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Medical Center researchers speak at AAAS

STANFORD -- Presentations by Stanford Medical Center researchers at this year's AAAS meeting ranged from the cellular to the sociopolitical - from the workings of brain cells to the career barriers facing women in science and medicine.

Eric Knudsen, professor of neurobiology, discussed research results showing that in barn owls - and probably in people - the brain creates maps of space to help figure out where sounds are coming from.

"Every time the owl hears a sound from a certain location in space, that sound activates cells in a particular portion of the brain's map of space," said Knudsen.

The brain continually refines its maps based on what the animal hears and sees, Knudsen said.

Dr. Frances Conley, professor of neurosurgery, moved discussion from the micro realm to the macro: interpersonal relationships on university and medical school campuses. Using examples from her own career - beginning when she was in medical school in the '60s, when women "were treated like pretty little pieces of fluff," she said - Conley discussed the ramifications of role stereotyping and the effect it has on producing further barriers to professional success.

Although it doesn't constitute legally defined sexual harassment, role stereotyping is probably the most important barrier to career advancement encountered by women in science because it is subtle, adopted unconsciously and perpetuated by society at large, said Conley.

Also at the meeting:

  • Dr. Kenneth Melmon, professor of clinical pharmacology, argued that trendy medicated patches are an ideal delivery system for some - but not all - medicines. Since the adhesive patches are so popular with consumers, drug companies sometimes produce medicines in patch form without sufficient regard to their medical value, Melmon said.

Some drugs - such as estrogen, used for osteoporosis, and scopolamine, used for vertigo - pass through the skin easily and are especially effective when absorbed that way, he noted. But other drugs - such as nitroglycerin, used to treat angina pectoris - are ineffective when delivered by a patch for protracted periods, Melmon said.

Melmon suggested that drug companies should chemically alter certain drugs that balk at the skin barrier, to allow them to slip through the skin more easily. Though an expensive research and development effort, this could have great medical value, Melmon said.

Melmon has served as a member of the scientific advisory board for Alza Corp., the first U.S. pharmaceutical company to market a drug administered transdermally.

  • Parvati Dev reviewed the use of imaging technology combined with three-dimensional software to create prosthetics individually tailored to the people who will wear them. Radiological images - such as computerized tomography scans - reveal an individual's anatomy with all its peculiarities, allowing prosthesis makers to create better-fitting artificial body parts, noted Dev, a senior research engineer with the Stanford University Medical Media and Information Technology group.
  • Members of a panel, including biostatistics Professor Emeritus Lincoln Moses, discussed an ongoing demonstration project evaluating a seldom-used provision allowing judges to call in their own scientific experts to sort out the often contradictory claims made by defendants' and plaintiffs' experts. Moses' role is to design the study so that researchers can draw statistically significant conclusions.
  • Dr. Mark Musen, assistant professor of medicine, discussed a computer system under development that would give caregivers detailed advice about treating AIDS patients. Such a system would help keep track of treatment protocols that can be very complicated - involving experimental treatments and multiple drug regimens for various AIDS-related illnesses. As the number of cases pushes more AIDS care out of the hands of AIDS specialists, the new system could become increasingly valuable, he said.

Musen said he and his colleagues have nearly completed the first phase of the project: developing a "user friendly" electronic system that keeps records on AIDS patients by storing the information in a data base format. Information storage in a data base format is necessary to reach the group's ultimate goal: enlisting computers to analyze AIDS patients' records and to suggest individualized treatment.

The researchers hope to install the electronic record-keeping system soon at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center's AIDS unit, Musen said.

  • Stephen J. Smith, associate professor of molecular and cellular physiology, ran a videotape showing nerve cells and astrocytes growing and sending signals to each other. Smith uses a device called a laser confocal microscope to tape cellular events within living tissues.


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