Stanford researchers find new bacteria in dolphins

Photo by Hans
Photo by Hans

A team of researchers co-led by David Relman, MD, professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology, has discovered previously unknown species of bacteria in dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy.

You’ve probably heard of security dogs that help sniff out drugs, bombs or land mines — the U.S. Navy uses dolphins, the dogs’ marine equivalent, to protect ships and submarines by detecting sea mines and underwater intruders.

The researchers are cataloging the bacterial communities living inside the dolphins at the Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego. They analyzed samples from the dolphins’ mouths, stomachs, rectums and respiratory tracts. Their results were recently reported in Nature Communications.

The research team found a startling diversity of bacteria, especially from the dolphins’ mouths. “About three quarters of the bacterial species we found in the dolphins’ mouths are completely new to us,” Relman said in an online piece.

The researchers also tested the Navy’s sea lions and the surrounding seawater. The newly discovered bacteria found in the dolphins were not seen in the sea lions, even though the dolphins and sea lions were fed the same fish and swam in the same water. The bacteria in the seawater were also very different from the bacteria in the marine mammals.

Relman began working with the Navy 15 years ago to help keep the Navy dolphins healthy. However, their research may have a much wider impact, Relman explained in the story:

There’s a lot of concern about the changing conditions of the oceans and what the impact could be on the health of wild marine mammals. We would love to be able to develop a diagnostic test that would tell us when marine mammals are beginning to suffer from the ill effects of a change in their environment.

The research team plans to expand their study to include other marine mammals, including sea otters, harbor seals and elephant seals.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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SPARKing a global movement

browser-98386_1280Many academic researchers are tenacious, spending years in the lab studying the processes that lead to human diseases in hopes of developing treatments. But they often underestimate how difficult it is to translate their successful discovery into a drug that will be used in the clinic.

That’s why Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, founded SPARK, a hands-on training program that helps scientists move their discoveries from bench to bedside. SPARK depends on a unique partnership between university and industry experts and executives to provide the necessary education and mentorship to her academic colleagues.

In recent years, Stanford’s program has sparked identical programs throughout the world; at TEDMED 2015, Mochly-Rosen described this globalization. I recently spoke with her about the SPARK Global program, which she co-directs with Kevin Grimes, MD, MBA.

How has SPARK inspired similar programs throughout the world?

We’ve found our solution for translational research to be particularly powerful. Of the 73 completed projects at Stanford, 60 percent entered clinical trials and/or were licensed by a company. That’s a very high accumulative success rate. So I think it has showed other groups that we have a formula that really works – a true partnership with academia and industry. It’s the combination of industry people coming every week to advise us and share lessons learned and our out-of-the-box, risk-taking academic ideas that makes SPARK so successful.

We feel that what we’ve learned is applicable to others. Kevin and I also feel very strongly that universities need to take responsibility to make sure inventions are benefitting patients. So we’re trying to do our part.

How do you and Dr. Grimes help develop the global programs?

When a university asks about our program, we invite them to come visit us for a couple of days so they can talk to SPARKees (SPARK participants), meet SPARK advisors and watch our weekly meeting. Sometimes they also ask Kevin and I to come to their country to help set up a big event or assist in other ways. If they begin a translational research program at their institution, we offer for them to be affiliated with SPARK Global. Everyone is invited.

There are now SPARK programs throughout the world, including the United States, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Australia, Germany and Brazil. We are also working with other countries, including Norway, Israel, Netherlands, Poland and Finland to help them start a program.

Do researchers in other countries face the same challenges as those in the US when developing new drugs?

There are many common challenges. And there are also some advantages and challenges that are different in other places. So it’s a mix, both within and outside the US.

There are several key components to the success of translation research. It’s important to have a good idea. It’s even more important to have good advisors from industry to help develop the idea. And it’s very important that the people involved are open-minded and are not inhibited by hierarchical structures. In some places, there is a big problem with hierarchy – particularly in parts of Europe and East Asia. In some cultures, it’s also difficult to get experts to volunteer and academics can’t afford to pay multiple advisors. Also, some universities don’t have a good office of technology to help with patent licensing, which can be a major challenge.

