Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Happy Wednesday, everyone, and happy Morning Rounds, where I get you ahead of the day's science and medicine news. If you're hungry for more Stat scoops, follow us on Twitter and give us the thumbs up on Facebook

Must read this morning: Red alert on bioterrorism preparedness

The United States must urgently improve its ability to respond to biological threats. That's the stark takeaway from a report out this morning from a blue-ribbon panel."We're not as prepared as we think we should be to deal with threats," Tom Ridge, the panel co-chair, told me. He should know: He was the nation's first Secretary of Homeland Security. Among the threats we need to prepare for: Fast-moving contagious diseases such as Ebola and pathogens that can be used as biological weapons.

"We can't get ahead of these biological threats because they already exist," Ridge said. "But we can get ahead of the impact."The panel recommended oversight of biodefense — which Ridge says is institutionally fragmented — in the vice president's office. It also called for strengthening state and local response capabilities. And it urged a stepped-up focus on research and innovation to combat bioterrorism.

Nobel-winning parasite drug could take on malaria, too

A few weeks after its creators won the Nobel Prize, the parasitic drug ivermectin is making news again — this time because researchers have preliminary results suggesting the drug could be used to control malaria. Doses were given to residents in four Burkina Faso villages every three weeks. Since the start of the trial, there’s been about a 16 percent reduction in childhood malaria cases.

“We’re not claiming this is a magic bullet. There’s no real magic bullet for malaria control,” lead researcher Brian Foy told me. But his team is trying to prove that repeated doses of the drug during the rainy season, when mosquitoes run rampant, can reduce transmission rates. After the trial wraps in November, Foy says, they’ll work on publishing the data and then potentially run a larger, double-blinded trial. If the results hold up, ivermectin could likely be distributed for little cost, given that Merck already hands it out free to treat river blindness.

Inside Stat: Using a virus to tackle cancer

The FDA approved an unlikely cancer treatment yesterday: a virus. The modified version of the herpes virus, called Imlygic, can help kick the immune system into gear to fight tumors in advanced stage skin cancer patients. “This is huge for the whole field, and for cancer patients,” scientist John Bell of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute in Canada told Stat senior writer Bob Tedeschi. “The field is exploding, and this would be another arrow in the quiver that oncologists use.” Get the full story here.

This chart will alarm opponents of e-cigarettes

Early this morning, the CDC released new numbers showing that about 3.7 percent of adults in the US use e-cigarettes, though that varies by race and age. One number sure to get industry critics riled up: The percentage of adults who’d ever tried an e-cigarette was highest for those ages 18–24. The nation's pediatricians this week called for a ban on the sale of e-cigarettes to anyone under age 21. But in contrast, the e-cig industry might be able to tout the finding that current cigarette smokers or those who'd recently quit are more likely to pick up e-cigarettes than people who've never smoked. 

Fresh polling shows drug prices a priority

The American public puts making sure prescription drugs are affordable at the top of its health care priority list, according to a just-released poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Other highlights:

  • Despite all the debate about repealing Obamacare's "Cadillac tax" on pricey insurance plans, only 30 percent called it a top priority.

  • A huge majority — 82 percent — report seeing prescription drug ads in print or on TV. About half say those ads do a good job of describing potential benefits; nearly as many (44 percent) say they're effective at flagging side effects.

  • One concerning statistic: 42 percent say it's difficult to afford health care. That proportion jumps substantially among the uninsured and low-income populations.

If you need to go to the hospital, go to Maine

The Leapfrog Group released this year’s Hospital Safety Scores this morning: A to F grades that account for everything from hospital-acquired infections to safety measures. Maine tops the charts, with almost 70 percent of its hospitals taking home A grades for the fourth year in a row. But the news wasn't so good for D.C., Alaska, North Dakota, New Mexico, Vermont, and Wyoming, none of which had a single A-rated hospital.

Don't make me sing!

My worst nightmare is being in this situation — trapped on an airplane while the cast of a musical belts out a tune. Much to my chagrin, it turns out group singing is actually a psychologically good way for humans to bond, a new study from University of Oxford finds. 

Life sciences caucus heading to the Hill

Yesterday, a Congressional Life Science Caucus was launched by California Democratic Representative Scott Peters and New Jersey Republican Representative Leonard Lance, with the aim of bringing expert voices in the sciences to the nation's capital to inform public policy decision. The new caucus joins scores of others dedicated to everything from arthritis to blood cancers to oral health. There's even a caucus on bourbon. Keep up with the Stat DC bureau for more on life sciences news from the Hill. 

Correction: An item last week on groups selling the drug Daraprim at a cut-rate price mischaracterized the forces behind a protest aimed at preserving a federal discount drug program. The protest was led by a nonprofit foundation.

What to read around the web today

  • Why a massive study of UK babies was cancelled. Nature
  • What worries the Halloween candy lobby? Politico
  • California considers adding meat to its cancer-alert list. Reuters
  • Homeopathy might not cure what's making you sick, but it could get you drunk! Slate

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,


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