RECENT POSTS

State-Funded Lab At Harvard Medical Aims To Reinvent Drug Discovery

Jerry Lin and Sharon Wang at the not yet one-year-old Laboratory of Systems Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. The two are studying the effects of cancer treatment drugs on the heart. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Jerry Lin and Sharon Wang at the not yet one-year-old Laboratory of Systems Pharmacology at Harvard Medical School. The two are studying the effects of cancer treatment drugs on the heart. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Jerry Lin makes a few adjustments on his microscope and grins.

“Wow, it’s beating,” Lin says as a white cell floating across an inky black background begins to pulse. “That’s cool.” A few colleagues, including Lin’s lab partner, Sharon Wang, murmur approvingly.

“We want to take a real-time video to look at the pattern of how cells beat over time,” Wang says, explaining this stage of the experiment.

Once Lin and Wang understand the morphology of these heart muscle cells, they’ll test how the cells respond to various cancer treatments.

“Later on, we can look at how that frequency of beating responds to different drugs,” Wang says.

The experiment is important, says lab director Peter Sorger, because heart problems can be a side effect of a drug that stops the spread of breast cancer.

“On the one hand, it’s a marvelous magic bullet,” Sorger says. “On the other hand, it does damage on its way in. So the purpose of these studies is to understand precisely why that happens.”

Sorger and his team at the Laboratory of Systems Pharmacology are focused on cancer and on analyzing the ways cancer drugs affect the whole body. They aim to reinvent the drug development process through this systems approach, by going much deeper than would scientists supervising a typical clinical trial and by establishing a new model of collaboration. Continue reading

Carly Simon And Family Point To Positive, Creative Side Of Dyslexia (Including Theirs)

Grammy award-winning musician Carly Simon struggled with dyslexia as a child. Here she is performing in California in 2012. (Frank Micelotta/Invsion/AP)

Grammy award-winning musician Carly Simon struggled with dyslexia as a child. Here she is performing in California in 2012. (Frank Micelotta/Invsion/AP)

Few parents are thrilled by the news that their child has dyslexia.

But increasingly, families are viewing the language processing disorder in a new light — not as a disability, but simply as a different way of perceiving the world. Indeed in some families, the dyslexic brain is viewed as having distinct advantages.

One celebrated Martha’s Vineyard family is trying to spread the word that a diagnosis of dyslexia doesn’t spell doom; on the contrary, it can lead to more creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Carly Simon, the Grammy award-winning musician, is now 70. But few people know that the accomplished singer and songwriter struggled with dyslexia, and a stutter, as a child.

“Being embarrassed at school is a terrible thing…when your peers are making fun of you because they can’t understand what wonderful whimsy your mind may be making up and going through,” she said recently. “While they’re just going 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10, you’re going 1-2-4-5-7-8-9-3!”

Carly Simon in West Tisbury on a recent summer day (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

Carly Simon in West Tisbury on a recent summer day (Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

‘Welcome To The Cool Club’

Still, Simon believes her dyslexia has a direct influence on how she makes music. She says her hit song “Anticipation,” for instance, “came down from the universe into my head and then out my mouth, so it bypassed the mind.”

These days, Simon lives in a lush compound on Martha’s Vineyard, where family members often spend the summer.

Dyslexia tends to run in families, and it runs in Simon’s. Her 38-year-old son Ben, a musician, has dyslexia. So does her 41-year-old daughter, Sally, an artist.

But the family wants to show their dyslexia can be a positive force — a challenge, absolutely, but also a catalyst for new ways of framing the world or problem-solving that might lead a child to become a famous artist or a successful entrepreneur.

Simon’s daughter Sally Taylor (whose father is musician James Taylor) vividly recalls the day, at age 10, when she learned she had dyslexia: She anxiously walked home with the diagnosis scrawled on a piece of paper in her hand.

“I just felt as though it was somehow the end of the world,” Taylor said in an interview. “[W]hen my mom saw my tears streaming down my face, she said, ‘What’s going on?’ and she opened this letter and saw that I was being diagnosed as having dyslexia and she just said, ‘Wow, this is awesome,’ like, ‘Congratulations, this is fantastic, and welcome to the family. We’re all dyslexic therefore we’re all going to understand each other better now…Welcome to the cool club,’ ”

Sally Taylor, the daughter of Carly Simon and James Taylor, describes herself as "an artist, mother, wife and dyslexic." (Courtesy of the family)

Sally Taylor, the daughter of Carly Simon and James Taylor, describes herself as “an artist, mother, wife and dyslexic.” (Courtesy of the family)

Simon speaks of her daughter’s struggles at school.

