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Elizabeth Cooney is a health reporter for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.
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« August 26, 2007 - September 1, 2007 | Main | September 9, 2007 - September 15, 2007 »

September 7, 2007

Staying sharp at the AARP convention

By Elizabeth Cooney, Globe Correspondent

There were plenty of jokes about senior moments before a panel of neuroscientists began their discussion of how older people can stay sharp.

This was the AARP annual conference, after all, with oldies music piped through the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center and ads for bladder control drugs plastered in the restrooms. Gail Sheehy was competing for the crowd's attention, the doctors noted, with her session in another meeting room on "Sex and the Seasoned Woman."

But the four panelists, three from Brigham and Women's Hospital and one from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, were as serious as the crowd about how to identify, prevent and deal with cognitive decline and dementia.

They explained how memories are retrieved and noted that new brain cells and connections can continue to be made, contrary to previous beliefs.

"It's possible to learn new tricks even though we are old dogs," said Dr. Dennis J. Selkoe, co-director of the Center for Neurologic Diseases at the Brigham.

Dr. Gary L. Gottlieb, president of the Brigham and a geriatric psychiatrist, warned that depression and anxiety can lead to problems with memory that may be confused with dementia.

"The great news is depression is treatable," he said. "There are drugs people can tolerate and psychotherapies people can use."

Dr. David A. Drachman, a professor of neurology at UMass, urged audience members to protect their brains by wearing seatbelts, eating a good diet, and keeping cholesterol and blood pressure under control.

"You are never going to be as young as you are today," he said, to more than a few chuckles.

Dr. Reisa Sperling, director of therapeutic trials in Alzheimer's disease at the Brigham, had a suggestion and a plea.

Learn ballroom dancing, she said, to combine mental and physical activity with social interaction.

And volunteer for clinical trials.

"I think a cure is in someone's test tube, if we can figure out which one," she said. "It takes people to come forward to be participants in trials to test them out."

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:29 PM
September 7, 2007

MIT scientists devise new way to deliver gene therapy

Scientists at MIT have created a new way to carry genes into cells that they believe will be safer than the viruses commonly used to deliver gene therapy.

Gene therapy inserts new genes into patients' cells in the hope of fighting genetic disorders or cancer and other diseases. Viruses have been the vehicles for the new genes in clinical trials, but the method carries risks. In 1999, 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger died during his involvement in a viral gene therapy trial for liver disease; and this summer a patient in an arthritis gene-therapy trial died several days after being injected with viral therapy.

The group at MIT formed biodegradable polymers, or chains of molecules, to bring new genes to their targets. Their results appear this week in Advanced Materials.

"What we wanted to do is start with something that's very safe -- a biocompatible, degradable polymer -- and try to make it more effective, instead of starting with a virus and trying to make it safer," Jordan Green, a graduate student in biological engineering and a co-author of the paper, said in a statement released by MIT.

They tested the polymers in mice and hope to eventually bring the polymers into human clinical trials, MIT said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 10:30 AM
September 7, 2007

Northeastern wins grant to explore glycobiology of cancer

Researchers at Northeastern University have won a five-year, $15.5 million grant to study protein and carbohydrate chemistry as a way to detect cancer.

A team led by William Hancock will focus on breast cancer. Previous work has shown that changes in the carbohydrate, or glycan, structures of cells are correlated with cancer, but working with these complex structures has been difficult, according to the National Cancer Institute, which is funding the program.

Northeastern is one of seven centers collaborating on the biomarker discovery project. Hancock will be the co-chair of the Alliance of Glycobiologists.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 09:56 AM
September 7, 2007

Today's Globe: bioterror drill, Blue Cross chairman, suicide rate for girls, Vioxx case, toy safety, Dr. Ann E. Kelley

White cardboard boxes small enough to fit in a medicine cabinet will be delivered Sept. 23 to the mailboxes and doorsteps of more than 23,000 Boston households.The packages will be empty, but they be tangible evidence of how effectively and swiftly antibiotics can be delivered if terrorists attack with anthrax.

William C. Van Faasen will step down as chairman of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts on Dec. 31 and will be replaced by Cleve L. Killingsworth, the health insurer's chief executive.

The suicide rate among preteen and young teenage girls spiked 76 percent, a disturbing change that federal health officials say they cannot fully explain.

In a major legal victory for Merck & Co. in its massive Vioxx litigation, New Jersey's Supreme Court yesterday rejected a potential class-action lawsuit that could have cost the drug maker up to $18 billion.

