DePaolo Lab goes Hollywood for Crohn's & Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA)

Recently our lab was chosen as the backdrop for a CCFA promotional video for upcoming events to help raise awareness and funds for cures.  spin4 events will be popping up all over the country, including here in LA.  We were more than happy to donate our lab space for this great cause, and hope that these events are a success!

For more information about spin4 events visit their website at

A new initiative in the lab

 “If a child in its first thousand days of life does not have adequate nutrition,
the damage is irreversible.  
This isn’t one of those rare diseases that we don’t have the solution for.  
We know how to fix hunger.”   

– Josette Sheeran

conversations on kilimanjaro

On a recent trip to Africa I spent a lot of time talking to our trek leaders who were charged with taking us up to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro.  On the seven day hike, I spent hours and hours talking with them about legends and fables, the history of the people and, more often then not, our conversation turned to medicine. I remember when our trek leader, Charles, heard I studied infectious disease and also the microbiome, he turned to me and said, “You are a PhD, come, please come back here after you get to the top of Kili. Come help us cure these illnesses that keep taking away our children.”

Disease & HUNGER in africa

Sub-Saharan Africa has 24% of the global disease burden, yet only 3% of the world’s health-care workers.  Every minute eight children under the age of five die due to what should be preventable diseases such as gastroenteritis/diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria and HIV/AIDS.  Contributing to the high mortality in children under five years of age is malnutrition.  Despite much research and many vaccination efforts, the efficacy of vaccines in children of under-developed countries is remarkably low.

microbiome, malnutrition & vaccines

I am excited to announce a new initiative in the lab geared towards understanding why vaccines may not be effective in this population and discovering potential biotherapeutic cures that may be hidden within the microbiome.  We will accomplish this by examining how malnutrition may re-shape the microbiome, how this altered microbiome may re-shape immunity to oral vaccinations using models of Rotavirus and Shigella, and lastly identify populations of microbiota that may be used as an adjuvant to help boost responses to the oral vaccinations.

Art & Science: a symbiotic relationship celebrated by many artists, but too few scientists.

The importance of poop

Recently I attended and spoke at UCLA’s Art|Sci Center + Lab LASER series.  I was approached because they had an exhibit called “Waste Matters” by New York based artist Kathy High.  I won’t write about the exhibit itself, except to say that it was about poop.  Well, to be more exact it was an exhibit on the symbiosis between our microbiome and our bodies, inspired by the recent PR surrounding fecal microbiota transplants (FMT).  You see, Kathy High has suffered from Crohn’s disease and when you have a disease like Crohn’s you spend a lot of time thinking about food, treatments, flares, the future and yes, poop. 

Artists appreciate connectivity 

The short series of lectures following the exhibit highlighted symbiotic relationships and the growing influence of bio-hacking, big business and the bottom line in biotechnological advances.  What impressed me, as the lone scientist in the room, was the way these artists perceived and viewed our microbiome.  It was much more real and accurate than what I see in science today.  The conversation and dialogue really was about community and collaboration.  It was about what drives ecological harmony or disharmony.  Could technology help us solve these problems or is it moving too fast? And they seemed to understand and acknowledge that the search for a single organism causing disease is a fool’s errand. 

Where did all the scientists go?

A thought I was having the other morning, as I was trying to motivate to work on a manuscript (it didn’t work because I couldn't stop thinking and began writing this post), was: Why was I the only scientist at this lecture?  What is it about merging science and art that draws a great crowd of artists and art students but no scientific faculty or post-docs?  It's our duty as health educators and thinkers to attend these events and to speak on behalf of research and to clarify un-truths and false perceptions regarding what the public hears or knows about scientific discovery. 

Research is also about the patients

Then another question crept into my mind: How many patients who suffer from the diseases have you actually met and spoken with?  These people who are one of those statistics used in the Significance section of your grant.  In the past few months I have met a number of patients with IBD, and I can tell you that they have very clear ideas of where science and technology need to go to improve their health and their quality of life because they actually have the disease. It's strange to think that there are probably more scientists than not who have written “these results are expected to drive discovery for potential therapies to treat (insert disease of choice),” but have never spoken with a patient or stepped foot into a clinic. 

Human disease should be more than just a tagline in our grant applications; it should be the driving force behind our research. And we as scientists must get out of the laboratory, outside of our comfort zone and fully interact with patients and families struggling with disease in an effort to develop us as citizen scientists.  

For more information on Kathy High, visit her website

A fascinating podcast with Kathy: Bioart imitating life imitating bioart: A conversation with bioartist Kathy High.

