Authors Posts by Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

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Danny Bluestein and Wei-Che Chiu, a Stony Brook biomedical engineering doctoral student, with ventricular assist devices. Photo from SBU

By Daniel Dunaief

Some day, a doctor may save your life, repairing a calcified heart valve that jeopardizes your health. But then, the doctor may owe his or her latest lifesaving procedure to the work of people like Danny Bluestein, a professor in biomedical engineering and the director of the Biofluids Laboratory at Stony Brook University, and an international team of colleagues.

The group is working on restoring blood flow from the heart to the body using approaches for patients for whom open heart surgery is not an option.

Recently, the National Institutes of Health awarded the research crew a five-year $3.8 million grant to work on a broad project to understand ways to improve transcatheter aortic valve replacements, or TAVR, while reducing or minimizing complications from the procedure.

Danny Bluestein with his wife, Rita Goldstein. Photo from D. Bluestein

The grant is “not just about developing a new device, which we’ve been developing already for several years, but it’s also developing it in such a way that it answers challenges with disease and what clinical problems current technology offers solutions for,” Bluestein said.

TAVR provides a prosthetic valve for high-risk surgery patients. Like stents, TAVR is inserted through an artery, typically near the groin, and is delivered to the heart, where it improves the efficiency of an organ compromised by calcification on a valve and on the aorta itself.

Patients who have been candidates for TAVR are usually over 70 and often struggle to walk, as their hearts are enlarged and lose flexibility.

TAVR surgeries are performed in as many as 40 percent of such operations in some parts of Europe and the United States. The numbers have been increasing in the last couple of years as the technology has improved in different iterations of TAVR.

These valves are not only helping high-risk patients, but they are also assisting moderate and lower risk candidates.

Doctors have used TAVR for off-label uses, such as for people who have congenital difficulties with their valves, and for people who have already had open heart surgeries whose replacement valves are failing and who may be at risk for a second major heart operation.

Recovery from TAVR is far easier and less complicated than it is for cardiac surgery, typically requiring fewer days in the hospital.

Indeed, numerous researchers and cardiologists anticipate that this percentage could climb in the next several years, particularly if the risks continue to decline.

The team involved in this research effort is working with a polymer, hoping to reduce complications with TAVR and develop a way to tailor the valve for specific patients.

“If you’re a polymer person like me, you know we can make this work,” said Marvin Slepian, the director of the Arizona Center for Accelerated BioMedical Innovation at the University of Arizona. Slepian is pleased to continue a long collaboration with Bluestein, whose expertise in fluids creates a “unique approach to making something happen.”

The tandem is working with Rami Haj-Ali, the Nathan Cummings Chair in Mechanics in the Faculty of Engineering at Tel-Aviv University in Ramat Aviv, Israel. “To enable this technology, we need to better understand the current” conditions, said Haj-Ali, who uses computer methods to study the calcium deposited on the valve to understand the stages of the disease.

The valve Bluestein is proposing includes “new designs, new simulations, and new materials” that can create “less reactions with patients and overcome” problems TAVR patients sometimes face, Haj-Ali explained.

One of the significant challenges with TAVR is that it typically only lasts about five to six years.

“The idea of the NIH and this project is to extend the built-in efficiency of such a procedure,” Bluestein said. “TAVR is moving very fast to extend its functionality and durability.”

When the valve is inserted into the body, it is folded to allow it to fit through the circulatory system. This folding, however, can damage the valve, making it fail faster than in the surgical procedure.

As a part of this research, Bluestein and his team will explore ways to change the geometry of the TAVR according to the needs of the patient, which will enhance its functionality for longer. Bluestein and others will test these changing shapes through models constructed on high-performance computers, which can test the effect of blood flowing through shapes with specific physical passageways.

“Eventually, the future would involve custom designed valves, which would be optimal for the specific patient and will extend the lifespan of such a device,” Bluestein said.

A current off-label use of the TAVR valve involves assisting people born with an aortic valve that has two leaflets. Most aortic valves have a third leaflet. People with bicuspid aortic valves develop symptoms similar to those with calcification.

Going forward, Bluestein and his team plan to design valves that are specific for these patients.

A small percentage of patients with TAVR also require pacemakers. The device can interact with the electrophysiology of the heart and impair its rhythm because it creates pressure on the tissue. It is likely pushing against special nodes that generate the heart rhythm.

These studies include exploring the mechanical stress threshold that requires implantation of a pacemaker. By moving the device to a slightly different location, it may not interfere with the heart rhythm.

A resident of Melville and Manhattan, Bluestein is married to Rita Goldstein, who is a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. 

Bluestein was raised in Israel, where he did his doctoral work. He became intrigued by the study of the flow of blood around and through the heart because he was interested in blood as a living tissue.

