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History, Medicine and Society, NIH, Public Health

“Don’t go to bed with a malaria mosquito:” exploring World War II medical posters

"Don't go to bed with a malaria mosquito:" exploring World War II medical posters

After exploring Stanford’s collection of historical medical images last week after a tour of the School of Medicine, I got hooked. Hooked on historical medical images — a quirky interest tailor-made for the internet. Turns out the National Institutes of Health’s U.S. National Library of Medicine maintains a massive image library, one that includes some fabulous propaganda posters from World War II, including the lady mosquito with the alluring proboscis (above).

Others in the World War II poster collection focus on venereal diseases, recruiting nurses and doctors, encouraging blood donations and even curbing noise or visiting the dentist.

And that’s just World War II posters. Its Flickr collection is tantalizing, kicking off with a series of medical oddities reminiscent of Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. It’s quite addictive – just warning you.

Previously: A trip down memory lane: Stories from the early days of the School of Medicine, #ACT4NIH seeks stories to spur research investment and Examining the impact of psychological distress on soldiers’ spinal injuries
Images courtesy of U.S National Library of Medicine

Big data, Bioengineering, NIH, Research, Science Policy, Stanford News

$23 million in NIH grants to Stanford for two new big-data-crunching biomedical centers

$23 million in NIH grants to Stanford for two new big-data-crunching biomedical centers

More than $23 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health – courtesy of the NIH’s Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative – have launched two Stanford-housed centers of excellence bent on enhancing scientists’ capacity to compare, contrast and combine study results in order to draw more accurate conclusions, develop superior medical therapies and understand human behaviors.

Huge volumes of biomedical data – some of it from carefully controlled laboratory studies, increasing amounts of it in the form of electronic health records, and a building torrent of data from wearable sensors – languish in isolated locations and, even when researchers can get their hands on them, are about as comparable as oranges and orangutans. These gigantic banks of data, all too often, go unused or at least underused.

But maybe not for long. “The proliferation of devices monitoring human activity, including mobile phones and an ever-growing array of wearable sensors, is generating unprecedented quantities of data describing human movement, behaviors and health,” says movement-disorders expert Scott Delp, PhD, director of the new National Center for Mobility Data Integration to Insight, also known as the Mobilize Center. “With the insights gained from subjecting these massive amounts of data to  state-of-the-art analytical techniques, we hope to enhance mobility across a broad segment of the population,” Delp told me.

Directing the second grant recipient, the Center for Expanded Data and Retrieval (or CEDAR), is Stanford’s Mark Musen, MD, PhD, a world-class biomedical-computation authority. As I wrote in an online story:

[CEDAR] will address the need to standardize descriptions of diverse biomedical laboratory studies and create metadata templates for detailing the content and context of those studies. Metadata consists of descriptions of how, when and by whom a particular set of data was collected; what the study was about; how the data are formatted; and what previous or subsequent studies along similar lines have been undertaken.

The ultimate goal is to concoct a way to translate the banter of oranges and orangutans, artichokes and aardvarks now residing in a global zoo (or is it a garden?) of diverse databases into one big happy family speaking the same universal language, for the benefit of all.

Previously: NIH associate director for data science on the importance of “data to the biomedicine enterprise”, Miniature wireless device aids pain studies and Stanford bioengineers aim to better understand, treat movement disorders

Clinical Trials, Ethics, Genetics, NIH, Pediatrics

The promise and peril of genome sequencing newborns

NICUEven though doctors and researchers have made great strides in caring for patients in the past few decades, there are still many illnesses that are difficult to diagnose, let alone treat. Among the most heartbreaking cases are those newborns who come down with mysterious illnesses that defy medical expertise. But in recent years, doctors have turned to genetic sequencing in some of these cases to identify the culprit causes of the illnesses.

