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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Mass. Substance Abuse Bill Responds To Tide Of Sadness And Fear

In response to stories that seem to be on the rise in communities across the state — stories of parents trying to revive children after a heroin overdose, of young people seeking treatment their insurance plan won’t cover, and of babies born addicted to opiates — state lawmakers on the last day of their formal session approved a bill they say will help save the lives of those addicted to heroin, prescription painkillers and alcohol.

The measure, among several major bills passed just after midnight Friday, requires insurers pay for any care a doctor decides is medically necessary. Insurers say this and other requirements included in the bill are a mistake.

In outlining the House and Senate compromise on the substance abuse bill Thursday afternoon, Sen. John Keenan of Quincy talked about his father.

“He was a good, decent, hard-working man, he was a great husband, a great father, but he was an alcoholic.” Keenan remembered an afternoon when his family told his father he had to get help. His dad resisted, but finally agreed. Someone got on the phone and found him a bed in a treatment program that was paid for by the Keenan’s insurance plan.

“That very day changed lives. My father had 26 years of sobriety before he passed away last year,” Keenan said. “He had 26 years with my mother, 26 years as a great father, 26 years with his seven children and their spouses, and 26 years as a great papa to his 20 grandchildren. So this can work.”

“This” being a requirement that insurers pay for up to 14 days of overnight detox and rehabilitation treatment as well as counseling, medication and any other services a clinician says are “medically necessary.”

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As Mass. Lawmakers Take Up Addiction Bill, What’s Most Effective Treatment?

Hydrocodone pills, also known as Vicodin. (Toby Talbot/AP)

Hydrocodone pills, also known as Vicodin. (Toby Talbot/AP)

As Massachusetts lawmakers work on differences in the $20 million bill designed to address the state’s opioid crisis, questions remain about which treatments are best.

Several business and insurance leaders have written to Gov. Deval Patrick saying that some parts of the bill may not encourage the most effective addiction treatment. Essentially, they say, more beds may not be the answer, but more medication and longer outpatient care might be better.

The House bill requires insurers to pay for at least 10 inpatient days of addiction treatment if that’s determined to be medically necessary; the Senate bill requires up to 21 days of inpatient coverage.

“We just believe patients should have a choice.”
– Leominster Sen. Jennifer Flanagan

But the American Society of Addiction Medicine estimates that 95 percent of opioid-dependent patients do not need inpatient care, and might be better off with medication maintenance and several months of outpatient therapy. Lawmakers maintain that they do not want to mandate any form of treatment.

“If we have this epidemic that continues to grow, we’re essentially in uncharted territory, and current treatment options aren’t working,” said Leominster Sen. Jennifer Flanagan, one of the bill’s co-sponsors. “If people want inpatient treatment or medication maintenance, they should be able to decide that with their doctors.”

At the same time, a new report contains some surprising findings about medication maintenance addiction treatment. It says that methadone, long used to treat heroin addiction, may be the most effective and cheapest treatment.

The report, from The New England Comparative Effectiveness Public Advisory Council, found that when comparing methadone with suboxone (Buprenorphine) or naltrexone (Vivitrol), more patients stayed in treatment longer if they were taking methadone. Continue reading

When Hand, Foot And Mouth Disease Sweeps Through: What To Know

(Bob Reck via Compfight)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

Summer is not only the season for watermelon and zucchini. It’s also the time for Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. Typically found in younger kids, it’s a contagious viral illness marked by a fever and rash — either skin or mouth blisters.

Hand, Foot and Mouth swept through several WBUR employees’ families recently, so we checked in with an expert: Dr. Clement Bottino, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Division of General Pediatrics who sees a lot of the illness in the Primary Care Center. “Nothing unusual,” he says, “just the summertime viruses.”

“Viruses are kind of like vegetables,” he explains. “There are winter and summer varieties. The winter ones cause illnesses like the common cold, while those in the summer cause fever-plus-rash-type illnesses, like Hand, Foot and Mouth.”

Hand, Foot and Mouth typically affects children under the age of 5, but older children and even adults can catch it as well. Symptoms can vary. Some children may only have a fever and mouth blisters, while others have the characteristic rash without other symptoms. The rash may present with classic red bumps on a child’s hands and feet, or a more diffuse rash that includes the diaper area.

