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Stanford bioengineer uses his experience in Iraq to improve research of TBI and PTSD

Stanford bioengineer uses his experience in Iraq to improve research of TBI and PTSD

777423808In 2012, President Obama issued an Executive Order calling for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment of traumatic brain injury (TBI), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health conditions. Third-year doctoral student Russell Toll is one of many who is doing research in these areas, and he brings a unique perspective to his work: He’s both a bioengineer and an Army combat veteran.

In 2006, Toll was in charge of a combined tank and infantry platoon stationed in the Diyala River Valley, about an hour northeast from Baghdad, Iraq.

His unit deployed with 14 tanks; they came back with four. Within 15 months, 28 men in his batallion were killed and 132 were severely wounded. A third of his men earned the Purple Heart and his unit — the 1-12 CAV in the 1st Cavalry Division — earned the Valorous Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism.

Now, Toll is working with his graduate advisor, Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, to identify biomarkers associated with TBI and PTSD. Toll and Etkin will discuss their work at the West Coast preview of the film “Searching for Home: Coming Back from War” next Saturday, June 20, at Stanford’s Cubberley Auditorium.

Recently, I spoke with Toll to learn more about his experience in Iraq and his research.

How did your experience in Iraq inform your understanding of PTSD?

As a platoon leader, all of your thoughts and efforts are focused on keeping your unit safe and getting them home. Only after you get home and decompress do you realize how much [weight] you were carrying.

This is a common experience for many soldiers and people that have lived through a traumatic experience.

At what point in your military career did you become interested in bioengineering and research on TBI and PTSD?

The pivotal point was in 2009 when I visited Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] to check in on my men. The care they received at the center was excellent, but some of the equipment and technology that was being used to diagnose and treat them seemed like it hadn’t changed since Vietnam.

When I returned to my hotel room at night, I found myself drawing up ways we could address this problem on the backs of napkins. I have a bachelors degree in systems engineering from West Point, and I decided to apply these skills as a graduate student in bioengineering.

What was it like to come to Stanford after spending 15 months in Iraq?

It was a stark transition from the Army to Stanford; I felt like I had just climbed off the tank and stepped straight into systems biology. It sounds funny, but in a way I was able to apply my military training to my graduate studies: I developed cooperative relationships with the “indigenous experts” so I could get help from my classmates. As evidenced by my friends, I’m good at surrounding myself with excellent people. Their tutoring, coaching and friendship — especially that of Shrivats Iyer — was a major reason I was able to make it this far.

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Big data, Events, Medicine and Society, Precision health, Public Health, Stanford News

How Stanford Medicine will “develop, define and lead the field of precision health”

How Stanford Medicine will "develop, define and lead the field of precision health"

15313-a-healthy-young-woman-stretching-outdoors-pvPrecision health was the theme of the day here on Friday, with Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, describing to a standing-room-only crowd at a Town Hall event how Stanford Medicine will continue to lead and excel in this area.

Minor, along with colleagues Amir Dan Rubin, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care, and Christopher Dawes, president and CEO of Stanford Children’s Health, offered faculty, staff and students a glimpse of the future of precision health here.

The vision has seven primary tenets, Minor explained:

  • Stanford Medicine will lead a transition from diagnosis and treatment toward prediction and prevention
  • It will develop new scientific advances and paradigms
  • It will bridge the gap between basic scientific research and clinical care
  • It will transform clinical care to emphasize compassion and quality
  • It will deliver quality health care at excellent value
  • It will train the biomedical leaders of today and tomorrow
  • It will develop and share its advances globally

Stanford Medicine’s focus in this area came about as part of a strategic planning process and taps Stanford’s strengths in data science, fundamental bioscience research and specialized care in areas such as cancer, Minor said. It also capitalizes on the nationwide focus on precision medicine, which took center stage in January when President Barack Obama introduced a Precision Medicine Initiative to establish a national system capable of delivering treatments tailored to individual patients.

