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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
Contributors
Boston Globe Health and Science staff:
Scott Allen
Alice Dembner
Carey Goldberg
Liz Kowalczyk
Stephen Smith
Colin Nickerson
Beth Daley
Karen Weintraub, Deputy Health and Science Editor, and Gideon Gil, Health and Science Editor.
 Short White Coat blogger Ishani Ganguli
 Short White Coat blogger Jennifer Srygley
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« April 29, 2007 - May 05, 2007 | Main | May 13, 2007 - May 19, 2007 »

May 11, 2007

Hollywood smoking rating scripted by Harvard

smoking300.bmp
Scarlett Johansson in "The Black Dahlia," via
the New York Times
.

Smoking will be weighed in movie ratings along with sex, violence and drug use, according to a new policy from a film industry panel influenced by the Harvard School of Public Health.

Before yesterday's announcement by the Motion Picture Association of America, only teenage smoking scenes were taken into account when its ratings board reviewed movies. Now all tobacco use will be evaluated, the MPAA said, taking into consideration whether the portrayals are historically accurate or otherwise appropriate to the film.

Smoking won't mean an automatic "R" rating, but new labels such as "glamorized smoking" or "pervasive smoking" will appear.

"The addition of tobacco smoking as a factor in determining a movie's rating marks an historic and important step by the film industry to protect children and adolescents from one of the most significant health concerns our nation and our children face today," HSPH dean Barry R. Bloom said in a statement.

Bloom, his Harvard colleague Jay Winsten, and Jonathan Samet of Johns Hopkins worked with the MPAA for more than a year to reduce the depiction of smoking in movies, bringing scientists to make presentions to the group.

"By placing smoking on a par with considerations of violence and sex, the Rating Board has acknowledged the public health dangers to children associated with glamorized images of a toxic and lethal addiction to tobacco," Bloom's statement said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 03:23 PM
May 11, 2007

BMC nurses protest scheduled today

By Chris Reidy, Globe Staff

Nurses at Boston Medical Center have scheduled a demonstration for today to protest "management's unfair labor practices," a nurses union said.

The Massachusetts Nurses Association of Canton said management actions "threaten BMC's ability to retain the staff needed to provide the care patients deserve."

Boston Medical Center said patient care and patient safety are its highest priority and added that management will "continue to work with nurses to provide benefits that are important."

"Boston Medical Center values our nurses and is committed to ensuring an exceptional workplace for its staff while providing high quality and safe care for our patients," the hospital said in a statement.

May 11, 2007

Today's Globe: stem cell funding, genetic data sharing, Oxycontin fine, anemia drugs

For all the hype and hope surrounding stem cell research, most of the companies trying to develop treatments from these powerful cells live in a place Governor Deval Patrick this week called the "valley of death."

Children's Hospital Boston is creating a pilot program that will enable families whose children provide DNA for broad medical research to receive individually tailored information on the findings.

Purdue Pharma LP and three current and former executives pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $634.5 million to settle criminal and civil claims they misled doctors as to the addictiveness of Oxycontin.

Best-selling anemia drugs from Amgen Inc. and Johnson & Johnson should have their use restricted because of dangerous side effects, a US advisory panel said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:23 AM
May 10, 2007

Roadblock looms for subsidized insurance plan

By Alice Dembner, Globe staff

The chief financial officer for the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector today said he was "a little concerned" that HealthNet, run by Boston Medical Center, would not meet a federal deadline to secure an insurance license by the end of June.

Patrick Holland today told members of the connector board that BMC hadn't provided the connector with information on its progress toward getting a license from the state Division of Insurance. That license requires proof of financial reserves, among other measures.

If HealthNet doesn't get the license, it could no longer provide coverage under the state-subsidized health insurance program. So far, HealthNet has enrolled about 40 percent of the nearly 70,000 people in the program. Three other plans enroll the remainder.

In a statement after the meeting, HealthNet executive director Jean Haynes, said the "BMC HealthNet Plan meets all applicable commercial HMO and National Association of Insurance Commissioners solvency requirements." She did not address whether the plan would meet the licensing deadline.

Later in the day, the plan released another statement: "BMCHP has always and will continue to meet all of the requirements of the Connector."

