Headlines: January 6, 2010
by Meg Larkin
As Congressional Leaders are trying to merge the House and Senate health reform bills, House Democratic Leaders are insisting on provisions that would provide more coverage to middle-class Americans. However, given the bill’s slim margin in the Senate, it remains to be seen whether House leaders can make many substantive changes. Opponents of the health care legislation are continuing to question its constitutionality. Some legal scholars and Republican legislators believe that the individual mandate to purchase insurance goes beyond Congress’s enumerated powers. However, proponents of the legislation dismiss those arguments and claim that the legislation falls squarely within Congress’s powers to lay and collect taxes to promote the general welfare, and to regulate activities that substantially affect interstate commerce.
In the Chicago area, despite hospitals’ dire predictions about lack of funding, many are not as cash-strapped as they make themselves seem. According to the Chicago Tribune, “Many [hospitals] are spending unprecedented amounts on new buildings and seeing some of their best improvements in cash since the dot-com boom of a decade ago.” This is contrary to statements made by the head of the American Hospital Association in an opinion piece published in U.S. News and World Report over the summer.
Many biopharmaceutical companies are expanding their operations, or moving in to the Boston area. In spite of the high cost of living in Massachusetts, biopharmaceutical companies see an advantage in being near the research communities of MIT and Harvard, which supply a large pool of researchers and scientists. However, due to the high cost of building in Boston or Cambridge, many companies are building factories out in the suburbs where approval processes are faster and land is more readily available.
According to a new report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, many drugs used to treat depression may have little to no effect on patients with milder forms of the disease. While the study found that many antidepressants are effective for patients with severe depression, for patients with mild to moderate depression they were no more effective than placebo pills for most study participants. While some researchers suggest that these findings should not discourage patients from trying antidepressants, the findings should be brought in to patients’ calculations about what type of treatment is right for them.
Consolidation in the health care delivery may be contributing to greater efficiency in customer service. Larger doctors’ practices are better able to afford technologies such as electronic medical records that are difficult for solo practitioners to implement on their own. According to a study by the Center for Studying Health Systems Change, larger group practices are more likely to have better technology and provide additional services such as group visits.
A study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in October explores the potential of a vaccine to combat cocaine addiction. The vaccine, called TA-CD blunts the effects of the drug, and while this may help addicts seeking treatment on their road to recovery by reducing cravings, it can also lead addicts to do more cocaine in hopes of getting high. Additionally, the vaccine is much more effective in some patients than in others, based on the number of antibodies produced in the patient after the series of five injections. According to the Washington Post, “In the high-antibodies group, 53 percent stayed off cocaine more than half the time once they had built up immunity. That compares with 23 percent of those who produced fewer antibodies.” So far, no companies appear interested in manufacturing a cocaine vaccine on a large scale.
In global health news, researchers are looking in to using microbes that infect insects to slow the spread of mosquito borne illnesses such as dengue fever. According to the New York Times, “Last year, researchers showed they could take Wolbachia bacteria from fruit flies and infect mosquitoes with it, cutting their already brief life spans by half.” This year, in a study published in the journal Cell, researchers found that Wolbachia bacteria make mosquitoes more resistant to dengue fever and chikungunya, two painful and sometimes-fatal illnesses transmitted by the insects.
Some researchers are looking in to ways to use a virus’s own mutations to weaken it and cause it to die sooner. While viruses’ mutations enable them to adapt to different environments and survive, most mutations are defective. As the number of mutations in general increases, so do the number of defective mutations, so “if a virus’s rate of mutation gets too high, mathematical studies suggest, it will suffer.” However, drugs that induce high rates of mutation to the point where a virus dies, called “lethal mutagenesis,” are often highly toxic and have faced many roadblocks to use in humans because so little is understood about the process of lethal mutagenesis. While the technology is still in its early stages, researchers hope that it may one day be used to combat diseases like H.I.V.
Meg Larkin is a second year law student at Boston University. Please feel free to email her with any comments, questions, suggestions, or concerns.