Precision health includes precision medicine but boldly expands its focus. Precision medicine provides personalized treatments once illness occurs; in contrast, precision health aims to prevent and predict illness, maintaining health and quality of life for as long as possible. Precision health draws on data science tools to translate volumes of research and clinical data into information patients and doctors can use.

A recent Inside Stanford Medicine article described the benefits of such widespread access to data:

Physicians and researchers can better predict individual risks for specific diseases, develop approaches to early detection and prevention, and arm clinicians with information to help them make real-time decisions about the best way to care for patients.

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Behavioral Science, Ethics, Events, Medicine and Society, Mental Health

Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?

Anger: The most evil emotion or a natural impulse?

5846841745_f2f620c5d3Anger isn’t good for your health. It spikes your heart rate, exacerbating heart conditions and anxiety. It leaves an ugly residue, a sensation of unease and aggression and it can lead to violence against others or oneself.

But in the west, we have an uneasy relationship with this powerful emotion, said Owen Flanagan, PhD, co-director of the Center of Comparative Philosophy at Duke University and speaker at the annual Meng-Wu lecture hosted by the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education last week.

In the United States and Europe, some anger is considered justified, even necessary for healing after one is wronged, Flanagan said. It’s natural, just a part of our constitution. An appropriate amount of anger is expected, a sign that you care. Flipping out because your barrista took too long making your latte? Probably not okay. But yelling at a driver who rear-ended you while texting? Certainly.

Not in Asia, Flanagan said. There, in accordance with Buddhist traditions, anger is right up there with hatred as the worst emotion, something that should be eliminated as soon as it arises.

Flanagan said he and other academic colleagues posed a question to the Dalai Llama several years ago: If you find yourself in a public place with a very bad person, like Hitler, before the atrocities have started, what should you do? Westerners would say anger was AOK, as was perhaps even murder. After conferring with his colleagues, the Dalai Llama said yes, murdering Hitler would be justified to prevent a very bad karmic causal chain. But anger? Absolutely not.

One could argue that even Hitler’s behavior was a byproduct of his genes, his upbringing, the surrounding society, Flanagan told the audience.

Flanagan said he still hasn’t figured out his own views toward anger. “Anger is a destructive emotion, but it might be a necessary emotion. I’m still not sure about that.”

But in the U.S., we don’t always live in accordance with our own traditions, Flanagan said. “We give ourselves sloppy permissions all over the place to be very angry people. That’s something that’s just not good.”

To counter anger, Flanagan offers several tips, drawn from both western and eastern traditions. First, embrace an emotion that is incompatible with anger, such as gratitude. Or reflect on your own insignificance and the transitory nature of the harm: This too will pass. “Astronomy is a good antidote to taking yourself too seriously,” Flanagan said.

In a longer term, Seneca suggests that it helps to “live among people who teach the children that anger is always bad.”

But is it even possible to completely eliminate anger? Some argue no, even babies express a form of frustration or discontent that could be a sign of inner anger. Or, we could all be conditioned by society, learning to be angry as soon as we’re born.

Previously: Bright lights breed stronger emotions, study finds, Is it possible to control one’s emotions? and Study suggests emotions may trump mind in matters of self-control while meditating
Photo by katmary

Big data, BigDataMed15, Events, Medicine and Society, Research, Stanford News, Technology

A look back at Stanford’s Big Data in Biomedicine

A look back at Stanford's Big Data in Biomedicine

Ashley - 560

We reported many of the happenings at last week’s Big Data in Biomedicine here on Scope. Writer Bruce Goldman was also in attendance for the three-day event, and he captured the conversation in a just-published Inside Stanford Medicine piece.

