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Working to prevent sexual assaults in Kenya

Working to prevent sexual assaults in Kenya

Kenyan slumsThe little girl bounded up to us, wearing a filthy pink sweater, with a beaming smile on her face, and gave me a huge hug. Surprised at the reception, I hugged her back and swung her gently back and forth. She giggled and ran to hug my colleagues, then, hopping over an open sewer, darted into an alley that lead to her home. We followed as quickly as we could over the slippery mud, down one alleyway than another. Within a few minutes we reached her house, a 5’ by 10’ structure made of mud and wood, without windows, electricity, or locks. The girl, named Lianna*, lives here with her two year-old brother, who calls her “Mama”, as she is his primary caretaker. Their mother is a bartender and likely also a sex worker, and returns home only occasionally. The home is filthy, smells bad, and is without food or water. Yet this beautiful child, brimming with energy and intelligence, is proud to show it to us and to introduce us to her sibling.

Lianna is a resident of Korogocho, one of the poorest informal settlements (known to many as slums) in the Nairobi region of Kenya. Korogocho itself has about 52,000 residents, and it borders on other, larger informal settlements such as Dandora. Poverty and lack of sanitation are the norm in these communities, and crime is extremely high. Girls in these settlements may be especially vulnerable, with 18-25 percent of adolescent girls reporting being sexually assaulted each year, often by friends and relatives.

A multidisciplinary team at Stanford has been working in these communities on a sexual assault prevention project with two Kenyan non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Ujamaa and No Means No Worldwide (NMNW), for about two years. This past July, my colleague Mike Baiocchi, PhD, and I traveled to Kenya to meet the local NGO staff, become familiar with the communities they work in, and advance their research capacity.

Ujamaa, led by Jake Sinclair, MD, a pediatrician from John Muir Hospital, has been working in these and other settlements, including Kibera, Mathare, Huruma, Kariobangi, for more than 14 years, and has partnered with NMNW for several years. NMNW, led by Lee Paiva Sinclair, developed a curriculum to reduce sexual assault by teaching empowerment and self-defense, and works with Ujamaa to implement this curriculum in the slums. The Stanford team became involved in order to research the effectiveness of this intervention.

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Chronic Disease, Genetics, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Stem cells implicated in Duchenne muscular dystrophy

Stem cells implicated in Duchenne muscular dystrophy

640px-Duchenne-muscular-dystrophyStanford researchers published a paper today in Science Translational Medicine describing how stem cells are involved in the development of Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a disease that results in progressive, often severe muscle weakness. It affects about one in every 3,600 boys born in the U.S.

The research team determined that the stem cells surrounding muscle tissue gradually became less able to create new muscle cells and instead begin to express genes that lead to connective tissue formation. Excess connective tissue accumulation, which is called fibrosis, occurs in many diseases. Thomas Rando, MD, PhD, a Stanford neurologist and one of the authors of the paper said in a release about the new study:

These cells are losing their ability to produce muscle, and are beginning to look more like fibroblasts, which secrete connective tissue. It’s possible that if we could prevent this transition in the muscle stem cells, we could slow or ameliorate the fibrosis seen in muscular dystrophy in humans.

The researchers also found that a drug already approved to treat high blood pressure in humans called losartin can slow these changes in stem cells in laboratory mice, although much more work is needed to find out if it could be helpful in children with Duchenne.

The researchers are focusing on how to get the drug to target only muscle cells, but they’re also interested in how they can apply their findings to other diseases. Rando, who directs the Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Stanford, also commented:

Fibrosis seems to occur in a vicious cycle. As the muscle stem cells become less able to regenerate new muscle, the tissue is less able to repair itself after damage. This leads to fibrosis, which then further impairs muscle formation. Understanding the biological basis of fibrosis could have a profound effect on many other diseases.

