Friday, May 20, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Happy Friday! Let's get you up to speed on the day's big stories in science and medicine. 

Obama to be briefed on state of Zika response

This morning, President Obama will get a thorough rundown on the response to the Zika virus from the big hitters in public health. HHS secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell, NIH director Dr. Anthony Fauci, and CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden will brief the president. A clash looms after the House passed a bill offering only a third of the Zika response funding the Obama administration requested. 

FDA won't stop keeping a close eye on blood products

The FDA has just announced it'll extend the charter of a blood products committee that's designed to keep tabs on blood donations, products derived from blood such as platelets, and devices created to test blood. The decision to continue to fund the 17-person committee for another two years comes hot on the heels of fresh scrutiny of blood-testing company Theranos, which has come under fire from the FDA, among other authorities. Theranos voided all of its 2014 and 2015 test results from its proprietary devices, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week. But despite the worsening state of its reputation, Theranos is planning an expansion

Mutations in lab mice leave scientific findings in question

A type of research mice known as knockouts — genetically engineered by “knocking out” specific bits of DNA — actually have a mutation that could affect the outcomes of experiments performed on them. In the new Cell Reports, scientists say they’ve uncovered a mutation among one strain of black mice from a single commercial supplier. Scientists who used that line of mice (which is C57BL/6, if you’re curious) need to rerun their experiments to make sure that mutation didn’t sway their results, the authors say. It’s not the first time a faulty gene has turned up in modified mice — two other common lab mice were found to have previously unknown mutations in 2009.

sponsor content by michigan health lab

Artificial placenta holds promise for extremely premature infants

Researchers at the University of Michigan are working to improve survival rates in the tiniest, most premature babies in a groundbreaking way: through an artificial placenta that mimics the womb. The technology is 'a complete paradigm shift' — and it could be in use within the next five years. Learn more at

Inside STAT: The secret sponsor of a "consumer" group

A new lobbying group sprung up in five states this spring to protest against two hotly contested health insurance company mergers — Cigna with Anthem and Humana with Aetna. Dubbed the Campaign for Consumer Choice, the group and its state-level affiliates say they’re simply a coalition of citizens wary of the mergers. But really, they’re the secret product of a hidden sponsor — the Healthcare Education Project, a group comprised of the Greater New York Hospital Association and a health care worker’s union. It’s received considerable backing from state medical societies and the American Medical Association, too. Sheila Kaplan has more here

Americans aren't happy about their marketplace premiums

(Kaiser Family Foundation)
People are growing more concerned about the costs of their insurance, according to a new poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. About 40 percent of people who’ve purchased health insurance plans through a state or federal marketplace say they’re dissatisfied with their premiums, while 46 percent say they’re unhappy with their deductibles. Both of those groups are larger than they were in 2014. The silver lining: 68 percent of marketplace enrollees say their current coverage is either good or excellent.

Blindness projected to double in coming decades

The number of people in the US who are blind or visually impaired could double by 2050, according to new estimates out in JAMA Ophthalmology. In 2015, approximately 1 million Americans were blind; researchers project that that number will rise 21 percent every decade through 2050. That increase is partly due to an aging baby boomer population, the study’s authors say. They suggest better screening to catch vision problems early and to potentially prevent sight from deteriorating as quickly as it otherwise might.

The two countries bearing a large burden of mental illness

One-third of the global burden of mental health care occurs just in India and China, finds new research published in the Lancet and Lancet Psychiatry. But there’s a huge gap in treatment in those countries — fewer than 6 percent of people with mental health and substance abuse problems in China seek treatment. In India, about 10 percent of people with mental illness are getting evidence-based care. The authors of three new papers say those gaps are in part due to a lack of trained professionals to provide care, and in part due to little federal funding to address mental illness. In particular, the authors raise concern over the prevalence in India, where the incidence of mental illness is expected to continue rising dramatically in the coming decade.

And in the US, a new report in Health Affairs finds that mental illness is the most costly health condition nationwide. In 2013, spending on mental health care in the US reached $201 billion. 

A sunscreen gene helps keep sun damage (somewhat) at bay

UV damage, shown in red, doesn't get healed as quickly in cells without the "sunscreen" gene. (Courtesy Chengyu Liang)
A newly discovered “sunscreen” gene might help people stave off some of the damage from the sun’s harmful rays. The majority of melanoma skin cancer cases are spawned by UV radiation that causes cell damage. A mutation in or low level of expression of the newly discovered gene, described in Molecular Cell, could possibly make patients more susceptible to that damage.

“People who sunburn easily may have a lower expression of this gene or might have a version of the gene that’s mutated,” study author Chengyu Liang of USC explained to me. In an analysis of data from 340 melanoma patients, the researchers saw that higher expression of the gene was correlated with better survival rates and slower tumor progression. Still, Liang said, they’re not sure how the gene actually works to protect against UV damage, or how common mutations in the gene are. 

What to read around the web today

  • The real reason pharma companies want to help pay for your prescription. Bloomberg
  • "Three-parent" embryos may fail to vanquish mutant mitochondria. Scientific American
  • Condoms by drone: A new way to get birth control to remote areas. NPR

More reads from STAT

  • How do you ask grieving parents for their son's penis? 
  • Public swimming pools and hot tubs overwhelmingly fail health and safety tests. 
  • Yellow fever outbreak is serious but not global health emergency, WHO says

Thank you for reading, and enjoy your weekend! Back on Monday, 


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