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Friday, November 11, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Welcome to Friday, folks. Here's what you need to know about the world of health today. For more STAT stories, like us on Facebook

DEA cracks down on synthetic opioid 

Come Monday, the Drug Enforcement Administration will ban a synthetic opioid called U-47700, often dubbed "pink." There have been 46 deaths in the US in the past two years in which the drug is a confirmed cause. That doesn't include the recent deaths of two 13-year-olds in Utah, reported to be linked to the drug. The agency has the authority to ban drugs for two or three years if they determine that those drugs pose "an imminent hazard to the public safety." Pink is just one of many synthetic drugs the DEA is trying to grapple with. “We’re seeing new ones every week, or at least every month. We’ve identified over 400 designer synthetic drugs in the last five or six years,” says Rusty Payne, a DEA spokesperson. More on the ban from STAT's Eric Boodman here

Measles cases plague Nigerian displacement camps

Health clinics in camps for internally displaced people in Nigeria have been seeing a rising number of measles cases, with 744 suspected cases and two deaths in those camps in September and October. Most of those cases occurred in kids under age 5 who hadn’t been vaccinated against measles. The WHO says measles vaccination rates are quite low in the camps and that there’s a significant risk of an outbreak among residents. Nigeria’s health ministry is carrying out a campaign to get health care to more than 75,000 kids in those camps, including much-needed measles and polio vaccines.

Though measles has been wiped from the Western hemisphere, the infectious disease killed about 134,000 children in the rest of the world in 2015, according to new numbers out from the CDC this week. Six countries — Nigeria, along with Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan — are home to more than half of the 20 million infants who missed their measles vaccinations in 2015. Those same countries account for 75 percent of all measles deaths.

World's tiniest microscope, meet a smart toilet

illustration of nanophotonics at work or a still from an episode of jimmy neutron?
(NanoPhotonics Cambridge / Bart deNijs)

Scientists have used gold nanoparticles to create the world's tiniest microscope — so minuscule that just a single molecule can fit inside. The cavity consists of a tiny, atom-sized bump in a bit of gold that confines light to less than a billionth of a meter in length. Now, the researchers are looking into the same idea —trapping light between tiny gaps in nanoparticles — as a way to pick up on small numbers of biomolecules in the body. One idea they're working on: an intelligent toilet. 

"We have shown that we can measure simultaneously in a few seconds the levels of a number of neurotransmitters in your urine," study author Jeremy Baumberg of University of Cambridge tells me. That's something that has previously only been possible in a hospital setting. "Our aim is to translate this to personal healthcare in the home, for instance being able to suggest when people with mental disorders should consider medication," Baumberg says. 

Sponsor content by astrazeneca

Scientists usher in a new era of cancer research

Immuno-oncology is currently among the most discussed topics in cancer research, and anti-PD-L1/PD-1 antibodies are driving the conversation as some of the most unique anti-cancer therapeutic approaches. But many remain unaware of the science behind this class of treatments that could bring hope to patients facing deadly cancers. Click to learn how they work.

Inside STAT: The emotional toll of planning for old age

(Mike reddy for stat)

Many baby boomers have guided their parents through old age or are currently doing so. They've seen how demanding, heartbreaking, and expensive it can be. One in five boomers is childless, and more are single or divorced than in generations past. And now, they find themselves planning for their own final years. STAT contributor Jane Gross is approaching her 70th birthday — and with it, she's started the process of considering a move to a continuing care retirement community. "Imagining life at 80 and beyond is not for the faint of heart," Gross says. "But leaving it to chance is asking for trouble." Read her poignant take on planning for old age here

Lab Chat: New work on the sticky science of amyloids

Amyloids — clumps of proteins that copy and stick together — have been tied to devastating diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But could they be a therapy as well? Most human proteins contain sequences to form amyloids, and when proteins assume that configuration they become inactive — leading some researchers to investigate amyloids as treatment. Here’s what study author Joost Schymkowit of University of Leuven told me about the findings, published in Science.

What did the amyloid you designed target?

[We designed a synthetic amyloid called] vascin, which goes after a well-known cancer target. In short, vascin penetrates a cell, and induces the formation of protein aggregates of its target protein, VEGFR2. These ‘clumps’ are the result of VEGFR2 protein that started sticking together, making it nonfunctional. Because VEGFR2 is crucial to the survival of certain cancer types, its inactivation kills the cancer cells and stops the tumor’s growth.

What's the significance of being able to do that? 

One could compare it to catching tumors in a spider’s web. By artificially imitating the formation of protein clumps, we can inhibit molecules that play a central role in several diseases. Because these principles apply to virtually any protein, our approach may not only be useful in developing future cancer therapies, but also in treating drug-resistant infections. 

New committee launches to advise UN on rare diseases

A new committee set to advise the United Nations on rare diseases launches today. The committee aims to bolster awareness of rare diseases as a global policy, research, and health care priority. It will also put a spotlight on the unmet needs of rare disease patients and their caregivers. Specifically, some advocacy groups would like to see the UN put progress on rare diseases on its list of Sustainable Development Goals. To get that done, the international committee is tasked with bringing together NGOs from across the globe to tackle the more than 6,000 known rare diseases.

"Nearly 95 percent of rare diseases have no treatment. Individuals with rare diseases also still struggle to find an accurate diagnosis, specialists to treat them, and appropriate care for their disease," says Paul Melmeyer of the National Organization for Rare Disorders. "These problems are only exacerbated in the developing world," he adds. But Melmeyer tells me he's hopeful the committee will help change that.  The launch is being honored with an event today featuring leaders from the UN and the rare disease community.

Mental health tied to length of hospital stay for kids

Mental health conditions like anxiety, ADHD, and depression can impact a child’s care while hospitalized, finds a new study out in Pediatrics. Researchers scoured data from 670,000 hospitalizations of children across the country. In particular, they observed mental illness had an impact on length of stay after nine surgical procedures, including appendectomy, gall bladder removal, and knee surgery. Having one mental health condition translated to one additional day in the hospital for about 61 percent of kids undergoing those procedures. The impact of mental health on hospital stays varied depending on a child’s age, a difference that’s likely due to a higher prevalence of mental illness as children age. The study’s authors estimate that those lengthier stays totaled nearly 32,000 additional days in the hospital in 2012, which run up an extra $90 million in health care costs.

What to read around the web today

  • Cigarette smoking in the US continues to fall. NPR
  • Inside the global effort to eradicate polio. Los Angeles Times
  • Trump presidency could provide a salve for pharma merger deals. Reuters

More reads from STAT

Thanks for reading! Have a great weekend, 

Megan

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