Previously: Working on a gene therapy for muscular dystrophy, New mouse model of muscular dystrophy provides clues to cardiac  failure, and Mouse model of muscular dystrophy points finger at stem cells
Photo of muscle cells affected by Duchenne disease by Edwin P. Ewing

Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker establishes allergy center at Stanford

Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Parker establishes allergy center at Stanford

DrKariNadeau-Dec2014Here at Scope, we’ve often written about the life-threatening nature of allergic reactions and the work that Stanford scientists are doing to understand dangerous allergies. For instance, Stanford immunologist Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, (pictured at right) leads research to combat children’s food allergies with oral immunotherapy, a treatment in which patients consume tiny but gradually increasing doses of their allergy triggers under a doctor’s supervision.

Today, the efforts of Nadeau and other Stanford allergy researchers are receiving a big boost. Silicon Valley entrepreneur and philanthropist Sean Parker has announced that he’s donating $24 million to establish an allergy research center at Stanford, which Nadeau will lead. Parker has a personal interest in the topic because of his own experience with severe food allergies. Scientists at the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University will study the underlying mechanisms of all types of allergies in children and adults and will aim to develop lasting allergy cures.

From the press release about the center’s launch:

“We are excited about the center because there is enormous clinical need for better understanding of and treatment for allergies,” said Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of Stanford University School of Medicine. “For instance, the recent profound increase in the incidence of serious food allergy is fascinating and deeply concerning at the same time. Sean Parker’s generous gift will enable Stanford Medicine experts, under Dr. Nadeau’s leadership, to collaborate and innovate across academic disciplines for the benefit of millions of people with allergies.”

“I am thrilled and honored to direct the Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy Research at Stanford University,” said Dr. Nadeau, associate professor of pediatrics at the medical school and an immunologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and Stanford Health Care. “Sean is well-versed in immunology, and has been a fantastic partner to work with. He’s an entrepreneur and visionary, and we look forward to using this gift and center as the springboard to improve the lives of those adults with allergies through immunotherapy that goes beyond oral therapy.”

Previously: Taking a bite out of food allergies: Stanford doctors exploring new ways to help sufferers, Ask Stanford Med: Pediatric immunologist answers your questions about food allergy research and Researchers show how DNA-based test could keep peanut allergy at bay

In the News, Patient Care, Pediatrics, Stanford News

Fifty-plus years of Sunshine: Long-time Stanford neonatologist discusses his career

Fifty-plus years of Sunshine: Long-time Stanford neonatologist discusses his career

sunshineWith a name like Dr. Sunshine, parents should know their premature babies are in good hands. On yesterday’s Forum, neonatologist Philip Sunshine, MD, discussed the fifty-plus years he’s been caring for preemies. At 84, he’s still at it, working 30 hours in a step-down nursery at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford. (He jokingly told host Michael Krasny, “I do all the stuff the young people don’t want to do.”)

During the hour, Sunshine, a 2015 “Legends of Neonatology” honoree, talked about the changing field of neonatology, including his views on the ever-growing popularity of home births (“Home deliveries are for pizzas only,” he quipped, referencing a pin his former classmate always wore). He also read e-mails and took calls from listeners – many of whom thanked him for saving their children’s lives (30,000 and counting).

Previously: Eightysomething “neonatology superhero” still at itA pioneer of modern-day neonatology and Neonatologist celebrates 50 years of preemie care
Photo courtesy of Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford

Nutrition, Parenting, Pediatrics, Public Health

Tips on how parents with a history of eating disorders can enjoy the holidays

Tips on how parents with a history of eating disorders can enjoy the holidays

5294777976_8eb6ae86d9_zThe holiday season is often a joyful time when friends and family hit pause on their busy schedules to enjoy each other’s company. There’s also lots and lots of food involved, which can be challenging for parents with a history of eating disorders.

