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At Stanford conference, a real-life example of how basic research can save lives

During the 2017 Stanford Drug Discovery Conference held here earlier this week, I sat next to a Palo Alto man who said he regularly attends these types of conferences at Stanford. He's not a scientist, nor does he work in the drug industry. Science is just a personal interest of his and the conference was free and open to the public so he came to listen and learn.

But there was more to his story than that.

"I was diagnosed with cancer in 2001," Mark, not his real name, told me. "Many diseases are no longer fatal because of the magic that gets done here at Stanford."

We were sitting on lounge chairs in the lobby at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge on a lunch break. Our conversation followed morning presentations from numerous researchers from Stanford and beyond, including Nobel Laureate Thomas Sudhof, MD, PhD, (shown above) who talked about molecular pathways, inhibitors, human neurons and potential treatments for Alzheimer's disease; and Stephen Quake, PhD, a Stanford professor and co-president of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub who talked about how his discoveries in single cell genomics could be used in the drug discovery process. Eric Olson, PhD, a professor of molecular biology at UT Southwestern, was also on hand to discuss the genetic disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a debilitating disease of the muscles that leads to early death.

"There’s no effective treatment," said Olsen, who then laid out his vision for using gene editing to permanently eradicate the underlying genetic cause of the disease.

The focus throughout the day was on how basic research can result in discoveries that help treat patients and perhaps even cure them. Several hundred spectators packed the conference hall, and the event drew leaders from academia, the drug industry, and government. It also attracted community members like Mark.

"From bench to bedside" is a much-used slogan at Stanford and other academic medical institutions, but it's one that really strikes home with him. After being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, he said he was eventually treated with the drug Rituxan -- and he attributes research by Ron Levy, MD, a professor of oncology here, for keeping him alive. Levy's research into how the immune system can be harnessed to fight lymphoma led to the development of Rituxan, which is now widely used to treat the disease.

“At the time when I was diagnosed, life expectancy was just three or four years,” Mark said. “So I’m still beating the odds.”

The conference was supported by the Stanford Cardiovascular Institute, the Stanford Cancer Institute and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Previously: Nobel laureate Tom Südhof makes the case for basic scienceSPARK program helps researchers cross the “valley of death” between drug discovery and development and Funding basic science leads to clinical discoveries, eventually
Photo by Babacar Ndoye

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