Archive for June, 2010

Winning the Salt War Won’t be Easy

June 29th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Boston Globe, NY Times

Has salt finally reached its moment of truth as a staple of Western diets? US government experts estimate we consume at least twice as much as the recommended daily allowance, and that across-the-board reductions in salt consumption could save 150,000 lives per year.

saltNumerous health officials, Michelle Obama and New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg have all recently urged food makers to cut out some salt in their food. The prestigious Institute of Medicine actually wants the feds to force food makers to do so.

But this isn’t going to be easy, and it may not be possible. Salt is a cheap way to create tastes and textures that consumers demand in their food, so doing without salt can lead to reduced profit and therefore, unhappy investors.

Take Kellogg’s Cheez-Its, for example. A cup of the iconic snack contains one third of the daily recommended amount of salt. Part of the salt load is sprinkled atop the orange squares to titillate the tongue at the moment of contact, that’s obvious.

But did you know Kellogg adds salt to the cheese itself in order to give Cheez-Its their memorable crunch? Or that the food maker adds salt to the dough to block a tangy taste that develops during fermentation?

In fact, in a recent demonstration for reporters, Kellogg created a batch of Cheez-Its leaving out most of the salt. The snack’s pleasing orange color faded to brown. They were sticky after being chewed, with the gruel caking onto teeth. And the taste became downright medicinal.

Similarly produced Corn Flakes tasted like brass, and the buttery flavor of Keebler Light Buttery Crackers (which in fact contain no butter), simply vanished.

“Salt changes the way that your tongue will taste the product,” Kellogg vice president and food scientist, John Kepplinger explained. “You make one little change and something that was a complementary flavor now starts to stand out and become objectionable.”



US News Hospital Ratings Largely Subjective

June 28th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Annals of Int'l Medicine, Medscape

US News & World Report’s influential “top 50” list of US hospitals is driven by subjective reputations of the institutions rather than objective measures of hospital quality, according to a study by Ashwini Sehgal of Case Western Reserve University.

scientificratingsystemTo establish subjective reputations of US hospitals, US News surveys 250 board-certified physicians from around the country. US News also uses objective data including nurse-to-patient ratios, availability of specific medical technology, risk-adjusted mortality for Medicare patients, and teaching status.

In analyzing the relative contributions of subjective vs. objective measures in determining which hospitals made the coveted list, Sehgal “found little relationship between rankings and objective quality measures for most specialties.”

Specifically, he found a strong correlation between a hospital’s rank in the US News list and the hospital’s “reputation score” as measured in the survey. By contrast, a hospital’s rank was variably correlated with the objective scores used by US News.

For example, the top five heart and heart-surgery hospitals based on reputation score alone were the same as those of the US News top five heart hospitals (Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic–Rochester, Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Texas Heart Institute).

“Because reputation score is determined by asking approximately 250 specialists to identify the five best hospitals in their specialty, only nationally recognized hospitals are likely to be named frequently,” Sehgal told MedScape. “Users should understand that the relative standings of US News & World Report’s top 50 hospitals largely indicate national reputation, not objective measures of hospital quality.”

“Being well-known may be the result of many factors that are unrelated to the quality of day-to-day care,” commented Harlan Krumholz of the Yale University School of Medicine.

The write-up is in the Annals of Internal Medicine.


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Old Drugs, New Tricks

June 25th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: BurrillReport

In an innovative effort to find new uses for existing drugs, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has struck a deal with the Washington University School of Medicine enabling the University’s scientists to access information regarding over 500 pharmaceutical compounds in Pfizer’s archives.

allheatnolightThe 5-year agreement also calls for Pfizer to contribute $22.5 million to the University. Proprietary information will be shared for drugs that are currently on the market and those that failed during  testing. The deal is believed to be the first of its kind in the industry.

The parties expect the partnership can reduce the time-to-market for drugs that are found to have new applications, because the time consuming, pre-clinical (safety) studies have already been performed on these compounds.

“There are two realities in drug discovery,” Don Frail told BurrillReport. The chief scientific officer of Pfizer’s Indications Discovery Unit explained that “the majority of candidates tested in development do not give the desired result, yet those drugs that do succeed typically have multiple uses. By harnessing the expertise at this academic medical center, the collaboration seeks to discover new uses for these compounds in areas of patient need that might otherwise be left undiscovered.”

To foster collaboration, Pfizer developed a web portal that permits Washington University scientists to access clinical and preclinical data regarding Pfizer’s proprietary compounds. An oversight committee composed of scientists from both organizations will evaluate research proposals that have been co-authored by researchers from the University and Pfizer.

Pfizer’s Indications Discovery Unit will move its laboratories closer to the Washington University campus to further promote idea exchange.

“This is a tremendous opportunity for both partners,” Jeffrey Gordon, director of the University’s Center for Genome Sciences told Burrill. “It leverages the complementary strengths and interests of both Washington University and Pfizer.”


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You Are What You Buy

June 24th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

In the latest permutation of social networking, you are what you buy.