Recent research has found that parental eating disorders (either a past or current condition) are associated with numerous problems in child feeding, including difficulties in transitioning to solid foods and deciding which types of foods to offer and in what quantities. Studies observing the interactions of mothers with eating disorders and their young children noted greater conflict and more controlling behavior over eating, appetite, and food choices. Mothers with eating disorders often tell researchers and clinicians that their children’s troubling eating patterns are associated with their own eating habits, and shape and weight concerns  too often intervene in the decisions parents make in feeding their children.

Holiday celebrations can make these feeding relationships even more complex. Traditions of eating together with family or friends may create additional stress for parents. Additionally, family gatherings can reawaken memories of negative experiences parents may have had as children at the dinner table, adding another layer of worry and hyper-vigilance.

So what should parents with a history of eating disorders, or those concerned about their children overeating, do during the holidays? Here are some tips for having a more pleasurable and relaxing time:

  • Plan ahead: Talk to your partner about your concerns and come up with a strategy for how to cope with stressful situations around eating. Talk about what you’ll do if there is food on the table that you typically don’t eat, or if your child asks for second and third servings of foods. A rule of thumb should be to allow the child to experience a variety of food to a certain extent, as long as it doesn’t contradict any significant beliefs or preferences (such as non-kosher food).
  • Talk with your child before things get out of hand: Walk your child through the social gathering beforehand and discuss potential conflicts that may arise. The discussion should be appropriate to the child’s age. With children ages 2-3, parents could talk about the meal, mention that it will be probably very tasty, and set some limits. For instance, one could say that after dinner the child can have one or two desserts, but not more. With older children, parents should encourage autonomous eating based on the child’s regulation of hunger and satiety. This is an opportunity to discuss with children the differences between families, as well as your normal routine and special events. You should also discuss general boundaries and choices of your household.
  • Add fun activities that don’t involve food: Many celebrations and traditions revolve around food. To participate with your family in more neutral activities that are less nerve-wracking, parents should think of supplementary pastimes that all family members will enjoy. Shifting the focus away from the meal for part of the time can help parents “lower the volume” of their eating disorder when they spend time with their children.
  • Unwind: Despite being worried that loved ones will gain excessive weight during the holidays, parents should remind themselves that in a healthy-eating style, people don’t become overweight following a few specific meals. In addition, you should focus on the positive aspects of the social gathering for them and for their children – meeting family members or friends you may have not seen in a while, catching up with things you do not have time for during the year, and strengthening your relationships with your children. Before anxiety-provoking situations, parents should use any method of relaxation and stress-reduction that works for them and fits the context – have a long relaxing shower, drink a hot tea, listen to music, or stay away from the dinner table until the meal begins.

The holiday season can be a better experience for you and your family once you work through and resolve any concerns involving children’s eating.

Shiri Sadeh-Sharvit, PhD, is a psychologist and a visiting instructor at Stanford. She’s now recruiting mothers with a history of eating disorders to a parenting program study at Stanford. For more information contact shiris@stanford.edu.

Photo by Micah Elizabeth Scott

Chronic Disease, Neuroscience, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research

High blood sugar linked to reduced brain growth in children with Type 1 diabetes

High blood sugar linked to reduced brain growth in children with Type 1 diabetes

Some areas of the brain grow more slowly in children with Type 1 diabetes than those without, according to findings published this week in Diabetes. Researchers also found that children with the highest and most variable blood sugar levels had the slowest brain growth.

Glucose, the main form of sugar in our blood, is the brain’s primary fuel, and in Type 1 diabetes, the body loses the ability to produce a key hormone needed to regulate blood sugar levels. Type 1 diabetes treatment for children has often focused on making sure their glucose levels don’t get too low, since very low glucose can quickly put someone into a coma. But it’s emerging that chronically-high sugar is also bad for the brain.

The better the glucose control, the more likely that a child’s brain development will be unimpeded.

The new study, conducted at Stanford and four other universities, tracked brain structure and cognitive function in 144 young children with Type 1 diabetes and a comparison group of 72 children without diabetes over 18 months. MRI scans showed that the brains of both groups of kids were growing, but gray- and white-matter growth was slower in several areas of the brain in the diabetic children.

