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Research, Science, Stanford News

How Bio-X is fueling the #NextGreatDiscovery

How Bio-X is fueling the #NextGreatDiscovery


The videos, images and stories of #NextGreatDiscovery share two things in common: 1) They reveal the lives and motivations of amazing scientists carrying out basic research, and 2) All the scientists are affiliated with Stanford’s pioneering interdisciplinary institute Bio-X.

Almost 15 years ago, Stanford Bio-X was founded to support biomedical research with an interdisciplinary blend of X, which is to say all the fields across the street from Stanford University School of Medicine – engineering, chemistry, physics, biology, math and statistics as well as the professional schools of business, law and education. Bio-X later came to be housed in the Clark Center, located with crosswalks linking those schools and departments.

Two of the scientists featured in #NextGreatDiscovery recently won Nobel prizes in chemistry, and both discuss the importance of Stanford’s collaborative spirit in their research.

From Michael Levitt, PhD:

The university has the medical school and other departments very close to each other. This means that you can mix together all the sciences whether it is engineering and medicine, mathematics and medicine, statistics and medicine. All of these things are really close together so people are able to interact, groups are able to mix. I think it really is a remarkable environment.

From W.E. Moerner, PhD:

One aspect of research today is that our science has become more and more multidisciplinary. Exciting science occurs at the boundaries between conventional disciplines. Here at Stanford we have a spectacular environment for multidisciplinary work. That’s because in a very close proximity we have all of the humanities and sciences departments, the medical school departments and the engineering departments all close together, essentially across the street from one another right here close to my office.

In the series, scientists discuss the importance of funding for the basic sciences, as federal sources become more scarce. Both Levitt and Moerner have received Seed funding through Bio-X, which support new collaborations between scientists bridging disciplines. These grants are critical for promoting interdisciplinary research through funding at a time when federal resources for early stage collaborations are hard to come by, even for scientists whose research receives a nod from Stockholm.

Previously: #NextGreatDiscovery: Exploring the important work of basic scientists, The value of exploring jellyfish eyes: Scientist-penned book supports “curiosity-driven” research, Basic research underlies effort to thwart “greatest threat to face humanity”For third year in row, a Stanford faculty member wins the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Stanford’s Michael Levitt wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Addiction, Behavioral Science, Genetics, Neuroscience, Research, Stanford News

Found: a novel assembly line in brain whose product may prevent alcoholism

Found: a novel assembly line in brain whose product may prevent alcoholism

alcohol silhouette

High-functioning binge drinkers can seem charming and stylish. The ultimate case in point: Nick and Nora of the famed Thirties/Forties “Thin Man” film series (you can skip the ad after the first few seconds).

But alcoholism’s terrific toll is better sighted on city streets than in celluloid skyscraper scenarios. At least half of all homeless people suffer from dependence on one or another addictive drug. (My Stanford Medicine article “The Neuroscience of Need” explores the physiology of addiction.) Alcohol, the most commonly abused of them all (not counting nicotine), has proved to be a particularly hard one to shake.

Alcoholism is an immense national and international health problem,” I wrote the other day in a news release explaining an exciting step toward a possible cure:

More than 200 million people globally, including 18 million Americans, suffer from it. Binge drinking [roughly four drinks in a single session for a man, five for a woman] substantially increases the likelihood of developing alcoholism. As many as one in four American adults report having engaged in binge drinking in the past month.

While there are a few approved drugs that induce great discomfort when a person uses them drinks alcohol, reduce its pleasant effects, or alleviate some of its unpleasant ones, there’s as of yet no “magic bullet” medication that eliminates the powerful cravings driving the addictive behavior to begin with.

But a study, just published in Science, by Stanford neuroscientist Jun Ding, PhD, and his associates, may be holding the ticket to such a medication. In the study, Ding’s team identified a previously unknown biochemical assembly line, in a network of nerve cells strongly tied to addiction, that produces a substance whose effect appears to prevent pleasurable activity from becoming addictive. The substance, known as GABA, acts as a brake on downstream nerve-cell transmission.

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Cardiovascular Medicine, Research, Stanford News, Stem Cells

Tension helps heart cells develop normally, Stanford study shows

Tension helps heart cells develop normally, Stanford study shows

heart_newsTension might not be fun for us, but it looks like it’s critical for our hearts. So much so that without a little tension heart cells in the lab fail to develop normally.

This is a finding that took a mechanical engineer looking at a biological problem to solve. For many years now scientists have been able to mature stem cells into beating clumps of cells in the lab. But although those cells could beat, they didn’t do it very well. They don’t produce much force, can’t maintain a steady rhythm and would be a failure at pumping actual blood.

