The Boston Globe’s science blog is worth digging for

ss2aCarolyn Y. Johnson’s “Science in Mind”  blog in the  Globe, which is buried in the print version of the paper and difficult to find online. (Hover over  “News” and it’s in the menu to the right.)

Science reporting is hard. Writers have to find a spot between jargon spewing and oversimplification. The “why should I care?” bar can be difficult to scale, especially for important but incremental developments. The tendency is to hype it up, follow the crowd or regurgitate journal findings because they are vetted – so they must be important.

They aren’t always, so we need sharp blogging like Johnson’s. She does a bit of reporting on journal articles herself. But, she puts the research in context. At a time when even papers like The Washington Post are printing press releases as stories, blogging like this is even more valuable.  (For more on the need for good science reporting, see Sense about Science.)

Johnson’s latest post deals with the tendency of some to judge the value of science by the silly title or obscure topic of research articles. Here, she alerts to some pushback from a UMass researcher Patricia Brennan who studies reproduction in ducks.

Can’t resist the – Ha ha, duck dick –  pun? Unless you’re handing out Ig Nobels, grow up and read on:

Her work became the butt of political jokes when a $385,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study duck penises attracted the attention of a conservative news website. Brennan found herself in the somewhat unusual situation of defending the scientific validity of her work to the masses, and saw a need for greater engagement with the public…

 In an interview, Brennan said that examining sexual conflict between male and female ducks provides a fascinating insight into evolutionary biology and sexual competition. That information is interesting in its own right, but she also notes that duck penises, which have an external sperm channel, may ultimately lead to new molecular insights that could be deployed in medicine. Or they might not. But unless scientists learn, no one will ever know.

Brennan points to research into avian genitalia that may already have a medical impact. Colleagues are examining why chickens do not have penises and ducks do, which may provide clues to better understand hypospadias, a birth defect in which boys’ penises are malformed.

Other posts of note:

STEM CELLS Already, scientists in laboratories across the world have begun dipping mature cells in acid, hoping to

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 see whether this simple intervention really can trigger a transformation into stem cells, as reported by a team of Boston and Japanese researchers in January.

At the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, a number of scientists have embarked on the experiment, which they’re informally calling “stem cell ceviche,” comparing it to the Latin American method of cooking seafood in lime and lemon juice.

 RESEARCH DATA:  For the past year, physicians, researchers, and ethicists have vigorously debated whether unexpected findings detected in people’s genomes should be reported back to patients or research subjects. In a provocative essay published Thursday, researchers from Harvard Medical School and King’s College London argue that an even more fundamental right has been totally absent from the conversation: research participants’ access to the raw data they provide.

 

 

 

 

Over-treatment? There’s an app for that

ss accCritics have knocked the recently updated guidelines  on statins for patients at risk of heart disease. While some heart specialist spent years putting together advice for the high risk, others said the guidelines will result in massive overtreament.

Still, health monitoring apps are hot,. The American College of Cardiology is now offering an iPhone/ iPad risk calculator,  the Globe’s Daily Dose reports. This paragraph from the Boston.com post was cut off the print version of the story.

The app does instruct doctors to have a discussion about the risks and benefits of statins and to consider patient preferences; whether busy primary care providers will make the time to have that discussion, rather than simply prescribing the drugs, remains to be seen. 

The headlines were different as well. 

Print: App Calculates Heart Disease

Boston.com: Heart disease risk app may increase statin prescriptions

Don’t like the ACC app? There are already a handful of others.

Another study questions benefit of mammograms, via Globe, Times

The Globe isn’t sharing much with Boston.com these days. But, you can still access most of the blogs.

Mom, post breast cancer

Mom, post breast cancer

Today’s Daily Dose is on the mammography debate. We all thought early detection was key. For breast cancer, maybe not. 

In a research finding that will add to doubts about the value of breast cancer screening, Canadian researchers determined that women ages 40 to 59 who had yearly mammograms enjoyed no added survival benefit up to 25 years later compared with those who skipped the screening X-rays….

The latest finding, published Tuesday in the British Medical Journal, confirms earlier results from the Canadian trial, which first came out two decades ago and is unlikely to discourage many doctors from recommending screening…

But the researchers also determined that 22 percent of breast cancers initially detected on mammograms in the early 1980s were “over-diagnosed”—meaning they never would have been found otherwise and would not have become life-threatening. Most of these women had surgery to remove these tumors which, in hindsight, was unnecessary…

Such findings haven’t, though, swayed the opinions of most women and doctors, who remain more concerned about a life-threatening cancer going undetected than a harmless one being over-treated

Two local docs defend the procedure:

“Mammography is an imperfect test at best, but at this point, it’s the best test we have,” said Dr. Ann Partridge, a breast oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She and others highlighted some potential methodological flaws of the Canadian study.

For example, Partridge said, technology has improved significantly over the past 30 years with X-ray machines and digitized film that yield clearer images….

