Medicine/Science

The latest cool stuff out of some of the nation's best labs; news on medical research and what it may mean for patients.

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Mystery Solved: Why That ‘Opioid-Induced Constipation’ Super Bowl Ad?


I imagined 100 million people all scratching their heads at the same time and saying, “Huh?”

The source of their bafflement: Why, among all the usual Super Bowl ads for cars and beers, is there a minute-long tale (watch it above) of a man who envies others — even a dog — their digestive regularity?

The voice-over describes his plight: “If you need an opioid to manage your chronic pain, you may be so constipated it feels like everyone can go…except you. Tried many things? Still struggling to find relief? You may have opioid induced constipation — OIC.”

The condition sounds straightforward enough, and the social media poop jokes were predictable enough. The mystery was: How does something that looks like a public service announcement about opioid constipation show up on the most expensive advertising real-estate around?

A skeptical friend sent over these queries: “Are there really enough people on opioids that they can justify paying for a Super Bowl commercial? Isn’t anyone on legitimate opioids in a doctor’s care and getting info about anti-constipation meds?”

First of all, yes, there are enough people on opioids. The U.S. Pain Foundation estimates on its OIC page that nearly 8 million people who are on opioids suffer from related constipation. And that estimate may well be low, said the foundation’s founder, Paul Gileno, because people don’t tend to seek care for constipation, they often just try to treat it with over-the-counter and natural remedies. The U.S. Pain Foundation is one of a half-dozen groups listed at the end of the ad as co-sponsors, and some of its funding comes from pharmaceutical companies.

Secondly, Gileno said, no, many doctors are not on top of opioid-related constipation. “We’d all love to assume it’s being take care of, but it’s really not,” he said — to the point that some patients even skip their opioid doses despite the added pain, just to try to cope with the constipation.

About three-quarters of pain management happens in primary care doctors’ offices, he said, and those typically brief visits are often so focused on alleviating pain that they do not delve into side effects. Patients may also fail to connect their pain medication with their constipation.

“Early on in my pain journey, I didn’t realize that was a side effect, and quite honestly, my primary care doctor didn’t know either, he didn’t bring it up to me,” Gileno said. “It was only when I was able to see a good pain management doctor that he knew that was a side effect.”

The point of the Super Bowl ad was to get a conversation going about this embarrassing but important aspect of pain treatment, Gileno said.

But Super Bowl conversation-starters do not come cheap. USA Today reports that a 30-second ad costs up to $5 million. On this list of sponsors, who has that kind of money? Yes, it’s the two pharmaceutical companies at the bottom: Continue reading

A $1 Pill That Could Save Thousands Of Lives: Research Suggests Cheap Way To Avoid U.N.-Caused Cholera

(United Nations Photo/Flickr)

(United Nations Photo/Flickr)

By Richard Knox

Here’s a way to get a big bang for a buck:

If a few hundred United Nations peacekeeping troops had taken a $1 antibiotic pill five years ago before they were deployed to Haiti, it may well have prevented a cholera outbreak that has so far sickened 753,000 Haitians and killed more than 9,000.

That’s the takeaway of a new study by Yale University researchers in the journal PLoS.

The authors believe their evidence should prompt the U.N. to adopt a simple and incredibly cost-effective strategy: Make sure all the 150,000 peacekeepers it sends out into the world each year from cholera-afflicted countries get preventive doses of antibiotics before deployment.

It’s not the first time the U.N. has gotten that advice. It was first suggested by a panel of outside experts the agency appointed back in 2011 to investigate the Haitian epidemic. But so far the U.N. has rejected the panel’s recommendation on preventive antibiotics.

It’s not clear whether that will change. The U.N.’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jillian Farmer, said in an interview Friday that she welcomes the new study. But she noted it does not address “the biggest barrier to implementing the antibiotic recommendation” — a concern that what she calls “mass administration” of antibiotics would give rise to antibiotic-resistant strains of cholera.

“It may be we will be able to do this [administer pre-deployment antibiotics to U.N. peacekeepers],” Farmer said. “I don’t have a closed mind.”

The Yale researchers and others argue that the concern about generating resistant cholera strains is overblown because the antibiotics would be targeted — not administered massively. They further argue that the U.N. should sponsor research to answer that question, given the urgency of the question.

“When we have a case as extreme as Haiti showing the status quo doesn’t work, we should be working to build evidence for a solution that does, not using a lack of proven solutions as an excuse not to act,” said Adam Houston, who works with the Boston-based Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.

The new study is the latest chapter in a tragic story that’s been unfolding since mid-October of 2010, when, researchers say, a single U.N. peacekeeper from Nepal most likely introduced cholera to Haiti, touching off the most explosive cholera epidemic in modern times. Before the outbreak. Haiti had been cholera-free for at least a century; thus, its citizens had no immunity to the disease.

