NIH Director Discusses Accelerating Translation of Biomedical Research to the Clinic

TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, is a nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.”  The annual TED conference brings together some of the world’s most fascinating people to talk briefly about science, business, the arts and global issues facing our world.  TEDMED, an independent event operating under license from the TED conference, is a three day annual conference where cutting-edge science and technology leaders “connect, understand and inspire” to advance the art of health and medicine with new ideas, the latest science and innovative technology.

A Brief History of The War on Cancer

We’ve been fighting the war on cancer for forty years and although there has been a decrease in U.S. cancer deaths, the global burden of cancer has doubled over the last three decades [1]. Indeed, the leading cause of death in the world today is cancer, followed by heart disease and stroke [2,3]. Cancer also has the greatest economic impact from premature death and disability of all causes of death worldwide, costing $895 billion in 2008 [3]. That number is just the cost of loss of productivity; it doesn’t include the direct costs of treating cancer.

Building a Brain in a Supercomputer

Mental illness, memory, perception: they’re made of neurons and electric signals. Henry Markram claims these mysteries of the mind can be solved — and soon. He is building a detailed, realistic computer model of the human brain and its one hundred trillion — that’s 100,000,000,000,000 — synapses.

Markram is the director of the Blue Brain Project at Ecole polytechnique federale de Lausanne (EPFL), one of two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology located in Lausanne, Switzerland. Founded in 2005 by the Brain and Mind Institute at the EPFL, Blue Brain is a supercomputing project that to study the brain’s architectural and functional principles, and reverse engineer it in order to understand brain function and dysfunction. Blue Brain can model components of the mammalian brain in precise cellular detail and simulate neuronal activity in 3D. Soon Blue Brain will be able to simulate a whole rat brain in real time.

Neurodegenerative Disease and the Coming Epidemic

At Neuroscience 2008, the 38th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience held last month in Washington D.C., a number of researchers presented evidence that a small, soluble, clustered form of a protein called amyloid beta may be responsible for brain damage in Alzheimer’s disease patients [1]. In addition, scientists report that they are finding new sources and uses of neural stem cells that may replace cells damaged by neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease [2].

Creative Commons License photo credit: neurollero

Why are these reports significant? Because until recently, large insoluble amyloid beta plaques, or deposits, were considered the likely cause of Alzheimer’s disease. The plaques were thought to disrupt brain cell communication. However, new findings show that an early (i.e. small), soluble, clustered form of amyloid beta called protofibrils is found in high levels in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease [1]. Researchers also found a strong correlation between the presence of high levels of protofibrils in the brains of transgenic mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease and the cognitive impairments associated with the disease.

Nirvana in the Right Hemisphere: A Stroke of Insight

In January 2007, a meta-analysis published in the journal Neurology determined updated rates of the most common neurological disorders [1]. The review found that 183 out of every 100,000 people suffer a stroke each year. Most studies included in the analysis attributed 80% or more of all strokes to ischemia (meaning a localized deficiency of blood caused by a clot obstructing arterial flow). In contrast, the incidence of a hemorrhagic stroke (meaning bleeding in the brain) is much more rare and is associated with higher mortality rates. Indeed, a study of stroke incidence rates and case fatality in 15,792 middle-aged adults found that hemorrhagic strokes were 4.5 times as fatal as ischemic strokes [2].