As for the ongoing work, Haj-Ali is optimistic about the group’s prospects. The scientists that are a part of this effort “bring something to the table that, in combination, doesn’t exist” elsewhere, he said.

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Old school. It’s a phrase that suggests someone, like yours truly, does something one way, even if there might be an easier, more efficient or modern alternative method for doing things.

Take reading a book. My teenage children think nothing of doing their assigned reading for classes on electronic devices.

That just doesn’t work for me. For me, reading has
always been a multisensory experience. I enjoy finishing a page and flipping to the next one, anticipating the next set of words even as I know how many pages are left in the book by the size of the stack to the left and right.

When I was young, I used to figure out the exact middle of a book. I had an understated celebration when I reached the midpoint, even though the prologue, or introduction, often tilted the balance slightly.

Of course, I could do the same thing with an electronic version of a book.

And yet it’s just not the same for me. I also liked to see the names of the people who read the book in school before me. These students had perused the same pages, found the same shocking revelations and associated with the characters as they moved through the same year in their lives.

When I reread a chapter, searched for symbols or literary devices, I could recall exactly where on a page I might have seen something.

In an e-book, every page is the same. None of the pages is slightly darker, has a bent corner where someone might have stopped, or has a slightly larger “e” or a word that’s printed above the others on a line. The virtual pages are indistinct from each other, except for the specific words on the page or the chapter numbers.

I suppose people like me are why a store like Barnes & Noble can still exist, despite the ease and low cost of uploading books. And, yes, I understand when I travel how much lighter my suitcase would be if I uploaded 100 books without lugging the weight of the paper. I also understand that e-books are more environmentally friendly. Once a paper book is produced, however, it no longer requires constant battery recharging.

Passing along books read by earlier generations connects us to our parents and grandparents. We can imagine them holding the book at a distance as their eyes started to change, falling asleep with the book in their laps, or sitting on the couch until late at night, eager to finish a book before going to bed. We can also picture them throwing a book that frustrated them across the room or out the window.

Among the many Titanic stories that sticks out for me is the tale of Harry Elkins Widener, a 27-year-old book collector who boarded the ill-fated ship with his mother and father in Cherbourg, France. Legend has it that he died with a rare 1598 book, “Essays” by Francis Bacon, that he had bought in London. Harry and his father died aboard the ship, while their mother survived the sinking. After her son perished, she donated $2 million — an enormous sum in 1912 — to Harvard to construct a
library which is still on the main campus.

While I’m sure it’s possible to pick a random section of an e-book, I have grabbed books from a shelf and leafed to a random page, trying to figure out where in the story I have landed.

I am delighted to hold children’s books, including many of the Dr. Seuss collection. Also, I remember my children searched each page of “Goodnight Moon,” by Margaret Wise Brown for the mouse. There’s probably a mouse in the virtual version and touching it may even make the mouse grow, scurry across the virtual page or offer lessons about rhyming couplets.

Still, for my reading pleasure, I’m old school: Hand me a book and I’ll carry around a friend.

Tim Sommerville. Photo by Brian Stallard, 2018/ CSHL

By Daniel Dunaief

Many research efforts search for clues about the signals or processes that turn healthy cells into something far worse. Scientists look at everything from different genes that are active to signs of inflammation to the presence of proteins that aren’t typically found in a system or organ.

Tim Somerville, a postdoctoral researcher in Chris Vakoc’s laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, recently took a close look at a specific protein whose presence in a high concentration in pancreatic cancer typically worsens the expectations for a disease with an already grim prognosis.

This protein, called P63, has a normal, healthy function in skin cells for embryos and in maintaining normal skin for adults, but it doesn’t perform any important tasks in the pancreas.

Tim Somerville at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Photo by Brian Stallard, 2018/ CSHL

Somerville wanted to know whether the protein appeared as a side effect of the developing cancer, like the appearance of skinny jeans someone wears after a diet starts working, or whether it might be a contributing cause of the cancer’s growth and development.

“What was unclear was whether [the higher amount of P63] was a correlation, which emerges as the disease progresses, or something more causal,” he said, adding that he wanted to find out whether “P63 was driving the more aggressive features” of pancreatic cancer.

Somerville increased and decreased the concentration of P63 in tissue cells and organoids, which are copies of human tumors, hoping to see whether the change had any effect on the cancer cells.

The postdoctoral researcher knocked out the amount of P63 through the use of CRISPR, a gene-editing technique. He also overexpressed P63, which is also a transcription factor.

“From those complementary experiments, we were able to show that P63 is driving a lot of the aggressive features of cancer cells,” Somerville concluded. “Rather than being a correlation that’s observed, it is functionally driving the cancer itself.”

Somerville recently published his research in the journal Cell Reports.

