Germs not bugs: Harvard SPH finds that not all the #microbes on the #Boston subway surfaces will make you sick #MBTA

Or, in more technical terms: Urban Transit System Microbial Communities Differ by Surface Type and Interaction with Humans and the Environment


Stat, the new (Boston Globe?) life science site, is up

ss1After trickling into The Boston Globe in recent weeks, the STAT website is up. Looks impressive and has some big names on the masthead. (Can we still call it a masthead?) Congratulations to all.

If you are confused about its relationship with the Globe, you’re not alone. STAT is a new animal, digital first with its own staff and budget. The Globe still covers life sciences, but the three fine health reporters there are not part of STAT. Their former editors have migrated to STAT. The team’s science writer migrated to The Washington Post months ago and has yet to be replaced. So, it was STAT that hosted the recent Morrissey Boulevard party for the National Association of Science Writers, not the science-writer-less Globe.

STAT casts itself as a national publication and some  stories run in the A section of the Globe — a nice break from the wire copy that replaced reporting from the long-gone national and foreign desks. They also have columns on Kendall Square — the pharma capital of universe — and  Longwood Avenue — the medical capital of the universe. So, it’s kind of local. Or offering a nod to local?

ss2 (2)

Here’s hoping that they don’t suck the life out of the life-science reporting in the Globe. Not for nostalgia reasons, but for those of us in Boston who need good, local health and science watchdogs. And the team at the Globe does great work.

While Hollywood is celebrating the “Spotlight” movie about the paper’s reporting on the cover-up of rampant pedophilia in the Catholic Church, the latest Spotlight series raises question about overbooking of surgery at Mass General. While the practice may not be unheard of, the story raises important questions about patient safety, informed consent and the hospital’s treatment of whistle blowers.

You think going up against the Catholic Church is scary? Try going up against Partners Healthcare.

#Boston #DoctorsWithoutBorders to hold recruitment meeting 9/21

Plenty of Boston health care workers are involved with the Lasker award-winning Doctors without Borders, including US president Dr. Deane Marchbein, an anesthesiologist at Cambridge Health Alliance.  They were cited for their work during the Ebola outbreak in Africa.

untitledThey are holding a recruitment meeting on Sept 21 at the Boston Public Library  Commonwealth Salon
230 Dartmouth St.

Every day, Doctors Without Borders aid workers from around the world provide assistance to people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe—treating those most in need regardless of political, religious, or economic interest. Whether an emergency involves armed conflicts or epidemics, malnutrition or natural disasters, Doctors Without Borders is committed to bringing quality medical care to people caught in crisis.

On Monday, Sept. 21 medical and non-medical professionals are invited to join us for an evening presentation to learn more about how you can join Doctors Without Borders’ pool of dedicated aid workers.

An aid worker and Field Human Resources Officer will discuss requirements and the application process, and you’ll meet experienced Doctors Without Borders aid workers from the Boston area and hear their firsthand stories of “life in the field.”

Dr Marchbein spoke to the Globe when she was chosen  for the post in 2012.

Q. Tell me about a dangerous spot where you have worked.

A. I spent this winter in Lebanon, working on getting medical supplies into Syria. Health facilities, doctors, and nurses were targeted. Since we were not sure we could keep the team safe, we had to abandon the idea of putting them in the field. So I Skyped with medical counterparts to understand what they needed and I taught a trauma course in Lebanon for those who might be going to Syria. And we were finding ways to get medical supplies in there.

Q. How did you do that?

A. Basically it’s about consorting with smugglers. There are thousands of years’ worth of well-worn smuggling routes from bordering countries. So instead of flatscreen TVs, they were smuggling in medical supplies.

Here are a few more Boston docs involved with the group.

Jonathan Spector, Boston-based pediatrician

From WBUR: John Welch, a nurse anesthetist at Boston Children’s Hospital on his Ebola mission.

IgNobels and other upcoming health-related events in Boston

2015_IgPosterIn Boston,  the students are back and so is the long list of health-related events, including the already sold-out IgNobels. Fold up some of your own paper airplanes and watch it via webcast next week. Saturday lectures are first come, first served.

Thanks to the Boston Science and Engineering Lectures website for these links. Comments from BHN.


7p.  “Thinking about Flavor.”   A Science and Cooking Public Lecture.   Harold McGee and Dave Arnold.   Harvard:  Science Center C.   Details. More science than health, but fun and sometimes nutritious. Click here for the full schedule and arrive early for a seat. 


4p.  “Health in the Era of Sustainable Development.”   K. Srinath Reddy.   HSPH:  Kresge G3.  Details.*  No relation.


Noon.  “Identifying Early Neural Biomarkers in Infants at Risk for Autism.”   Helen Tager-Flusberg.   BU:  24 Cummington Mall, Room B01.   Details. In the technical category.