Sachin spent $4.98 at Starbucks. Jenna bought earrings for$3.19 from Target (“They dangle/match my new dress”). AllieJ purchased Kind of Blue from iTunes for $8.89 (“’So What’ is such a classic!”)

isanyoneoutthereTwitter-like feeds like this are appearing on these new social networking sites, which include Blippy and Swipeley. The feeds permit—indeed, encourage—users to automatically broadcast purchases they make to the world. And that lets people reveal their personalities through their purchases. Some people think is a good thing.

Are you a Levis guy or a Polo jeans guy? McDonald’s or Taco Bell? Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks? Here’s your chance to let everyone, and I mean everyone know!

According to Philip Kaplan, the co-founder of Blippy, users share $1.5 million worth of their purchases each week on his site, and that number is growing rapidly. Users give the company access to their credit and debit card accounts, along with other online accounts like Netflix and iTunes. Blippy compiles and posts their purchases.

Users can block certain purchases from their profiles, but Blippy’s default settings are set to “share all.”

Blippy has focused on user acquisition rather than monetization so far, but it hopes that the data it’s collecting can be eventually sold to marketers looking to understand purchasing behaviors in various demographics.

Privacy experts wonder whether users fully understand what’s happening when they sign-up for the service (even though it’s explained completely in the Terms of Service). “It’s not just about a private exchange between friends. The business is basically about providing access to you to advertisers and marketers,” Jeff Chester told the Washington Post. “There are little strangers listening in,” added Chester, who works for the Center for Digital Democracy.

Amanda Lenhart, a senior research specialist at the Pew Internet & American Life Project added that “people often fail to remember who is in their network, even though you’ve created it yourself.”


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Students Say Free Condoms are too Small

June 22nd, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

Responding to complaints by high school and college students that free condoms being distributed by Washington DC health officials are of poor quality and too small, the city now intends to offer Trojan condoms, including extra-large versions, in addition to the less expensive Durex condoms it had  distributed exclusively until now. 

trojanmagnumCity officials decided it was worth the extra few thousand dollars per year to encourage sexually active teens to practice safe sex.

“We want to support the regularization of condom use citywide,” Shannon Hader, director of the city’s HIV/AIDS administration told the Washington Post. “We are promoting this idea that using condoms is healthy . . . to destigmatize condom use,  for kids (and) grown-ups.”

The District’s health department distributed 3.2 million condoms last year, including about 15,000 in schools, to its 600,000 residents. The program costs the city $165,000 per year. The city pays 5.7 cents per Durex condom, and will pay from 6 to 9 cents for the Trojans, depending on size.

Interested parties can get the condoms online or at more than 100 locations, including liquor stores, barbershops and youth centers. 

In a survey of high school students in the District last spring, most participants “felt Trojan brand condoms were of better quality and protection.” They regarded the extra large “Magnum” condom marketed by Trojan as the best because it was “thicker.”

Durexes were perceived by the students to most likely to “pop or break.”

Despite these perceptions, health officials agree that the condoms are equally effective in terms of preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.


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The Trillion Calorie Challenge

June 21st, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Wall Street Journal

Just one week after first-dietician-in chief Michelle Obama asked the food industry to reduce the marketing of unhealthy foods to kids as part of her campaign against childhood obesity, 16 food makers agreed to cut 1.5 trillion calories from their products by 2015.

cokeThe companies, which include Hershey, Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola and Pepsico, announced plans to reach the goal by reducing portion sizes, changing recipes for certain products, and offering more low-cal alternatives to their offerings.

The move represents the food industry’s response to Ms. Obama’s call for a reduction in childhood obesity rates to 5% by 2030. Currently, about a third of US children are overweight or obese.

“This is precisely the kind of real private-sector commitment that we need,” Mrs. Obama told the Wall Street Journal.

Notably absent from the list of participating organizations were restaurant companies. Even so, participating companies account for nearly a quarter of the entire US food supply by volume, according to White House statistics.

spriteTo determine whether they meet their target, participating companies will determine the amount of calories they remove from each product and multiply that by the number of units sold. They will also try to account for sales trends. When new products or smaller portions of existing products are sold, the companies will calculate the percent of market share cannibalized by the new (or smaller sized) product, and multiply that by the number of units sold.

Healthy-food advocates were lukewarm to the initiative, noting that people could simply eat more servings of the food items.

“This is where the market is taking these companies anyway. I don’t know that this represents much of a concession,” said Yale’s Kelly Brownell, who studies obesity.


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Stressed Out? Call Mommy!

June 18th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: BurrillReport

Simply hearing mom’s voice on the telephone triggers a marked calming effect in girls. The response is triggered by the release of a stress-reducing hormone, say scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 
WTFTo reach these conclusions, Leslie Seltzer created a stressful situation by asking a cohort 7- to 12-year-old girls to deliver an extemporaneous speech and solve difficult math problems in front of an audience of strangers.

The stressed-out pre-teens were then randomized into 3 groups. Girls in the first group received hugs and related in-person comforting from their mothers. The second group received phone-based support from their mothers. The third group was hung out to dry watching an emotionally neutral video.
Seltzer’s group found that girls in the first two groups experienced a marked rise in oxytocin levels, whether their contact with mom was in person or via the telephone. They also found that the calming effects of the interaction, and the associated bump in oxytocin and reduction in cortisol, lasted for hours after the comfort session with mom.
Oxytocin is known to be associated with emotional bonding, but increased levels of the female hormone had previously been thought to require physical contact between mother and daughter.