Beth Pruitt, PhD, a Stanford mechanical engineer, realized that in our bodies heart cells are under considerable tension, and thought that might be critical to how the cells develop.

She and postdoctoral scholar Alexandre Ribeiro started investigating how heart cells matured in different shapes and under different amounts of tension. They found a combination that produces normal looking cells with strong contractions.
The work could be useful for scientists hoping to replace animal heart cells as the gold standard for identifying heart-related side effects of drugs. Those cells are quite different from our own and often fail to detect side effects that could damage hearts in people taking the drug.

In my story about the work, I quote Ribeiro saying, “We hope this can be a drop-in replacement for animal cells, and potentially instead of having to do individual recordings from each cell we could use video analysis.”

Previously: A new era for stem cells in cardiac medicine? A simple, effective way to generate patient-specific heart muscle cells and “Clinical trial in a dish” may make common medicines safer, say Stanford scientists
Photo by Alexandre Ribeiro

Research, Stanford News, Women's Health

Measuring how military service affects women’s longevity and overall health

Measuring how military service affects women's longevity and overall health

16044566446_77b89745de_zDespite the large numbers of women who serve in the military, there is a dearth of information about their postmenopausal health risks and how military service might impact their longevity. Now comes a study of more than 3,700 female veterans, led by a Stanford-affiliated psychologist, which is the first to examine the postmenopausal health of women veterans who participated in the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI) and who, given their ages, likely served in World War II or the Korean War.

The study, which appears online in the journal Women’s Health Issues, shows these women have higher all-cause mortality rates than non-veterans, even though their risks for heart disease, cancer, diabetes and hip fractures were found to be the same.

“The findings underscore the salience of previous military service as a critical factor in understanding women’s postmenopausal health and mortality risk, and the value of comparing women veterans to appropriately selected groups of non-veteran women, rather than benchmarking their health against that of the general public. It also reminds us of the importance of including women veterans in research,” said Julie Weitlauf, PhD, the study’s lead author and a clinical associate professor (affiliated) of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the School of Medicine.

The Women’s Health Initiative is one of the most comprehensive research initiatives undertaken on the post-menopausal health of women, involving more than 160,000 women, including nearly 4,000 veterans.

Women can only serve in the military if they are deemed to be in good health, and military service stresses physical activity and many other elements of a healthy lifestyle, thus contributing to the concept of a “healthy soldier effect,” Weitlauf said. That explains why research typically shows that veterans, including women, have better health and lower mortality risk than non-veterans from the general public, she said. While the women in the study, most of whom who were likely military nurses, were probably very fit and healthy during their time of service, this effect may not be sustained throughout their lifetimes.

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Health Policy, NIH, Research, Science Policy, Stanford News

NIH tries to reduce the gray in the grant pool

NIH tries to reduce the gray in the grant pool

This 45-second animation vividly illustrates the funding crisis that young scientists face as they work to launch their research careers: For the last three decades, large NIH grants have increasingly been awarded to older investigators.

“The average age of first-time, R01-funded investigators who have PhDs remains 42, even after seven years of policies at NIH to increase the numbers of new and early-stage investigators,” said Robin Barr, director of the NIH’s Division of Extramural Activities, in a recent editorial on the NIH website.

But there is hope on the horizon, as the NIH rolls out a series of funding mechanisms that aim to give new investigators a leg up. I recently wrote about one such program, the KL2 mentored career development award, and an inspirational Stanford physician-researcher, Rita Hamad, MD, MPH, who is taking full advantage of it.

Hamad is interested in studying the cause-and-effect relationships between poverty and health. The KL2 program helps Hamad’s research through salary support, mentoring, pilot grants and tuition subsidies. In just two years, she has produced actionable data that can be used by policymakers and by health-care providers to improve the overall health of populations, including a study exploring the impact of the earned-income tax credit on child health in the United States. It will be published this fall in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Previously:NIH funding mechanism “totally broken,” says Stanford researcher, NIH director on scaring young scientists with budget cuts: “If they go away, they won’t come back” and Sequestration hits the NIH – fewer new grants, smaller budgets
Animation by the NIH

Infectious Disease, Microbiology, Research, Stanford News

Why C. difficile-defanging mouse cure may work in people, too

Why C. difficile-defanging mouse cure may work in people, too

CdiffI wrote a news release last week about a study just published in Science Translational Medicine. The study, despite it having been conducted in mice, not humans, received a fair amount of coverage – by The Washington Post, Yahoo!, Fox News, NBC, CBS and Reuters, among other places – and deserved the attention it got. It demonstrated the efficacy of a small-molecule drug that can disable the nasty intestinal pathogen C. difficile without killing it – and, importantly, without decimating the “good” bacteria that populate our gut by the trillions.