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 05:26 PM
May 10, 2007

Connector board member resigns

By Alice Dembner, Globe staff

Bruce Butler has resigned from the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector board.

Governor Deval Patrick will appoint a replacement to the board that is overseeing implementation of the new mandatory health insurance law.

Butler, a former chief actuary for Blue Cross Blue Shield, filled the board seat designated for an actuary. He resigned effective last week, board chairwoman Leslie Kirwan announced today at the monthly board meeting, because the "duties of the board were conflicting with his professional life."

Earlier this year, Butler curtailed some consulting work to avoid a conflict of the interest with the connector. In his resignation letter, he wrote, "I am not able to pursue my independent consulting business adequately while serving on the board."

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 04:15 PM
May 10, 2007

New Bedford doctor's practice restricted

By Liz Kowalczyk, Globe Staff

Dr. John George, an internist who practices in North Dartmouth and at South Coast Hospital Group-St. Luke's Campus in New Bedford, has entered a voluntary agreement with the Board of Registration in Medicine to restrict his practice.

Under the agreement, he cannot have unsupervised contact with female patients. George must perform all exams in the presence of a female chaperone, who shall be approved in advance by the board. He also agreed not to be present in the room while a patient is undressing.

The agreement is not an admission of wrongdoing by George, the document states. The board would not comment on what led to the agreement.

May 10, 2007

Brandeis-led project targets lack of women leaders in medical schools

Relatively few women are department heads or full professors at the four medical schools in Massachusetts. And Dr. Karen Antman of the Boston University School of Medicine is the only female dean.

This lack of women in leadership roles in academic medicine is no longer a pipeline problem, now that medical schools admit equal numbers of men and women, says Dr. Linda Pololi of Brandeis University, who is leading a study of the issue.

The answer to women's persistent under-representation must lie elsewhere, she said in a recent interview. "Something in the system impedes their progress toward taking leadership positions."

Here are the percentages of women in leadership positions at Massachusetts medical schools and how they compare with all 125 medical schools nationwide, according to 2005 data from the Association of American Medical Colleges provided by Pololi:

Deans
BU 100%
Harvard 0%
Tufts 0%
UMass 0%
US 13%

Chairs of clinical science departments
BU 11%
Harvard 10%
Tufts 8%
UMass 7%
US 8%

Chairs of basic science departments
BU 0%
Harvard 33%
Tufts 29%
UMass 0%
US 13%

Full professors
BU 19%
Harvard 12%
Tufts 11%
UMass 19%
US 14%

Pololi, principal investigator of the National Initiative on Gender, Culture and Leadership in Medicine, brought deans from five US medical schools to a two-day retreat at Brandeis last week. The medical schools, which are demonstration sites for the project, are Tufts University, Duke University, George Washington University, the University of Minnesota and the University of New Mexico.

Project members are still trying to diagnose the problem before coming up with solutions, Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, dean of the Tufts school of medicine, said in an interview. The project will run five years and is supported by a $1.4 million grant from the Josiah Macy Jr. Foundation of New York.

"People might reflexively think that it's discrimination or a glass ceiling, and there may well be an element of that," he said. "It may be in some cases that women choose not even to apply for these positions or don't aspire to them because they are not appealing to women at that stage in life."

"It's an important problem," Rosenblatt said. "I hate to see that potential not being realized."

The five medical schools in the project will experiment with programs to deal with the issue. Those programs have not been defined yet, Rosenblatt said, but each school will report on its results and share what works with others.

Certain minority groups -- African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders -- are also under-represented in academic medicine, but that does seem to reflect a pipeline problem at entry to medical school, Pololi and Rosenblatt said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 11:16 AM
May 10, 2007

Psychiatrists, children and drug industry's role

Doctors maintain that payments from drug companies do not influence what they prescribe for patients, according to a story in today's New York Times.

But the intersection of money and medicine, and its effect on the well-being of patients, has become one of the most contentious issues in health care, the story says. Nowhere is that more true than in psychiatry, where increasing payments to doctors have coincided with the growing use in children of a relatively new class of drugs known as atypical antipsychotics.

hyman 100.bmpDr. Steven E. Hyman (left), the provost of Harvard University and former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told the Times the growing use of atypicals in children is the most troubling example of this. The Times story was based on an analysis of records in Minnesota, which tracks drug company payments to doctors.

