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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Not Male Or Female: Molding Bodies To Fit A Genderfluid Identity

From left to right, Devon Jones, Dale Jackson and Taan Shapiro. (Courtesy)

From left to right, Devon Jones, Dale Jackson and Taan Shapiro. (Courtesy)

For more than three years, Devon Jones gave himself weekly shots of testosterone to align his body with the feeling that he was male. The shots worked. Jones’ voice dropped, body fat shifted from his thighs and breasts into his neck and stomach, and he sprouted facial hair.

But then last year, Jones, a 27-year-old author who lives in Dorchester, stopped taking the hormone.

“I realized that wasn’t the look I was ultimately going for,” Jones said. “I wanted to still have breasts that had substance to them, they’d really shrunk and I wanted that back.”

And Jones wants the option of getting pregnant and having a child, something he could not do while testosterone overpowered estrogen in his body. It’s not clear if he will be able to get pregnant now.

“I’ll only know that when I try,” he said.

Jones still use male pronouns. The changes to his voice are permanent. But as estrogen again becomes the dominant hormone in Jones’ body, the hair on his face doesn’t grow as quickly and his body fat has shifted back.

“I have a more curvy feminine shape. I’m more comfortable now with people being confused. So it’s an evolving process. It’s weird to be in the middle of it right now actually, and talking about it,” Jones said, his voice trailing off.

Jones is part of a growing group of young adults who are genderfluid and are using hormone therapy and surgery to create bodies that matches this identity.

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The Science Of Suicide: Researchers Work To Determine Who’s Most At Risk

Harvard psychology professor Matt Nock and research assistant Nicole Murman demonstrate the Implicit Association Test related to suicide risk. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Harvard psychology professor Matt Nock and research assistant Nicole Murman demonstrate the Implicit Association Test related to suicide risk. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Part of an occasional series we’re calling “Suicide: A Crisis In The Shadows

BOSTON — Up on the 12th floor of a nondescript concrete building in Cambridge, about a dozen Harvard University researchers spend their days trying to crack the code on something that’s eluded scientists for decades.

“We’re really lacking in our ability to accurately predict suicidal behavior and to prevent it,” says psychology professor Matt Nock, who runs the so-called Nock Lab, which is focused entirely on suicide and self-harm. “We are really struggling with identifying which people who think about suicide go on to act on their suicidal thoughts and which ones don’t.”

Nock demonstrates a computer-based exercise he’s using in his research, known as the Implicit Association Test, or IAT. The test asks patients to quickly classify words related to life or death — such as “thriving” or “suicide” — as being like them or like other people.

“For suicidal people, they’re faster responding when ‘death’ and ‘me’ are paired on the same side of the screen. People who are non-suicidal are faster responding when ‘death’ and ‘not me’ are paired on the same side of the screen,” Nock explains.

He and his team are evaluating the test by trying it out with patients in the psychiatric emergency room at Massachusetts General Hospital. The study participants do one other word classification exercise called Stroop and answer questions about addiction, mental illness and suicidal thoughts or behavior. Continue reading

Wishing They Asked Tough Questions: Reflecting On A Father’s Suicide

Valerie Alfeo files through a table full of old family photos at her home in Waltham. Her father, Ted Washburn, took his own life in 2011. He was 54. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Valerie Alfeo files through a table full of old family photos at her home in Waltham. Her father, Ted Washburn, took his own life in 2011. He was 54. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Part of an occasional series, “Suicide: A Crisis In The Shadows

WALTHAM, Mass. — TJ Washburn first learned his father, Ted Washburn, was battling depression in 2009. That’s when the then-52-year-old starved himself for three days.

“He said basically that he was planning on not eating or drinking anything until he passed away,” TJ recalls. “And obviously shock kind of sets in at first.”

Ted, who lived in Waltham, spent a few weeks in two psychiatric units. And during that time his son was stunned to learn he had attempted suicide at the age of 21 — two years before he started having children.

“To think that he could have taken his life before I was born was something that was just… surreal is the best word that I keep using — that I can’t really imagine,” TJ says.

But in 2009, when their father got out of the hospital and right back into his routine as a truck driver, TJ and his sister, Valerie Alfeo, say he didn’t talk about his depression. And they didn’t ask much.

“I was scared. I mean, for me it’s half of the people who created me. You still have them on a pedestal to some degree, even at late 20s, early 30s,” TJ reflects. “I mean, I still would go to him, ask him for his advice. I guess I wasn’t prepared to be kind of on the other end, and be the one giving any advice.”

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AG Healey Seeks Ban On Sale Of E-Cigarettes To Minors

Attorney General Maura Healey on Tuesday filed proposed regulations that would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors, prohibit free product giveaways or sampling, and require the devices be kept out of the reach of customers at stores.

Currently there is no state law prohibiting the sale of e-cigarettes to minors in Massachusetts. Several cities and towns have approved their own local age restrictions.

The regulations would treat e-cigarettes like other tobacco products including cigarettes, cigars and chewing tobacco – including banning most sales of e-cigarettes except through face-to-face purchases and not through vending machines except in adults-only establishments.

