Snake wine drinker suffers bite

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A Chinese woman reportedly suffered a snake bite when the reptile jumped from her wine bottle and struck her hand. Apparently, the woman from Shuangcheng, Heilongjiang Province had been drinking pickled snake wine to treat her rheumatism, but this particular snake was still living. Snake wine is a common curative in traditional Chinese medicine. (Global Times)

(image: Genghiskhanviet/Wikipedia/CC)

Completely heartbreaking medical case report

A 3-year-old girl enters a hospital with severe Vitamin A deficiency and micronutrient malnutrition. The cause: Her parents had self-diagnosed her with so many food allergies that her entire diet consisted of chickpea milk, bison meat, and salicylate-free vegetables. (Which, basically, means very few vegetables.) An older sister on the same diet had developed scurvy and rickets. The case report is technical and dry, but the story you can see happening underneath is just heart-wrenching. Especially the point at which the parents refuse Vitamin A supplementation and the doctors have to call child protective services.

Don't listen to Mom (or observational data): Breakfast isn't necessarily the most important meal of the day

Here's a great piece by Anahad O'Connor that looks at the dozens of studies that are supposed to link the act of eating breakfast with weight loss — and the problems that very quickly arise when you look at them closely. The biggest issue: Most of the advice you get telling you to eat breakfast if you want to lose weight is based on observational studies — large collections of information about people's lives and health that scientists then comb through looking for correlations. Like any correlation, those associations should be thought of as jumping-off points for more research, not proof of how you should live your life. With breakfast and weight loss, the truth seems to be that the two things may not be connected at all. For every study that shows them inextricably linked, another found no relationship at all ... or even an inverse relationship, where skipping breakfast led to weight loss.

How much booze is too much booze?

At Forbes, Katie Kelly Bell has an interesting look at the extremely subjective measurements happening behind the seemingly objective instruction to drink only "in moderation".

16th-century nose jobs

Swords: A major cause of nose loss in 16th-century Europe. (Also a problem: syphilis.) The good news is that somebody had a plan for how to replace your missing nose. The bad news is that there was no anesthesia, the process could kill you, and you had to spend two weeks with your nose in your own armpit.

What would have killed your 19th-century doppelgänger?

Slate is doing a series of articles on life expectancy in the United States, both how it's changed and why. It kicks off with a piece that gives a broad overview of the medical and public health factors involved in our increased longevity — from clean water and the germ theory of disease, to generally increased wealth and nutrition, to vaccination. But author Laura Helmuth also offers up a morbidly fun challenge, asking you to think about how many times you might have already died had you been born before all these revolutionary changes happened.

It’s a fun conversation starter: Why are you not dead yet? It turns out almost everybody has a story, but we rarely hear them; life-saving treatments have become routine. I asked around, and here is a small sample of what would have killed my friends and acquaintances:

Read the rest

Placebos work, so how do we ethically use them?

The head of Harvard's placebo program is trying to figure out a good answer that question.

The Elephant Man's secrets

"The Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, was an object of curiosity and ridicule throughout his life - studied, prodded and examined by the Victorian medical establishment. Now, 123 years after his death, scientists believe his bones contain secrets about his condition which could benefit medical science today." [Andrew Bomford / BBC]

A moving account of how hospitals negotiate complicated cases of patient rights

Yesterday, a story about human experimentation spurred an interesting discussion in the comments about patient rights — can somebody who is dying make the informed decision to accept a treatment that could lead to them dying sooner? At Scientific American today, an HIV doctor has written a moving account of dealing with a very similar question, as one of his patients made the choice to refuse food, and her family and doctors were faced with the task of deciding whether or not to feed her through a stomach tube.

China says it will stop harvesting organs from prisoners

More than half of China's donated organs come from executed prisoners. The Chinese government now says it will begin phasing out that practice, starting in November. All new organ donors must volunteer. Of course, there's good reason to be skeptical of this announcement. As Smithsonian points out, the practice has already been illegal since 2006 with not much done to change it. Meanwhile, a harrowing 2011 investigative report by Ethan Gutmann in the Weekly Standard revealed a system that leaves plenty of room for "volunteer" loopholes.

How the stethoscope was invented

The first stethoscope was a sheaf of rolled paper. It later evolved into a foot-long wooden tube. The inspiration: Possibly a couple of French street urchins playing on top of a pile of lumber.

Naming prescription drugs

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How do pharmaceuticals get names like fluoxetine, atorvastatin, modafinil, or sildenafil? Those are the generic names for some common prescription drugs. The drug company with the patent on the pill gets to choose the generic name. The U.S. Adopted Names Council has rules on such matters though, as The Week's James Harbeck writes:

• "Prefixes that imply 'better,' 'newer,' or 'more effective;' prefixes that evoke the name of the sponsor, dosage form, duration of action or rate of drug release should not be used."

• "Prefixes that refer to an anatomical connotation or medical condition are not acceptable."

• Certain letters or sets of letters also aren't allowed at the beginning of new generic names. These include me, str, x, and z.

Every name has two main parts. The back half of the drug name is the same for all drugs in a particular class — for instance, there are a whole raft of cholesterol-lowering drugs that end in -vastatin: atorvastatin (Lipitor), fluvastatin (Lescol), rosuvastatin (Crestor), simvastatin (Zocor), and several others.

"How do prescription drugs get such crazy names?" (via NextDraft)

image: detail of Damien Hirst's "In Search of Nirvana" (2007)

Evidence-based pregnancy should be about decisions, not hard rules

If there's one thing I'm learning from the crop of evidence-based pregnancy books I've been perusing, it's this: Pregnancy ought to involve a lot more complicated decision-making and less blind rule following. That's because the stuff that gets touted as "must-do" or "can't do" is often, in reality, just one way of interpreting a conflicting and correlation-heavy body of data. Usually there is more than one appropriate, evidence-based decision that you can make, depending on your personal beliefs, desires, and goals. At the Wall Street Journal, Emily Oster does a great job of writing about this, using taboo libations alcohol and coffee as the examples.

A big win for consent, privacy, and genome data

The family of Henrietta Lacks — a woman whose cervical cancer cells were harvested and used in scientific research for decades without her knowledge or consent — will now play a role in deciding who has access to the Lacks' cell genome data, and for what purposes. There are loopholes in the new system. For instance, the agreement only applies to scientists who receive National Institutes of Health funding. And the genome of the cells has been sequenced so many times, at this point, that anybody who wasn't NIH funded and didn't want to voluntarily abide by the agreement essentially wouldn't have to.

But it is a big step forward, both for the Lacks family (whose own genetic information is contained in those genome sequences) and for the idea that human genetic information belongs to the people it comes from — not to whoever happens to sequence it.

The happy selfie posted here features NIH director Francis Collins posing with some of Henrietta Lacks' descendants after the agreement was announced.

From the front lines in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria

Bacteria are becoming resistant to one of the last classes of antibiotics available to treat them, writes Maryn McKenna at Nature. Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae are a family of lung, blood, and bladder infections that can turn horribly deadly. Meanwhile, at Scientific American, Charles Q. Choi writes about other scientists looking for ways to turn bacteria against one another, unleashing predatory microbes that can destroy drug-resistant bacteria.