“Based on DNA evidence, this outbreak was probably started by one or very few infected, asymptomatic individuals — I would guess one,” said Daniele Lantagne, a Tufts University environmental engineer who was one of four independent experts appointed by the U.N. in 2011 to investigate the outbreak.

Since none of the 454 Nepalese peacekeeping troops deployed to Haiti in late 2010 showed any symptoms of cholera, all of them would have had to take a prophylactic dose of antibiotic to prevent any one of them from starting the outbreak. That would have cost around $500 — a tiny price to pay to avoid a devastating epidemic that — absent the investment of billions of dollars in clean water and sanitation — will continue into Haiti’s indefinite future.

The new analysis finds that prophylactic antibiotics would have reduced the chances of the Haitian epidemic by 91 percent. When antibiotics are combined with cholera vaccination, the risk of an outbreak goes down by 98 percent.

The U.N. began requiring cholera vaccination of all its field personnel late last year. But the new study says vaccination by itself isn’t very effective; it reduces the risk of an outbreak by only 60 percent at best.

That’s because vaccination can prevent someone from falling ill from cholera, but it doesn’t prevent infection — so a vaccinated person can still carry the cholera bacterium and pass it on to others.

“Vaccination alone is not enough,” said Virginia Pitzer, who led the Yale research team. “Vaccination plus antibiotic prophylaxis would be best.”

“Antibiotics are far and away the most effective and the least expensive,” added epidemiologist Joseph Lewnard, the study’s first author. “It hits the problem from two angles. It not only prevents those exposed to cholera from experiencing an infection, but if they do get infected it shortens the duration of shedding the bacteria. So once they arrive [at their deployment destination] they would no longer have bacteria in their stools.” Continue reading

Calls For Better Pain Relief Measures For Newborns, Premature Infants

In this file photo, an infant is seen in the neonatal intensive care unit of the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. (Paul Joseph Brown/AP)

In this file photo, an infant is seen in the neonatal intensive care unit of the Swedish Medical Center in Seattle. (Paul Joseph Brown/AP)

What could be more heartbreaking than witnessing some of the smallest, sickest babies undergoing painful medical procedures?

Yet that’s precisely the population subject to some of the most intrusive prodding and pricking, the “greatest number of painful stimuli” in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU.

Now the American Association of Pediatricians is calling for better, more comprehensive pain relief measures for newborns, including those born prematurely — both with medications and through alternative, non-drug measures — and for more research on effective treatments.

The AAP’s updated policy statement, published in the journal Pediatrics, asserts that “although there are major gaps in our knowledge regarding the most effective way to prevent and relieve pain in neonates, proven and safe therapies are currently underused for routine minor yet painful procedures.”

The AAP calls for new measures, specifically:

Every health care facility caring for neonates should implement an effective pain-prevention program, which includes strategies for routinely assessing pain, minimizing the number of painful procedures performed, effectively using pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic therapies for the prevention of pain associated with routine minor procedures, and eliminating pain associated with surgery and other major procedures.

If you’ve ever been in a NICU, you may have seen these types of procedures take place: suctioning of various secretions from the nose and throat; blood draws from veins, arteries, feet or heels; IVs being placed; adhesive tape — used to keep all those tubes and IVs in place — removed.

A landmark 2008 study from France found that the vast majority of newborns in the NICU didn’t get pain relief; researchers found only about 21 percent of infants were given either pain medication or non-drug pain relief before undergoing a painful procedure.

Why is this important? Continue reading

CDC Warns Of Fetal Alcohol Exposure, Says Drinking Any Time In Pregnancy Is Risky

(Source: “Vital Signs: Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancies — United States, 2011–2013")

(Source: “Vital Signs: Alcohol-Exposed Pregnancies — United States, 2011–2013″)

If you’re a sexually active woman of childbearing age and not using birth control, public health officials say you should stop drinking alcohol — completely. That includes beer, wine or any other alcoholic beverage you might be considering.

In a report out Tuesday,  the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that exposure to alcohol, even in the first weeks of pregnancy, puts developing babies at risk for fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, “characterized by lifelong physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities.” Because these disorders are completely preventable by abstaining from alcohol, and because officials say there is “no known safe amount of alcohol” that women can drink at any time during pregnancy, their basic message is: “Why take the risk?”

“Women wanting a pregnancy should be advised to stop drinking at the same time contraception is discontinued,” the report concludes. “Health care providers should advise women not to drink at all if they are pregnant or there is any chance they might be pregnant.”