"Thereís an irony that psychiatrists ask patients to have insights into themselves, but we donít connect the wires in our own lives about how money is affecting our profession and putting our patients at risk," he said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:50 AM
May 10, 2007

Today's Globe: healthcare fees, HPV and throat cancer, FDA drug-review revamp, life sciences bet

Taxpayers are bearing a larger share of the cost of the expansion of healthcare coverage than expected because the state has not yet collected a penny from businesses that do not help insure their workers.

The sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer also sharply increases the risk of certain types of throat cancer among people infected through oral sex, according to a study about the human papillomavirus, or HPV, being published today.

The Food and Drug Administration would have to establish a system to monitor the safety of new drugs after they hit the market and the pharmaceutical industry would be required to register clinical trials of new medicines in a publicly available database under legislation approved yesterday by the Senate.

The Patrick administration's proposal to stimulate the life sciences sector here by investing $1 billion in public funds over 10 years is a bold effort to insulate the state against flat federal funding for biomedical research and fend off competitors, including California and North Carolina, that threaten Massachusetts' dominant position in the industry, a Globe editorial says.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:21 AM
May 09, 2007

Short White Coat: Let the games begin

Short White Coat is a blog written by first-year Harvard medical student Ishani Ganguli. Ishani's posts appear here, as part of White Coat Notes. E-mail Ishani at shortwhitecoat@gmail.com.

Iíve worn the same T-shirt every day this week. Itís not because of my pressing need to do laundry so much as team solidarity ó- this Friday, my medical school society (Cannon) plans to beat out the others in the Society Olympics, and our matching goldenrod shirts are just the start of our efforts.

Harvard Med is divided into societies named after big-time physicians of years past (Dr. Walter Bradford Cannon discovered the "fight or flight" phenomenon). For most of the year, the main differences between them are the quirks of society masters, the amount of toner in the society printer, and whether our food funds are directed towards post-exam ice cream or weekly lunches. On Friday, all five societies will be facing off in a series of epic battles to win bragging rights and, according to rumors, a pink flamingo.

Some of the events are more traditional, ones you could imagine taking place at ancient Greek medical schools: tug of war, limbo, a dance-off, dodgeball, and a low-fat pie-eating contest. In the HMS version of Iron Chef, weíll have to create a going away cake with $8 worth of vending machine snacks for retiring Dean Joe Martin.

Leading up to this Friday, pranks abound. Yesterdayís microbiology quiz was preceded by two Speedo-clad David Hasselhoff impersonators running across the front of the auditorium. Cannon Society planted a few extra multiple-choice questions on the quiz, which Cannonites took while sporting white bandanas "borrowed" from another society's costume scheme. Itís a rare lecture this week that isnít supplemented with a video clip or Powerpoint presentation promoting one of the societies or mocking another. An impediment to learning? Iíd argue itís more like motivation to go to class.

Besides society bonding, and a needed outlet for spring restlessness, there are other benefits coming out of this mammoth endeavor: the good deeds that have been incentivized by the promise of Olympics points. We get them for every sweater we donate or community organization for which we volunteer. With the pass now/pass later grading scheme at HMS, former pre-meds need another way to flex their competitive muscles, and community service is a better choice than most.

Let the games begin! Check in with ShortWhiteCoat for an update on the competition (ie. when Cannon wins).

Posted by Ishani Ganguli at 08:50 PM
May 09, 2007

Media lab hopes to create humans, the next version

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

Dan Ellsey brought down the house at the MIT Media Lab's symposium today on augmenting the human body.

Using an infrared tracker and HyperScore software developed by MIT music and media professor Tod Machover, the 33-year man with cerebral palsy used head movements to perform his electronic music composition "My Eagle Song." Its harmonies were translated into rippling waves of color on the screen behind him.

There were cheers and even tears in the audience, which had just seen athlete, model and actress Aimee Mullins say she can't imagine trading her life with two artificial legs for legs of flesh and bones.

"People say I have no legs, but I say I have 10," she said, pointing to a row of prosthetics, including a carved wooden one, a carbon fiber set based on cheetah dynamics and the set with stiletto heels that she was wearing. "My interaction with them has transformed me."

