Science stimulus

After a month investigating, or at least poking around on, the topic of stimulus money coming to the greater Seattle area, I had trouble finding any great stories.

Yes, as I reported on KPLU, there’s money to clean-up diesel pollution around the ports.  And, there’s a decent chunk of funding for Community Health Centers (which serve low-income and uninsured people).  And, as Sandy Doughton reported, faculty at the U.W. will get plenty of additional NIH research funding.

But, I was looking for the big legacy projects, something akin to the fine parks structures built by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s.  As I said in my clinics story, the federal stimulus money is “more of a cushion to soften the crash,” than a spark to create something new.

Maybe the U.W. will build a great new science lab that was only a pipe dream before.

Other beat reporters at KPLU have found similar tales when it comes to stimulus money and public housing, and public schools.  In order to get the money spent quickly, it is paying for projects that were already planned and would have happened anyway, eventually.  The stimulus makes them happen more quickly.  Or else, instead of creating jobs, it’s preserving work that would have been eliminated by budget cuts elsewhere.

I’m not saying it’s bad to preserve jobs from the chopping block, or speed up a construction schedule.  It just makes it hard a decade from now to point to something and say, That’s the legacy of what the federal government did during the Great Recession.

Redoubt redux … (kaboom!)

It was a bit late (or the scientists were premature) but the Redoubt Volcano has finally begun erupting.  (See my previous post for context.) You’ve probably heard the top news on this by now.  Here are tidbits that might have been lost in the headlines.

  • As of noon today (Tues, 3/24), there had been six eruptions.  Tuesday has been calm, but the official alert level remains at “High.”
  • Besides the ash plume, and steam plume, there have been lahar flows — mud and water.  Some have reached all the way to Cook Inlet, 21 miles away. (But no damage so far at the Cook Inlet oil terminal, although workers were evacuated.)
  • Some of these watery lahars have been 20-25 feet deep.
  • A glacier has melted (causing the flooding).
  • 24 hours before the first eruption, seismologists at the Alaska Volcano Observatory raised the alert level around the volcano, after swarms of earth tremors in the area. (So, yes there was some warning immediately before the explosion.)

Here’s a photo of one of the eruptions, on Monday March 23rd, 2009.

Mt. Redoubt erupting on March 23rd (AVO)

Mt. Redoubt erupting on March 23rd (AVO)

The bionic hand, in the lab

One of the more exciting bio-engineering labs in Seattle has to be U.W.’s Neurobotics Lab.  I got a quick tour from Professor Yoky Matsuoka.  She’s been working on the problem of a prosthetic hand that can perform like a real hand.  In the process, she’s found herself “deconstructing” the human hand.  She discovered, for example, that there’s a functional benefit to the way finger bones are shaped (with knuckles that taper, in a non-symetrical way). She also says having five fingers may not be as crucial as paying attention to the way the fingers bend and flex.

Here’s a photo of her with one of their prototypes.  My interview with Matsuoka that aired on KPLU is here.  An extended version of that interview, with about 3 minutes worth that I had to cut out for broadcast, is at this link.

Prof. Yoky Matsuoka and her robotic hand

Prof. Yoky Matsuoka and her robotic hand

Stimulus money may rescue researchers, clinics

I’m digging for details on where federal stimulus money may end up, in the realms of health care and science, here in the Seattle area.   So far, still more questions than answers.  But, here are two examples:

– Community medical clinics.  There is money set aside to help these clinics survive the double-whammy of more people in need of free or subsidized coverage, while budgets are being slashed.   Tom Trompeter, the CEO for the HealthPoint clinics in King County says he expects some of the money will be for expanding services, to reach new clients.  He’s also hopeful that funding for Medicaid will increase, which would be the simplest way to support these clinics.

– Bio-medical researchers.  A big boost in funding went to the National Institutes of Health ($10.4 billion total), and the U.W. is one of the leading recipients of NIH grants.  One scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center said last week she was already re-formulating some proposals that had missed the funding cut last time around.  One chunk of the NIH money will be spent on construction — new labs and equipment.

There are a lot of new deadlines for proposals.  Some research funding cutoffs are as soon as June, while the construction grant proposals are due by September.

If you’ve heard of stimulus money flowing to any local institutes or organizations, please share.

Returning from a detour into the demise of newspapers

This blog has been idle while I’ve spent the last couple weeks working on (and coordinating) KPLU’s coverage of the end of the Seattle P-I as a newspaper, and the prospects of Seattle becoming a No Newspaper Town.  Our 3-part series really captures the anxieties and hopes of this moment in history.  It also brought out a number of thougthful comments form listeners/readers.  We’ve done a lot of continuing coverage on the topic, which is all grouped on the page linked above.