“These studies provide strong evidence that the developing brain is a vulnerable target for diabetes complications,” the researchers wrote. The affected brain areas have a variety of roles, including visual-spatial processing; auditory, language and object processing; executive function; spatial and working memory; and integration of information from sensory systems.

I asked two of the paper’s Stanford authors for more thoughts about what they found.

“The magnitude of the group differences in brain growth over time was surprising,” said Allan Reiss, MD, the study’s senior author. “I actually thought these differences would be more subtle — they were not.”

Past studies have found cognitive and brain-structure changes associated with diabetes in older patients, but this research stands out because the kids included were so young — at the start of the study, their ages ranged from 4 to just under 10, with an average age of 7 — and because the study had a prospective design, following children forward in time. In addition to examining brain structure, the researchers also tested the kids’ cognitive function with standard tests of IQ, learning and memory, and mood and behavior, among others. They saw no significant differences in cognitive function between the two groups, a finding Reiss said did not surprise him.

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Parenting, Pediatrics, Pregnancy, Technology, Women's Health

Stanford alumni aim to redesign the breast pump

Stanford alumni aim to redesign the breast pump

2014-11-21 15.02.36

Three Stanford graduates have an idea that could dramatically impact the daily life of active breastfeeding women: They plan to design and build a breast pump that is discreet, intuitive, and supportive of mothers. This may sound obvious, but nothing like it currently exists. In August of this year, Cara Delzer, MBA; Gabrielle Guthrie, MFA; and Santhi Analytis, PhD, founded Moxxly, “a consumer products company designing for women.” They’re in the final stretch of their 16-week incubation with Highway 1, which helps hardware startups move from a concept to a prototype ready for production.

“We’ve talked to women, hundreds of women, who have told us things like ‘pumping makes me feel like a cow,'” shares Delzer, Moxxly’s CEO, who I interviewed in late November. So she and her colleagues are aiming to re-imagine the pumping experience.

Delzer experienced the current, poorly-imagined pumps firsthand after the recent birth of her child: “I just remember watching my husband take piece after piece out of the pump box for the first time thinking, how in the world am I going to put this together? All those pieces, and clean them? I was already overwhelmed as a new mom, but completely overwhelmed by the pump.” Once she went back to work, she found that she was spending 25 percent of her day dealing with the logistics of pumping – mentally integrating it into her schedule, worrying about having all the parts. The experience is similar for many of today’s busy, mobile moms.

Meanwhile, Guthrie was at Stanford developing her passion for designing for women, Delzer recounts. “A lot of things that have been designed for women and girls in the past have followed this ‘shrink it and pink it’ trope where you literally make it smaller and bright pink and think, ‘Oh, now the girls will buy it.’ Well, Gabrielle doesn’t buy it.” For her masters’ thesis, Guthrie interviewed working moms, and the breast pump kept coming up as something that needed to be redesigned. She spent much of her last year at Stanford working on just that. At a hackathon, she and Analytis worked together to put the new designs into practice, and Analytis, whose PhD is in mechanical engineering, was hooked on solving this problem as well.

The three women “got together, looked one another in the eyes and said, ‘Do we believe this is a problem? Do we believe we can solve it? Do we believe the time is now?’ And it was yes, yes, yes,” said Delzer. They took on the challenge despite the fact that the breast pump is an FDA-regulated medical device and they will face a lengthy review process. They invented the name “Moxxly” with the intent of conveying spunkiness and strength, and incorporated XX to signify women.

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Infectious Disease, Parenting, Pediatrics, Public Health

How one mom learned the importance of the flu shot – the hard way

How one mom learned the importance of the flu shot - the hard way

tamiflu‘Wow, I’m a pathetic sight,’ I thought as I stepped out of the bright fluorescent light onto the rainy pavement, fumbling with my half-open umbrella and crying. I was coming from Walgreens, clutching on to a crisp white paper bag containing Tamiflu and bottles of Children’s Tylenol (cherry and grape) and re-playing in my head the comments a pharmacist had just made to me. “Did they not get their flu shots?” she had asked, not unkindly, as she packaged up my loot. “Is that why your kids got sick?” Hence my (guilty and big) tears.

