Medical Research

Stephanie Watson

Experimental breast cancer drug combo generates excitement

Results of a study presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago indicates that an experimental drug combination could be effective against HER-2-positive breast cancer. The new therapy, called trastuzumab emtansine (T-DM1), combines a monoclonal antibody with a potent chemotherapy agent. The combination is exciting because Herceptin guides the cell-killing chemotherapy agent to HER-2 receptors on breast cancer cells. This focused attack targets cancer cells and largely bypasses healthy cells, which the chemotherapy drug would otherwise damage. In the study, which included nearly 1,000 women with HER-2-positive breast cancer that had spread either within the breast or elsewhere in the body, 65.4% of the women taking T-DM1 were still alive after two year, compared to 47.5% of those on standard treatment for this type of cancer. In addition, women on T-DM1 experienced far fewer side effects.

Heidi Godman

Early steps toward an Alzheimer’s vaccine

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Some encouraging Alzheimer’s news from Sweden: a vaccine called CAD106 appears to be safe and ramps up the body’s immune system against a protein likely involved in Alzheimer’s. The hope is that this vaccine will slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and possibly even stop it. The vaccine is designed to activate the body’s immune system against beta amyloid, a protein fragment that forms deposits called amyloid plaques between nerve cells in the brain. Three-quarters of those who received CAD106 developed antibodies against beta amyloid protein. Virtually all of them—including those getting the placebo—reported one or more side effects, ranging from inflammation of the nose and throat to headache, muscle pain, and fatigue. None, though, developed meningoencephalitis, an inflammation of brain tissue that derailed work on an earlier version of the vaccine. The next step in the development of CAD106 is a larger clinical trial to confirm the vaccine’s safety and to see if it is effective at slowing the relentless progression of Alzheimer’s disease.

Heidi Godman

Natural “exercise” hormone transforms fat cells

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

Exercise makes cells burn extra energy—that’s one way it helps control weight. It also generates a newly discovered hormone, called irisin, that transforms energy-storing white fat cells into energy-burning brown fat cells. Irisin also appears to help prevent or overcome cellular changes that lead to type 2 diabetes. The hormone does this by helping transform energy-storing white fat cells into energy-burning brown fat cells. White adipose tissue, more commonly known as body fat, is the tissue that dimples thighs, enlarges waists and derrieres, and pads internal organs. Each white fat cell stores a large droplet of fat. Brown fat, in comparison, is chock full of energy-burning mitochondria. Its main function is to generate body heat by burning fat. A team led by Dr. Bruce Spiegelman, professor of cell biology and medicine at Harvard Medical School, has identified irisin in mice and humans and showed how irisin transforms white fat cells into brown ones, at least in mice.

Heidi Godman

Eating for pleasure easier to overdo than eating when hungry

Heidi Godman, Executive Editor, Harvard Health Letter

When you polish off a piece of chocolate cake and immediately start thinking about having another, you might suspect that eating for pleasure may trigger overeating. A new study out of Italy, where they know a thing or two about good food, supports this notion. Researchers from Naples and Salerno found that eating for enjoyment […]

Daniel Pendick

Laxative-free colonoscopy on the way?

An experimental approach to virtual colonoscopy could eliminate the unpleasant day-before bowel prep that keeps many people from having this potentially life-saving test. Virtual colonoscopy uses computed tomography (CT) scanning with X-rays, instead of a scope, to check the colon for cancers and precancerous polyps. Earlier version have required bowel cleaning, just like regular colonoscopy. A Harvard-based team led by Dr. Michael Zalis uses sophisticated computer software to make stool in the colon disappear. It’s a little like Photoshopping blemishes from still photos. “Laxative-free CT colonography has the potential to reach some of the unscreened population and save lives,” says Dr. Zalis, an associate professor of radiology at MGH and director of CT colonography at MGH Imaging.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Probiotics may help prevent diarrhea due to antibiotic use

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

Eating yogurt or taking a so-called probiotic when you have to take antibiotics may help prevent the diarrhea that often accompanies antibiotic treatment. That’s the conclusion of a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. A team of California-based researchers combined the results of 63 randomized trials pitting probiotics versus placebo among almost 12,000 men and women taking antibiotics. Those who took antibiotics plus probiotics were 42% less likely to develop diarrhea as those who got the placebo. About one in three people who take antibiotics develop diarrhea. Antibiotics kill these “good” microbes along with bacteria that are causing an infection. This upsets the balance of the normal flora in the intestines. The result is often loose, watery stools known as antibiotic-associated diarrhea.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

$2 drug treatment helps prevent exam-caused pancreas problem

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

A test used to give doctors a close-up view of the pancreas, called endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatography (ERCP), often cause a painful inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis). According to report in the New England Journal of Medicine, a single dose of indomethacin, a powerful nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, can help prevent this post-procedure problem. About half a million Americans have ERCP each year. As many as one in six develop pancreatitis afterward. In a randomized controlled trial that included men and women who had just undergone ERCP, administration of an indomethacin suppository right after the procedure cut the rate of post-ERCP pancreatitis almost in half. Once a person has pancreatitis, the chances he or she will have it again go up. That’s why the New England Journal report is good news for anyone who needs to undergo ERCP.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Personalized medicine experiment details diabetes development

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

The term “personalized medicine” is still something of an abstract idea. In an audacious experiment, Stanford molecular geneticist Michael Snyder gave it a face—his own—and showed what it can do. Snyder and a large team of colleagues first sequenced his DNA, revealing his complete genetic library. Then they analyzed blood samples he gave every few weeks for two years. This was akin to taking a 3-D movie of his inner workings to observe how genes, the molecules that read and decode them (RNA), the proteins they make, and other substances interact during health and illness. The team saw how Snyder’s body responded to a cold at the very beginning of the study. Midway through, they watched as molecular changes wrought by a respiratory infection tipped him into full-blown diabetes.

Patrick J. Skerrett

Virtual reality, exergames may improve mental and physical health

Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor, Harvard Health

Games are meant to be fun and exciting. Some involve the body, some the mind. Others do both. Researchers are tapping into this engagement to use games to heal an ailing mind or body. Researchers are testing virtual reality to help people with mental and physical problems ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder and stroke rehabilitation to smoking cessation and stuttering. Exergames may also help people become more physically active. Although they won’t help you lose weight or train for a marathon, many meet the American Heart Association’s criteria for “moderate-intensity daily activity,” meaning they could stand in for taking a walk.

Howard LeWine, M.D.

Quick injection helps stop epileptic seizures

Howard LeWine, M.D., Chief Medical Editor
Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications

An epileptic seizure is a frightening thing to experience, and almost as frightening to watch. Fortunately, most seizures stop on their own after a couple minutes. Any that last longer than five to 10 minutes (doctors call a long-lasting seizure status epilepticus) are a medical emergency and must be halted with medication. A new study shows that delivering anti-seizure medication with a hand-held auto-injector—much like the epi pens used by people with life-threatening allergies—is better than delivering them intravenously. This study could pave the way for home treatment of epileptic seizures.