TAG: "Cancer"

Sugar molecule links red meat consumption, elevated cancer risk in mice


Neu5Gc, found in red meat, promotes inflammation, cancer progression in rodents.

By Heather Buschman and Scott LaFee, UC San Diego

While people who eat a lot of red meat are known to be at higher risk for certain cancers, other carnivores are not, prompting researchers at the UC San Diego School of Medicine to investigate the possible tumor-forming role of a sugar called Neu5Gc, which is naturally found in most mammals but not in humans.

In a study published in today’s (Dec. 29) online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists found that feeding Neu5Gc to mice engineered to be deficient in the sugar (like humans) significantly promoted spontaneous cancers. The study did not involve exposure to carcinogens or artificially inducing cancers, further implicating Neu5Gc as a key link between red meat consumption and cancer.

“Until now, all of our evidence linking Neu5Gc to cancer was circumstantial or indirectly predicted from somewhat artificial experimental setups,” said principal investigator Ajit Varki, M.D., Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular and Molecular Medicine and member of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. “This is the first time we have directly shown that mimicking the exact situation in humans — feeding non-human Neu5Gc and inducing anti-Neu5Gc antibodies — increases spontaneous cancers in mice.”

Varki’s team first conducted a systematic survey of common foods. They found that red meats (beef, pork and lamb) are rich in Neu5Gc, affirming that foods of mammalian origin such as these are the primary sources of Neu5Gc in the human diet. The molecule was found to be bio-available, too, meaning it can be distributed to tissues throughout the body via the bloodstream.

The researchers had previously discovered that animal Neu5Gc can be absorbed into human tissues. In this study, they hypothesized that eating red meat could lead to inflammation if the body’s immune system is constantly generating antibodies against consumed animal Neu5Gc, a foreign molecule. Chronic inflammation is known to promote tumor formation.

To test this hypothesis, the team engineered mice to mimic humans in that they lacked their own Neu5Gc and produced antibodies against it. When these mice were fed Neu5Gc, they developed systemic inflammation. Spontaneous tumor formation increased fivefold and Neu5Gc accumulated in the tumors.

“The final proof in humans will be much harder to come by,” Varki said. “But on a more general note, this work may also help explain potential connections of red meat consumption to other diseases exacerbated by chronic inflammation, such as atherosclerosis and type 2 diabetes.

“Of course, moderate amounts of red meat can be a source of good nutrition for young people. We hope that our work will eventually lead the way to practical solutions for this catch-22.”

Study co-authors include Annie N. Samraj, Oliver M. T. Pearce, Heinz Läubli, Alyssa N. Crittenden, Anne K. Bergfeld, Kalyan Banda, Christopher J. Gregg, Andrea E. Bingman, Patrick Secrest, Sandra L. Diaz and Nissi M. Varki, all at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

This research was funded, in part, by the Ellison Medical Foundation, the National Cancer Institute (grant R01CA38701), a Samuel and Ruth Engelberg Fellowship from the Cancer Research Institute, and a Swiss National Science Foundation Fellowship.

Disclosure: Ajit Varki and Nissi Varki are co-founders and have equity interest in SiaMab Therapeutics Inc., a biotech company with an interest in Neu5Gc and anti-Neu5Gc antibodies. In addition, Ajit Varki is a member of SiaMab Therapeutics Inc.’s Board of Directors and is a scientific advisor to the company. The terms of this arrangement have been reviewed and approved by the University of California, San Diego, in accordance with its conflict of interest policies.

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Combination drug therapy shows promise for women with advanced breast cancer


Study shows benefits of combining palbociclib, letrozole for treating advanced breast cancer.

Dennis Slamon (left) and Richard Finn, UCLA

By Reggie Kumar, UCLA

In a groundbreaking study that offers new hope for women with advanced breast cancer, researchers from UCLA’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center have published final clinical trial results that showed the amount of time women with advanced breast cancer were on treatment without their cancer worsening was effectively doubled when they took the experimental drug palbociclib.

An investigational drug discovered and being developed by Pfizer Inc., palbociclib targets a key family of proteins (CDK4/6) responsible for cell growth and prevents them from dividing. Results of the multiyear phase two study showed a significant increase in progression-free survival — the length of time a patient is on treatment without tumor growth — for women with advanced breast cancer that was estrogen receptor-positive, HER2-negative, who were given a combination of the standard anti-estrogen treatment, letrozole, and palbociclib compared to letrozole alone.

