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Research, Science, Sleep, Stanford News

Flashing light at night could help beat jet lag, Stanford study says

Flashing light at night could help beat jet lag, Stanford study says

plane in sunsetThe body will eventually adjust to jet lag, it’s just that it takes time — about an hour a day to be precise. And anyone who has suffered the unpleasant side effects of jet lag – brain fog, body achiness, an overwhelming need for endless pots coffee — might have an interest in speeding the process up.

A new Stanford study suggests that exposing travelers to short bursts of flashing lights the night before a trip while asleep could help speed up the process significantly. In a press release I wrote on the study, which was published today in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, researchers explained how this works at a biological level:

The transfer of light through the eyes to the brain does more than provide sight; it also changes the biological clock. A person’s brain can be tricked into adjusting more quickly to disturbances in sleep cycles by increasing how long he or she is exposed to light prior to traveling to a new time zone.

Light therapy is designed to speed up the brain’s adjustment to time changes. By conducting light therapy at night, the brain’s biological clock gets tricked into adjusting to an awake cycle even when asleep. It’s a kind of “biological hacking” that fools the brain into thinking the day is longer while you get to sleep.

 To determine whether continuous or flashing lights would provide the fastest method of sleep cycle adjustment, researchers had 39 study participants sleep in a lab, exposing some to continuous light for an hour, and others to flashing light for an hour. They found that the flashing light —which most could sleep through just fine— elicited about a two-hour delay in the onset of sleepiness, while those exposed to continuous light, the delay was only 36 minutes.

Jamie Zeitzer, PhD, the senior author of the study, described how flashing-light therapy could be used to adapt to traveling from California to the East Coast: “If you are flying to New York tomorrow, tonight you use the light therapy. If you normally wake up at 8 a.m., you set the flashing light to go off at 5 a.m. When you get to New York, your biological system is already in the process of shifting to East Coast time.”

“This could be a new way of adjusting much more quickly to time changes than other methods in use today,” he told me.

Previously: Cheating jet lag: Stanford researchers develop methods to treat sleep disturbances, Why sleeping in on the weekends may not be beneficial to your health, How sleep acts as a cleaning system for the brain, Study shows altered circadian rhythms in the brains of depressed people, Jet-lag drug is a no go and Jet-lagged hamsters flunk IQ test
Photo by Eric Prado

Neuroscience, Science, Stanford News

Stanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz on learning and the value of collaboration

Stanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz on learning and the value of collaboration

As director of Stanford Bio-X, Carla Shatz, PhD, not only supports campus-wide interdisciplinary research efforts, but her own research serves as an example of how teams can work in collaboration. In this video, she talks about her work identifying the molecular basis for why kids learn so quickly and so well where adults struggle.

Look at learning a second language for example. Kids can learn languages with ease and with no accent. Not so with adults. Shatz hopes to extend that window on learning into adulthood.

Shatz has used tools developed by engineering colleagues and benefits from the expertise of colleagues in immunology and stroke clinicians, among others.

“There’s no way we could make progress on this kind of a complicated question without being able to collaborate and interact with so many other people in so many other labs and so many other disciplines,” she says. “Colleagues here, faculty and students, are really thrilled to collaborate.”

More faculty talk about the value of collaboration in their work as part of the Stanford Interdisciplinary website.

Previously: New website chronicles tales of collaborative researchBuilding for collaboration spurs innovative science, Drug helps old brains learn new tricks, and healScience is like an ongoing mystery novel, says Stanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz and Pioneers in science
Video by Worldview Stanford, in collaboration with Eric Kuziol

Science, Stanford News

New website chronicles tales of collaborative research

New website chronicles tales of collaborative research

interdis_DSC_1526_Scope

One thing you notice working at Stanford is how close you are to other areas of research. A short lunchtime walk from the medical school campus can involve coffee at the School of Engineering or a sandwich at the business school.

This proximity matters for more than just lunch. Many important medical advances have come out of collaborations between faculty members from very different backgrounds. These collaborations have produced medical technologies, revealed the inner working of our brains, and generated strategies for solving international health crisis, and that’s just collaborations involving medical school faculty.

Institutes across Stanford support similarly interdisciplinary approaches to solving many of the grand challenges we face today in environmental research, security, economic policy and energy. Technology like virtual reality (above) is being applied to environmental research, questions of empathy, and athletics.

We’ve collected many of these stories and videos of boundary-crossing research on a new website that chronicles the results of venturing outside departmental silos. We’ve launched with stories about decision-making, water policy, intersections with the arts, and interdisciplinary undergraduate research, all of which span schools and departments to tackle real world problems.