Acknowledging a growing crisis of public confidence caused by a series of recent recalls, the nation's largest toy makers have taken the unusual step of asking the federal government to impose mandatory safety testing standards for all toys sold in the United States.

ann%20e.%20kelley%2085%202.bmpMilton native Dr. Ann E. Kelley (left), one of the first neuroscientists to find neurological similarities between obesity and drug addiction, died Aug. 5 at her home in Madison, Wis., 16 months after she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She was 53.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:59 AM
September 6, 2007

BU and BMC tighten conflict-of-interest rules

By Liz Kowalczyk, Globe Staff

Boston University School of Medicine and Boston Medical Center today announced a strict new conflict-of-interest policy that will place hard limits on interactions between doctors and representatives from medical device makers and pharmaceutical companies.

Robert Restuccia, executive director of the Prescription Project, a Boston-based non-profit that promotes stricter conflict-of-interest policies nationally, said the university and hospital have adopted a model policy that goes further than many other institutions.

Boston Medical Center and the medical school, for example, now ban all clinicians from accepting personal gifts from industry, and meals funded by companies -- often a staple at teaching hospitals -- are no longer allowed on campus. Also, doctors who serve on committees that pick which drugs the hospital will use, are not allowed to have any financial relationship, including consulting agreements, with companies that might benefit from those decisions.

"This policy promotes the independence of our clinicians and establishes the highest professional standard of rigor and integrity in the care of our patients," BMC president Elaine Ullian said in a statement.

Restuccia added, "We see the pharmaceutical industry's marketing practices to physicians as undermining the practice of medicine."

September 6, 2007

BU, Children's win grant to develop minimally invasive heart surgery

tissue%20nibbler300.bmp
Attached to a steerable needle, miniaturized instruments
such as this tissue-nibbling device (shown next to a
sharpened pencil) could be used in minimally invasive
heart surgery.

Researchers at Boston University and Children's Hospital Boston have won a five-year, $5 million grant to make complex heart repairs possible without open-heart surgery.

Working with California medical instrument maker Mircofabrica Inc., Pierre Dupont of BU's School of Engineering and cardiac surgeon Dr. Pedro del Nido of Children's will develop robotic instruments that can reach the heart through small incisions in the chest and heart walls.

"The goal is to develop techniques where we are not only making just small incisions but actually working to repair defects inside the heart while the heart is still beating," del Nido said in an interview.

Patients would avoid potential complications associated with being on a bypass machine during open-heart surgery, while surgeons would still be able to achieve the precision possible with traditional surgical instruments. The project is primarily aimed at adults with heart disease, although there may be pediatric applications, del Nido said.

The National Institutes of Health Bioengineering Research Partnership award is the second grant for this project, del Nido said. The first grant, now in its fourth year, funded the creation of an imaging system in three-dimensional ultrasound to allow surgeons to see inside the heart. The new grant focuses on creating the tools to perform repairs.

Using real-time imaging, a surgeon will be able to use a joystick controller to guide instruments through the chambers of the heart. Tools could be deployed from the tip of an instrument to remove blockages, fix valves and close leaks in the heart.

Current minimally invasive techniques use catheters to bring devices into the heart, deploying tiny umbrellas to patch holes in the heart or using balloons to clear blockages.

"We view this as the next level of intervention that is in a way a hybrid of catheter-based intervention and open-heart surgery, using the tools of open-heart surgery in the reconstruction but the navigation through a blood vessel or through chambers of the heart while the heart is beating," del Nido said.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:23 PM
September 6, 2007

Advocate joining state Department of Public Health

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

Making the shift from advocate to official policy maker, the executive director of the Massachusetts Public Health Association announced this week that he is leaving that group to become a senior adviser to Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach.

Geoffrey Wilkinson, who has led the association of state and local public-health officials for more than five years, said in an e-mail that he expects to be involved in helping the state Department of Public Health develop a regional system for public health. Now, the state has separate boards of health in its 351 cities and towns, with widely varying degrees of expertise. Since being named public health commissioner earlier this year by the administration of Governor Deval Patrick, Auerbach has made establishing more centralized regional networks a priority.

Geoffrey%20Wilkinson.jpg

Wilkinson, who will earn $87,000 a year, said he will also be involved in strengthening the state's cadre of community health workers.

Posted by Karen Weintraub at 11:34 AM
September 6, 2007

Today's Globe: organ replacement and drug discovery funds, black women's tumors, popcorn risk

Boston researchers are about to begin a bold experiment that, if it works, could help solve the organ shortage and provide other replacement parts for worn-out humans. A second local group hopes to transform the drug discovery process. The National Institutes of Health plans to announce today that it will fund both of these projects as part of a $483 million initiative to support daring, difficult research.

