Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In March, I wrote about prostate cancer for the Los Angeles Times, after radio talk show host Don Imus announced he had the disease. Two large studies found that screening for the cancer has had a negligible effect on how many men die from the disease. Rather, more men are getting tests and treatments that may expose them to more harm than the disease itself. One big problem is doctors' inability to determine which prostate cancers will morph into killers and which will remain harmless. One doctor I talked to put it this way, "Prostate cancer is like the cat family. You have house cats and you have tigers."

I wrote several stories for the spring 2009 issue of the Dean's Discovery Report, a biannual newsletter that features faculty researchers and new facilities and centers at the medical school campus of Virginia Commonwealth University.

In the April issue of Nature Biotechnology (subscription only), I reported on a new medicine approved for the treatment of gout -- Uloric (febuxostat) -- the first in 40 years. Three more new drugs are moving through clinical trials and drug-makers are hopeful about their approval by the FDA. The new drugs offer more choices to the limited options doctors have had for decades. And gout, yet another disease of our overconsumptive sedentary lifestyle, is on the rise.

(Image by 19th century caricaturist James Gillray.)

Monday, June 8, 2009

I wrote a couple more scientist profiles for the scientific journal Nature. Neuroscientist Leopoldo Petreanu published a paper describing a new technique for mapping neuronal connections in the brain (story by subscription). And Luke Harmon did a laboratory experiment modeling how different fish species can influence pond ecosystems (story by subscription). Both stories carry an element of surprise and seredipity, as is so often the case in science. In Petreanu's case, early experiments were useless because all the neurons were lighting up -- until he figured out a way to isolate only functional connections between neurons. In Harmon's case, early experiments clearly showed the effects of different fishes -- but a pattern of effects only emerged when researchers measured the physical properties of the water, such as light penetration and dissolved organic matter.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times about last year’s outbreaks of two childhood diseases — Hib and measles — that are generally considered vanquished in the US. Scientists say that clusters of unvaccinated children in certain communities may give rise to more outbreaks. Fear of autism may be one reason why parents opt-out of vaccinating their children, but also today’s parents haven’t witnessed these diseases, and how severe they can be. Hib used to be the most common cause of bacterial meningitis and killed some 1,000 children each year.

Another LA Times story focused on a move by the FDA to put a black box warning on metoclopramide, a drug that stimulates stomach digestion. The reason? Metoclopramide can cause tardive dyskinesia, a neurological disorder that can be irreversible.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Moving on to February...

I reported on a new study ranking antidepressant drugs for the Los Angeles Times. Researchers compiled data from more than 100 clinical trials and concluded that two antidepressants -- Zoloft and Lexapro -- bested the rest. Another study found that antidepressants were largely equivalent in their therapeutic effect. More damning is a third study that used internal FDA documents to prove that published studies exaggerate the benefits of antidepressants by publishing only those trials with positive results. The take home message (and my favorite quote, thanks to UCLA psychiatrist Lon Schneider): "They may be comparing a relatively ineffective drug with another relatively ineffective drug."

In Nature (access limited to subscribers), I profiled ecologist Simon Lewis, who has studied tropical forests in Africa and thinks that they absorb and store more carbon dioxide than has ever been realized -- enough to affect atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gas. In a recent study, Lewis used data collected by the forest service of a number of African countries to monitor the growth of forest trees over four decades.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I've fallen terribly behind on posting my stories. Here's my first effort at catching up.

I wrote about genetically engineered animals for the Los Angeles Times in January, soon after the US Food and Drug Administration decided how they should be regulated. Essentially, these are farm animals to be raised for food or to produce biologic drugs. The engineering of genes are a high-tech way of breeding animals with certain desirable traits, such as fast-growing salmon that reach market weight much faster or pigs that make heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids -- nutrients not usually found in pork. My Q&A article explains how genetic engineering is done, what products are under development, and what exactly the FDA will regulate -- and what it won't.

For Nature (subscription only), I profiled German scientist Marcel Kuypers, who discovered a new dynamic among gases, bacteria, and fishes in deep ocean waters. When oxygen levels drop -- as they do with algal blooms -- hydrogen sulphide levels can rise, poisoning fish and crustaceans in the vicinity. In Nambia, where the discovery was made, natives have long known that the smell of rotting eggs means that lobsters will congregate on the beach. Kuypers measured high sulphide in the absence of any surface smell or discoloration, and further analysis of his samples showed that unusual bacteria were feeding on the sulphide and thereby shielding it from animals that live in the surface waters, as well as from human detection. His finding suggests that sulphidic events are probably much more common and widespread than previously thought.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Here's a word cloud of my blog posts, thanks to Wordle. The bigger words are the ones I use more frequently...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Can you avoid exposure to cold and flu germs? What preventative measures really help? Such a simple question prompts a very complicated answer from science -- mostly because it's not clear how the viruses travel from one person to the next. One paper I read while researching my two-part story for the Los Angeles Times was entitled: "Rhinovirus transmission: One if by air, two if by hand."

In another story for the Los Angeles Times, I wrote about some rare but serious side effects linked to the osteoporosis drug, Fosamax.

For Nature (subscription only), I profiled a scientist who studies AIDS vaccines in animal models. Dan Barouch was in the midst of a three-year long study in monkeys when an important human vaccine trial was called off because it wasn't working. Barouch's vaccine was of a similar type (based on an adenovirus), but his method was different enough that he stuck with his experiment -- to a positive end. While much remains to be learned about vaccinating against HIV, this work shows that the regimen is as important as the vaccine itself.