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Behavioral Science, In the News, Medicine and Society, Pregnancy, Public Health

Walking on sunshine: How to celebrate summer safely

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Normally, I spend the Fourth of July on the shores of a Wisconsin lake, getting eaten alive by mosquitos, burning to a bright shade of pink, lighting sparklers and eating potato salad that has sat in the sun for hours. Heaps of fun, but also plenty of opportunities to fall ill.

This year, I’ve been barred from that fun trip by my oh-so-practical doc, who thinks unnecessary travel isn’t the smartest option for someone who is eight-months pregnant. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied with reading a Washington Post article, published earlier this week, about all the summer health hazards I’m avoiding by celebrating the holiday in my coastal California home.

First is athlete’s foot, a fungus that “lingers on warm, wet surfaces such as poolside pavement and the floors of locker rooms and public showers” that produces an oozing pus. Or its relative, a toenail fungus that leads to yellow, thickened nails. And I thought a big belly was a bit of bother.

There’s also coxsackie virus, known for causing hand, foot and mouth disease, which thrives in kids’ wading pools courtesy of the occasional leaky diaper. The virus usually causes blisters; in rare cases it can lead to heart failure, says Stanford pediatrics professor Bonnie Maldonado, MD. Note to self: Keep baby out of unchlorinated kiddie pools.

We’re just getting warmed up here. There’s the summertime regulars of food poisoning, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. So yeah, that potato salad, while still yummy, probably isn’t a good idea, nor is the all-afternoon exposure to 95-plus degrees.

Don’t forget swimmer’s ear, an infection of the ear canal that, according to otolaryngologist Richard Rosenfeld, MD, from New York can “really, really, really hurt and ruin a vacation.” And a walk in the woods can quickly yield a ravaging rash from poison ivy or oak.

Throw in insect-borne plagues like West Nile and Lyme disease and gee, I guess my front porch isn’t looking so bad after all.

Previously: As summer heats up, take steps to protect your skin, This summer’s Stanford Medicine magazine shows some skin and Stanford nutrition expert offers tips for a healthy and happy Fourth of July
Photo by Jordan Richmond

Genetics, In the News, Research, Science, Stanford News, Stem Cells, Technology

CRISPR marches forward: Stanford scientists optimize use in human blood cells

CRISPR marches forward: Stanford scientists optimize use in human blood cells

The CRISPR news just keeps coming. As we’ve described here before, CRISPR is a breakthrough way of editing the genome of many organisms, including humans — a kind of biological cut-and-paste function that is already transforming scientific and clinical research. However, there are still some significant scientific hurdles that exist when attempting to use the technique in cells directly isolated from human patients (these are called primary cells) rather than human cell lines grown for long periods of time in the laboratory setting.

Now pediatric stem cell biologist Matthew Porteus, MD, PhD, and postdoctoral scholars Ayal Hendel, PhD, and Rasmus Bak, PhD, have collaborated with researchers at Santa Clara-based Agilent Research Laboratories to show that chemically modifying the guide RNAs tasked with directing the site of genome snipping significantly enhances the efficiency of editing in human primary blood cells — an advance that brings therapies for human patients closer. The research was published yesterday in Nature Biotechnology.

As Porteus, who hopes to one day use the technique to help children with genetic blood diseases like sickle cell anemia, explained to me in an email:

We have now achieved the highest rates of editing in primary human blood cells. These frequencies are now high enough to compete with the other genome editing platforms for therapeutic editing in these cell types.

Porteus and Hendel previously developed a way to identify how frequently the CRISPR system does (or does not) modify the DNA where scientists tell it. Hendel characterizes the new research as something that will allow industrial-scale manufacturing of pharmaceutical-grade CRISPR reagents. As he told me:

Our research shows that scientists can now modify the CRISPR technology to improve its activity and specificity, as well as to open new doors for its use it for imaging, biochemistry, epigenetic, and gene activation or repression studies.

Rasmus agrees, saying, “Our findings will not only benefit researchers working with primary cells, but it will also accelerate the translation of CRISPR gene editing into new therapies for patients.”

Onward!

(Those of you wanting a thorough primer on CRISPR —how it works and what could be done with it — should check out Carl Zimmer’s comprehensive article in Quanta magazine. If you prefer to learn by listening (perhaps, as I sometimes do, while on the treadmill), I found this podcast from Radiolab light, but interesting.)