Photo of virtual reality research by Linda Cicero

History, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells

The making of a scientist — Stanford’s Irv Weissman under the Big Sky

The making of a scientist — Stanford's Irv Weissman under the Big Sky

Some people just seem larger than life. That’s certainly the case with stem cell scientist Irving Weissman, MD. His presence fills a room whether he’s speaking to a crowd or conversing one-on-one with a fellow researcher. Some of that presence comes from his academic stature. After all, he’s director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and the Ludwig Center for Cancer Stem Cell Research and Medicine. But it’s immediately apparent that Weissman also has a natural ease and composure that’s hard to beat.

Recently, I had the opportunity to shadow Weissman during one of his regular visits to my home state of Montana. Like me, Weissman grew up in Montana and even cut his scientific teeth here at the McLaughlin Research Institute for Biomedical Sciences in Great Falls. My profile of his career is published today in our medical school newspaper, Inside Stanford Medicine.

From the article:

In school, Weissman was a good, but not exceptional, student. He struggled with memorization, and didn’t particularly enjoy reading. His mother was a classically trained pianist, and Weissman played the piccolo and flute.

When he was about 15 years old, a friend of his mentioned a man named Ernst Eichwald, MD, who had been recruited in 1953 from the University of Utah to work as a pathologist at Montana Deaconess Hospital in Great Falls. Eichwald had made the move on the condition that he be allowed to spend part of his time as a one-man research program, studying the biology of skin transplantation in laboratory mice.

“Instead of working at the scrapyard for my father’s hardware store, I went to see Ernst, because my friend said it was fun to be around mice and rats,” Weissman said. “But the difficulty was that he was very hard of hearing, and he spoke in a thick German accent. So I couldn’t understand anything that he was saying, and I was pretty sure he couldn’t understand what I was saying. Finally, in a moment of desperation, I said, ‘I’ll work for nothing!’ Suddenly he understood and could talk to me. So I started to work with him in the summer as mouse caretaker, autopsy assistant and lab researcher.”

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Events, Public Health, Research, Science

What matters to Stanford’s Lucy Shapiro, and why

What matters to Stanford's Lucy Shapiro, and why

Shapiro getting National Medal of ScienceFasten your seatbelt: Developmental biologist Lucy Shapiro, PhD, is driving, and we’re zooming through her achievement-packed 40-year career in less than an hour.

Speaking this week as part of the “What Matters to Me and Why” series hosted by the Stanford Office of Religious Life, Shapiro said the topic prompted her to ponder why she was so passionate about the world of molecules and cells, a world invisible to most people.

To figure it out, Shapiro said she had to think back to when she was 13, applying for high schools. After consulting with her parents, Shapiro decided to apply for one of New York City’s elite public schools that focused on art and music. Unbeknownst to her parents, however, she decided she wasn’t going to take the exam in music as planned. Instead, she checked out a book on drawing from the library, taught herself to draw and passed the entrance exam by producing a portfolio of art.

These past 40 years have just been beautiful.

“That was really a defining moment. I learned I could change the trajectory of my own life by some action,” Shapiro said.

With that lesson firmly engrained — and with some well-timed assistance from mentors — Shapiro was off. There were detours, of course. Her senior college thesis was on Dante — interesting, Shapiro said, but “it didn’t make my heart sing.”

When prompted to go back to school and take an organic chemistry course, Shapiro discovered her true love.

“It sounds corny, but it was like the sky cleared. [Chemistry] was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. It was clear that was how my mind worked,” Shapiro said.

She went on to make discoveries about the three-dimensional development of cells, compounds called RNA polymerases and many other advances in molecular biology, along the way mentoring scores of students and budding scientists. Her awards are numerous and include the prestigious National Medal of Science.

Now, she’s particularly passionate about the threat posed by pathogens, which are rapidly out-evolving the drugs available to rein them in. In response, she has helped found two pharmaceutical companies and is an active public speaker.

During her talk she offered numerous words of wisdom, including:

  • On discoveries: “It’s just indescribable when you discover something. It can be little, it doesn’t have to be earth-shattering. It is so exciting.”
  • On spirituality: “To me, science is religion. My love and passion for the scientific world is spiritual.”
  • On her career: “These past 40 years have just been beautiful. I still can’t wait to get into the lab each morning.”

There’s more. Much more. If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, I highly recommend it. It will be quite a ride.

