deepen their understanding of biological system design and function in animal models. But first-generation optogenetics had a shortcoming: Its light-sensitive proteins were potent at switching cells on, but less effective at turning them off.

Now in a paper culminating years of effort, Deisseroth’s team has re-engineered their light-sensitive proteins to switch cells off far more efficiently than before…

“This is something we and others in the field have sought for a very long time,” said Deisseroth, senior author of the paper and professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

Thomas Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said this improved “off” switch will help researchers to better understand the brain circuits involved in behavior, thinking and emotion.

“This latest discovery by the Deisseroth team is the kind of neurotechnology envisioned by President Obama when he launched the BRAIN Initiative a year ago,” Insel said. “It creates a powerful tool that allows neuroscientists to apply a brake in any specific circuit with millisecond precision, beyond the power of any existing technology.”

The release offers more details on the work and its implications.

Previously: New York Times profiles Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth and his work in optogenetics, A federal push to further brain research, An in-depth look at the career of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth, “a major name in science”, Lightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact, The “rock star” work of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth and Nature Methods names optogenetics its “Method of the Year
Related: Head lights

Addiction, FDA, Health Policy, In the News, Podcasts

E-cigarettes and the FDA: A conversation with a tobacco-marketing researcher

E-cigarettes and the FDA: A conversation with a tobacco-marketing researcher

The FDA announced today its plans to regulate e-cigarettes. The news comes as little surprise to many, including Robert Jackler, MD, chair of otolaryngology at Stanford Medicine, who studies the effects of tobacco advertising, marketing, and promotion through his center, the Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising. I asked Jackler this morning what he thought of the FDA’s plan, and he had this to say:

While I welcome the FDA proposal to deem electronic cigarettes as tobacco products under their regulatory authority, I’m disappointed with the narrow scope of their proposal and the snail’s pace of the process. Given its importance, I’m particularly troubled by the FDA’s failure to address the the widespread mixing of nicotine with youth-oriented flavorings (e.g. gummy bears, cotton candy, chocolate, honey, peach schnapps) in electronic cigarettes products.  Overwhelming evidence implicates such flavors as a gateway to teen nicotine addiction [which] led the FDA to ban flavors (except for menthol – which is presently under review) for cigarettes in 2009.  Give the lethargic pace of adopting new regulations, a generation of American teens is being placed at risk of suffering the ravages of nicotine addiction.

In a podcast last month, Jackler spoke in-depth about the rise of, and problems with, e-cigarettes. If you haven’t yet listened, now is a great time to.

Previously: E-Cigarettes: The explosion of vaping is about to be regulated, Stanford chair of otolaryngology discusses federal court’s ruling on graphic cigarette labels and What’s being done about the way tobacco companies market and manufacture products

Bioengineering, In the News, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Technology

New York Times profiles Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth and his work in optogenetics

New York Times profiles Stanford's Karl Deisseroth and his work in optogenetics

Rockefeller University neurobiologist Cori Bargmann, PhD, is quoted in today’s New York Times as saying optogenetics is “the most revolutionary thing that has happened in neuroscience in the past couple of decades.” The article is a profile piece of Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, the Stanford researcher who helped create the field of optogenetics, and it reveals how a clinical rotation in psychiatry led him to this line of work:

It was eye-opening, he said, “to sit and talk to a person whose reality is different from yours” — to be face to face with the effects of bipolar disorder, “exuberance, charisma, love of life, and yet, how destructive”; of depression, “crushing — it can’t be reasoned with”; of an eating disorder literally killing a young, intelligent person, “as if there’s a conceptual cancer in the brain.”

He saw patient after patient suffering terribly, with no cure in sight. “It was not as if we had the right tools or the right understanding.” But, he said, that such tools were desperately needed made it more interesting to him as a specialty. He stayed with psychiatry, but adjusted his research course, getting in on the ground floor in a new bioengineering department at Stanford. He is now a professor of both bioengineering and psychiatry.

Previously: A federal push to further brain research, An in-depth look at the career of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth, “a major name in science”, Lightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact, The “rock star” work of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth and Nature Methods names optogenetics its “Method of the Year
Related: Head lights
Photo in featured-entry box by Linda Cicero/Stanford News Service

Dermatology, Health Costs, In the News, Research, Stanford News, Videos

Stanford dermatologist tackles free drug samples on NewsHour

Stanford dermatologist tackles free drug samples on NewsHour

Last week, my colleague reported on a new Stanford study showing that free drug samples lead to more expensive prescriptions. Over the weekend, dermatologist Al Lane, MD, senior author of the study, appeared on PBS NewsHour to discuss the implications of his findings. (He’s also quoted in a New York Times blog post on the research.) After mentioning that pharmaceutical companies spend more than $6 billion a year on sampling, he told NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan “that [this] cost eventually has to be paid by someone.” And he closes on a powerful note:

One of the focuses of our study was for the dermatologists to realize that although they think they’re helping the patients, they’re really being manipulated to write for more expensive medications with no proven benefit of those medications over the generic drugs.