My personal contribution was to explore the question, What’s next? That led to a lot of reading on the future of journalism, various theories of social media, and the underpinnings of the business of news.  It’s the business model that’s collapsing, where advertising subsidizes news, and the smorgasbord of news/entertainment is bundled together in a single package.    (Note: the written version is not a verbatim transcript of the radio story — part of KPLU’s experiment in adapting to online consumers.)

The short answer, by the way, seems to be:  Nothing will replace newspapers, in the near future. Something else has to evolve.

A return to science, coming soon, along with further experiments in “new media” …

Vaccines and autism on trial

For anyone who still thinks vaccines are causing an epidemic of autism, please take a deep breath and open up to the possibility that such a theory might be completely wrong.

The latest verdict comes from a special tribunal.   A 3-judge panel has ruled against plaintiffs who were seeking damages, claiming their children had developed autism because of preservatives in the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.  We have a brief version of the story on our website.

This isn’t quite as dramatic as the Darwin trial in Dover, PA.  There was no jury, no courtroom theatrics.  Instead, it’s a court that exists only to hear complaints under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.  But, the judges, who are not part of the public health infrastructure, reviewed thousands of pages of studies and other documents.  It sounds like they ruled pretty conclusively.  No link between autism and the vaccine.

This is not a surprise.  Every time an independent group has taken a look at this issue, they’ve come to the same conclusion.  And earlier this week, one of the British authors of a study that has fueled the anti-vaccine movement was revealed to have  faked some of his data (thanks to dogged reporting by The Times of London).

Opponents of vaccines have evolved their theory over the years.  Many now say, it isn’t just one vaccine, it’s the fact that so many are given at such a young age.  (Moving target?)   Still, I haven’t seen any credible evidence to suspect the vaccines.

Pot-smoking and … testicular cancer

Ouch!  That’s not a nice association.

This was a story I couldn’t exactly pass up, because it’s a such a high-interest topic.  But, the scientists involved, and every bit of training I’ve had, warn me not to make too much of it.  (Check out the story that aired on KPLU for an overview, and here’s a press release.)

Steve Schwartz of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has been trying to understand what causes testicular cancer.  You don’t hear much about testicular cancer (unless there’s a story about cyclist Lance Armstrong) because it’s uncommon and it’s usually curable.  But, it’s also poorly understood.  At the urging of his colleague, Janet Daling, they decided to ask if there’s any association between testicular cancer and marijuana smoking.

Based on a survey of men in the Seattle area, some with cancer, some without, they found marijuana smokers had a slightly higher risk of getting testicular cancer.  It’s newsworthy because it’s the first time anyone has shown any sort of link between marijuana and an elevated cancer risk.  The study has several limitations, so it really just points to a possibility, and the need to do more careful studies.  In general, Schwartz points out, our knowledge of the long-term effects of marijuana smoking is small.

Here are some interesting tidbits from Schwartz and the study:

  • The more often you smoke pot, the more your risk goes up.  Maybe the marijuana functions as some sort of “fuel” to keep the cancer cells growing.  When you stop, their growth stops, too.  This pattern has been shown in some types of breast and lung cancer.
  • Testicular cancer is also associated with height.  Taller men, especially those over 6 ft. 2 in., have higher rates than shorter men.
  • Men of African descent don’t tend to get testicular cancer.

It’s a cancer that seems to be triggered in adolescence, and mostly hits men between the ages of 15 and 35.

Add up that profile:  Young, white, tall man who smokes pot.  Seen any of these on a college campus?

(The paper is in the journal Cancer, and it’s called “Association of Marijuana Use and the Incidence of Testicular Germ Cell Tumors.”)

Volcano rumbling near Anchorage

We think of Mt. St. Helens as America’s star volcano.  But, outside the continental U.S. there’s a lot of action.  Not only Hawaii’s dramatic Mauna Loa and Kilauea, but along Alaska’s Cook Inlet there are several “restless” volcanos.

Lately, it’s Redoubt Volcano, about 100 miles from Anchorage. It’s a striking peak, at 10,197 feet (just a little shorter than Mt. Baker in the Washington Cascades).  The U.S. Geological Survey says it expects “an eruption to begin within the next few days or weeks.”  Well, they started saying that more than a week ago.  So, hold onto your hats.

Areas of current activity on Redoubt Volcano, Alaska

Areas of current activity on Redoubt Volcano, Alaska

Last time, in 1989 and 1990, it erupted more than 20 times over a period of several months.  It shot a huge ash plume into the air that almost caused a commercial jetliner to crash.  And melting glaciers turned a nearby river into roaring torrent — which nearly wiped out an oil terminal.  No oil leaked, but buried pipelines were scoured to the surface and thousands of gallons of crude were hastily transferred away.

What will happen this time?  The USGS says the most likely scenario is something similar to 1990.  But, volcano prediction is not the most precise of sciences.  (And for those wondering if there’s any seismic connection between Redoubt and Mt. St. Helens, the answer is no.)