Some people, particularly adults, may show no symptoms at all, but they can still spread the illness to others. Hand, Foot and Mouth is transmitted through direct contact with saliva, mucus or feces. Daycare is notorious as a hotbed of activities for spreading infection: hugging, sharing cups, coughing and sneezing, and touching infected objects. While patients are most contagious during their first week of illness, they can spread the virus for weeks after the symptoms fade.

According to Dr. Bottino, the most important thing for parents to know is that the virus is mild and “self-limited,” meaning it usually goes away on its own, causing no scars or lasting problems. Most patients feel better in seven to 10 days without any treatment at all. I asked Dr. Bottino what else parents should know about Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. Our conversation, edited: Continue reading

Brain Scientists Learn To Alter And Even Erase Memories

This optogenetic device uses light to activate specific brain cells. (Courtesy McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

This optogenetic device uses light to activate specific brain cells. (Courtesy McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT)

For 32 years, Leslie Ridlon worked in the military. For most of her career she was in army intelligence. Her job was to watch live video of fatal attacks to make sure the missions were successful.

“I had to memorize the details, and I have not got it out of my head, it stays there, the things I saw,” she says. “The beheading — I saw someone who got their head cut off — I can still see that.”

Leslie Ridlon retired from the military eight years ago, but she finds she cannot work because she suffers from severe PTSD. (Courtesy)

Leslie Ridlon retired from the military last year, but she finds she cannot work because she suffers from severe PTSD. (Courtesy)

Ridlon is now 49 and retired from the military last year, but she finds she cannot work because she suffers from severe post traumatic stress disorder. She has tried conventional therapy for PTSD, in which a patient is exposed repeatedly to a traumatic memory in a safe environment. The goal is to modify the disturbing memory. But she says that type of therapy doesn’t work for her.

“They tried to get me to remember things,” she says. “I had a soldier who died, got blown up by a mortar — he was torn into pieces. So they wanted me to bring that back. I needed to stop that. It was destroying me.”

She has concluded that some memories will never leave her. “Everything I could get rid of as far as memory I think I’ve already done it,” she says. “I think the deep ones that you suffer from, I don’t think anyone can take them away. I don’t believe anyone can. I think the ones I have now, they’re going to just stay there. I’m just going to have to manage them.”

But what if these traumatic memories could be altered or even erased permanently? Researchers say they are beginning to be able to do that — not just in animals, but in people as well.

Not long ago, scientists thought of memory as something inflexible, akin to a videotape of an event that could be recalled by hitting rewind and then play. But in recent decades, new technology has helped change the way we understand how memory works — and what we can do with it. Scientists can now manipulate memory in ways they hope will eventually lead to treatments for disorders ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress to Alzheimer’s disease.

“We now understand there are points in time when we can change memory, where we can create windows of opportunity that allows us to alter memories, and even erase specific memories,” says Marijn Kroes, a neuroscientist at New York University.
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Inspired By Family Illness, Philanthropist Gives $650 Million For Psychiatric Research

The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT  summer student Lydia Emerson and aesearch associate Aldo Amaya. (Courtesy/Kelly Davidson Photography)

Researchers at the Broad Institute plan to use Ted Stanley’s money to catalog all the genetic variations that contribute to severe psychiatric disorders. (Courtesy/Kelly Davidson Photography)

In the largest-ever donation to psychiatric research, Connecticut businessman Ted Stanley is giving $650 million to the Eli and Edythe Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The goal — to find and treat the genetic underpinnings of mental illnesses — was inspired by a family experience.

Ted Stanley made his fortune in the collectibles business. He founded The Danbury Mint, a company (later MBI, Inc.) whose first product was a series of medals commemorating the biggest scientific achievement of its time: the moon landing in 1969. While his business grew, his son Jonathan Stanley grew up as a normal Connecticut kid. Until, at age 19, Jonathan came down with bipolar disorder with psychosis, which got worse over the next three years.

“We’ll call it the epiphany from my dad’s standpoint at least,” Jonathan Stanley remembered of the turning point in his illness. “I went three days straight running through the streets of New York, no food, no water, no money, running from secret agents. And not surprisingly, after I stripped naked in a deli, ended up in a psychiatric facility.”

Jonathan was a college junior at the time.

“My dad came to visit, and he got to see his beloved son in a straitjacket,” Jonathan Stanley said.