Previously: Policing the editor: Stanford scientists devise way to monitor CRISPR effectiveness and “It’s not just science fiction anymore”: Childx speakers talk stem cell and gene therapy

 

Health Policy, In the News, Medicine and Society, Public Health

On King v. Burwell and the survival of the Affordable Care Act (and an unexpected birthday present)

On King v. Burwell and the survival of the Affordable Care Act (and an unexpected birthday present)

5362318849_dd1527d632_zToday is my birthday – and the Supreme Court (or, at least, two-thirds of it) just gave me, most people who follow health policy, and millions of now still-insured Americans a present: King v. Burwell.

There’s a lot to say about this decision, but I want to focus on three things: the strength of the conflicting substantive arguments, the possible internal Court dynamics that resulted in the majority and dissenting opinion, and a guess at some deeper meanings of the case for the future of health care in America.

On the substance, this is a case that really could have gone either way. The idea that the Court should apply the words as written, no matter how silly, has precedent in the Court’s history; so does the idea that the Court should try to interpret laws in ways that make them work as intended. The majority — at the end, Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion — does recognize this conflict; the dissent, from the more textualist end of the Court, rejects the idea of a tension. The majority has it right in the sense that sometimes the Court applies the words as written, sometimes it requires interpretation, and that both are legitimate responses to cases – both are within the culture of legal interpretation that the Court has included over the last two-and-a-quarter centuries.

I do think the Court could have legitimately gone the other way, though I think it would have been foolish and harmful, to the country and even to the conservatives who will now bemoan this outcome. I am glad they did not. I prefer judges who try, when the law – or more accurately its interpretative culture – will allow them to, to make things work in a sensible way. The dissent’s position would have upended a major government program and harmed millions of people for a technicality – like a ticky-tack penalty or foul call deciding the Super Bowl or the World Cup. The Court could have done that, but it would have been wrong.

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Health Policy, In the News, Medicine and Society, Public Health

Supreme Court upholds Affordable Care Act with a 6-3 vote

Supreme Court upholds Affordable Care Act with a 6-3 vote

Supreme Court picUpdated 4:07 PM: “Obamacare lives to fight another day,” writes David Studdert, ScD, a core faculty member at CHP/PCOR and an expert in health law, in a Stanford Law School blog post. In his piece, he offers more legal details of the ruling.

***

Updated 1:51 PM: Stanford law professor Hank Greely, JD, has this to say:

Today is my birthday – and the Supreme Court (or, at least, two-thirds of it) just gave me, most people who follow health policy, and millions of now still-insured Americans a present: King v. Burwell

I do think the Court could have legitimately gone the other way, though I think it would have been foolish and harmful to the country and even to the conservatives who will now bemoan this outcome. I am glad they did not. I prefer judges who try, when the law – or more accurately its interpretative culture – will allow them to, to make things work in a sensible way. The dissent’s position would have upended a major government program and harmed millions of people for a technicality – like a… foul call deciding the Super Bowl or the World Cup.  The Court could have done that, but it would have been wrong…

What does it mean about the future of Obamacare? Well, I think it means the Supreme Court is done with it, at least with its fundamental, life or death issues.

Greely will expand on these thoughts in a longer piece on Scope later today.

***

Updated 12:45: Mello goes into detail on the ruling in a just-published Stanford Law School blog post.

***

Updated 11:51 AM: Stanford’s Laurence Baker, PhD, who has done extensive research on the economic performance of the U.S. health-care system, has also weighed in, saying, “This ruling, affirming the intent of the Affordable Care Act, is a relief for millions of Americans who have gained coverage under the law. It also provides important stability for insurers and the health-care system more broadly, avoiding what would have been tumultuous disruption in health-insurance markets in many states. We can now turn full attention back to the important work of improving health-insurance markets and expanding coverage, from which this court case was such a distraction.”

***

Updated 11:04 AM: Some thoughts now from Stanford health economist Jay Bhattacharya, MD, PhD, a core faculty member at the Center for Health Policy and the Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research (CHP/PCOR):

Today’s Supreme Court ruling preserves the Obama administration’s implementation of the ACA’s subsidy scheme to all qualified people (between 133 and 400 percent of the poverty line). The Supreme Court essentially ruled for the status quo.

Had the plaintiffs won the case, such subsidies would only have been legal in states, like California, that have established their own insurance exchange (or marketplace). The immediate effect of the ruling, then, would have been to eliminate federal subsidies for the people living in states without a state-established insurance exchange. Families with income between 133 and 400 percentof the poverty line in such states who purchased their insurance through a federally-established exchange would have had to pay the full costs of their insurance premiums. This would have made insurance unaffordable for many of these families.

