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Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth talks about the work he was “destined to do”

Stanford's Karl Deisseroth talks about the work he was "destined to do"

Earlier this week we announced the exciting news that Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, had won a $3 million 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Before he took the stage to accept his award during a star-studded Academy Awards-like ceremony Sunday evening, the video above was shown to highlight the significance of his work. One of Deissoroth’s quotes:

There are deep questions about the brain that may never be answered, but we’re making headway with optogenetics… We’re headed down a path that gets us to understanding [questions like] why does one person feel the way they do and why does it create a disease when they do a particular way, and what can be done to correct it?

Noting that the suffering of people with psychiatric disease “is a very, very serious and pervasive matter,” he also says “the nature of the illnesses – their complexity, the amount of suffering and the mystery – has made this what I was destined to do.”

Previously: Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth wins 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life SciencesInside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl DeisserothLightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact and An in-depth look at the career of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth, “a major name in science”
Video courtesy of National Geographic Channel

Bioengineering, Cancer, Imaging, Public Safety, Research, Stanford News, Technology

A new way to scan for plastic explosives could someday detect cancerous tumors

A new way to scan for plastic explosives could someday detect cancerous tumors

14591799636_128fbe50ee_zSci-fi shows and superhero films are full of gadgets and beings that have the power to remotely scan their environment for hidden things. For us mere mortals this superability may sound unachievable, but now Stanford engineers are working to develop a safe and portable way to detect concealed objects by scanning with microwaves and ultrasound.

As this Stanford Report story explains, the idea began with a challenge posed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency: Design a way to detect buried plastic explosives from a safe distance without touching the surface of the ground.

A team of electrical engineers led by assistant professor Amin Arbabian, PhD, and research professor Pierre Khuri-Yakub, PhD, took up the challenge, paying homage to the scanning device made popular by sci-fi show Star Trek in the process. They created a tricorder-like device that senses the ultrasonic waves created by objects as they expand and contract when warmed by electromagnetic energy (e.g., light and microwaves).

Here’s the really interesting part: Because everything expands and contracts when heated — but not at identical rates — this scanning tool could have medical applications as well. For example, blood vessels that sprout from cancerous tumors absorb heat differently than surrounding tissue. So, blood vessels radiating from tumors could appear as “ultrasound hotspots” when scanned with the tricorder device.

The team is working to make this device ready to detect the presence of tumors and other health anomalies sometime within the next decade or so.

Previously: Beam me up! Detecting disease with non-invasive technology and Tiny size, big impact: Ultrasound powers miniature medical implant
Photo by Joe Haupt

Bioengineering, Science, Stanford News

Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth wins 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Stanford bioengineer Karl Deisseroth wins 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Karl D at Clark - big

Updated 11-9-15: Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of Stanford’s medical school, provided comment last evening on Karl Deisseroth’s win. “The human brain has been called the most complicated object in the universe, but that hasn’t daunted Karl’s quest to understand it,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine. “If anything it seems the challenge has inspired him to develop techniques to see inside this most important of black boxes. This passion to understand the mind, combined with his intelligence and creativity, led to his pioneering role in creating optogenetics.”


11-8-15: We just learned that Stanford Medicine’s Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, has received the $3 million 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, an award designed to “honor transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life.” Deisseroth was given the prize for his work in optogenetics, a technique using light to control the activity of the brain.

The award was presented tonight at a private black-tie, red-carpet ceremony in nearby Mountain View, Calif. “The suffering of the mentally ill and the mysteries of the brain are so deep that, to make progress, we need to take big risks and even blind leaps,” Deisseroth said after accepting his award from actress Kate Hudson. “The members of my lab have taken a leap: borrowing genes from microbes to control the brain.”

Congratulations, Dr. Deisseroth!

Previously: Inside the brain of optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth, Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth awarded prestigious Albany Prize, Breaking through scientific barriers: Stanford hosts 2015 Breakthrough Prize winners, Lightning strikes twice: Optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth’s newest technique renders tissues transparent, yet structurally intact and An in-depth look at the career of Stanford’s Karl Deisseroth, “a major name in science”
Related: Head lights and Optogenetics earns Stanford professor Karl Deisseroth the Keio prize in medicine
Photo by Steve Fisch

Applied Biotechnology, Bioengineering, Stanford News, Technology

The rocket men and their breathtaking invention

The rocket men and their breathtaking invention


It’s a gadget straight out of Star Trek — a breath analyzer that may someday quickly and noninvasively detect everything from diabetes to cancers.