That’s a big deal. If you want to see a lot of ugly weeds pop up, there’s no better way to go about it than letting your lawn go to hell.

C. difficile – responsible for more than 250,000 hospitalizations and 15,000 deaths per year in the United States and a $4 billion annual health-care tab in the U.S. alone – is typically treated by antibiotics, which have the unfortunate side effect of wiping out much of our intestinal microbe population. That loss of carpeting, ironically, lays the groundwork for a dangerous and all-too-common comeback of C. difficile infection.

A question worth asking about this study, conducted by what-makes-pathogens-tick expert Matt Bogyo, PhD, and a team of Stanford associates: Why should we think that what works in mice is going to work in people?

The only sure answer isn’t a torrent of language but a clinical trial of the drug, ebselen, in real, live people with C. difficile infections or at risk for them. (Bogyo has already started accumulating funding to initiate a trial along those lines.)

But there’s also reassurance to be drawn from the fact that ebselen isn’t an entirely exotic newcomer to the world of medical research. As I noted in my release:

Bogyo and his associates focused on … ebselen because, in addition to having a strong inhibitory effect, ebselen also has been tested in clinical trials for chemotherapy-related hearing loss and for stroke. Preclinical testing provided evidence that ebselen is safe and tolerable, and it has shown no significant adverse effects in ensuing clinical trials.

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Research, Science, Stanford News

#NextGreatDiscovery: Exploring the important work of basic scientists

#NextGreatDiscovery: Exploring the important work of basic scientists

Today, Stanford is launching a digital series, called #NextGreatDiscovery, to share the stories of some of the scientists doing groundbreaking basic research here. Through photographs and short videos, followers will get a taste of the work of these grad students, postdocs and professors – in fields ranging from computational structural biology to genetics to immunology – and hear about how important it is that this work continues. After all, basic science not only advances knowledge but has the potential to lead to great biomedical innovations.

Our series comes at a time where national funding for research is critically low, and some investigators are opting to leave academia in favor of industry positions that may not support fundamental research. What would we lose if more of these great minds chose different paths? What would go undiscovered? It’s something to keep in mind as you read this feature story, view our photos on Instagram, and follow #NextGreatDiscovery on Twitter.

Previously: The value of exploring jellyfish eyes: Scientist-penned book supports “curiosity-driven” research, Basic research underlies effort to thwart “greatest threat to face humanity” and Funding basic science leads to clinical discoveries, eventually
Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos

Aging, Events, Medicine and Society, Medicine X, Stanford News

Living long and living well: A conversation on longevity at Medicine X

Living long and living well: A conversation on longevity at Medicine X


There were big-time laughs, and the expected misty eye or two, at today’s Medicine X session on aging and longevity. Natrice Rese, a retired personal support worker, began the conversation with a moving ePatient Ignite! talk about how life for many older adults is less than “golden.” She told the audience how difficult time spent in a nursing home or care facility can be: “So many people wait to be fed, wait to be dressed, wait to be undressed, wait to be taken outside… When you’re dependent on care from others, your life is reduced to a waiting game.”

Her mother found herself in one such place at the age of 85, and Rese recalled how her mom pulled her aside one day and said, “Don’t come near these places – it’s not good here.” Her mother was in the throes of Alzheimer’s and unable to offer further details, but “her words stay with me today,” Rese somberly told the audience.

Rese said her mom’s comments ultimately reinforced her desire to work to make sure older adults feel appreciated and are able to “create memories that matter.”

Fellow panelist Barbara Beskind is certainly doing that – and more. The 91-year-old former occupational therapist made headlines when she landed a job at Silicon Valley design firm IDEO. Appearing at the conference alongside Dennis Boyle, a partner and founding member of the firm, she goes to the office every Thursday and is now working on a variety of projects related to aging – including a redesigned walker.

Younger designers “can’t put themselves in the shoes of the elderly,” Beskind told USA Today earlier this year. “People who design for the elderly think they need jeweled pill boxes or pink canes. We need functional equipment.”

“I admire you,” Rese told Beskind during a panel discussion, after hearing about Beskind’s contributions. “You shouldn’t be one of a few – you should be one of many.”

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Events, Medical Education, Medicine X, Stanford News

Learning from patients by walking in their shoes

Learning from patients by walking in their shoes

digital storytelling workshopWhere else but at a medical conference in Silicon Valley would you hear the term “empathy hack”? The concept of the empathy hack unites the acknowledged need for education geared toward fostering empathy in health-care providers with the innovative, disruptive mentality of the valley. The result is “One Day,” a pilot project led by Rice University’s Kristen Ostherr, PhD, and Roni Zeiger, MD and CEO of, who shared their hacking concept with attendees at a Stanford Medicine X | ED workshop yesterday.