The ruling would not have directly affected people who get insurance through their employers or through the government in some other way, such as through Medicare (health insurance for the elderly and disabled) or through Medicaid (health insurance for the poor).

It is difficult to imagine, had the ruling gone the other way, that it would be a stable political equilibrium for people in one state to be eligible for federal subsidies, while similar people in another state to be not eligible. There would have been a lot of pressure on Democrats and Republicans at both state and federal levels to reform Obamacare, and either reestablish the subsidies or make some other arrangement to make insurance affordable. With the Supreme Court ruling the way it did, there will be substantially less impetus or desire for the reform of Obamacare, especially on the Democratic side.

***

Updated 10:45 AM: Stanford’s Michelle Mello, JD, PhD, professor of law and of health research and policy, has just provided her insight on the ruling, which she said offered strong claims by both sides:

The Court was profoundly influenced by its desire to avoid an interpretation of the law that would defeat Congress’s purpose in passing it. That purpose was to create a functional market through which individuals could buy insurance… The Court found it “implausible” that Congress intended for States that opted not to set up their own Exchanges to suffer the foreseeable, well-understood consequence of a “death spiral.”

The spiral occurs because without the tax credits, a very large proportion of the people who would otherwise be required to buy insurance get exempted from the individual mandate because the insurance cost exceeds a set amount of their income. That means too few people — and in particular, too few healthy people — buying insurance now… People know they can buy insurance later when they get sick. Their decisions to do so push premiums up for everyone, and the adverse selection makes the market unsustainable…

The trio writing in dissent could hardly have shown greater disgust with the majority’s approach. They disputed the majority’s threshold claim that the four little words were ambiguous — and everything that followed from it. The length and complexity of the majority’s justification for its holding, they claimed, is just proof that (once again) the justices are contorting the law in order to achieve a political objective — upholding the Affordable Care Act…

But on balance, I think the majority got it right in pointing to the well-understood consequences of withholding tax credits as evidence that Congress didn’t intend the reading the challengers urged. The decision is on firm legal ground, and to public-health advocates, is an enormous relief.

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Behavioral Science, Global Health, In the News, Public Health, Research, Sleep, Technology

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Radium_Dial_UVGrowing up, my engineer father always told me to move my flowery glow-in-the-dark clock farther from my bedside. “You’re nuts, Dad,” I would respond, equating his concern with his conviction that he was dropped off by aliens in the New Mexican desert in 1947.

But now it turns out he may have had a point (although I’m still quite sure he came from a hospital in Pennsylvania, not a spaceship).

A new study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms has shown that access to artificial light at night has shortened the amount of time we sleep each night. A recent University of Washington release describes the study:

The researchers compared two traditionally hunter-gatherer communities (in Argentina) that have almost identical ethnic and sociocultural backgrounds, but differ in one key aspect – access to electricity…

In their usual daily routines, the community with electricity slept about an hour less than their counterparts with no electricity. These shorter nights were mostly due to people who had the option to turn on lights and go to bed later, the researchers found. Both communities slept longer in the winter and for fewer hours in the summer.

This is the first study to examine differences in communities, rather than relying on artifically manipulating light in a laboratory.

“In a way, this study presents a proxy of what happened to humanity as we moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and eventually to our industrialized society,” said lead author Horacio de la Iglesia, a University of Washington biology professor. “All the effects we found are probably an underestimation of what we would see in highly industrialized societies where our access to electricity has tremendously disrupted our sleep.”

So douse those lights, turn off the TV, push back your glowing clock, and embrace the dark — with a nice, long snooze.

Previously: New recommendation: Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each nightMobile devices at bedtime? Sleep experts weigh in and Can adjusting your mobile device’s brightness help promote better sleep?
Via Medical News Today
Photo by Arma95

FDA, Health and Fitness, In the News, Nutrition, Public Health

“They might be slightly healthier, but they’ll still be junk foods”: Expert comments on trans-fat ban

"They might be slightly healthier, but they'll still be junk foods": Expert comments on trans-fat ban

4345026096_35defbf6b0_zAs you’ve probably heard, the FDA ruled last week to ban trans-fats and phase them out of all food products over the next three years. This news has been widely covered, both heralded for its health implications and critiqued for being too long in coming. Yet either way, it is not a panacea, as Stanford Medicine professor Christopher Gardner, PhD, explained when he shared his opinion with me over the weekend:

The true impact of the FDA ban on trans-fats will not be known until we find out what substitutes the food industry finds, and what that does to the sale of junk food and the health of Americans in response to the switch. It could be beneficial. But it isn’t as if trans-fats will be gone and everyone will eat an extra two servings of vegetables in their place.