September 10 – 11.  “Population Health Equity.”   HMS:  Joseph B. Martin Conference Center.   Details, RSVP.

8:30a – 4p.  “The Role of Universities in Addressing Global Health Challenges.”   A symposium.   Harvard:  Knafel Gymnasium, 18 Mason St.   Details, Registration.

Noon.  “Fast-Acting Treatments for Depression: Intravenous Injections and Electromagnetic Fields.”   Michael Rohan and Arkadiy Stolyar.   McLean Hospital:  Belmont campus – Service building, Pierce Hall.   Details.

4:30p.  “The Ethics of Innovative Neurosurgery.”   A panel discussion.   HMS:  Armenise Building D, Amphitheater, 210 Longwood Ave.   This event will be webcast.  Webcast URL TBA. &nbsol Details, RSVP.*


8:30 – 5:30p.  “MindEx 2015.”   Keynotes:  “What I Learned from Being Labelled Mentally Ill and My Views on Some Challenges Facing Cyberconscious Minds,” by Martine Rothblatt, and “The Current State of Personal Genomics,”   by George Church.   Harvard:  Sanders Theater.   Details. More Ex stuff.

Gluten, hoarding and reading: Boston health and medicine events for week of 3/9

Selections from the Boston Science and Engineering calendar Please double check times.


Noon.  “Demystifying Drug Development.”   Jonathan Hurov.   BWH:  Carrie Hall Conference Room.  Details, Registration.

Noon.  “Reading and the Brain: A Workshop.”   Joanna Christodoulou.   Harvard School of Education:  Longfellow Hall 320, 13 Appian Way.   Details, RSVP.


6p.  “High-Tech Med: The newest wave of medical innovation.”   A panel discussion.   Follow events live on #HMSminimed.   HMS:  Joseph B. Martin Conference Center, 77 Avenue Louis Pasteur.  Details, Registration.

6 – 8p.  “Is There Still Room for Gluten?  Separating Science from Supposition.”   Alessio Fasano.   Russell Museum of Medical History, 2 North Grove Street.   Details.

SOLD OUT 6p.  “Decade of Discovery.”   Celebrating 10 years of groundbreaking science on stage.   Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave.   Details, Tickets.


6p.  “High-Tech Med: The newest wave of medical innovation.”   A panel discussion.   Follow events live on #HMSminimed.   HMS:  Joseph B. Martin Conference Center, 77 Avenue Louis Pasteur.  Details, Registration.

6 – 8p.  “Is There Still Room for Gluten?  Separating Science from Supposition.”   Alessio Fasano.   Russell Museum of Medical History, 2 North Grove Street.   Details.

7 – 9p.  “The Air We Breathe: An assessment of urban air pollution“.   Jordan Wilkerson.   Harvard:  Pfizer Hall, 12 Oxford St.   Details.


Noon.  “Overflowing and Overwhelming: Treating Hoarding Disorder.”   Gail Stekette.   McLean Hospital:    Details.


10:30a.  “Spring into Health.”   Rhoda Kubrick, Arboretum Docent.   Arnold Arboretum, Hunnewell Bldg.   Details, Abstract, Registration.

NYTimes Magazine: Recalling the debate over repressed memories

ssThis weekend’s profile of Boston Dr. Bessel van der Kolk brought up some bad memories of the debate over what is clinically known as “dissociative amnesia.” The story profiles van der Kolk’s approach to treating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, known as psychomotor therapy.  

“Trauma has nothing whatsoever to do with cognition,” he says. “It has to do with your body being reset to interpret the world as a dangerous place.” That reset begins in the deep recesses of the brain with its most primitive structures, regions that, he says, no cognitive therapy can access. “It’s not something you can talk yourself out of.” That view places him on the fringes of the psychiatric mainstream.

Not the first time, the story notes, as it recalls the doctor’s past support of repressed memories – a much debated concept that came into play when charges of sexual assault were levied against day care workers and priests in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Dr. van der Kolk’s Harvard colleague, psychologist Richard McNally, called the concept “the worst catastrophe to befall the mental-health field since the lobotomy era.”

From the Times:

For a time, judges and juries were persuaded by the testimony of van der Kolk and others. It made intuitive sense to them that the mind would find a way to shield itself from such deeply traumatic experiences. But as the claims grew more outlandish — alien abductions and secret satanic cults — support for the concept waned. Most research psychologists argued that it was much more likely for so-called repressed memories to have been implanted by suggestive questioning from overzealous doctors and therapists than to have been spontaneously recalled. In time, it became clear that innocent people had been wrongfully persecuted. Families, careers and, in some cases, entire lives were destroyed.

