Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

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Good morning, folks! Here's your quick rundown to get you ahead of the news in science and medicine today. 

There's an important caveat to a scary breast cancer finding out this morning

A scary-sounding study out this morning finds that women who have received a false positive result on a mammogram have a 39 percent higher chance of developing breast cancer than women who had a valid negative result.

But that finding comes with an important caveat: The absolute risk of developing cancer remains very small; the increase is just from 3.91 to 5.51 cases per 1,000 women. “It shouldn’t be something that’s extremely worrisome to women. The probability of breast cancer diagnosis is not that different,” study author Louise Henderson of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill told me. Henderson said women with false positives should simply take this news into consideration when discussing risk with their doctors, along with other factors like family history and age. The study will be published today in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention.

Sharp clashes and personal stakes open gene-editing summit

The International Summit on Human Gene Editing opened yesterday in D.C., and STAT senior writer Sharon Begley reports a stark divide over whether to alter human eggs, sperm, or embryos in a way that could transmit those genetic changes to future generations. One sharp clash came after philosopher John Harris of the University of Manchester said he saw an "inescapable moral duty to continue with scientific investigation" of a technique that could eliminate disease-causing genes in embryos.
Fellow philosopher Hille Haker of Loyola University called for a worldwide moratorium until the end of 2017, which sparked debate. Then a woman in the audience went to the microphone. Her son had lived just six days, tortured by seizures due to a genetic ailment. "If you have the skills and the knowledge to eliminate these diseases, then freakin' do it!" she implored.

But many remain wary. "It continues to be the position of the Obama administration that altering the human germline for clinical purposes is a line that should not be crossed,"  John Holdren, President Obama's science advisor, told the summit.

This diabetes drug doesn't work off label the way doctors had hoped

Doctors have long used metformin — a drug meant to control blood sugar in adults with type 2 diabetes — in combination with insulin to treat young, overweight kids with type 1 diabetes. Turns out, that strategy doesn't work to stabilize blood sugar, according to a new study in JAMA. “This was being used at random without really knowing if it was efficacious or not,” Dr. Ingrid Libman told me. Libman, of the University of Pittsburgh, said the negative results suggest doctors should go back to the basics when treating kids with type 1 diabetes: giving insulin, increasing exercise, and encouraging healthy eating. Negative study results like this one are notoriously under-reported; I’ll continue to highlight them in future Morning Rounds.

Inside STAT: Public health experts warn of a potential MERS outbreak 

Ebola’s eruption across West Africa last summer led to a massive outbreak that caused more than 11,000 deaths. Now, experts say the same thing could happen with the virus that causes the infectious Middle East respiratory syndrome. We’re poorly equipped to handle the spread of MERS, they warn, given that it passes through coughs and sneezes. STAT infectious disease reporter Helen Branswell has more here.

Lab Chat: Sending better messages to the "inbox" of your cells

An HIV drug (orange) latches on to the best receptor. (Wu Lab / Scripps Institute)

Drug makers have long used a particular class of protein receptor, known as GPCRs, as a target for medicinal compounds to latch onto. Problem is, there are 16 types of GPCRs. Until now, it hasn’t been clear how GPCRs interacted with each other or with incoming compounds.  New research published in Science Signaling helps unravel that mystery. Here’s what study author and neuroscientist Kirill Martemyanov of the Scripps Institute told me:

What happens when a message is carried to a cell and GPCRs fight over who receives it?

It’s almost like a dance, when you have a number of different partners. Who would you dance with? There are 16 different G-proteins vying for attention, trying to read the message from this receptor molecule.

And what differences did you see in the GPCRs you looked at?

What emerged was almost like a fingerprint. Each receptor we looked at had a very different characteristic profile — how much it engages with a message, or if it doesn’t engage at all. 

What’s the usefulness of those profiles in other research?

Before, you’d come up with a pharmaceutical drug for a specific receptor, but now, we have a wealth of information on how that receptor will activate all of the different G-proteins. That gives us some hope for using this information for the development of more targeted, more precise drugs.

Watch today: Docs are done with the ban on gun violence research

Doctors are calling for Congress to end the longtime ban on the CDC conducting research on gun violence. At a press conference this morning, several advocacy groups and medical associations will present signatures from 2,000 physicians calling on Congress to lift the ban to protect public health. 

Big Tobacco is targeting its ad dollars at the poor

People in developing nations like Pakistan and Zimbabwe are bombarded with up to 81 times more tobacco ads than residents of higher-income countries like Canada and Sweden, the WHO reports today. The way the researchers got to that number is a little strange; over several years, they recorded how many tobacco ads could be seen along about a half-mile walk in a number of communities in 16 nations.  But the statistic does make intuitive sense: Tobacco ads and sales are tightly controlled in the US and Britain, which sends manufacturers flocking to countries with little regulation and a better chance at a bigger profit.

What to read around the web today

  • Queer artist launches DIY gender hormone biohacking project. Motherboard
  • Ultra-marathon runners' brains shrunk while jogging across Europe. New Scientist
  • Researchers want to wire the human body with sensors that could harvest reams of data. Nature

More reads from STAT

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