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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Happy Tuesday, everyone, and welcome back from the long weekend! Let's jump into the day's big stories in science and medicine. 

WHO makes worldwide push to end smoking

Today is the WHO’s big annual push to eliminate smoking across the globe: World No Tobacco Day. There are still one billion smokers around the world. And while declining smoking rates represent a major public health success in the US, tobacco use is booming in other countries. More than 25 percent of women living in Austria, Chile, and France smoke. In Greece, that number tops 30 percent. And in Russia, Indonesia, and Armenia, more than half of men smoke every day.

The WHO is taking an interesting approach to make their one-day cessation campaign have a more lasting impact. They’re working with a nonprofit called the Monday Campaigns to push out cessation messages every Monday. The idea behind the effort is based on research published in JAMA Internal Medicine which found there’s an uptick for web searches for “quit smoking” on Mondays.

The personal push behind a childhood cancer bill

Republican Representative Michael McCaul has a personal motivation for serving as the lead sponsor of a bill to fight childhood cancer — he lost one of his closest childhood friends to leukemia. His bill, called the STAR Act, is the latest priority for cancer advocates, who recently fanned out across Capitol Hill to build support for it. It's a tricky bill to promote, though, because Congress is discouraged from steering research funds toward specific diseases.

But McCaul tells STAT's David Nather he has high hopes for the bill because it's not really about the money. The bill is supposed to help improve data tracking and add more pediatric cancer expertise to the federal advisory boards. McCaul wants to try to attach it to the 21st Century Cures Act, the mega-legislation that aims to bring treatments to market faster. McCaul knows he'll have a powerful lobby on his side: Parents who have lost children to cancer. He's moved every time he talks to them. “It’s heart wrenching,” he said. “I can’t imagine what it must be like.”

Scientists watch a glowing green toxin keep cells in check

A single green heme, minute and far away. (Rob Felt / Georgia Tech)
 
A tiny dose of a toxin can help keep your cells functioning how they should, and now we can see exactly how that happens. The toxin heme — which plays an important role in hemoglobin, the compound that helps your red blood cells transport oxygen — loses its toxicity when it’s bound with oxygen. Diseases like Alzheimer’s and heart disease can be tied to haywire amounts of heme in the body. Scientists wanted to closely track heme levels in the body, so they created a fluorescent sensor to watch it work. It’s science straight out of "The Great Gatsby" — the heme lights up bright green when it’s at a normal level, and then the green light fades as heme concentration increases. A new paper on the subject will be published soon in PNAS

Inside STAT: Sounding the alarm on fetal alcohol spectrum disorder

Just four years ago, Dr. Carl Bell was struck by a similarity he’d seen in thousands of patients over his 40 years working as a psychiatrist: Spotty memory, poor impulse control, and difficulty following directions or performing tasks in sequence. He realized it all might be explained by alcohol exposure in the womb, what’s now known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Up to five percent of Americans are affected by the condition, but they’re often misdiagnosed as having a psychiatric disorder or anti-social tendencies. In the past four years, the face of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder has changed greatly. More from STAT contributor Judith Graham here.

The need to improve pediatric end-of-life care 

Providing end-of-life care to children with terminal illnesses is delicate, difficult work, but it needs to be improved, say researchers writing in the Journal of Pediatrics. The paper’s authors surveyed 48 parents of children who died of a rare muscle disorder called spinal muscular atrophy. Most children with severe forms of the condition die during childhood. Half of the parents they surveyed wanted their children to be able to die at home, rather than in the hospital. But only 62 percent of those parents saw that happen. They also surveyed siblings of the children who’d died, and found that only four out of 24 received psychological support after their brother or sister died. Caring for the whole family is a crucial part of end-of-life and bereavement care, the authors say. For a moving look at what pediatric hospice can look like, read this.

Dr. Lucy Kalanithi on caring for her late husband

Liquid biopsy company Guardant Health has been making headlines lately — first for a patent lawsuit, and now for an ambitious clinical trial that aims to test how well liquid biopsies work at catching early-stage cancers. At a launch event for the trial last week in San Francisco, Dr. Lucy Kalanithi — widow of neurosurgeon Dr. Paul Kalanithi — spoke about caring for her husband during his terminal illness, STAT's Charles Piller reports. The couple's goal in dealing with the diagnosis: "Making meaning out of it.” Part of that was having a child together. Kalanithi recalled her initial reluctance, worried that a baby might make her husband’s inevitable death even more painful for him. She said his response — “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?” — showed his spark for life. 

Google searches show chickenpox protection

Countries with government-mandated chickenpox vaccinations see a sharp drop in Google searches for the condition afterward, finds a new paper in PNAS. It’s a fairly simple method of identifying potential disease outbreaks, dubbed digital epidemiology. But in this case, the researchers wanted to see if the search trends would correspond with a particular vaccine mandate. They analyzed Google Trends data from 36 countries from 2004 to 2015, and saw that the digital habits mirrored the uptake in chickenpox vaccinations on a country-wide level. The paper’s authors say the technique could potentially be used as a new way of measuring global disease burden (at least in developed countries).

Genetic changes seen after early nicotine exposure

Exposure to nicotine in the womb could cause far-reaching genetic changes. Nicotine can regulate how DNA is packaged in the brain during its early development, and that, in turn, can change how genes work, finds new research published in Nature Neuroscience. Researchers looked at mice exposed to nicotine during early development and saw that they experienced developmental problems — much like the ones seen in children exposed to nicotine in utero. Then, they ran a genomic screening on those mice and saw that the genes tied to the development of brain synapses were significantly altered. 

What to read around the web today

  • Death talk is cool at this festival. NPR
  • In a secret meeting, revelations on the battle over health care. New York Times
  • Go inside the lab that found the latest superbug. NBC News

More reads from STAT

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,

Megan

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