Stanford Medicine’s top scientific advancements of 2023

Reflecting on the past year, the editors and writers of the Office of Communications picked some of the most significant scientific achievements they covered at Stanford Medicine in 2023.

- By Mandy Erickson

Thousands of researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine are making constant contributions to medical science — whether that’s discovering how cells communicate with one another, finding a drug that stems tumor growth or developing a new way to diagnose disease.

Choosing the most significant achievements of 2023 was no easy task for the staff at Stanford Medicine’s Office of Communications. Of the research we covered, we picked a dozen that we felt had the potential to make the greatest difference in patients’ lives. Here are some of our highlights from 2023:

  • Nasal injections could treat long-term COVID-19-related smell loss: A trial led by Zara Patel, MD, professor of otolaryngology, found that injections of platelet-rich plasma, derived from a patient’s own blood, could help restore a lost sense of smell. The new treatment offers hope to the estimated 9 million Americans living with long-term smell loss stemming from COVID-19.
  • Stanford Medicine-led international study finds tiny DNA circles are key drivers of cancer: Paul Mischel, MD, professor of pathology, and Howard Chang, MD, PhD, professor of genetics and the Virginia and D.K. Ludwig Professor in Cancer Research, are fleshing out how tiny DNA circles independent of chromosomes, or ecDNA, in cancer cells drive their growth in 1 of 3 three cancer patients. The circles form cross-talking clumps to drive the expression of cancer-associated genes they’ve lifted from the cell’s genome; breaking up these clumps, or hubs, might be broadly effective against many types of cancer.
  • Stanford Medicine’s first beating-heart transplant: Stanford Medicine’s cardiothoracic surgery team, led by Joseph Woo, MD, chair of the Stanford Health Care Surgery Department and the Norman E. Shumway Professor, performed the first beating-heart transplant from donors who died by what’s known as cardiac or circulatory death. Woo and his team developed a novel technique that continues the blood supply to the donor heart while it is placed in the recipient, essentially transplanting a beating heart, which the team believes could improve health outcomes for recipients and boost the pool of available organs.
  • Treating depression by reversing brain signals traveling the wrong way: Employing a new way of analyzing fMRI data that can discern the direction of brain signals, a team led by Nolan Williams, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, discovered that depression reverses the flow of neural activity between certain brain areas. In patients with severe depression, the researchers were able to use personalized transcranial magnetic stimulation to correct the errant flow and relieve their symptoms.
  • Reversing cystic fibrosis complication before birth: A multidisciplinary team led by Natali Aziz, MD, clinical associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology; Carlos Milla, MD, professor of pediatrics; and Susan Hintz, MD, professor of pediatrics and the Robert L. Hess Family Professor, showed that giving a new cystic fibrosis medication to a pregnant woman who carries the gene for the disease could reverse a bowel complication that had been developing in her fetus.
  • Stanford Medicine-led study finds genetic factor fends off Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s: Emmanuel Mignot, MD, PhD, the Craig Reynolds Professor in Sleep Medicine, and colleagues showed that more than 1 in 5 people carry a gene variant that provides protection against the advent and age of onset of both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The gene involved plays a role in recognition of antigens by the immune system; by raising immune recognition of a portion of aggregation-prone molecules of the tau protein (and probably preventing or retarding that aggregation), the variant causes, in effect, a “helpful autoimmune response.”
  • Impact of genes linked to neurodevelopmental disorders found: Sergiu Pasca, MD, the Kenneth T. Norris, Jr. Professor II of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, combined two cutting-edge technologies — assembloids and CRISPR — to fish out a set of 46 genes, from among 425 tied to neurodevelopmental disorders, that impair the generation or migration of interneurons to the cerebral cortex from another part of the developing brain. This approach can accelerate the search for common functional deficits caused by disparate genes, enabling the grouping of neurodevelopmentally impaired patients for faster, more meaningful clinical trials and speeding treatments.
  • Research findings could explain why young kids rarely get very sick from COVID-19: A study led by Bali Pulendran, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology and of pathology and the Violetta L. Horton Professor II, discovered that the noses of young children have a rapid, surprisingly effective immune response to a SARS-CoV-2 infection and deny the virus a launch pad for its spread to the lungs. In the mucous membranes of the kids’ nasal cavities were plenty of inflammation-promoting proteins, notably one called alpha-interferon, which has a knack for shutting down viral replication in infected cells. The finding has implications for immunizing against and treating infectious diseases in children and adults.
  • Lung cancer cells covertly thrive in brain under the guise of protection, Stanford Medicine study finds: A team led by Julien Sage, PhD, the Elaine and John Chambers Endowed Professor in Pediatric Cancer, found that lung cancer cells that metastasize to the brain survive by convincing brain cells called astrocytes that they are baby neurons in need of protection. Blocking the signal the cells emit could allow scientists to halt the development of brain metastases of small cell lung cancer.
  • A new branch of oncology, cancer neuroscience, offers hope for hard-to-treat brain tumors: Discoveries by a team led by Michelle Monje, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and neurological sciences and the Milan Gambhir Professor in Pediatric Neuro-Oncology, have opened a novel field of medicine called cancer neuroscience. It offers new opportunities to target some of the deadliest forms of cancer, including brain tumors that are almost always lethal. Scientists are especially intrigued by the cancer treatment potential of FDA-approved drugs developed for other neurological disorders, such as epilepsy.
  • Brain implants revive cognitive abilities long after traumatic brain injury: A team of scientists led by Jaimie Henderson, MD, professor of neurosurgery and the John and Jene Blume-Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor, implanted devices that provided electrical stimulation to the brains of five people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries years earlier. All five experienced significant improvement in their ability to focus, reduction in the need for sleep and other factors of daily living. Such devices may be able to help some of the 5 million Americans suffering from the effects of these injuries, often preventing them from studying or holding jobs. (Note: In a separate study published in 2023, Henderson also implanted tiny sensors in the brain of a Parkinson’s disease patient to help decode her attempts at speech into words displayed on a screen.) 
  • Stanford Medicine-led study finds way to predict which of our organs will fail first: In a study of more than 5,000 people led by Tony Wyss-Coray, PhD, a professor of neurology and the D. H. Chen Professor II, investigators found that our organs age at different rates — and when an organ’s age is especially advanced in comparison with its counterpart in other people of the same age, the person carrying it is at heightened risk both for diseases associated with that organ and for dying. The findings suggest that a simple blood test can tell if an organ in a person’s body is aging rapidly, guiding therapeutic interventions well before clinical symptoms manifest.

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