A new study gives a possible explanation for why breast cancer is deadlier in black women: They are more likely to have tumors that do not respond to the hormone-based treatments that help many others with the disease.

popcorn%20shelf150%202.bmpFour of the biggest makers of microwave popcorn are working to remove a flavoring chemical from their products that's linked to a lung ailment in popcorn plant workers while reassuring consumers about the snack's safety. Microwave popcorn fans worried about the potential for lung disease from butter flavoring fumes should know this: The sole reported case of the disease in a nonfactory worker involves a man who popped the corn every day and inhaled from the bag.

Lahey Clinic is working to land a new helipad on its Burlington campus, so helicopters carrying trauma patients will no longer have to land at TRW Park, a ball field and playground a half-mile from the hospital.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:43 AM
September 5, 2007

This week in the New England Journal of Medicine

A single variant of a gene is linked to an increased risk for both rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus, providing support for the idea that common risk genes and disease pathways are involved in many autoimmune disorders, authors including researchers at the Broad Institute, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Biogen Idec report.

Giving critically ill patients recombinant human erythropoetin did not reduce the need for red-blood-cell transfusions, but it may reduce deaths in trauma patients, according to an article by researchers including doctors from the Boston University School of Medicine and University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 05:26 PM
September 5, 2007

Health officials to consider revising retail clinic rules

By Felicia Mello, Globe Correspondent

State health officials said they would consider revising proposed rules to allow the opening of medical clinics in retail stores in response to concerns raised by doctors groups at a public hearing today.

Physicians testified that the regulations did not do enough to prevent infections at the clinics or to ensure that patients receive consistent medical treatment from providers who know their histories. Pediatricians said the clinics should not be allowed to treat children under 2 years old, to avoid confusion with immunization records.

The state Department of Public Health developed the rules after the pharmacy chain CVS asked for permission to open up to 30 "MinuteClinics" in the Boston area. Nurse practitioners in the clinics would provide rapid care for minor ailments such as bladder infections and poison ivy.

Regulators also heard from nurse practitioners and a patient who supported the clinics.

"We received a good deal of thoughtful testimony both in favor and in opposition to the regulations, and those that were opposed made very helpful suggestions on how to make the regulations better," Paul Dreyer, director of the department's Bureau of Quality Assurance and Control, said after the hearing. He said department staff would look at setting a minimum age for clinic patients and requiring clinics to answer after-hours phone calls.

The state Public Health Council could vote on the rules as early as November.

September 5, 2007

UMass Medical School recruits two RNA stars

ambros85.bmpMelissa%20Moore2%2085.bmpUniversity of Massachusetts Medical School has hired two leading RNA researchers to join a group best known for Nobel Prize winner Craig C. Mello.

Victor R. Ambros (far left), who discovered molecules called microRNAs that are important in gene regulation, is leaving Dartmouth Medical School for UMass, and Melissa J. Moore, noted for her work with gene splicing and messenger RNA, is coming from Brandeis University.

"Wow, they got the A Team," Phillip A. Sharp, an MIT Nobel laureate, said in an interview today. Moore previously worked in his lab and Ambros worked in the lab next door.

Ambros, 53, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees at MIT, where he also did postdoctoral work. While at MIT he worked with two other Nobel winners: David Baltimore on the poliovirus genome, and H. Robert Horvitz on the genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death.

When Ambros joined the faculty of Harvard, Mello was a graduate student in his lab. Mello won the 2006 Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology with Stanford's Andrew Z. Fire for discovering RNA interference, a natural mechanism that silences genes.

It was Mello who called Ambros about coming to UMass, Ambros said in an interview.

"There's really a great convergence of bright people and exciting problems" at UMass, he said. "When I heard Melissa Moore was planing to move there, that was sort of the clincher."

Moore, 45, is a Howard Hughes Investigator who has made major contributions to understanding how RNA is edited by the cell to make sure it is intact, Sharp of MIT said.

Moore said she was recruited by UMass professor and RNA scientist Phillip D. Zamore, who also worked in the Sharp lab at MIT.

"I think UMass is just really at an exciting stage of its growth and there is a tremendous community already there for the kind of research I do in RNA and what Victor does as well," she said in an interview.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 01:56 PM
September 5, 2007

Top court hears biolab case

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

The state's top judge this morning characterized the campaign to stop construction of a high-security laboratory in Boston's South End as a not-in-my-backyard squabble.

