Karl Deisseroth

Karl Deisseroth pioneered optogenetics, which is among the research made possible by the Initiative on Human Health. (Toni Gauthier)

Initiative on Human Health

Neuroscience becomes a major focus of the Human Health Initiative

Expansion of optogenetics techniques, which allow researchers to combine use of light and genetics to turn specific brain cells on or off, is among the evidence of the ongoing success of the Initiative on Human Health.

Under the initiative, established in 1999 with the founding of the Stanford Program for Bioengineering, Biomedicine and Biosciences (Bio-X) and the School of Medicine’s five Stanford Institutes of Medicine, progress has been made in facilitating the translation of discoveries from the laboratory to the patient’s bedside. During the past decade, the initiative has focused on the biosciences, bioengineering and cancer. These are being complemented by major cross-cutting efforts in genomics, imaging and informatics.

Moving forward, techniques such as optogenetics, pioneered at Stanford by Karl Deisseroth, associate professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, will become a key focus of the initiative under the aegis of Bio-X’s NeuroVentures program, directed by William Newsome, professor of neurobiology and 2010 winner of the Champalimaud Vision Award.

Focus is on the brain

Launched in 2008, NeuroVentures’ mission is to invent and disseminate new interdisciplinary technologies and science that reveal the workings of the brain. NeuroVentures is part of Bio-X, which is directed by Carla Shatz, the Sapp Family Provostial Professor and professor of neurobiology. NeuroVentures’ interdisciplinary projects have the potential to change the way academic science is done, tend to be large-scale and are beyond the scope of a single department. Initial funding of projects is then leveraged for larger grants that lead, in turn, to more progress.

Optogenetics is a good example, combining the expertise of bioengineers, psychologists and geneticists. The revolutionary science, still in the testing phase, has proved so promising that scientists worldwide have made their way to Stanford to learn more through the new Optogenetics Innovation Lab, located in the Clark Center.

Faculty members Karl Deisseroth and Mark Schnitzer discuss NeuroVentures at Stanford.

Another example of Stanford’s neuroscience interdisciplinary projects is the work in brain-computer interfaces used by Krishna Shenoy, associate professor of electrical engineering, to enable paralyzed patients to control prosthetic arms and computer cursors. Shenoy heads the Neural Prosthetic Systems Laboratory, which combines the expertise of electrical engineering, bioengineering and cognitive neuroscience.

Shenoy and Deisseroth are among the researchers at four universities who were awarded $14.9 million in 2010 from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to use techniques like optogenetics and brain implants to learn how the brain and its microcircuitry react to sudden physiological changes and what can be done to encourage recovery from injury.

Such novel techniques are examples of the work NeuroVentures has incubated, often in combination with the Stanford Institute for Neuro-Innovation and Translational Neurosciences (SINTN). Headed by Gary Steinberg, the Bernard and Ronni Lacroute-William Randolph Hearst Professor of Neurosurgery and Neurosciences, SINTN works to understand the normal and diseased nervous system, including interactions among genes, cells, circuits and behavior. It also aims to translate these new discoveries into novel therapeutic approaches that improve the quality of life for patients with neurological and psychiatric disorders. More than 150 researchers are participating from departments ranging from bioengineering to comparative medicine to neurology. In 2010, Steinberg and SINTN were awarded a $20 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to develop human neural stem cell therapies for stroke and to initiate a clinical trial.

The new Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging (CNI) represents another part of Stanford’s widespread efforts to better understand brain function. The CNI opened its first major facility—a magnetic resonance imaging center—in Jordan Hall on the Main Quadrangle in 2010 to be widely accessible to students and faculty in areas ranging from humanities and sciences, business, education and law. Under the direction of psychologist Brian Wandell, the Isaac and Madeline Stein Family Professor and a co-chair of the Initiative on Human Health, the center aims to create a research and educational environment where neuroscientists, humanists and social scientists cooperate on advanced brain research problems.

Advances in stem cell technology

Lorry Lokey Stem Cell Research Building

The Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Buillding's 200,000 square feet of floor space, serving about 550 occupants, makes it the largest dedicated stem cell research building in the country. (Mark Tuschman)

The Initiative on Human Health has grown dramatically during the past decade, encompassing everything from new endowed professorships and graduate fellowships to major facilities and centers.

A major addition to our research capability is the 200,000-square-foot Lorry I. Lokey Stem Cell Research Building, which houses 550 researchers working in 33 laboratories on a range of projects, including embryonic and adult cell cells, cancer stem cells and the development of disease-specific stem cell lines.

The researchers in the Lokey Building focus on conditions as diverse as cancer, spinal cord injury, heart problems and autoimmune disease. The building’s top level houses the Stanford Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, the second floor provides space for the Stanford Cancer Center and the ground floor includes neuroscience labs and the Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Education.

Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge

With its striking limestone and glass facade facing Campus Drive, the Li Ka Shing Center now serves as the gateway to the School of Medicine. (© Bruce Damonte, 2010)

The building was financed in part by CIRM, which was created by California taxpayers to support stem cell research. In 2010, Stanford continued to benefit from other CIRM funding. A $2.3 million grant to Michele Calos, professor of genetics, to develop a stem-cell therapy for Duchenne muscular dystrophy brought Stanford’s total so far to $175 million.

A new School of Medicine facility

Also in 2010, the School of Medicine began a new era with the dedication of the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge, which is changing the way physicians are trained.

The five-story building boasts sophisticated technologies—including one of the most advanced simulation facilities in the country—and represents the latest in medical education. It is designed for interactive, experiential and team-based approaches to learning at all levels, from incoming medical students to experienced clinicians.