Previously: Stanford scientist Lucy Shapiro: “It never occurred to me to question the things I wanted to do”, National Medal of Science winner Lucy Shapiro: “It’s the most exciting thing in the world to be a scientist” and Stanford’s Lucy Shapiro receives National Medal of Science
Photo of Shapiro accepting the National Medal of Science in 2013, courtesy of the White House

Bioengineering, Ethics, Genetics, In the News, Research, Science

Are at-home gene splicing kits a good idea? Stanford researchers weigh in

Are at-home gene splicing kits a good idea? Stanford researchers weigh in

chemist_stick_figure_by_wrpigeekAs demonstrated by the Foldscope, the uber-affordable microscope developed by Stanford bioengineer Manu Prakash, PhD — there is real fervor for bringing easy, do-it-yourself science to the masses. But what if that at-home science allows novices to dabble in some serious stuff, like splicing genes?

One Bay Area scientist has done just that: He’s marketing a $130 gene-editing kit that could bring the popular technology CRISPR into kitchens, basements and garages nationwide.

This particular kit isn’t particularly dangerous, according to a recent article in the San Jose Mercury News:

The kit has limited applications. His altered bacteria and yeast, quite harmless, lead brief and fairly dull lives. They can’t do much except change color, fragrance or live in inhospitable places. Then they die.

But two Stanford experts — infectious disease researcher David Relman, MD, and bioethicist Hank Greely, JD — agree it could place powerful technology in the hands of people who might not use it responsibly.

“I do not think that we want an unregulated, non-overseen community of freelance practitioners of this technology,” Relman told the Mercury News.

Regulation, or control, might not be possible, though, Greely cautioned. “You’ve got guys with B.S. degrees, in a garage,” he said in the article.

Kit developer Josiah Zayner doesn’t have a garage. But one version of the kit has already sold out.

Previously: CRISPR critters and CRISPR conundrums, Foldscope inventor named one of the world’s top innovators under 35 by Technology Review and Manu under the microscope
Image by WRPIgeek

Evolution, Genetics, Orthopedics, Research, Science, Stanford News

From whence the big toe? Stanford researchers investigate the genetics of upright walking

From whence the big toe? Stanford researchers investigate the genetics of upright walking

A tiny armored fish may seem like an unlikely experimental animal to someone interested in understanding how humans may have evolved to walk on two legs.

But developmental biologist David Kingsley, PhD, has made a career out of studying how changes in gene regulation in the aquatic threespine stickleback broadly affect the fish’s skeletal structure. His recent research, published today in Cell, pinpoints a stretch of DNA that controls the size of the protective bone plates sported by marine sticklebacks.

As I explained in our release:

The threespine stickleback is remarkable in that it has evolved to have many different body structures to equip it for life in different parts of the world. It sports an exterior of bony plates and spines that act as armor to protect it from predators. In marine environments, the plates are large and thick; in freshwater, the fish have evolved to have smaller, lighter-weight plates, perhaps to enhance buoyancy, increase body flexibility and better slip out of the grasp of large, hungry insects. Kingsley and his colleagues wanted to identify the regions of the fish’s genome responsible for the skeletal differences that have evolved in natural populations.

“So what?” might ask the more jaded, fish haters among us. (Don’t count me among them — I recently blogged here about my undying love for the silvery, colorful killifish that’s made an undeniable splash in the field of aging research.)

Well, it turns out that this bit of regulatory DNA controls the expression of an important protein involved in bone formation during development. What’s more, this regulatory region is shared among animals separated by millions of years of evolution, from mice to chimpanzees.

But you know who doesn’t have it? Humans. Further experiments in the Kingsley laboratory suggest that the region specifically drives expression of the protein, called GDF6, in the hind limbs of our nearest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzee.

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Imaging, Research, Science, Stanford News, Surgery

A dye to try: New compound provides improved imaging, safety

A dye to try: New compound provides improved imaging, safety

The NIR-II dye can clearly resolve blood vessels in the hindlimb as well as in the brain with unprecedented clarity. Furthermore, the dye allows clear resolution of tumors in the center of the mouse’s brain and is capable of ultra-sensitive tumor detection.

A team of Stanford-led researchers has created a dye capable of identifying tumors in a variety of tissues and providing surgeons with real-time video feedback during surgery.

And the best part of this molecular fluorescent dye? It’s much safer for humans than many other existing dyes because it can be excreted through urine within 24 hours, the researchers say.

They explain in a recent Stanford News article:

“The difficulty is how to make a dye that is both fluorescent in the infrared and water soluble,” said Alex Antaris, a chemistry graduate student and the first author on a recent paper in the journal Nature Materials. “A lot of dyes can glow but are not dissolvable in water, so we can’t have them flowing in human blood. Making a dye that is both is really the difficulty. We struggled for about three years or so and finally we succeeded.”

The new dye also provides more detailed images than were previously available, making it helpful for diagnostics or for guiding surgery, Antaris said.