Last year, the National Institutes of Health funded four pilot projects looking into the efficacy and ethics of genetic screening for otherwise inexplicable illnesses in newborns. The first of the trials will begin next week at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, as reported in a recent story from Nature. The trial at Children’s Mercy Hospital will focus on rapid genome sequencing with a 24-hour turn-around. Genetic sequencing normally takes weeks, but some of these infants don’t survive that long. Doctors have used similar rapid genome sequencing to diagnose an infant with cardiac defects at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to report on a rare genetic mutation that leads young infants to develop inflammatory bowel disease. I spoke with some parents of children with the mutation, which was identified by sequencing the children’s exome – just the protein-producing part of the genome – as part of a new project (separate from the NIH trials) at the University of Toronto in Canada. As I explain in the piece, getting a bone marrow transplant early enough can help alleviate symptoms and save the child’s life.

The parents were uniformly grateful for the sequencing technology that made it possible to understand what was causing their baby’s illness, even in cases where the child didn’t survive long after diagnosis. One mother mentioned that realizing some of the best doctors in the country didn’t know what was ailing her daughter made the experience even more frightening. After months of worried confusion about their young children’s deteriorating health, for these parents to have an answer was a relief.

But because the technique is so new, several ethical details still need clarification – which the NIH study hopes to answer. From the Nature news story:

Misha Angrist, a genomic-policy expert at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, says that although the 24-hour genome process is impressive, it is not clear whether genomic sequencing of newborns will soon become standard practice. Many questions remain about who will pay for sequencing, who should have access to the data and how far clinicians should go in extracting genome information that is unrelated to the disease at hand. Then there is the question of how informative the process is. “I think it’s really important that we do these experiments so that we start to see what that yield is,” Angrist says.

All four teams will include an ethicist who will be responsible for dealing with questions like the ones Angrist raises. The other three trials at Boston Children’s Hospital, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, and at the University of California, San Francisco are still awaiting approval from the Federal Drug Adminstration.

Previously: Stanford patient on having her genome sequenced: “This is the right thing to do for our family” When ten days = a lifetime: Rapid whole-genome sequencing helps critically ill newborn Assessing the challenges and opportunities when bringing whole-genome sequencing to the bedside Whole genome sequencing: The known knowns and the unknown unknowns
Photo by kqedquest

Neuroscience, NIH, Research, Stanford News

Federal BRAIN Initiative funds go to create better sensors for recording the brain’s activity

Federal BRAIN Initiative funds go to create better sensors for recording the brain's activity

Optical voltage sensorUpdated 10-2-14: A quote from Schnitzer was added to the post.

***

10-1-14: Yesterday the National Institutes of Health handed out the first $46 million in funding for the BRAIN Initiative, announced in 2013. Stanford got one of those awards, worth almost $1 million to develop improved ways of recording activity in the brain.

The award went to applied physicist Mark Schnitzer, PhD, and bioengineer Michael Lin, MD, PhD, to expand on work they published last year. The pair had each developed tiny sensors that could detect voltage changes within a neuron. These provided the first real-time view of a nerve’s activity. When I wrote about their initial work earlier this year I described how these probes could be used:

With these tools scientists can study how we learn, remember, navigate or any other activity that requires networks of nerves working together. The tools can also help scientists understand what happens when those processes don’t work properly, as in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s diseases, or other disorders of the brain.

The proteins could also be inserted in neurons in a lab dish. Scientists developing drugs, for example, could expose human nerves in a dish to a drug and watch in real time to see if the drug changes the way the nerve fires. If those neurons in the dish represent a disease, like Parkinson’s disease, a scientist could look for drugs that cause those cells to fire more normally.

The BRAIN initiative award will help the team develop better sensors, and also improve the technology for recording the signals. In a conversation, Lin told me that a brain signal lasts about 2-4 milliseconds. Any camera for recording that activity needs to record about 1,000 frames per second, and current cameras operate at about one tenth of that speed. Schnitzer has expertise in developing tiny cameras for recording biological activity and will be working to create a faster camera to pair with Lin’s improved sensors.

