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Stanford prof. working to find “stress vaccine”

Some anxious Stanford students in future years may have a new weapon in fighting stress about midterms, careers and how to tell their parents they’ve changed their major.

After 30 years of research into cures for stress, neuroscience Prof. Robert Sapolsky has discovered a possible vaccine-like treatment for chronic stress, devising a genetically engineered formula to influence the chemistry of the brain to counteract hormones that cause stress in the human body.

Sapolsky had been conducting research on chronic stress treatment for 30 years. After graduating from Harvard in 1978 with a degree in biological anthropology, he went to Kenya to study the influence of baboons’ social standings on their health. Through studies such as determining the level of cholesterol and stress hormones in baboons’ blood, Sapolsky saw chronic stress as a dangerous condition linked to many serious health issues, including Alzheimer’s, depressive disorder and heart attacks.

He also found that in humans, hormones called flucocorticoids, released when undergoing stress, were produced in more levels than necessary and lingered after a response to a momentary alert. He therefore applied gene therapy to tackling flucocorticoid levels, using the herpes simplex virus as a carrier of the stress-counteracting genes. The virus, already being used for other gene therapies, could pass through blood-brain barriers, capillaries that prevented excess materials in the blood from entering the brain.

By replacing the dangerous genes in the herpes virus with neuroprotective ones that would neutralize stress hormones, Sapolsky thus created a vaccine-like injection to counteract stress.

When given to rodents, an injection of the modified virus triggered the release of neuroprotective proteins that slowed cell death and limited damages to the brain. While the vaccine-like treatment for stress is not yet available for clinical trials on humans, Sapolsky’s team has proved that it is a possible means to tackle stress response.

Sapolsky was unavailable for comment at press time.

— Buyan Pan

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