Personalized Cancer Test Pinpoints Best Drug For Patients

By Alison Bruzek

Cancer, whether in the pancreas, the ovaries or the liver, can take on different characteristics and spread in different ways. That’s why, unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all drug to help patients fight back.

But a new, quick test can personalize treatment and help oncologists choose which chemotherapy route to take.

The test, called Dynamic BH3 Profiling, quickly predicts whether or not a drug will work for a patient by first trying that drug on a tumor sample in the lab. A paper describing the method, which researchers say could become more widespread within a couple of years, was published in the journal Cell this week.

The idea echoes how we choose the most effective antibiotics, says study author Dr. Anthony Letai, a cancer researcher with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

A new tool for predicting relapse in acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) was developed by Dr. Anthony Letai (Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)

A new tool for predicting relapse in acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) was developed by Dr. Anthony Letai (Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute)

“When we’re trying to choose antibiotics for people … we simply isolate the bacteria that’s causing the problem and expose it to all the drugs that are available,” he says. Then researchers choose the drugs that best put a lid on the multiplying bacteria.

“That has operated for many, many decades,” Letai says, “so we thought, why not do that for cancer cells?”

Letai’s team isn’t the first to think of this strategy. “People have tried to do this kind of thing in years past but there have been a variety of advances in technology … that make it more feasible this time around,” says Levi Garraway, a cancer researcher at Dana-Farber who was not involved with the study.

What’s different about Letai’s work is its speed: It can quickly determine whether a drug, or combination of drugs, is working. The test looks not at when the tumor cells are dead, but rather when they’re beginning to die.

The ‘Death Switch’

The researchers found that there is a point of no return, a threshold of doom, when cells begin to die that is indicative of their actual death. The team looked at varying types of cancer cells (breast, lung, melanoma) and saw that there was essentially a death switch that when flipped on, ensured the cell’s destruction.

Examining if a cancer drug flipped this switch, instead of waiting to see if the cells would eventually die, allowed the researchers to know, in about 16 to 24 hours, which drugs were working. Continue reading

Medical Marijuana 101: What It’s Like Inside A Colorado Dispensary

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Jars labeled butterscotch, chocolate mint and caramel macchiato tea glisten inside the lit refrigerator. The shelf above is stacked with pizza, flatbreads and butter. The one below has lemon bars, brownies and cookies.

The fridge could be in any higher-end grab-and-go lunch stop. But to shop here, you must present a medical marijuana patient card. And the ingredient list includes the type of pot, along with flour, sugar, milk, etc.

This is Trichome Health Consultants, a medical marijuana dispensary tucked into a line of glass storefronts on a semi-commercial strip in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As Massachusetts prepares to open its first dispensary, possibly in April, this is a glimpse into the future. Continue reading

Gov. Baker Forces Resignation Of 4 Health Connector Board Members

Gov. Charlie Baker sought and received the resignations of four member of the state’s Health Connector board, including MIT economist Jonathan Gruber, who came under fire for saying it was “the stupidity of the American voter” that led to the passage of President Obama’s 2010 heath care law.

The move helps Baker consolidate his authority over the agency responsible for helping Massachusetts residents find affordable health care plans.

Gruber became a political lightening rod following his comments and was chastised by opponents of the law. He was called to testify before Congress in December, when he told lawmakers he was “inexcusably arrogant” when he made the statement.

Besides Gruber, Baker also asked for the resignations of board members George Gonser, John Bertko and Rick Jakious — all appointees of former Gov. Deval Patrick. Continue reading

Why To Exercise Today: Protection (In Mice) From Diabetes Effect On Heart

Screen shot 2015-02-25 at 10.33.10 AM

You’ve probably seen those scary maps showing a wave of obesity engulfing the country over the last generation, as state after state converts to more-overweight-than-not. The map above comes from a similar animation, only the wave is diabetes. Watch the states turn alarming colors over time here.

For many of us as we age, Type 2 diabetes is not so much a question of “if” as “when.” So even if you don’t have diabetes now, here’s a bit more inspiration to help fend it off with exercise: Researchers report that — in mice, at least — exercise appears to protect powerfully against a potentially fatal heart complication of diabetes.

