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Long a mystery organelle, the primary cilium is giving up its secrets

Welcome to Biomed Bites, a weekly feature that introduces readers to some of Stanford’s most innovative researchers.

Picture a bacterium or a sperm cell — it has a flapping flagella, a hair-like structure that some species, and cells, use to move. There's a different type of structure that protrudes out of the cells of many mammals called a primary cilium. Unlike flagella, this structure doesn't move. Instead it receives mechanical and chemical signals from surrounding cells.

The primary cilium and its function is the focus of Max Nachury, PhD, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular physiology. His team is applying research on the cilium to learn more about a group of hereditary diseases characterized by a malfunctioning cilium such as Bardet-Biedl syndrome. Patients with BBS are often obese, have extra fingers or toes and have poor vision.

"These multi-symptomatic disorders caused by a defect in cilium function are really things we understand very poorly," Nachury says in the video above. "We hope that our basic research can then feed back into the basic understanding of this disorder."

Learn more about Stanford Medicine’s Biomedical Innovation Initiative and about other faculty leaders who are driving biomedical innovation here.

Previously: Clues about kidney disease from an unexpected direction, Parent details practical ways to get care and support for your child's rare disease and New search engine designed to help physicians and the public in diagnosing rare diseases

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