As a transcription factor, P63 recognizes specific DNA sequences and binds to them. With P63, Somerville observed that it can bind to DNA and switch on many genes that are active in the worse form of pancreatic cancer. He and his collaborators describe P63 as a master regulator of the gene program.

Pancreatic cancer is often discovered after the irreversible conversion of normal, functional cells into a cancerous tumor that can spread to other organs. It also resists chemotherapy. Research teams in the labs of Vakoc and Dave Tuveson, the director of the Cancer Center at CSHL, and other principal investigators at CSHL and elsewhere are seeking to understand it better so they can develop more effective treatments.

Tim Somerville. Photo by Yali Xu

Vakoc was impressed with the work his postdoctoral researcher performed in his lab. Somerville is “one of the most scholarly young scientists I have ever met,” Vakoc explained in an email. “He is simply brilliant and thinks deeply about his project and is also driven to find cures for this deadly disease.”

At this point, Somerville is pursuing why P63 is activated in the pancreas. If he can figure out what triggers it in the first place, he might be able to interfere with that process in a targeted way. He also might be able to think about ways to slow it down or stop the disease.

The form of P63 that is active in the pancreas is not a mutated version of the protein that functions in the skin. If scientists tried to reduce P63, they would need to develop ways to suppress the cancer promoting functions of P63 without suppressing its normal function in the skin.

Many of the genes and proteins P63 activates are secreted factors and some of them contribute to inflammation. Indeed, researchers are exploring numerous ways inflammation might be exacerbating the progression of cancer.

P63 is also active in other types of cancer, including lung, head and neck cancers. Frequently, elevated levels of P63 in these other forms of cancer also lead to a worse prognosis.

Somerville explained that the changes P63 makes in a pancreatic cancer cell may expose new weaknesses. By studying cells in which he has overexpressed the protein, he hopes to see what other addictions the cells may have, which could include a reliance on other proteins that he could make compounds to target.

A resident of Huntington, Somerville has worked in Vakoc’s lab for three years. While he has spent considerable time studying P63, he is also looking at other transcription factors that are involved in pancreatic cancer.

Somerville wants to contribute to the discovery of why one form of pancreatic cancer is so much worse than the other. “If we can understand it, we can find new ways to stop it,” he said.

Originally from Manchester, England, Somerville is working in the United States on a five-year visa and plans to continue contributing to Vakoc’s lab for the next couple of years. At that point, he will consider his options, including a potential return to the United Kingdom.

Tim Somerville. Photo by Gina Motisi, 2018/CSHL

Somerville appreciates the opportunity to work on pancreatic cancer with Vakoc and with Tuveson, whose lab is next door. The researcher is enjoying his time on Long Island, where he takes walks, enjoys local restaurants and, until recently, had been playing on a Long Island soccer team, which played its matches in Glen Cove.

For Somerville, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has exceeded his high expectations. “The research that goes on here and the interactions you can have at meetings” have all contributed to a “great experience,” he said.

Somerville is excited to be a part of the pancreatic cancer team.

“With the work from [Tuveson’s] lab and ours, we’re finding new things we didn’t know,” he said. “It’s only when you understand those different things and the complexity that you can start thinking about how to tackle this in a more successful way. If the research carries on, we’ll make improvements in this disease.”

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

Over the years, I’ve seen many ways of decorating for Christmas although they are variations on the Rudolph, Santa, Frosty, Nativity themes.

This year, perhaps we could use some modern iconography to celebrate the themes and elements that are parts of our lives. Here are my top 10 suggestions for new Christmas iconography — without any connection to a religion:

10. Déjà Santa: Perhaps, in addition to Santa on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, eager decorators should add another Santa, pulled by a similar-looking group of reindeer behind the leader in an homage to the sequels that have become routine in our lives, from Wall Street to Main Street to “Rodeo Drive, baby” — yes, that’s a reference to the movie “Pretty Woman,” which in case you haven’t heard or seen the ubiquitous ads is now a Broadway musical. By the way, I read recently that “Dear Evan Hansen” will become a movie.

9. Cellphones: Somewhere on lawns throughout America, oversized cellphones could become a part of the decorative landscape. In addition to a mother and father cellphone, little cellphones could congregate around a cellphone Christmas tree, with little wrapped apps under the tree just waiting to integrate into the world of the little cellphones.

8. Ice-cream Cones: Ice-cream stores seem to be springing up everywhere, with the scent of malted cones wafting out of their doors and up and down streets, beckoning to those whose stomachs anticipate the inextricably intertwined link between sugar and celebrations. Let’s also celebrate all the mix-ins and candy toppings which have become the main course, pushing the ice cream deep beneath a pile of multicolored candy toppings or shoving a small melting pile to the side.

