Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Eating fish is good for you and bad for you at the same time. Omega-3 fatty acids are brain food for fetuses, babies and children, and they promote cardiovascular health in adults. But fish also are contaminated with mercury, a toxin which interferes with the development of the nervous system in those same fetuses and babies. I wrote about the science behind a controversy brewing between two federal agencies that regulate fish for consumption -- the FDA and the EPA -- in a two-part article for the Los Angeles Times.

After carbon dioxide, methane is the second biggest contributor to the greenhouse gases involved in global warming. A new natural source of methane was identified by a monitoring station in Greenland during freeze-up in the fall of 2007. Results were published in Nature earlier this month and I interviewed the lead author, Torbin Christensen of Sweden, about the story behind the story (subscription only) for Nature's Authors Page.

Friday, December 19, 2008

I wrote about the movement towards broader testing for HIV for the Los Angeles Times. In the past, the test was only offered to people in high-risk groups, such as i.v. drug users and gay men. Now, everyone between the ages of 13 and 65 should be screened, says the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Age 13, you say? So did I, as the mom of a 12-year-old. Think of it as a necessary education in today's world. AIDS isn't going away soon, and as teens contemplate their sexuality and parents do their best to talk to their teens, a doctor saying, let's test for cholesterol and HIV, will drive that point home.

For the Author's Page at Nature (subscription only), I profiled Barry Trost, a medicinal chemist who found a shortcut to a complex chemical structure -- one that may pave the way for new anti-tumor drugs. Trost believes chemistry and development of synthetic tools is the key to improving the quality and the diversity of leads pursued by the pharmaceutical industry.
Can people be vaccinated against high blood pressure? I wrote about two companies that think it's a viable therapy for Nature Biotechnology (subscription only). The vaccine stimulates the body to make antibodies against angiotensin -- a circulating hormone that tightens blood vessels -- and the target of most current antihypertensive medications. Early results in small studies have shown the vaccine to be safe and to have some efficacy. However, the products are up against two hurdles: showing they work better than standard treatments and overcoming physician skittishness about biologic products (as opposed to traditional pharmaceuticals).

One group of doctors who are very comfortable with biologics are rheumatologists. A biologic drug that has offered real hope for people suffering rheumatoid arthritis is infliximab (Remicade®), which is an antibody against an inflammatory mediator called tumor necrosis factor or TNF. I covered the Janssen Award symposium for the New York Academy of Sciences (subscription only) honoring the drug's inventors, Marc Feldmann and Ravinder Maini of Imperial College London. Their first success was reported in 1993 in a small study of 20 patients, whom Maini described described as “train wrecks—severely disabled people who had been through the gamut of therapies with no hope of benefit.”

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Is one city really "healthier" than another? After Burlington VT made news by being called the healthiest city in the US, I explored city rankings in general, and the basis for Burlington's honor specifically, for the LA Times . Another thing? All the cities in a top ten list are likely to be equivalent -- in other words, #10 (and maybe even #25) is not measurably different from #1.

Two weeks ago, I looked into the issue of drinking during pregnancy for the LA Times. No one disputes the damaging effects on the baby, called fetal alcohol syndrome, when a pregnant mom drinks a lot. What's not known is where the threshold lies between total abstinence and dangerous drunkenness. A recent study may help doctors reassure women who imbibe every once in a while, and have that reassurance be based on scientific evidence.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

I explored a rather grim topic for the LA Times Health section -- whether suicide might increase as the economy falls. Two recent deaths in Los Angeles were seemingly triggered by large financial losses (in one case) and home foreclosure (in the other). In fact, people rarely, if ever, commit suicide over one bad event. Studies have shown that some 90% of suicides occur in people with mental disorders (which makes them preventable by treating mental illness).

I told a scientist's story on the Nature (subscription only). While studying a factor involved in immunity, Peter Creswell discovered one pathogen -- food-borne Listeria -- that turns the factor into a traitor, benefitting bug over host.

For Skidmore's alumni magazine, I found out why seven alums work in the same office at NYU Langone Medical Center. One of them, boss Andrew Rubin, has found Skidmore grads to be his best source of motivated, ambitious employees. By recruiting at Skidmore, Rubin has also found a way to give back to his alma mater.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

My LA Times article this week considered the science behind the claim that energy drinks, packed with caffeine, sugar, and supposedly active botanicals, might lead to substance abuse. The so-called gateway hypothesis says that certain "soft" drugs such as marijuana or alcohol are stepping stones to using harder and more addictive drugs. Energy drinks, such as Red Bull, Wired, Boo-Koo, and Fixx, have been linked to drinking more booze and to abusing prescription stimulants such as Ritalin.

