UCSF’s 11 Most Popular Health and Science Stories of 2019

By Nina Bai

New technologies that could soon diagnose Alzheimer’s and restore speech to the paralyzed; potential new avenues in treating diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Down syndrome; and a genetic test that dramatically saved a baby’s life – these were among the science and health topics that most engaged our readers in 2019.

Look back at these 11 stories of the past year or discover them for the first time – they reflect the exciting, transformative research that takes place at UC San Francisco every day of the year.

1. Artificial Intelligence Can Detect Alzheimer’s Disease in Brain Scans Six Years Before a Diagnosis

Researchers trained a machine-learning algorithm on nearly 2,000 brain scans and then challenged it to detect early-stage Alzheimer’s disease in other scans. The algorithm performed with flying colors, catching the disease six years before a clinical diagnosis – a lead time that may eventually help doctors treat the disease.

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PET scan of a brain with Alzheimer's

2. Medicaid Could Save $2.6B Within a Year if Just 1 Percent of Recipients Quit Smoking

For California, a 1 percent drop in the smoking rate could mean $630 million of Medicaid savings the following year. That’s because quitting smoking can reduce many health risks relatively quickly, including heart attacks, lung disease and pregnancy complications, as well as cut long-term health risks such as cancer.

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Cigarettes resting on money

3. Functional Insulin-Producing Cells Grown In Lab

For the first time, researchers were able to transform human stem cells into mature insulin-producing cells similar to the pancreatic beta cells destroyed by type 1 diabetes. The breakthrough came after the team applied a key tenet of biology, that “form follows function,” to the way they were growing the cells in the lab.  

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Beta clusters in vitro diabetes

4. In Down Syndrome Mouse Model, Scientists Reverse Intellectual Deficits with Drugs

Researchers took a new approach to studying Down syndrome – focusing on the condition’s effect on the protein-making machinery inside cells. In a mouse model of Down syndrome, they found that cells in the brain were tamping down on protein production, leading to cognitive deficits. They were able to activate protein production and improve memory and learning with a drug called ISRIB.

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Illustration of DNA strands

5. Synthetic Speech Generated from Brain Recordings

A sophisticated brain-machine interface could one day give voice to people who have lost the ability to speak due to paralysis or other neurological damage. Researchers first mapped participants’ brain activity to their vocal tract movements as they made various sounds. An algorithm could then translate new brain activity into movements of the virtual vocal tract and produce realistic speech.

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Brain electrodes in Eddie Chang's lab

6. The UCSF Guide to Healthy and Happy Eating

What’s the best way to eat your vegetables? Should you take supplements? Low-fat, low-carb, intermittent fasting – do any diets actually work? Experts weigh in on the latest science behind healthy eating and separate food fact from food fiction. Keep these evidence-based tips in mind for the holidays and in the years to come.

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hand holding swiss chard

7. How a Powerful Genetic Test Found a Life-Saving Therapy for an Infant’s Rare Cancer

Baby Quincy was deteriorating fast from an aggressive blood cancer and too sick to undergo a stem cell transplant, his only chance at a cure. Determined to leave no stone unturned, Quincy’s doctors ordered the UCSF500 – a new comprehensive cancer gene panel test – that helped to reveal an unusual genetic alteration in his cancer and identified a long-shot therapy.

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Quincy with his parents

8. Gut Immune Cells Cut Inflammation in Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is an autoimmune disease caused by immune cells that attack the protective coating around nerve cells. In a surprise, researchers discovered that other immune cells in the gut, known as plasma cells, can reduce the brain inflammation that results from the disease. Expanding these gut plasma cells may be a new therapeutic approach to treating MS.

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Scan of multiple sclerosis MS brain lesions

9. Cooking Food Alters the Microbiome

Cooking food changes not only how it tastes but how our gut microbial ecosystems respond. In mice, researchers found that cooked vegetables altered their gut microbiome and caused them to lose weight. In human participants, three days of raw or cooked diets prepared by a professional chef also changed gut microbiomes, but in different ways – perhaps holding clues to how our microbes have adapted to human culinary culture.   

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Vegetables cooking in a skillet

10. Liver Transplants Double for Alcohol-Related Liver Disease

Alcohol-associated liver disease has become the top reason for U.S. liver transplants, making up more than one-third of liver transplants in 2016.  The increase is largely due to a shift away from a common rule that required patients to abstain from alcohol and drug use for at least six months prior to transplant. A 2011 study found that transplants could be successful without this minimum sobriety period, changing the policy at many centers.

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alcohol pouring into a glass

11. Mood Neurons Mature During Adolescence

The emotional tumult of teenage years may in part be due to transformations in the brain. Most human brain cells mature in the first years of life, but a group of neurons in the amygdala, which controls emotional responses, don’t mature until adolescence and a small number remain immature throughout life. The brain may hold on to these “Peter Pan” neurons to keep the brain’s emotional responses flexible and adaptable into old age.

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Immature amygdala neurons


Year in Review

In 2019, UCSF drove advancements in care delivery, scientific discovery, education, public service, and more. See the highlights