The complication is called diabetic cardiomyopathy, and it can lead to heart failure. It may not be first on your list of fears (especially if you’ve never heard of it before, as I hadn’t), but these new findings serve as yet another demonstration of the countless ways that exercise may defend you against health harms.  From the University of Virginia Health System’s press release:

“This is a proof of concept. It shows that an antioxidant coming from skeletal muscle that can be induced by exercise training can provide profound protection against an important detrimental disease condition,” said UVA researcher Zhen Yan, PhD. “The implication is if we can come up with a strategy to promote [this effect] in people who are vulnerable to, or already developing, diabetes, that could prevent the development of diabetic cardiomyopathy.”

Yan and his team used genetically modified mice to show that enhancing the production of a molecule called EcSOD – which is produced in skeletal muscle and promoted by regular exercise – would prevent the damaging effects of diabetic cardiomyopathy. These effects include stiffening and enlargement of the heart, which can lead to heart failure.

While the work amplified the expression of the molecule to levels beyond what normal exercise would produce, Yan said it’s an important demonstration of the concrete benefits of regular exercise in people. “Our studies show that even as little as two weeks of exercise could significantly elevate the level in the blood and the heart,” he said.

Yan says he’s also hoping to develop a pill that could help patients who can’t exercise, or boost the effect in people who can. Ah, yes, the eternal search for the exercise pill. Don’t hold your breath — better to huff and puff instead.

The Buffet Phenomenon: Researchers Find More Food Choices Linked To Fatter Mice

(Alpha/Flickr)

(Alpha/Flickr)

This is why I hate buffets: Too many food choices make my head spin. For weight control, I prefer the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach — keep the oversized muffins and pepperoni pizzas out of the house altogether. Call me rigid, but it seems to work.

Apparently, mice have similar issues, according to a study published in the journal Endocrinology.

The study tried to tease out the relative importance of genetics vs. environment when it comes to obesity risk. So, baby mice born to mothers with a defined high-fat or low-fat diet were randomly assigned to one of three diet groups: either a high-fat diet, a low-fat diet or to an “eat what you want” diet in which they got to pick and choose among the various options.

Researchers from Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine report that:  “Offspring displayed negative outcomes of increased body weight, body fat, serum leptin, and blood glucose levels when given the choice diet compared with offspring on the [low-fat diet].”

This begs the question whether a child’s environment can indeed trump genetics when it comes to obesity.

The Virginia Tech news release quotes one of the study authors who wraps up the findings simply:

“We like variety,” said Deborah Good, an associate professor of human nutrition, foods, and exercise at Virginia Tech. “But when there is a choice, we eat more than when there is not any variety.”

Though the study was done using mice, it can help inform researchers of how human’s natural environment can affect food choices and ultimately a person’s weight. In a country where one-third of adults and 17 percent of children are obese, understanding the root causes of the problem is imperative.

One apparent upside found among mice in the choice group, according to the report: they had “improved energy expenditure” compared to the low-or high-fat diet groups. “Essentially,” the news release says, “the mice burned more energy as they wandered around and evaluated which food they were going to eat.”

This recalls the food and environment research of Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. A recent Psychology Today article on how we eat (and overeat) called, “Why Out of Sight is Really Out Of Mind,” discusses how we can slip into mindless eating in a world where food is everywhere. But there are ways to eat smarter, if you think about what you’re doing:

Wansink found that slim people approach an “all you can eat” buffet by “scouting out” what is available — “getting the lay of the land,” as it were — before they grab their plates and pile on food. They are also more likely to sit facing away from, and to choose a table farther away from a buffet; more likely to choose small plates; and, if eating Chinese food, eat with chopsticks.

Jean Fain, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist who runs “mindful eating” training sessions, has offered some tips on how to curb excessive eating, particularly during the holidays, when tables are brimming with tempting sweets and heavy dishes loaded with nostalgia. In a December post, she wrote:

If you find yourself automatically reaching for another piece of pumpkin cheesecake, step back from the dessert table and ask yourself: “How do I feel? What do I need? Do I really want another piece of cheesecake?” If you do, by all means, enjoy. But if you feel full, better to interrupt the automatic urge for more. It’ll taste better when you’re hungry. What’s more, a short interruption can give you back control.

Cartoon: A Snowballing Winter, In The Eyes Of A Medically Fragile Child

Boston Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Jack Maypole directs a program for parents of children who are “medically fragile.” Their conditions include prematurity, autism, seizure disorders and cerebral palsy. Many use wheelchairs.

