By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.
Debate over chronic traumatic encephalopathy research funding
In response to growing concerns regarding the long-term health consequences of repeated head injuries like those sustained by football players in the National Football League (NFL), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded almost $16 million to science researchers working on projects that will address this issue. Specifically, much of this money will go towards investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma. Currently, the only means for studying CTE is to examine brain tissue postmortem, however there is a clear need for the ability to diagnose and treat individuals while they are still alive. Some of the focus of the research will be to develop ways in which CTE can be diagnosed and studied while patients are still living.
While there is an obvious need to fund research focusing on CTE, funding for these projects does not come without controversy. For a number of years, the NFL criticized researchers for raising alarms about the dangers of repeated head trauma in football players. In 2012 the NFL granted the NIH $30 million in an “unrestricted” agreement for CTE research. However, it was recently reported that while the funds from the NFL will support research on traumatic brain injury, the money will not be used to fund studies focusing on CTE. The NIH has made statement indicating that this decision was not made by the NFL; however, ESPN reported the NFL funding will not support CTE studies because a portion of the money was awarded to Dr. Robert Stein at Boston University, a researcher who has who has publicly criticized the NFL for its negligence surrounding CTE. In 2014 Dr. Stein filed a declaration opposing the NFL’s lawsuit settlement with thousands of former players and accused the NFL of hiding the link between football and CTE. Both the NIH and the NFL argue that ESPN’s report is inaccurate. What does not appear to be under debate is whether the CTE research will be funded at all, the NIH has promised to fund the studies with other federal funds. (Ken Belson, New York Times)
Medical devices and drug policy
New devices may help with the opioid abuse epidemic
Opioid abuse is currently a significant public health concern in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention each day 44 people die from prescription opioid overdoses and rates are among the highest on record. Additionally, in 2013 it was estimated that 2 million Americans over the age of 12 had either abused or were dependent upon opioid painkillers.
In a move to possibly decrease overdose and abuse rates, an advisory panel at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this year voted 12 to 5 to recommend approval for a new medical device that avoids the need for prescription opioids in pill form. The new device, known as Probuphine and developed by Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, is a small rod the size of a matchstick that can be implanted into a patient’s arm. The rod dispenses daily doses of a common painkiller known as buprenorphine. Importantly, Probuphine allows for the delivery of buprenorphine for months at a time. In addition to possibly serving as a safer means to deliver painkillers to patents, the new device may also serve as a means to treat those with opioid addiction. For example, an addict could be implanted with the device and receive daily does of buprenorphine for several months as the individual weans themselves off other opioids. Although an opioid itself, buprenorphine has been shown to help individuals overcome withdraw from other opioids. The device would also make it easier for individuals to manage their addiction by decreasing the number of trips to reach treatment and the implant may also help curb the illegal sale and use of buprenorphine.
Although the FDA recommended approval, others remain skeptical. Although buprenorphine can help addicts decrease and eventually stop their use of other opioids, buprenorphine can be addictive on its own. In fact, emergency room visits for buprenorphine related incidents have been on the rise. Additionally, other concerns include the need that opioid addicts have to adjust their does of buprenorphine over the course of recovery, usually starting with high doses and decreasing their dose over time. (Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)
Nine Planets Again?
Two astronomers, Konstatin Batygin, professor of planetary science and Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of technology, announced last week that they had evidence that there may be a ninth planet in our solar system. The new planet is believed to be the size of Neptune and to take approximately 15,000 earth years to orbit the sun. Although the planet has not been observed directly, Batygin and Brown inferred its existence based on gravitational pull of the planet on six small objects beyond Pluto. In their recent publication entitled “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System” in the Astronomical Journal, Batygin and Brown present detailed evidence and arguments for the existence of the new planet. Based on their calculations, the two astronomers suggest that the planet is at least the size of Earth, but likely much bigger. Furthermore, their work suggests that the new planet is somewhere between 20 to 100 billion miles from Earth. Brown is not new to finding novel planets-like bodies, in fact in 2005 Brown identified Eris which was a big as Pluto. This identification raised questions about what should be considered a planet, and in response the International Astronomical Union decided that Eris should not be considered a planet. Pluto also lost its planetary status. The race is now on for the first scientist to directly observe our possible new ninth planet. (Eric Hand, ScienceMag)
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