Previously: Drug samples lead to more expensive prescriptions, Stanford study finds

Pediatrics, Sleep

How sleep benefits those with a rare neurological disease

How sleep benefits those with a rare neurological disease

In the latest Huffington Post blog entry from the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, a pediatric neurologist highlights a rare neurological disease that’s characterized by an improvement of symptoms after sleep. Mara Cvejic, MD, shares the dramatic story of a young patient, writing:

As a sleep physician today, Jane’s face still haunts me — but in a good way. The miracles of sleep are too numerous for the scope of this article, but there is plenty of undisputed evidence to show that healthy sleep improves our mood, our heart, our ability to eat healthy, to exercise, and perform at our best during the day at work or school. It is even linked to lower cancer rates. But can it take away what appears to be Parkinson’s disease and make a little girl walk? Oddly, that answer is yes. Jane had Segawa’s disease.

Read on for the full story.

Previously: Stanford center launches Huffington Post blog on the “very mysterious process” of sleep

Addiction, Health Disparities, In the News, Public Health

Menthol cigarettes: How they’re being used by and marketed towards African Americans

Menthol pic - smallHere’s a scary statistic, included in a recently published Newsweek article: “Each year, smoking-related illnesses kill more black Americans than AIDS, car crashes, murders and drug and alcohol abuse combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).” And then there’s this: “More than four in five black smokers choose menthol cigarettes, a far higher proportion than for other groups… By mitigating the harshness of cigarettes and numbing the throat, menthol makes smoking more palatable, easier to start – and harder to quit.”

The article discusses advocates’ call for a ban on menthol cigarettes (all other flavored cigarettes were banned in 2009) before going on to describe the history of African Americans and menthol-cigarette use, and tobacco companies’ aggressive marketing tactics. (“The tobacco industry… positioned itself as an ally of the very community it was seducing,” writes Abigail Jones.) It also quotes Stanford’s Robert Jackler, MD, founder of Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising, who expresses his concerns with ads that appear in a prominent African-American publication:

…[Jackler] has analyzed Ebony magazines since the 1940s and discovered it ran 59 cigarette ads in 1990, 10 in 2011 and 19 last year.

Ebony published 21 articles about breast cancer and 11 about prostate cancer between 1999 and 2013 but did not publish a single full-length story on lung cancer in that 15-year period. “Tobacco advertising is a huge revenue stream,” says Jackler. “Ebony professes itself to be the so-called ‘heart and soul and voice of the African-American community,’ and it completely neglects smoking.”

Previously: E-Cigarettes: The explosion of vaping is about to be regulated, What’s being done about the way tobacco companies market and manufacture products, Menthol “sweetens the poison,” attracts more young smokers, Menthol cigarette marketing aimed at young African Americans and NPR’s Picture Show highlights Stanford collection of cigarette ads
Photo by Classic Film

Cancer, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells, Videos

The latest on stem-cell therapies for leukemia

The latest on stem-cell therapies for leukemia

Leukemia research was the focus of a recent Google Hangout hosted by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine; included in the conversation were Stanford’s Ravi Majeti, MD, PhD; Catriona Jamieson, MD, PhD, with the University of California San Diego; and Karen Berry, PhD, DVM, a CIRM science officer. In the words of CIRM blogger Kevin McCormack, “Between the three of them they painted an optimistic look at the state of stem cell research into leukemia, the progress we are making, and the obstacles we still have to overcome.”

Majeti, whose works focuses on a potential leukemia treatment using an antibody to a protein called CD47, begins talking around the 10-minute mark.

Previously: Blood cancers shown to arise from mutations that accumulate in stem cells and Leukemia prognosis and cancer stem cells
Related: Cancer roundhouse

Cancer, Patient Care

From the Scope archives: Asking the hardest questions/Talking with doctors while terminally ill

Last September, Scope/Inspire contributor Jessica Rice wrote about her experience being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer; as a follow-up to Rice’s piece, one of our physicians shared her thoughts on communicating with seriously ill patients. Rice, who also chronicled her journey on http://stageiv.wordpress.com, passed away last Friday. We’re re-publishing this entry in her memory.

***

Since becoming ill, I’ve learned that I have the innate ability to make doctors very uncomfortable – squirmy, even. It’s surprising because I had assumed medical professionals with decades of experience have fielded every possible question a patient might ask.

