Friday, May 6, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Happy Friday! Welcome to the Morning Rounds — here's what you need to know about science and medicine today. 

STAT heads to court to unseal OxyContin docs

A Kentucky judge will hear arguments today on STAT’s motion to unseal records related to allegations the drug maker Purdue Pharma illegally marketed its opioid pain pill OxyContin. Purdue’s aggressive marketing of the potent drug has been blamed for helping to launch that decades-long scourge of opioid abuse and addiction. The first part of a deep investigation published by the LA Times yesterday digs into why the painkillers have become one of the most abused drugs in US history.

Among the documents sought by STAT is a deposition of Richard Sackler, a former president of Purdue and a member of the family that owns the privately held business. The blockbuster painkiller earned the extended Sackler family billions of dollars in profit. The company is opposing STAT's motion, arguing a judge approved the filing of the documents under seal and the media entity has no legal right to access them. STAT's motion contends there is a compelling public interest in revealing information about the marketing of OxyContin.

Scientists map the spread of a superbug

Scientists have mapped the spread of the superbug infection MRSA across Europe, pinpointing how exactly the drug-resistant bacteria is moving about the continent. New findings in mBio drew upon a network of more than 450 hospitals for patient data and bacterial samples. “We can compare all the bugs’ genomes to draw a family tree,” the study’s author, David Aanensen of the Sanger Institute, explained to me. Combining that info with the geographic information attached to each sample, the team were able to see how MRSA has spread. Aanensen said the strategy can be applied to other superbugs threatening global health, too. 

Lab Chat: The remote control that can help Parkinson's patients

Transplanted cells are controlled using a drug. (Bengt Mattsson, Lunds universitet)

Patients with Parkinson’s disease are sometimes given nerve cell transplants to improve the symptoms of the neurodegenerative condition. But those treatments can cause serious side effects such as twitches and other involuntary movements that can interfere with daily life. Now, scientists have figured out a new way to make the transplants more efficient and minimize the side effects by controlling groups of nerve cells in the brain. Here’s what lead researcher Tomas Björklund of Lunds University told me about the findings, published in the new Neuron.  

What’s the technique you developed to look at the transplanted nerve cells?

It's a type of highly selective remote control for the brain. It enables us to, from the outside with the help of a drug (taken as a pill), accurately regulate the activity of a group of nerve cells in the brain. With one drug we can increase the activity of those neurons and with another reduce the activity. We focused on controlling the specific nerve cells that control our voluntary movement. Those are the dopamine cells and are the ones that die early in Parkinson’s disease. It’s the lack of dopamine that gives rise to the most prominent symptoms of the disease, the difficulty to move.

What did you do with the remote control?

In this study we have applied this new “remote control” to regulate dopamine cells that have been transplanted to rats with an artificial form of Parkinson’s disease. Through this transplantation, we are essentially repairing the brain. But we now show that we can make these cell transplants much more efficient when we can control them and the rats are indistinguishable from normal rats when these transplants are activated. 

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Inside STAT: How the boss at the Wellcome Trust stays busy

Dr. Jeremy Farrar is a busy, busy man. The director of the Wellcome Trust — a major London-based medical charity with billions at its disposal — has been in India, Malawi, Nepal, Norway, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa just in the past six months. At a time when epidemics like Zika and Ebola loom and federal funding for public health research continues to fall, the Wellcome Trust is a sought-after resource. As director, Farrar wants to see the Wellcome Trust play a major part in developing strategies to combat antibiotic resistance, further genetic research, and participate in other scientific endeavors. “We are in the privileged position of being an independent, philanthropic organization. If we can’t act boldly and with flexibility, then who can?” he told STAT’s Helen Branswell. More here.

Discovering and decoding da Vinci's DNA

Call it 2016’s version of “The Da Vinci Code”: the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs that made up Leonardo da Vinci’s DNA. An effort called the Leonardo Project, led by a multidisciplinary group of scientists, wants to study DNA from hair, skin cells, and fingerprints thought to belong the artist. The goal is to create a genetic profile that will hopefully paint a better picture of his genealogy, appearance, and lifestyle. But that’s quite an endeavor — da Vinci died almost 500 years ago — so scientists from the J. Craig Venter Institute are painstakingly searching for viable DNA samples on the surface of privately owned da Vinci paintings. Read about the project in a special new issue of Human Evolution.

Compression socks don't help much after a blood clot

Wearing special compression stockings doesn’t help reduce symptoms for patients who’ve had blood clots in their legs, finds new research in the Lancet Haematology. About half of people who develop blood clots in the deep veins of their legs develop pain, swelling, and sores in the leg with the clot. Compression stockings — which are supposed to push fluid higher in the leg to stop swelling in the calf — are often given to those patients. But in a new meta-analysis of hundreds of studies on elastic compression stockings, researchers say there’s no evidence they significantly reduce the risk of post-clot problems.

This device could help the legally blind read

A tiny camera that can recognize characters could help legally blind people read. The device attaches to the glasses of patients who suffer from age-related macular degeneration, which can cause serious sight problems and affects about 1.8 million people in the US over age 50. The device’s developers ran tests on 12 participants who, on average, were 62 years old and had 20/200 vision in their better eye with glasses. They each tested the device for a week, and all 12 found their ability to read off a tablet, smartphone, or book was significantly improved. Read about the device in the new JAMA Ophthalmology.

Doctors describe liver damage from a surprising source

Doctors have noted the first case of a traumatic liver injury tied to a surprising sport — paintball. In BMJ Case Reports, physicians describe a teenage boy who had extensive bleeding in the liver after being hit twice by paintballs, which travel, on average, 91 meters per second when fired out of a gun. Previously, concerns over paintballing have been about eye injuries or injuries sustained when players weren’t wearing protective gear. The issue has some other strange patient stories, too — read here.

What to read around the web today

  • Why the weight loss study everyone has been sharing is misleading. Washington Post
  • Women are the invisible victims of PTSD. Motherboard

More reads from STAT

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