“I remember Sally reading ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,’ ” Simon said. “She couldn’t read enough pages to get the assignment…she’d cry and feel different and feel stupid.”

Sally Taylor’s husband, Dean Bragonier, also dyslexic, was teased mercilessly in middle school for his painfully slow reading.

Now, he hopes to make things better for other kids with the disorder. Bragonier is swimming around Martha’s Vineyard — 50 nautical miles over several weeks — to raise money for his nonprofit, called NoticeAbility.

The end result will be a set of educational tools for middle school-aged kids with dyslexia. It’s an online, project-based curricula that doesn’t replace traditional classroom learning but seeks to enhance it, allowing each child to focus on one of four specific areas that they might be drawn to: entrepreneurial leadership, engineering, architecture and the arts.

In general, these are realms that some dyslexics have excelled at: think Whoopi Goldberg or cellphone pioneer Craig McCaw. Continue reading

Everett Families, Doctors And First Responders Work To Combat Spike In Overdose Deaths

Struggling to find resource for her son as he battled his heroin addiction, Patti Scalesse decided to start the group Everett Overcoming Addiction. It brings together parents and patients who are learning to manage  substance abuse disorder. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Struggling to find resources for her son as he battled his heroin addiction, Patti Scalesse decided to start the group Everett Overcoming Addiction. It brings together parents and patients who are learning to manage substance abuse disorder. (Hadley Green for WBUR)

Patti Scalesse says she never saw it coming. Even when she found a syringe cap in her car three years ago and called her son, Francis Kenney, to tell him not to let his friends get high in her car. When Kenney then told her they needed to talk, Scalesse never expected to hear that her boy was addicted to heroin.

“Not my kid, my kid would never use drugs, he was a Marine,” Scalesse remembers thinking. “Well guess what, he did.”

Kenney, then age 21, was discharged from the Marines with a prescription for pain medication. Within a year of his release, Scalesse says, he had switched to heroin and was asking her for help.

“I thought, OK, I’ll pack him a bag, give him a pillow, bring him to detox, five days later he’ll be home and everything will be OK. No one tells you that the next two to three years of your life is just pure chaos.”

– Patti Scalesse, speaking about her son's battle with addiction

They met in a park, down the street from a pizza joint where Scalesse learned her son routinely went into the bathroom to get high. Scalesse absorbed the shock and started figuring out how to fix the problem.

“I thought, OK, I’ll pack him a bag, give him a pillow, bring him to detox, five days later he’ll be home and everything will be OK,” she says with a dry laugh. “No one tells you that the next two to three years of your life is just pure chaos.”

Chaos, because Kenney relapsed several times, and Scalesse realized she didn’t know what to do.

“I went to the police station and city hall to see what sort of information I could get to get my son some help. Nobody had anything. They gave me a 1-800 number with a Post-it note,” Scalesse says.

So she started a group, Everett Overcoming Addiction, that brings together parents and patients who are learning to manage this chronic illness. Her son, now 24, spoke at a rally. Kenney has been off heroin for 10 months and has a job. But as Scalesse was building a website, planning events and reaching out to other families, the disease hit her family again.

“My nephew was just 17,” Scalesse says, sighing. “We did not know he was using, and we got the call that he had died.”

Continue reading

Related:

Mass. Revises Up The Number Of Opioid-Related Deaths In 2014

OxyContin pills are arranged at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. in this 2013 file photo. Opioid drugs include OxyContin. (Toby Talbot/AP)

OxyContin pills are arranged at a pharmacy in Montpelier, Vt. in this 2013 file photo. Opioid drugs include OxyContin. (Toby Talbot/AP)

The announcement, in late April, stunned many: that last year’s number of opiate overdose deaths in Massachusetts had topped 1,000. Now the state Department of Public Health has revised that estimate — and it’s even worse than initially reported.

Now, 1,256 is the latest estimate of men and women whose deaths last year are attributed to a fatal dose of heroin or an opioid-based painkiller. That’s nearly four people a day statewide. Two dozen cities and towns had 10 or more overdoses (see the table at the bottom of this post). Some municipalities saw a three- or fourfold increase in overdose deaths, as compared with 2013.

CLICK TO ENLARGE. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

CLICK TO ENLARGE. (Courtesy of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

“When you are in an epidemic and crisis — which is what we have labeled the opioid deaths in the commonwealth of Massachusetts — the numbers will increase until such time that our efforts at intervention, prevention, treatment really start to take hold,” Marylou Sudders, the state health secretary, told WBUR in an interview.