In a new Stanford Medicine magazine story, you can read about how three Stanford rocket-combustion experts — Christopher Strand, Victor Miller and Mitchell Spearrin — designed and tested a Breathalyzer-like device to measure toxic ammonia levels in critically ill children, all in about a year.

Breath testing with the human nose has been used in medicine since ancient times. (The rotten-apple smell of acetone is a sign of diabetes. A fishy smell is indicative of liver disease.) The rocket men in the story recognized the opportunity to develop a medical device that could transform this art into a science.

They figured that the technology they used in rocket testing, laser absorption spectroscopy, would be sensitive enough to make measurements of trace compounds in the breath. Just as engineers can use these data to tell if a rocket engine is operating efficiently, they could tell if a human biochemical engine is operating in a healthy range. Their project mentor, Gregory Enns, MD, a biochemical geneticist who diagnoses and treats metabolic diseases at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, helped the team get up to speed on metabolic disorders and remove bureaucratic roadblocks to clinical testing.

What was most inspiring to me about this story was the indefatigable optimism of the engineering team. The rocket men chose the most difficult molecule to measure (ammonia), a disease caused by a rare genetic defect with little commercial potential (hyperammonemia), and a hard-to-test patient population (infants). During the development process, they demonstrated the same mental toughness as abandoned-on-Mars engineer Mark Watney in the film “The Martian“; as each insurmountable technical challenge came up, they did what Watney did: “science the hell out of it.”

Previously: Stanford physicians and engineers showcase innovative health-care solutionsRaising awareness about rare diseases, Extraordinary Measures: a film about metabolic disease
Photo by Misha Gravenor

Bioengineering, Research, Stanford News

Stanford engineers create artificial skin that can signal pressure sensation to brain

Stanford engineers create artificial skin that can signal pressure sensation to brain


A hand without a sense of touch doesn’t really feel like a hand, many amputees describe. It’s more like a pliers that can be manipulated by sending signals from the brain to the prosthetic device. They dream of being able to delicately pick up a glass or to feel the touch of a loved one’s hand.

Stanford chemical engineering professor Zhenan Bao, PhD, and her team have spent a decade trying to help make this dream a reality, by developing a material that mimics skin and its sensory functions. Taking a big step towards this goal, they have now created a skin-like material that can tell the difference between a soft touch and a firm handshake.

Their artificial skin has two layers. The bottom layer acts as a circuit that transports pulses of electricity to nerve cells and translates these signals into biochemical stimuli that the nerve cells can detect. The top layer is a sensing mechanism composed of thin plastic embedded with billions of carbon nanotubes. When pressure is put on the plastic, the nanotubes are squeezed closer together enabling them to conduct electricity. What’s new is that the top layer can now detect pressure over the same range as human skin.

According to a Stanford news release:

This allowed the plastic sensor to mimic human skin, which transmits pressure information to the brain as short pulses of electricity, similar to Morse code. Increasing pressure on the waffled nanotubes squeezes them even closer together, allowing more electricity to flow through the sensor, and those varied impulses are sent as short pulses to the sensing mechanism. Remove pressure, and the flow of pulses relaxes, indicating light touch. Remove all pressure and the pulses cease entirely.

A paper describing Bao’s new research has just been published in Science. As Bao comments in the release, “We have a lot of work to take this from experimental to practical applications. But after spending many years in this work, I now see a clear path where we can take our artificial skin.”

Jennifer Huber, PhD, is a science writer with extensive technical communications experience as an academic research scientist, freelance science journalist, and writing instructor. 

Previously: Stanford researchers develop transparent, stretchable skin-like sensorStretchable solar cells could power electronic ‘super skin’ and Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more
Photo by Bao Lab

Bioengineering, Cancer, Infectious Disease, Precision health, Research, Stanford News

Stanford scientists co-opt viral machinery to create medical delivery system

Stanford scientists co-opt viral machinery to create medical delivery system

James Swartz

Stanford engineering researcher James Swartz, PhD, and his colleagues have remodeled a hepatitis B virus to turn it into a microscopic taxi for medical therapies. The team stripped the virus of its pathogenic DNA and modified an outer shell so that they could “hang” molecular tags on the outside to help deliver vaccines or other therapies to specific cells. The researchers reported their findings in a paper in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy this week.

They call the engineered product a virus-like particle (as opposed to a real virus with infectious material) or a smart particle. “We make it smart by adding molecular tags that act like addresses to send the therapeutic payload where we want it to go,” Swartz said in a Stanford News story.