And then Hugh Herr, MIT professor, developer of human-powered artificial legs and also a bilateral amputee, scaled a climbing wall on stage.

"Doctors said I would never climb again," said Herr. "They were wrong."

It was a dizzying end to a day of thinking differently about how technology can forge "new minds, new bodies, new identities," as the conference was billed.

Media Lab director Frank Moss called it "hacking the human" when he introduced today's session, designed to show how scientists are melding human and machine to invent a better future not just for people who have lost the ability to walk or see or interpret facial cues, but for all people.

"Today we'll discuss designs to unleash an era of human adaptability to forever change our notions of abilities and disabilities," he said.

John Hockenberry, former NBC News journalist and distinguished fellow at the Media Lab, set the tone, saying he was looking for an upgrade for himself.

He has used a wheelchair for 30 years after being paralyzed in a car accident when he was 19. He said he has no trouble integrating the machine that helps him get around with the person he has become in this second life. Typewriters were created as a tool to help the blind, he reminded the audience.

Other speakers included neurologist Oliver Sacks, who sounded a note of caution. He told the story of a congenitally blind man whose life was turned into turmoil when he was surgically given sight but his brain could not interpret it.

MIT professor Rosalind Picard wired several audience members to get feedback from their facial expressions when her talk was boring them. The work has implications for people with autism, like her former student whose mother once told Picard that he learned math as easily as most people read social cues, and learned social cues with as much difficulty as most people learn math.

Deb Roy, an MIT professor, has lived, along his wife and 21-month-old son, under near constant video surveillance in their home. Videocams in the ceiling provide minute-by-minute details of how his son has learned the basics of speech Ė the first time speech acquisition has been analyzed so closely.

John Donoghue of Brown University and Cyberkinetics Neurotechnology Systems showed the familiar but still astonishing images of quadriplegic Matthew Nagle moving a computer cursor with his thoughts.

Architect Michael Graves made an eloquent plea for simple solutions to problems born of design done without much thought.

"It doesn't cost much," he said. "It's just a matter of using your mind and the strength of your convictions."

At the end of the day, after the music ended and the cheers subsided, Hockenberry wheeled on stage on a Segway, which he said was a hacked version adapted to fit the user. This was not something dumped on people, he said, but a device that users fashioned to fit their own needs and evolving identities.

"There is no such thing as normal," Hockenberry said. "With devices such as this, I'm liberated. Iím set free."

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 08:17 PM
May 09, 2007

Today's Globe: stem cell research, Caritas change, tainted fish food, off-label stents, anemia drug

As part of its newly announced commitment to biotechnology and stem cell research, the Patrick administration plans to revamp the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a little-known state agency that was enveloped in controversy during the waning days of Governor Mitt Romney's tenure.

Scientists praised Governor Deval Patrick's proposed $1 billion investment in the state's life sciences industry yesterday as an important way to offset stagnant funding from the federal government and its limits on paying for research involving human embryonic stem cells.

"It is essential that the Commonwealth step up to maintain and extend our global leadership in the life sciences," Governor Deval Patrick and Senate President Therese Murray write on the op-ed page.

Caritas Christi Health Care has replaced the acting chief of its physicians group following the discovery that the group overstated revenue by almost $10 million, a sign of continuing leadership turmoil in the Archdiocese of Boston's hospital network.

Farm-raised fish in an undisclosed number of states ate meal contaminated with an unapproved industrial chemical, the Food and Drug Administration said yesterday, widening the scope of one of the nation's largest pet food recalls.

Drug-coated stents, mesh devices that help prop open clogged arteries, are used in off-label, or unapproved, ways about half the time in the United States, doubling the risk of a heart attack or death in some cases, studies show.

Two of the world's largest drug companies are paying hundreds of millions of dollars to doctors in return for giving their patients anemia medicines, which regulators now say may be unsafe at commonly used doses.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:30 AM
May 08, 2007

Cataloguing every species on earth

By Colin Nickerson, Globe Staff

Spurred by fears that thousands of animals, plants, and microbes will disappear from the planet before scientists can properly study them, a consortium of world-famous research institutions and funding foundations tomorrow will launch an effort to compile an enormous, computer-based "Encyclopedia of Life" to catalog every species known or found.

"For biologists, this is equivalent to the moon shot or mapping the human genome in terms of complexity and scope," said Gary Borisy, director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, which along with Harvard University is among the top players in a project that will be overseen by biologists but undertaken mainly by software designers and computer engineers.

The aim of a project expected to take a decade at a cost of $100 million is to create a gigantic computer data base containing detailed descriptions of each of 1.8 million "named" species -- that is, forms of life that have been identified by scientists.

Some species, like Elephas maximus (the Asian elephant) or Lumbricus terrestris (a common earthworm), are familiar to everybody and well-studied by biologists. But hundreds of thousands of species -- from microscopic fungi, to bottom dwellers from the deepest seas, to obscure desert beetles -- have simply been preserved on slides or specimen pins, given a Latin name, and assigned a tentative place on the tree of life, then stashed in a sample drawer and all but forgotten.

In addition, biologists believe that untold millions of species -- mainly microorganisms, but also insects, flowers, trees, and even a few reptiles and mammals -- have never been noticed by humans, much less scientifically recorded.

"Our ignorance is dangerous," said Edward O. Wilson, a pioneering researcher of global biodiversity, professor emeritus of entomology at Harvard, and long-time crusader for creation of an accessible encyclopedia of all life. "Life forms with which we've shared the planet are going extinct at an alarming rate -- usually before we even determine what they are and what role they play in the ecosystem. "Our knowledge of biodiversity is so incomplete that we are at risk of losing a great deal of it before it is even discovered."

The Encyclopedia of Life -- to be formally launched tomorrow in Washington, where it will be headquartered -- is envisioned as a computer-based, ever-expanding roster of all life forms that will give scientists an unprecedented means to help decide when they've encountered a new species. It should also provide an invaluable, publicly-accessible trove for everyone from bio-entrepreneurs to birdwatchers.

The encyclopedia's website -- www.eol.org -- contains only a few samples, but within a few years will describe hundreds of thousands of species.

Sample demonstration pages of the polar bear show what the scientists hope to do. It offers pictures, maps, research and data on the molecular biology, genetics, reproduction diet of the polar bear.

The information can be accessed at the "novice" level, which says: "Polar bears inhabit Arctic sea ice, water, islands and continental coastlines." At "expert" level, it says: Polar bears occur in low numbers throughout their range and are most abundant in shallow water areas near shore or where current or upwellings increase biological productivity near ice areas associated with open water, polynyas or lead systems."

The entries will include detail that might range from the color of a buzzard's tail feathers to toxins contained in a toadstool. The interactive encyclopedia will include photographs, maps, links to scientific studies and DNA sequences, anecdotes from amateur naturalists (clearly separated from expert opinion), sound, and video, when available. Eventually, the work will hold the equivalent of about 300 million pages of information.

"Imagine scientists working in a rain forest somewhere who find an unusual plant or fungus," said Jonathan Fanton, president of the MacArthur Foundation, which has donated $10 million to the encyclopedia and pledged another $10 million if the project meets early goals. "They'll be able go on-line and tap into this huge data base to find similar species. They'll be able to know right on the spot if they've made a real discovery."

Today, that process might require culling through museum collections or sifting through mounds of material from various sources.

The Sloan Foundation, another major donor, has fronted $2.5 million for the encyclopedia, while the Marine Biological Laboratory has developed new software that will allow for sophisticated scientific comparisons to be made between species, a technology that didn't even exist a few years ago. Along with Harvard, institutions contributing money and expertise to the project include the Smithsonian Institution, Chicago's Field Museum, and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

"This will be an extraordinary science tool," said James Edwards, a global biodiversity expert named as the encyclopedia's executive director. "It will enable researchers to better understand the complicated relationships between organisms on both the macro- and micro-scale."

Some scientists believe that life is veering towards a sixth "great extinction" since emerging on earth 3.8 million years ago. Unlike the earlier mass extinctions -- most famously the disappearance of dinosaurs -- the looming die-off seems to be caused by human activity, mainly destruction of natural habitat and carbon dioxide emissions contributing to climate change.