Gardner, who has spent the past 20 years researching the health benefits of various nutrition components, pointed out that “a lot of good people and excellent scientists worked on this for a long time” and “it took a great deal of effort to assemble the science to demonstrate that this is something so harmful in the American diet that it should be removed with an FDA ban.” He also offered more specifics on what food companies might do following the ban:

The companies making those products are unlikely to remove those junk food products entirely from the shelves of grocery stores across America. Instead, it is most likely that they will look for an alternate form of fat that will serve as closely as possible the same role that trans-fats served. Trans-fats act like saturated fats in terms of being solid rather than liquid at room temperature. This can help the icing on a cupcake stay solid, and it can give a “mouth feel” of solid fat that people like to taste in their food. The goal of the food industry will be to replace the trans-fat with another fat that is solid at room temperature, which likely means the replacement could very well be as bad as the trans fats themselves.

For example, palm oil or esterified stearic acid are likely to be options. For the palm oil, this will mean destruction of rain forests and biological diversity. For esterified stearic acid, this will mean another reason to grow more monocultures of soybeans from which to extract the oil. Both of these will likely have a negative environmental impact. There are likely other choices to consider.

After all this, will those junk foods now be health foods? Absolutely not. They might be slightly healthier junk foods, but still junk foods.

Previously: Want to curb junk food cravings? Get more sleep, Talking to kids about junk food ads, and Trans-fat still lurks in packaged foods
Photo by Kevin

Applied Biotechnology, In the News, Research, Stem Cells, Transplants

“Supplying each cell with a scuba tank”: New advances in tissue engineering

"Supplying each cell with a scuba tank": New advances in tissue engineering

membrane-article.jpgResearchers in the U.K. have found a way to make growing synthetic tissue more sustainable. At present, the size of engineered tissues is limited because the cells die from lack of oxygen when the pieces get too big. By adding an oxygen-carrying protein to the stem cells prior to combining them with tissue scaffolding, the researchers overcame this problem.

The study, led by Adam Perriman, PhD, research fellow at the University of Bristol’s Synthetic Biology Research Centre, and Anthony Hollander, PhD, professor of integrative biology at the University of Liverpool, was published yesterday in Nature Communications. The tissue they were fabricating was cartilage, but the process could potentially be applied to other tissues, as well.

Perriman describes the findings in a press release:

We were surprised and delighted to discover that we could deliver the necessary quantity [of oxygen] to the cells to supplement their oxygen requirements. It’s like supplying each cell with its own scuba tank, which it can use to breathe from when there is not enough oxygen in the local environment.

Hollander also comments on the significance of the research:

We have already shown that stem cells can help create parts of the body that can be successfully transplanted into patients, but we have now found a way of making their success even better. Growing large organs remains a huge challenge but with this technology we have overcome one of the major hurdles.

Creating larger pieces of cartilage gives us a possible way of repairing some of the worst damage to human joint tissue, such as the debilitating changes seen in hip or knee osteoarthritis or the severe injuries caused by major trauma, for example in road traffic accidents or war injuries.

Previously: Building bodies, one organ at a time, How Stanford researchers are engineering materials that mimic those found in our own bodies and A brief look at “caring” for engineered tissue
Photo by Warwick Bromley

In the News, Medicine and Society, Science

Nature issues reminder that “equality in science is a battle still far from won”

Nature issues reminder that "equality in science is a battle still far from won"

9447775248_4337abac3b_zIn light of recent widely covered events (and entertaining reactions on Twitter), Nature published an editorial yesterday titled, simply, “Sexism has no place in science.” It was published as a “reminder that equality in science is a battle still far from won,” and it outlines the problems of sexism and gender basis and some of the ways they can be tackled. I thought it was worth highlighting a few of their ideas here:

