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Scientist Killed In Bike Crash, But Her Thyroid Stem Cell Work Lives On

Anita Kurmann's "ghost bike" is fastened to a street sign at the Back Bay intersection where she died, in this August file photo. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Anita Kurmann’s “ghost bike” is fastened to a street sign at the Back Bay intersection where she died, in this August file photo. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

On Aug. 7, a flatbed truck struck and killed Dr. Anita Kurmann, a Swiss surgeon and scientist, as she rode her bicycle in Boston’s Back Bay. She was 38, and just on the verge of launching her own lab.

Her death has brought an outpouring of grief in recent weeks — from family in Switzerland, from her admiring colleagues at Boston hospitals, from the city’s cycling community.

This week brings Kurmann’s scientific memorial: a paper by a team of 17 researchers in the journal Cell Stem Cell, reporting a major advance on using stem cells to grow thyroids.

Dr. Anita Kurmann was killed in a bike accident in August. (Courtesy Boston University)

Dr. Anita Kurmann was killed in a bike accident in August. (Courtesy Boston University)

Kurmann had found out just days before she died that the paper was likely to be accepted for publication, and her colleagues dedicated it to her memory. The dedication reads in part: “She was intelligent, well read, kind, humble, and tirelessly committed to her patients, her thyroid research, her family, and her colleagues, who miss her dearly.”

The paper describes, in effect, nature’s recipe for growing a thyroid, the butterfly-shaped gland in your neck that can speed up or slow down your bodily functions.

“She was incredibly proud of this work,” said Dr. Anthony Hollenberg of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. “She was able to figure out how to do the mouse surgical experiments that were required to see that the stem cells functioned.”

Dr. Darrell Kotton, of Boston Medical Center’s and Boston University’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, who oversaw the research with Hollenberg, says Kurmann’s loss remains difficult to accept on many levels.

“I’m not only speaking about the grief one feels when suddenly losing someone close to you,” he said, “but in Anita’s case, one can’t help but feel the loss of so much potential, and the loss of all the scientific progress she was about to contribute to the world.”

Kurmann had a faculty position waiting for her and planned to return home to Switzerland and launch her own lab at the end of the year, he said. “So the world really has lost a unique person who was about to lead a team that was to propel her discoveries forward using everything she had learned and developed.”

“One can’t help but feel the loss of so much potential, and the loss of all the scientific progress she was about to contribute to the world.”

– Dr. Darrell Kotton

“It’s hard to believe she’s gone,” he added, “and I just still often imagine her returning home as a scientist-surgeon treating her patients, but also teaching her own trainees how to grow and transplant these special thyroid progenitor cells she was able to engineer from pluripotent stem cells.”

To translate: Kurmann and her co-first author, Boston University’s Maria Serra, were experimenting on stem cells at the “pluripotent” stage, when they could grow into multiple types of cells. The paper identifies key factors that appear to tip the cells into “deciding” to become thyroid cells, and the team showed that they could coax human stem cells into becoming functional, hormone-emitting thyroid tissue. Continue reading

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Harvard Study: Better Police Reports On Bike Crashes Could Save Lives

A "ghost bike" is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

A “ghost bike” is placed in memory of Marcia Deihl, who was killed in a crash in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on March 11. (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

Last month, Marcia Deihl, a songwriter and community activist out for a bike ride on the first warm day after a brutal winter, was struck and killed by a dump truck outside a Whole Foods in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A white “ghost bike” now memorializes her death.

Aspiring photojournalist Christopher Weigl, just 23, was also killed in a bike accident: Wearing a helmet, and traveling in the bike lane near Boston University, Weigl collided with a 16-wheel tractor trailer when the truck made a wide right turn in the winter of 2012.

And less than a year before that, MIT graduate student Phyo N. Kyaw sustained fatal injuries when his bike collided with a truck in a busy Cambridge intersection.

These deaths happened close to home: where I work, shop, ride with my kids. And they underscore two truths: There are more cyclists on the road, and more of them are getting hurt in accidents, some fatal. The number of commuters who bike to and from work rose about 62 percent nationwide from 2000 to 2013, one report found. With those numbers comes added risk: 726 bicyclists were killed and 49,000 bicyclists injured in 2012, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

As a driver, you don’t need a research study to tell you that bikes are everywhere, whether you’re in Boston, New York or Seattle. But you do need research, and data, to help fix the problem — that is, reduce the number of accidents and deaths.

(Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

(Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)

Cities, towns, planners and private businesses can’t move forward building safer cars and safer bike environments until they learn more precisely how bike accidents happen. Is a truck’s wide turn to blame? A taxi door opening at the wrong time? These seemingly small details of crashes are critical, says Anne Lusk, a research scientist in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

That’s why Lusk and her colleagues have issued a blueprint of sorts for improving bike-vehicle crash reports produced by the police; their findings are published this week in the journal Injury Prevention.

After studying hundreds of hopelessly low-tech police reports used to record bike accidents, Lusk and her colleagues are making a nationwide plea: They’re calling on police in all states to step into the modern era and improve reports on crashes involving vehicles and bicycles. Currently, Lusk said in an interview, the details on crashes are handwritten and drawn by police on paper, with few bicycle-specific codes or diagrams.

Lusk offered one example: Currently, a crash report from Massachusetts shows “two vehicles” drawn. One of the “vehicles” is then coded as a “pedal cyclist” but there is no drawing on the template of a bicycle to show which side of the bike was hit.

Police have been recording bike crashes since the introduction of the bicycle in 1890, researchers note.

Now it’s time for a major upgrade. Lusk says police should “use electronic tablets with dropdown menus that have specific vehicle/bicycle codes, for instance, whether the bicyclist was riding inside a painted bike lane when hit, or whether the cyclist crashed into a driver’s open car door. The dropdown menu would also include other specific data like a coded vehicle picture and a coded bicycle picture. This information could then be automatically loaded onto spreadsheets for later analysis, Lusk said. Continue reading

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