Previously: At Big Data in Biomedicine, Stanford’s Lloyd Minor focuses on precision healthAt Big Data in Biomedicine, Nobel laureate Michael Levitt and others talk computing and crowdsourcingExperts at Big Data in Biomedicine: Bigger, better datasets and technology will benefit patientsOn the move: Big Data in Biomedicine goes mobile with discussion on mHealth and Big Data in Biomedicine panelists: Genomics’ future is bright
Photo of Euan Ashley, MD, welcoming conference attendees last Wednesday, by Saul Bromberger

Big data, BigDataMed15, Events, Precision health, Research, Stanford News, Technology

At Big Data in Biomedicine, Stanford’s Lloyd Minor focuses on precision health

At Big Data in Biomedicine, Stanford's Lloyd Minor focuses on precision health

Minor talking - 560

In the next decade, Stanford Medicine will lead the biomedical revolution in precision health, Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, told attendees of the final day of the Big Data in Biomedicine conference.

Involving all aspects of Stanford Medicine — including research and patient care — the focus on precision health will draw on Stanford’s existing strengths while propelling the development of new discoveries and transforming health-care delivery, Minor explained.

The choice of “precision health” rather than “precision medicine” is deliberate and a distinction that is reflective of Stanford’s leadership role. While both precision health and precision medicine are targeted and personalized, precision health is proactive, with an emphasis on maintaining health. In contrast, precision medicine is reactive, with a focus on caring for the sick. Precision health includes prediction and prevention; precision medicine involves diagnosis and treatment.

Minor used the model of a tree to describe Stanford’s focus on precision health.

Basic research and biomedical data science form the trunk, the foundation that supports the entire endeavor. Nine “biomedical platforms” form the major branches; these platforms include immunology, cancer biology and the neurosciences, among others. The tree’s leaves are its clinical core, with treatment teams in cardiac care, cancer and maternal and newborn health, for example.

The growth of the tree, its tippy top, is fueled by predictive, preventative and longitudinal care — where innovations in knowledge and care drive further changes in the future of health-care.

Minor made two key points about the tree, and its implications for research and care at Stanford.

First, the tree is big and growing. “There is room for everyone on the tree,” he said. “That is one thing that will make this plan — this tree — so powerful.”

Secondly, the tree is ever-changing. “Care will be analyzed and fed back. That’s really the true heart and meaning of the learning health-care system,” Minor said. “Every encounter is part of a much bigger whole.”

The entire effort will be fueled by big data, Minor said. To recognize its importance, and help train future leaders, Stanford Medicine also plans to create a new biomedical data science Department.

“We’re poised to lead,” Minor said. “We build upon a history of innovation, an entrepreneurial mindset, visionary faculty and students and a culture of collaboration.”

Previously: Big Data in Biomedicine conference kicks off todayStanford Medicine’s Lloyd Minor on re-conceiving medical education and Meet the medical school’s new dean: Lloyd Minor
Photo by Saul Bromberger

Cardiovascular Medicine, Events, Patient Care, Stanford News

Honoring doctors, nurses of the early days of Stanford’s coronary care unit

Honoring doctors, nurses of the early days of Stanford’s coronary care unit

image.img.320.highWhen I was in the hospital recently to give birth to my daughter, I saw my doctors briefly during their rounds, but it was the nurses and nurse midwives who primarily cared for me. So when I read in a recent Inside Stanford Medicine feature story that 50 years ago, nurses weren’t even allowed to perform tasks like start IVs, I was shocked.

In the 1960s, Stanford was home to one of the earliest coronary care units, led by Alfred Spivack, MD. Spivack taught the nurses working on the unit to take on tasks that were, at the time, mainly done by physicians. Joan Fair, PhD, RN, who was one of the unit’s original nurses and is now a cardiovascular researcher, recalls:

“Some doctors were totally against nurses doing these kinds of things… It also took time for some doctors to accept our opinions about how their patients were doing, or if we saw a problem and called them and asked them to take a different line of treatment.”

Joan Mersch, MSN, the unit’s former nurse coordinator, described in the piece how beneficial this extra training was to patients. “When you know how to read electrocardiograms, recognize lethal cardiac rhythms, perform resuscitation and defibrillation — it saves patient lives,” she said. “You understand what needs to be done, and you can take action.”