The remarks from Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall of the Supreme Judicial Court came during arguments in a case filed by 10 Boston residents who sued to block the Biosafety Level-4 laboratory being built on Boston University's medical school campus. The lab, a cornerstone in the Bush administration's effort to combat bioterrorism, will give scientists the ability to work with the world's deadliest germs, including Ebola, plague, and anthrax.

A contingent of residents living near the lab have spent more than four years battling the facility, which is already rising along Albany Street and expected to open in the fall of 2008. The neighbors have argued that the lab's work will put their lives at risk and that BU and the National Institutes of Health, which is underwriting the facility's construction, unfairly located it in an area with a high population of minority and low-income residents.

"It sounds in the context of this case rather like a NIMBY case," Marshall said, using the acronym for "not-in-my-backyard." Marshall went on to comment that it seemed inevitable that such a laboratory would have to be built near a medical research center so that it would be accessible to infectious-disease scientists, technicians, and other health workers.

"Your honor, I strongly disagree," said Douglas Wilkins, the Anderson & Kreiger attorney who is representing the residents. "My clients just want to be safe. ... I don't accept the assumption that this has to be near a large medical area."

The case landed before the Supreme Judicial Court after the residents won a partial victory in August 2006 before a lower court judge. Suffolk Superior Court Judge Ralph D. Gants ordered further environmental review of the lab, declaring that a decision by the state Executive Office of Environmental Affairs to approve the lab "was arbitrary and capricious." Gants, though, did not block construction of the $178 million building, which will include the Level-4 lab as well as other research facilities.

BU appealed Gants' ruling, and the Supreme Judicial Court decided to hear the case, bypassing an appeals court.

Klare Allen, a stalwart opponent of the lab, said in an interview after the hearing that she found Marshall's depiction of the case as a NIMBY dispute "very insulting. We've been very careful in saying we don't think this project should be built anywhere, period."

The attorney for BU, John M. Stevens, told the judges there was no evidence from the operations of other Biosafety Level-4 labs in the United States that the BU lab would pose a danger to neighbors.

The Supreme Judicial Court did not indicate when it will rule.

September 5, 2007

Today's Globe: rock stars, stents, learning to think

hendrix100.bmpLiving fast and dying young has long been part of rock 'n' roll lore. And now there are statistics that affirm the image, according to a study released yesterday. Researchers studied a sample of joplin100.bmp
North American and British rock and pop stars, including Jimi Hendrix (left) and Janis Joplin (right) and concluded they are more than twice as likely to die a premature death as ordinary citizens of the same age.


Drug-coated stents were linked to a higher death rate when given to people with a certain type of heart attack, a finding that may limit doctors' use of the mesh tubes to prop open arteries.

Literacy is so much entwined in our lives that we often fail to realize that the act of reading is a miracle that is evolving under our fingertips, neuroscientist Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University writes on the op-ed page. The reading brain is slowly becoming endangered -- the unforeseen consequences of the transition to a digital epoch that is affecting every aspect of our lives, including the intellectual development of each new reader.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:35 AM
September 4, 2007

Fenway Institute wins NIH grant to study LGBT health

The Fenway Institute at Fenway Community Health has won a five-year, $1 million government grant to study the health of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered population.

Researchers will look at the transmission of HIV, characteristics of families and households, and the demographics of health, illness, disability and death among LGBT people. The funding comes from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

In addition, graduate students will be trained to study LGBT issues at the Boston University School of Public Health. Researchers will also work with the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research at the University of Michigan to create an Internet-based library of LGBT health studies that will be accessible to the public.

Co-principal investigators of the grant are Judith Bradford, co-chair of the Fenway Institute, and Ulrike Boehmer, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the BU School of Public Health.

"We know that health disparites due to sexual orientation exist, but few population-based studies on LGBT health have been conducted and the data are not readily accessible," Boehmer said in a statement announcing the grant.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:20 PM
September 4, 2007

Second West Nile case reported in Massachusetts

By Stephen Smith, Globe Staff

A 54-year-old Boston man has been diagnosed with West Nile virus, which health authorities said today they believe he contracted while visiting Montana.

The man, who was not identified because of patient confidentiality laws, is recovering, said Donna Rheaume, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health. This is the second human case of West Nile reported in Massachusetts this year.

Last month, a man vacationing on Martha's Vineyard tested positive for the mosquito-borne illness, although disease investigators said he most likely was exposed in Missouri before coming to Massachusetts.