Building the encyclopedia will fall mainly to software designers and computer engineers, with old-style field scientists -- like Harvard's Wilson, who won his reputation tracking down unknown species of ants in remote rain forests -- serving mainly to ensure the accuracy and quality of entered information.

"It's really more of a communications project than a discovery project," said Edwards. "It's integrating information so that anyone and everyone can access it, from a frontline scientist to a high school teacher to a farmer trying to figure whether a certain worm in the soil is friend or foe."

And that's just fine with Wilson.

"This effort is just so important to understanding life on our unknown planet," he said. "We are never going to have a mature science of ecology if we don't even know the species in the ecosystem."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 07:54 PM
May 08, 2007

Governor seeks $1 billion for stems cells, other life sciences research

By Andrew Ryan, Globe Staff

Governor Deval Patrick outlined an initiative today that would commit $1 billion over the next 10 years to life sciences research, including the creation of a stem cell bank, a centralized repository of stem cells available to all scientists.

The administration hopes to fill a gap created by a downturn in federal funding and attract "rising stars" in life sciences to Massachusetts with grant programs for local institutions. The combination of state funding and bond money would fuel a partnership between government, private industry, academic research hospitals, and colleges and universities.

The administration's goal is to compete with California, New York, New Jersey, and other states that are making major investments in the life sciences, to maintain Massachusetts' leadership in this area. In California, a 2004 voter initiative created a stem cell research center that is authorized to award $3 billion in research grants over the next 10 years.

Patrick described his plan in a speech at the BIO International Convention in South Boston, also wants to establish a center to streamline funding and research.

"There is no place in the world with as much talent in life sciences and biotech as here in Massachusetts," Patrick said in a statement. "Now is the time for us to invest in that talent and bring together the resources of our unparalleled research universities, teaching hospitals, and industry to work towards a common goal -- to grow ideas into products to create cures and jobs."

The initiative would also try to build on the work of University of Massachusetts scientist Craig C. Mello, who shared a Nobel Prize in medicine last year for his work with RNA interference, or RNAi. Mello helped discover a way to block the effect of individual genes in cells, which aided research on diseases that include Alzheimer's and HIV and could lead to treatments.

A news release from the governor's office outlining the initiative included praise from Jack M. Wilson, president of the University of Massachusetts.

"I applaud Governor Patrick for making such a strong commitment to the life sciences, particularly stem cell research and RNAi-related research and development," Wilson said. "The announcement today is an important step in developing a world-class life sciences strategy for the Commonwealth that will foster scientific innovation, including unlocking the mysteries of debilitating diseases, and spur economic growth."

Patrick hopes to spur research and create new jobs. His plan calls for:

-- $500 million for public higher education and equipment to be used in collaboration with the life sciences industry;

-- $250 million for research grants, fellowships, and training initiatives;

-- $250 million in tax benefits;

-- $250 million in matching funds for grants, fellowships, and training for private companies.

The initiative is part of new legislation from the governor's office that seeks to expand the state's Life Science Center, which currently has a two-member staff. The plan would have to be approved by the Legislature, which overwhelmingly approved a bill in 2005 that encouraged stem cell research.

Steve Hyman, provost of Harvard University, who chairs the school's Life Science Collaborative, also added his support in the statement issued by the governor's office.

"I commend the governor for reaching out to all sectors of our life science cluster in order to craft a stem-cell/life science package that recognizes the unique institutional assets and intellectual firepower in our region," Hyman said "The governor allocates state resources in effective ways to enhance our traditional strengths, buttress areas that need attention, and encourage powerful collaborations between our leading-edge institutions."

May 08, 2007

Governor to announce $1 billion life sciences plan

Governor Deval Patrick plans to announce a $1 billion life sciences initiative this afternoon at the BIO International Convention.

Patrick and Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray will unveil the proposal at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, which is hosting the world's largest biotechnology conference.

The $1 billion initiative would blend bond money and state appropriations over 10 years, according to a Patrick aide who requested anonymity because the official announcement will not be made until this afternoon. The proposal was described by the aide as a partnership between government, private industry, and university researchers that would "make Massachusetts a leader in the life sciences industry."