Schnitzer participated in a panel discussion at a White House Brain Conference held the same day the grants were announced. He said, “I think there are many important roles for engineering and new technology that will likely emerge in the BRAIN initiative… I expect the results will be profound by helping to unlock some of the central mysteries of brain function, by providing new tools and helping to lay the basis for conceptual foundations in our efforts to prevent and cure brain disease and brain disorders and also in harnessing some of the brain’s computational strategies for humanity’s own technological purposes.”

Previously: Thoughts light up with new Stanford-designed tool for studying the brainBold and game-changing” federal report calls for $4.5 billion in brain-research fundingNIH announces focus of funding for BRAIN initiative and New tool for reading brain activity of mice could advance study of neurodegenerative diseases
Image courtesy of Michael Lin

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

Health Costs, Health Policy, In the News, Media, Medicine and Society, NIH

#ACT4NIH campaign seeks stories to spur research investment

#ACT4NIH campaign seeks stories to spur research investment

ACT4NIH_Samples_FINAL

No ice buckets are involved in the latest push for investment in medical research. Instead Act for NIH: Advancing Cures Today, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit led by a former National Institutes of Health staffer, is a good ‘ol fashioned media campaign using data, stories and images, including a haunting photo of a presumably sick child captaining its home page.

The need is real. NIH funding has failed to keep pace with inflation or with investments by other nations including China. Now, only one in six research proposals, the lowest ever, are accepted, according to Act for NIH.

The campaign’s goal is simple: “We advocate an immediate, significant funding increase for the NIH, followed by steady, predictable budget growth in the future.”

Not so simple, of course, is the actual funding hike. That’s why the campaign is hunting for stories, as well as money. It urges supporters to photograph themselves besides a ACT for fill-in-the-blank poster. ACT for cancer, for hope, my grandfather, for AIDS – you name the reason to support research, action (and money) is needed.

Science released an interview with leader Patrick White today. White admitted the group lacks a formal plan, but it does have momentum, thanks to the backing by real estate developers Jed Manocherian.

It’s launch comes just in time for the 2015-16 federal budget cycle, which usually begins with the president’s budget proposal in February.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing about science and practicing yoga. She’s an intern with the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. 

Previously: How can health-care providers better leverage social media to improve patient care?, NIH network designed to diagnose, develop possible treatments for rare, unidentified diseases and Federal investments in research and higher education key to U.S. maintaining innovation edge
Photo by Act for NIH

Health Costs, Health Policy, In the News, NIH, Public Health, Science Policy

Research investment needed now, say top scientists

Top scientists made the case for continued investment in basic science and engineering earlier this week by unveiling a new report, “Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream” by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Here’s why this is important: Federal investment is needed to power innovation engines like Stanford’s School of Medicine, and if that money gets funneled to roads, the military, Medicare, or any of a variety of other uses, fewer jobs, and fewer discoveries, could result. From the report:

Unless basic research becomes a higher government priority than it has been in recent decades, the potential for fundamental scientific breakthroughs and future technological advances will be severely constrained.

Compounding this problem, few mechanisms currently exist at the federal level to enable policy-makers and the research community to set long-term priorities in science and engi­neering research, bring about necessary reforms of policies that impede progress, or facilitate stronger cooperation among the many funders and performers of research…

Stanford President John Hennessy, PhD; biochemist Peter S. Kim, PhD; and physicist (and former U.S. Secretary of Energy) Steven Chu, PhD, are among the scientific rock-stars who co-authored the report.

For an excellent piece on the political debate surrounding the report’s release, check out the coverage in Science here. NPR also recently aired a series that colorfully illustrates the effects of research cutbacks, including a piece on a patient suffering from ALS, and a profile of several underemployed scientists.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing or practicing yoga. She’s a science writing intern in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs. 