“It’s clear that a mother’s voice can have the same effect as a hug, even if they’re not standing there,” Seltzer told BurrillReport.
“For years I’ve seen students leaving exams and the first thing they do is pull out their cell phone and make a call,” Seth Pollak, a psychology professor at UW-Madison told Burrill. “I used to think, ‘How could those over-attentive, helicopter parents encourage that?’ But now? Maybe it’s a quick and dirty way to feel better. It’s not pop psychology or psychobabble.”
The write-up appears in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.



World’s First Synthetic Organism

June 17th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Science, Wall Street Journal

In a truly remarkable scientific breakthrough, researchers at Synthetic Genomics, Inc. have created a living organism that is wholly controlled by man-made genetic instructions.

Catch idea“We call it the first synthetic cell,” Craig Venter, the company founder who oversaw the project told the Wall Street Journal. “These are very much real cells.”

The unicellular organism can reproduce but has no living ancestors.

The laboratory methods used to create it, which are patented by Synthetic Genomics, appear to be applicable to other bacterial strains with commercial potential. In fact at least 3 companies are using similar methods to create organisms which produce fuels and vaccines and (better late than never) gobble up oil spills.

“This is literally a turning point in the relationship between man and nature,” said molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University. “For the first time, someone has generated an entire artificial cell with predetermined properties.”

Synthetic Genomics provided $30 million to fund the work. It owns intellectual-property rights to the entire process.

To create the new life form, Venter and bioengineer Daniel Gibson stripped out the DNA of a bacterium known as Mycoplasma capricolum and replaced it with a genome they built which was a variant of a second species known as Mycoplasma mycoides. The minor variations amount to biochemical signatures of the scientists, essentially proving the creation was theirs.

“We make a genome from four bottles of chemicals; we put that synthetic genome into a cell; that synthetic genome takes over the cell,” Gibson told the Journal. “The cell is entirely controlled by that new genome.”

The incredible work is documented in Science.

Soon after the announcement, the House Energy and Commerce Committee said it would hold public hearings on the matter in the near future.



Health Reform Could Cost More than First Thought

June 15th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

The recently enacted health reform law could cost taxpayers $115 billion more over the next decade than originally proposed, if Congress approves all spending proposals outlined in the legislation, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Smoking Genie LampThe increase would push overall costs of the law beyond $1 trillion, an amount the Obama administration has tried desperately to stay under.

The new law extends health coverage 30 million people that are currently uninsured, primarily through tax credits that can be used to purchase insurance via competitive markets that are scheduled to begin operations in 2014. The law was signed by President Obama on March 23 following a CBO estimate that it would cost $938 billion over the next decade, even as it cut the federal deficit by $143 billion.

According to the CBO, the incremental spending includes $10-20 billion in administrative costs, $39 billion directed at Native American health care programs, and $34 billion for local health centers.

Apparently, most folks knew about these additions before the law was passed, but they were not included because the spending was discretionary. Congressional Republican had argued that they should have been.

“Congress does not always act on authorizations that are put into legislation by drafters,” Kenneth Baer, a CBO spokesperson told the Washington Post. “Authorizations for discretionary spending are not expenditures.”

In its recent update, the CBO also mentioned that costs of the law could be higher still, since the law approved several programs for which specific funding levels have yet to be established.

Baer did suggest that the president would stipulate that any added spending would have to be offset by reductions in other programs. “The president made clear he will enforce that with his veto pen,” Baer told the Post.



Walgreens Shelves Genetic Test

June 14th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: CNN

Responding to criticism from scientists and the FDA, Walgreens has postponed plans to market a personal genetic test kit made by Pathway Genomics

“We’ve elected not to move forward with offering the Pathway product to our customers until we have further clarity on this matter,” a Walgreens statement said.

FDAhandcuffsThe Pathway Genomics kit uses saliva samples to assess one’s risk of contracting in excess of 70 diseases including lung cancer, hypertension and heart disease.

The kits cost $20. They include a plastic container, handy instructions and a postage-paid envelope to ship the specimen to a San Diego-based laboratory. Testing costs an additional $79 to $249.

The state-of-the-art in genomic science these days is that it’s easy and inexpensive to obtain genetic markers for a host of diseases, but there is insufficient data to give much credence to the findings…at least for diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease which are thought to be influenced by hundreds of different genes.

“Many of these markers are not understood, even what genes they are affecting right now,” Kenneth Offit, the chief of clinical genetics at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York told CNN. “It’s a very, very early stage in this level of genomic research.”

For its part, the FDA said, “Pathway Genomics has moved outside of the currently sanctioned boundaries for lab-developed tests by marketing (its) product in a retail store. These kits have not been proven safe, effective or accurate. Patients could be making medical decisions based on data from a test that hasn’t been validated by the FDA.”

Of note, Pathway Genomics has sold these kits online for the last 8 months. In fact, more than 30 companies offer personal genetic tests on line.


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