Friday, January 19, 2007

Bush Pushes Genetic Privacy Legislation

Here's a newsflash I never thought I'd hear: Yesterday, with Frances Collins by his side, Bush began lobbying for Congress to pass the long-stalled Genetic Privacy Bill, which could help protect patients from genetic discrimination. This bill, in one form or another, has been in the works for about a decade, but has repeatedly been pushed aside over fears that it might inhibit research and industry. I'm very interested to see the version of the bill they're working with now, how it's changed since its last incarnation, and whether/how it will protect patients against insurance and other discrimination. If it does, passing it would be a huge step forward for the world of tissue research, one patients rights advocates have been fighting for endlessly.

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Tsunami Victims Selling Their Kidneys Instead of Fish

Police in India have found still more evidence of a black market in human organs: kidneys being sold illegally by fishermen and their families whose villages, boats, and incomes were destroyed by the 2004 tsunami. The AP reports on what one police officer describes as "a big racket":

"Community leaders in Eranavoor village, just north of Chennai, admitted that about 100 people, mostly women, have sold their kidneys for 40,000-60,000 rupees ($900-$1,350) since the December 26, 2004, disaster." Including: "Thilakavathy Agatheesh, 30, who said she sold a kidney in May 2005 for 40,000 rupees in the hope of setting up a small restaurant -- only to see her alcoholic former fisherman husband waste the money." She told the AP, "I used to earn some money selling fish, but now the post-surgery stomach cramps prevent me from going to work." Which has to make you wonder: Who's removing those organs? Do they know what they're doing? Are they competent surgeons (doubtful)?

I recently did a lengthy Q&A with Amy Friedman (which will appear in the next issue of Proto Magazine). Not long ago, Friedman published a controversial editorial (co-written with her father; they're both kidney experts) titled, "Payment for Living Organ Donation Should be Legalized." Her argument: Living organ donations could solve the massive organ shortage. People are going to sell their organs whether we like it or not, so instead of having a growing and very dangerous black market, we should have a legal market that's closely regulated, where quality is controlled and operations are performed by quality physicians.

Friedman is certainly not alone in her efforts. Just check out And Gregory Pence, bioethicist and author of "Re-Creating Medicine," which includes a chapter called "Re-Creating Organ Donation." Though plenty of people disagree with him, he's been arguing his position for a long time. He says: "The question is not whether any risk of harm exists from commercialization -- it does -- but whether such risk justifies the sacrifice of thousands of dying patients. It doesn't."

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Study Shows Patients Have Issues With Tissue Research

In my ongoing coverage of all things human tissue related, I came across this article about a recent study examining public attitudes toward tissue banks: "Tissue banking raises cloning fears." Interestingly, there was absolutely no coverage of this study in the U.S., where tissue research is a huge issue. The study, conducted by the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine at the University of Sydney, shows that Australians have many concerns over how their tissues are being used.

They're worried, for one, that scientists could clone them using stored tissue samples. There are many reasons people should question how their tissues are being used in research, but at this point, fear of being cloned isn't one of them (cloning humans isn't possible yet). But the study also found that people were opposed to tissues from their diagnostic samples -- like biopsies and blood tests -- being used "as a source of stem cells or by drug companies." to develop products. That is a very current and real issue worldwide: In the US, most people have their tissues in storage at this point, and the laws surrounding their use are unsettled and confused.

According to lead researcher Bronwen Morrell, this study shows exactly what I reported in my recent New York Times Magazine article: People want some level of control over how their tissues are being used in research and whether they'll be commercialized; they also want laws laying out requirements for consent, because at the very least, they want to know what's being done with their tissues.

Morrell also found that, when it came to the sticky issue of money, patients wanted to see profits funneled back into research, not into scientists' pockets (which is not standard practice now). Many said they trust the public sector more with their tissue than private companies: "As long as research was being done in a public hospital they would feel comfortable with that," she said. "But if it was a private company doing the research, especially drug companies, they wouldn't be that happy." This is interesting, in part because it indicates that the public isn't aware of how fuzzy the division between public hospitals and private companies can be these days.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Sad Day: FDA Approves First Dog Obesity Drug

The FDA just announced that they've just approved the first-ever obesity drug for dogs, which really makes me cringe. Why? Because dogs don't have eating disorders -- their owners have feeding disorders.

This summer, I adopted a new dog after she ran in front of my car on an interstate. She was starved, so I took her home and fed her. And fed her. And fed her. She weighed 20 pounds and could eat a heaping cup of food in 28 seconds (yes, I timed her). But that was fine, because she needed all the extra calories she could get. Then, about three months later, during a good wrestling match, I realized I couldn't feel her ribs anymore. Suddenly, she'd gone from being emaciated to being pudgy. So I did exactly what everyone else with a pudgy dog should do: I started feeding her less. Instead of getting a heaping cup at each meal, she got 2/3 of a cup. Three weeks later, she wasn't pudgy anymore. That's the amazing thing about dogs and weight: Humans control their calorie intake, and there's nothing dogs can do about it. If your dog needs to lose weight, you feed it less food.

It's true that there's an epidemic of canine (and feline) obesity right now, just like there's an epidemic of human obesity. Which is no coincidence: People don't exercise, which means their dogs don't exercise. When people eat, they feed their dogs scraps, so the dogs gain weight right along with their owners. And don't even get me started on the ingredients in dog food.

But there are other less obvious problems: Owners often have no idea how much they should feed their dogs, and if they follow the guidelines on most dog food bags, they're probably going to have obese dogs, because pet food companies encourage overfeeding. I had a 125 pound dog who lived to be 16 and was never an ounce over or under weight. If I'd followed the guidelines for his food, he'd have eaten 2 1/2 times what I actually fed him, and surely become obese. My very healthy 17 year old dog Bonny eats 1/4 the recommended amount, always has.

During my years as a veterinary technician, I saw many dogs die or become paralyzed from obesity. Today, when I see an obese dog on the street, I want to walk up to its owner and say, You love your dog, right? Then why are you killing it?

If it's come down to this, and people are unable to control themselves when it comes to feeding their dogs, I'd rather see dogs medicated than dead. But I hope vets who prescribe this stuff paste a sticker on every bottle that says, Dogs don't need obesity drugs. They need owners who will feed them the right amount, cut back when necessary, and make sure they get exercise. (Perhaps the FDA should consider a self-control drug for humans with dog feeding disorders.)

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Sunday, January 07, 2007


Yes, it's true ... I, like thousands of other sensible people out there, am completely addicted to Cuteoverload. And I'm not ashamed to admit it.

But it's not like I haven't gone very public with animal obsession several times already ... sometimes quite aggressively.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Why is it So Damn Hard to Change?

This month's O, Oprah Magazine just hit the stands with my article, "Why is it So Damn Hard to Change," which looks at the neurology behind why it's so friggin hard to break old habits and pick up new ones (just in time for all those New Year's Resolutions). The story explores the workings of the human brain when it comes to exercising and dieting, quitting smoking, drinking, drugs, gambling ... you name it. I had a great time with it.

If you've read the story and came looking for a follow up ... well ... let's just say, it hasn't exactly been rollerblading weather in New York City lately. But I'm about to join a gym ... stay tuned for progress reports on what my dopamine system thinks of that idea.

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