Archive for April, 2009

Radioactive Hearts

April 30th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: NY Times, Science

Scientists at Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute have proved that the human heart produces new muscle cells throughout normal adult life, raising hope that this regenerative prowess can be harnessed to replace cardiac tissue that had been damaged by heart attacks and other pathological conditions.

newheartcellsConventional wisdom had been that the heart does not produce new cells and people died with pretty much the same ticker as the one they started out with.

But Jonas Frisen and colleagues determined that up to age 25, the heart replaces about 1% of its cells per year, and it continues doing so, albeit at gradually diminishing rates, through old age.

When it’s all said and done, nearly half the heart’s muscle cells are created during a normal lifetime, the scientists estimated.

The scientists knew that cell turnover rates could be quantified in animals by adding radioactive molecules to cells and observing how quickly the radioactivity disappears.

This can’t be done in humans for ethical reasons, but Frisen reasoned that above-ground nuclear weapons testing, which was done by several countries until 1963, had seeded the atmosphere with carbon-14, and this stuff would find its way into the food chain.

The net result would be that the DNA in the nuclei of all living creatures has been C-14 labeled more or less continually as a byproduct of the nuclear folly.

The C-14 remains in the cell for as long as it survives, but since C-14 levels have diminished since 1963, cellular loads of the stuff in more recently formed cells have also diminished. The amount of C-14 in a particular cell thus indicates when it was formed.

The clever work appears in Science.

Loren Field, a cardiologist at Indiana University, told the New York Times the goal now becomes “to try to tickle the system to enhance (cellular regeneration rates).”



The Domino Effect

April 30th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: NY Times

Last week, 2 lunkheads employed by Domino’s Pizza in Conover, North Carolina decided it would be a hoot to do a video in the chain’s kitchen, in which one prepared sandwiches while stuffing cheese into his nose and swabbing his snot on the sandwiches while the other did a play-by-play.

dominos“In about five minutes…somebody will be eating these…little did they know that cheese was in his nose and there was some lethal gas that ended up on their salami,” chirped the narrator.

Then last Monday, the inspired pair decided to post the video on YouTube.

Domino’s found out on Tuesday. It immediately fired the lunkheads and jettisoned all opened food containers from the ground-zero franchise. On the PR side, the company decided to lay low and wait for the dust to settle.

That proved to be a mistake. By Wednesday, the video had been watched more than a million times. Five of the top 12 results on the Google search for “Domino’s” referenced the ghastly spectacle and on Twitter the tweets were louder than ravens at a Bodega Bay school house.

By Wednesday evening, the offending video had been removed, and Domino’s had created both a Twitter account and a YouTube video of its own.
“We got blindsided by two idiots with a video camera and an awful idea,” Domino’s spokesman Tim McIntyre told the New York Times. Even people who’ve been with us as loyal customers for 10, 15, 20 years are second-guessing their relationship with Domino’s. That’s not fair.”

At last report, the lunkheads were simmering in a Conover lock-up facing felony charges for delivering prohibited foods, and an impending civil lawsuit from the aggrieved fast food chain.



The Devil in the Details

April 30th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: BurrillReport, PNAS

Michigan State University scientists have found that brand name information and marketing claims overshadow fine print safety warnings on OTC medications, despite Federal regulations requiring that display of the latter should be “prominent” and “conspicuous.” 
wherediputmyglasses?Laura Bix and colleagues used an eye-tracking device to quantify the visual inspection patterns of subjects as they scanned package labels on OTC pain killers and subsequently assessed the extent to which subjects could recall the information.

The scientists focused on five elements of the package label: brand name, the statement of claims such as “extra strength,” drug facts information, the child-resistant warning and the tamper-evident warning.
They observed that subjects focused primarily on the brand name and much less on the 2 warnings.  For example, 67% of the subjects were able to remember one or more brands they had observed during the study, but only 18% recalled alcohol-related warnings.

A dismal 8% remembered the warning that the product shouldn’t be used in homes where young children were around and not one single participant recalled the warning about tamper-evident features.
Part of the explanation, according to Bix and Co., is that the brand and product claims were more legible than the warning statements.

Their write-up appears in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

“To be effective, warnings about the lack of a child-resistant feature, or those that alert consumers to potential tampering of the product, need to be read and comprehended at the time of purchase,” Bix told BurrillReport.

“Little guidance exists from the federal government regarding what it means to be ‘prominent’ or ‘conspicuous,’ yet, this term is used quite frequently in the regulations that dictate labeling for a variety of product,” Bix added.


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Swine Flu now a Cat 5

April 29th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: Wall Street Journal

With swine flu racing around the globe faster than a speeding bullet, the World Health Organization has just bumped its alert level to Phase 5 on a 6-point scale. That’s one notch below a flat-out pandemic.

swineflugalloping'roundtheworldPhase 5 means the virus is causing multiple, widespread outbreaks.

It is a call-to-arms to vaccine makers that it’s time to fire up the kilns, and serves notice that all countries should activate pandemic preparedness plans.

Earlier in the day, Senators queried Janet Napolitano, the Homeland Security Secretary as to whether the US should close its border with Mexico, the country of origin for the H1N1 virus and the place where nearly all of the deaths have occurred. That has not happened yet.