“We’re essentially putting the brakes on cell proliferation and causing these tumor cells to stop growing,” said Dr. Richard Finn, associate professor of medicine at UCLA and lead author of the study.

The study was published online Dec. 15 ahead of print in the journal The Lancet Oncology.

Unlocking the power of palbociclib

The origin of the research dates to 2007, when Finn and cancer pioneer Dr. Dennis Slamon, UCLA professor of medicine and director of the Revlon/UCLA Women’s Cancer Research Program, held a meeting with Pfizer to discuss palbociclib and other experimental drugs in the company’s pipeline.

Preclinical work testing the drug in a panel of human breast cancer cells growing in culture dishes showed very encouraging activity, specifically against estrogen receptor-positive cancer cells. This led to clinical study collaboration with Pfizer led by Finn and built on laboratory work directed by Slamon at the Translational Oncology Research Laboratory at UCLA.

“When we studied palbociclib, we found that signal inhibition [of CDK4/6] in breast cancer hadn’t been seen before, or had been looked at but missed,” Slamon said. “That’s what really got us on the track.”

Once the Phase 1 study was completed and showed that the drug was safe, the phase two study was performed in 165 post-menopausal women with breast cancer who had advanced estrogen receptor-positive, HER2-negative disease.

Phase two results showed progression-free survival was 20.2 months for patients who received palbociclib plus letrozole and 10.2 months for those who received letrozole only. The results indicated a 51 percent reduction in the risk of disease progression with the addition of palbociclib to letrozole.

“What is really remarkable is that we doubled the median progression-free survival,” Finn said. “With the addition of palbociclib, PFS effectively doubled. That type of result is not often seen in cancer medicine.”

Results found that more than 80 percent of the women with metastatic estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer in the study received some benefit from this treatment, Finn and Slamon said. The drug doesn’t have the side effects, such as infections, of traditional chemotherapy, but does result in a lowered white blood cell count, which was very manageable.

A phase three international clinical trial of the drug conducted by Finn and Slamon with Pfizer in 660 women with estrogen receptor-positive, HER2-negative advanced breast cancer is ongoing.

Because so many of the women in the early testing showed significant long-lasting responses, the FDA granted palbociclib  “breakthrough therapy” status in late 2013.

Patient given second chance at life

Gloria Zollar, 78, mother of five, joined the phase two clinical trial in August 2010, after her UCLA oncologist discovered that her advanced breast cancer had spread to her bones.

Only one year later, doctors noticed that her tumors had stopped progressing, which allowed Zollar to remain active and continue playing golf.

“I am now in remission, and everyday I’m thankful to God that I’m alive and able to see my great-grandchildren and spend time with them,” said Zollar, who remains on the treatment.

With FDA having granted palbociclib “breakthrough therapy” status in late 2013, Zollar hopes the drug is made available to other patients battling this deadly disease.

“I am very pleased that other women could have a second chance at life like many of us who participated in the trial.”

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Lens-free microscope can detect cancer at cellular level


UCLA researchers develop device that can do the work of pathology lab microscopes.

Tissue sample image created by a new lens-free microscope developed in the UCLA lab of Aydogan Ozcan. (Image by Aydogan Ozcan, UCLA)

By Bill Kisliuk, UCLA

UCLA researchers have developed a lens-free microscope that can be used to detect the presence of cancer or other cell-level abnormalities with the same accuracy as larger and more expensive optical microscopes.

The invention could lead to less expensive and more portable technology for performing common examinations of tissue, blood and other biomedical specimens. It may prove especially useful in remote areas and in cases where large numbers of samples need to be examined quickly.

The microscope is the latest in a series of computational imaging and diagnostic devices developed in the lab of Aydogan Ozcan, the Chancellor’s Professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor. Ozcan’s lab has previously developed custom-designed smartphone attachments and apps that enable quick analysis of food samples for allergens, water samples for heavy metals and bacteria, cell counts in blood samples, and the use of Google Glass to process the results of medical diagnostic tests.

The latest invention is the first lens-free microscope that can be used for high-throughput 3-D tissue imaging — an important need in the study of disease.

“This is a milestone in the work we’ve been doing,” said Ozcan, who also is the associate director of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute. “This is the first time tissue samples have been imaged in 3-D using a lens-free on-chip microscope.”