The smart particle is a novel way to deliver vaccines or cancer therapies by teaching the body’s immune cells to recognize pathogens or cancer cells. Alternatively, the smart particle can deliver medicine specifically to the cells that need it.

Swartz and his colleagues’ effort is part of a larger field of targeted therapies that aims to precisely deliver therapies to the cells that need them and avoid damaging nearby healthy cells. Current cancer therapies, for example, are effective at fighting malignant cells, but also kill off healthy cells. That’s why cancer therapies often have such devastating side effects. But previous attempts to create virus-sized delivery systems have not been successful. In fact, Swartz’s team had a hard time getting funding for the early stages of this project because of previous failed efforts by other scientists.

So far, Swartz and colleagues have created the self-assembling shell that is invisible to the body’s natural immune defenses and strong enough to weather conditions in the blood stream and get its packaged contents to its destination inside the body. Next, they’ll work on putting specific cancer-fighting tags on the shell.

The most challenging task will be to pack the shell with a tiny dose of medicine. But Swartz sounded optimistic about his team’s goals. “I believe we can use this smart particle to deliver cancer-fighting immunotherapies that will have minimal side effects,” he said.

Previously: A less toxic, targeted therapy for childhood brain cancerIs cancer too complex for targeted therapies? and Working to create a universal flu vaccine
Photo, of Swartz holding an enlarged replica of a virus-like particle, by Linda Rice

Bioengineering, Cancer, Genetics, Stanford News

Cancer drug produced in common plant

Cancer drug produced in common plant

I knew that many of the drugs we use today were first identified in plants. What I didn’t know was in how many cases those plants are still the only source of the drug because scientists haven’t figured out how to make them in the lab.

If the only source of an effective drug is a plant that is rare, endangered, or hard to grow in the lab, that’s obviously a problem.

Elizabeth Sattely, PhD, a Stanford chemical engineer, recently tackled this problem for a popular cancer drug that comes from a Himalayan plant called the Mayapple. She managed to identify the ten drug-making enzymes in the Mayapple and insert those genes into a much easier-to-grow plant. In a story about the work, which appears today in the journal Science, I wrote:

[It] could lead to new ways of modifying the natural pathways to produce derivative drugs that are safer or more effective than the natural source.

“A big promise of synthetic biology is to be able to engineer pathways that occur in nature, but if we don’t know what the proteins are, then we can’t even start on that endeavor,” said Sattely, who is also a member of the interdisciplinary institutes Stanford Bio-X and Stanford ChEM-H.

Sattely said this is really a first step. Ultimately she’d like to get those same enzymes into yeast, which can produce high volumes of drugs in big laboratory vats.

Video by Amy Adams

Bioengineering, Research, Stanford News, Technology

New Stanford-developed technology bypasses “virtual reality sickness”

New Stanford-developed technology bypasses "virtual reality sickness"

headset_newsResearchers in the Stanford Computational Imaging Group have developed a new virtual reality headset that takes into account how the human eye focuses and processes depth.

Current display technologies are essentially two-dimensional and don’t present images the way our eyes were designed to see them, which can cause “virtual reality sickness,” or VR sickness for short, after only a few minutes.

The new system involves two transparent LCD displays with a spacer in between, which is called “light field technology.” A Stanford News article describes a light field as creating “multiple, slightly different perspectives over different parts of the same pupil. The result: you can freely move your focus and experience depth in the virtual scene, just as in real life.”

Gordon Wetzstein, PhD, assistant professor of electrical engineering, developed the technology along with researchers Fu-Chung Huang and Kevin Chen. In the news piece, Wetzstein listed the variety of applications this advance could have, robotic surgery top among them: “If you have a five-hour [robotic] surgery, you really want to try to minimize the eye strain that you put on the surgeon and create as natural and comfortable a viewing experience as possible.”

But the applications aren’t limited to what has already been imagined. Wetzstein explains, “Virtual reality gives us a new way of communicating among people, of telling stories, of experiencing all kinds of things remotely or closely. It’s going to change communication between people on a fundamental level.”

You can access a short video on the new development here.

Previously: Fear factor: Using virtual reality to overcome phobias, From “abstract” to “visceral”: Virtual reality systems could help address pain, Double vision: How the brain creates a single view of the world, Discover magazine looks at super human vision and Augmented reality iOS app for color vision deficiency
Photo by Vignesh Ramachandran

Bioengineering, Cancer, Imaging, Microbiology, Research, Science, Stanford News

Stanford team develops technique to magnetically levitate single cells

Stanford team develops technique to magnetically levitate single cells

Remember the levitating frog? That feat — the levitation of a live frog using a powerful magnet — was awarded the 2000 Ig Nobel Prize. Fascinating to watch, the demonstration also cemented a longstanding belief that levitating anything smaller than 20 microns was flat-out impossible. Much less something alive.