Earthquakes, today’s and tomorrow’s

I slept through it.  Did you feel it?  At 5:25 am today (Friday) there was a moderate earthquake in the Puget Sound area, centered near Poulsbo, WA on the Kitsap peninsula.  The USGS says it was a magnitude 4.5.

In my personal, Keith Seinfeld metrics, having lived for nine years in California, that qualifies as big enough to feel, and maybe enough to unnerve you.  But, otherwise, pretty minor.  Officially, it’s a “light” but “notable earthquake,” and the biggest we’ve had since a similar one on October 7th, 2006 (which was centered near Buckley, WA).

If you felt it, you can share your report here with the USGS (and see where the shaking was felt most strongly).

Coincidentally, the seismology team at the U.W. reported new details this week on “slow earthquakes” and “deep tremors.”

Burying a seismometer on Washingtons Olympic Peninsula

Seismologist Mario La Rocca and U.W. grad student Wendy McCausland placing a seismometer near Sequim in 2004. (La Rocca is an Italian geologist who works closely with the U.W.)

As I explained in my radio story, these are imperceptible quakes which recur on a fairly predictable cycle — every 15 months.  The next one is due this summer, under the Olympic Peninsula.

The deep tremors and slow quakes are explained in this week’s journal Science.  It appears they’re related to the Juan de Fuca plate subducting under the North American plate.  Each slow quake adds a little more stress and strain to the major fault along the Washington coast.  Every 500 years, roughly, that fault releases in a mega-thrust earthquake.  Ken Creager at the U.W. says it seems possible or even likely that the next mega-quake will happen during one of the slow earthquakes.

Unfortunately, he can only test the theory after the Big One happens.

Vaccine subsidies may end

My story on KPLU about a proposal to end state subsidies of childhood vaccines only brushed over the impact on pediatricians and family doctors.  It was a short story, written for a newscast.  This is not the most important budget cut pending in Olympia, or the one that will impact the most people.  But, it’s an example of a good program that probably is in trouble in this economy.

I traded messages with the president of the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians.  Dr. Neil Kaneshiro wrote an eloquent explanation of what it might mean:

The burden on the pediatrician depends on how they respond to the change. As you have found out, it is a dramatic shift in policy. In the “old days” before Universal Purchase, pediatricians used to see kids for their checkups and then send them to the health dept for their vaccines. Not a very good system as some of those parents didn’t bother or weren’t able to take the kids in to a separate facility on a different day possibly missing work again just to get their vaccines. Now the vast majority of immunizations for kids are delivered in the pediatrician/family practitioner office because the immunization program makes it a seamless process. The benefits for kids were easy to see. No hassles and no barriers to immunizations. Immunization rates improved. (Many will say that Universal Purchase does not correlate with high immunization rates. That is true, but it definitely helps the rate by removing all financial barriers to immunizations so that any parent who wants one for their child can get it. The problem with immunization rates in Washington State is primarily with the strong anti-immunization sentiment fueled by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy. We have the highest proportion of families who opt out of school mandated vaccines in the nation.)

There are significant costs associated with provision of immunization services. Ordering, inventory, refrigeration/freezer capacity, needles, syringes, nurse/medical assistant time, physician counseling of patients.
Those are the costs with the current Universal Purchase program. When that is taken away, several other things come into play.
1. Acquisition cost. I estimate we have $150,000-200,000 worth of vaccine in our refrigerator and go through that monthly.
2. We would need vigilant monitoring of insurance reimbursement because doctors in other parts of the country have lost significant amounts of money because insurers were not reimbursing less than the actual cost of vaccine.
3. We would need to set up an entirely separate ordering and inventory system and institute failsafe measures to prevent vaccine from moving from VFC stock to Commercial stock and vice versa. Lots of potential fraud issues arise if VFC vaccine is used for someone with Blue Cross insurance. And potential bankruptcy issues arise if purchased vaccine is given to Medicaid kids.

Medicaid reimburses essentially nothing for the above services. Commercial insurance reimburses for the administration, but sometimes not the ordering, inventory refrigeration, insurance/overhead costs. The unspoken deal with the state was that physicians would move immunization services for Medicaid into the medical home since they were providing vaccines for everyone. In turn the state would be able to reduce the immunization infrastructure in the public health system as the primary care providers were taking care of it.

Depending on individual pediatricians vaccine purchasing power and negotiating position with insurers, buying and selling vaccine could be either profitable or not. Pediatricians are unfortunately not known for their business savvy and this will cause some practices to go under or stop doing immunizations.

I think that since pediatricians lose money every time they give a vaccine to a Medicaid child, it is possible that the financial strain will force some to revert back to the old system of referring kids to the health department for immunization services. Unfortunately much of that public health infrastructure has been dismantled and is unlikely to be rebuilt under the current budget situation.

The bottom line is that this will introduce barriers to immunization for kids that are not there now and our immunization rates will fall.