The research is the cover article today (Dec. 17) in Science Translational Medicine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The device works by using a laser or light-emitting-diode to illuminate a tissue or blood sample that has been placed on a slide and inserted into the device. A sensor array on a microchip — the same type of chip that is used in digital cameras, including cellphone cameras — captures and records the pattern of shadows created by the sample.

The device processes these patterns as a series of holograms, forming 3-D images of the specimen and giving medical personnel a virtual depth-of-field view. An algorithm color codes the reconstructed images, making the contrasts in the samples more apparent than they would be in the holograms and making any abnormalities easier to detect.

Ozcan’s team tested the device using Pap smears that indicated cervical cancer, tissue specimens containing cancerous breast cells, and blood samples containing sickle cell anemia. In a blind test, a board-certified pathologist analyzed sets of specimen images that had been created by the lens-free technology and by conventional microscopes. The pathologist’s diagnoses using the lens-free microscopic images proved accurate 99 percent of the time.

Another benefit of the lens-free device is that it produces images that are several hundred times larger in area, or field of view, than those captured by conventional bright-field optical microscopes, which makes it possible to process specimens more quickly.

“While mobile health care has expanded rapidly with the growth of consumer electronics — cellphones in particular — pathology is still, by and large, constrained to advanced clinical laboratory settings,” Ozcan said. “Accompanied by advances in its graphical user interface, this platform could scale up for use in clinical, biomedical, scientific, educational and citizen-science applications, among others.”

In addition to Ozcan, the principal authors of the research were Alon Greenbaum, a UCLA Engineering graduate student and a research fellow at HHMI, and Yibo Zhang, a UCLA Engineering graduate student. Other authors were UCLA Engineering graduate student Wei Luo, undergraduate researchers Alborz Feizi and Ping-Luen Chung, and Dr. Shivani Kandukuri of the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

The research was supported by the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Army Research Office, the Office of Naval Research and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

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8 top trends in health and science in 2015


From hacking the brain to diagnosing diseases through DNA.

With advances in technology and better understanding of people, the health sciences are constantly pushing toward more effective treatments and cures. The question is, where will we see the next breakthroughs?

Experts across UC San Francisco were asked to identify what’s ahead in key areas from basic science to digital health, from aging research to cancer treatments, from approaches in the lab to access at the hospital.

Here are some of the hottest areas in health and science to look out for in 2015:

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2014: The year in review at UCSF

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A sense for biosensors


UC Irvine’s Weian Zhao has created a device that improves detection of bacterial, viral invaders in blood samples.

The Integrated Comprehensive Droplet Digital Detection system invented by Weian Zhao of UC Irvine converts blood samples directly into billions of very small droplets. (Photo by Steve Zylius, UC Irvine)

By Tom Vasich, UC Irvine

As a doctoral student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Weian Zhao took part in a Canada-wide research effort to develop bioactive paper that would detect, capture and deactivate waterborne and airborne pathogens.

As part of this project, he helped invent gold nanoparticle-coated paper that could detect common pathogens, such as E. coli, but ultimately, the product didn’t meet his exacting standards of diagnostic speed and sensitivity. With a freshly minted Ph.D. in chemistry, Zhao moved on to a joint postdoctoral fellowship at both the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, where he dove into stem cell research, his biosensor work seemingly left north of the border.

But the challenge of creating a technology that could rapidly and selectively identify bacterial and viral invaders in blood samples nagged at the young scientist, even as he joined UC Irvine in 2011 as an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences with state-of-the-art lab space in the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center.

And then he met Enrico Gratton. In his Laboratory for Fluorescence Dynamics, the UCI biomedical engineer and colleagues have been developing imaging tools for biomedical applications. Among them is a three-dimensional particle counter that tags low-concentration fluorescent particles in large volumes of solution within several minutes, which drew Zhao’s attention. He knew he was back in the biosensor game.

Employing this particle counter, Zhao created a bloodstream infection test that speeds up diagnosis times with unprecedented accuracy – allowing physicians to treat patients with potentially deadly ailments more promptly and effectively.

Zhao says that the Integrated Comprehensive Droplet Digital Detection system can, in as little as 90 minutes, detect bacteria in milliliters of blood with single-cell sensitivity; no cell culture is needed. He published his latest results in the November issue of Nature Communications.

