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Inspiring Tales

Illustration by Andre Da Loba

At Johns Hopkins, we talk all the time about innovation, about dedication, about putting patients first, about doing whatever we can to help the people who do us the great honor of putting their lives in our hands. But humans are hardwired to respond much more to stories than to abstract concepts. I’m not sure why—maybe it’s all of those thousands of years that our ancestors spent around campfires, listening to storytellers spin their dramatic tales. I think all of us crave these stories, whether we are sitting around a campfire, reading a novel, listening to a podcast or watching Netflix.

This latest issue of the magazine has some incredible stories, all of which focus on notable work being done by researchers and clinicians here at Johns Hopkins.

One story looks at the Zero TB program, which focuses on eliminating tuberculosis in Tibetan refugee children in northern India. Largely due to poverty and overcrowding, this group has very high rates of TB. The work is led by Kunchok Dorjee, who is himself a Tibetan refugee from northern India.

Another story focuses on Antoine Azar’s amazing work diagnosing and treating primary immunodeficiency disorders. While acquired immunodeficiency disorder, or AIDS, is known to almost everyone, very few people realize that in some patients, similar immune disorders can be caused not by a virus but by an inborn genetic problem. Dr. Azar, who is the director of the new Adult Primary Immunodeficiency Center at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, notes that many of these patients remain undiagnosed for decades, because even among doctors, this group of diseases is not well-known.

A third piece takes readers inside the Felix Project, an innovative effort to use deep learning to detect pancreatic tumors much earlier in their course. The project is led by seven top Johns Hopkins researchers: Elliot Fishman, Bert Vogelstein, Alan Yuille, Karen Horton, Eva Zinreich, Ralph Hruban and Ken Kinzler. Every year, more than 50,000 Americans are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; 93 percent of them die within five years. It is often detected late, after it has spread.

The scientists are creating algorithms to spot the disease when tumors are still small and localized. The effort is making progress: Currently, the program has a nearly 100 percent success rate using test images to identify a kind of pancreatic cancer known as pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma—impressive considering that human radiologists miss between 10 to 30 percent of tumors when diagnosing this type of cancer.

This trio of stories is not only fascinating but highlights central aspects of our institutional character. Each of these projects required ambitious vision, as well as a willingness to take risks, on the part of the scientists and clinicians.

Moreover, these endeavors also required exacting scientific and clinical rigor and a single-minded devotion to problem-solving. For example, Dorjee figured out that he could increase the vaccination rate by relying on “home mothers” in the school dormitories in northern India. These women took their responsibilities to the children seriously and ensured that their charges actually took their medicines.

The heroes and heroines in these stories also demonstrate the intense dedication that is typical of Johns Hopkins employees. One of the Felix Project collaborators, Zinreich, a 73-year-old retired radiation oncologist, is taking part in the effort “for fun.” She is part of a team that has marked and annotated more than 2,000 scans, so the algorithm can better identify the difference between a healthy organ and one with cancer.

What’s wonderful about working here at Johns Hopkins is that these three stories are not at all unusual. There are literally hundreds of similar examples, all deeply inspiring. It’s one of the reasons why I love coming to work every day.