Saturday, January 31, 2009

Stem Cell Therapy

By now, I'm sure many of you have heard that Obama has signed an executive order lifting the ban on federally funded stem cell research. It was one of the first things he did when he took office. For all of my blog readers who are interested in the subject of stem cells, I thought I'd give you a primer on what's going on (which will in the process teach me about what's going on). In my opinion, this is the most exciting thing happening not just in health care but in all of science.

Stem Cells
There are several stages of stem cells, in order of most general to most specific:

1. Totipotent
2. Pluripotent
3. Multipotent
4. Oligopotent
5. Unipotent

Embryonic cells are typically Totipotent can make any kind of cell with the right kind of stimulation and preparation. Adult stem cells are much more specific, usually Multipotent. These stem cells can be found in a number of tissues and umbilical chord blood. Adult stem cells are already used in treatment of disease - an example of this the transplanting of bone marrow for leukemia patients. The challenge with stem cells is making sure that they become the desired cell - if not, a cancerous condition called teratoma could result. In addition, the stem cell must be recognized as part of the body to prevent an immune response from developing.

Geron, a bay area Biotech company, is launching the "world's first clinical trial of embryonic stem cell-based therapy". This trial, which has just been approved by the FDA, will be conducted on 8 - 10 patients with severe and permanent spinal chord injuries and it could begin as early as the summer. I suggest you go to Geron's website on watch the mouse video to see what happens when stem cells are are injected at the point of the spinal chord injury. It's amazing. Geron also has pretty interesting 'telemorase-inhibiting' drug for use against cancer - check that out as well. This drug is intended to stop the mechanism involved in cell division.

Neural stem is another company to check out. This one doesn't seem to be as far along as Geron, but it seems to be in the same general business. Neural stem seeks to make large quantities of neural stem cells for use against ALS, Parkinsons, etc. Neural Stem appears to be a competitor of Geron.

These are exciting times for stem cell-based therapies, and I know that the world will be hoping for positive results of Geron's soon-to-begin clinical trials.

Monday, January 26, 2009

High Tech Education

As I write my first lab report for CBE 480, my genetic engineering lab class, I'm amazed by how much technology has improved and made education easier. In this class, I'm easily using things like Google Docs for all lab groups to share data and 'Blackboard' for the instructor to post documents for the course. In my lab report, I'm using Excel for graphs and Microsoft picture manager for photos - basically all software has improved so much that they are extremely easy to use. But outside of this class, I've seen that UPenn has fast wireless throughout the University and surrounding areas. Van Pelt library, where I do a lot of work, has numerous computers that are ready to use for any kind of work. I use my USB stick to transfer data from my home laptop to school computers. I know what my classmates are doing via Facebook, etc.

I compare my experience with technology now to when I was an undergrad from 1999 - 2004. Now, the technology is more robust, more freely available, and faster. Heck, I don't even have a desktop anymore just my trusty laptop and I'm telling you all this on something that didn't exist in my college days, a 'blog'. I'm convinced that technology truly is an effective productivity booster in the educational realm. I think my education will be that much less frustrating thanks to modern technology.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Power of Biotech

I'm taking what might be the flagship course of the entire M. Biotech program - Engineering Biotech II taught Prof Scott Diamond, who is the director of the M. Biotech program. This is an amazing class which discusses all major topics in modern biotech. In the first class we went through a case study of tPA (tissue plasminogen activator), a clot buster that is used to break up clots in the cases of heart attacks and strokes. Drug probably isn't the best word here - tPA is a protein, but I'll call it a drug.
We studied Genentech's discovery of the drug, and the myriad different drugs that compete with this technology - drugs that are half the size of this drug to allow for better penetration in the clot, drugs based on snake venom (Amgen / Nuvelo), drugs based on bat venom, drug coated stents. We explored patent and business issues - getting into European generics.

There is an analogy to the world of electrical engineering and computer science in biotech. First, there is the 'algorithm' - how are you going to solve a problem? What's your strategy? In biotech, that means isolating the gene you want to alter, etc. Then, there's the 'hardware' - how are you going to physically make your algorithm work? There are the specific manufacturing steps to go through and delivery mechanisms for the 'drug'.

