Research News Flash: Scientists Grow Cells For Possible Diabetes Cure

Human Stem Cell Beta Cells/Photo Courtesy Doug Melton, Harvard University

Human Stem Cell Beta Cells/Photo Courtesy Doug Melton, Harvard University

In what is being called a major advance on the road toward more effective diabetes treatment, Harvard researchers report that they’ve been able to grow large quantities of human, insulin-producing pancreatic “beta cells” from human embryonic stem cells. Why is this important?

As the leader of this massive, years-long effort, Doug Melton, the superstar Harvard stem cell researcher said in a news conference Tuesday: “This finding provides a kind of unprecedented cell source that could be used both for drug discovery and cell transplantation therapy in diabetes.” And as NPR’s Rob Stein put it: “The long-sought advance could eventually lead to new ways to help millions of people with diabetes.”

Reporter Karen Weintraub, writing for National Geographic, describes why the research, conducted in diabetic mice, has taken so long, with so many twists and turns:

The researchers started with cells taken from a days-old human embryo. At that point, the cells are capable of turning into any cell in the body. Others have tried to make beta cells from these human embryonic stem cells, but never fully succeeded. Melton’s team spent a decade testing hundreds of combinations before finally coaxing the stem cells into becoming beta cells.

“If you were going to make a fancy kind of raspberry chocolate cake with vanilla frosting, you’d pretty much know all the components you have to add, but it’s the way you add them and the order and the timing, how long you cook it” that makes the difference, Melton, also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, said at [the] news conference. “The solution took a long time.”

Here’s (a lot) more detail from the Harvard news release, written by B.D. Colen:

Harvard stem cell researchers today announced that they have made a giant leap forward in the quest to find a truly effective treatment for type 1 diabetes, a condition that affects an estimated three million Americans at a cost of about $15 billion annually.

With human embryonic stem cells as a starting point, the scientists are for the first time able to produce, in the kind of massive quantities needed for cell transplantation and pharmaceutical purposes, human insulin-producing beta cells equivalent in most every way to normally functioning beta cells.

Doug Melton, who led the work and who twenty-three years ago, when his then infant son Sam was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, dedicated his career to finding a cure for the disease, said he hopes to have human transplantation trials using the cells to be underway within a few years.

“We are now just one pre-clinical step away from the finish line,” said Melton, whose daughter Emma also has type 1 diabetes.

A report on the new work has today been published by the journal Cell. Continue reading

At Harvard And Beyond, Flame Retardants Under Fire

By Karen Weintraub
Guest contributor

Is that armchair you’re about to sink into bad for your health?

Quite possibly, according to a growing body of research that is raising questions about flame retardants — used on couches and myriad household items so they don’t combust — and the toxic chemicals they release into the air. Things have gotten so bad that Harvard, under pressure from students and faculty, is considering eliminating flame retardant dorm furniture from campus.



Flame retardants, also known as PBDE’s (Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers) are ubiquitous, required since the 1970s by fire marshals in every state and community, and promoted by the chemical industry that makes them. But critics say they’re problematic — both in everyday use and when burned – and their effectiveness at stopping fires is also being questioned.

Flame retardants accumulate in the blood stream and can cause endocrine disruption — essentially mucking with hormones needed to grow, reproduce, and think and avoid cancer, according to studies in animals. They also release cancer-causing chemicals like dioxin when burned, said Robin Dodson, a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute, an environmental group. Their impact is particularly significant in young children and during pregnancy, research suggests.

Now, the tide of public opinion is turning against these chemicals, with intense lobbying in California, which led the nation in setting high standards and is now revising them.

