Category Archives: Neurology and Neurological Surgery

Counties Pursue Safer Drug Disposal

New programs to make it easier and safer for San Francisco Bay Area residents to get rid of unused medications are some of the first to try this on a large scale, and may serve as models for other cities and counties.

Since May 2012, a pilot program in San Francisco has allowed residents to drop off old medications at 13 pharmacies and 10 police stations (where controlled substances must be brought). San Francisco supervisors initially considered forcing drug companies to fund the program, and instead agreed to accept $110,000 from Genentech and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to fund the program.

(Photo by J. Troha, courtesy of National Cancer Institute)

On July 24, supervisors in Alameda County (which includes East Bay cities such as Oakland and Berkeley) are likely to approve a Safe Drug Disposal Ordinance that would require drug companies to pay for disposal of their products or face fines of up to $1,000 per day, The Bay Citizen reports. Public agencies currently fund 25 drug disposal sites there, and the cash-strapped county wants the comparatively wealthy pharmaceutical industry to take more financial responsibility for the lifecycle of its products in order to reduce overdoses, accidental poisonings, and water pollution.

As we reported earlier this year, making prescription-drug “recycling” a cultural norm is one of five emerging public policies that could help the medical system keep opioids available while reducing the risk of addiction, abuse and accidental overdose, according to Keith N. Humphreys, Ph.D. Smaller versions have met with success, such as a drug take-back day organized by sheriffs in a small town in Arkansas (population 20,000) that brought in 25,000 pills, said Dr. Humphreys, acting director of the Center for Health Care Evaluation, Veterans Health Administration, Menlo Park, Calif., and a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He reports having no financial conflicts of interest on this issue.

Not everyone is happy with the idea. Trade associations for the pharmaceutical industry and biomedical companies argue that there’s no evidence that these programs will reduce poisonings, and they haven’t ruled out the possibility of suing to block the Alameda County ordinance, The Bay Citizen reports. The compromise that San Francisco reached for voluntary instead of mandatory funding from the pharmaceutical industry may be a middle ground.

In an era when government agencies have less and less money for public programs, it’s probably inevitable that they’ll pursue alternative financing for programs like this.

If your community has a drug disposal program, let us know how it’s working. Will these programs succeed, and will they reduce abuse, addiction, and accidental overdoses? We’ll keep an eye on this topic, and keep you posted.

–Sherry Boschert (@sherryboschert on Twitter)

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“Turning the Tide” on HIV/AIDS

In advance of the upcoming XIX International AIDS Conference, the International AIDS Society and the University of California, San Francisco, have issued the “Washington D.C. Declaration,” a nine-point action plan aimed at broadening global support for “Turning the Tide” of the AIDS epidemic.

Everyone is urged to sign the Declaration.

It calls for:

1) An increase in targeted new investments;
2) Evidence-based HIV prevention, treatment, and care in accord with the human rights of those at greatest risk and in greatest need;
3) An end to stigma, discrimination, legal sanctions, and human rights abuses against those living with and at risk for HIV;
4) Marked increases in HIV testing, counseling, and linkages to services;
5) Treatment for all pregnant and nursing women living with HIV and an end to perinatal transmission;
6) Expanded access to antiretroviral treatment for all in need;
7) Identification, diagnosis, and treatment of tuberculosis;
8) Accelerated research on new tools for HIV prevention, treatment, vaccines, and a cure;
9) Mobilization and meaningful involvement of affected communities.

Turning the Tide is the theme of this year’s biennial conference, which will take place July 22-27 in Washington.  It is expected to draw 25,000 attendees, including HIV professionals, activists, politicians, and celebrities. Sir Elton John will open the conference and Bill Clinton will close it. A large delegation of U.S. members of Congress will participate, and Bill Gates will moderate a session. An enormous “Global Village” outside the D.C. Convention Center will be open to the public. “If you haven’t been, it’s a conference like no other,” conference cochair Dr. Diane V. Havlir said at a press briefing.

The recent optimism regarding HIV/AIDS stems from major advances in knowledge regarding prevention of partner transmission with early patient treatment, pre-exposure prophylaxis, and male circumcision as HIV infection prevention (new data will be released at the meeting), all of which are viewed as breakthroughs  in the fight against HIV/AIDS. “So we have now in our hands the tools. The question is how do we combine those tools together, and how do we roll them out,” said Dr. Havlir, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, and chief of the HIV/AIDS division at San Francisco General Hospital.