My two girls – ages eight and five – had indeed not gotten their flu shot. I had meant to take them in – I’m a super-organized mama who usually follows doctors’ orders to a tee, the type who carefully monitored and recorded the contents of her newborns’ diapers for weeks and who typically schedules well-child exams as close to her kids’ actual birthday as possible. And yet time slipped away from me this fall, I hadn’t taken them in (no excuses – just life), and earlier that day my oldest had tested positive for a particularly nasty type of Influenza A. Hours later we were called by the girls’ school: The little one was now sick with a high fever (and likely the flu). The doctor suggested we start her on Tamiflu, too, and hope for the best.

My guilt, as I watched my kindergartener later cry out in pain (when my husband asked what she wanted for Hanukkah, in an effort to get her mind off her sickness, she moaned, “I just want to feel better”), was practically all-consuming. How could we have not taken them in? I kept asking myself. I go every year, and I always follow the pediatrician’s recommendations about vaccines. I believe in the importance of vaccines. So what was I thinking?

Later that evening, after the kids (following much negotiation and crying) agreed to take their “yucky”-tasting Tamiflu and had finally gotten to sleep, I took to Facebook, where friends and acquaintances sweetly tried to cheer me up and came to my defense. The girls might have gotten sick even if they had gotten a flu shot, some suggested. (Although: This year’s vaccine offers protection from this particular strain.) They could have had a reaction from the shot itself, someone pointed out. (Yet: My kids have never experienced side-effects from being vaccinated.) The pharmacist was just trying to fill a quota for flu shots or make you feel bad, one old college friend suggested. (But: The pharmacist actually wasn’t being pushy or judgmental with her question; she seemed more curious than anything.)

The bottom line is that I messed up and didn’t come through in protecting my kids this time around. It was a hard pill to swallow. But what comforted me in the end was the thought that my daughters’ illness is temporary and in the grand scheme of things, not all that bad. I am blessed for my children’s overall good health (I know many parents have to face far, far worse things than the flu), and I am blessed to have the resources that enable us to see a good doctor and purchase not-inexpensive antivirals.

The experience, also, reminded me of some valuable lessons. A parent – or anyone, really – should never take good health for granted. And one should never become complacent about disease and illness prevention.

I’m fairly confident this is the last year my girls will ever go without a flu shot.

Previously: Side effects of childhood vaccines are extremely rare, new study finds, The earlier the better: Study makes vaccination recommendations for next flu pandemic, Working to create a universal flu vaccine, Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about seasonal influenza and European experts debunk six myths about flu shot
Photo by kanonn

Clinical Trials, Nutrition, Pediatrics, Research, Stanford News

Participant in Stanford food-allergy study delves into lifestyle-changing research

Participant in Stanford food-allergy study delves into lifestyle-changing research

Kari N and patient - smallerWhen I was 10 months old, I was diagnosed with an anaphylactic food allergy to wheat, rye, oats and barley. As I’ve written about in my article, “Pizza and Oreos would have killed me, but they’re now my medicine,” which can be found here, I was always extremely cautious, for only a couple of crumbs could have put me into anaphylactic shock. And over the years, I’ve had my share of scares, involving trips to the hospital and EpiPen injections. My family and I were hoping that someday, a genius researcher/doctor would appear and help do something about food allergies. We finally found that person, and I enrolled in a food allergy study at Stanford led by Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD. Ever since then, my life has changed dramatically.