Added Gov. Charlie Baker in a statement: “[W]e are fighting this disease with every approach available including better analysis of where and why people succumb to the disease.” Continue reading

Related:

‘I Don’t See Any Stigma': Father Fights Suicide In Black Community After Son’s Death

Joseph Feaster Jr. with a portrait of his son Joseph Feaster III. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Joseph Feaster Jr. with a portrait of his son Joseph Feaster III. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Joseph Feaster Jr. is not a minister. He’s a successful Boston attorney. But for the last five years he’s been doing a lot of preaching about a subject close to his heart.

“My ministry right now, because it’s even more personal — it involves my son — is around mental health,” Feaster says. “And if I can help the next person to understand it, to get through it, that’s my being.”

His son carried his name and was thereby Joseph Feaster III. He died by suicide in 2010, at the age of 27.

His death came at a triple-decker on Elmore Street in Roxbury, not far from Dudley Square. That’s where he had lived most of his life — first with his parents and sister, and then renting an apartment from his father.

His father recalls lots of times going with Joseph to Horatio Harris Park, less than a block from the family’s home. The elder Feaster doesn’t remember any signs of mental illness in his son as a child.

“No, not at all. I mean, he was a happy kid,” Feaster recalls. “He played here. He climbed the structures here. He would be with his sister and her friends. And he had a great smile.” Continue reading

‘It's No Longer Dark': Suicide Attempt Survivors Share Messages Of Hope

Mary Esther Rohman tried to take her own life many times when she was younger. But now, she's in a very different place. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Mary Esther Rohman tried to take her own life many times when she was younger. But now, she’s in a very different place. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Mary Esther Rohman, of Belmont, knows what it means to hit rock bottom — or worse. As she describes it, the bottom fell out. “They wanted to lock me up in a state hospital and throw away the key as being incurable,” Rohman recalls.

She tried to kill herself many times starting in her late 30s. But thanks to the right depression treatment, self-motivation and a sweet twist of fate, at the age of 67, Rohman is in a very different place.

“When I was 55 I met my soulmate, and I’m so happy!” Rohman says. “You never can tell what life is going to bring you. You’ve got to wait and see what the next chapter is going to be.”

Craig Miller, of Townsend, also knows the dark place of feeling suicidal. “I always had thoughts of suicide since I was 8 years old,” he says. “I always struggled with depression. I always struggled with mental health issues.”

Miller made several suicide attempts. But he recovered, turning his mental suffering into a force to help himself and others.

“It’s no longer dark, and it no longer hurts. And it’s no longer painful, and it no longer has this power over me that it used to have,” Miller reflects. Continue reading

Roxbury Center Targets Health Disparities In Boston’s Poorest Neighborhoods

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

Whittier Street Health Center opened its community vegetable garden on June 24. (Courtesy of Chris Aduama)

By Marina Renton
CommonHealth Intern

When it comes to health in Boston, it’s hard to deny there’s a great divide across neighborhoods.

Need proof? A 2013 Boston Public Health Commission report found that, from 2000 to 2009, the average life expectancy for Boston residents was 77.9 years. But in the Back Bay, it was higher — 83.7 years — compared to Roxbury, where the average life expectancy was 74.

If you want to get even more local, you can analyze the same data by census tract, where life expectancy varies by as many as 33 years: 91.9 years in the Back Bay area between Massachusetts Avenue and Arlington Street, and 58.9 years in Roxbury, between Mass. Ave. and Dudley Street and Shawmut Avenue and Albany Street. That’s according to a 2012 report from the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The Whittier Street Health Center in Roxbury is trying to tackle the disparities in a very concrete way. With the launch of a new fitness club and community garden, the center is trying to make healthy food and exercise opportunities available and affordable to all, despite geography.

“What we’re trying to do is to remove those social determinants and barriers that are causing these [health] disparities,” said Frederica Williams, president and CEO of the health center.

‘If I Sweat, I’m Doing Something Right’

The fitness club and garden initiatives just launched June 27, but the Whittier Health and Wellness Institute is already drawing in community members.

Eight months ago, Wanda Elliott weighed 256 pounds. On a visit to her Whittier Street physician, she learned her blood pressure was high — high enough that she had to start taking medication. That was the wake-up call that motivated her to change her diet and start exercising.

“I was dragging,” she said.