So far this summer, 741 cases of West Nile have been reported nationally, with the majority of illnesses happening west of the Mississippi River. Montana, where the Boston man visited, has reported 37 cases.

In the most severe cases, West Nile virus can cause a high fever, headache, neck stiffness, stupor, coma, tremors, convulsions, muscle weakness, and paralysis. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one of every 150 people infected with West Nile develops severe symptoms.

To avoid contact with infected mosquitoes, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health recommends limiting outdoor activities from dusk to dawn, peak biting times for mosquitoes. Otherwise, wear as much clothing as comfortable and apply insect repellents such as DEET, permethrin, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus.

DEET should not be used on infants under the age of 2 months and should be used in concentrations of 30 percent or less on older children. Oil of lemon eucalyptus should not be used on children under 3 years old.

September 4, 2007

NIH grants focus on genes and the environment

Seven Massachusetts researchers have won grants from a new government program to study how genes and the environment interact, the National Institutes of Health announced today.

Through the Genes, Environment and Health Initiative, researchers will study the genetics of such diseases as diabetes, cancer, heart disease and tooth decay. To learn about the environmental component, scientists will develop ways to monitor personal exposure, whether to toxins or to physical activity.

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, led by Stacey Gabriel, will receive $3.8 million to become one of two genotyping centers for the initiative. The other is at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Individual investigators and their projects are:

Dr. Frank Hu, Harvard School of Public Health, genes and environment initiatives in type 2 diabetes, $622,000;

Patty Freedson, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, development of an integrated measurement system to assess physical activity, $411,000;

Stephen Intille, MIT, enabling population-scale physical activity measurement on common mobile phones, $681,000;

Bevin Engelward, MIT, comet-chip high-throughput DNA damage sensor, $429,000;

Bruce Kristal, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, mitochondrial, metabolite and protein biomarkers of effects of diet, $454,000;

Dr. Avrum Spira, Boston University, a non-invasive gene expression biomarker of airway response to tobacco smoke, $643,000.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 12:57 PM
September 4, 2007

Today's Globe: Biotech Council, bipolar boom, Ashby school, executive function

As the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's new leader faces ethics questions, some members say they have become disenchanted with the trade group, including its increasing focus on lobbying, a high staff turnover rate, and the low number of top executives serving on its board.

The diagnosis of bipolar disorder in children and adolescents has risen fortyfold since 1994, according to a new study released yesterday. But researchers partly attributed the dramatic rise to doctors overdiagnosing the serious psychiatric disorder.

When Ashby Academy, a boarding school specializing in children with Asperger's syndrome, abruptly closed last week, it left families from around the country stunned and wondering where their children will attend school this year - or whether they will see their tuition money again.

If you've never heard of executive function, brace yourself. It's bursting onto the educational scene, Child Caring columnist Barbara F. Meltz writes.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:52 AM
September 4, 2007

In case you missed it: spine surgeries, genetic links in dogs, research duo, HIV testing, Dr. Anne Alonso

The growth in minimally invasive spine surgery such as vertebroplasty and a related procedure called kyphoplasty is sparking concern among some doctors that the procedures are becoming the first line of treatment, even though their effectiveness remains unproven and they carry significant, if uncommon, risks, including paralysis or even death.

Using brand new genetic "chip" technology developed by researchers at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, where the entire dog genome was sequenced a couple of years ago, Dr. Nicholas Dodman is finally poised to do the experiments he's been waiting years to do, exploring the genetics of complex psychiatric problems in dogs.

seidmans150.bmpThey've been married for 34 years, so it's clear that Jon and Christine Seidman (left) know how to work together. But as co-directors of the Seidman Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, with offices just five feet apart, people always ask them the same question: how do you work together?

Also in Monday's Health/Science section, the Galaxy Zoo needs your help, 'green light' laser therapy and compressing a file into nothing.

Massachusetts is resisting a year-old push by federal health authorities to make getting an HIV test as easy as being screened for cholesterol or diabetes, arguing that AIDS remains so freighted with social stigma that a test should not be done without a patient's specific written permission, Stephen Smith writes in Saturday's Globe.

Ann%20Alonso100.bmpA past president of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, Dr. Anne W. Alonso (left) was widely admired for her ability to lead group sessions, and she reveled in teaching the craft of talk therapy to aspiring practitioners. Dr. Alonso, who founded the Center for Psychoanalytic Studies at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she had worked since 1978, died at the hospital on Aug. 22 of complications from surgery. She was 73 and had lived in Cambridge.

Posted by Elizabeth Cooney at 06:36 AM
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