But I suppose I’m not a typical patient. In November 2011, I was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer (bronchioloalveolar carcinoma, a subset of adenocarcinoma) with extensive spread to the mediastinal and hilar lymph nodes. At the ripe old age of 30, I joined a very exclusive club of young, non-smoking women with this rare cancer.

What I’m discussing with these doctors is no picnic. While there’s a sprinkling of terminally ill 30-somethings out there, we’re not a common sight in most oncology offices.

My biopsies were immediately tested for genetic mutation and found to be ALK+. Crizotinib had received FDA approval a few months earlier, so it was the logical first course of action. The pill was successful for three months before two things happened: toxicity set in, and my cancer grew resistant. Next, I tried two different chemo cocktails; both failed. I joined the LDK378 trial in November 2012 and had an excellent response. Unfortunately I experienced very painful side effects which led to dose reductions below protocol. I was likely getting booted from the trial and taking a break when I had a seizure this past June.

My MRI showed five brain tumors, along with small lesions I affectionately termed “brain lint.” After two CyberKnife sessions, a few tumors shrank, a couple grew, and five more sprouted from that innocent looking brain lint. It was time for whole brain radiation.

Through all this I’ve worked with more than a half-dozen doctors and surgeons. Some have impressed me, a couple seemed lacking in one area or another, and one even managed to capture my heart. Regardless, I’ve unintentionally made all of them uncomfortable at one time or another.

It could be my tough questions.

I consider myself a down-to-earth, logical creature; looking at the facts and hearing the truth is strangely comforting to me. This is why I recently asked, “What will dying be like if it’s the brain tumors that kill me? Will it be sudden, like a seizure with an uncontrollable brain bleed?” I had asked this question long ago in relation to lung cancer, but it now seems more likely that the brain tumors will lead to my demise.

Continue Reading »

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Global Health, In the News, Stanford News

Through his 50-cent microscope, Stanford engineer aims to “reach society in a very strong way”

Through his 50-cent microscope, Stanford engineer aims to "reach society in a very strong way"

Manu TED imageFoldscope, the ultra-low-cost paper microscope designed to aid disease diagnosis in developing regions, is back in the news. For a story appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, writer Stephanie Lee talked with Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash, PhD, and others about the invention:

“Manu Prakash is one of the most creative scientists and engineers and his invention is really original,” wrote Luke Lee, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley who works on global health problems, in an e-mail. “His elegant microscope is not only good for global health care, but also it will be a new educational tool to see the world.”

The Foldscope was two years in the making, starting with trips that Prakash and his graduate students took through India, Thailand, Uganda and Nigeria. The team met people who were suffering from infectious diseases but couldn’t afford conventional microscopes, which cost upward of $200, to diagnose their conditions.

“It was very clear that anything we came up with, if we can’t scale it to the cost it needs to be, it doesn’t really reach anywhere,” Prakash said.

Prakash went on to tell Lee, “This is not just an academic project. We happen to be in an academic setting, but we are trying to reach society in a very strong way.”

Previously: Free DIY microscope kits to citizen scientists with inspiring project ideas, Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope, Stanford microscope inventor featured on TED Talk, Stanford bioengineer developing an “Electric Band-Aid Worm Test and Stanford bioengineers create an ultra-low-cost oral cancer screening tool
Photo by James Duncan Davidson/TED

Clinical Trials, Mental Health, Research, Stanford News

Examining an app’s effectiveness at helping those with PTSD

Examining an app's effectiveness at helping those with PTSD

Can a mobile app help people manage the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder? As some local readers may have heard on KCBS today (or may remember from a previous Scope entry), this is a question that a group of researchers here are studying.

I explain more about the app in a recent release:

The study involves the use of a Veterans Affairs-developed app designed to provide immediate help for patients’ symptoms. The app contains four sections: “learn,” which provides basic information about PTSD; “find support,” which helps users find professional care; “self-assessment,” which allows users to fill out a survey that measures PTSD symptoms; and “manage symptoms,” which provides tools to address acute symptoms such as insomnia and anger.

The VA-funded trial follows earlier research showing that the decrease in PTSD symptoms for those study participants who used the app for one month was significant when compared to participants in the control group who didn’t use the app. For this study, participants will use the app for three months and fill out online surveys at the start of the study and at the three-month follow-up.

The researchers are looking for 30 participants experiencing symptoms of PTSD; they must not be currently receiving care for the disorder and they must have either an iPhone or Android smartphone on which they can download the app being tested. Those interested in participating or learning more should contact study coordinator Nitya Kanuri at nkanuri@stanford.edu.

Previously: The remarkable impact of yoga breathing for trauma, Relieving stress, anxiety and PTSD with emerging technologies, Using a mobile-based app to help manage PTSD and Stanford and other medical schools to increase training and research for PTSD, combat injuries

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