Harvard’s administration said last week that it will do what it can to respond to student requests to get rid of flame retardants on campus. Continue reading

Harvard-MIT Study: Your Ear Is A (Very Weak) Battery

(Wikimedia Commons)

I must be really punchy in a post-election way, but this news release just sent over by Nature fills me with ineffable technophilic delight and makes me want to sing “My ear is a battery” to the tune of “My Heart’s Like A Kick Drum“:

Biotechnology: Battery power from the ear

The battery-like electrochemical gradient that naturally exists in the inner ear of a mammal has been harvested for the first time and used to power a small wireless transmitter. As reported in a study published online this week in Nature Biotechnology, with further optimization, this approach may one day serve to power drug-delivery vehicles, molecular sensors or other devices implanted in the vicinity of the human ear, such as hearing aids.
The ‘endocochlear potential’ in the inner ear is the only electrochemical potential in animals that occurs across such a large anatomical structure. A major challenge in capturing the energy of the endocochlear potential is that the voltage and extractable power are very low—at least ten times lower than what can be captured using the most efficient existing circuits.
Anantha Chandrakasan, Konstantina Stankovic and colleagues overcame this challenge using a specially designed electronics chip. With the chip placed on the surface of an anesthetized guinea pig and connected to tiny electrodes embedded in the cochlea, the authors succeeded in extracting ~1 nW of power for as long as 5 hours, which was enough power to run a wireless radio that transmitted measurements of the endocochlear potential.

Fed Report Finds Research Misconduct By Harvard’s Hauser

Was Harvard’s Marc Hauser too invested in his own hypotheses?

The federal Office of Research Integrity has just posted its report on Marc Hauser, the charismatic Harvard professor whose stellar career blew up in scandal last summer when he was accused of fudging his data. The Globe continues its leading streak on this story with today’s report by Carolyn Johnson here, including this:

Marc Hauser, a prolific scientist and popular psychology professor who last summer resigned from Harvard University, had fabricated data, manipulated results in multiple experiments, and described how experiments were conducted in factually incorrect ways, according to the findings of a federal research oversight agency posted online Wednesday.

The report provides the greatest insight yet into the problems that triggered a secretive three-year internal university investigation that concluded in 2010 that Hauser, a star professor and public intellectual, had committed eight instances of scientific misconduct. The document, which will be published in the Federal Register Thursday, found six cases in which Hauser engaged in research misconduct in work supported by the National Institutes of Health. One paper was retracted and two were corrected, and other problems were found in unpublished work.

Read the full Globe story here. And check out our past stories on Hauser, whose writing included fascinating work on whether morality is hard-wired. (One wonders: If it is, did he have a glitch in a circuit?) They include The Marc Hauser Files: Was It Confirmation Bias?, The Marc Hauser Counter-Offensive Begins and Monkey Business: Harvard Details Hauser’s Misconduct.

Born This Way: Lady Gaga, Harvard Join Forces

It’s not often that you get to write about Lady Gaga and Harvard in the same sentence, but here it is: The inimitable meat-wearing diva announced today that she’ll officially launch the new Born This Way Foundation, partnering with Harvard, among others to “reach youth and create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment.”

Here’s the press release announcing the debut event, Feb. 29 at Harvard’s Sanders Theatre:

Born This Way Foundation to partner with The John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The California Endowment, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Harvard Graduate School of Education on event

Los Angeles, CA (January 19, 2012) – Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, announced today that they will officially launch the Born This Way Foundation (BTWF) on Wednesday, February 29th, 2012 at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Lady Gaga will be joined by some very special guests as she personally unveils BTWF before a crowd of policy makers, non-profit organizations, foundation leaders and youth themselves who are working to create a kinder and braver world. The one-day event will be co-hosted by BTWF, the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The California Endowment.

“My daughter’s foundation was born out of her passion to create a better world where people are kinder and nicer to one another and are accepted for who they are, regardless of how different they may be,” said Cynthia Germanotta. “She has experienced many of the struggles that our youth encounter today, and identifies with the lasting effects they can have without proper support. Together, we look forward to creating a new movement that will engage and empower youth and accept them as valuable members of our society.” Continue reading

Larry Summers On Health Reform: Bottom Up Is Better Than Top Down

Economist Lawrence Summers

He began with a great disclaimer, avowing that he had no special expertise on health care. Then he proceeded to sum up the country’s whole health care mess with such perfect pithiness that it made my toes curl.