A big proponent of using technology to improve care, Spivack depended on the nurses to learn how to use the devices and incorporate them in the daily care of patients. And he also encouraged the nurses to pursue their research interests; many, like Fair, went on to obtain graduate degrees.

Last month, almost two dozen former nurses from the unit came together for a dinner celebrating a major gift from Spivack, which will pay for the nurses’ station in the new heart acute care unit when the new adult hospital opens in 2018.

Photo by Steve Fisch

Big data, BigDataMed15, Events, Medicine and Society, Microbiology, Research, Technology

At Big Data in Biomedicine, Nobel laureate Michael Levitt and others talk computing and crowdsourcing

At Big Data in Biomedicine, Nobel laureate Michael Levitt and others talk computing and crowdsourcing

Levitt2Nobel laureate Michael Levitt, PhD, has been using big data since before data was big. A professor of structural biology at Stanford, Levitt’s simulations of protein structure and movement have tapped the most computing power he could access in his decades-long career.

Despite massive advances in technology, key challenges remain when using data to answer fundamental biological questions, Levitt told attendees of the second day of the Big Data in Biomedicine conference. It’s hard to translate gigabytes of data capturing a specific biological problem into a form that appeals to non-scientists. And even today’s supercomputers lack the ability to process information on the behavior of all atoms on Earth, Levitt pointed out.

Levitt’s address followed a panel discussion on computation and crowdsourcing, featuring computer-science specialists who are developing new ways to use computers to tackle biomedical challenges.

Kunle Olukotun, PhD, a Stanford professor of electrical engineering and computer science, had advice for biomedical scientists: Don’t waste your time on in-depth programming. Instead, harness the power of a domain specific language tailored to allow you to pursue your research goals efficiently.

Panelists Rhiju Das, PhD, assistant professor of biochemistry at Stanford, and Matthew Might, PhD, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Utah, have turned to the power of the crowd to solve problems. Das uses crowdsourcing to answer a universal problem (folding of RNA) and Might has used the crowd for a personal problem (his son’s rare genetic illness).

For Das, an online game called Eterna – and its players – have helped his team develop an algorithm that much more accurately predicts whether a sequence of RNA will fold correctly or not, a key step in developing treatments for diseases that use RNA such as HIV.

And for Might, crowdsourcing helped him discover other children who, like his son Bertrand, have an impaired NGLY1 gene. (His story is told in this New Yorker article.)

Panelist Eric Dishman, general manager of the Health and Life Sciences Group at Intel Corporation, offered conference attendees a reminder: Behind the technology lies a human. Heart rates, blood pressure and other biomarkers aren’t the only trends worth monitoring using technology, he said.

Behavioral traits also offer key insights into health, he explained. For example, his team has used location trackers to see which rooms elderly people spend time in. When there are too many breaks in the bathroom, or the person spends most of the day in the bedroom, health-care workers can see something is off, he said.

Action from the rest of the conference, which concludes today, is available via live-streaming and this app. You can also follow conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #bigdatamed.

Previously: On the move: Big Data in Biomedicine goes mobile with discussion on mHealthGamers: The new face of scientific research?, Half-century climb in computer’s competence colloquially captured by Nobelist Michael Levitt and Decoding proteins using your very own super computer
Photo of Michael Levitt by Saul Bromberger

Events, Mental Health, Sexual Health, Stanford News, Women's Health

Women’s health experts tackle mood disorders and sexual assault

Women's health experts tackle mood disorders and sexual assault

3131235412_fa7f528735_zEarlier this week I reported from the Women’s Health Forum, held on Monday for the sixth year running. The hardest part about attending the event was deciding which among all the interesting talks to attend.

Among the many sessions, the two that most piqued my interest focused on women’s mental health. Katherine (Ellie) Williams, MD, spoke about mood disorders related to the menstrual cycle, and Laraine Zappert, PhD, discussed the psychological impact of sexual assault. Both are from the school’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Williams’ talk began with a cartoon of a dishwasher bursting with dishes, clothes, a phone, a vacuum – above a caption quip about PMS. The out-of-control energy of the sketch conveys the affective thundercloud often associated with women and their “hormones.” Williams identified three periods when this thundercloud may be an actual mood disorder, as opposed to “normal” fluctuations: pre-menstrual, perinatal, and perimenopausal.