“We are extremely excited about this technology because it addresses a long-standing unmet medical need in the field,” says Zhao, who also holds a faculty appointment in biomedical engineering. “As a platform technology, it may have many applications in detecting extremely low-abundance biomarkers in other areas, such as cancers, HIV and, most notably, Ebola.”

Bloodstream infections are a major cause of illness and death. In particular, infections associated with antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are a growing health problem in the U.S. and worldwide. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, more than 2 million people a year globally get antibiotic-resistant blood infections, with about 23,000 deaths. The high mortality rate for blood infections is due, in part, to the inability to rapidly diagnose and treat patients in the early stages.

Recent molecular diagnosis methods, including polymerase chain reaction, can reduce the assay time to hours but are often not sensitive enough to detect bacteria that occur at low concentrations in blood, as is common in patients with incipient blood infections.

The Integrated Comprehensive Droplet Digital Detection technology differs from other diagnostic techniques in that it converts blood samples directly into billions of very small droplets. Fluorescent DNA sensor solution infused into the droplets detects those with bacterial markers, lighting them up with an intense fluorescent signal. Zhao says that separating the samples into so many small drops minimizes the interference of other components in blood, making it possible to directly identify target bacteria without the purification typically required in conventional assays.

“The IC 3D instrument is designed to read a large volume in each measurement, to speed up diagnosis,” Gratton says. “Importantly, using this technique, we can detect a positive hit from hundreds of millions of measurement samples with very high confidence.”

But invention was only the first step. Zhao wants to commercialize IC 3D. At UCI, faculty researchers with an entrepreneurial bent can work with the Institute for Innovation, an interdisciplinary and campuswide center focused on integrating research, entrepreneurship and technology to create real-world applications that benefit the public and drive the economy. The Office of Technology Alliances, part of the institute, helped Zhao patent-protect the IC 3D technology and establish a spin-off company, Velox Biosystems, to test and manufacture a commercial IC 3D device.

Currently, Zhao is focusing on applying IC 3D to cancer treatments – an extension of the research he’s been advancing since joining UCI.

Zhao has been developing stem cell messengers that selectively migrate to cancer sites to deliver tumor-fighting drugs or probes for contrast-enhanced medical imaging. This could, potentially, enable the identification of cancer micro-metastases at their early stages and increase the effectiveness of chemotherapeutic treatments for metastatic cancer while mitigating the symptoms associated with systemic chemotherapy.

For this work, Zhao was included in the MIT Technology Review’s 2012 list of the world’s top innovators under the age of 35, and this year he earned a prestigious National Institutes of Health Director’s New Innovator Award to further his efforts to create stem cell-based detection methods and treatments for cancer.

He’s also collaborating with Dr. Jason Zell, an assistant professor of medicine and co-leader of the Colon Cancer Disease-Oriented Team at UCI’s Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, to use IC 3D to identify biomarkers in colon cancers. This could enable oncologists to gauge the effectiveness of treatment during the cancer’s early stages more accurately than with current methods, which Zell says are not reliable.

Zhao is now seeking business partners to accelerate Velox Biosystems’ growth and hopes to conduct clinical studies of IC 3D’s utility in patient diagnosis and treatment.

“That’s what’s so important about this project,” he says. “We’ve created a multi-platform tool that has the potential to work with a variety of infections and diseases. I’m very excited about its future.”

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FDA approves drug that extends survival in most common type of lung cancer


Drug offers new hope for people with lung cancer who often have few treatment options.

Edward Garon, UCLA

By Peter Bracke, UCLA

The Food and Drug Administration today (Dec. 12) approved a new drug to treat non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC), offering people new hope in fighting the disease. Lung cancer is expected to lead to more than 150,000 deaths in the United States this year alone, and NSCLC accounts for about 85 percent of all lung cancers. The drug, Cyramza (ramucirumab), was tested on more than 1,200 people with NSCLC whose cancer worsened during or after first-line chemotherapy. The research was conducted as part of a multiyear, phase three clinical trial at UCLA and other centers in 26 countries on six continents. This is the first study in a decade to demonstrate a survival benefit in people with that type of lung cancer who had already received treatments.

Cyramza is an antibody that targets the extracellular domain of VEGFR-2, an important protein in the formation of vessels that supply blood to cancer cells. Patients were given the experimental drug in combination with docetaxel, a clinically approved therapy that is considered the cornerstone of second-line treatment in advanced NSCLC, said Dr. Edward Garon, the study’s principal investigator and a researcher at the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. Results of the study were recently published by Garon and colleagues in The Lancet.