Uber-economist Lawrence Summers, former secretary of the U.S. Treasury and former controversial president of Harvard, spoke yesterday at the inaugural Health Policy Symposium at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He’s back at Harvard now as a professor, and mostly speaks at note-taking speed, but I’ve had to paraphrase here and there. I’ll begin with the ending, which felt a bit like the kind of “Go forth and do good work” benediction he might have offered graduating Harvard seniors:

“This is all very, very difficult. And I guess the thought that I would want to leave you with, assessing this debate from the outside, is that if there is a happy end to this tale — if, looking back from 2030, we’re seeing that not just was the arc of justice bent towards liberty but the arc of health care costs was bent toward flatness —  if that is what we look forward to, I think it is less likely that it came from a sweeping act of Congress and it is more likely that it came from widely emulated innovation in individual settings.

That it came from hospitals that found creative and inventive way to improve the quality of care and cut costs, and then whose procedure was so compelling that it had to be emulated elsewhere.

We are much more likely to succeed…from the bottom up than we are from the top down.

That it came from cities where coalitions of hospital providers and major employers worked out improved reimbursement understandings, found ways of fine-tuning reimbursements so that costs grew less rapidly.

We are much more likely to succeed, both with respect to the cost-containment challenge and with respect to the closely related quality challenge, from the bottom up than we are from the top down.

So my hope…would be that just as we live in a remarkable period of scientific innovation, we can live in a remarkable period of institutional innovation — and, if you like, social scientific innovation that points toward emulatable solutions to these problems.

President Clinton used to say that there was no problem in American education that had not been solved somewhere in America, and I suspect that most of the problems in health care have been solved somewhere in America. And our challenge is to match scientific innovation with innovation in patterns of practice, in provision of incentives, in monitoring and rewarding of outcomes.

It’s a feature of exponential growth that the stakes get larger every year. I think we are going to succeed with respect to broadening the availability of coverage very substantially, but I cannot claim that we’re securely on a path toward better cost-containment or improvement of quality. I think that’s the task for all of you.”

Now back to the beginning: Continue reading

Breathing Easier: Asthma And The Placebo Effect

Asthmatics report improvement in symptoms after taking placebo medications

Asthma can be terrifying. One minute you’re breathing, the next, you’re gasping for air. I’ll never forget my little brother, chest heaving, rushed to the emergency room during middle-of-the-night attacks.

But despite its dramatic and objectively physical nature, asthma is also a disease with an element of subjectivity.

That point is elegantly underscored in a new study just published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Harvard Medical School investigators found that when asthma patients were treated with the medication albuterol, their lung function improved significantly compared to those given placebo, or fake, treatments. However, and here’s the rub, when the same patients were asked to report how they were feeling — a subjective measure — placebo treatments turned out to be as effective as real medicine in helping to relieve asthma symptoms and alleviate patients’ discomfort.

Indeed, the placebo effect seemed to be on full display here: whether patients were on albuterol, the placebo inhaler or undergoing sham acupuncture (which feels real, but in fact uses trick needles that don’t penetrate the skin) they all reported significant symptomatic improvement compared to little improvement among patients who got no treatment at all.

The takeaway, researchers agree, is that there’s something therapeutic about the act of treatment itself, the ritual of care and the reassuring bond between doctor and patient that makes people feel better, whether or not their treatment includes pills or drugs with an active ingredient. Continue reading

What’s The Least You Can Expect Electronically From Your Doctor?

For the last two years, Dr. David Blumenthal was the czar of Health Information Technology for the Obama administration, overseeing its monumental efforts to push the country toward electronic medical records. This is his first week back at his Harvard home, in a Massachusetts General Hospital office about the size of a walk-in closet, bookshelves still waiting to be filled. Rachel and I spoke with him today about his experiences in Washington, his current plans and the state of Health IT in the country and the state.

We’ll share more of that debriefing tomorrow. But first, the news you can use: in the video above and the text below, he answers the practical question: What’s the least we should expect from our doctors, at this point, in terms of using computers?

I think you should expect your doctor, nurse, and pharmacist to have your personal health information in electronic form. That means they should be entering it pretty much at the time you see them. You should be able to find your medicines, your problems, your X-ray and lab results, in their computers.

And I think increasingly you should expect your doctor to be able to communicate with you by secure email. That’s going to increasingly be a standard. Some physicians are reluctant to do that because they’re afraid they’ll be overwhelmed, but objectively, we’re at the stage we were at with the telephone 70 years ago. It’s hard to imagine a physician without phone access, and its going to be hard to imagine a physician without electronic communication.