Some radiologists have sharply attacked the study investigators, accusing them of having a bias against mammography by designing a study in which the control group of women in their 50s received breast exams performed by skilled nurses every year instead of mammograms.

“The principal investigator set out to prove that all you needed to do was a physical examination,” said Dr. Daniel Kopans, director of breast imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital, in an e-mail responding to the new study finding. “The nurse examiners were highly trained while the radiologists and technologists [who performed the mammograms] had no training.”

Not everyone is sticking with mammography. The advocates at Breast Cancer Action have long questioned its usefulness.

And, the New York Times story offered this telling quote:

“It will make women uncomfortable, and they should be uncomfortable,” said Dr. Russell P. Harris, a screening expert and professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who was not involved in the study. “The decision to have a mammogram should not be a slam dunk.”

Harvard and MIT use clinical trials to study health policy #ACA #HCR

A New York Times story on the feds’ failure to use randomized clinical trials for health delivery research led us to J-Pal, a joint Harvard MIT program. Here’s a link to the group’s health page. 

J-PAL’s Health Program seeks to promote the important contributions that randomized evaluations can make in understanding how improvements in health services and delivery can reduce poverty. J-PAL’s Health Program seeks to promote the important contributions that randomized evaluations can make in understanding how improvements in health services and delivery can reduce poverty. Each year, significant resources are allocated to global health and development initiatives. However, despite substantial investment, improvements in global health indicators have been uneven. For example, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest data, encouraging declines in child mortality rates have occurred globally, while improvements in maternal mortality, TB, and HIV/AIDS have been slower (World Health Statistics Report 2010). Moreover, the WHO reports worsening of certain key indicators such as prevalence of undernutrition in a number of countries.

The Times story quotes researchers saying that the federal government needs “to to do more randomized trials and fewer demonstration projects. “

The situation is different in the developing world. There, randomized trials have become common in health care and other areas, sponsored by a variety of groups like J-PAL, a global network of researchers that was organized by M.I.T. and Harvard economists.

So far, J-PAL has conducted over 440 randomized trials in 55 countries, according to Amy Finkelstein, an M.I.T. economist.

Dr. Finkelstein and Lawrence Katz, a Harvard economist, have now started J-PAL North America to spur randomized trials in, among other areas, health care.

Dr. Finkelstein was encouraged by the Medicaid study she and Katherine Baicker of Harvard did in Oregon. The state wanted to expand Medicaid coverage but could not afford to insure all, so it used a lottery.

The lottery was essentially randomizing people to have Medicaid or not, so Dr. Finkelstein and Dr. Baicker designed a study to see the effects.

Over 18 months, those who got Medicaid saw doctors and went to emergency rooms more often and got more health care. They were less depressed. But so far, their health is not better and they cost the system more.

“It is getting so much attention not just because it is important and credible,” said Dr. Finkelstein, “but because it is rare.”

 

Globe, Times on some of the the 3 million newly insured

globe-ssWith the uproar about computer glitches with the new health insurance exchanges, you would never know that millions of people were about the get coverage at a reasonable cost.

Today, The Boston Globe’s  Chelsea Conaboy offers stories on five of them. The story is  behind the pay wall. You can look at the pictures, go out and buy the Sunday paper or get a digital subscription. 

Much has gone wrong since state and federal health insurance websites created under the Affordable Care Act launched on Oct. 1. Technological glitches have frustrated customers, flustered politicians, and fueled debate about President Obama’s landmark legislation.

Lost amid all the fury, however, have been the success stories.

Many who struggled without insurance are getting it. Others with poor coverage have found better plans. Some whose policies cost a lot, yet covered little, have obtained more comprehensive coverage that — with government subsidies — often costs less.

About 3 million people have signed up for a private health plan through the online insurance exchanges, a senior US health official said Friday. More people are newly enrolled in Medicaid in states expanding that program, which provides coverage to people with low incomes.

Or, check out this story from last week’s New York Times about how the law is having an immediate impact on people who suddenly qualify for Medicaid.

WELCH, W.Va. — Sharon Mills, a disabled nurse, long depended on other people’s kindness to manage her diabetes. She scrounged free samples from doctors’ offices, signed up for drug company discounts and asked for money from her parents and friends. Her church often helped, but last month used its charitable funds to help repair other members’ furnaces.

Ms. Mills, 54, who suffered renal failure last year after having irregular access to medication, said her dependence on others left her feeling helpless and depressed. “I got to the point when I decided I just didn’t want to be here anymore,” she said.

So when a blue slip of paper arrived in the mail this month with a new Medicaid number on it — part of the expanded coverage offered under the Affordable Care Act — Ms. Mills said she felt as if she could breathe again for the first time in years. “The heavy thing that was pressing on me is gone,” she said.

 

Press (blue) button; get health records — Hacking health this weekend in Boston

ssThe Blue Button “is a simple concept: give patients’ access to their own data. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) first used the Blue Button logo on its patient portal in 2010 ,By clicking on the button, individuals could download their medical records in digital form.

