“Must be something in the water” isn’t just a line from the opening minutes of a horror movie.
New evidence confirms fears that animals’ behavior can be altered by medication inadvertently introduced into their habitats via our sewage systems.
In a study published today Swedish researchers report that fish given Oxazepam, an anxiety-moderating drug for humans, became less social and more aggressive. Researchers administered the drug to wild perch in the lab in amounts equivalent to levels found in local rivers and streams.
The dosed fish showed a number of behavioral changes, notably in their willingness to leave familiar and “safe” surroundings in favor of exposed, potentially dangerous areas. The fish treated with the drug also distanced themselves from other perch. These antisocial fish ate faster than normal, which, in the wild, could disrupt the established food chain.
Amyloid beta deposits in brain of Alzheimer’s patient.
What’s the News: A drug used to cure skin cancer is also a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s, according to a new study in Science. The drug not only reduced levels of amyloid beta—a protein whose elevated levels are a hallmark of the disease—but also reversed cognitive decline. In mice, dramatic effects were evident after just 72 hours.
Methadone is commonly given to people trying to kick a heroin addiction. But the long-lasting opioid is also an inexpensive, effective pain-killer. With rising costs of prescription narcotics like OxyContin, doctors are increasingly prescribing methadone to treat pain, especially to patients on Medicaid or less generous health insurance plans. From 1999 to 2005, its use in the U.S. increased more than five-fold, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. But over the same time period, deaths associated with the drug have increased more than five times, climbing from 786 in 1999 to 4,462, according to the CDC. In Washington state alone, more than 2,100 people died after taking the drug since 2003, says says The Seattle Times.
President Barack Obama will sign an executive order today aimed at reducing the number of drug shortages; between 2005 and 2010, the number of such shortages jumped from 61 to 178. Most of the drugs reported as coming up short are generic, injected medications like cancer drugs, antibiotics, and nutritional shots for hospitalized patients. Many of the shortages are due to manufacturing delays or quality control problems, like syringes found to contain glass particles or to be contaminated with microbes. The executive order will require the Food and Drug Administration to speed review of applications for changes in manufacturing protocol or to use new or different drugs in certain circumstances.
The order also instructs the FDA to work with the Department of Justice to report possible instances of price gouging, which could lead to prosecution of companies that illegally horde certain medications or overcharge for certain drugs in times of shortage. In one instance, a company charged $990 per vial for a leukemia drug that normal fetches only $12—an 80-fold markup.
Statins are widely prescribed to reduce levels of LDL, the “bad cholesterol,” a vital goal in stemming and preventing cardiovascular disease. But they don’t work for everybody, often for inexplicable reasons. Researchers now think some of the blame rests with gut bacteria, that influential yet mysterious group that occupies our bowels and outnumbers our cells 10 to one. In a study published this month in PLoS One, researchers took blood samples from 944 study participants prior to and after six weeks of treatment with a statin called simvastatin. They measured the levels of various bile acids, many of which are produced by gut bacteria and help metabolize fat by acting like detergents, allowing cholesterol to be dissolved and transported in the blood. The researchers found that people whose LDL levels dropped the most had significant quantities of three bile acids produced by a particular type of gut bacteria. Those who responded least to the statins had significantly higher levels of five different bile acids from different gut flora. The researchers hypothesize that bile acids present in the non-responders compete with simvastatin for transporters that ferry both chemicals to the liver, where the drug has its effect.
Between 2001 and 2008, the number of children 5 years old or younger admitted to the emergency room due to poisoning from pharmaceuticals increased 36 percent, according to a new study [PDF]. This pales in comparison to the 8 percent increase in population of the age group. Ingestion of drugs during this period caused 43 percent more kids to be injured, defined as a reaction requiring a medical treatment, to a permanent disability, or death. In all, 90 kids died from unintentional overdose or misuse of medications.
Researchers say that pharmaceutical poisoning of children, especially from prescription medications, is a growing problem that continues to get worse every year. But why? The most likely reason, they suggest, is the overall increase in use of prescription drugs by adolescents and adults, which children can come across and ingest without knowing the consequences. For example, the number of kids injured by opioid pain medications almost doubled during the study, a period when prescriptions for the strong painkillers oxycodone (present in OxyContin and Percocet) and hydrocodone (Vicodin) increased 182 and 159 percent, respectively.
What’s the News: In long space flights, such as a mission to Mars, astronauts will have more time during which they could get injured or sick. And the same apparently goes for the medicine aboard spaceships: According to a NASA-funded study, medicines degrade faster in space than they do on Earth. As the researchers conclude in their paper, “this information can facilitate research for the development of space-hardy pharmaceuticals and packaging technologies.”
What’s the News: A gene that makes bacteria resistant to up to 14 antibiotics has been discovered in bacteria in drinking water and street puddles in the Indian capital of New Delhi by a research team from the University of Cardiff in Wales. Scientists were already aware that microbes bearing this gene, which produces an enzyme called NDM-1, were infecting people in India, but it had been thought that such bacteria were mainly picked up in hospitals. This study shows that the gene, which is capable of jumping from species to species, is loose in the environment.
A study of an experimental drug from the company Vertex, called VX-770, successfully reduced lung problems in CF patients, and the company hopes to try for approval of the drug later this year. If all goes well, doctors may soon have their first drug to treat the cause of this devastating disease, instead of just combatting the symptoms.
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that impairs lung and digestive function. In particular, the normally thin layer of mucus in the lungs thickens up and impairs breathing; this happens because patients have a faulty version of a protein that helps clear mucus.
About 1800 different mutations in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene have been implicated in the disease. The gene encodes a molecular channel that shuttles chloride ions across cellular membranes, and people with two mutated copies develop mucus-filled lungs susceptible to infection. Few patients live to see their 30s. In 1989, CF became the first disease pinned to a specific gene mutation, without the benefit of knowing the protein first. [Nature]
This newest test was a Phase III trail of Vertex’s drug, which was funded in part by the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. The treatment goes after one major genetic mutations that causes the disease, called G551.
When it comes to recreational drugs, many assume that most of the dangerous compounds that people get high on are illegal. But drug makers, dealers, and users know better. They are mining the scientific literature for psychoactive drugs, making them in kitchen labs, and selling them to users on the street. And though this poses a real risk for users, it’s perfectly legal.
Purdue University chemist David Nichols says he’s haunted by the knowledge that his scientific research has led to unsafe–and sometimes even deadly–drug use.
“It’s not like you took a gun and shot somebody because then you would know you’d been responsible,” he told the BBC, “but people were taking something that you had published and I was alerting them that this might be an active molecule.” [BBC News]
In an editorial in Nature, Nichols discusses how compounds he has developed are being used as street drugs, with no regards to their safety. Nichols researches compounds for Parkinson’s and schizophrenia and has worked on developing serotonin-regulating analogs of MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy) for use in depression. One of these analogs (called MTA) became a big hit on the streets in the late 1990s.
Without my knowledge, MTA was synthesized by others and made into tablets called, appropriately enough, ‘flatliners’. Some people who took them died. Now, any knowledgeable person who had carefully read our papers might have realized the danger of ingesting MTA…. It really disturbs me that [these people] have so little regard for human safety and human life that the scant information we publish is used by them to push ahead and market a product designed for human consumption. [Nature]