The standard treatment regimen for people whose cancer worsens during or after initial therapy is chemotherapy with a single drug. This is a patient population for whom survival is typically several months, with approximately only 10 percent of patients responding to therapy.

The percentage of people who responded to treatment and the period of time before the disease worsened were both greater when Cyramza was added to docetaxel compared to what was seen with docetaxel alone, Garon said. In the study, 23 percent of patients responded to the combination of Cyramza and docetaxel, meaning that their tumors shrank more than a specific threshold used in clinical trials. Overall, the median survival was more than 10 months.

”It is exciting to see that by adding ramucirumab (Cyramza) to docetaxel, patients were able to live longer than those who were treated with the standard approach,” Garon said. “We are pleased to have access to a drug that lengthens survival time in a population of lung cancer patients who often have few treatment options.”

Although adverse effects were experienced by patients, most commonly neutropenia (low levels of white blood cell that fight infection), fatigue and high blood pressure, these were largely manageable with appropriate dose reductions and supportive care, and without substantial reduction in planned dose intensity.

Garon said that in the future Cyramza will be evaluated in combination with other drugs to treat lung cancer. In addition, he noted that efforts are underway to understand which patients are most likely to benefit when Cyramza is added to docetaxel.

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Robotic surgery technique developed to treat head and neck cancer


Pioneering method, developed at UCLA, gives patients new hope to live cancer-free lives.

By Peter Bracke, UCLA

In a groundbreaking new study, UCLA researchers have advanced a robotic surgical technique to successfully access a previously unreachable area of the head and neck.

This pioneering method can now be used safely and efficiently in patients to remove tumors that many times were previously considered inoperable, or that necessitated the use of highly invasive surgical techniques in combination with chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Abie Mendelsohn, UCLA

Developed by Dr. Abie Mendelsohn, UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center member and director of head and neck robotic surgery at UCLA, this new approach provides the surgical community with a leading-edge technology roadmap to treat patients who had little or no hope of living cancer-free lives.

“This is a revolutionary new approach that uses highly advanced technology to reach the deepest areas of the head and neck,” said Mendelsohn, lead author of the study. “Patients can now be treated in a manner equivalent to that of a straightforward dental procedure and go back to leading normal, healthy lives in a matter of days with few or even no side effects.”

The parapharyngeal space is pyramid-shaped area that lies near the base of the human skull and connects several deep compartments of the head and neck. It is lined with many large blood vessels, nerves and complex facial muscles, making access to the space via traditional surgical options often impossible or highly invasive.

Current surgical techniques can necessitate external incisions be made to the patient’s neck, or the splitting of their jaw bone or areas close to the voice box. Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are also often required, further complicating recovery and potentially putting patients at risk for serious (or even lethal) side effects.

Approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2009, Trans Oral Robotic Surgery (or TORS) utilizes the Da Vinci robotic surgical system, the state-of-the-art technology that was developed at UCLA by the specialized surgical program for the head and neck. TORS uses a minimally invasive procedure in which a surgical robot, under the full control of a specially trained physician, operates with a three-dimensional, high-definition video camera and robotic arms.

These miniature “arms” can navigate through the small, tight and delicate areas of a person’s mouth without the need for external incisions. A retraction system allows the surgeon to see the entire surgical area at once. While working at an operating console just steps away from the patient’s bed, every movement of the surgeon’s wrists and fingers are transformed into movements of the surgical instruments.

Over the course of the robotic program’s development, Mendelsohn refined, adapted and advanced the TORS techniques to allow surgical instruments and the 3-D imaging tools to at last reach and operate safely within the parapharyngeal space and other recessed areas of the head and neck.

Currently, Mendelsohn’s new procedure largely benefits patients with tumors located in the throat near the tonsils and tongue, but it continues to be adapted and expanded in scope and impact.

“We are tremendously excited about the possibilities for the surgical community with this new advancement of TORS,” said Mendelsohn. “Now patients have options they never had before, and we can even develop potential applications for the procedure beyond the surface of the head and neck.”

The study was published online ahead of print in the journal Head and Neck.

David Alpern: one patient’s story

UCLA patient David Alpern and son. Alpern is now cancer-free after his throat tumor was removed using Dr. Abie Mendelsohn’s breakthrough robotic surgery technique.