Elliott began exercising at a local Y but joined the Whittier Street fitness club when it opened. In eight months, she has lost 52 pounds, leaving her 4 pounds shy of her 200 pound goal weight.

“I have two knee replacements, so I have to keep active every day,” she said. Trainers at the center helped her learn to use the exercise machines, and now it feels like a routine, she said.

“I feel addicted to working out. I feel like if I sweat, I’m doing something right,” she said. “From 256 to 204, I feel like a model. I can walk the runway; that’s how energized I feel now.”

Elliott is now off her blood pressure medication. She is working on making changes to her diet “slowly but surely,” drinking more water, eating more salad, and cutting back on red meat. Continue reading

In Boston, Celebration And Reflection As The Americans With Disabilities Act Turns 25

Marchers walk down Tremont Street near Boston Common to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Marchers walk down Tremont Street near Boston Common Wednesday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Curb cuts, captions on TV, beeps that replace the “walk” sign for people who can’t see: all that has become commonplace in the 25 years since the Americans with Disability Act was passed.

But ask anyone who was in a wheelchair before 1990 and you’ll hear a story of frustration.

Rolling around city blocks, looking for a way to cross the street was a daily event. People crawled up stairs if they couldn’t find someone who could lift them and their chair. Or they’d order at a restaurant that insisted its bathroom was accessible, only to find it was not.

“[The ADA is] an appropriate thing to celebrate, but it was just a start. It has succeeded legally, but socially it has a long way to go.”

– William Peace

“That happened a lot, and still happens a little bit now, but back then that happened a lot,” said Christine Griffin, director of the Disability Law Center in Boston.

Griffin remembers arriving for a conference in the nation’s capital to find the hotel was not accessible. “I turned around and got back in a cab and I flew home,” she said.

The late Sen. Ted Kennedy told a congressional hearing back in 1988 that these stories had become too common.

“I bet if you go across this country, there really isn’t a member of a family or an extended family that hasn’t been touched,” said Kennedy, a chief sponsor of the ADA.

To build support for the act, supporters tied disability rights to civil rights.

“This change had an effect on people’s thinking,” Kennedy said in an interview 10 years after the law passed. “If you think of this as a continuation of the guarantee of equal rights, you come to different conclusions than if you’re looking at special legislation to try and look at some particular group.”

Now at the 25 year mark, disability advocates are celebrating and mapping their next steps. In Boston, about 2,000 people walked or rolled to Boston Common for a parade, speeches, music, dancing and crafts.

Continue reading

Thousands Ruled Ineligible For Mass. Medicaid

Tens of thousands of people have been removed from the state’s Medicaid program during the first phase of an eligibility review, according to figures from Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration obtained by The Associated Press.

The eligibility checks, required annually under federal law but not performed in Massachusetts since 2013, began earlier this year as part of Baker’s plan to squeeze $761 million in savings from MassHealth, the government-run health insurance program for about 1.7 million poor and disabled residents.

At $15.3 billion, MassHealth is the state’s single largest budget expense.

Based on the results of the redetermination process so far, the state was on track to achieve the savings it had hoped for in the current fiscal year without cutting benefits for eligible recipients, said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders. Continue reading

Bristol County Suicide Spike Not Just ‘A Bump In The Road’

Bristol County is seeing a surge in suicides.

On Monday, the Bristol County Regional Coalition for Suicide Prevention and the Bristol County District Attorney’s office released data on the extent of the issue in the county.

In the last three and a half years, 171 people in the county have died by suicide.

  • 2012: 35 confirmed suicides; 25 men and 6 women
  • 2013: 44 confirmed suicides; 29 men and 15 women
  • 2014: 58 confirmed suicides; 50 men and 8 women

The rash of suicides in Bristol County has affected mostly men in their early- to mid-50s. The number of men who have died by suicide has increased 72 percent over the past three years. These men often suffer from depression and substance abuse. And when they seek help, they are unable to find inpatient residential care.

“What we have happening in Bristol Country is not a bump in the road, and what we have happening is not a pothole. We have a sinkhole happening here in this county,” said Annemarie Matulis, director of the Bristol Country coalition.

There have been 34 confirmed suicides, 22 men and 12 women, so far this year. This means the county is on track to match the 2014 statistics or potentially surpass them, the coalition and DA’s office announced Monday.

Matulis says people close to someone who has died by suicide become themselves more prone to taking their own lives.

Resources: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and the Samaritans Statewide Hotline at 1-877-870-HOPE (4673).

Related: