Here’s a quick list of my work from the past month. I am thinking a lot about the commodification and selling of science, and about the history and ethics of how all that gets regulated.
Stem Cell Medicine: As many outlets have written by now, stem cell medicine is jumping the gun a bit. Lots of promising research using stem cells to treat several intractable conditions including multiple sclerosis, paralysis, stroke. But none of that is quite ready for prime time, and so it’s alarming that so many clinics are offering pricey stem cell treatments for an even wider range of conditions. My piece summarizes the news on that issue. It’s just one example of something I’m increasingly interested in: the pre-commercialization of promising science. It extends far beyond regenerative medicine (about which there is definitely much more to say), into many buzz-wordy corners of medical research. Seeing this, really, as a whole beat ; one that’s distinct from but related to the larger snake-oil beat.
Naturopaths: This was part of a larger package that Consumer Reports did on the many types of medical practitioners out there. (Like, if you’ve ever wondered what the difference is between an MD and a DO, or a DC or an ND…) The main things to keep in mind about Naturopaths (NDs) are that 1) they are not trained nearly as rigorously as MDs and 2) they push a lot of pseudoscience. I expected a lot of blowback from NDs themselves on this one, but it’s mostly been patients that are up in arms. One woman wrote me to say she was “FURIOUS” because naturopathic medicine had cured both her cancer and her child’s mental illness, and that my article was not based on any reporting or research (it was, actually). Several others accused me of being in league with Big Pharma. I’m intrigued by this latter response. I get it every single time I write something critical about some supposedly natural or “alternative” medicine. It’s part of this Orwellian shift where any call for stronger consumer protection is seen as serving corporate interests of one kind or another. I am thinking about ways to explore that shift in more depth.
Laundry Pods: People (teenagers specifically) are popping them in their mouths as part of this online dare called the Tide Pod Challenge. Not even sure what to say about this; I feel like if someone has to tell you not to intentionally ingest packets of highly concentrated detergent, then…? But here we are, alas. This was just a quick parsing of what happens when you put one of these things in your mouth. Other sites have done similar stories that are also worth checking out. (I admit to being curious about the cultural history of these feats—i.e. what are the past century precursors—but that’s another story for a different publication).
E-Cigs: The National Academy of Sciences published its comprehensive review of e-cigarette research, confirming and summarizing several things that have long been speculated on. Namely that e-cigs can be both a good thing (for adults, who are already hooked on traditional cigarettes, because it gives them a less-toxic option and maybe helps them quit), and a bad thing (for teenagers, because it gives them a new gateway into a addictive and deadly habit). BUT: the report said much more research was needed on whether or not the devices could actually help people quit regular cigarettes.
The findings came just a day or so before the FDA rejected a pitch by Philip Morris to label its heat-not-burn devices as “lower-risk” than regular cigarettes. The bottom line here is that lots of people are using new-fangled tobacco devices as a way to quit smoking and hopefully not get cancer. And we don’t yet know if any of the devices will be any good at that.
Cell Phones & Cancer: The National Toxicology Program published the final version of its long-heralded study on the link between cell phone radiation and cancer. An incomplete version of the same report was released in 2016; it found that male rats exposed to cell phone radiation developed tumors in the brain and heart. But there were lots of weird glitches in the data that left everyone kind of scratching their heads. The final report found the brain tumor link was not statistically significant; it also confirmed a lot of those glitches: no tumors in female rats; no tumors in mice; and rodents that did develop tumors somehow managed to live longer than the control group. The findings still have to be peer reviewed, but the growing consensus is that there’s nothing to see here. Of course, if you’re worried anyway, there are some basic precautions you can take.
Kratom: It’s the new marijuana, in regulatory circles, anyway. Proponents say it’s a natural substance with real therapeutic value; DEA and FDA say it’s a prescription-strength opioid. The latter agency came out with some new research—molecular modeling studies—indicating that the plant’s constituents are shaped like opioids and bind, rather strongly in some cases, to the same brain receptors as addictive drugs. They also revised the kratom-related-death count upwards.
Critics have taken issue with both of those nuggets, arguing that 1) molecular modeling studies are not the most honest way to assess a drug; and 2) many to most of those kratom-related deaths are not actually due to kratom (in one case a guy who took kratom was shot; in another, a guy who took kratom hung himself; in almost all cases, the people who took kratom also took other drugs, which included things like fentanyl and heroin).
Worth keeping those caveats in mind, especially given that plenty of reputable doctors see a place for kratom derived compounds in our medical formularies. But the bottom line is still that kratom-containing products are inherently risky because nobody is checking to make sure they are not adulterated, are accurately labeled, and so on.
Offbeat: My feature on preschool teachers—a piece I started in the fall of 2015 and worked on (on-and-off) for two years, finally ran on the cover of the NYT Magazine. I learned a lot about the science of early childhood development and the history and challenges of creating universal preschool programs; I’ll be participating in some panel discussions at New America and the National Association for the Education of Young Children in the months ahead, where I’ll get to talk with people far more expert than I on the issue. Will post those links soon as they’re live.
I also learned a lot about how to structure pieces that involve heavy doses of both narrative and public policy, and now I can’t look at a policy story without thinking of both the science that informs it and the human characters that bear the brunt of its flaws.
That’s all. Next time I’ll do this with pictures and memes and stuff.