Friday, November 16, 2007

Barry Bonds Indicted

Home run king Barry Bonds was indicted this week on felony charges that could send him to prison for at least a decade. Bonds is charged with lying under oath to a federal grand jury back in 2003. Bonds has always claimed that he never knowingly used performance-enhancing steroids, but government investigators now say they can prove that Mr. Bonds used steroids, based on a positive blood test seized during an investigation of a California laboratory that sells them. Bond’s lawyer calls the charges “ridiculous”. The case may drag on in the courts for years. In the meantime, many baseball fans will consider Bonds’ home run record to have an asterisk after it.

The dangers of steroid abuse by athletes are discussed in Human Biology 5th ed., pp. 134-135.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Birth Control Pills on Campus, Revisited

Previously I reported that sweeping changes in Medicaid reimbursement rules were likely to have the unintended consequence of causing a sharp increase in the cost of birth control pills on college campuses this past Fall (see this blog, July 24, 2007 posting). Indeed, the cost of birth control pills on many campuses did go up, on some campuses by as much as 10-fold. Some college health clinics stopped providing birth control pills entirely.

Fortunately, relief is in sight. Introduced by Representative Joseph Crowley of New York and backed by over 100 co-sponsors on both sides of the aisle, the Prevention Through Affordable Access Act (HR 4054) would restore the ability of college health clinics and safety-net health care providers to buy birth control pills at discounted rates and to pass those savings on to college women and other women in need.

Apparently the word “prevention” in the Prevention Through Affordable Access Act stands for prevention of unintended pregnancy. According to a press release from his office, Representative Crowley states that “A bureaucratic mistake should not stand in the way of protecting the health and safety of hard-working women. My colleagues, who are interested in effectively preventing unintended pregnancies, ought to support this measure and join us in urging its immediate passage.” Well said, Congressman Crowley.

Do your students understand the legislative process? Are they interested in how specific legislation (this one is a good example) might affect them personally? How do they feel about this particular bill?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Merck Settles Vioxx Lawsuits

The news media are reporting this morning that Merck has agreed to settle 27,000 lawsuits against the company for damages related to its painkiller, Vioxx, for $4.85 billion dollars. (See the New York Times online at, Nov. 9 - "Merck Agrees to Settle Vioxx Suits for $4.85 Billion"). Since the lawsuits cover about 47,000 plaintiffs, the average plaintiff will get around $100,000 before paying his/her lawyers 30-50%.

The issue of what Merck knew and when they knew it regarding the potential health damage that could be caused by Vioxx is highlighted in Human Biology 5th ed., pp. 182-183. Merck had vowed to fight each and every lawsuit over Vioxx in court, a strategy that seemed to work for the company. Because Merck won most of the first 20 cases, plaintiffs began to realize that their best hope was for a modest but guaranteed settlement, rather than the chance of nothing at all if they sued individually for huge amounts.

For Merck, $4.85 billion was less than Wall Street had anticipated, and less than one year’s profit.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Biofuel for Home Heating

Massachusetts may become the first state in the nation to require that home heating oil and diesel fuel contain at least 5% biofuel, if the governor has his way. He and other legislative leaders introduced a bill in the Massachusetts state legislature this week that would require the addition of biofuel to home heating oil and diesel fuel by 2013.

Biofuels could become an important potential source of renewable energy for our long-term future, right up there with solar and wind energy. Although the technologies for making it are still new and in the development stage, a variety of biofuels can be made from wood chips, grasses, waste cooking oil, and other renewable plant material. The bill in Massachusetts is an attempt to support the fledgling biofuels industry, while at the same time creating jobs in the state and (ultimately) driving down the costs of energy. Already, several companies are making plans to build biofuel plants in Massachusetts, according to an article online in the New York Times ( “Massachusettts Looks at Using Biofuel in Home Heating Oil”, Nov. 6, 2007).

You could engage your students in a debate (or assign a writing task) centered on what they think will be the primary sources of energy in their lifetimes, 50 years from now. You could also ask them to look into what your state is doing, if anything, to encourage the use of renewable fuels.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Fair-Haired Neanderthals

Those who are particularly interested in genetics and human evolution might want to take a look at the article published online in Science last week (E-pub ahead of print: 10.1126/science.1147417) and the published news item related to it (Science 318:546-547, Oct. 26, 2007). The authors of the online research article report that Neanderthals have a particular gene mutation that suggests that at least some Neanderthals had pale skin and red hair. There’s still no indication that Neanderthals ever interbred with modern humans, though. Instead, it appears that the Neanderthals evolved independently toward more human features before they died out entirely.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Buzz on Bone and Fat

In Human Physiology 5th ed. (p. 104-105) I point out that bone growth, remodeling and repair are enhanced by weight-bearing exercise and can be stimulated by weak electrical currents. But I learned something new today - apparently it’s also known that that in several animal species including mice and sheep, just standing on a platform that vibrates at a low frequency (like a buzz) leads to bone growth. That’s interesting enough, but now scientist have demonstrated that when mice are placed on a vibrating platform for just 15 minutes a day they not only gain bone mass, they also have 27% less body fat. The work will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Nov. 6, but it is already available online.

Huh? It sounds incredible - so incredible that it amazes even the scientists who did it. They caution that they don’t yet understand WHY the mice gain bone mass and have less body fat, but they have some hypotheses. One is that the low frequency vibrations may stimulate stem cells in bone to become bone cells instead of fat cells. Other scientists remain skeptical of this hypothesis, saying that perhaps the mice have less fat because they eat less or because they are doing more muscle work to maintain their posture on the platform. Certainly these are all good hypotheses that deserve to be tested.

According to a New York Times article published online on Oct. 30 (“Low Buzz May Give Mice Better Bones and Less Fat”, by Gina Kolata), a clinical trial is underway in elderly people to determine whether a buzzing platform will affect adult human bone density (and body fat) like it does in mice. Perhaps in a few years we’ll know, and a new therapy for osteoporosis will emerge.