The Stanleys were lucky. Jonathan responded well to the lithium, then a newly-approved drug. He went on to graduate from college and law school, too. Yet along the way, his father had met other fathers whose sons did not respond to treatment. He met other families who had to keep living with uncontrolled mental illness.

Ted Stanley said that gave him a focus for his philanthropy.

There was something out there that our son could take, and it made the problem go away,” he said. “And I’d like to see that happen for a lot of other people. And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”

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Medical Marijuana 101: 10 Things You Should Know Before Using The Drug

As medical marijuana is introduced in Massachusetts, here are 10 things to know about using it.

Whether you are using marijuana for the first time, or trying it for a new ailment, those who praise its benefits say you should be prepared for a period of trial and error. Because:

1) What works for one patient may not work for you. The difference may be in the marijuana, but patients also respond to drugs differently based on age, race, gender, genetics and other factors. (The Food and Drug Administration takes many of these factors into account when testing legal drugs.)

2) All pot is not alike. Every strain of marijuana has a different balance of cannabinoids, the chemical compounds that are unique to marijuana, some of which have medicinal value. The two most common are THC, which can make people high, and CBD, which offsets the effects of THC and is believed to prevent muscle spasms and seizures.

3) Even within the same strain, the intensity of cannabinoids will vary. Take Blue Dream, one of the more popular strains these days. Blue Dream from one grower might have 5 percent THC, but if you change buyers, your next batch of Blue Dream might have 25 percent THC and produce a strong high. Continue reading

Medical Marijuana 101: What’s In Your Drug?

Jack Boyle reaches across the marble island in his kitchen for a small blue glass bottle with a black rubber cap. He holds it to the light, shaking the liquid, a marijuana concentrate.

“The person who made this didn’t make it properly,” Boyle says.

Boyle’s wife Susan Lucas uses the marijuana concentrate, or tincture, to prevent epileptic seizures. The first batch helped, so Boyle went back for more.

But then, “Sue started seeing her symptoms coming back,” he says. “We immediately took [the new batch] to the lab, had it tested. It didn’t have the CBD in it.”

The second batch, it seems, wasn’t heated enough to activate CBD, one of the compounds in marijuana that supporters say helps with muscle spasms and seizures.

Now Boyle is learning how to make a perfect concentrate on his own, in his kitchen in Stow. He bought a Crock-pot and found a recipe for marijuana tinctures online.

“I’ll make a batch and have Michael Kahn test it again, and if [it] matches up to at least as strong as the first batch then we’re good to go for six months to a year,” Boyle says. “It’s my wife, I just want to do the best I can.”

Michael Kahn is an analytical chemist and president of Massachusetts Cannabis Research, or MCR Labs, in Framingham. It’s the first marijuana testing lab to open in Massachusetts.

“We provide quality control,” Kahn says.

With all the attention to dispensaries that will grow and sell marijuana for medical use, the question of who will test the drug has been largely overlooked. The state Department of Public Health (DPH) is expected to issue testing protocols soon, but they may be a work in progress — at least for the first few years — as this industry takes shape across the country.
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How Playing Music Affects The Developing Brain

A cellist at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston plays during a recital rehearsal. Research has found music instruction has beneficial effects on young brains. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A bassist at the Conservatory Lab Charter School in Boston plays during a recital rehearsal. Research has found music instruction has beneficial effects on young brains. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Remember “Mozart Makes You Smarter”?

A 1993 study of college students showed them performing better on spatial reasoning tests after listening to a Mozart sonata. That led to claims that listening to Mozart temporarily increases IQs — and to a raft of products purporting to provide all sorts of benefits to the brain.

In 1998, Zell Miller, then the governor of Georgia, even proposed providing every newborn in his state with a CD of classical music.

But subsequent research has cast doubt on the claims.

Ani Patel, an associate professor of psychology at Tufts University and the author of “Music, Language, and the Brain,” says that while listening to music can be relaxing and contemplative, the idea that simply plugging in your iPod is going to make you more intelligent doesn’t quite hold up to scientific scrutiny.

“On the other hand,” Patel says, “there’s now a growing body of work that suggests that actually learning to play a musical instrument does have impacts on other abilities.” These include speech perception, the ability to understand emotions in the voice and the ability to handle multiple tasks simultaneously.