For more information on UCLA's Sci|Art Center, visit their website

Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses - especially learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.
— Leonardo da Vinci

photo credit: a. parker

Citizen science. Pseudo science or real science?

citizen "science"

I want to use my first blog to discuss a topic that has been gnawing at me -- the rise and distortion of so-called “citizen science.”  The correct, and accurate, definition of citizen science is when people without a science degree engage in scientific research, usually under the guidance of a scientist or scientific institution.  A citizen scientist can also be defined as a scientist who seeks answers to questions that will better the greater good or community, a definition that I find close to my own personal set of scientific beliefs. However, these definitions of citizen science have been perverted by a recent invasion of entrepreneurs and MBA’s more interested in the bottom line rather than actual scientific progress. Today, when we hear the phrase “citizen science,” it means we can download an app that “makes everyone a scientist.”  But I have to wonder, what kind of scientist are you when you anonymously report details of your sexual activity on the “Kinsey Reporter?” Further, it concerns me when the media begins to report advice and views of these non-scientists running a citizen science project, rather than engaging scientists who are trained to answer complex biological questions.

darwin & newton, the OGs (original gangsta’s) of citizen science

It is easy to imagine that citizen science was just recently born in a “silicon valley” style building with attractive young people playing darts while talking to mom and dad on some sort of video/sunglasses/phone hybrid. Of course the ability to instantaneously record and send data using smart phones has helped citizen science to grow and to reach new magnitudes of people, but citizen science is much, much older.  Think less Steve Jobs and more Ben Franklin. It was non-scientists like Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton and Ben Franklin, untrained scientific “amateurs,” whose contributions to science changed our world.  Current ecology, computer science and astronomy based citizen science programs seem more based on the earlier examples of these OG’s especially when we compare them to more biological and health care driven programs. Just as citizen science can push scientific discovery forward (and it is a wonderful way to engage and educate the public), a number of serious problems exist and it is paramount that we look at both the data and the methods of these studies critically before we accept their findings as dogma.

the problem of applying citizen science to biological studies

It is becoming increasingly evident that multi-ethnic studies must be performed in order to draw appropriate conclusions regarding aspects of disease. My laboratory has become much more sensitive to this as we have found that large differences exist between the reported genetic associations in inflammatory bowel disease performed on mostly Caucasian Europeans, and the actual expression of these loci in our Hispanic population at USC-LA County.  The average income surrounding USC in east LA is less than $20,000 per year.  So what does that mean for a citizen science microbiome project where, in order to participate, the citizen must fork over a fees ranging from $80 to $500?  We must be careful about the sorts of conclusions and statements made from such programs as they will be rich in both racial and socio-economic biases. When trained scientists conduct population studies, a considerable amount of time and effort is devoted to study design in order to minimize such biases. A team of educated and established biostatisticians, epidemiologists and biologists reconfigure their study design until it can be appropriately used to test their hypothesis, which brings me to my next point.

Citizen science is not a hypothesis-driven science

As trained scientists, we are taught to rigorously educate ourselves in a biological field, disease and discipline, and then pose an educated hypothesis or question, which can best tested to further our current knowledge on a subject.  We are adamantly taught to never let methodology drive science.  This is exactly what certain citizen science studies are doing.  Further, we are taught to be skeptical of our own data.  This is why we are trained to repeat our experiments in order to ensure that our findings are statistically accurate and not artifact.  A well-trained scientist will confirm their findings using a second or even third method.  There are several startups companies with brilliant business and marketing minds that are capitalizing on the recent interest in the microbiome.  These companies seduce venture capitalists, the media and the public under the guise of "scientific discovery," pedaling a service and selling it as sound science, even validating their customers by deeming them "amateur scientists."  So are these companies practicing good science?  Are they collecting multiple samples from the same citizen?  Are they then confirming their findings with a secondary method?  What exactly is the actual hypothesis for them, that if they market it well, you will buy it?

there is a place for citizen science, and a science for citizens

Despite these criticisms, I firmly believe there is a valid and practical place for citizen science in discovery and research. Citizen science has been a great tool in astronomy, ecological studies and computer science.  But these studies were hypothesis-based and used its citizen scientists as tools to test the hypothesis, in addition to the actual scientists, biostatisticians, epidemiologists and engineers involved with the projects.  My skepticism lies with those projects initiated by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, rather than trained scientists.  I am skeptical of projects where methodology is driving the research.  I am skeptical of projects that appear to have little input from trained experts and little or no regulation.  I am skeptical about the data we will see generated by the subset of citizen science projects involving biological processes, genetics, and disease.  With so many issues in population biases, methodologies and reproducibility, can such data really be trusted?

when conducting citizen science, please proceed with caution

We, as both scientists and as consumers, must be cautious of the influence of so called "citizen" science performed by untrained amateurs.  Incorrect or harmful data can be easily accessed by millions through the internet and social media, so it is our job, as scientists and citizens, to differentiate between those citizen science projects that provide useful data, and those that are simply more "pseudo-science," than real science.