Technically speaking, “PMS” is about physical symptoms and is fairly common, whereas pre-menstrual dysphoric disorders (PMDDs) is all about mood and affects less than 5 percent of women. The disruption happens in the luteal phase of a woman’s cycle, usually the two weeks after ovulation – this is a big chunk of time we’re talking about, nearly 50 percent! Treatments for disorders in all periods include exercise, acupuncture, and diet supplements, and pharmaceuticals like certain birth control pills and antidepressants (which interestingly work differently for women with PMDD than for people in general – when taken only during that luteal phase, they have fast onset time and cause no withdrawal symptoms).

Researchers are learning more about how to predict and prevent cycle-related mood disorders, and increasingly it is clear that life context plays a major role. Stressful life events, interpersonal conflicts, marital tension, and previous mental-health instabilities (from being a perfectionist to having suffered childhood abuse or major depressive breakdowns) are the primary risk factors. This knowledge means clinical practitioners have to think much more broadly about how to help women, particularly in terms of prevention, Williams said.

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Big data, BigDataMed15, Events, Patient Care, Research, Stanford News, Technology

Experts at Big Data in Biomedicine: Bigger, better datasets and technology will benefit patients

Experts at Big Data in Biomedicine: Bigger, better datasets and technology will benefit patients

population health panelThe explosion of big data is transforming the way those in health care are diagnosing, treating and preventing disease, panelists at the Big Data in Biomedicine said on its opening day.

During a five-member panel on population health, experts outlined work that is currently being done but said even bigger datasets and better technology are needed to ramp up the benefits from digital data and to save lives.

“Using the end-of-millions to inform care for the end-of-one – that is exactly where we’re going,” said Tracy Lieu, MD, MPH, director of research at Kaiser Permanente Northern California, a health-care network that includes 21 hospitals, 8,000 physicians and 3.6 million patients. “And we think that in a population like ours, in an integrated system like ours, we are in an ideal setting to do personalized medicine.”

Stanford Medicine professor Douglas Owens, MD, director of the Center for Health Policy and Center for Primary and Outcomes Research, led the panel on Wednesday. He said that big data is also changing how research is being conducted.

“There’s been an explosion of data of all kinds: clinical data, genomics data, data about what we do and how we live,” said Owens. “And the question is how can we best use that data to improve the health of the individual and to improve the health of populations.”

Lieu said two key trends are central to medical researchers: informatics and genomics. She told attendees that Kaiser utilizes a “virtual data warehouse” with the digital data of 14 million patients dating back to 1960. But Lieu cautioned that the data are not always the means to an end, particularly if the findings are not tested and implemented.

“Sometimes we fail. And we fail when we identify a problem of interest, we make a decision to study it, we assemble the data, we analyze and interpret the results – and then we send them off to journals. So we fail to close the loop,” she said, because researchers typically don’t go beyond the publication of data.

Lieu said Kaiser is now focused on trying to close that loop. “To do that, we need the kinds of tools that you in this group and the speakers at this conference are developing,” she explained. “We need better and better technology for rapidly analyzing and aggregating data.”

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Events, Stanford News

Stanford Medicine’s Health Matters event, in pictures

Stanford Medicine's Health Matters event, in pictures

Last weekend’s Health Matters, an annual event, drew more than 750 people to the Stanford Medicine campus. Along with hearing about the latest medical and health advances, participants were offered the chance to talk one-on-one with some of our experts and to participate in a dizzying array of hands-on activities.

For those of you who missed out (and even those who didn’t), save the date for next year’s event: May 14, 2016.

Previously: Stanford’s Health Matters happening on Saturday
Photos by CM Howard Photography

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