Friday, November 4, 2011

When there's just one cancer drug left to try and you're stuck on the waiting list -- my Los Angeles Times story on drug shortages.

Northe Olague has lived with ovarian cancer six-plus years, with the help of surgery and multiple chemotherapeutic regimens. Earlier this year, tests indicated that her cancer was growing again. Her doctor recommended Doxil, but by the time she was scheduled for treatment, she learned that the drug was unavailable.

Olague: "I was in disbelief."

Oncologist Michael Link, who leads the largest professional organization of cancer care providers: “It’s unfathomable.”

The drug’s maker, Johnson & Johnson, says the shortage was initially caused by production line problems.  The worldwide supply of the drug is made at a single Ohio plant.  Other chemotherapeutic drugs are also in short supply for various reasons, including supply chain economics and doctors' incentives to prescribe pricey brand-name drugs.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

My Los Angeles Times article on antibiotic use in agriculture received some outside attention. 

Chris Lindsay of the Critical Wit podcast interviewed me about this and other recent work here

And I commented on the issue for This Week in Earth here
Antibiotic use in agriculture can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria and those bacteria can infect humans.  A new study gave me chance to dig into the issue for the Los Angeles Times.

The study found that the meat you buy at the grocery store is as likely as not to be contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, according to researchers who sampled 26 grocery stores in five US cities.  Yep, that’s a 50-50 chance.  Worse, the staph is likely to be resistant to at least one antibiotic drug. 

Farmers who raise food animals can buy feed with antibiotics in them -- the same drugs (or close enough) that are used as medicines in people.  It’s perfectly legal and easy -- no veterinarian to sign off, just money to buy the food.  A whole host of big name organizations -- the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association to name a few -- condemn this practice and yet it continues.

Photo credit: jon smith photography via Flickr Creative Commons

Thursday, September 15, 2011

In my past life, I was a scientist who studied how contextual cues influenced drug action. I published papers in many scientific journals, although never this one: Physiology & Behavior.

In my present life, I’m a journalist who was invited to write for the same journal about anabolic steroids. Steroids are not usually considered drugs of abuse and society’s regulations on their use are quite different than illegal drugs. In a piece the editors were compelled to label “opinion” -- mostly because it did not contain primary data -- I reported on a real-life case study on how the internet aids the misuse of anabolic steroids.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Are artificial food dyes harmless fun? Or do they make kids bounce off the walls? I explored the science behind these contradictory claims for the Los Angeles Times after an FDA advisory panel decided against warning labels for artificially colored foods. Many studies find behavioral effects of food dyes in kids, but they are too small and too variable to act upon.

One thing is for sure -- no harm in avoiding them. As nutrition researcher Laura Stevens says, “One thing about the food dyes, I don’t know of any nutritious foods that they’re in.”

Photo credit: Mouzzy via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Biologic understanding of the hair follicle, the mini-organ that produces the shafts of keratin we call hair, has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last ten years. Now a handful of biotechnology companies are trying to translate this new knowledge into viable treatments for male pattern baldness and other types of hair loss.

I wrote about the new approaches for Nature Biotechnology (access limited to subscribers), which use cell-based therapies and topical drug cocktails designed to stimulate epidermal stem cells to create new follicles. Hair loss afflicts men, women, and children as a result of aging, disease, and medical treatments. The men's market is so huge, one researcher told me, “It’s mind-boggling.”

Monday, June 13, 2011

Screening for cancer makes so much sense. Find the cancer early -- before symptoms show and tumors have grown and cancer has spread -- and have better chance of survival. However, in practice this is not always so. I wrote about an 18-year study in nearly 80,000 women found no benefit of screening for ovarian cancer for the Los Angeles Times. The lack of benefit couldn't have been more clear: no reductions in deaths, no finding cancers at earlier stages.

Monday, April 4, 2011

For the Los Angeles Times, I wrote about a provocative study out of the Netherlands says that more than 60% of kids diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) might be helped by changes in their diet. The study was significant because it did not exclude kids with known allergies or allergy-related conditions, such as eczema and asthma. And yet, doctors in the US are not exactly jumping on the bandwagon and suggesting dietary overhauls for their patients. (Neither are they doing so in Holland, say the study's author Lidy Pelsser.) The docs I talked to all agreed that there may be dietary triggers in some kids and if parents asked, they would help them plan a dietary intervention. But none were going to suggest trying diet before drugs unless asked.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Last summer I worked on writing an e-book entitle Essentials of Cell Biology for Nature Education, in collaboration with Clare O'Connor, a biology professor at Boston College.

I think cell biology is an acquired taste, personally. I was never particularly interested in it when I was a graduate student or a researcher. But later, when I started my writing career, I often covered cell biology topics and research trends for The Scientist. I was intrigued -- I mean, cells have to take out their own garbage! Soon I was reading Lewis Thomas and I knew I was smitten.

I learned lots of fun facts while working on the e-book. For those of you who know this workflow: DNA to RNA to protein, did you know that it happens thousands of times each second in every cell? Cell biology blows me away.

Monday, February 28, 2011

For February -- American Heart Month -- I reviewed the latest American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines for heart health for the Los Angeles Times. The AHA has boiled their advice down to seven things: some are straight numbers (blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose) and some are behaviors (not smoking, diet, and exercise) and one is a little bit of both (maintain a healthy weight).

Easy to understand, seemingly easy to do, and yet surveys say that only 1% of Americans actually hit all seven criteria.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Last year I wrote about two brothers who are developing a better epi-pen -- one that's smaller and easier to carry, has a retractable needle, and has clearer label instructions. Eric and Evan Edwards both have life-threatening allergies and they started work on their device when they were still in college. Now they have a patent on their invention in partnership with Virginia Commonwealth University, where Eric is on leave from the medical school. The story can be found here in the Spring 2010 Dean's Discovery Report.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A new study says less is more in breast cancer treatment. I wrote about this counterintuitive finding for the Los Angeles Times. In women with small tumors and signs of lymph node invasion, it turns out that surgically removing cancer-containing lymph nodes from under the arm makes no difference in a woman's survival. Breast cancer experts say this shift in strategy has been a long time coming.

Why wouldn't cutting out cancer help? It's because by the time cancer shows up in lymph nodes, it's proof of escape from the initial tumor site, and many routes are open to spreading cancer cells including the blood and the lymph. "You can't cure metastatic disease with a scalpel," says UCLA's John Glaspy.