7. Gyms: Yes, I know Olivia Newton-John and her generation celebrated “getting physical,” but with the abundance of ice-cream stores, we could use more time at gyms, which are often conveniently located next door to ice-cream shops.

6. The Intrepid Weather Person: We’ve watched as weather reporters race off to find the defining images of storms of the century, which appear to rip through the country almost every year. Let’s install on our lawns a windblown weather person, holding a microphone that threatens to fly out of his or her hand.

5. A Collection of Marchers: Not since the 1970s have this many people come out with a wide range of signs in support of or in opposition to someone or something. How about some marchers with “Go Santa” or maybe just “I believe in something” signs for the modern decorated lawn?

4. The Constitution: More than ever, a document ratified 230 years ago has kept the peace. The Constitution seemed to anticipate modern imbroglios. Perhaps an enormous Constitution, or even a list of amendments, could glow on a lawn.

3. A Grand Stage: Everyone seems well aware of the cellphones pointed at them, recording their celebrations and pratfalls. People crave their five minutes of fame: Why not give them a stage on a front lawn?

2. The Driverless Car: Yes, it’s finally here, a car that drives and parks itself. A modern lawn could celebrate the long-discussed innovation with a car that pulls away from a decorated curb, circles a small block and reparks itself. I would watch the car the way I used to watch model trains.

1. The Hashtag: What was once a tic-tac-toe board or an extra button on a phone has become a calling card for self-expression. Let’s add colored lines and lights to our #moderncelebrations.      

Weisen Shen in front of a twin-otter airplane in the Antarctic during the 2017-18 season. Photo by Zhengyang Zhou

By Daniel Dunaief

Ever sit alone in a house and hear noises you can’t explain? Was that the wind, the house settling (whatever that means) or the cat swatting at the string hanging from the blinds?

Those sounds, which are sometimes inexplicable and are called ambient noise, are often hard to trace, even if we walk around the house and listen outside every room.

Weisen Shen
Photo by John Griffin

For Weisen Shen, an assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences at Stony Brook University, ambient noises deep below the Antarctic continent and elsewhere can be and often are clues that unlock mysteries hidden miles below the frozen surface.

A geoscientist who uses computer programs in his research, Shen would like to study the temperature well below the surface. He developed an in-house code to understand and interpret seismic data.

The speed at which Earth rumbling passes from one area to another can indicate the relative temperature of an area. Seismic activity moves more slowly through warmer rocks and moves more rapidly through colder crust, which has a higher rigidity. According to Shen, these temperature readings can help provide a clearer understanding of how much heat is traveling through the surface of the solid Earth into the ice sheet.

Shen traveled to the Ross Ice Shelf in the 2015-16 season and ventured to the South Pole in the 2017-18 season. He is currently seeking funding to go back to the Antartica. Earlier this year, he published an article in the journal Geology in which he found evidence that the lithosphere beneath the Transantarctic Mountains is thinner than expected.

Shen pointed out that seismic properties aren’t just related to temperature: They can help determine the density of the material, the composition and the existence of fluid such as water. He looks for surface geology and other types of geophysical data to detect what is the dominant reason for seismic structure anomalies. He also uses properties other than speed, such as seismic attenuation and amplitude ratios, in his analysis.

This kind of information can also provide an idea of the underlying support for mountain ranges, which get built up and collapse through a lithographic cycling.

As for ambient noises, Shen explained that they can come from ocean fluctuations caused by a hurricane, from human activities or, most commonly, from the bottom of the ocean, where the dynamic ocean wave constantly pushes against the bottom of the earth. By processing the noises in a certain way, he can extract information about the materials through which the noise traveled.

Shen published an article in the Journal of Geophysical Research in which he discussed a noise source in Kyushu Island in the Japanese archipelago. “The noise is so subtle that people’s ears will never catch it,” he said. “By deploying these very accurate seismic sensors, we will be able to monitor and study all the sources of those noises, not just the earthquakes.”

Studying these lower volume, less violent noises is especially helpful in places like Antarctica, which is, Shen said, a “quiet continent,” without a lot of strong seismic activity. He also uses the images of earthquakes that occur elsewhere, which travel less violently and dramatically through Antarctica.

Shen decided to study Antarctica after he earned his doctorate at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “I have this ambition to get to all the continents,” he said. In graduate school he told himself, “If you ever want to get that work done, you have to crack this continent.”

During his postdoctoral work, Shen moved to St. Louis, where he worked at Washington University in the laboratory of Doug Wiens, professor of Earth and planetary sciences.

In addition to conducting research in Antarctica, Shen collaborated with Chen Cai, a graduate student in Wiens’ lab. Together with other members of the Washington University team, they used seismic data in the Mariana Trench to show that about three to four times more water than previously estimated traveled beneath the tectonic plates into the Earth’s interior.