Patel says this is a relatively new field of scientific study.

“The whole field of music neuroscience really began to take off around 2000,” he says. “These studies where we take people, often children, and give them training in music and then measure how their cognition changes and how their brain changes both in terms of its processing [and] its structure, are very few and still just emerging.”

Patel says that music neuroscience, which draws on cognitive science, music education and neuroscience, can help answer basic questions about the workings of the human brain.
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If You Find A Tick: Why I Resorted To Mooching Pills To Fight Lyme Disease

A March 2002 file photo of a deer tick under a microscope in the entomology lab at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown, R.I. (Victoria Arocho/AP)

A March 2002 file photo of a deer tick under a microscope in the entomology lab at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown, R.I. (Victoria Arocho/AP)

I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m a good little medical doobie. I’m wary of pills, take them only with prescriptions, and follow the instructions to the letter. But last month, I “borrowed” a friend’s extra 200 milligrams of doxycycline — the onetime antibiotic dose shown to help prevent Lyme disease soon after a prolonged tick bite.

What brought me to that desperate point? A doctor declined to prescribe the pills, even though this is prime Lyme disease season and the patient, my family member, fulfilled every one of mainstream medicine’s requirements for the single dose aimed at preventing Lyme. To wit:

• The tick was a fully engorged deer tick that had been attached for more than 36 hours.

• We sought treatment within three days of removing it.

• The tick came from a Lyme-endemic area.

• And the patient had no medical reason to avoid antibiotics.

The antibiotics I “borrowed” from a generous friend (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

The antibiotics I “borrowed” from a generous friend (Carey Goldberg/WBUR)

But still. The doctor argued that the chances of contracting Lyme from the tick were very small, perhaps 1 in 50, and that overuse of antibiotics contributes to the growing problem of drug-resistant bacteria. This is what he would do for his own family member, he said: skip the doxycycline, wait to see if Lyme develops, and treat it with a full 10-day course of antibiotics if it does.

I was frustrated and frankly a bit appalled. WBUR ran a series on Lyme disease in 2012, and I knew that controversy raged around many aspects of the disease, particularly the use of long-term antibiotics to treat long-term symptoms. But I was just trying to follow the widely accepted guidelines written by the Infectious Disease Society of America, to be found in reputable medical venues like UpToDate. And I knew from that same series that Lyme is rife in New England, and so are personal stories of health and lives ruined or seriously harmed.

Still, maybe I was overreacting? I’ve since sought a reality check from three experts, including the lead author of the guidelines. And here’s what I come away with: No, I was not unreasonable in seeking the preventive doxycycline. Arguably, though I hate to admit it, the doctor was not being totally unreasonable in declining it. The guidelines say a doctor “may” prescribe the antibiotic; it’s not a “must.”

In the end, I think, the crux of the question may lie in how you see the doctor’s role: Is it to lay out the risks and benefits and then let the patient choose? Or to impose his or her own best medical judgment on the patient? (You can guess where I come down on that one.) Also, “better safe than sorry” tends to rule when it comes to my loved ones. But what if the risk is small and the benefit uncertain? Continue reading

How Addiction Can Affect Brain Connections

As much of the country grapples with problems resulting from opioid addiction, some Massachusetts scientists say they’re getting a better understanding of the profound role the brain plays in addiction.

Their work is among a growing body of research showing that addiction is a complex brain disease that affects people differently. But the research also raises hopes about potential treatments.

Among the findings of some University of Massachusetts Medical School scientists is that addiction appears to permanently affect the connections between areas of the brain to almost “hard-wire” the brain to support the addiction.

They’re also exploring the neural roots of addiction and seeking novel treatments — including perhaps the age-old practice of meditation.

Meditation As Part Of Addiction Treatment

After spending 40 minutes lying on the floor with his eyes closed, being led through a meditation exercise, one of the students in a recent mindfulness class said something that many of the other students appeared to be thinking.

“I’m irritated,” he said, as several of the 30 other students murmured in agreement. Some giggled.

“I can’t really sit this long with my eyes closed without falling asleep,” he added. “I think this is overall positive. Maybe I just have a long way to go.”

Mindfulness has been touted as a way to boost quality-of-life issues, and the students in the class were there for various reasons: some to learn to relax, others to cope with health issues, and — at least one student — to support her recovery from alcoholism.
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