  • Recognize and address unconscious bias. Graduate students given grants by the US National Institutes of Health are required to undergo ethics training. Gender-bias training for scientists, for example, would be a powerful way to help turn the tide.
  • Encourage universities and research institutions to extend the deadlines for tenure or project completion for scientists (women and men) who take parental leave, and do not penalize these researchers by excluding them from annual salary rises. Many workplaces are happy to consider and agree to such extension requests when they are made. The policy should simply be adopted across the board.
  • Events organizers and others must invite female scientists to lecture, review, talk and write articles. And if the woman asked says no — for whatever reason — then ask others. This is about more than mere visibility. It can boost female participation too. Anecdotal reports suggest that women are more likely to ask questions in sessions chaired by women. After acknowledging our own bias towards male contributors, Nature, for example, is engaged in a continued effort to commission more women in our pages.
  • Do not use vocabulary and imagery that support one gender more than another. Words matter. It is not ‘political-correctness-gone-mad’ to avoid defaulting to the pronouns ‘him’ and ‘he’, or to ensure that photographs and illustrations feature women.

The piece ends on a hopeful note – “The lot of the female scientist in most developed countries is better than it was a few decades ago” – but reminds readers “that it is essential that all involved strive for better.” Hear, hear!

Previously: What’s holding women in the sciences back?She’s a Barbie girl, living in a Barbie world (that discourages careers in science), Molly Carnes: Gender bias persists in academia and Pioneers in science
Photo by World Bank Photo Collection

Chronic Disease, In the News, Pain, Research, Science, Stanford News

Scientific discovery could lead to treatments for chronic pancreatitis

Scientific discovery could lead to treatments for chronic pancreatitis

Pancreatitis is one of the most common gastrointestinal hospital admissions-related illness. Patients with the acute form of the disease show up at hospitals doubled over with severe abdominal pain, a swollen belly that’s tender to the touch, nausea, and vomiting.

For some patients the disease flares up then disappears. For others, it develops into an ongoing, chronic form of the disease with no known cure. Not only is it extremely painful, it also causes malnutrition and carries with it a high risk of leading to pancreatic cancer. Treatment options are pretty much limited to prescription pain killers.

This has great implication in a disease that has no active therapy with no known agents that can alter its natural devastating course

It’s known that chronic pancreatitis is marked by the uncontrolled growth of scar tissue in the pancreas known as fibrosis, which slowly destroys the organ’s ability to function. Since the pancreas is in charge of excreting enzymes to digest food, patients begin to suffer malnutrition. It’s also known that excessive alcohol consumption is the leading cause of pancreatitis but just what is happening at a molecular level to cause the fibrosis is less clear.

Now, Stanford researcher and gastroenterologist Aida Habtezion, MD, and colleagues here and at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center have published research that sheds light on what exactly is happening and could lead to treatments for the severe disease. In a story I wrote on the study, Habtezion discusses their discovery of a new molecular pathway that when blocked by an experimental pharmacological drug can slow the progression of pancreatitis in animal models and in human cells.

As Habtezion told me, her lab’s research into just how the immune cells of the pancreas behave when inflamed with pancreatitis unveiled the new pathway:

“For the first time we can show that macrophages interact with pancreatic stellate cells via a particular immune pathway, and by targeting this pathway we show a decrease in chronic pancreatitis/fibrosis progression,” she said. “This has great implication in a disease that has no active therapy with no known agents that can alter its natural devastating course.”

The hope is that researchers will now be able to develop a form of the experimental pharmacological agent used in the study to block the molecular pathway that can be given to humans. Blocking the pathway will block the scar tissue growth, and hopefully either slow the progression of the disease or reverse it altogether.

FDA, In the News, Nutrition, Public Health

FDA changes regulation for antibiotic use in animals

FDA changes regulation for antibiotic use in animals

8756885685_0ebc1c75ce_zLivestock can no longer be fed antibiotics “preventatively” or to help them grow bigger. The FDA has ruled to change their regulations of how drugs can be administered to food animals, including those used to make animal feed.

After this ruling, livestock producers can only use antibiotics to treat animals that actually have an infection, and only under the supervision of a veterinarian. These new rules are aimed at decreasing the risk of developing drug-resistant bacteria, sometimes called “super bugs.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug-resistant bacteria cause 2 million illnesses and about 23,000 deaths in the United States each year.

According to an article from The Hill, the Department of Health and Human Services is moving forward with new regulations for hospitals, and President Obama has called on government cafeterias to prioritize meat that has been raised with responsible antibiotic practices.

Previously: Paradox: Antibiotics may increase contagion among salmonella-infected animals, and Healthy gut bacteria help chicken producers avoid antibiotics
Photo by Chiot’s Run

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