I also have a short article in Parenting magazine about finding math in everyday children's activities, everything from playing tea party and building block towers to singing the ABC’s and putting away toys. Most of us think of math as counting and addition tables -- what educators call "math facts" -- but that’s not all it is. Concepts such as sequencing, categorizing, and patterns lay the groundwork for much of the math that kids will encounter in school.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

For the Authors page of Nature this week (by subscription only), I profiled Gerard Evan of the University of California San Francisco who has a research paper in the same issue. Evan shared the story behind the research -- about an anti-cancer mechanism which was too good to be true -- giving credit to a postdoctoral fellow in his lab who had a cool tool and the initiative to apply it.

I wrote several articles for Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Medicine, which included profiles of new faculty members, a patent for screening new vaccines, and a new NIH-funded center for research on allergic diseases. A back-page story featured two researchers who collaborate on campus, but took time off this summer to explore different paths: one hiked across England, the other biked across America.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Tainted Chinese infant formula has sickened thousands of babies and is blamed for four deaths in China. Could it happen here? My article in the LA Times says 'no, but...' Baby formula has been deemed safe, but FDA investigators are scouring the shelves of Asian food markets for illegal imports. New concerns are cropping up about other foods that may contain powdered milk products, such as coffee creamers, baking mixes, and frozen desserts.

The University at Albany has a new slogan and with it a new push to accentuate those areas in which it excels. I wrote a couple articles in the fall issue of the alumni magazine about two of these areas: Modern Vision and Life-Enhancing Research. I profiled the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering and some of the research being done in the new Life Sciences Building.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I've got an article in today's LA Times about a Supreme Court case that has the potential to radically change the way drug liability is handled in the US. Now, an individual who has been harmed by taking a pharmaceutical product can sue the company who made the product for damages. If the Supreme Court rules that drug makers' liability ends when a drug (and its label) is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, consumers will have no such legal recourse.

I also wrote about mental health research and practice at Binghamton University (not online). The practice side told of a new psychiatric nurse practitioner program at the school to address the rising need for mental health care in today's society. In addition, the State of New York hopes that nurses trained in the rural Southern Tier of the state -- where the need is particularly acute-- will set up practice in the region.

Monday, September 1, 2008

I wrote about medical marijuana for the LA Times last month. I started with those effects that have been touted as good (anti-pain, anti-nausea, muscle relaxant, appetite stimulant) and those that are deemed bad (addiction, risks to mental health, lung damage) and dug up the best scientific studies on each. The advocates are in there as well, with valid points to make on a topic that's been debated for decades. A new delivery system uses a vaporizer rather than smoking joints.

I also wrote an essay for the Washington Post about my experience in adult gymnastics class -- and the memories it inspired of my teenage years as a competitive gymnast.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Two articles out this week had me writing about research in foreign lands and foreign plants in the wilds of the Adirondacks.

I wrote the annual piece about scientific research careers in Europe for Science. The European Union has recommended that member countries strive to invest 3% of their gross domestic products on research and development. My article focused on two giants, Germany and the UK, an up-and-comer, Spain, and a fading glory, Italy. None are at 3% yet. I reported on new funding initiatives, new research centers, and other strategies to attract and keep researchers -- both homegrown and from abroad.

For Plenty magazine's website, I wrote about a program that trains volunteers in the Adirondacks, residents and summer folk alike, to survey lakes and ponds for invasive plants. Writing from the perspective of a participant (I plan to survey three bodies of water this summer), I described the challenge of positively identifying the bad plants from the good -- most of the problem plants have look-alike native cousins. If I can find them early, before they're well established, it increases the chances of eradication.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Translational research was the focus of a feature I wrote for Nature Reviews Drug Discovery (you have to register, but it's free for now). New funding in the UK and the US is meant to build the infrastructure to support the human experimental work necessary to "translate" promising basic research into medical practice. That infrastructure is less about facilities and more about career structure that rewards teamwork and sharing the cost burdens of clinical research.

For Nature, I reported on a diversity in science program at the University of North Carolina that's unusual in two ways: it's been around for 30 years and it supports postdoctoral fellows rather than graduate students. The program's express intent is to groom postdocs for academic research positions, to help universities (especially those in North Carolina) diversify their faculties.