Since then, millions of Veterans have logged onto the tool to download their personal health information, and many of the country’s largest data holders, including federal agencies such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Department of Defense (DoD) and private health plans such as United HealthCare and Aetna, have embraced Blue Button as a way to make health care data readily available to their beneficiaries.”

This weekend:

Tufts MedStart and MIT Hacking Medicine in collaboration with the ONC Present:

The Blue Button Boston Innovation Challenge

Tufts MedStart and MIT Hacking Medicine are excited to announce their collaboration with the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT (ONC) on the January Blue Button Code-a-thon taking place from Friday, January 17th to Sunday, January 19th.  Blue Button is an international movement to engage patients in their health through access to their health data in both human and machine-readable formats. This fall, all providers using MU2 certified technology will be able to support patients viewing, downloading, and transmitting their clinical data to a consumer endpoint, like a personal health record, or provider through Blue Button + Direct.

This codeathon is an opportunity for providers, patients, and the developers of consumer facing technology to come together to learn about Blue Button, identify high priority use cases, and build exciting new products that are ready to receive Blue Button data. We hope this event will foster collaborations that exist long after the codeathon ends. The ONC recently sponsored a successful codeathon on device data and health financial data in San Francisco, and we are excited to work with a new community in Boston!

The event will focus on use cases that take advantage of patient clinical data liberated through Blue Button + Direct, a technology available in all Meaningful Use certified technology starting winter 2014. The event will open with patients and providers sharing their highest priority Blue Button use cases which will guide development over the weekend and judging criteria. Example ideas may include but are not limited to:

  • Co-designed applications that can improve communication between the health care provider and the patient. (ie. care plans and notes that both the patient and physician can contribute to)
  • Simplifying medical jargon, content, and diagnoses for patients. (ie. consumer friendly definitions of clinical terms)
  • Clinical health information visualizations. (ie. interactive lab results)
  • Population trend analysis. (ie. seasonal, location specific tracking of symptoms at an aggregate level)
  • Patient record matching to clinical trials.

 

If lab rats could talk: What I readlly learned from “LOL my thesis” #gradschool #research

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LOLmyThesis Twitter feed

The Globe science blog is behind the paywall, So, thanks to CJ  and NPR for alerting us to this.

“About a month ago, a Harvard University senior launched the equivalent of an academic online confession booth: a collection of one-sentence snarky summaries of their theses.

The blog, LOLmythesis, is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the futility and incrementalism that can seem to be at the root of a project that has basically co-opted a person’s life. Called “LOLmythesis,” for laugh-out-loud my thesis, it’s become a legitimate meme, drawing entries from sarcastic thesis students from universities across the world.

Harvard senior Angie Frankel told the origin story of LOLmythesis on National Public Radio , explaining that “I have killed so many fish” sometimes just feels much more accurate than the true title of her thesis.”

From asthmatic mice, we learn that asthma is really fucking awful for people.

Immunology, North Dakota State University

Does blowing lines blow your mind? A study of cocaine use and depression

Public Health, Columbia University

 Similarity between people and rats: Sleep deprivation makes them angry.

Neuroscience, Washington State University

Use it or Lose it

Bioengineering, UC Berkeley & UCSF

It is possible to build an academic career out of injecting globs of virus into people’s eyes

Genetics, Trinity College Dublin

People who have larger emotional brain volumes are better at emotions.

Psychology, University of Wisconsin – Madison

Upon meeting rsv, dendritic cells haul ass to the nearest lymph nodes and demand t cells to “wake the f$%# up!;” however, without a particular protein, the dcs start blabbering nonsense and make quite a mess in the lungs of mice.

Molecular and Cellular Pathology, University of Michigan

Women mathematicians in film are young and exceedingly attractive; male mathematicians in film are old, white and socially inept (except Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park)

Science Communication, Imperial College London

This popular brain imaging method is sort of accurate as far as I can tell. Please enjoy this pretty map I drew of monkey brains.

Medical Physics, University of Wisconsin ‘Diffusion tensor imaging and tractography in the rhesus macaque brain.’

  We spent thousands of government dollars to create a mouse model for a disease only 32 people in the world have.

Biological Sciences, University of Maryland

 A protein that might be involved in muscle development, might be involved in moving junk around the cell, and is definitely a bitch to work with.

Biochemistry, University of Notre Dame

Intersexed people generally don’t like having their junk reconfigured as babies without consent. And no one else does either.

Global and Population Health, Psychology, University of Sydney.

I thought doctors understood how vaccines work; turns out no one does.

Biostatistics, University of Bordeaux (France)

Turns out my 3 years of research made zero ripples in reproductive biology. But spending 3 years researching bull sperm serves as a great first date and bar topic.

Reproductive Biology & Nutritional Sciences, Cornell University

http://lolmythesis.com/

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