“There is a lot we don’t yet know about this outbreak. But at the same time we have been preparing as if we are facing a true pandemic, even though we don’t know the ultimate scope of what will occur,” Napolitano said.

The Big O urged Americans to take precautions. “This is obviously a serious situation — serious enough to take the utmost precaution,” he said.

Earlier today, the first US death from the disease was reported. It was a toddler who had just crossed the Mexican border into Texas.

The total number of affected US citizens was believed to be approaching 100, in at least these states: New York, California, Texas, Maine, Kansas and Massachusetts, Indiana, Ohio, Arizona and Nevada.

Also today, cases were reported for the first time in Germany and Austria, the 4th and 5th countries in Western Europe to have turned positive. They join Italy, Spain and the UK.

thiscouldgetugly“If the situation deteriorates further, it is inevitable that international travel will be materially dented as it was evident during the case of SARS,” Lim Hwee Hua, Singapore’s second minister for finance and transportation told the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, agricultural groups are worried the outbreak will scare consumers from pork. They want the Feds to refer to the culprit by its scientific name, H1N1.



Where Bright Ideas Come From

April 29th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: Economist, J. Cognitive Neuroscience

When scientists showed that images of nearly nude females triggered alterations in cerebral blood flow and certain behaviors that were not entirely under the conscious control of males, some just shrugged.

What could be more obvious?

thisisworsethantrigBut the link between conscious and unconscious thought remains a hot topic among neurobiologists, even when sexual desire is not involved.

Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths’ College in London and Bhavin Sheth of the University of Houston recently demonstrated that insight itself, the eureka moment when one reaches a breakthrough solution to a problem, is generated unconsciously before one becomes aware she’s solved it.  

The remarkable findings appear in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The scientists affixed electroencephalographs to 18 adults and then challenged them with a brain-teaser that required just such a flash of insight to solve.

The problem was that there are 3 light switches on the ground-floor of a house, 2 of which do nothing while the third controls a light bulb on the second floor. The bulb is off at the start. Determine which switch is operational while making only one trip to the second floor.

Each EEG-wired subject was given 90 seconds to solve the puzzle, at which point a hint was provided. The hint was to turn one switch on for a good while before turning it off.

allheatnolightSome subjects solved it, some did not. What was interesting though was data from the EEG could be used to differentiate the insightful few from the rest of us.

Only the former exhibited increased gamma wave activity in the right frontal cortex.

And the knock-your-socks off corollary was that the gamma wave activity was observed up to eight seconds before the subject had the “aha!” moment.  (more…)



Fumble by OSHA

April 29th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Source: Washington Post

asleepatthewheelA Bush administration initiative requiring that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration crack down on companies with a history of job-related deaths has failed, according to a report by the Labor Department.

And that has resulted in dozens of avoidable fatalities.

The highly publicized initiative was designed to include rigorous data collection efforts, site inspections and beefed up rules enforcement at offending facilities.

OSHAinspectorsatworkIt was marred by the inability to detect repeat fatalities due to misspellings of company names and failure to identify instances in which subsidiaries of the same company were involved.

Proper program implementation might have “deterred or abated hazards at the worksites of 45 employers where 58 subsequent fatalities occurred,” wrote Assistant Inspector General Elliot Lewis in the report, obtained by the Washington Post.

The report said that the Bush administration was “suggesting to the public that you’ve got an enhanced enforcement program going for five years, and it’s not enhanced at all,” Celeste Monforton told the Post.

She’s a former OSHA policy analyst who is currently an assistant professor at the GW School of Public Health and Health Services. 

The Big O has yet to appoint a new OSHA director.  

OSHA’s acting director, Donald Shalhoub admitted that his agency is to this day “not targeting the ‘bad actors’ the program is intended for,” but believes that insinuations that additional employees died as a result are “misleading and unfair,” according to the Post.



The Sound of One Hand Clapping

April 28th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: BBC, Nature

whitenosebatpainAutistic 2 year-olds respond differently to visual and auditory cues presented in cartoons, an observation that could help diagnose the condition earlier and perhaps encourage development of interventions that favorably alter the course of the disease.

To reach this conclusion, Ami Klin and colleagues at Yale showed specially prepared animations to 21 toddlers with autistic-spectrum disorders, 39 normally developing children and 16 that had developmental problems other than autism.

The cartoons were specially designed versions children’s games like ‘peek-a-boo’ and ‘pat-a-cake.’

powIn some versions, the images appeared upside-down. In others, they were not.

In addition, some versions featured audio cues like the sounds of clapping hands, while others were silent. 

The Yale scientists showed that normally developing toddlers and those with non-autism related developmental problems showed a clear preference for the upright animations whether or not audio cues were present.

Toddlers with ASD did not demonstrate this preference when shown silent versions of the cartoons, but when audio cues were added, they did prefer the upright versions over the upside-down versions 66% of the time.

zapApparently, sound helped grab their attention.

The write-up appears in Nature.

“In autism, genetic predispositions are exacerbated by atypical experience from a very early age, altering brain development,” Klin told the BBC.

