Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Good morning, folks! Here's what you need to know about health and medicine today. 

Announcing the winners of this year's Lasker Awards

The winners of the prestigious Lasker Awards are out this morning, with $250,000 going to each of the three categories for awardees' work in medical and clinical research. One of the three awards goes to two virologists — Ralf Bartenschlager of the University of Heidelberg and Charles M. Rice of Rockefeller University — and Michael Sofia, an industry scientist, for the innovations that led to the hepatitis C drug now sold as Sovaldi.

There’s also a prize going to a team of researchers from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Francis Crick Institute for their discovery of how human cells sense and adapt to changes in oxygen availability. Rounding out the winners' list is Bruce Alberts, a UCSF biochemist being honored both for his extensive work on DNA replication and his leadership in the science and education communities. For the backstory on how the hepatitis C innovation came to be, read this

Why basketball coaches are talking cancer on the Hill

Cancer patients and survivors are descending on Capitol Hill this week to talk about making cancer research and prevention a national priority. They’ll be joined by unlikely counterparts: college basketball coaches. Coaches from UCLA, Brown, and Georgia State will meet with members of Congress this morning as part of a collaboration dubbed Coaches vs. Cancer. It’s part of a bigger lobbying effort to get federal lawmakers to bump up research funding for the National Cancer Institute by passing the 21st Century Cures legislation. They’re also calling on lawmakers to approve a bill to increase access to palliative care for patients with serious illness.

Lab Chat: How bacterial engines push gut bugs to grow

The type of engine powering bacteria helps dictate how they behave. A new study finds that bacteria tend to take one of two strategies — growing fast, or growing slowly and more efficiently — and that difference is reflected in their genes. Here’s what lead researcher and microbiologist Tom Schmidt of the University of Michigan told me about the findings, published in Nature Microbiology.

What did you set out to understand?

In bacteria, there’s one copy of most every gene. But the genes that encode the ribosomal RNA [are different] — some bacteria have just one copy, but some have as many as 15. That was the underlying observation. In this sea of single-copy genes, why do some bacteria have 15 ribosomal RNA genes? 

What did you discover?

We’ve had an indication that having multiple copies allows a bacterium to respond quickly to change, to respond quickly and grow quickly. But we looked at the other side of the spectrum, to those bacteria that have just one or a few copies, and saw that their strategy seems to be not to grow quickly but efficiently. There’s an inherent trade-off for bacteria like the trade-off when you build an engine. You can get a lot of horsepower, or you can get a lot of miles per gallon.

What does that tell us about different types of bacteria?

It’s a feature of the genome that can predict the lifestyle of a bacteria. So bacteria like salmonella, Clostridium difficile, the bacteria that invade — those are weedy species that have lots of copies of the ribosomal RNA gene. That’s because they have to sense their new environment, the gut, and then respond and grow quickly. This gives us a handle on the different methods bacteria are using.

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Inside STAT: Biotech's richest, most secretive startup

Stéphane Bancel, ceo of moderna therapeutics. (ARAM BOGHOSIAN FOR STAT)

Biotech company Moderna Therapeutics has ambitious goals to revolutionize medicine — with a handy $1.5 billion in cash to make that happen. But there's been a years-long exodus of top talent from the company. There are signs that the research driving the company may have run into hurdles, while former employees say management has prioritized fundraising over progressing the science.  STAT's Damian Garde spoke to more than 20 current and former employees at the secretive startup to get a better idea of what's played into Moderna's unprecedented rise — and and what its future might look like. Read the special report here.

How a monkey typing Shakespeare helps brain science

love looks not with the eyes, but with this monkey's mind. (paul nuyujukian)

To type or not to type? A monkey hooked up to brain-sensing technology and armed with Cliff's notes for Shakespeare has answered that question. Electrical engineers at Stanford are working to refine their technology that allows brain signals to direct a cursor flashing over a keyboard. In a new study testing the technology, monkeys were able to transcribe passages from Hamlet and the New York Times as fast as 12 word per minute, just by using their brains to signal to implanted sensors what letters they wanted to press. That'd be an easier task for humans than it was for the monkeys; they had to be trained on how to recognize the letters and spell out the phrases before testing the tech. Previous research showed the technique could work in humans, but the typing was much slower and less accurate. They're hopeful that continuing to hone the technology will one day make it useful for paralyzed individuals looking for a new way to communicate. 

Spiking costs for infections from tainted water systems

Health care costs for bacterial infections tied to contaminated water systems are on the rise, according to a new study published in the Journal of Public Health Policy. Researchers at Tufts scanned through 100 million Medicare records of adults age 65 and older for data on infections tied to bacteria like Legionella often found in plumbing. Those infections cost the Medicare system an average of $600 million a year between 1991 and 2006, with the costs continuing to rise each year.

Further exacerbating the issue: The burgeoning threat of antibiotic resistance. Between one and two percent of hospitalizations for the infections showed evidence of resistance, and those patients cost between 10 and 40 percent more than patients with non-resistant infections. The study’s authors suggest that policymakers and researchers should come together to pinpoint public health interventions that could reduce the risk of infections caused by bacteria in plumbing.

What students are saying about sex ed classes

A new analysis of sex education paints a bleak picture of how teachers are talking to adolescents about sex. Researchers scanned through the results of 55 studies in a handful of countries that surveyed students about their experience with sex ed between 1990 and 2015. There were some common, if not surprising, themes that cropped up: an emphasis on abstinence and a feeling that the curriculum was out of touch with student experiences. “Schools appear to struggle to accept that some young people are sexually active,” the paper concludes. Students also reported their teachers seemed embarrassed or ill-equipped to teach the subject; some said they’d prefer to have the classes taught by outside sexual health professionals. The research will be published in BMJ Open

What to read around the web today

More reads from STAT

  • How to evaluate health disclosures from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. 
  • The sugar industry secretly paid for favorable Harvard research in the 1960s. 
  • Want to keep healthy on the campaign trail? Good luck, say political veterans. 

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