The paper’s senior authors are Hongjie Dai, PhD, professor of chemistry, and Zhen Cheng, PhD, associate professor of radiology, and Xuechan Hong, PhD, of Wuhan University, China.

Previously: Better tumor-imaging contrast agent: the surgical equivalent of “cut along dotted line”?, Stanford instructor called out for his innovative — and beautiful — imaging work and New molecular imaging could improve bladder-cancer detection  
Image by Alexander Antaris

Cancer, Immunology, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells, Transplants

One (blood stem) cell to rule them all? Perhaps not, say Stanford researchers

One (blood stem) cell to rule them all? Perhaps not, say Stanford researchers

4294019174_3f269b3f38_oThe blood stem cell, or hematopoietic stem cell, is a cell that’s believed to give rise to all the components of the blood and immune system. Nestled in our bone marrow, it springs into action as necessary and is a key component of bone marrow transplantation procedures (more accurately called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation) conducted to save patients with blood diseases or whose immune systems have been wiped out by large doses of chemotherapy or radiation.

But new research published today in Stem Cell Reports by research associate Eliver Ghosn, PhD, and colleagues in the laboratory of geneticist Leonore Herzenberg suggests that, at least in laboratory mice, this stem cell may not be as omnipotent as previously thought. In particular, it seems unable to give rise to an important subpopulation of B cells, a type of immune cell. As Ghosn explained to me in an email:

Briefly, our findings challenge the idea that a single blood, or hematopoietic, stem cell (HSC) can fully regenerate all components of the immune system. We’ve shown that transplantation with highly purified HSCs fails to fully regenerate the B lymphocyte compartment, which is needed to protect against infections such as influenza, pneumonia and other infectious diseases, and also to respond to vaccinations.

Further studies conducted by the researchers suggest that these B cells may arise from an alternative fetal progenitor cell distinct from the HSC — perhaps as an evolutionary effort to separate what’s known as innate immunity from adaptive immunity. They urge further research into the clinical outcomes of the transplantation of purified HSC in humans. As Ghosn said:

From a clinical standpoint, these findings raise the key question of whether human HSC transplantation, widely used in human regenerative therapies to restore immunity in immune-compromised patients, is sufficient to regenerate human tissue B cells that help protect transplanted patients from subsequent infectious diseases. This is specially relevant today considering that the field is moving toward using highly purified human HSCs in clinical settings. 
More research is needed to confirm the findings in humans, however. If you’re interested in learning more about this, Ghosn expanded upon the idea earlier this month with a review in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Genetics, Immunology, Microbiology, Research, Science, Stanford News

Stanley Falkow awarded National Medal of Science, White House announces today

Stanley Falkow awarded National Medal of Science, White House announces today

Falkow picExciting news today: Stanley Falkow, PhD, has been awarded the 2015 National Medal of Science. The honor was announced today by the White House. Falkow is being recognized for his pioneering work in studying how bacteria can cause human disease and how antibiotic resistance is transmitted.

Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, commented in our release:

Dr. Falkow is deeply deserving of this award. He has made invaluable contributions to the field of microbiology and the effect of bacteria on human health. We at Stanford Medicine are extremely proud and honored that he has been recognized by his peers in this way.

Falkow, 81, is an emeritus professor of microbiology and immunology and a member of the Stanford Cancer Institute. The award will be presented in a ceremony at the White House in January 2016.

Falkow is well known for his work on extrachromosomal elements called plasmids and their role in antibiotic resistance and pathogenicity in humans and animals. As a graduate student in the 1960s, he discovered that bacteria gained their resistance to antibiotics by sharing their genes much more promiscuously then had been thought possible. When Falkow arrived at Stanford in 1981, he set aside his study of plasmids to concentrate on how organisms as diverse as cholera, plague and whooping cough cause disease in humans. Along the way he’s mentored countless students and spoken out about the growing threat of antibiotic resistance due to the routine use of antibiotic in animal feed.

As Falkow, who learned of the award on Dec. 19 in an email from John Holdren, PhD, the president’s chief science advisor, said in our announcement:

It was a total surprise. I always say, ‘In science, it’s not ‘I,’ it’s ‘we.’ And it’s so true. There are hundreds of students and colleagues around the world with whom I’d like to share this honor.

I had the honor of writing about Falkow’s work in 2008, when he was awarded the Lasker-Koshland Award for Special Achievement in Medical Science. I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with him and I’m so happy for today’s announcement.

Previously: National Medal of Science winner Lucy Shapiro: “It’s the most exciting thing in the world to be a scientist”Stanford’s Lucy Shapiro receives National Medal of Science and FDA changes regulation for antibiotic use in animals
Photo by Krista Conger

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