Attorney General Maura Healey (AP)

Attorney General Maura Healey (AP)

The regulations would also define as an unfair or deceptive practice the sale of nicotine liquid or gel without the use of child-resistant packaging that meets federal standards.

“The regulations make it clear that in Massachusetts an e-cigarette is a cigarette when it comes to protecting our kids,” Healey said.

The regulations don’t extend all current smoking prohibitions to e-cigarettes, including the state’s workplace smoking ban. Healey said she supports legislation that would require users of e-cigarettes to abide by additional smoking regulations.

The metal or plastic battery-powered devices resemble cigarettes but heat a liquid nicotine solution, creating vapor that users inhale.

While e-cigarettes contain fewer toxic substances than burning traditional cigarettes, health officials warn they shouldn’t be considered harmless and say much more needs to be known about long-term effects of e-cigarette use.

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Medical Marijuana 101: Cheese? White Widow? What’s Up With The Names?

I’m standing in a medical marijuana dispensary in Colorado, reading the list of available strains.

There’s Cheese, recommended for patients with multiple sclerosis, insomnia, a lack of appetite or constipation.

Neon Super Skunk is supposed to help with menstrual cramps, fibromyalgia and back pain.

Kind of silly, whatever.

Then I see White Widow, for patients with PTSD and hepatitis C. And Jack the Ripper is billed as relief from chronic pain, depression and anxiety.

Really? My vet buddies are going to try White Widow to ease symptoms of PTSD?

And a patient with anxiety would put their faith in Jack the Ripper for relief?

Several websites caution patients that “it can be hard to put aside the names and focus on what really counts — symptom relief.”

But Dr. Paul Bregman, who runs Medical Cannabis Consulting in Denver, disagrees.

“People are not put off by a name,” Bregman says. “If someone tells you that Jack the Ripper will help your rheumatoid arthritis, people will use it, despite the name.”

Strains are named by their breeder, the person who uses cross-pollination to create a new plant variety. Pretty much anything goes, although some dispensaries do not stock strains that contradict the image of marijuana as a healing agent (like Green Crack and Alaskan Thunder F—).

There does not appear to be any real movement to align recommended medical use with a name. Continue reading

Blue Cross To Expand Results-Based Doctor Payments System

The state’s largest health insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, is moving to expand its system of paying doctors for the quality of their service. It replaces the traditional system of paying doctors for the number of services provided.

To talk about what’s driving this, Andrew Dreyfus, the company’s CEO, joins Morning Edition.

To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above.

Addiction Expert Discusses Statewide Surge In Heroin Overdoses

An educational pamphlet and samples of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opiate overdose, are displayed at a fire station in Taunton. (Elise Amendola/AP)

An educational pamphlet and samples of naloxone, a drug used to counter the effects of opiate overdose, are displayed at a fire station in Taunton. (Elise Amendola/AP)

State Police are trying to understand a surge of heroin and opioid overdoses. Authorities tell the Boston Globe that 114 people died of suspected opioid overdoses last month across the state — double the number in November.

That number also doesn’t include the state’s three biggest cities: Boston, Worcester and Springfield.

Dr. Daniel Alford, who oversees the clinical addiction research and education unit at Boston Medical Center, joins Morning Edition to discuss this statewide rise in suspected heroin deaths.

To hear the full interview, click on the audio player above.

Interview Highlights:

On why the heroin is so deadly:

DA: “I think we’re learning a lot from our patients who are seeking addiction treatment. They certainly have talked about a difference in appearance of the heroin that they’re seeing — there seem to be more crystals. It’s being cut with something, and whether it’s fentanyl or, some people have talked about methamphetamine, it seems that it’s being cut with things that are potentially very lethal.”

“I saw a patient just the other day who talked about the heroin now causing them to pass out within minutes of taking it, so they’re very nervous about using dealers that they’ve never dealt with before. And it’s really an opportunity to start talking to patients about overdose risk and making sure they have Narcan available and that they are not using alone.”

On whether restrictions on prescriptions are causing people to turn to heroin:

DA: “As you make one drug less available there is a tendency to start using other drugs, and heroin is certainly readily available, cheap and quite pure.”

On how doctors aim to scale back on issuing pain prescriptions:

DA: “As we start to decrease the amount of prescribing that’s being done, we clearly don’t want to decrease access to these medications to those who benefit from them because of their chronic pain, but clearly we need to be more careful and safer and there is a lot of educational programs that are ongoing to train prescribers how to prescribe these more safely.”

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Listen: How Health Care Facilities Are Preparing For The Blizzard

Most of us will be hunkered down at home over the next 24 hours, as a blizzard bears down on the state. But police, firefighters, hospital staff and workers at hundreds of nursing homes will be working. Listen above to a report from WBUR’s Martha Bebinger about how hospitals and senior care facilities are preparing to ride out the storm.

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Colleagues Mourn Surgeon Fatally Shot At The Brigham

Staff at Brigham and Women’s hospital Wednesday were mourning the surgeon who was shot and killed Tuesday by the son of a former patient. As WBUR’s Fred Bever reports, Dr. Michael Davidson was remembered both for his skills as a surgeon and his rich personal life. Listen to his full report above.

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