Thursday, November 19, 2015

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

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Happy Thursday, and happy Morning Rounds time! Here's your quick skim of the day's biggest stories in science and medicine. 

New this morning: Why is hepatitis so prevalent among Asian adults? 

The CDC is out with new data on hepatitis prevalence among Asian adults in the US, but the numbers can be a bit confusing. Here’s why: About 71 percent of Asian adults in the US had hepatitis A antibodies, compared to just 25 percent of non-Hispanic whites. But there’s no way to tell if those antibodies were from a hepatitis infection or from being vaccinated against the virus. The numbers do show “who’s still vulnerable to infection” because they don't have those antibodies, Deanna Kruszon-Moran, a health statistician at the CDC, told me.

Bringing bones into a new, 3D view

(Paul Scherrer Institute)

Not one, but two potential new ways to examine bones and teeth are described in this week’s Nature. They're based on a technique called small-angle X-ray scattering; the new findings highlight a way to reconstruct 3D versions of a sample, like the bone pictured here. “The interesting part about this method is that you can get information about the underlying nanostructure of materials” like bones, lead researcher Marianne Liebi of Switzerland's Paul Scherrer Institute told me. The hope is that the imaging technique could be used in the construction of biologically inspired materials.

Lab Chat: The leaky blood vessels that change how nano-drugs treat cancer

Nanotherapeutics — the use of tiny particles to deliver drugs to hard-to-reach parts of the body — have been approved to treat a few different types of cancer. Now, investigators have found a way to figure out which tumors will actually respond to drugs sent by way of nanoparticles. It has to do with how “leaky” a tumor is, meaning how likely the drugs are to actually penetrate the cancer cells. I chatted with lead researcher Omid Farokhzad of Harvard — who has been involved with several startups that work on nanotherapeutics — about the findings, published in Science Translational Medicine.

Explain this leakiness in tumor cells to me.

The epithelial cells, which line blood vessels, form very, very tight contact with neighboring cells. That’s equivalent to the piping in your house, in that these cells form a tight barrier that doesn’t leak things out, like water can flow through pipes  without leaking into the walls.

And how do you think that affects how well nanotherapeutics work?

As cancer grows, it encourages new blood vessels to form, and they’re forming so rapidly that they don’t have time to form these tight junctions. Cancer makes the blood cells intentionally leaky so tumors can get more nutrients from blood cells as they go by. But some cancer patients are more leaky than others. In the patients who don’t have leaky blood vessels, giving them nanoparticles isn’t helpful [because the particles can't penetrate to the tumor]. 

How have you figured out how to predict which tumors will respond?

We tried to deliver an imaging nanoparticle before a drug nanoparticle. And what the study shows is when the imaging nanoparticle is able to accumulate in tumors at a high level, that tumor will respond really well to a therapeutic nanoparticle.

Inside STAT: The race to treat Duchenne muscular dystrophy in young boys

Jenn McNary with her sons Max (left) and Austin, both of whom have Duchenne muscular dystrophy. (Kayana SZymzcak / STAT)

Parents whose sons are suffering from a rare, muscle-wasting disease known as Duchenne muscular dystrophy have scored a key victory: The FDA is reviewing two drugs that might slow progression of the disease. But their win raises the question of whether emotional pleas to rush drugs through the approval process could compromise sound scientific judgment. STAT columnist Ed Silverman has the story on life with Duchenne and the experimental drugs that could treat the devastating disease. And contributors Meg Tirrell and Luke Timmerman take you inside the two companies racing to get approval for their Duchenne drugs in the new episode of Signal, the STAT podcast. 

Bright lights aren't just for treating seasonal depression

Those lights that are supposed to boost your mood during winter could be useful for treating serious, non-seasonal depression too, a new article in JAMA Psychiatry reports. Half an hour of light therapy used in combination with Prozac was more effective than medication alone, according to a randomized trial of 122 patients. It’s still not clear why those lights work in treating depressive disorders, though. And the study had limits: The researchers weren’t able to measure natural light exposure, so there’s no way to tell how much of the improvement was directly attributable to the artificial lights.

Francis Collins on the NIH's decision to end its chimp research program

Big news yesterday from the the NIH: The agency is ending its chimp research program and will begin to transfer the 50 chimps it still has to sanctuaries.  “It seemed to me that it was time,” Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, told STAT reporter Dylan Scott. “We have the information we need that keeping the animals in reserve was no longer justified." More on the decision here

Overheard at Harvard's personalized medicine conference

"Wait until we go beyond the genome and bring in RNA and regulatory proteins. That's real complexity. We are in the Model T or Wright Brothers stage of applying precision medicine."

— Dr. John Niederhuber, chief executive officer of Innova Translational Medicine Institute

Must-reads around the web

  • Exposing the pills people pop. Science Friday
  • Doctors debate safety of their white coats. Boston Globe
  • China's bold push into genetically modified animals. Nature

More good reads from STAT

  • Marcia McNutt blazed a trail for women in science, but then came up against a sexism controversy. 
  • FDA approves nasal spray that reverses opioid overdose. 

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,


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