It’s a little too soon to expect them to be in electronic communication with other doctors and hospitals. Our systems in many parts of the country are not yet capable of that. We should be capable of doing this soon in this market, in the Eastern Massachusetts market. And I think the obstacles are more a matter of will and effort and money than they are of technology.

Tomorrow: Dr. Blumenthal went to Washington. What surprised him there? How can technology help cut health care costs? And what is the current state of play in terms of federal incentives to go electronic?

Spiritual Health And Rev. Gomes: Finding Inspiration As A Black, Gay Christian At Harvard

Matt Thompson, NPR, remembers the Rev. Peter Gomes

This comment comes from our own inspiring thinker on all matters digital, journalistic and cutting-edge, NPR’s Matt Thompson, aka, our boss.

Matt poignantly recalls a particularly electrifying benediction that the late Rev. Peter Gomes delivered to a class of sleep-deprived, partied-out Harvard seniors which jolted them into sobriety. “The future is God’s gift to you,” Mr. Gomes told the young students. ”God will not let you stumble or fall. God has not brought you this far to this place to abandon you or leave you here alone and afraid. The God of Israel never stumbles, never sleeps, never goes on sabbatical.”

Matt writes:

I remember that benediction very well. That morning (for me it was 2002) is still one of the moments of my life that have really stuck with me. Imagine: It’s Commencement Day, a Thursday. The night before, everyone’s been partying until the wee hours, in denial about the fact that we have to be up at 6:30 in the morning to attend some sort of church service at Memorial Chapel. Bleary-eyed, yawning, we process into our dining halls for a Commencement breakfast, then march ceremonially through Harvard Square, around the Yard, and into the chapel. There’s more than 1,200 of us, so we can’t all take seats; many of us are standing or sitting on the floor. It’s still crap o’clock. We’re still tired. But then …

The pulpit of Memorial Chapel looms over the congregation like a spaceship. Into this edifice walks Reverend Gomes, seeming even larger and more impressive than the pulpit itself. Then his booming baritone electrifies the room, New England accent so pronounced it sounds British, eliminating all thoughts of sleep, transfixing us until that glorious benediction: “May you work until your life is done, may you live until your work is over.”*

As a black, gay student who’d attended Christian school all my life until Harvard, the pure fact of Reverend Gomes was a revelation. The Good Book has probably done more than anything else I’d read to put me at my peace with myself and with my ideas of God. And now I trust the good Reverend is at peace. But I’m sorry that more students won’t get a chance to experience his magic in person.

*That’s how I remember the benediction; he might have switched it up between ’98 and ’02.

Why To Exercise Today: To Avoid Losing

These kids got into Harvard for good reason. The Boston Globe reports here that a couple of recent Harvard grads are executing a smart idea: They help motivate people to work out by penalizing them financially if they fail to meet their own exercise schedules.

The new company is called Gym-Pact, and the Globe reports:

Gym-Pact negotiated a group rate with Planet Fitness, then paid the membership fees for participants, who in return for a free membership agreed to work out at least four times per week. If they fail to follow the schedule in any one week, the participants pay $25. If they leave the program for any reason other than injury or illness, they will pay $75. For now the fees will be used to pay for the gym memberships and to build a financial aid fund.

This is a beautiful use of behavioral economics, which includes findings that people make different decisions depending on whether the cool, rational side of the brain is in charge (“It is good for me to exercise”) or the hot, emotional side (“But all I really want to do right now is eat comfort food and curl up on the couch.”) Gym-Pact is trying to help people use their cool sides now (“I pledge to work out four times a week”) to harness their hot sides in the future. (“Ouch, I really don’t want to lose that 25 bucks.”)

Dr. Eddie Phillips, director of the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, adds: “Studies show that people are generally motivated more by what they might lose, in this case money, than what they may gain. My take on it is that you have to focus on what you are losing by NOT exercising: the mental health benefits–endorphins and stress reduction–the cardiovascular benefits, flexibility and strength, all the good things that come with a regular commitment to exercise. Is it worth that cost to skip the gym?”

You might try this at home. Make a verbal pact with someone who really doesn’t deserve your hard-earned money that you’ll pay them a fee if you don’t meet your workout schedule. Let me know how it goes!