Man-Eater Overload

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This story ran in Elements, The New Yorker’s science blog in May 2014. I loved reporting it especially because I conducted a lot of the interviews in Kannada, my mother tongue. You can see the original article here.

Last November, a tiger roaming the outskirts of Bandipur National Park, in southern India, mauled and ate a man named Cheluva, who was a member of the Jenu Kuruba tribe. By the following Tuesday, the tiger had killed two others. The Indian media raised the alarm that a “man-eater” was on the prowl. The government ordered that the beast be shot on sight. “Man-eater,” while technically accurate, did not reflect the tiger’s wretched state: old and weak, with porcupine quills embedded deep in its neck, it had most likely been evicted from its territory by a younger, stronger rival. A few days after the attack, a team of veterinarians tranquilized the tiger and carted it away to a zoo.

Four hundred tigers—more than a tenth of the worldwide population—live in India’s parks and in the Western Ghats mountain range, where their habitat spans more than ten thousand square kilometres. Attacks on the thousands of tribal people who live on park land have been escalating.

One Year after Sandy, Uneven Recovery at New York University’s labs

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How were researchers faring one year after Hurricane Sandy? I wrote this article to answer that question. I got the cleaned-up version of reality from NYU Medical Center, and the unvarnished truth from some researchers. This article appeared on SFARI.org, and was also syndicated on Scientific American on 29 October 2013, Hurricane Sandy’s one-year anniversary.

Walking through Gordon Fishell’s lab now, you would never know that much of his research was swept away by last year’s superstorm. Other scientists at New York University’s medical center cannot say the same.

Walking through Gordon Fishell’s lab now, you would never know that much of his research was swept away by Hurricane Sandy, almost exactly a year ago.

The lab’s staff is back at work, studying — among other things — the role of certain neurons in disorders such as autism. With gleaming floors under glowing lights, the space resembles nothing of the dark, dank disaster zone it was back then.

“It’s really hard to remember how bad it was,” says Fishell, director of the Smilow Neuroscience Program at New York University (NYU). Until, that is, he begins to recall the damage.

On 29 October 2012, ‘superstorm’ Sandy surged through the east coast of the U.S., with water levels in New York Bay reaching 13.88 feet — 2.68 feet higher than the nearly 200-year-old previous record.

At NYU’s Langone Medical Center, which sits right next to the East River, the staff successfully evacuated 322 patients, including 20 babies from the neonatal intensive care unit. But mice and machines did not fare as well.

Read the rest of the article on Scientific American‘s website.

Nature Outlook: Leukaemia

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The leukaemia Outlook is out!

I spent much of April and May working on this special magazine supplement on leukemia for Nature. I came up with the article list, commissioned and edited the articles, worked with the art department on the photos, graphics and cover, and oversaw the production. And I wrote the editorial introducing the contents (below.) You can see the supplement on Nature’s website here.

leukemia

Of all of the cancers that can wage war on the body, leukaemia — the general term for cancers of the blood — has a reputation for being among the least malevolent.

Most solid cancers are riddled with dozens of mutations, making it impossible to know which mutation set a cell on the wrong path, or which one to target. Leukaemia seems simpler: one type of the disease, chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), can be traced to a single gene fusion (page S4). Scientists were able to develop a drug, imatinib, that exploits the errant gene, increasing the five-year survival for CML to more than 95%. Most children with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) also survive

As we show in this Outlook, however, these headline statistics belie the reality for many patients.

A new high-tech, grassroots effort to fight breast cancer

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I wrote this article for Slate’s Tech blog, Future Tense, after hearing about it from Joanna Rudnick, my close friend and one of the leaders of the project. You can see the article, which ran June 25, 2013 on Slate’s website here.

free the dataBy now you’ve probably heard that, thanks to the Supreme Court, no one, and certainly not Myriad Genetics, can patent human genes. This decision was sensible and long overdue, but the celebrations have been short-lived. Because what you may not have heard is that Myriad still owns all of the information it has collected since the mid-1990s on the breast cancer genes—and it has no intention of releasing any of it.