This winter’s wild weather has proven a tiresome inconvenience for many of us, but for the population Dr. Maypole serves, it threatens far worse. He writes:

“In this cartoon diary, I attempt to capture whatever I can of the additional challenges and stressors experienced by parents (often single mothers) caring for a family member with complex illness or special needs. I submit this to you with hopes it will shed a little light — and perspective — on the daily struggles of these often heroic parents doing more with less than many of us.”

(Click here and zoom in to see the cartoon larger.)

(Courtesy of Boston Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Jack Maypole)

(Courtesy of Boston Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Jack Maypole)

Slashing The Pink Ribbon From Beyond The Grave

We’ve written about “Pink Fatigue,” “depinkification,” “pinkwashing,” “Taking on the Pink Juggernaut.” It’s getting to the point that every pink-tinged October also brings a backlash arguing that National Breast Cancer Awareness Month has perhaps jumped the shark.

But never have I read as powerful and furious an indictment of the current breast cancer scene as a piece by longtime Los Angeles Times reporter Laurie Becklund, As I Lay Dying. She died of metastatic breast cancer on Feb. 8, a postscript notes, but I suspect her writing will live virally on for a long time. An excerpt:

Promise me, I told my friends and family, that you’ll never say that I died after “fighting a courageous battle with breast cancer.” This tired, trite line dishonors the dead and the dying by suggesting that we, the victims, are responsible for our deaths or that the fight we were in was ever fair.

Promise me you’ll never wear a pink ribbon in my name or drop a dollar into a bucket that goes to breast cancer “awareness” for “early detection for a cure,” the mantra of fund-raising juggernaut Susan G. Komen, which has propagated a distorted message about breast cancer and how to “cure” it.

I’m proof that early detection doesn’t cure cancer. I had more than 20 mammograms, and none of them caught my disease. In fact, we now have significant studies showing that routine mammogram screening, which may result in misdiagnoses, unnecessary treatment and radiation overexposure, can harm more people than it helps.

Laurie Becklund tells her own story of unexpected cancer recurrence; she describes grappling with her new identity as someone who was surely dying, and her encounters with other women in the same situation; and she expresses her outrage at how the medical establishment and the breast cancer world have failed such patients. Part of her conclusion:

The most powerful organization in the breast cancer universe, Susan G. Komen , has raised $2.5 billion over the last 20 years, much more than many corporations will ever earn. Yet Komen channels only a fraction of those funds into research or systems to help those who are already seriously sick. Most of that money continues to go to a breast cancer “awareness” campaign that is now painfully out of date. Continue reading

Painkillers? Prozac? Brazilian Blowout? Hotline Counsels Pregnant Women On Risks

(Tatiana VdB/Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Tatiana VdB/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Joy Shapiro of Framingham, Mass., was the sort of hyper-cautious expectant mother who doesn’t just cut out alcohol and caffeine. She worried about the ingredients in everything she consumed or put on her body, from fitness drinks to sunscreen.

But thanks to a referral from her obstetrician, she had a secret weapon against her anxiety: Patricia Cole, the program coordinator for MotherToBaby Massachusetts — also known as the Pregnancy Exposure Infoline — whom she “bombarded” with queries.

“At one point, I emailed her like 20 ingredients that were in my face cream to say, ‘Are any of these going to be a detriment to my pregnancy?’” Shapiro says. “You’re essentially living for two, and you want to make sure you’re not doing anything that could harm your child.”

Cole helped Shapiro navigate not just food and cosmetics but medications — prescription steroids, acid reflux, nasal sprays. The sorts of decisions that have become commonplace, nearly universal, in a country where 9 out of 10 pregnant women take at least one medication during pregnancy, and 7 out of 10 take a prescription drug.

“Less than 10 percent of approved medications have enough data to show what, if any, concerns there are for fetal effects.”

– Dr. Cheryl Broussard, CDC

Many of the old concerns about risky exposures during pregnancy — leaded paint, thalidomide — have faded, but in this nation of prescription-fillers, meds have become a major worry.

Last year, the CDC launched its Treating for Two Website, part of a national initiative aimed at making medication use during pregnancy safer. It seeks better research on the effects of meds during pregnancy, and better guidance for expectant mothers and their doctors. The agency warned just last month about the potential risks of opioid painkillers — such as codeine or oxycodone — for pregnant women.