In 2012, David Alpern received devastating news. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, and the treatment options given to him by his doctors sounded worse than the disease.

“They described a procedure where your face is split in half and it’s basically reconstructive surgery. I was completely freaked out,” said Alpern, a husband and father of two.

After careful examination and imaging at UCLA, Mendelsohn determined that Alpern was a perfect candidate for TORS. Alpern was up and about just days after the procedure. Like the more than 100 similar TORS surgeries performed with Mendelsohn at the controls, Aplern’s tumor was removed and he’s now cancer free.

“I try not to get too cocky or excited that I beat cancer, but I think I did,” Alpern said. “There are no side effects at this point. My hopes are just to watch my kids grow up and enjoy my family and my life.”

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Boy battling cancer honored as UCLA’s No. 1 sports fan


He’s chosen as first Kid Captain by the basketball team and Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.

Logan Nobriga, with ball, and friends cheering at Bruins basketball game.

By Amy Albin, UCLA

Logan Nobriga, a 10-year-old-boy who is battling cancer, never expected he’d see his story played out on the giant monitor at Pauley Pavilion. But on Wednesday, he stood on the basketball court before the tip-off of a game watching a video about the fight of his young life.

Logan, who comes from Oak Park, was honored at the Bruins’ game against UC Riverside as the first “Kid Captain” selected by Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA and the UCLA Men’s Basketball team. The new program will recognize UCLA pediatric patients who face life-threatening illnesses with courage, strength and determination.

Logan, who has spent half of his young life in the battle against acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), is an inspiration to everyone, a hospital staff member said.

“Logan, who transforms his hospital room into a ‘sports zone,’ has been known to play a couple of wild games of basketball in the hospital, even when he was in the intensive care unit,” said Hilary Gan, a child-life specialist with the Chase Child Life program at Mattel. “Recently, he donated his birthday presents to the other children in the hospital.”

On Wednesday night, Logan high-fived Bruin players as they entered the court at the start of the game and then took a complimentary courtside seat with a friend he invited before having dinner at Pauley Pavilion.

“My college basketball team is definitely UCLA,” said Logan, a huge sports fan, in the video.

IIn 2009, he was diagnosed with ALL, a type of cancer of the blood and bone marrow. In 2013, he relapsed and is currently receiving chemotherapy as an outpatient.

“Having ALL … you don’t get to do a lot of other things that kids do,” he said on the video. So being treated as UCLA’s No. 1 Bruin fan with all the perks, including getting the game ball, was a special moment for him.

“We are excited to partner with our colleagues at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA to recognize these special young patients who inspire us all with their stories of hope and courage,” added Paul Engl, general manager of IMG College Los Angeles, the official sports marketing agency for UCLA Athletics.

See Logan’s story:

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The art of healing


The concept is drawing increasing interest from the medical and science communities.

By Kathleen Masterson and Suzanne Leigh, UC San Francisco

Seated at a table dotted with paintbrushes, pencils and curios, Hideka Suzuki is creating an abstract on a small canvas. It’s not an idle craft project; for her, it’s a form of therapy.

“Sometimes I don’t even know what I’m thinking until I sit down and start drawing. Then my feelings come out on paper,” said Suzuki, a teacher in remission from uterine cancer.

She’s a participant at Art for Recovery, a pioneering program at the UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center that has brought patients together since 1988 under the philosophy that creating art – no skills required – has a central role in healing.

It’s hard to empirically measure that impact because so many of art’s benefits are indirect, said Theresa Allison, M.D., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UCSF Division of Geriatrics who has a background in musical anthropology. But, she said, therapies that benefit a patient’s emotional wellbeing can have real impact on overall health.

“We are finally at a tipping point, where the health sciences recognize the impact of loneliness and depression on health care outcomes, and we recognize the positive impact of visual and performing arts on symptoms management,” Allison said.

“Now we’re starting to ask why, and to bring in the science to study art’s impact. National funding agencies are starting to support this, and we’re going to see a lot of research emerge in upcoming years.”

Over the last few decades, a growing body of studies and anecdotal evidence suggesting that art is healing have driven the incorporation of art into medical settings. Nearly half of the health care institutions in the United States reported including arts in health care programming, ranging from art and music therapy to featuring visual art in hospitals.