As I have been a participant in the study for roughly two years now, I’ve never fully understood what has been happening to me. It occurred to me a few months ago that I should probably try to learn about the science behind my food allergy, and how the oral immunotherapy was scientifically changing my body. These changes in my lifestyle were infinite, but how was all of this even possible? Who was behind the scenes, making sure that everything was safe, and okay to be conducted? My brain swelled with all of the questions racing through my mind, so I needed to think of a way to at least try to find out about what was happening to my body.

I’m fortunate enough to attend a school that provides students in their junior or senior year the opportunity to create independent studies. The student designs the curriculum, builds a framework for the class and chooses the best fit teacher to guide the research.

I thought to myself, ‘Why not try an independent study?’ How often is it that students can do research on a project that is directly affecting their life, while simultaneously changing their body? Especially a science project. I kept thinking of ways that I could go about the independent study. I sat with my parents, and asked them about what I should do. They suggested that I write down ten or so questions that I’ve developed throughout the course of the study. And so I did. I brought them in to my science teacher the next day. He looked them over, and we decided to think about ways that we could find the answers to these questions. We scheduled a conference call with the lead doctor of the allergy study at Stanford, Dr. Nadeau.

Kari Nadeau: A mother of five; two sets of twins, and an older boy, proud owner of multiple pets, ranging from rodents to dogs, wife of a brain surgeon and lead doctor of a food allergy study at Stanford. This woman made the time to talk to me, and my science teacher. She is just incredibly organized. Kari explained to us what she and her employees do in the lab at Stanford, and why they do the things they do. I presented my questions, and asked her how I should go about researching them. She graciously invited me to her lab in Palo Alto to meet the lab assistants and get a little taste of what they do. At the lab I could research some of my questions and her mysterious lab assistants could direct me on the path to find answers and plan out an independent study.

I was so overwhelmed, yet so excited. When I get an opportunity like that, I take advantage of it. My parents and I planned the summer and made adjustments so that I could go to Dr. Nadeau’s lab. We figured out a way to make it work.

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Imaging, Neuroscience, Patient Care, Pediatrics, Research

Stanford-led study suggests changes to brain scanning guidelines for preemies

Stanford-led study suggests changes to brain scanning guidelines for preemies

preemieOne big challenge of having a premature baby: the uncertainty. With good medical care, a great many preemies do very well, but some face long-term disabilities, medical complications and developmental delays, and others, sadly, die in infancy. Unfortunately, doctors can’t always tell how a baby will fare in the long term.

A new study, led by a Stanford team and conducted at 16 sites around the country, is part of the ongoing effort to change that. The researchers examined what type and timing of brain scans give doctors the greatest ability to predict preemies’ neurodevelopmental outcomes in toddlerhood. The research, published online today in Pediatrics, found that for babies born more than 12 weeks early who survive to near their original due dates, brain scans performed near their due date are better predictors than scans done near birth.

Most preemies already get at least one brain scan. That’s because national guidelines recommend that preemies’ doctors perform a cranial ultrasound seven to 14 days after birth to look for immediate problems such as bleeding into the brain. (Ultrasound is a good fit for the needs of fragile infants: Babies’ fontanelles provide “acoustic windows” to the brain, and ultrasound is non-invasive, uses no radiation, requires no sedation, and can be performed with a portable scanner brought to the bedside.) Some prior research has shown that these early scans can also give information about an infant’s risk of cognitive, motor and behavioral deficits or delays in childhood, but the predictive value of these early scans can be fairly low.

The new study examined both cranial ultrasound and MRI performed close to the baby’s due date, which is also when most preemies are ready to go home from the hospital. A lot changes in the brain during those first few weeks, perhaps explaining why later scans did a significantly better job of predicting which children would have persistent neurodevelopmental problems when the doctors checked in with them at 18 to 22 months of age.

“Neuroimaging may help us understand what a child’s outcome may look like, and ultimately help us focus our attention in terms of the type of follow-up and specific interventions that could best support a child after discharge from the hospital,” said Susan Hintz, MD, the study’s lead author and a neonatologist at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

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