Thursday, December 3, 2015

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

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Welcome to the Morning Rounds, where I bring you the day's big news in health and science. 

San Bernardino shooting rampage underscores gun violence's toll on public health

Hours after physician groups convened on Capitol Hill to call gun violence a major public health crisis and call on Congress to lift the ban on the CDC studying the issue, a shooting rampage took place at a holiday party for county public health employees in San Bernardino, Calif. The attackers killed 14 people and wounded 17 others. It was the 59th mass shooting in the US since October 1. 

New this morning: Big Ebola spending masks drop in R&D on neglected diseases

Massive investments in Ebola research last year masked a big decline in public R&D dollars for other neglected diseases, the annual G-FINDER report from the Gates Foundation will announce today. If you take spending on Ebola research out of the equation, worldwide public funding for neglected diseases dropped $62 million last year. The study’s authors say that’s especially concerning for diseases like tuberculosis, which is becoming increasingly drug-resistant.

Troubling behavior by Big Pharma in India 

Employees from the local arms of pharma giants like Bayer, GSK, Abbott, and Roche are flocking to free “health camps” for poor people in India — and providing medical tests that are supposed to be delivered by licensed professionals, according to an investigation published today in BMJ. 

The camps, some of which are placed near slums, are meant to allow residents to get exams and screenings from licensed medical professionals. But the BMJ investigation finds that unlicensed reps from both Indian and international drug firms are conducting the tests. Not only that: They seem to be using the access to get local doctors to prescribe their drugs. Abbott Laboratories — which has gone so far as to have its business divisions organize health camps — screened nearly a quarter of a million people in India for thyroid disorders in 2011, and coincidentally saw sales of its thyroid disorder drug soar over cheaper competitors in the country, the BMJ found.

Inside STAT: From a kid in Queens to a big-time grant-getter

Dr. Lee Nadler went from a "street kid" in Queens who could barely read when he got to high school to an oncologist trying to spur collaboration between highly competitive hospitals. Nadler has raked in $120 million in NIH grants over the past five years; that's the second-highest highest total in the country. Nadler’s most entertaining claim to fame (in my opinion): He once scolded Bill Clinton for eating a Big Mac for lunch, which Nadler figured out by hearing the president chew during a phone conversation. STAT reporter Melissa Bailey brings you the story of Nadler’s colorful career.

How sleepy cancer cells awaken

(Garvan Institute of Medical Research)

Watch as changes in a bone wake cancer cells “snoozing” nearby. When cancer cells spread from another tumor site toward bones, they can lie dormant for months or years without causing problems, according to new research published this morning in Nature Communications. But when the nearby bone tissue breaks down, the tumor cells, shown in green here, can get shaken up and start infiltrating the bone, shown in blue.

Have an existential crisis listening to this on your lunch break

Here’s a question that’ll nag you next time you read a scientific study: What if the science that lays the groundwork for new discoveries is actually wrong? In the new episode of Signal, the STAT podcast, hosts Meg Tirrell and Luke Timmerman explore the “crisis of reproducibility.”

Coming today: Congress takes on imported drugs from Canada

Look out as the heated debate over rising drug prices heads to the Senate floor today, as Senator John McCain will likely push for a vote to let people in the US import cheaper drugs from Canada. He and Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced a bill earlier this year to allow the imports, and now they're trying to attach it as an amendment to a budget bill the Senate is working on, STAT Washington editor David Nather reports. 

This doesn’t mean drug reimportation is going to actually become the law of the land, though. McCain made the same push in 2012 and failed. And even if the bill scored the votes, President Obama would have to veto, because the budget bill would repeal Obamacare. Still, McCain and Klobuchar know how much the issue of drug prices is gaining traction with the public — and it’ll be interesting to see sparks fly on the Senate floor if they get their vote.

Lab Chat: Fast-dividing stem cells could set cancer in motion 

Adult stem cells keep your tissues healthy and regenerating throughout your life, but if they divide and proliferate too much, they can cause cancer. New research published in Nature dove into the process of proliferation and found that (at least in rats) calcium plays a key role. Here’s what lead researcher Henri Jasper of the Buck Institute told me:

What kind of stimuli do stem cells encounter?

Stem cells sense all different kinds of signals, like ones emerging from damaged cells around them... Somehow, they need to integrate all these signals and come up with the right decision, [meaning] whether to divide or not.

How do they come to that decision?

Our research shows that there is a wide range of signals that induce proliferation, and calcium plays an essential role in that. The concentration of calcium in stem cells increases and decreases in a regular pattern over time, and that’s important in allowing the cell to respond to a wide range of signals. But when we see a sustained increase in calcium levels, those increased calcium levels trigger the overly proliferative response.

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