Friday, May 9, 2008

This week I wrote about new treatment options for enlarged prostate, called benign prostatic hyperplasia, for the LA Times, including recent evidence that Viagra and Botox can help. If new drugs -- or new uses for old drugs -- isn't enough for you, check out the related shorts on advances in surgery, lifestyle factors, and herbal medicines, namely saw palmetto. In addition to researching the literature, I learned that urologists are funny. Unfortunately, some of their juicier quotes weren't appropriate for a newspaper audience.

Friday, April 25, 2008

I profiled Marja Makarow, a Finnish scientist who is now leading the European Science Foundation, for Nature. In doing so I learned the word sisu. It refers to a Finnish personality trait -- think resiliency -- that means "the ability to move through stone." Makarow has it. Shouldn't everyone who works in policy?

I wrote several articles for a Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine newsletter. I profiled six "new recruits" for the Dean's Discovery Report (click Spring 08 for PDF), including Steve Negus, a drug abuse researcher I know from my scientist days. I wrote the "patent spotlight," about a chemist who makes marijuana-like compounds and has brought in more licensing revenue to the university than anyone else. And I wrote the "back page," about a faculty member who was once an auto mechanic and now restores vintage cars.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

I profiled Dave Tapolczay, the new chief of technology transfer at the UK's Medical Research Council (MRC), for Nature. This is no small shakes, as licensing revenue from MRC intellectual property ran to $92 million last year, and start-up companies based on ideas developed by MRC-supported scientists the (17 in the last two decades) create both jobs and revenue for the country.

I covered a symposium on predictive toxicology, diagnostics, and personalized medicine, all under the rubric of Toxicogenomics for the New York Academy of Sciences. The symposium was fascinating, with five speakers covering a wide array of practical applications of human genetics. For example, using a genetic marker to predict which patients will suffer a serious side effect -- even so-called idiosyncratic ones -- after taking a pharmaceutical. Also in breast cancer patients , predicting who will benefit from chemotherapy and who will not -- and therefore shouldn't be subjected to its side effects. Unfortunately for you NYAS nonmembers, you can only view the opening screen of the web presentation (the e-briefing).

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

I wrote about artificial sweeteners for the LA Times Health section. My article was a follow-up to a widely reported study in rats that found aspartame-eating rats ate more food and gained more weight than sucrose-eating rats. The study's authors say it's Pavlovian conditioning, a topic near and dear to my heart. I talked to researchers who study obesity in humans for their take on the study and how it might--or might not--apply to us.

I profiled the new head of a new academic consortium in Scotland for Nature. Mike Tyers moved from Canada to lead the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance (SULSA), one of several "pooling" initiatives whereby the universities and the Scottish government fund new research positions and core facilities to foster collaborative research.

Friday, March 7, 2008

I wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times that digs a little deeper into the science of influenza and the flu vaccine. After hearing about the new recommendations for vaccinating all US children for flu every year, as proposed by an advisory panel at the Centers for Disease Control, I wondered, who really dies from flu? As a parent, do I have to worry about this for my relatively healthy kids? I was assigned to write A Closer Look, a column that regularly takes a look at the facts and opinions about topics in the news. With epidemiology -- the main science here -- estimates substitute for facts and opinions are mixed.

I have another careers piece in Science, about drug discovery and development called A Complex Team Sport . It's an overview of what kind of skills and mindset are best suited for a job in drug discovery and development, and what's needed to get hired. Typically these careers are in the pharmaceutical industry, but I also included some government and university programs that train and hire scientists.

Monday, February 11, 2008

My favorite article of the week is Nurturing Women Scientists for Science magazine. It's about institutional efforts to increase the numbers of women in science in both academia and industry. What used to be a pipeline problem (fewer women with science degrees) has become a hiring and retention problem. Women in science is a perennial feature for the magazine and I've read many of them over the years. I was pleased to have the opportunity to write it.

I profiled Sir Leszek Borysiewicz a couple weeks ago in Nature. He's the new head of the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom (analogous to the US National Institutes of Health).

I covered a scientific conference on Inflammation in the Central Nervous System for the New York Academy of Sciences about the double-edge nature of the immune system. With very different examples, the three speakers described how therapies targeting immune function produce problematic effects, secondary consequences of tinkering with a very complex system. (Only the introductory page is accessible to nonmembers.)

I wrote two stories for my local newsweekly, the Spotlight. One piece was about online dating (but it's not available online!). It was part of a package on finding love; the reporter I partnered with, Jennifer Farnsworth, wrote about speed dating and other offline ways to meet people. A second piece profiled a military catholic boys school here in Albany: the Christian Brothers Academy. I spoke to Brother Aloysius who has work at the school for 50 years (talk about perspective).