“Really, the problem is that we just don’t know a lot of information,” says Dr. Cheryl Broussard, a CDC expert on medication use during pregnancy. “We know that up to 9 out of 10 pregnant women take at least one medication during pregnancy, but less than 10 percent of approved medications have enough data to show what, if any, concerns there are for fetal effects.”

Clinical trials on drugs seeking approval generally do not include pregnant women, or drop women if they become pregnant. Continue reading

Debating Vitamin D: Leading Docs Still Wrangling On Best Dose For Patients

(Suzanne Schroeter/Flickr)

(Suzanne Schroeter/Flickr)

The message on vitamin D is pretty clear if you talk to Dr. JoAnn E. Manson, M.D., chief of the preventive medicine division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who is leading the largest clinical trial in the world investigating the potential health benefits of vitamin D. It boils down to this: Curb Your Enthusiasm. At least for the time being. Even in the midst of a hellish winter when you may be tempted to take an extra dose of the so-called “Sunshine Vitamin” for a boost.

In a commentary piece published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Manson urges caution. She says that even though the public has become smitten with vitamin D, its growing popularity has led to mega-dosing that’s not backed by the current evidence. “More isn’t always better, more is sometimes worse,” Manson said in an interview. “We don’t yet have the answers, so we shouldn’t make assumptions.” But, she adds, in a couple of years, gold-standard evidence on whether higher doses of vitamin D are good for you should be out.

But get on the phone with Dr. Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D., a leading vitamin D proponent, endocrinologist at Boston Medical Center and professor at Boston University School of Medicine, and you’ll get a totally different, but equally clear message. Vitamin D deficiency and insufficiency are far more widespread than certain professional medical groups suggest, Holick says, and dosing at higher levels shows “no evidence of toxicity.”

How did we get here and what’s a patient to do?

Here’s a little background:

In debates over nutrition, vitamin D is one of those supplements that’s drawn both passionate supporters and equally aggressive skeptics over the years. And, like coffee, chocolate and red wine, it’s often the subject of studies that can make your head spin: it’s good for you…until it’s not.

The current vitamin D guidelines from the Institute of Medicine recommend 600 IU’s per day for adults up to 70 years old and 800 IU’s per day for those over 70. “This,” writes Manson in her JAMA piece “is equivalent to 3 to 4 daily servings of fortified foods such as milk, yogurt, soy beverages, orange juice, or cereal, plus fatty fish twice per week. These amounts are adequate for at least 97.5% of U.S. and Canadian residents, she says, and it’s good even in the bleakest, darkest season, “even if you’re in Antartica in winter.” Continue reading

Nutrition Panel: Cut Down On Sugar To Combat Obesity, Chronic Disease

(Mel B via Compfight)

(Mel B via Compfight)

A U.S. advisory panel on nutrition has issued a sweeping report on the American diet that many of us won’t find earth shattering. One key conclusion: we should eat less sugar.

The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee offered its recommendations to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture today as part of a process to develop new national dietary guidelines, which are updated every five years. Public comments are currently being accepted.

As far as sugar goes, the report states that: “Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence.”

The report’s authors said they were guided by “two fundamental realities”:

“First, about half of all American adults — 117 million individuals — have one or more preventable, chronic diseases, and about two-thirds of U.S. adults — nearly 155 million individuals — are overweight or obese. These conditions have been highly prevalent for more than two decades. Poor dietary patterns, overconsumption of calories, and physical inactivity directly contribute to these disorders. Second, individual nutrition and physical activity behaviors and other health-related lifestyle behaviors are strongly influenced by personal, social, organizational, and environmental contexts and systems. Positive changes in individual diet and physical activity behaviors, and in the environmental contexts and systems that affect them, could substantially improve health outcomes.

Here’s more about the dietary recommendations:

The overall body of evidence examined by the 2015 DGAC identifies that a healthy dietary pattern is higher in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat;i and low in sugar-sweetened foods and drinks and refined grains. Vegetables and fruit are the only characteristics of the diet that were consistently identified in every conclusion statement across the health outcomes. Whole grains were identified slightly less consistently compared to vegetables and fruits, but were identified in every conclusion with moderate to strong evidence. For studies with limited evidence, grains were not as consistently defined and/or they were not identified as a key characteristic. Low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, nuts, and alcohol were identified as beneficial characteristics of the diet for some, but not all, outcomes. For conclusions with moderate to strong evidence, higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to lower intake….

Continue reading