Virtually everything we understand today about human health comes from studying disease – what goes wrong when illness or injury lead to an inability to function in daily life. But soon, a newly announced research partnership of experts will flip that model on its head, studying instead the biological principles of what goes right when high-achieving athletes – and people at all levels and stages of life achieve optimal health and perform at their peak.

Scott Delp will lead the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

This scientific collaboration, known as the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, will turn those newfound insights into breakthroughs in understanding, treatments and technology to help all people thrive, regardless of their age or physical capability.

The Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance is a public-private partnership of thought leaders and innovators from six research institutions, chaired by a Stanford faculty leader and made possible by a foundational gift from longtime Stanford benefactors Clara Wu Tsai, ’88, MA ’88, and her husband, Joe Tsai. Alliance researchers will harness advances in medicine, brain science, molecular biology, engineering and more to explore physical prowess from every imaginable scientific angle – including the biochemistry, physics, psychology and biomechanics of movement in order to improve human health broadly.

The Alliance will capitalize on the decade-long technology convergence taking place across fields, including medical imaging, data sciences, artificial intelligence, computational modeling, regenerative medicine and genetic sciences. Many advances in these fields – such as new approaches in artificial intelligence – did not exist just a few short years ago.

This deep and concerted exploration could lead to the discovery of novel ways to achieve healthy lives, prevent disease and recover from injury; methods for optimizing fitness to offset the physical limitations of aging; or even ways to address conditions like dementia, depression and anxiety.

“A comprehensive, research-driven inquiry into the biological principles of human performance has tremendous potential,” said Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of Stanford University and a neuroscientist by training. “The Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance at Stanford will leverage existing scientific and interdisciplinary strengths to approach this work in a purposeful way. We are deeply grateful to Clara and Joe for their vision, generosity and commitment to advancing the science of human performance.”

Alliance researchers will harness advances in medicine, brain science, molecular biology, engineering and more to explore physical prowess from every imaginable scientific angle in order to improve human health broadly.

The Alliance will be directed by Scott Delp, the James H. Clark Professor and a bioengineer at Stanford. Delp is also the creator of OpenSim, a software system that simulates human movement to understand peak performance and diagnose and correct motion deficits. The Alliance will unite experts across many fields at the University of Kansas, the University of Oregon, Harvard Medical School, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and other institutions through broader collaborations.

The leaders of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance see the effort as a “team of teams” in both the figurative, cross-disciplinary sense of scientists and researchers collaborating across Stanford and among the intersecting member institutions, and in the literal sense of inviting scientific experts, teams of athletes from youth sports, university athletic programs and professional sports leagues to contribute.

“Human performance is a complex and, in many ways, still mysterious subject,” Delp said. “The Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance will study every aspect of human performance, from the molecular level to whole-body systems. We welcome insights from virtually every field that touches on human performance wherever they might arise – from psychology, physiology, neurosciences and biochemistry, stretching all the way to the humanities – and will pull all these facets together under one umbrella to achieve our ultimate goal of improving health for all people, regardless of age or ability.”

The Alliance’s communications and education programs will disseminate its knowledge and discoveries freely and widely, in order to benefit as many people as possible and spur further advances. Toward this end, the Alliance will also collaborate with experts from leading technology companies to make advances across many disciplines.

Technological convergence

The Tsai family’s connections to the subject matter and the institutions involved run deep. Clara is a graduate of Stanford and Harvard, and she and Joe have a longtime engagement in and passion for basic science and discovery. As founders of the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation, they share a dedication to fighting inequality and working across the arts and sciences to better humanity and allow for a thriving culture. The intersection of their love of athletics, and their belief in science and technology to solve society’s biggest challenges, inspired Clara to design and define the main elements of this pioneering Alliance.

“The Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance has the potential to profoundly change how we understand and approach human performance at every stage of life. Discovering how people can achieve peak physical performance and push past limits will help expand what all humans can achieve,” Clara Wu Tsai said.

Clara Wu Tsai has a long history of serving on Stanford advisory councils focused on the interdisciplinary life sciences. She is a member of the Stanford Life Sciences Advisory Council and continues to serve as an advisor for Stanford Bio-X, where Delp is a faculty leader. She and her husband made the naming gift to establish the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute at Stanford, where Delp also formerly served as a deputy director. Clara continues to serve as a member of the advisory cabinet for the neurosciences institute and is a member of the university’s Global Advisory Council.