Here’s more from the CDC news release:

An estimated 3.3 million U.S. women between the ages of 15 and 44 years are at risk for exposing their developing baby to alcohol because they are drinking, sexually active, and not using birth control to prevent pregnancy, according to a new CDC Vital Signs report. The report also found that 3 in 4 women who want to get pregnant as soon as possible do not stop drinking alcohol.

Alcohol use during pregnancy, even within the first few weeks and before a woman knows she is pregnant, can cause lasting physical, behavioral, and intellectual disabilities that can last for a child’s lifetime. These disabilities are known as fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASDs). There is no known safe amount of alcohol – even beer or wine – that is safe for a woman to drink at any stage of pregnancy.

About half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned and, even if planned, most women will not know they are pregnant until they are 4-6 weeks into the pregnancy when they still might be drinking.

During a telephone briefing with reporters, Anne Schuchat, the CDC’s deputy director, said:

What we’re recommending is women who are not trying to get pregnant make sure they have a conversation about birth control and how to avoid becoming pregnant. If they are not using contraception and are fertile and are drinking they could be at risk… One in two deliveries in this country occurs to someone who wasn’t actually trying to get pregnant when they got pregnant. So we do think that fertile woman that are not using contraception ought to be aware that they may become pregnant and that drinking during even that first couple of weeks of pregnancy can be risky.

Continue reading

Investigating High C-Section Rates, Researchers To Examine Floor Plans

A woman’s chance of having a C-section can be almost three times higher from one hospital to the next in Massachusetts. But why? No one has the definitive answer. Researchers have looked at the ratio of doctors to nurses or midwives, at payment rates, at medical malpractice policies, at on-call schedules — and still the question lingers.

Could it be the layout of the labor and delivery unit?

Dr. Neel Shah, an associate faculty member at Ariadne Labs, began asking himself this question a little more than a year ago during a tour of hospitals. He watched nurses run down long hallways, from patient to patient. He noticed walls that divided patients, but also decision makers who might benefit from collaboration. And, he was struck by all the ways a labor and delivery floor mirrored an intensive care unit: one nurse per patient for women in active labor, machines that track vital signs in real time and medicines that are titrated minute to minute.

“The only difference between an ICU and a labor floor is that on the labor floor the ORs are attached,” Shah said. “So you’ve got the most intense treatment area in the entire hospital for the healthiest patients. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why we overdo it.”

Lighting, furniture placement and waiting areas are not typically the focus of health care quality improvement projects, but maybe they should be.

Shah, working with architects at Mass Design Group, has a one-year grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to study how the design of a maternity ward affects C-section rates at 12 hospitals around the country. Continue reading

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Study: Maternal Obesity And Diabetes Bring ‘Multiple Hits,’ May Raise Autism Risk In Children

A provocative new study finds that children born to mothers with a combination of obesity and diabetes before and during pregnancy may have up to four times the risk of developing autism spectrum disorder.

On their own, obesity as well as pre-pregnancy diabetes or gestational diabetes increase the risk of autism slightly, researchers report. But the study suggests that co-occurring obesity and diabetes may bring “multiple hits” to the developing fetal brain, conferring an even higher risk of autism in the offspring than either condition on its own.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 68 children has autism spectrum disorder, which also includes Asperger syndrome and other pervasive developmental disorders.

This new study — led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and published in the journal Pediatrics — was based on analyzing the medical records of 2,734 children who have been followed from birth at the Boston Medical Center between 1998 and 2014. (Of that group, 102 of the children had a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. )

So what might be leading to this increased autism risk? Researchers don’t really know, but they raise several theories in the paper. In general, the possible mechanisms relate to immune and metabolic system disturbances associated with maternal obesity and diabetes that might cause inflammation and other problems for the developing fetus.

One of the study authors, Daniele Fallin, an epidemiologist and chair of the Department of Mental Health at Hopkins’ public health school, said in an interview: “We know that both diabetes and obesity create stress on the body, generally, and a lot of that stress manifests in disruption of immune processes and inflammation. Once you have the disruption in the mom, that may lead to inflammation problems in the developing fetus, and inflammation during neurodevelopment can create problems that manifest as autism.” Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Minimizing ‘Menopause Misery’

(pennstatelive/Flickr)

(pennstatelive/Flickr)

A new report suggests a path toward reducing “menopause misery”: Give up your sedentary lifestyle.

A paper — titled “Sedentary lifestyle in middle-aged women is associated with severe menopausal symptoms and obesity,” and published online in the journal Menopause — looks at more than 6,000 women across Latin America ages 40-59. Researchers found that compared to active women, sedentary women (who made up about 63 percent of participants) reported more “severe” menopause symptoms, including hot flashes, joint pain, depressed mood and anxiety and other symptoms like sex problems, vaginal dryness and bladder problems.

