Campus & Community

Research in brief

7 min read

Dramatic gains for American Indians

Identified for decades as the poorest group in the United States, American Indians living on reservations made substantial gains, both economically and socially, during the final decade of the 20th century. A new report released by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development at the Kennedy School of Government compiles the data from the 1990 and 2000 U.S. Censuses for 15 key socioeconomic indicators. The data on measures ranging from income and poverty to unemployment, education, and housing conditions indicate that although substantial gaps remain between America’s Native population and the rest of U.S. society, rapid economic and social development is taking place among gaming and non-gaming tribes alike.

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Chili peppers could burn drug abusers

Two years ago, Clifford Woolf and some colleagues discovered that chili peppers and the burning pain of arthritis have something in common. Capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the “hot” in peppers, acts on a protein that also responds to the heat and high acidity associated with painful inflammation in the joints and skin.

Recently, the Richard J. Kitz Professor of Anaesthesia Research at Harvard Medical School hit on the idea of using the same irritating chemical to “burn” people who illegally use pain medications like OxyContin. “If a formulation containing capsaicin is swallowed whole, release of the irritant in the stomach and small intestine would not cause discomfort,” Woolf maintains.

However, those who obtain opium-based drugs, including morphine and methadone, by theft or subterfuge usually crush the pills and snort or chew the powder to get “high.” Laced with capsaicin, such a snort or chew would produce intense pain.

“Imagine snorting an extract of 50 jalapeno peppers and you get the idea,” Woolf says. “On a 1 to 10 scale, the pain is about a thousand. It feels like a mininuclear explosion in your mouth. It does not harm you, but you never want to experience that feeling again.”

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Researchers discover why we go gray

Scientists have stumbled on the reason our hair turns gray as part of their search for new treatments for a deadly form of skin cancer.

People turn gray, they found, when certain adult stem cells gradually die off. The stem cells provide a continuous supply of other, pigment-producing cells that give your hair its natural color. These same types of pigment cells, called melanocytes, can become cancerous in melanoma, a lethal form of skin cancer.

“Preventing the graying of hair is not our goal,” says David E. Fisher, a Harvard Medical School scientist. “Our goal is to prevent or treat melanoma. We would love to identify a signal that would make melanoma cells stop growing.”

Fisher and his team have done this, at least in a laboratory dish. Working together for the past two years, the team uncovered a protein called CDK2, which the cancer cells cannot live without. “Drugs that inhibit CDK2 already exist,” Fisher notes. Such drugs already are being tested on other types of cancer by a few pharmaceutical companies. He has notified them of his findings and expects tests with melanoma patients to begin soon, within months rather than years.

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Interns crash more after long shifts

How well do you think you could drive home after working continuously for 30 hours as part of an 80-hour-week routine?

Medical interns do this all the time. If that makes you think such caregivers could get involved in a worrisome number of medical errors as well as get into more car accidents than your average 9-to-5 workers, you would be right.

A safety group at Harvard University has looked into the behavior of those in training in hospitals and found that overworked interns made 36 percent more serious medical errors and five times as many diagnostic mistakes during a traditional work shift than their better-rested colleagues.

More recently, the safety researchers checked interns’ driving habits and found that their odds of crashing more than double as work hours increase. The doctors-in-training also experienced more than five times as many near misses as nonsleep-deprived drivers.

“No group is invulnerable to the dangers of driving when deprived of sleep,” says Charles Czeisler, Baldino Professor of Sleep Medicine, “not truckers, nurses, physicians, or surgeons.” That fact should provide motivation for acting upon his recommendation that scheduling practices in medical training programs should be changed.

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– Compiled by William J. Cromie

2 million Americans financially ruined by illness and medical bills

Medical problems contributed to about half of all bankruptcies, involving 700,000 households in 2001, according to a story published Wednesday (Feb. 2) as a Web exclusive by the journal Health Affairs. The research, carried out jointly by researchers at Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School, and supported by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, is the first in-depth study of medical causes of bankruptcy. Families with children were especially hard hit – about 700,000 children lived in families that declared bankruptcy in the aftermath of serious medical problems. Another 600,000 spouses, elderly parents, and other dependents brought the total number of people directly affected by medical bankruptcies to more than 2 million annually.

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Scientists discover molecular ‘switch’ in liver that triggers effects of fats

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute researchers have identified a molecular mechanism in the liver that explains, for the first time, how consuming foods rich in saturated fats and trans-fatty acids causes elevated blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and increases one’s risk of heart disease and certain cancers. In the Jan. 28 issue of Cell, scientists led by Bruce Spiegelman, report that the harmful effects of saturated and trans fats are set in motion by a biochemical switch, or co-activator, in liver cells called PGC-1beta.

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Scientists find ‘master switch’ that triggers insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes

Scientists at Joslin Diabetes Center have discovered why excess weight leads to low-grade inflammation, which hampers the body’s ability to use insulin. They found that the “master switch” of this inflammation is activated in the liver by weight gain. And they showed it can be turned off by salicylates, a class of drugs that includes aspirin. The Joslin study, published in the February issue of Nature Medicine, is a major milestone in understanding why being overweight can lead to a host of health problems, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

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Blocking cell signaling can stymie infections

In a finding that represents an entirely new approach to treating viral diseases such as smallpox, scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and collaborating institutions have shown that infections can be stymied by interfering with signals used by viruses to reproduce in human cells.

The results, reported in the February issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, point to a possible strategy for broadly treating acute viral infections that affect millions of people worldwide. If the technique leads to a drug capable of treating people infected with the smallpox virus, it could eliminate the virus’ potential as a bioterror agent.

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– Compiled by Alec Solomita