After the dust settled in what was dubbed “the memory wars,” van der Kolk found himself among the casualties. By the end of the decade, his lab at Massachusetts General Hospital was shuttered, and he lost his affiliation with Harvard Medical School. The official reason was a lack of funding, but van der Kolk and his allies believed that the true motives were political.

Not clear what the story means by “political,” but the implication is that he was banished for promoting an unpopular concept.

It didn’t help critics of repressed memory that the concept was being used in cases against alleged pedophiles. Most notoriously, lawyers defending defrocked priest Paul Shanley,  who was convicted of raping a young boy, used doubts about the concept to discredit the grown-up victim who testified that he had repressed memories of abuse. Shanley — who was the subject of numerous complaints to the church —  was found guilty in 2005. His lawyers filed an appeal, again based on the shakiness of the repressed memory concept.

From a Times story on the appeal

You have prominent scientists, psychologists and psychiatrists saying this is not generally accepted. So why allow it in a court of law in a criminal proceeding?” Mr. Stanley’s lawyer, Robert F. Shaw Jr., asked the state’s highest court Thursday.

The debate over repressed memory — the idea that some memories, particularly traumatic ones, can be inaccessible for years — has simmered since the 1980s, when some patients in therapy described long-past scenes of sexual abuse. Some of those experiences turned into high-profile legal cases. The scientific controversy boiled over in the 1990s — as experts raised questions about many claims — and then died down.

Recently, scientists have begun to spar again over the theory. New studies suggest, and many scientists argue, that what people call repression may just be ordinary forgetting; memory is not “blocked.” Others say the process is more complex and may involve a desire to forget.

“My impression is there continues to be a few scientists who honestly believe that it is actually possible for someone to be involved in a traumatic event and not be able to remember it at all,” said Dr. Harrison G. Pope Jr., a professor of psychiatry at Harvard. “But you cannot possibly argue that it’s generally accepted, which is the criteria for it to be admissible from a legal standpoint.”

In 2010, The Globe reported that the request for a new trial was thrown out

Jan 16, 2010: “In sum, the judge’s finding that the lack of scientific testing did not make unreliable the theory that an individual may experience dissociative amnesia was supported in the record, not only by expert testimony but by a wide collection of clinical observations and a survey of academic literature,” Justice Robert Cordy wrote for the SJC.

Shanley, now in his late 70s, was originally prosecuted by Martha Coakley, who is now attorney general and a Democratic candidate for US Senate. Her successor, Middlesex District Attorney Gerard T. Leone Jr., whose prosecutors defended the conviction before the SJC, applauded the ruling.

“As the SJC recognized, repressed memories of abuse is a legitimate phenomenon and provided a valid basis for the jury to find that the victim, a child at the time of the assaults, repressed memories of the years of abuse he suffered at the hands of Paul Shanley, someone who was in a significant position of authority and trust,” Leone said.

But Shanley’s appellate attorney, Robert F. Shaw Jr. of Cambridge, said the SJC had made a grievous mistake. Shaw, who argued in court papers that recovered memory was “junk science,” said Shanley deserved a new trial.

The SJC noted – literally in a footnote – that repressed memories alone may not be enough to convict a defendant. From the Globe:

The court also said that it may decide in the future to throw out a conviction where the only evidence is based on recovered memories.

“We do not consider whether there could be circumstances where testimony based on the repressed or recovered memory of a victim, standing alone, would not be sufficient as a matter of law to support a conviction,” Cordy wrote in a footnote.

But, the debate goes on. A review in the current issue of the American Psychological Association’s journal Psychiatric Bulletin, tries the put the issue to rest. Harvard’s McNally is one of the authors.  The article is in response to a 2012 paper in the same journal supporting the concept of repressed memories.

 (Although) a key assumption of the TM (Trauma model) is dissociative amnesia, the notion that people can encode traumatic experiences without being able to recall them lacks strong empirical support. Accordingly, we conclude that the field should now abandon the simple trauma–dissociation model and embrace multifactorial models that accommodate the diversity of causes of dissociation and dissociative disorder. 


HIV, gone after marrow transplant, returns to Boston’s “Berlin” patients

Update: Health News Review used this story as an example of overuse of the term “cure.” HNR also pointed out how the “cure” got a lot of coverage and the news that it wasn’t a cure did not.

The Globe’s story is behind the paywall. Here is the nut.

Or here

Boston researchers are reporting the return of the HIV virus in two patients who had become virus-free after undergoing bone marrow transplants, dashing hopes of a possible cure that had generated widespread excitement

The story reports that doctors detected the return of the virus in one patient in August. The second patient chose to continue in the study, but in November, doctors found traces of HIV and he went back on his medication

Some background here from Nature Boston. 

More on the meeting where this was reported here.

As pointed out above in HNR, the overuse of the term “cure” often leads to disappointment? Here’s what the Google search looks like:

ssniOr here.