Sunday, January 26, 2014

Global Warming Is Reaching a Critical Point.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a panel of experts appointed by the United Nations, has just completed a draft report on climate change. The report has not yet been officially released, but it was leaked to the press last month, according to the New York Times.

The report allegedly says, among other things, that the world’s leading countries have done so little to solve the global warming that within 15 years the world will begin to experience vast ecological and economic damage. At that point, the problem of excessive CO2 emissions will be so overwhelming that existing technologies for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it underground will not be sufficient to correct the problem. New technologies will be needed. The economic burden of developing these new technologies is likely to be borne by future generations.

The IPCC shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 (with Al Gore) for its work in trying to understanding and publicizing global warming. It’s most recent analysis needs to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the political will necessary to solve global warming still seems to be lacking.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

General Mills Says Cheerios are Now GMO-free

Cereal maker General Mills announced this month that it no longer uses ingredients derived from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in original Cheerios.

To put this in perspective, you should know that Cheerios are made almost entirely from oats, a grain that has not yet been genetically modified. Only a small amount of beet sugar and cornstarch in Cheerios ever came from GMOs. The company modified its ingredient storage and manufacturing procedures to ensure that these two ingredients are now GMO-free as well.

Significantly, the company did not promise to make its other cereal products from non-GMO grains or ingredients. That’s because many of their cereal products contain corn, and over 85% of all corn produced in the U.S. is genetically modified. The company did not even promise to remove ingredients derived from GMOs from its Honey Nut or Apple Cheerios, at least at this time.

General Mills did not say that it was taking this action because it believes that GMOs are actually harmful. Good for them, because the available scientific evidence does not support the conclusion that GMOs are harming consumers. General Mills’ decision to eliminate GMOs from Cheerios was apparently just a calculated marketing decision; a move designed to placate anti-GMO activists and consumers who worry that GMOs are (or may prove to be) harmful, despite the current lack of evidence.

General Mills’ decision came after an anti-GMO activist group called Green America launched a "No GMOs, Cheerios!" campaign online. Coincidence? You decide.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A New Subtype of Bird Flu in China

A new subtype of bird flu known as H7N9 has emerged recently in China, according to the CDC.   The first infections of humans by H7N9 occurred in March of 2013 in Shanghai province.  Within two months, 132 people had been infected and 44 had died.   The outbreak died down over the summer months, only to emerge again in October.  Just last week there were 14 new cases of H7N9 bird flu in humans.

This latest bird flu virus is genetically slightly different but overall functionally similar to the H5N1 virus that has killed over 300 people since it first appeared in 2003.  Like the H5N1 virus, the newer H7N9 virus is highly virulent, killing 33% of all the persons it infects.   And also like the H5N1 virus, the new H7N9 appears to be transmitted to humans only from birds.  There have been no documented cases of sustained human-to-human transmission of either of these viruses, at least not yet.  The big worry, of course, is that a genetic shift in one of these viruses will make it highly transmissible between humans, much like the common cold.  If that happens, the combination of high virulence and rapid human-to-human transmission could lead to a pandemic, meaning that millions of humans might die.

We need to keep an eye on this one.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Standards Needed for Genome Testing Services

A number of companies now offer to test your DNA and then give you an assessment of your risk of developing certain genetic diseases and conditions. One company was warned by the FDA recently that providing people with “results” that include analysis of one’s risk of developing certain genetic diseases amounts to giving medical advice, and there was no evidence that the advice was accurate. (See this blog, Dec. 5, 2013.)

Now an enterprising reporter has shone a light on just how bad, or at least variable, the results can be. (see Piekoff, Kira. I had my DNA Picture Taken, With Varying Results. The New York Times, Dec. 30, 2013). The reporter solicited her genome test results from three different companies. The results, and the companies’ analyses of the meaning of the results, were in many cases highly variable. The findings point to the need to standardize the results and validate them for accuracy, if they are to have any usefulness to consumers. Right now, most of the so-called results of genome analysis have about the same validity as having your fortune told by a psychic. Don’t waste your money unless you just want to be entertained.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not totally negative on the potential of genome tests. I fully expect genome analysis (and the meaning of the results) to get better and better with time and with sufficient FDA oversight. Perhaps in your lifetime you WILL be able to glean some useful information from such analysis. But not yet.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Truvada is Not Popular Among Men at Risk for HIV Infection

Back in September of 2012 the FDA approved the first daily pill for the prevention of HIV infection in persons at risk (see "First Drug Approved for HIV Prevention").  The drug was hailed as a potential life-saver for healthy (uninfected) partners of HIV-infected persons and for healthy individuals who, by virtue of their behavior, felt that they were at risk of HIV infection.  In other words, healthy gay men.  Health officials had hoped that the drug might put a serious dent in the more than 50,000 new HIV infections in the U.S. every year.

Alas, it just isn’t working out that way.   According to an analysis by researchers at Gilead Sciences, Truvada’s manufacturer, only about 1,400 new prescriptions for Truvada were written in 2013.  Surprisingly, nearly half of the new users were women.

Why are healthy gay men at risk for HIV infection not rushing to try Truvada?  A recent New York Times article describes some of the possibilities, including the drug’s price (about $1,000 per month), inadequate education and marketing, and supposedly even the stigma of being called a “Truvada whore”.  Whatever the reason, health officials (and Gilead Sciences) must be disappointed with the fact that new prescriptions represent less than 3% of the annual number of new HIV infections.   This drug is not yet reaching the people for whom it is intended…

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

New Recommendations for Treating High Blood Pressure

A panel of experts appointed by the Heart, Lung and Blood Institute has issued new evidence-based guidelines for the treatment of hypertension (high blood pressure). Consistent with the previous guidelines published in 2003, the goal of treatment for most people should be to achieve blood pressures of 140/90 mmHg or less. The only significant change is that for people over 60 years of age, treatment need only achieve a blood pressure of 150/90, rather than 140/90. The new guideline reflects the fact that there is no clear evidence that lowering systolic blood pressure in older persons to 140 achieves any additional benefit over lowering it to just 150.

The new guidelines make a lot of sense. With age, arteries get stiffer and less elastic. Systolic pressure (the peak pressure in the arteries as a result of the ejection of blood from the heart after a heartbeat) would be expected to be higher in stiff arteries than it would be in more elastic arteries. So a slight increase in systolic pressure is just a normal consequence of the aging process.

The new guidelines are just that; guidelines, based on the best available evidence. The panel fully expects that the recommendations will be discussed and debated by physicians. It will be interesting to see whether the American Heart Association eventually adopts the new guidelines; currently it still recommends that blood pressures be lowered to 140/90 in all hypertensive patients.