Previously: More attention, funding needed for headache care, “Bold and game-changing” federal report calls for $4.5 billion in brain-research funding, Federal investments in research and higher education key to U.S. maintaining innovation edge

Cancer, In the News, NIH, Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices

NIH Director highlights Stanford research on breast cancer surgery choices

The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, MD, this morning weighed in on a topic that has garnered much attention lately: the type of surgery that women diagnosed with breast cancer choose. The post, found at the NIH Director’s blog, describes a recent study by Stanford researchers published earlier this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association that examined survival rates after three different types of breast cancer surgery for women diagnosed with cancer in one breast: a lumpectomy (removal of the just the affected tissue, usually followed by radiation therapy), a single mastectomy (removal of the whole affected breast), and double mastectomy (removal of the unaffected breast along with the affected one.)

In a previous post we wrote in detail about the study and the finding that the number of double mastectomies in California have increased dramatically. However, except for women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, the procedure does not appear to improve survival rates for women who undergo the surgery compared with women who choose other types of breast surgery. Collins notes:

It isn’t clear exactly what prompted this upsurge in double mastectomy, which is more expensive, risky, and prone to complications than other two surgical approaches. But [researchers] Kurian and Gomez suggest that when faced with a potentially life-threatening diagnosis of cancer in one breast—and fears about possibly developing cancer in the other—women may assume that the most aggressive surgery is the best. The researchers also said it’s also possible that new plastic surgery techniques that achieve breast symmetry through bilateral reconstruction may make double mastectomy more appealing to some women.

Despite its recent upsurge in popularity, the study found double mastectomy conferred no survival advantage over the less aggressive approach of lumpectomy followed by radiation.

Collins also points out that the slightly worse survival rates of women who undergo single mastectomies probably reflect the fact that poorer women were more likely to have this surgery and is evidence of yet another health disparity linked to economic status.

Previously: Breast cancer patients are getting more bilateral mastectomies – but not any survival benefit

Autoimmune Disease, Genetics, NIH, Research, Science

Tiny hitchhikers, big health impact: Studying the microbiome to learn about disease

Tiny hitchhikers, big health impact: Studying the microbiome to learn about disease

I don’t know about you, but I’m fascinated with the idea of the “microbiome.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it describes the millions upon millions of tiny, non-human hitchhikers that live on and in you (think bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microscopic life). Although the exact composition of these molecular roommates can vary from person to person, they aren’t freeloaders. Many are vitally important to your metabolism and health.

We’ve reported here on the Human Microbiome Project, launched in 2007 and supported by the National Institutes of Health’s Common Fund. Phase 2 of the project started last fall, with grants to three groups around the country to study how the composition of a person’s microbiome might affect the onset of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and inflammatory bowel disease, as well as its role in pregnancy and preterm birth. Now the researchers, which include Stanford geneticist Michael Snyder, PhD, have published an article in Cell Host & Microbe detailing what data will be gathered and how it will be shared.

As explained in a release by the National Human Genome Research Institute:

“We’re producing an incredibly rich array of data for the community from the microbiomes and hosts in these cohorts, so that scientists can evaluate for themselves with these freely available data which properties are the most relevant for understanding the role of the microbiome in the human host,” said Lita M. Proctor, Ph.D., program director of the Human Microbiome Project at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).

“The members of the Consortium can take advantage of each other’s expertise in dealing with some very complex science in these projects,” she said. “We’re generating these data as a community resource and we want to describe this resource in enough detail so people can anticipate the data that will be produced, where they can find it and the analyses that will come out of the Consortium’s efforts.”

As I’ve recently blogged, data-sharing among researchers and groups is particularly important for research efficiency and reproducibility. And I’m excited to hear what the project will discover. More from the release:

For years the number of microbial cells on or in each human was thought to outnumber human cells by 10 to 1. This now seems a huge understatement. Dr. Proctor noted that the 10-to-1 estimate was based only on bacterial cells, but the microbiome also includes viruses, protozoa, fungi and other forms of microscopic life. “So if you really look at the entire microbial community, you’re probably looking at more like a 100-to-1 ratio,” she said.