You recent held the first International SPARK conference. Do you have future events planned?

The first international SPARK conference was held last summer in Taiwan. We only invited those with an existing SPARK program, because it was an organizational meeting. We spent a lot of time discussing what we want to do together.

The next SPARK Global meeting will be open to every university and will be held at Stanford this fall. There will be half a day for those thinking about starting a new SPARK program at their institution, and then one-and-a-half days for those already involved. We’ll celebrate SPARK’s 10-year anniversary and the formation of SPARK Global. Our overall agenda is to continue to promote SPARK-like programs in universities, as well as come up with ideas that the global network can work on together.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Solar Research Shines

sunshine
Courtesy of Creative Commons

Everyone loves the idea of solar power — heating and cooling your home using the sun as a clean, free source of power. It sounds like the ultimate way to lower your carbon foot print! However, solar cells are expensive and typically only about 15% efficient, as I discussed in an earlier blog.

In order to make solar power more practical on a wide scale, a lot of research is underway to increase solar power efficiency. Stanford researchers have just reported a significant breakthrough in such solar power research, as described in their new paper in Nature Materials. They have developed a novel solar technology that uses both the light and heat of the sun to generate electricity. This new technology could double solar power efficiency and make it more affordable.

When most people think of solar power, they think of rooftop solar panels. These sort of solar panels (or arrays of photovoltaic solar cells) use expensive semiconductor materials to convert photons of light into electricity. The photons from sunlight are absorbed by the semiconductor material, so the energy from the photons is given to the electrons in the semiconductor. The energy given to an electron can “excite” it from the valence band to the conduction band, where it is free to move around within the semiconductor to produce electricity. Solar panels basically convert solar energy into direct current electricity. However, these types of solar panels aren’t very efficient. If an excited photon doesn’t absorb enough energy, then it can’t make it to the conduction band to produce electricity. On the other hand, if an excited photon absorbs more energy than needed (to make it to the conduction band) then the excess energy is lost as heat. In silicon solar panels, half of the solar energy that hits the solar panel is lost due to these two processes. Ideally you would like to somehow harvest the energy that is lost as heat, in order to make solar cells more efficient.

Solar power can also be generated by a thermionic energy convertor, which directly converts heat into electricity. A thermionic converter produces electricity by causing a heat-induced flow of electrons from a hot cathode across a vacuum gap to a cooler anode. However, only a small fraction of the electrons gain sufficient thermal energy to generate this kind of electricity, and very high temperatures are needed for efficient thermionic conversion.

The Stanford researchers have recently developed a new process that exploits the benefits of both solar and thermal cell conversion. The research was led by Nicholas Melosh, as a joint venture of Stanford and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. Melosh’s group coated a piece of semiconducting material with a thin layer of metal cesium, demonstrating that this allowed the material to use both light and heat to generate electricity. This new PETE (photon-enhanced thermionic emission) device used the same basic architecture as a thermionic converter except with this special semiconductor as the cathode.

Although the physical process of this PETE device is different than the standard solar cell mechanisms, the new device gives a similar response at very high temperatures. In fact, the PETE device is most efficient at over 200 C. This means that PETE devices won’t replace rooftop solar panels, since they require higher temperatures to be efficient. Instead, they could be used in combination with solar concentrators as part of a large scale solar power plant, for instance in the Mojave Desert.

Melosh’s initial “proof of concept” research was performed with the semiconductor galium nitride to demonstrate that the new energy conversion process works, but galium nitride isn’t suitable for solar applications. They plan to extend their research to other semiconductors, such as gallium arsenide which is commonly used in household electronics. Based on theoretical calculations, they expect to develop PETE devices that operate with a 50 percent efficiency at temperatures exceeding 200 C. They hope to design the new PETE devices so they can be easily incorporated into existing solar power plants, significantly increasing the efficiency of solar power to make it competitive with oil.