That much water rushing further into the Earth, however, is somehow offset by water returning to the oceans, as ocean levels haven’t changed dramatically through this part of the water cycle process.

“People’s estimates for the water coming out is probably out of balance,” Wiens said. “We can’t through millions of years bring lots of water through the interior. The oceans would get lower. There’s no evidence” to support that, which means that “an upward revision of the amount of water coming out of the Earth” is necessary. That water could be coming out through volcanoes or perhaps through the crust or gas funnels beneath the seafloor, he suggested.

Wiens praised all the researchers involved in the study, including Shen, whom he said was “very important” and “wrote a lot of the software we used to produce the final images.”

A resident of Queens, Shen lives with his wife Jiayi Xie, who works as a data scientist at Xaxis, a subcompany of the global media firm GroupM. The couple has an infant son, Luke.

Shen grew up in the southwestern part of China. When he was younger, he was generally interested in science, although his particular passion for geoscience started when he was in college at the University of Science and Technology of China, USTC, in Hefei, Anhui, China.

The assistant professor, who teaches a geophysics class at Stony Brook University, currently has two graduate students in his lab. He said he appreciates the support Stony Brook provides for young faculty.

As for his work, Shen is excited to contribute to the field, where he enjoys the opportunity and camaraderie that comes from exploring parts of Earth that are relatively inaccessible. He feels his detailed studies can help change people’s understanding of the planet.

Photo by Alex Petroski 2018

By Daniel Dunaief

Daniel Dunaief

It’s time for the media to look elsewhere. The lowest hanging fruit has been extensively covered. Washington journalists and, indeed, state and community journalists have a responsibility to cover the entire landscape. Everything doesn’t run through one office, one branch of the federal government or one person.

It’s time to highlight human interest stories. Flawed though it may be in parts, the movie “Instant Family,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne makes people laugh. However, it also addresses a significant issue about foster children “in the system.” No, I didn’t run out to adopt a foster child as the final credits were rolling, but I heard some personal details that were as moving to me as they were to the people in the movie.

We the press should run off and cover the local versions of Karen, played by Octavia Spencer, and Sharon, acted by Tig Notaro, who work tirelessly at an adoption agency. Spencer is a remarkable combination of serious and slapstick, offering the kind of range typically only reserved for a main character. She draws the audience, and the other characters, to her, offering perspectives on fostering children and adoption that aren’t often discussed.

Undoubtedly, on Long Island, in New York and in the United States, people like Karen and Sharon give children hope and seek to connect parents looking to adopt with children, while maintaining level heads through the high-stakes process.

Every year, papers print out lists of high school graduates, sometimes including the names of colleges these newly minted graduates plan to attend. These students, many of whom have spent their lives in one place, are preparing to take their next steps on literal and figurative terrain they haven’t yet covered, except perhaps to pay a quick visit to a college.

Maybe, in addition to listing all the high school graduates, we should interview several college graduates 10 years after they graduated from high school, asking them what they learned, what mistakes they made and what paths they took to get them from their youthful hope to their current state.

And, yes, there are local and national politicians who have become subsumed in the Washington wave. Some of them also have worthy ideas such as our local state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) with his work on the environment. We owe it to ourselves to hear them, to give them a platform and to give our readers a chance to
respond to their visions and ideas.

In an era when people voted in impressive numbers in the recent midterm elections, we need to know what everyone in Albany or Washington is doing. Voting is just the start. We should keep tabs on them, encourage them to follow through on their campaign promises, and lend our support when they turn to their constituents for help.

We should also hear more from police chiefs, who can offer insights into what it’s like on the front lines of the drug crisis. Many of these people are working feverishly to prevent family tragedies that resonate for years, hoping to redirect people away from self-destructive paths.

Every day, incredible people with tales of trials and tribulations live among us, pursuing their goals while trying to ensure that they follow their moral and civil compasses.

In this incredible country, merely being famous or even powerful isn’t enough of a reason to write about what we like or don’t like about someone everyone sees every day. We need to shine the spotlight in the corners of rooms, not waiting for YouTube, reality TV or a heroic sports moment to catapult someone to public attention. Some people deserve that attention because they typically remain in the shadows, supporting others, saying the right things when there isn’t a camera in sight, and inspiring others to believe in themselves.

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I may be conflating two holidays, but this year, I’m thankful for love. Yes, I recognize that Valentine’s Day is a few months away.

I’m not just talking about romantic love between two people who laugh, plan and enjoy building a life together while dealing with the inevitable chaos and curveballs.

No, I’m talking about the kind of love that makes a cold, wet day manageable. We recently added a puppy to our home. We brought this new furry creature into our lives because we were moving and it seemed liked a way to add something to our house that would be ours in a new setting.