The concept behind “One Day” is to pair a patient and a learner (a medical student, doctor, researcher, hospital administrator, or educator) and have the learner experience a day in the life of that patient, with everything that entails, including self-treatments and physical challenges caused by the patient’s illness.

The learner receives a “kit” containing materials that simulate the condition of the patient for the learner, i.e.  a thin straw and air pack to simulate a nebulizer used by patients with cystic fibrosis, or leg weights to be worn to simulate the drag caused on limbs by Parkinson’s disease.

Once patient and learner are matched, they agree on a form of communication for the day, with modalities including SMS Text, Facebook chat or texting with video, audio and photographs. The learner then follows the actions of the patients during the day, whether administrating nebulizer treatments or trying to negotiate crossing a street quickly with limbs that are weighed down.

After describing the project, Ostherr and Zieger asked attendees to brainstorm ideas for expanding this model to be used for other patient illnesses and experiences. Participants in the outdoor workshop were doctors, patients and medical educators, and their responses included chronic pain, diabetes, homelessness patients, and palliative care and end of life treatment. Caroline Okorie, MD, a Stanford pediatric pulmonologist, said she would like to see an exercise like this for teenagers dealing with CF: “They really have a unique issues, even in comparison to adults.”

A patient who has been dealing with chronic pain for years suggested that learners should deal with multiple challenges, as many patients do. “It may not just be that the pain is your back, that can lead to shoulder pain, or headaches, and all this happens at once.”

Zieger and Ostherr, who hope to bring the project to medical schools, emphasized the simplicity of the model: The kits cost approximately $30, and HIPPA concerns are handled by informed consent filled out by the patient participants. It’s small investment for the potentially-eye opening and revelatory experience of health-care providers walking in the shoes of a patient, even just for a day.

Jacqueline Genovese is assistant director of the Arts, Humanities and Medicine Program within the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics.

More news about the conference is available in the Medicine X category. Those unable to attend the event in person can watch via webcast; registration for the Global Access Program webcast is free. We’ll also be live tweeting the keynotes and other proceedings from the conference; you can follow our tweets on the @StanfordMed feed.

Photo of Kristen Ostherr and Roni Zeiger (both standing) courtesy of Stanford Medicine X

Events, Medical Education, Medicine X, Stanford News

At Stanford Medicine X | ED, breakthroughs and a prescription for change

At Stanford Medicine X | ED, breakthroughs and a prescription for change

Medicine X Ed

As editor of Wing of Zock for the past four years, I’ve had the honor of learning about hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innovative ideas to reimagine medical education. On the first day of the inaugural Stanford Medicine X | ED conference Wednesday, I got enough new ideas to fuel a year’s worth of posts. A diverse lineup of presenters — educators, students, and patients — collectively created, through words, images, videos, and music, a vision of a possible future for medical education. They reported on promising innovations in medical education that aim to better prepare the doctors of tomorrow. Accompanied by colored lights, diffuse video backgrounds, and a varied soundtrack, the high-energy atmosphere that is the hallmark of Stanford Medicine X pervaded a conference on medical education.

Designed to be different in every way from traditional academic meetings, Med X | ED features numerous icebreaking and networking opportunities; a low-key product exhibit area; announcements by Gary Williams, the voice of the San Francisco 49ers (“the voice of God”); and constant visual reminders of its living mascot, Zoe, a French bulldog owned by MedX executive director Larry Chu, MD. Attendees received glowsticks in their registration packets that they used to reward effective presenters.

“Jazz and glowsticks. Things not found at traditional #meded meetings,” tweeted Bryan Vartabedian, MD, a gastroenterologist from Baylor University in Houston.

The trappings, rather than making the content seem less serious, instead make it more accessible, more memorable. The entire conference is an incarnation of the Von Restorff effect, a concept I learned just this morning, that posits that we are more likely to remember things that are unusual, or fun, or inappropriate. While you might not remember the last session you attended on interprofessional education, you would remember the one Paul Haidet, MD, delivered. Haidet, a general internist and health sciences researcher at Penn State University Hershey, used three recordings of the same jazz standard, “Waltz with Debbie,” to illustrate the ways in which small teams can collaborate. It’s likely that many attendees were searching iTunes for the tracks afterward.

Taking its theme from Chu’s opening remarks, in which he said, “The care we receive tomorrow depends on the doctors we prepare today,” the schedule featured 10-minute Ignite! talks, panel discussions, and keynote presentations by Howard Rheingold (described here earlier) and Abraham Verghese, MD. Topics ranged from the collaborative redesign of a mental health unit in Nashville to the use of whiteboard videos to encourage healthy behaviors to the rise of medical student communities of practice. Leveraging technology and social media, it’s clear that medical schools are trying to address the needs and learning styles of this generation of learners.

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