Stanford Medicine magazine explores what molecules reveal about us and our health

The new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine features articles about the molecules that make us who we are and how understanding them can lead to medical discoveries and innovations.

- By Patricia Hannon

The new issue of Stanford Medicine explores molecules and how understanding them fuels our knowledge about the life wihin us.
Illustration by Jeffrey Decoster 

Molecules are massively important, but their tiny size has long thwarted efforts to know much about them. With new technologies and research approaches, though, knowledge about molecules is rapidly expanding.

A themed section of the new issue of Stanford Medicine magazine, “Molecules of life: Understanding the world within us,” highlights the molecules behind human biology and how understanding them fuels medical discoveries and innovations.

Those include cracking the code of vicious DNA circles that enable cancer cells to evade treatments; uncovering a path for combatting the consequences of too much mucus in the body; insights into effective, nonaddictive painkilling options; and using a game-changing imaging technology — cryogenic electron microscopy — to identify the structure of molecules to better understand diseases and how to treat them. 

The articles in the magazine reflect widespread optimism and excitement about the future of discovery, innovation, education and patient care at Stanford Medicine.

Stanford’s role as a biomedical research leader ramped up in 1959 when the medical school moved from its original location in San Francisco to the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, where students and faculty could collaborate and study with those in other fields — particularly the physical, biological and social sciences. The goal of the move was to facilitate the training of physician-scientists skilled not only in clinical care but also in the research techniques needed to understand the basic biology of health and disease.

The move positioned Stanford Medicine to collaborate across the university and, ultimately, with the research and technology innovators in Silicon Valley and beyond.

“We are optimally placed to translate promising discoveries into the clinical setting. The potential we’re seeing in fields like cancer immunotherapy, for example, is beyond exciting,” said Ruth O’Hara, PhD, senior associate dean for research and Stanford Medicine’s Lowell W. and Josephine Q. Berry Professor, in one of the issue’s articles. “I am a cautious person, but I believe we’re observing one of the most fundamental biomedical revolutions in real time.”

“Indeed, Stanford’s basic scientists have made extraordinary contributions to biomedicine,” Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, said in a letter in the issue. “Their hard-earned discoveries often open whole new fields of study. And with every advance, they forge new pathways for future discoveries.”

The issue includes:

 ·       An article describing how moving its medical school to the Stanford University campus set up Stanford medical students, researchers and physicians to join forces with high-tech powerhouses to accelerate molecular discoveries that could revolutionize how medicine is practiced.

 ·        A look at how cryogenic electron microscopy is expanding our understanding of diseases and how to treat them.   

·         A sampling from a dozen Stanford Medicine researchers about their favorite molecules that reveals what wows them about their minuscule objects of study.

·         The tale of how two researchers discovered that circles of free-floating DNA, or extrachromosomal DNA, help cancerous tumors evade treatment in some patients, a revelation that has scientists newly eyeing these culprits that have been hiding in plain sight

·         An exploration of new thinking about pain, starting with the concept that not everyone feels pain the same way. In this article, Stanford Medicine pain experts discuss approaches they’re using to individualize pain remedies, ranging from designing new drugs to developing online pain management classes to assessing the usefulness of psychedelics.

·         A story about how one mom’s decision to donate her daughter’s tumor for research after she died of a rare brain cancer helped open the door for cancer immunotherapy.

·         An article describing the connection between neurotransmission and excess secretion of mucus — which can cause serious illness in some — and how leveraging those similarities could lead to a solution.

The issue also looks at neuroscientist Sergiu Pasca’s pioneering development of a cell culture method that allows scientists to watch parts of a human brain develop and form connections in real time (see related video), ushering in a new era of brain science; an effort driven by a cadre of Black women to create a peer navigation program for Black women with breast cancer; and the perspective of psychologist Keith Humphreys, chair of the Stanford-Lancet Commission on the opioid crisis, calling on disparate groups to work together to put patients first in addressing the crisis.

Stanford Medicine magazine is available online at as well as in print. Print copies of the new issue are being sent to subscribers. Others can request a copy by sending an email to

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

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