Stirring Muses

Photography by
Aimee Obidzinski || University of Pittsburgh

“Nature is imagination itself.”
            —William Blake 

Dear Pitt Med Reader,

I think most scientists and clinicians are aspiring to better understand nature to benefit the world. And the better they get to know it, the more they stand in awe of its beauty and ingenuity. Many useful inventions mimic what’s found in the natural world. For instance, the idea for suction cups came from observing octopi, and SONAR was inspired by dolphins.  

I’d like to tell you about another intriguing project, reported in this edition of Pitt Med, that’s also inspired by nature—more sea life, in fact. The story starts more than 15 years ago, when scientists at Stanford realized they could take cues from glow-in-the-dark algae to probe fundamental questions about the brain. Bioluminescent algae showed them how to use light to turn cells on and off; and that turned out to be a great way to study neural circuits. You may recall stories about the promise of the algae-inspired tool, called optogenetics, in earlier issues of this magazine.

Optogenetics has illuminated neuroscience at a basic level. Now, in a study co-led by our own ophthalmology chair, José-Alain Sahel, with international collaborators, it has been put to therapeutic use. A blind man in Paris, afflicted with retinitis pigmentosa, was able to partially see again thanks to the approach. Trials are now under way in Pittsburgh and elsewhere to further test and develop this therapy. You can learn more about the study, and get the perspective of a trial participant, in our cover story. We will be following the progress of Dr. Sahel’s team with great interest.

As you read this issue, you’ll also see how easy it is for me to find inspiration in this very community: The ingenuity of our scientists. The dedication of our clinicians. The devotion of our staff. The idealism and energy of the upcoming generation. So yes, as William Blake notes, nature is a stirring muse. And, despite what we hear in world news reports, during these fractured and difficult times, we can also be uplifted and galvanized by human nature, if we’re paying attention.

This August, many of our incoming health sciences students donned white coats (or “cloaks of compassion”) for the first time. For the School of Medicine’s White Coat Ceremony, I asked our wonderful keynote speaker, Kurt Weiss (Res ’08), associate professor of orthopedic surgery, to share what energizes him.

First, a little background on Dr. Weiss, who directs Pitt’s Musculoskeletal Oncology Laboratory. As a teenager, he was diagnosed with a bone cancer (osteosarcoma) that had metastasized. His parents were told he had a 25 percent chance of surviving. A team of doctors here and at MD Anderson Cancer Center saved his life, though he eventually had to have his leg amputated. Now Dr. Weiss is devoted to studying the same cancer that struck him.

“I am expected to be passionate about this stuff—the research and treatment of sarcoma,” he said at the ceremony. “But, what gets me up in the morning and inspires me is the passion brought by my clinical and research partners who haven’t been touched by sarcoma like I have, yet bring the same passion, resolve and relentless energy to the care of patients and the study of these diseases.”

Pitt Med is a truly inspiring family that our first-year students are joining.

Anantha Shekhar, MD, PhD 
Senior Vice Chancellor for the Health Sciences 
John and Gertrude Petersen Dean, School of Medicine