Mickey Hart is taking the Gladstone Institutes on a long, strange trip.
The Grammy-winning drummer with iconic hippie rock group the Grateful Dead is teaming with Deepak Srivastava, the head of San Francisco's Gladstone Institute for Cardiovascular Research, in an effort to discover the sounds that cells make.
For Srivastava and other Gladstone scientists, the collaboration could help them discover if there's a difference between the sounds of healthy cells and unhealthy ones. Converting the heart's electrical activity into sound, Srivastava said, could give researchers and clinicians another tool for developing drugs that return them to a healthy rhythm or detour illness.
For Hart … well, it's a psychedelic trip to the heart of being human.
"The beginning of life is rhythm. When you're in the womb your mother's heart is beating at (about 90) decibels until you hit the air and you're exposed to other rhythms," Hart said. "We were born of vibration 13.7 billion years ago with the explosion of the universe."
Hart is no stranger to the far out.
After 24 years with the Grateful Dead and taking an interest in global music, Hart has turned to scientific collaborations. He worked with Nobel Prize-winning physicist George Smoot at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to convert light and electromagnetic waves from the Big Bang into music. That ongoing project resulted in 2010 in Hart's "Rhythms of the Universe."
Hart also is recording the sounds of the Golden Gate Bridge's movement for the structure's upcoming 75th anniversary.
"You can understand data by perceiving it another way," Smoot said. "Mickey's creative and he gets excited about this stuff."
In his work with the Gladstone Institutes, the Sonoma County resident hopes to go from the vast matter of space to the vast molecules of inner space.
"These are great mysteries worth pondering," Hart said, adding that there is a lot of anecdotal information about how music can stimulate some people to better health. "When rhythm and vibration are put back into the system, we know it works, but we just don't know how.
"Any artist will tell you they feel good after playing."
The dollar value of the partnership likely will be small — a Gladstone spokeswoman said those types of details are being worked out — but Hart and Srivastava say they are asking the same basic questions and the project's importance is more intrinsic.
"What we're asking here is really not so different conceptually," Srivastava said.
Sonification is nothing new — think of how a Geiger counter's clicks mark radiation. Even sonifying cells goes back decades, as a means of indicating contact with a cell, but limited research over the past 10 years has tried to plot the sounds of blood cells, for example, or cervical cells that are changed in cervical cancer.
"This has not really been used as a way of monitoring the health of cells prior to this point," said Ian Spencer, a senior research scientist at the Gladstone who for two decades has studied electricity and the heart in a search for the origins of arrhythmias. "It's not really been mined out about how to use it."
What's of most interest, Spencer said, are the spikes and valleys that accompany the voltage and how long they take to reach their peaks and valleys. In a normal heartbeat, for example, the low and high notes are the same every time, but Spencer said there's some dissonance with arrhythmias.
"That's potentially detectable by listening," Spencer said.
What makes the project possible is the development over the past five years of induced pluripotent stem cells, which act like embryonic stem cells in that they can be manipulated to form heart cells, brain cells or any other type of cell. So-called IPS cells are formed when researchers insert specific genes into mature cells, such as skin cells.
IPS cells are attractive to researchers because they act like embryonic cells but are without the political hot potato of destroying embryos to get those cells.
The process for making IPS cells was developed by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan, but since Yamanaka spends a quarter of his research time at the Gladstone, an affiliate of UC San Francisco, he and Srivastava have worked together closely. Srivastava's lab, in fact, in 2010 created beating cardiac cells in a dish from cells taken from connective tissue.
"These cells in a dish move, they beat," Spencer said.
What's more, IPS cells can be made more easily now, certainly easier than, say, reaching those that make our heart work.
"How to assess (IPS cells) is now catching up with making those cells," Spencer said. "It's an explosion of possibilities."
Hart isn't excluding the possibility of creating music from the cells, but he's reveling in his gig as a scientific explorer linked with Srivastava and the Gladstone labs: "These are the single-most powerful grooves in the world."
By – Ron Leuty
Photo by Spencer Brown