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Bio-X to fund 21 new interdisciplinary research projects

Imagine going to your favorite clinic and swallowing a miniature TV camera that lets your doctor instantaneously examine the inside of your esophagus and stomach. Or imagine having your damaged cornea surgically replaced with an artificial one.

Such futuristic scenarios may become reality one day thanks to $3 million in grants awarded by Stanford University's Bio-X program this week. Twenty-one new interdisciplinary research projects -- including the artificial cornea and wireless gastric endocapsule projects -- will obtain funding from Bio-X during the next two to three years.

The grants were designed to encourage innovative research in the biological sciences among faculty, students and staff campuswide. This year's recipients include a surprisingly wide range of interdisciplinary projects -- from experiments on how individual brain cells communicate in mice to research on how elephant herds communicate long distances by stomping their feet.

"The diversity of these projects is truly exciting," said Bio-X Chair Matthew P. Scott, a professor of developmental biology and of genetics. "These seed grants are intended to boost collaborations among people from different departments and schools who hadn't worked together before."

The wireless gastric endocapsule project, for example, is a collaboration between faculty members Jacques Van Dam of the School of Medicine and George Springer of the School of Engineering. Their goal is to find a substitute for invasive endoscopy -- a standard diagnostic procedure in which a large probe is inserted in the patient's mouth and throat. Van Dam and Springer hope to design a wireless electronic capsule ("endocapsule") that could be swallowed without sedation and would transmit images of ulcers, tumors and other gastric ailments in real time.

Another example of interdisciplinary collaboration is the artificial cornea project, which is spearheaded by three researchers in the Ophthalmology Department -- Christopher Ta, Jaan Noolandi and Phil Huie -- along with Robert Waymouth of the Department of Chemistry and Alan Smith of the Department of Biochemistry. The researchers point out that corneal diseases have caused blindness in as many as 10 million people worldwide. By applying recent discoveries in polymer chemistry, the research team hopes to develop inexpensive artificial corneas that can be implanted with a minimal risk of rejection by the patient.


Interdisciplinary Initiatives

Last May, the Bio-X Interdisciplinary Initiatives Program (IIP) received 51 grant proposals from faculty across the campus.

"We struggled to determine which ones to fund because so many of them were both innovative and interdisciplinary," said IIP committee chair Harvey Cohen. "We finally picked the 21 projects we thought best exemplified the goals of Bio-X. These proposals represent biology in its broadest sense."

Cohen also headed the IIP committee two years ago that awarded the first round of Bio-X interdisciplinary grants. "Those projects have been very successful and have resulted in advances that could not have occurred by individual scientists and educators," he noted. "We are incredibly excited about the highly interactive proposals by our faculty this year and feel that many of them will be even more successful."

Each project will receive an average grant of $143,000 during the next two to three years. After that, researchers are encouraged to obtain external sources of funding. The following projects are among this year's grant winners:

c "Real-Time Measurements of Neuronal Activity and Neuronal Circuitry in Transgenic Mice" (Greg Barsh, pediatrics; Stephen Smith, molecular and cellular physiology; Charles Taylor, mechanical engineering): measuring how individual nerve cells in the brains of mice respond to calcium changes in the bloodstream.

c "Seismic Transmission and Detection of African Elephant Vocalizations and Footfalls" (Simon Klemperer, geophysics; Robert Sapolsky, biological sciences; and Caitlin O'Connell-Rodwell, pediatrics): determining how elephant vocalizations propagate in the ground and to what distances.

c "Ethical Dimensions of Neuroscience Research" (Barbara Koenig, medicine, and Henry Greely, law): a series of on-campus symposia and conferences that will explore ethical issues confronting neuroscience researchers.

"This year's awards were generously supported by President [John] Hennessy," Scott said. "They are part of the larger goal of Bio-X to bring people together to create new types of science and technology. They are a celebration of the ability of people to work together in teams, which I hope will become the norm at Stanford."

For a complete list of 2002 IIP awards, visit the Bio-X website at


Frontiers seminar

On Thursday, Nov. 14, at 4:15 p.m., Bio-X will hold its monthly Frontiers in Interdisciplinary Sciences seminar at the Teaching Center of the Science and Engineering Quad (room 201) The speaker will be Professor Larry S. B. Goldstein of the University of California-San Diego, whose topic is "Molecular Motor Proteins in Neuronal Signaling and Disease." Those seeking additional background on the subject can attend a pre-seminar at 3:15 p.m. in room 101. Both events are free and open to the public. For more information contact Fiona Sincock at


By Mark Shwartz

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