Sedentary lifestyle was self-reported (always a possible red flag in a study like this) as less than three 30-minute sessions of physical activity per week; activities included walking, biking, running, jogging, swimming or working out.

Continue reading

Panel Recommends Depression Screening For Women During And After Pregnancy

(Chris Martino/Flickr)

(Chris Martino/Flickr)

On Tuesday the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released new recommendations on screening for depression in adults, notably calling for depression screening in women both during and after pregnancy.

The recommendations, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggest: “All adults older than 18 years should be routinely screened for depression. This includes pregnant women and new mothers as well as elderly adults.”

Why?

“Depression is among the leading causes of disability in persons 15 years and older,” the task force statement said. “It affects individuals, families, businesses, and society and is common in patients seeking care in the primary care setting. Depression is also common in postpartum and pregnant women and affects not only the woman but her child as well. …The [task force] found convincing evidence that screening improves the accurate identification of adult patients with depression in primary care settings, including pregnant and postpartum women.”

The government-appointed panel found that the harms from such screening are “small to none,” though it did cite potential harm related to drugs frequently prescribed for depression:

The USPSTF found that second-generation antidepressants (mostly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs]) are associated with some harms, such as an increase in suicidal behaviors in adults aged 18 to 29 years and an increased risk of upper gastrointestinal bleeding in adults older than 70 years, with risk increasing with age; however, the magnitude of these risks is, on average, small. The USPSTF found evidence of potential serious fetal harms from pharmacologic treatment of depression in pregnant women, but the likelihood of these serious harms is low. Therefore, the USPSTF concludes that the overall magnitude of harms is small to moderate.

Nancy Byatt, medical director at the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project for Moms (MCPAP for Moms) and an assistant professor of psychiatry and obstetrics and gynecology at UMass Medical School, said the new recommendations “are an incredibly important step to have depression care become a routine part of obstetrical care.”

She added: “Depression in pregnancy is twice as common as diabetes in pregnancy and obstetric providers always screen for diabetes and they have a clear treatment plan. The goal [here] is that women are screened for depression [during pregnancy and postpartum] and they are assessed and treated and this becomes a routine part of care just like diabetes.”

Dr. Ruta Nonacs, who’s in the psychiatry department at Massachusetts General Hospital and editor-in-chief at the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health, sent her thoughts via email:

In that the USPSTF recommendation recognizes pregnant and postpartum women as a group at high risk for depression, this represents a step in the right direction in terms of ensuring that psychiatric illness in this vulnerable population is identified and appropriately treated. However, there remain significant obstacles to overcome. Research and clinical experience indicate that while pregnant and postpartum women with mood and anxiety disorders can be identified through screening, many women identified in this manner do not seek or are not able to find treatment.

While screening is important, we must also make sure we tend to the construction of a system that provides appropriate follow-up and treatment. Because stigma continues to be significant with regard to mental health issues in mothers and mothers-to-be and because there are concerns regarding the use of medication in pregnant and nursing women, we must make sure that after screening, we help women to access appropriate resources and treaters who have expertise in the treatment of women during pregnancy and the postpartum period.

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Related:

Options Weighed To Address State’s Health Care Price Variations

Updated 6:50 p.m.

BOSTON — Variations in prices for the same service at different hospitals in Massachusetts do not reflect different qualities of care and have not evened out over time, according to a Health Policy Commission report released Wednesday.

The report found that higher prices “are not generally associated” with better care, and that prices vary across the different types of hospitals — academic medical centers, teaching hospitals, community hospitals — as well as within each individual group.

To highlight the difference in costs just at community hospitals during a Wednesday meeting, Health Policy Commission executive director David Seltz pointed to levels of spending on maternity care. Spending for a low-risk pregnancy ranged from $16,000 at North Shore Medical Center to $9,000 at Heywood Hospital.

“While some variation in prices is warranted to support activities, unwarranted variation in prices — combined with a large share of volume at those higher-priced institutions — leads to higher spending overall and inequities in our distribution of resources,” Seltz said.

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More Evidence That Growing Up Poor May Alter Key Brain Structures

Allan Ajifo/flickr

(Allan Ajifo/Flickr)

Poverty is bad for your brain.

That’s the basic takeaway from an emerging body of research suggesting that the distress associated with growing up poor can negatively influence brain development in many ways, and in certain cases might also lead to emotional and mental health problems, like depression.

The latest study, led by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, found that poverty in early childhood may influence the development of important connections between parts of the brain that are critical for effective regulation of emotions.

The study, published in the Journal of American Psychiatry, adds “to the growing awareness of the immense public health crisis represented by the huge number of children growing up in poverty and the likely long-lasting impact this experience has on brain development and on negative mood and depression,” researchers report.

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