It also seemed to be a way to enhance our ability to socialize with our neighbors. Who, after all, can resist a cute puppy bounding down the street? Well, as it turns out, almost everyone, particularly on unexpectedly cooler days in a city that was supposed to be much warmer. Sure, people wave through their gloves and smile behind the wheel, but no one has stopped to ask if he or she can pet the little fella. No one has asked his age, his name or where we got him.

But, hey, this isn’t about love for our neighbors, although I suspect over time we may come to love the distance we have from everyone or, on the bright side, a friendship that may seem inevitable after we meet other people eager to connect with those living nearby.

No, this is about that moment when I open the door to the puppy’s room and he greets me with a tail moving so quickly that it could generate enough electricity to power the house for the day.

As we and our kids get older, the excitement at greeting each other after absences, even for a few hours or a day, left the arena of unbridled joy. Sure, we’re delighted to see each other, but the squeal with delight moments have morphed into understated greetings and subtle head nods that don’t displace carefully coiffed hair.

We can also love the moments our senses pick up a familiar signal. That could be the scent of a pumpkin pie wafting across the living room, sending us back to our childhood when we visited with extended family that has long ago moved away. It could be the sound of our children practicing an instrument with such dexterity that the end of the composition brings both pride and sadness as the intricate sound has given way to silence.

It could also be an appreciation for a warm, crackling fire late on a cold day as the winter sunset turns the light outside a deep orange, contrasting with the yellow hue near the sizzling logs.

This is also the incredible season of anticipation, as we love the prospect of seeing people we haven’t seen in person in weeks, months or years. We can love the expectation of seeing their faces, sharing stories, taking long walks on quiet roads or windy beaches, as we tell tales about everything from the miraculous to the mundane in intersecting lives interrupted by time and distance.

As well, we can love the gift of time with each other, on our own or without particular commitment.

Then again, we can love a positive result at work, if we’ve sold the unsellable property, finally checked something off a to-do list that seemed to be festering forever, or found some unexpected result in a lab that may one day lead to a treatment for an insidious or life-depriving disease.

We are a thinking species, which ruminates over the past, contemplates the present and ponders the future. We are also blessed with the power of love, as Huey Lewis and the News sang in 1985. It’s still a powerful thing, even 33 years later.

Photo by Ela Elyada

By Daniel Dunaief

What if, instead of defeating or removing enemy soldiers from the battlefield, a leader could convince them to join the fight, sending them back out to defeat the side they previously supported? That’s the question Giulia Biffi, a postdoctoral researcher at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, is asking about a particular type of cells, called fibroblasts, that are involved in pancreatic cancer.

Fibroblasts activated by cancer cells secrete a matrix that surrounds cancer cells and makes up about 90 percent of pancreatic tumors.

Giulia Biffi. Photo by ©Gina Motisi, 2018/CSHL

Responding to a molecule called IL-1, an inflammatory potential tumor-promoting fibroblast may enhance the opportunity for cancer to grow and spread. Another type of fibroblast responds to TGF-beta, which potentially enables them to restrain tumors.

Researchers had suggested that the inflammatory fibroblasts are tumor promoting, while the myofibroblasts are tumor defeating, although at this point, that still hasn’t been confirmed experimentally.

Researchers knew TGF-beta was important in biology, but they didn’t know that it was involved in preventing the activation of an inflammatory tumor-promoting version.

Biffi, however, recently found that IL-1 promotes the formation of inflammatory fibroblasts. She believes these fibroblast promote tumor growth and create an immunosuppressive environment.

In an article published in the journal Cancer Discovery, Biffi showed that it’s “not only possible to delete the population, but it’s also possible to convert [the fibroblasts] into the other type, which could be more beneficial than just getting rid of the tumor-promoting cells,” she said.

Biffi works in Director Dave Tuveson’s CSHL Cancer Center laboratory, which is approaching pancreatic cancer from numerous perspectives.

Her doctoral adviser, Sir Shankar Balasubramanian, the Herchel Smith Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the University of Cambridge, suggested that the work she did in Tuveson’s lab is an extension of her successful research in England.

“It is evident that [Biffi] is continuing to make penetrating and important advances with a deep and sophisticated approach to research,” Balasubramanian explained in an email. “She is without a doubt a scientist to watch out for in the future.”

To be sure, at this stage, Biffi has performed her studies on a mouse model of the disease and she and others studying fibroblasts and the tumor microenvironment that dictates specific molecular pathways have considerable work to do to extend this research to human treatment.

She doesn’t have similar information from human patients, but the mouse models show that targeting some subsets of fibroblasts impairs cancer growth.

“One of the goals we have is trying to be able to better classify the stroma from pancreatic cancer in humans,” Biffi said. The stroma is mixed in with the cancer cells, all around and in between clusters of cells.