Myriad’s interpretations of mutations are out there, but scattered in a million pieces—in the reports it has sent out to women, or, more often, to the clinical centers where they were tested. But a new volunteer grass-roots effort, led by a few women with a family history of breast cancer, is trying to Free the Data so that scientists everywhere can analyze it and help women make informed choices about their breast-cancer risk. In collaboration with the University of California-San Francisco, the nonprofit advocacy group Genetic Alliance, and a biotech company InVitae, these women are hoping to collect even a tiny fraction of the million or so reports Myriad has sent out over the past 17 years.

Read the full article on Slate.

Experts evaluate DSM-5

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(This article is an introduction to a special report on the DSM-5 that appeared 30 May 2013 on SFARI.org. You can view the special report here. For the report, I conceived the idea, commissioned and edited the articles, and worked with the web producer on the images and presentation.)

It’s been nearly 14 years in the making, with heated debate for at least 2, but finally it’s here: The American Psychiatric Association published the DSM-5, the newest revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, on 18 May.

For this special report, we asked several experts to review the DSM-5 criteria for autism — and their reactions are surprisingly positive overall.

Peer review: Trial by Twitter

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(I pitched this feature to Nature after hearing about Vinay Deolalikar, a well-known researcher who claimed he’d solved one of the biggest puzzles in computer science: the P/NP problem. Nature had covered it as news, but I thought there was more to the idea of science being reviewed on social media, particularly in biology–as opposed to math or computer science, where online review is an accepted tradition. You can also read the online version, or download a pdf of the article.)

Blogs and tweets are ripping papers apart within days of publication, leaving researchers unsure how to react.

“Scientists discover keys to long life,” proclaimed The Wall Street Journal headline on 1    July last year. “Who will live to be 100? Genetic test might tell,” said National Public Radio a day later.

These and hundreds of similarly enthusiastic headlines were touting a paper in Science1 in which researchers claimed to have identified a set of genes that could predict human longevity with 77% accuracy — a finding with potentially huge implications for medicine, health policy and the economy.

But even as the popular media was trumpeting the finding, other researchers were taking to the web to criticize the paper’s methodology. “We expect that most of the results of this study will not have the same longevity as its participants,” sniped a blog posted by researchers at the personal genomics company 23andMe, based in Mountain View, California.

Critics were particularly perturbed by the genome-wide association study (GWAS) that the authors had used to identify their longevity genes: the centenarians and the controls in the study had been tested with different kinds of DNA chips, which potentially skewed the results.

“Basically anybody that does a lot of GWAS knows this [pitfall], which is why we all said it so fast,” says David Goldstein, director of Duke University’s Center for Human Genome Variation, who voiced his concerns to a Newsweek blogger the day the study appeared.

This critical onslaught was striking — but not exceptional. Papers are increasingly being taken apart in blogs, on Twitter and on other social media within hours rather than years, and in public, rather than at small conferences or in private conversation.

Superfast TB test slashes waiting time

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(This article appeared on Nature’s news site on 1 September 2010).

Infection with tuberculosis can be diagnosed easily and accurately in less than two hours.

The new test not only identifies TB in 98% of cases, but also detects resistance to rifampicin, a first-line TB drug.

A new test can accurately diagnose tuberculosis (TB) in people in 90 minutes, compared with the six weeks needed for the current standard test.

The Xpert MTB/RIF test, described today in the New England Journal of Medicine1, identifies TB in 98% of active cases — an improvement of more than 45% on one of the most commonly used current techniques. It also detects whether the TB-causing bacteria are resistant to rifampicin, a first-line drug for TB, in nearly 98% of cases.

“It has the potential to be revolutionary,” says Richard Chaisson, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Tuberculosis Research in Baltimore, Maryland, who was not involved with the work.

