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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

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Good morning, everyone! Here's what's driving the news today in the worlds of science and medicine. 

Guinea declared to be free of Ebola by the WHO

Guinea — one of the countries hit hardest by the Ebola epidemic — is free of virus transmission, the WHO announced early this morning. Guinea joins Liberia and Sierra Leone, where Ebola also took a massive toll, in having stopped the spread of the virus. But after Liberia was originally declared Ebola-free, the virus reappeared, so Guinea now enters a three-month period of heightened surveillance to make sure that any new cases of Ebola don't spread. 

Docs keep prescribing opioids even after patients overdose

More than 90 percent of patients with chronic pain keep getting prescription pills after an overdose, reports new research in Annals of Internal Medicine. The analysis of nearly 3,000 patients nationwide found that 70 percent of those people even got the prescriptions from the same doctor who gave them the painkillers that contributed to the overdose in the first place. Those patients are at higher risk for overdosing again, the researchers warn. Read more from Felice J. Freyer at the Boston Globe here.

A new strain of swine flu is primed for an outbreak

Thought you’d seen the last of the swine flu epidemic? Perhaps not, scientists say. There’s another strain of the H1N1 virus that’s primed for a human outbreak, having turned up in pigs in China with the traits needed to spread among people, according to new research published in PNAS. The researchers say current immunity to H1N1 in people who’ve gotten a vaccine or fell ill from past swine flu outbreaks might not be enough to protect against this type of the virus. In particular, China is a source of concern, since it’s the world’s largest producer of pork, and pigs in the country aren’t vaccinated, making it easy for the virus to spread among herds.

Ancient Irish genome gets a modern-day sequencing

The luck of the Irish remains a genetic mystery not even a Disney Channel Original Movie can explain. (Daniel Bradley / Trinity College London)

Ancient genome sequencing has made its way to the Emerald Isle, where scientists have sequenced the DNA of a woman who lived in the region some 5,200 years ago, along with three men from around 4,000 years back. The findings could be useful in pinpointing a handful of genetic conditions that are more prevalent in that part of Europe. Read more about the sequencing here.

Lab Chat: How proteins build up and poison the brain

The biology behind the clumped-up proteins in the brain thought to be hallmarks of ALS, Alzheimer’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases have long baffled scientists. Now, scientists have created a description of how those proteins clump up and shown that they are in fact toxic to the brain. Here’s what lead researcher Nikolay Dokholyan of UNC told me about the new research, to be published in PNAS.

What’s going on when proteins start clumping?

Proteins are like a thread with beads on it. Two beads can like each other and two beads can dislike each other, and, because of that, they organize into a very specific shape.

And what happens in these diseases when the proteins don’t take the right shape?

Something happens, and it unfolds. There can be two identical copies of the protein that like each other and hold hands, so to speak. And sometimes these twins, they break their connection. Each of them changes their shape into an alternative shape. Then they acquire another partner, but all of them are misshapen.

What role do those three-part, misshapen ‘trimers’ then play in the development of diseases like ALS and Alzheimer’s ?

We took those trimers and put them into motor neuron-like cells, and when we did, they would kill the cells rapidly. It’s not complete proof that that’s how disease works in organisms, because organisms are more complex than cells. But we know now that trimers are toxic, so now we can think of therapeutic strategies to target the trimers and break them apart.

Inside STAT: The FDA's image problem with generic drugs

There’s a back-and-forth blame game happening between the FDA and the industry when it comes to the backlog of generic drug approvals. Much of Congress says the FDA is at fault for not making decisions on generic drug applications fast enough, but the FDA says that’s the industry’s fault for not submitting high-quality applications. There are 4,300 generic drugs in the approval queue at the FDA, and of those, half have been in limbo for at least three years. STAT DC reporter Sheila Kaplan explains the problems with both the applications and the approval process here.

How someone is declared brain dead varies from hospital to hospital

Hospitals across the US have widely varying standards in how they determine if a person is brain dead — which is cause for concern, experts writing in the new JAMA Neurology say, because the end of brain function is standardly used as a legal indicator that a person is no more. An analysis of nearly 500 hospital policies found significant differences in who examines a patient thought to be brain dead and what they do in that examination. The author’s recommendations: Use detailed checklists and records to make sure all tests are run the right way, and hold doctors accountable for doing so.

What to read around the web today

  • A bionic eye could restore sight by sending images right to the brain. New Scientist
  • A disease so neglected it's not even on most neglected disease lists. NPR
  • Seeking the gears of our inner clocks. New York Times

More reads from STAT

Until tomorrow, 

Megan

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