Fall issue of Stanford Medicine looks at power, limits of diagnostics

Researchers in the field of diagnostics are taking advantage of advances in biomedical research, engineering and computer technology to make diagnostics more informative and less invasive.

- By Rosanne Spector

Paul Wearing

In the future, your toilet might save your life.

Of course, your toilet would have to be very special to accomplish this, but that’s what Sanjiv Gambhir, MD, PhD, professor and chair of radiology, and his colleagues are working on in his lab at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

Gambhir envisions a future in which we nearly continuously monitor our health. So he’s developing diagnostic tools, such as a “smart” toilet to detect diabetes and a smart bra to detect breast cancer. As he explains in the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, the resulting data might tell each of us, or our health-care team, if something is amiss right away.

“The future is all about being able to intercept diseases early and, ideally, prevent them. If we can actually do something about a disease such as an aggressive cancer, then it is worth monitoring for it,” Gambhir said in the lead article of the magazine’s special report on diagnostics.

He and other researchers in the field of diagnostics are taking advantage of advances in biomedical research, engineering and computer technology to make diagnostics more informative and less invasive. One Stanford team, for example, is helping to create a real-life version of the tricorder, a sci-fi device used by the character Dr. McCoy on Star Trek to diagnose patients. Another team is developing an imaging method for cancer patients that eliminates radiation exposure and might even help fight the disease.

Falling short of potential

At present, however, diagnostic methods fall short of their potential. According to a 2015 National Academy of Medicine report, “The delivery of health care has proceeded for decades with a blind spot: Diagnostic errors — inaccurate or delayed diagnoses — persist throughout all settings of care and continue to harm an unacceptable number of patients.”

Part of the problem, said Gambhir, is that research aimed at improving diagnoses receives much less funding than research on new treatments.

The fall magazine, produced with the support of Stanford’s Department of Radiology, includes a Q&A with Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. The online version of the magazine includes an edited recording of the conversation with Tygart about cleaning up sports.

Also in the special report:

  • The story of Gambhir’s quest to save his son after he was diagnosed with a brain tumor — and his son’s legacy to diagnostics.
  • An article about how School of Medicine Dean Lloyd Minor, MD, discovered the cause of certain patients’ extraordinary hearing problems — for instance, hearing the sound of their own eyeballs moving — and went on to find a cure.
  • A sampler of diagnostic tools emerging from Stanford, including a magneto-sensor that detects cancer proteins with sensitivity hundreds of times greater than current methods, an ultrasound camera-in-a-pill that can see through the walls of intestines, and a software program for analyzing tumor tissue samples that determines a prognosis more accurately than people can.
  • An article on the stethoscope, asking whether the 200-year-old device is still relevant. A video about the stethoscope, featuring Stanford clinicians, including professor of medicine and bestselling author Abraham Verghese, MD, is available in the magazine online.
  • A story about a family seeking an explanation for a mysterious seizure disorder striking two of their children, and how using computers to mine genetic data can secure answers more quickly.

The issue also includes an essay by physician-journalist Nancy Snyderman, MD, a consulting professor with Stanford’s Center for Innovation in Global Health, on the collision of science and politics, and an excerpt from Drug Dealer, MD, a new book by Stanford assistant professor of psychiatry Anna Lembke, MD, on how doctors are fueling the opioid epidemic.

The magazine is available online. Print copies are being sent to subscribers. Others can request a copy by calling (650) 723-6911 or by sending an email to medmag@stanford.edu.

About Stanford Medicine

Stanford Medicine is an integrated academic health system comprising the Stanford School of Medicine and adult and pediatric health care delivery systems. Together, they harness the full potential of biomedicine through collaborative research, education and clinical care for patients. For more information, please visit med.stanford.edu.

2023 ISSUE 3

Exploring ways AI is applied to health care