May 08, 2007

Today's Globe: Hepatitis C, biotech lures, Fox appeal, stent failure, Edward Schulman, pigs in China

Hepatitis C infections among Massachusetts adolescents and young adults rose dramatically from 2001 to 2005, new data show, prompting health officials to warn doctors statewide to screen and educate patients about the blood-borne disease.

This week's annual Biotechnology Industry Organization conference has become the premier international gathering not of doctors or biologists, but of economic development forces looking for a cut of the high-tech, high-salary life-sciences business that is crucial to Massachusetts' economic engine.

fox 150.bmpActor Michael J. Fox (left) appealed to scientists and investors yesterday to aggressively translate scientific research into creative treatments for debilitating diseases, including the Parkinson's disease he has fought for more than a decade.

Conor Medsystems, a maker of heart stents that was recently acquired by Johnson & Johnson Inc., said its CoStar drug-infused stent failed in a clinical trial against Boston Scientific's Taxus Express drug-coated stent.

Dr. Edward Schulman,
a longtime Newton resident and an internist at New England Medical Center for more than 30 years, died of cancer April 22 at Hospice by the Sea in Boca Raton, Fla. He was 83.

A mysterious epidemic is killing pigs in southeastern China, but international and Hong Kong authorities said yesterday that the Chinese government was providing little information about it or the contaminated wheat gluten that has caused death and illness in animals.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:20 AM
May 07, 2007

Mass. doctors favorable toward pay for performance

Leaders of Massachusetts primary care physician groups look favorably on pay-for-performance incentives, and practices that have the programs also adopt quality improvement plans, a survey by Harvard researchers shows.

Skepticism has greeted these programs because of concerns that they undermine professionalism, Dr. Eric C. Schneider of the Harvard School of Public Health said in an interview. He is a co-author of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded study in this monthís American Journal of Managed Care.

In pay-for-performance programs, a portion of insurers' payments to doctors is based on how well they meet national standards for care, such as managing diabetes or encouraging mammograms. Schneider and his co-authors wondered what physicians thought about performance pay as a way to improve quality.

"The financial situation for primary care physicians is pretty challenging right now and these incentives are coming at a time when theyíve been given other incentives that relate directly to having them reduce access to care, such as imaging, formularies for medications, and some other things," Schneider said. "I do think the clinical view is those are related not directly to quality but more to cost control, so these other incentives directed at improving quality align well with their mission."

Another reason pay-for-performance initiatives might be well received is that they pay bonuses rather than take away compensation, Schneider said.

The researchers surveyed leaders of 100 primary care group practices in Massachusetts in 2005. Pay-for-performance accounted for an average of 2.2 percent of a practiceís total revenue, the article said, which one-third of the practice leaders thought was financially important. Eighty-nine percent of the leaders said their groups had pay-for-performance incentives in at least one of their health plan contracts.

These incentives were associated with a higher likelihood that a group had quality improvement initiatives in place, the paper said.

Dr. Kenneth Peelle, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said that since the survey was done, health plans have increased the amount of pay tied to performance. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, for example, said last year its performance bonus would be 10 to 13 percent.

"The problem we see is each of the health plans seems to come up with a different payment plan," said Peelle. "We look to government to put out some overall guidelines for this to work together."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:00 PM
May 07, 2007

Short White Coat: Bugs on the brain

Short White Coat is a blog written by first-year Harvard medical student Ishani Ganguli. Ishani's posts appear here, as part of White Coat Notes. E-mail Ishani at shortwhitecoat@gmail.com.

Medical school has made a hypochondriac out of me. As weíve been learning to sharpen our diagnostic acuity, Iíve self-diagnosed everything from blisters to brain hemorrhages -- and thankfully, I am almost always wrong. But now that weíre knee deep into microbiology, meeting the cast of minuscule characters that are harmless and insidious in turn, my paranoia may be slightly more justified.

We play with these bugs nearly every day in micro lab, staining them and feeding them in different ways to figure out their identities. The bacteria responsible for meningitis were taken off the roster this year (just in case), but I have to say, Iím not too thrilled about the notion of acquiring a skin-peeling staph infection or gonorrhea either.

My tendency to squirt unidentified liquids into the air during lab does little to ease the mind. And in fact, several classmates have come down with mysterious sore throats and achiness, and bacterial conspiracy theories abound. Stay tuned to Short White Coat for news of a major outbreak....