“It’s a huge opportunity to think about using different modes of healing,” said Julene Johnson, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the UCSF Institute for Health & Aging. She’s running a study measuring the health impacts of singing in a choir. “The nice thing about the arts is our long, long history of using music and arts for healing across thousands of years, and the fact that it’s relatively low cost to implement.”

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Researchers awarded funding for work on childhood cancers


Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation funds work of two UCSF researchers.

Adam de Smith, UC San Francisco

Two UC San Francisco faculty members are among three promising young researchers nationally recognized for their work in pediatric oncology. UCSF’s Adam de Smith, Ph.D., and Kyle Walsh, Ph.D., will share a $1.35 million award with Duke University’s Lisa Crose, Ph.D.

The funding comes from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF), a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding cures for childhood cancers. Its three ‘A’ Awards will provide each recipient $450,000 over three years to further their work. De Smith plans to examine acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), Walsh will study osteosarcoma, and Crose’s research interest is rhabdomyosarcoma.

“I truly feel honored to have been selected for this award from such a prominent childhood cancer charity,” said de Smith, an assistant professional researcher in the UCSF School of Medicine’s Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics. “It is also the first research grant that I have received in my academic career to date, and it will enable me to carry out a comprehensive and unique investigation into the causes of acute lymphoblastic leukemia in children with Down syndrome.”

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia is the most common childhood cancer, and children with Down syndrome have an approximately 20-fold increased risk of developing ALL, as well as higher rates of relapse and treatment-related mortality than children without Down syndrome. De Smith hopes that by understanding the causes of ALL in children with Down syndrome, this might lead to earlier detection and better treatment of this disease, as well as shedding light on the etiology of ALL in the general population.

Kyle Walsh, UC San Francisco

“This ALSF ‘A’ Award will provide an invaluable source of funding that will hopefully help me to establish my own research lab here at UCSF, with a particular focus on identifying risk factors for childhood leukemia,” de Smith said.

Walsh, the co-award recipient from UCSF, hopes that by investigating genetic factors with a particular focus on those genes known to contribute to human height, he can decipher key elements about the underlying biology of osteosarcoma initiation.

“Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation has a rich history of funding high-impact pediatric oncology research,” said Walsh, assistant professor in residence of neurological surgery and epidemiology and biostatistics in the UCSF Department of Neurological Surgery. “I am excited to join the ranks of previous award recipients and I look forward to using the funding to investigate osteosarcoma etiology. Children who are tall for their age are at greatly increased risk to develop osteosarcoma, a malignant bone cancer.”

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Is life in America hazardous to immigrants’ health?


Over time, the health status of immigrant groups tends to decline.

By Dan Gordon, UCLA

America is a nation of immigrants drawn from all parts of the world by the promise of freedom and a good life. But a substantial body of evidence suggests that for the newly arrived, life in the United States can be hazardous to their well-being.

When they get here, immigrants are on average healthier than their native-born American counterparts. But the longer they stay, the worse they fare on measures such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and mental health.

Faculty at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health are working on identifying factors contributing to the declining health status of immigrant groups that’s occurring over time and through the generations.

Part of it has to do with an unfamiliarity with U.S. society and its complicated health care system. Many immigrants lack health insurance. But Marjorie Kagawa-Singer, a professor at the Fielding School who focuses on the delivery of care that appropriately considers a patient’s culture, notes that it’s more than just cost.

“If someone is new to this country, doesn’t speak the language and has to learn to navigate our system, it’s like plopping us in the middle of Siberia and expecting us to figure out what we need,” she said.

For example, many immigrants across the educational and cultural spectrum hold beliefs about disease and how the body works that diverge from the biomedical model practiced in the U.S., Kagawa-Singer added, and many health care practitioners are uneducated on those differences.

“When you have problems in both health literacy among patients and cultural competence among practitioners, you get this ‘perfect storm’ of people who will not be able to utilize the health care system even when it’s offered,” said Kagawa-Singer.

Since 2000, Kagawa-Singer has headed the Los Angeles site of the Asian American Network for Cancer Awareness, Research and Training, the first federally funded cancer prevention and control research initiative focusing on Asian Americans. In lectures and short courses on cultural competence, Kagawa-Singer advises health professionals to demonstrate their trustworthiness and compassion.

“It’s not the health problem you’re treating, it’s the person,” she said. “When patients recognize you’re making the effort and respecting their dignity, they’re going to be much more forgiving and willing to teach and learn.” The challenge, she noted, is that the U.S. health care system is designed for short encounters, despite the fact that it may take longer to get to know and understand patients from different backgrounds.