The results with mice, however, suggest that approaching cancer by understanding the molecular signals from fibroblasts could offer a promising additional resource to a future treatment. In a 10-day study of mice using a specific inhibitor involved in the pathway of inflammatory fibroblasts, Biffi saw a reduction in tumor growth.

If Biffi can figure out a way to affect the signals produced by fibroblasts, she might be able to make the stroma and the cancer cells more accessible to drugs. One potential reason other drugs failed in mouse models is that there’s increased collagen, which is a barrier to drug delivery. Drugs that might have failed in earlier clinical efforts could be reevaluated in combination with other treatments, Biffi suggested, adding if scientists can manage to target the inflammatory path, they might mitigate some of this effect.

A native of Bergamo, Italy, which is near Milan, Biffi earned her doctorate at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. Biffi lives on a Cold Spring Harbor property which is five minutes from the lab.

When she was young, Biffi wanted to be a vet. In high school, she was fascinated by the study of animal behavior and considered Dian Fossey from “Gorillas in the Mist” an inspiration. When she’s not working in the lab, she enjoys the opportunity to see Broadway shows and to hike around a trail on the Cold Spring Harbor campus.

Biffi started working on fibroblasts three years ago in Tuveson’s lab. “I really wanted to understand how fibroblasts become one population or the other when they were starting from the same cell type,” she said. “If they have different functions, I wanted to target them selectively to understand their role in pancreatic cancer to see if one might have a tumor restraining role.”

A postdoctoral researcher for over four years, Biffi is starting to look for the next step in her career and hopes to have her own lab by the end of 2019 or the beginning of 2020.

When she was transitioning from her doctoral to a postdoctoral job, she was looking for someone who shared her idealistic view about curing cancer. Several other researchers in Cambridge suggested that she’d find a welcome research setting in Tuveson’s lab. Tuveson was “popular” among principal investigators in her institute, Biffi said. “I wanted to work on a hard cancer to treat and I wanted to work with [Tuveson].”

Biffi hopes that targeting the inflammatory pro-tumorigenic fibroblasts and reprogramming them to the potentially tumor-restraining population may become a part of a pancreatic cancer treatment.

She remains optimistic that she and others will make a difference. “This can be a frustrating job,” she said. “If you didn’t have hope you can change things, you wouldn’t do it. “I’m optimistic.”

Biffi points to the hard work that led to treatments for the flu and for AIDS. “Years back, both diseases were lethal and now therapeutic advances made them manageable,” she explained in an email. “That is where I want to go with pancreatic cancer.”

Andrew Schwartz. Photo courtesy of Stony Brook University

By Daniel Dunaief

In the era of social media, people reveal a great deal about themselves, from the food they eat, to the people they see on a subway, to the places they’ve visited. Through their own postings, however, people can also share elements of their mental health.

In a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Andrew Schwartz, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science at Stony Brook University, teamed up with scientists at the University of Pennsylvania to describe how the words volunteers wrote in Facebook postings helped provide a preclinical indication of depression prior to a documentation of the diagnosis in the medical record.

Using his background in computational linguistics and computational psychology, Schwartz helped analyze the frequency of particular words and the specific word choices to link any potential indicators from these posts with later diagnoses of depression.

Combining an analysis of the small cues could provide some leading indicators for future diagnoses.

“When we put [the cues] all together, we get predictions slightly better than standard screening questionnaires,” Schwartz explained in an email. “We suggest language on Facebook is not only predictive, but predictive at a level that bears clinical consideration as a potential screening tool.”

Specifically, the researchers found that posts that used words like “feelings” and “tears” or the use of more first-person pronounces like “I” and “me,” along with descriptions of hostility and loneliness, served as potential indicators of depression.

By studying posts from consenting adults who shared their Facebook statuses and electronic medical record information, the scientists used machine learning in a secure data environment to identify those with a future diagnosis of depression.

The population involved in this study was restricted to the Philadelphia urban population, which is the location of the World Well-Being Project. When he was at the University of Pennsylvania prior to joining Stony Brook, Schwartz joined a group of other scientists to form the WWBP.

While people of a wide range of mental health status use the words “I” and “me” when posting anecdotes about their lives or sharing personal responses to events, the use of these words has potential clinical value when people use them more than average.

That alone, however, is predictive, but not enough to be meaningful. It suggests the person has a small percentage increase in being depressed but not enough to worry about on its own. Combining all the cues, the likelihood increases for having depression.

Schwartz acknowledged that some of the terms that contribute to these diagnoses are logical. Words like “crying,” for example, are also predictive of being depressed, he said.

The process of tracking the frequency and use of specific words to link to depression through Facebook posts bears some overlap with the guide psychiatrists and psychologists use when they’re assessing their patients.

The “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” typically lays out a list of symptoms associated with conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression, just to name a few.