Although thousands of bacterial species may make their homes with human beings, each individual person is host to only about 1,000 species at a time, according to the findings of the Human Microbiome Project’s first phase in 2012.

In addition, judging from the array of common functions of bacterial genes, if the bacteria are healthy, each individual’s particular suite of species appear to come together to perform roughly the same biological functions as another healthy individual. In fact, researchers found that certain bacterial metabolic pathways were always present in healthy people, and that many of those pathways were often lost or altered in people who were ill.

Stanford’s Snyder will join forces with researchers in the laboratory of George Weinstock, PhD, of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Connecticut to investigate the effect of the microbiome on  the onset of Type 2 diabetes. Snyder may be uniquely positioned to investigate the causes of the condition. In 2012, he made headlines when he performed the first ever ‘omics’ profile of himself (an analysis that involves whole genome DNA sequencing with repeated measurements of the levels of RNA, proteins and metabolites in a person’s blood over time). During the process, he learned that he was on the cusp of developing type 2 diabetes. He was able to halt the progression of the disease with changes in exercise and diet.

Previously: Stanford team awarded NIH Human Microbiome Project grantElite rugby players may have more diverse gut microbiota, study shows and Could gut bacteria play a role in mental health?

Chronic Disease, NIH, Patient Care, Research

NIH network designed to diagnose, develop possible treatments for rare, unidentified diseases

doctors' tools - smallVertigo, nausea, headache, fatigue, confusion. For years someone close to me has experienced severe and periodic bouts of these symptoms. It’s clear something is wrong and yet, despite countless tests and visits with specialists in cardiology, neurology, ophthalmology, pulmonology, otolaryngology, and immunology, no one has been able to figure out what that something is. At one of his last appointments – to the great disappointment of this patient and (perhaps even more so) his worried and frustrated wife – my loved one was gently told that he may have to face the very real possibility that he’ll never get a definitive diagnosis.

Unfortunately, this patient is far from alone: Plenty of people are living with mysterious symptoms that affect their quality of life (or worse), and it’s not uncommon for patients with rare diseases to have waited years for their diagnosis. With this in mind, the National Institutes of Health launched in 2008 its Undiagnosed Diseases Program, a pilot program designed to “provide answers to patients with mysterious conditions that have long eluded diagnosis” and “advance medical knowledge about rare and common diseases.” (Since that time, 600 children and adults have been evaluated, and approximately 100 patients were given a diagnosis.)

Now, the program is being expanded into the Undiagnosed Diseases Network, with the NIH announcing last week that six medical centers – including Stanford – will be joining and contributing local medical expertise. The NIH will work with experts from these centers (including Euan Ashley, MD, PhD, Stanford’s principal investigator) to, as described in a release, “select from the most difficult-to-solve medical cases and together develop effective approaches to diagnose them.” The physicians will “collect and share high-quality clinical and laboratory data, including genomic information, clinical observations and documentation of environmental exposures,” and they’ll “benefit from common protocols designed to improve the level of diagnosis and care for patients with undiagnosed diseases.”

In our online story on the network and the $7.2 million grant that Stanford received, Matthew Wheeler, MD, medical director for the grant, notes that “Stanford was chosen for our informatics expertise, our experience with clinical interpretation of whole-exome and whole-genome data, and our scientific potential to follow up any lead.” As my colleague Erin Digitale further explained:

The team will use cutting-edge genomics and medical phenotyping techniques to diagnose patients, and will also aim to understand the underlying biology of patients’ conditions so they can generate targets for new therapies, Wheeler said. “We aim to make a deep dive into each patient’s biology,” he added.

By the summer of 2017, each new clinical site is expected to see 50 or more patients per year. Referring clinicians can submit applications on behalf of undiagnosed patients on the program website.

Previously: Using crowdsourcing to diagnose medical mysteries, New search engine designed to help physicians and the public in diagnosing rare diseases and The road to diagnosis: How to be insistent, persistent and consistent
Photo by Adrian Clark

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