In mission and vision, the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance at Stanford intersects with Stanford’s vision of creating avenues for knowledge gained through research to benefit society. The Alliance will be based at the Clark Center, home of Stanford Bio-X, and located just steps away from the schools of Medicine, Engineering and Humanities and Sciences, as well as Stanford ChEM-H and the Wu Tsai Neurosciences Institute. Similar to the university institutes in the life sciences, the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance at Stanford will serve the scientific community campus-wide and report to the Dean of Research.

“We want to fund great research ideas, in whatever form they take, and move them to the next level,” said Kathryn “Kam” Moler, vice provost and dean of research and the Marvin Chodorow Professor at Stanford. “It’s also important that we extend our insights and knowledge to audiences well beyond our institutions. The Alliance will make its research readily accessible to scientists, health professionals and individuals worldwide – enabling as many people as possible to benefit from its findings.”

Shoot for the moon

The Alliance’s strategic goals include four broad “moonshot” efforts – each of which will have broad applicability to human health. At Stanford, Delp will lead a moonshot called The Digital Athlete, creating predictive computer models to focus training and prevent injuries for people at all levels of physical ability.

With such personalized predictive models based on data from the patients themselves, the Alliance will translate the lessons gleaned from peak performance into new approaches to maintaining muscle strength and bone density, rehabilitating after injury and aiding amputees in adapting to next-generation prostheses.

A program in Regenerative Rehabilitation, based at the University of Oregon and Stanford, will explore approaches in regenerative medicine and recovery techniques aimed at restoring function to injured tissues. Meanwhile, The Molecular Athlete, directed by the Salk Institute and Stanford, will study and map the molecules and gene expressions of optimal performance to help speed healing and recovery from injury. The Multiscale Athlete moonshot will be based at UCSD and work to predict molecular and cellular states and their effects on whole-body performance.

Supporting all of these moonshot strategies will be a series of focused “Innovation Hubs” spread among participating universities that will strive to accelerate the pace of technological invention through a rapid design and prototyping process. The goal is results in months, not years.

Stanford will form a hub located at the Human Performance Lab in the Arrillaga Center for Sports and Recreation, bringing together athletes from Stanford’s athletics program and experts from bioengineering, orthopedic surgery and other fields to develop wearable and mobile devices that provide a constant stream of biometric data that can inform and inspire future innovation.

Similarly, an Innovation Hub at Boston Children’s Hospital, a Harvard Medical School Teaching Hospital, will investigate advances specific to female athletic performance and collaborate with Stanford through its Female Athlete Program. One of the main projects at Stanford is the Female Athlete Science and Translational Research (FASTR) Platform, an interactive platform for women’s sports medicine and performance that allows athletes, coaches and practitioners to access cutting-edge information and research to enhance the health and lives of women in sport.

The moonshots are designed to work together. Models of tissue states from the Multiscale Athlete, for instance, might inform measurements used in the Molecular Athlete and Regenerative Rehabilitation moonshots that could allow accurate prediction of how a person might respond to changes at the molecular, cellular, tissue, or whole-body levels. Similarly, wearable sensors and AI from the Digital Athlete moonshot might allow the study of individuals in real-world settings that become essential to all the moonshots.

Ever agile

While the moonshots represent the broadest initial goals, Delp says a major upside for the Alliance is in the plans for a series of early-stage exploratory “Agility Projects” that will catalyze and expand scientific efforts. The Alliance will also train new generations of researchers, with fellowships in human performance for clinician scientists, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate and undergraduate students at Stanford.

The Agility Projects will be a key avenue for involving the entire Stanford community through research funding in addition to support for undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars and clinician-scientists.

“For Stanford, the agility projects are a wide-open opportunity for researchers, physician-scientists and communications experts – anyone with an interest in improving human performance,” Delp said. “We want to engage the entire campus in this effort.”

Delp says the structure of the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance was partly inspired by the highly innovative team culture at Stanford. The university’s academic research ecosystem, with its world-class medical, engineering, neuroscience, scientific, law, athletics and business expertise all contained within a 15-minute walk of one another, and Stanford’s longstanding record of entrepreneurship and the nurturing of interdisciplinary collaboration, provided a compelling model.

“Stanford is a special place, and I think sometimes we lose sight of just how important an environment of complementary skills and mutual support can be to innovation,” Delp said. “But then, all it takes is a big and bold initiative like the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance to bring it all home and provide us the opportunity and the means to make a lasting difference for a lot of people around the world.”