The music of the night

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(This article appeared in the Winter 2008-2009 issue of NYU Physician.)

To cure sleep apnea, an ancient instrument may be best medicine of all.

Puff-cheeked and red-faced, with beads of sweat across his forehead, Kazim Yildiz, 42, is steadily vibrating his lips, much like a baby blowing bubbles. He is playing a didgeridoo, believed to be the world’s oldest wind instrument. Traditionally crafted from a branch of a eucalyptus tree, the cylindrical wooden tube is indigenous to Australia, where it’s been used in traditional Aboriginal ceremonies for thousands of years.

Now, modern medicine has found a new use for this ancient artifact. With practice, the didgeridoo produces an eerie, reverberating bellow. But to those afflicted with sleep apnea—a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts—the sound is music to their ears.

“In people with sleep apnea, the airway intermittently collapses during sleep,” explains Dennis Hwang, M.D., a researcher in the Division of Pulmonary and Sleep Medicine. “We believe that learning to play the instrument strengthens the muscles of the upper airway and reduces the airway collapsibility during sleep.”

Yildiz, an information technology expert at Merrill Lynch, is part of a 10-person study being conducted at NYU to determine whether playing the didgeridoo regularly can help to cure their disorder. Sleep apnea (Greek for “without breath”) affects as many as one in five middle-age adults, who literally stop breathing for moments while they are asleep. These stoppages cause the brain to wake up, which allows breathing to resume, but the pattern may leave him sleepy and irritable during the day. Loud snoring is a common symptom of sleep apnea, although not everyone who snores has the disorder.

Spain gives great apes legal rights

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(This article was #64 in Discover Magazine’s top 100 stories of 2008.)

On June 25 the Spanish Parliament’s environmental committee approved a resolution to grant legal rights to great apes, covering chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orang­utans. The resolution, expected to be enacted into law by June 2009, gives great apes the right to life and protects them from harmful research practices and exploitation for profit, such as use in films, commercials, and circuses.

“This is an important historical step,” says Peter Singer, a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and cofounder of the Great Ape Project. Since 1993, when Singer and Italian philosopher Paola Cavalieri established the group, its members have advocated for a United Nations declaration that great apes, like humans, are entitled to life, liberty, and protection from torture.

The great apes’ ability to use language and tools, to feel pain, and to form lasting relationships with others is evidence, the Great Ape Project maintains, that apes are part of a “community of equals” with humans. “This decision is the first step to recognizing that the gulf between human and nonhuman animals is not absolute but a matter of degree,” Singer says. “I do hope it helps people look differently at their relationship with nonhuman animals.”

The resolution also calls for the Spanish government to promote a similar declaration throughout the European Union. Singer notes that the Netherlands, Britain, and countries in Scandinavia have already taken steps to phase out research harmful to great apes.

The FDA tackles tainted drugs from China

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(This story was #3 in Discover Magazine’s top 100 stories of 2008.)

Following a series of high-profile scandals concerning tainted food and drugs imported from China, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced in March that it would establish a drug-monitoring office in that country.

The most alarming report involved contaminated batches of the blood thinner heparin, which caused at least three deaths and is under suspicion in dozens of others. In February FDA officials admitted that they had never inspected Changzhou SPL, the manufacturing plant in Changzhou, China, to which they traced the contaminated heparin. When the FDA eventually inspected the Changzhou SPL plant (in February), it found a host of quality-control and hygiene problems.

Many drugs sold in the American marketplace are now imported, transforming what was once largely a domestic agency to one that must police products from more than 200 countries, notes Murray M. Lumpkin, FDA deputy commissioner for international and special programs. “The reality of globalization has hit the products for which we’re responsible very, very significantly,” he says. The pharmaceutical production process is also vastly more complex than it used to be. Individual ingredients are made in one place, put together in another, and bottled and labeled in still other sites.