This class is a reminder of why I'm in this program to begin with. The science, business, and legal aspects are fascinating. But mostly it's the science that is fascinating. The problem solving strategies are limitless in biotech. Chemists can only do so much with traditional chemical techniques and can only manufacture small molecules. Large molecules are too difficult or expensive to manufacture. Chemists can't manufacture anything remotely close to a cell. But cells can do this - for free, and quite well. Biotech takes advantage of biology's inherent ability to manufacture very complex things. Basically, don't try to beat 'em, just join 'em. Make that cell your assistant and get it to make the things you want. The possibilities are now limitless. Genetic engineering can create better and more plentiful crops, etc. This technology can revolutionize the world, and not just in healthcare - this can change economics, international relations, and social interactions. It may even lengthen life spans. It's like having the code to your Microsoft OS and manipulating it so that you can have a green background screen, faster load time, automatic loading of certain programs - basically whatever you want. When you know the code and can change the code, the world is your oyster.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

First Impressions of Philly / Penn

I have been fairly impressed with Philadelphia in my first week in town. I signed a lease for an apartment at 23rd and Walnut which is just 10 minutes walking from campus. It's a spacious 1 bedroom on the 7th floor, with windows facing the South and the West. Everything seems great about the apartment so far except the 911 squad of ambulances and fire engines that head South on 23rd street at midnight.

Philadelphia is a manageable city. The weather is mild compared to New York and especially Boston. The people are also extremely friendly and down to earth, unlike a lot of the people in the Bay Area, New York, and Boston. Not a single person I've met in Philly so far has been anything but warm and kind. I guess it really is the City of Brotherly Love.

Adjusting to UPenn will take some time. I have never been in a university this large, with a medical school, law school, dental school, etc. MIT was much more homogeneous with the majority of students doing engineering, especially Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. I'm glad to be here at Penn though, and am finally getting to experience a large university with a variety of students across a variety of disciplines. I wonder if I had been an undergrad here, how would my life have been any different now? To be sure, I would have had more exposure to more kinds of people. And the environment here is very supportive, unlike MIT which adheres to the sink or swim approach that it is famous for.

Academics will be difficult for me. I am one of the few students in the program who doesn't have a life sciences background. When we are in class discussing pHs, pKas, etc. I have to go back into the deep trenches of my memory to remember these terms from college and high school. I guess this means that I'm going to have to work harder than everyone else just to catch up. But, I have to remind myself that the purpose of the next 2 years is to transition into health care, and it won't be easy. For the last 4 years, my brain has been wired to think in terms of business. For the 4 years before that, my brain was wired to think like an engineer. Now, I have to retrain my brain to think like a life scientist. I was good at these things at one point in time - a long time ago - can I be good or at least decent at them again? Or is this one transition too many for me? Time will tell. And time will also tell if this transition was even worth it, assuming I do make the transition. Right now, my goal is to finalize my classes and look for a health care job. Let's see how that goes.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A New Year

Well folks, I'm off to Philadelphia today. What can I say about the last month-and-a-half in California except that it has been totally awesome. I got healthy again through good diet and exercise, reconnected with a lot of friends and family, and really stepped up my involvement with HealthCare Volunteer.

For the entire month of December, I worked on 2 grant proposals to the San Jose Healthy Neighborhoods Venture Fund to get a total of $300,000 to help us start a non-profit dental clinic in San Jose. This was the first time I applied for a grant and these grants were daunting. We had to build an operating model for the clinic, research the needs for a clinic of this type, and explain how we were going to be effective. It was a great experience from start to finish: attending the RFP meeting, working with various people on different aspects of the grant, and finally delivering the grant which required me to spend a full day at City Hall in San Jose. The next day, we got verbal support from our local state senator for our project.

I've also set a New Years Resolution: to be more optimistic. I think last year's was to stay healthy and finish my year in India on a positive note. I think I accomplished that with no major illneses and I can say that my year in India was the best of my life. Two years ago, it was to 'stretch out', meaning that I wanted to get involved in new things and breakdown mental barrriers that were limiting me from doing wacky things. I think I achieved this goal too by going to India, switching to the Biotech field, and getting more involved in HealthCare Volunteer. This year, I want to have a more positive attitude and believe that things can happen. I'm not sure if I'm a pessimist or a realist, but I like to understand the pros and cons of things before getting into them. But in any case, the goal for 2009 will be to tilt myself more towards an optimist.

So it's back to the E. Coast for me, and I'm hoping for a great experience.
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