“The analogy to the DSM and how it works that way is kind of similar to how these algorithms will work,” Schwartz said. “We look at signals across a wide spectrum of features. The output of the algorithm is a probability that someone is depressed.”

The linguistic analysis is based on quantified evidence rather than subjective judgments. That doesn’t make it better than an evaluation by mental health professional. The algorithm would need more development to reach the accuracy of a trained psychologist to assess symptoms through a structured interview, Schwartz explained.

At this point, using such an algorithm to diagnose mental health better than trained professionals is a “long shot” and not possible with today’s techniques, Schwartz added.

Schwartz considers himself part computer scientist, part computational psychologist. He is focused on the intersection of algorithms that analyze language and apply psychology to that approach.

A person who is in therapy might offer an update through his or her writing on a monthly basis that could then offer a probability score about a depression diagnosis.

Linguistic tools might help determine the best course of treatment for people who have depression as well. In consultation with their clinician, people with depression have choices, including types of medications they can take.

While they don’t have the data for it yet, Schwartz said he hopes an algorithmic assessment of linguistic cues ahead of time may guide decisions about the most effective treatment.

Schwartz, who has been at SBU for over three years, cautions people against making their own mental health judgments based on an impromptu algorithm. “I’ve had some questions about trying to diagnose friends by their posts on social media,” he said. “I wouldn’t advocate that. Even someone like me, who has studied how words relate to mental health, has a hard time” coming up with a valid analysis, he said.

A resident of Sound Beach, Schwartz lives with his wife Becky, who is a music instructor at Laurel Hill Middle School in Setauket, and their pre-school-aged son. A trombone player and past  member of a drum and bugle corps, he met his wife through college band.

Schwartz grew up in Orlando, where he met numerous Long Islanders who had moved to the area after they retired. When he was younger, he used to read magazines that had 50 lines of computer code at the back of them that created computer games.

He started out by tweaking the code on his own, which drove him toward programming and computers.

As for his recent work, Schwartz suggested that the analysis is “often misunderstood when people first hear about these techniques. It’s not just people announcing to the world that they have a condition. It’s a combination of other signals, none of which, by themselves, are predictive.”

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Knowing exactly what we want and then getting it brings out the thrilled child in all of us.

I recently attended a wonderful party thrown by one of my wife’s friends. I’ve seen this gentleman for years in various settings that are a blend of personal and professional. Each time, he seemed pleased with the fish he ordered for lunch, with the interactions at holiday parties or with the chance to discuss details of his children’s lives.

At this party at his house, however, I saw a different side of him that I hope resides in each of us. In his elegantly decorated and comfortable home, he welcomed us into a large kitchen. People stood around a table covered with various dishes, helping themselves to sliced steak, warm pretzels and a variety of appetizers.

While the food appeared pleasing to the guests’ palates, the bigger hit was the wide assortment of wines. With a stream of ordered and shiny glasses at the ready, each arriving guest had a chance to sample from a variety of wines, all gracefully arranged with the bottles of the neck facing outward, as if each container were a person reclining comfortably in a bath after a long day.

“This one came from a trip to California,” he said. “It’s my absolute favorite.” He proceeded to describe his experience at the vineyard and the interactions with its owners.

“After a sip, I told him I wanted his entire stock of this one,” he said, taking a small swallow, smiling and basking in the familiar flavor that splashed across his receptive taste buds. When told there were 12 bottles of that particular wine, he asked the owner to pack them all up and ship them to him. He was delighted to share what he described as an extraordinary taste of life with guests who became increasingly animated and comfortable with each other as the night wore on.

Once outside his house, he took us on a tour of some of the amenities he had taken considerable time to add to his house. For starters, he had two firepits on a 50-something degree evening, both of which offered welcome warmth against the breezes that seemed no match for the flames.

Around the side, he said he used to have a lawn. Once his children were old enough, he had no need for grass he would need to water and mow, and that young children didn’t occupy during evenings or weekends. He had recently installed a putting green for his wife’s birthday. That, however, was just the beginning of the story, as he had the green designed and installed to match the contours, speed and play of the nearest golf course.

First, he said, the installers put down a base. Once they did that, they added sand that they carefully contoured. That process took a solid two days, as a worker walked back and forth across the relatively small space, making sure of exactly the right concentration and height to match the specification.

Once the sand was down, other workers meticulously shaped it. Then they put the carpet down. A professional golfer designed the holes.

He assured us that the entire process has paid off, as he and his wife have loved the chance to hone their putting in the backyard, especially shaving several strokes off the weakest part of his wife’s game.

As we prepared to leave the home after a pleasant evening, it was clear that our host has learned to drink deeply of the pleasures life affords him. Hopefully, we can all bring something that provides such satisfaction into our lives.

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