Not so, a team of Stanford-based researchers showed in a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Using a 2-inch-long device made of two magnets affixed with plastic, the team showed it’s possible to levitate individual cells.

The video above demonstrates the technique in a population of breast cancer cells. Originally, the cells hover, suspended between the two magnets. But when exposed to an acid, they start to die and fall as their density increases.

“It has very broad implications in multiple diseases including cancer, especially for point-of-care applications where it can bring the central lab diagnostics to the comfort of patients’ homes or physicians’ office,” Utkan Demirci, PhD, a co-senior author and associate professor of radiology, told me.

The technique makes it possible to distinguish healthy cells from cancerous cells, monitor the real-time response of bacteria or yeast to drugs and distinguish other differences between cells that were thought to be homogenous, said Naside Gozde Durmus, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow and first author of the paper.

Critically, the technique does not require treating the cells with antibodies or other markers, Durmus said. That ensures the cells are not altered by any treatments and makes the technique easy to use in a variety of settings, including potentially in physicians’ offices or in resource-poor settings.

The device works by balancing the gravitational mass of a cell against its inherent magnetic signature, which is negligible when compared with the cell’s density, Durmus said.

Interestingly, however, the cells — or bacteria treated with an antibiotic — do not die at the same rate, providing hints at their individual adaptations to environmental stressors, said co-senior author Lars Steinmetz, PhD, a professor of genetics.

To enhance the precision of the technique, the researchers can tweak the concentration of the solution that holds the cells, Durmus said. A highly concentrated solution allows for the differentiation of cells of similar densities, while a less concentrated solution can be used to examine a population of heterogeneous cells.

The team plans to investigate the applications of the device next, including its use in resource-poor settings where the cells can be observed using only a lens attached to an iPhone, Durmus said.

Previously: Harnessing magnetic levitation to analyze what we eat, Researchers develop device to sort blood cells with magnetic nanoparticles and Stanford-developed smart phone blood-testing device wins international award
Video courtesy of Naside Gozde Durmus

Bioengineering, Cardiovascular Medicine, Global Health, Stanford News, Technology

Stanford-India Biodesign co-founder: “You can become a millionaire, but also make a difference”

Stanford-India Biodesign co-founder: "You can become a millionaire, but also make a difference"

This post is part of the Biodesign’s Jugaad series following a group of Stanford Biodesign fellows from India. (Jugaad is a Hindi word that means an inexpensive, innovative solution.) The fellows will spend months immersed in the interdisciplinary environment of Stanford Bio-X, learning the Biodesign process of researching clinical needs and prototyping a medical device. The Biodesign program is now in its 14th year, and past fellows have successfully launched 36 companies focused on developing devices for unmet medical needs.

4499846308_9f084d26f0_zThe three Indian biodesign fellows who were at Stanford for the past six months have returned to New Delhi, where they’ll finish up their fellowship. They’re the last class of fellows from the Stanford-India Biodesign program, and in India they’ll be joining two teams already in progress as part of the new School of International Biodesign (SIB).

Balram Bhargava, MD, executive director of Stanford-India Biodesign (India), was at Stanford for the fellow’s final presentation of their prototype. He helped establish the relationship between Stanford and India and is now revamping the new self-sufficient program.

How did Stanford-India Biodesign originate?

I was at a retirement party in September 2006 for Ulrich Sigwart, MD, who developed the first stent. He called in some friends from all over the world, including Paul Yock, MD (director of the Stanford Biodesign Program). Paul and I shared a taxi ride to Ulrich’s vacation home and got talking. That’s when the program started. By January 2008 the first batch of fellows was here.

The basic intent was to start this innovative program in India and ultimately make it self-sufficient. We selected students from India and sent them to Stanford, then they finished out their fellowship in India.

How has the program changed over the years?

Our early fellows returned from Stanford with high-end ideas such as robots. I had to pull them all down back to the ground. My role was to give this program a soul, and I think I have been successful at that. After a few years Stanford also accepted that frugal design was the right thing for the world and I’m happy about that.

Many of our students had the intention of setting up a company and becoming millionaires. We’ve given them the idea that you can become a millionaire, but at the same time you can make a difference. That’s the delicate balance we want to teach. The students have been very bright and many of them have really delivered on this dream.

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