“Attention to biological motion is a fundamental mechanism of social engagement. We need to understand how this process is derailed in autism, starting in the first weeks and months of life,” he added.

vronk“This line of research holds promise for development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with (autism),” said Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.



Federalized Cybersecurity

April 28th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

Senators John Rockefeller (D-WVa) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have introduced new legislation designed to supersize current US defense systems against cyberattacks.

The proposal would empower the Feds to establish and enforce security standards governing the private sector for the first time.

thislightistakingforeverIn the US, private networks control key infrastructure such as electricity, water and sewage, and nuclear power, not to mention most financial and traffic control systems.

The new bill reached the docket just days after national security officials announced that Russian and Chinese cyberspies had hacked their way into the nations’ energy grid and inserted applets that could be activated remotely resulting in massive blackouts, gridlock and who knows what else.

The legislation suggests appointing a cybersecurity czar that would report directly to the president. This person would be empowered to disable computer networks, including those in the private sector, in the event of a cyberattack.

The Senators’ bill was drafted with input from the Big O’s people, although he has not officially endorsed it yet. It is based on recommendations made in a report drafted last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It’s not clear how industry groups will respond. Jim Dempsey, a VP for public policy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, which advocates for civil liberties groups and the private sector, told the Washington Post that such standards have long been a “third rail of cybersecurity policy.”

Federal regulations, he added, might actually stifle innovative approaches to cybersecurity by requiring companies to adopt a singular approach.

Recently, Dennis Blair, the Director of National Intelligence told reporters he expected there will be privacy concerns regarding the new proposal. Any program has to be designed to assure citizens it is “not being used to gather private information,” he told reporters.



FDA Nails Big Pharma on Internet Ads

April 28th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: Wall Street Journal

The FDA has told 14 pharmaceutical companies to bag certain drug ads that accompany search results generated by Google because they don’t include adequate risk information and sometimes suggest non-approved uses.

The directive represented the first salvo in what will likely become a new regulatory frontier, as Big Pharma has begun a major push to redirect marketing dollars towards Internet advertising.

thatsano-noThe ads in question are known as “sponsored links.”

These short teasers appear alongside search lists generated in response to keyword strings that include certain diseases or drug names.

Biogen Idec has received notice from the FDA regarding its MS drug Tysabri, for example.

The drug has been linked to progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy, an often fatal viral infection of the brain.

One sponsored link for Tysabri asks “(are you) satisfied with your MS medication or looking for something different?” The ad mentions nothing about PML.

This “casual approach to Tysabri treatment is extraordinary in light of the potentially lethal risks of the drug and the stringent controls over its distribution,” wrote the FDA in a letter to Biogen that was obtained by the Wall Street Journal.

Biogen spokesperson Naomi Aoki said her company is working to resolve the situation, and that it takes seriously its responsibility to convey the truth about the risks and benefits of its drug.

The Biogen ad includes a link to the Tysabri Web site which does provide ample risk information, but the FDA was having no part of it. The link “does not mitigate the misleading omission of risk information from these promotional materials,” it wrote.

Sanofi-Aventis received a similar letter for Plavix, its anticlotting blockbuster. Pfizer was cited for 6 of its drugs including the antismoking drug Chantix and Celebrex, an arthritis drug.


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Summer Sabbatical for MinuteClinic

April 27th, 2009 | 1 Comment | Source: Amednews

masterofuniverseOne month after MinuteClinic struck a heady deal to link EMRs with the Cleveland Clinic and one week before the US government announced a health emergency due to Swine flu, the CVS Caremark subsidiary announced it planned to shutter 16% of its locations during spring and summer, normally the off-season for colds and flu.


Industry experts claimed that poor business performance during these periods represented “a structural flaw” in the retail clinic business model, and predicted a gloomy future for all but those with storefronts in close proximity to, or otherwise affiliated with hospitals and physician groups.

That’s because provider-associated retail clinics have large enough catchment populations to sustain themselves year-round, or at least offset lower off-season traffic with business at other venues and facilities.

MinuteClinic’s decision risks nullifying the very image of convenience that drives success in the first place, according to Tom Charland, CEO of Merchant Medicine, a consultancy specializing in retail clinics.

“You can’t preach convenience and consistency out of one side of your mouth and then have it sort of up in the air as to whether that clinic is open or not,” Charland told AMedNews.

With over 500 stores, MinuteClinic is the largest retail clinic chain in the US. It’s not clear whether other clinic chains will follow suit, or how the Swine flu scare might shuffle the deck.

fastenyourseatbeltsThe retail clinic business is not for the faint of heart.

On average, it takes 3 years before outlets turn a profit, and many fold before then.

CheckUps for example, closed 23 of its Wal-Mart housed clinics in January 2008, and last summer SmartCare shuttered 15 venues which had also been housed in Wal-Mart.

Still, the number of retail clinics continues to rise.

About 1,100 clinics are open today, as compared with only 200 at year end, 2006.

And soon after announcing the seasonal shutdowns, MinuteClinic itself opened several new, year-round locations in Massachusetts.

They’re stocking up on Tamiflu and Relenza as we speak.



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