By Kiet Do

STANFORD (KPIX) — A first-of-its kind collaboration between six institutions, led by Stanford University, launched this month with a lofty goal: “to transform global human health through the discovery and translation of the biological principles underlying human performance.”

Scott Delp, a bioengineering and mechanical engineering professor at Stanford, leads the newly-formed Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, a public-private partnership between Stanford, Boston Children’s Hospital, UC San Diego, University of Kansas, University of Oregon and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. It is funded with a $220 million gift from the Joe and Clara Tsai Foundation.

“I am certain that we are going to have fundamental advances that improve well-being for many, many people,” Delp said.

As the chairman of the leadership council, Delp will lead a nationwide team of scientists, academics, doctors, engineers and athletes over the next decade to focus their research on elite athletes.

“It’s of course valuable to study diseases, cancer, neurologic diseases — that’s valuable research,” Delp said. “But it’s also valuable to take the flipped approach and take a different lens on understanding human health.”

Each institution has identified different initiatives, according to a statement from the alliance:

The Digital Athlete, based at Stanford, will create predictive computer models to guide training and treatment for athletes and help improve human health for all.

Regenerative Rehabilitation, based at U. of Oregon, will synergize regenerative therapies and rehabilitation protocols to restore function to damaged tissues and prevent injury.

The Molecular Athlete, based at the Salk Institute, will map the molecules and gene expression of human performance to optimize training, healing and recovery.

The Multiscale Athlete, based at UC San Diego, will synthesize experimental measurements across multiple biological scales using computer modeling to predict molecular and cellular states of tissues and their effects on whole-body performance.

The Female Athlete Program, based at Boston Children’s Hospital, will focus on female-specific translational research to answer fundamental physiological questions important for improving the health and performance of girls and women.

Innovation hubs at Boston Children’s Hospital, Kansas, Oregon, Stanford and UC San Diego will translate the alliance’s scientific discoveries into practice to help improve the training, care and performance of athletes and people everywhere.

Delp provided KPIX an exclusive look inside the Human Performance Lab at Stanford, an interdisciplinary research facility where athletes wear reflective motion-capture markers and perform various movements atop force-sensor plates embedded in the ground.

The array of motion-capture cameras, similar to those used in Hollywood movie or video game productions, can detect minute shifts in an athlete’s joints. The 3-D motion data, in conjunction with electro-myographic sensors that record muscle contractions and respirometer readings, will be used to create a predictive computer model of the human subject.

“We’re developing a digital athlete,” Delp said. “We take data … motion data, force data, EMG data and respirometry and we create a digital model — a personalized model of the athlete. We can assess whether she is susceptible to injuries, how to improve performance. On the computer simulation we could make her stronger. We could induce an injury and so all those things we can do with a digital athlete.”

Stanford engineers have also developed a calorie-burn measurement device using inexpensive, off-the-shelf electronic parts that boasts more accurate calorie readings than smart watches.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications found that the device, consisting of inertial measurement units (IMUs) attached to the calf and thigh and connected to a CPU affixed to the hip, yielded a cumulative error of 12 to 13 percent, according to the study’s lead author, Patrick Slade, a Stanford graduate student in mechanical engineering.

“We think that this device will be accurate enough that you can really do some precise athletic training or better manage your weight,” Slade said.

Smart watches typically had cumulative errors of 40 to 80 percent, according to Slade.

“They are very inaccurate and unfortunately they don’t provide any information about that inaccuracy, which is kind of misleading for users,” Slade said.

At Stanford, significant progress is also being made in research into scar-free healing.

In a study published in the journal Science, a team led by Dr. Michael Longaker, professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery, discovered a drug that, when injected into the wounds of lab mice: “wounds … no longer formed scars but instead healed by regeneration, restoring skin with normal hair follicles and glands, extracellular matrix and mechanical strength.” The drug, verteporfin, a 20-year-old, FDA-approved drug normally used to treat eye diseases, blocks the molecular signals that cause scars to form in the mice.

Longaker, who has been researching scars for 34 years, recalls the moment when the team realized the mice regenerated skin was scar-free.

“Incredibly satisfying to say the least,” Longaker said. “This one was a huge leap forward, obviously, because now we’ve really cracked the code on getting us to heal without a scar.”

Stanford is moving forward with the FDA to begin trials in pigs. If successful, human trials could begin in coming years. The resources and influence behind the Human Performance Alliance should help expedite the process, Longaker said.

“That saves months at least, if not a year. So, the investment by the Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance is incredibly catalytic. It’s just driving the process at a faster rate and that’s really valuable — I mean unthinkably valuable in terms of time savings. We’re excited, we’re motivated and I think we’re standing at the threshold of a time when scars as we know them can be prevented,” Longaker said.

Delp says All of the alliance’s findings and discoveries will be released to the public for free.

“We make all our data, all our computer simulations, all our software, available to the scientific community for free. It’s an open scientific project. That’s the best way to advance the scientific field. Our goal is to really benefit all people, all over the world.”