The good news is that they also teach us how to protect ourselves, in micro lab and elsewhere. Alcohol-based hand cleansers are the way to go, we learned; if youíre using soap and water, you need to scrub your hands for 15 seconds to get the same effect. It doesnít sound like a lot of time, but try counting to 15 the next time youíre at the sink. Itís definitely changed the way I go about my day, especially since the medical school is equipped with Purell dispensers at every turn of a hallway.

Sometimes a lesson learned in kindergarten takes 17 or so years of further education to sink in, I suppose.

Posted by Ishani Ganguli at 11:38 AM
May 07, 2007

CIMIT awards $5m to medical device researchers

Proposals to build new devices to help premature infants, to inject medicine without breaking the skin and to guide surgeons operating on the brain were among projects to win $5 million in grants from the Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology, the consortium announced today.

CIMIT, composed of Boston-area teaching hospitals and engineering schools, made 37 grants that range from $40,000 to $100,000. Twenty-two have military applications, acording to CIMIT, which receives support from the US Department of Defense as well as its members.

Dr. Riccardo Barbieri of Massachusetts General Hospital won a grant to develop a computational tool based on a premature infant's heartbeat to predict episodes when they stop breathing.

Mark Horenstein of Boston University will demonstate a way to inject medications through the skin using nanoparticles, leaving no wound behind.

Dr. Nobuyuki Nakajima of Brigham and Women's Hospital will work to improve how instruments can be navigated to diagnose and treat brain injury or disease.

"Our goal ... is to bring life-changing technology to patients as quickly as possible," Dr. John Parrish, CIMIT founder and director and Vietnam War battlefield surgeon, said in a statement. "We are especially aware of the needs of soldiers wounded on the battlefield."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:56 AM
May 07, 2007

Today's Globe: all things BIO, disease and deployments, 'no' to drug money, Alzheimer's target, gene music, diet pill

bio conv 150.bmpPartiers get down to business at the BIO convention, while a rally in opposition to a high-security research laboratory now under construction at Boston University Medical Center fell far short of the mass demonstrations that some had predicted. On the op-ed page, Jerry Avorn urges rethinking research funding, Edward L. Glaeser suggests embracing biotechnology and Joshua Boger recommends building a system of outreach and collaboration.

A parasitic disease rarely seen in United States but common in the Middle East has infected an estimated 2,500 US troops in the last four years because of massive deployments to remote combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, military officials said. And four types of bacteria are causing severe and hard-to-treat infections for many troops wounded there.

carlat 150.bmpThere are names for what Dr. Daniel J. Carlat (left) once was, and he does not hesitate to use them: "Drug whore," he suggested calmly. "Hired gun." Now he says 'no' to drug money and wants to limit corporate sway over psychiatry.

Most of the drugs being tested to treat or prevent Alzheimer's disease target proteins called beta amyloid, which accumulate in the brain and are suspected as a cause of the devastating dementia. But new research in mice suggests another treatment approach -- reducing levels of a protein called tau.

gene music 100.bmpThe Musical Gene Expression project at Harvard Medical School envisions a future where doctors will be able to tune in to the internal music of their patients.

Also in Health/Science, meet radiologist Nobuhiko Hata, a radiologist who invents new technologies for use in surgery, and consider whether virtual colon cancer screenings are ready for real-world usage.

In Business, Alli, the nation's first over-the-counter diet remedy approved by the Food and Drug Administration, goes on sale within weeks.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:26 AM
May 07, 2007

In case you missed it: egg freezing, hospital CEO bonuses for safety, questions on inmate's death

Limits are found to egg freezing, making it a new fertility gamble for women, Carey Goldberg writes in Sunday's Globe.

Medical records obtained by the Globe raise questions in the death of a Framingham inmate as she battled the side effects of heroin and alcohol withdrawal, Andrea Estes reports in Sunday's Globe.

Hospitals have traditionally rewarded chief executives for their ability to attract patients and make money. But now more are linking a portion of executives' pay to a range of safety measures, from reducing medication errors to monitoring how often doctors wash their hands, Christopher Rowland wrote in Saturday's Globe.

A special section covers the BIO conference.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:15 AM
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