Adopting the American diet

Public health experts have postulated that immigrants decline in health as they assimilate and adopt the health habits of their new communities — including high-fat diets and processed foods, along with reduced physical activity. To some extent, though, that equation has changed with globalization of the food supply, said May C. Wang, a Fielding School professor who focuses on early childhood obesity.

“Most low-income countries now have access to the processed foods we’ve been eating for the past few decades,” Wang noted. But even when immigrants’ tastes are similar to those of non-immigrants, immigrants with minimal financial means face considerable challenges to eating well. “Education alone doesn’t work in a community that doesn’t have the ability to access healthy food,” Wang said. “And in the very poorest communities, trying to change the environment by placing healthier foods where people live, work and go to school is challenging.”

The problem is compounded for immigrant groups, she explained, because they tend to have fewer social ties, are constricted by language barriers and often lack the know-how to pursue resources that could help them.

Wang works closely with the Public Health Foundation Enterprises Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Program, the largest local WIC agency in the country. It serves 300,000-plus families a year, the vast majority of them non-English-speaking immigrants. The overall childhood obesity rate has plateaued or declined in the U.S. in recent years, Wang noted, but the obesity rate among the mostly immigrant Latino children remains substantially higher than for other groups. Among the low-income, preschool-aged Latino children enrolled in L.A. County’s WIC program in 2011, nearly 22 percent were obese.

To better understand the impact of various strategies to improve diet and reduce early childhood obesity, said Wang, “We are examining the social and physical environments in which immigrants live and how these affect their ability to put into practice nutrition knowledge they acquire from participation in the WIC program.”

The work aligns with the University of California Global Food Initiative, which seeks to harness the resources of all 10 UC campuses to address a critical issue of our time: How to sustainably and nutritiously feed a world population expected to reach eight billion by 2025.

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Bitter food but good medicine from cucumbers


UC Davis research could have applications in treating cancer, developing other food crops.

High-tech genomics and traditional Chinese medicine come together as researchers identify the genes responsible for the intense bitter taste of wild cucumbers. Taming this bitterness made cucumber, pumpkin and their relatives into popular foods, but the same compounds also have potential to treat cancer and diabetes.

“You don’t eat wild cucumber, unless you want to use it as a purgative,” said William Lucas, professor of plant biology at the University of California, Davis, and co-author on the paper published Nov. 28 in the journal Science.

That bitter flavor in wild cucurbits — the family that includes cucumber, pumpkin, melon, watermelon and squash — is due to compounds called cucurbitacins. The bitter taste protects wild plants against predators.

The fruit and leaves of wild cucurbits have been used in Indian and Chinese medicine for thousands of years, as emetics and purgatives and to treat liver disease. More recently, researchers have shown that cucurbitacins can kill or suppress growth of cancer cells.

Bitterness is known to be controlled by two genetic traits, “Bi” which confers bitterness on the whole plant, and “Bt,” which leads to bitter fruit. In the new work, Lucas, Sanwen Huang at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and colleagues employed the latest in DNA sequencing technology to identify the exact changes in DNA associated with bitterness.

They also tasted a great many cucumbers. “Luckily this is an easy trait to test for,” Lucas said. “You just chomp on a cucumber leaf of fruit and your tongue gives you the readout!”

They were able to identify nine genes involved in making cucurbitacin and show that the trait can be traced to two transcription factors that switch on these nine genes, in either leaves or the fruit, to produce cucurbitacin.

The new research shows how domestication tweaked cucumber genetics to make the fruit more edible. Understanding that process might open up approaches to developing other food crops based on plants that are naturally either inedible or poor in nutrition, Lucas said.

It could also make it much easier to produce cucurbitacins in large enough quantities to use in clinical trials and potentially in medicine, Lucas said. For example the anti-malarial drug artemisinin, originally derived from traditional Chinese medicine, is now being produced either as a precursor molecule in yeast or through synthetic biology systems.

Other collaborators on the study included researchers at the Institute of Vegetables and Flowers, Beijing; Agricultural Genomics Institute, Shenzhen, China; Nanjing Agricultural University, Nanjing; Hunan Agricultural University, Changsha; Institute of Botany, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; Hunan Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Changsha; Wuhan University, Wuhan; Institute of Microbiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing; Nihon University, Tokyo, Japan; and Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands.

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