Dr. Diane V. Havlir / Photo by Miriam E. Tucker

Monday’s plenary session will include an address from Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, on “Ending the HIV Epidemic: From Scientific Advances to Public Health Implementation.” Other plenary topics during the week will include viral eradication, vaccines, TB and HIV, and HIV/AIDS in specific populations including minorities, women, youth, and men who have sex with men. On Friday, there will be a plenary talk that may be of particular interest to the primary care community, “The Intersection of Noncommunicable Diseases and Aging in HIV.”

Plenaries and other conference sessions will be webcast at http://globalhealth.kff.org/aids2012.

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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The Jewish Doctor, Examined

The rich tradition of Jewish involvement in the medical profession is the subject of an exhibit now showing at New York’s Yeshiva University Museum. Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960 explores the social, cultural, religious, and scientific aspects of that relationship during the era of modern medicine.

Dr. Paul Ehrlich / Photo taken by Miriam E. Tucker with permission from Yeshiva University Museum

The exhibit’s title references Dr. Paul Ehrlich’s “magic bullet” salvarsan, the syphilis cure he discovered that was used until penicillin became available in the 1940s. One of five Jewish physicians profiled, Dr. Ehrlich (1854-1915) won the Nobel Prize in 1908 for his “Side Chain” theory, which helped explain how antibodies neutralize invaders. Born in Germany, Dr. Ehrlich never renounced his Judaism despite experiences with anti-Semitism.

Jews were often unwelcome in established areas of medicine such as surgery, so they embraced newly-emerging specialties including psychiatry, neurology and dermatology, according to the exhibit. In Germany, dermatology was called Judenhaut, or “Jews’ skin,” and psychoanalysis was known as the “Jewish Science.” A wall of the exhibit honors 28 Jewish pioneers in these fields, including psychoanalysis founder Dr. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939).

Another section illustrates the Jewish community’s role in establishing hospitals such as Newark (NJ) Beth Israel Hospital in 1924, as well as public health-oriented social service organizations and visiting nurse programs in the United States and abroad. While these institutions were founded to aid underserved segments of the Jewish population, they evolved to serve entire communities of Jews and non-Jews.

“Miss Beth” solicits funds for Newark Beth Israel Hospital in 1924 / Photo taken by Miriam E. Tucker with permission from Yeshiva University Museum

Discrimination and quotas, widespread nationwide until the 1950s, are addressed toward the end. One of several abhorrent displayed quotes is attributed to 1920-1935 Yale Medical School Dean Dr. Milton Charles Winternitz, addressing his admission committee: “Never admit more than five Jews, take only two Italian Catholics, and take no blacks at all.” Albert Einstein College of Medicine was founded by Yeshiva University as the first American medical school established under Jewish auspices, specifically with the aim of helping prospective Jewish medical students bypass such restrictions.

Magic Bullet ends with a modern examination of medical ethics from a Jewish perspective. A 15-minute film entitled Heal, You Shall Heal features physicians, rabbis, ethicists, and patients offering perspectives on genetic testing/pregnancy termination in the case of abnormality and end-of-life decisions. Rabbi Daniel S. Nevins, a dean at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says this: “As much as modern medical technology has given us a sense that we understand what is going on with the birth and death process, the truth is that these are moments of great mystery. It’s important for us to be humble in such moments.”

Trail of the Magic Bullet: The Jewish Encounter with Modern Medicine, 1860-1960 runs through Aug. 12, 2012.

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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A Younger Kennedy’s Mental Health Crusade

Patrick J. Kennedy is no longer in Congress, but he’s still campaigning passionately on behalf of mental health. In a plenary talk at the annual meeting of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry (AAGP), the former democratic congressman from Rhode Island described his recent mission: An organization he founded called One Mind for Research, which “brings together the science, technology, financial resources, and knowledge required to create an unprecedented understanding of brain disease.” Its goal is to increase the investment in research by $1.5 billion each year for the next 10 years and to achieve a minimum 10% reduction in the cost of brain disease per year.

Courtesy of AAGP

The initiative was launched last May 25th on the anniversary of his uncle John F. Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech, at the suggestion of his cousin Caroline. He said he told her at the time, “Great, instead of going to outer space, we’ll go to inner space!”

On a more serious note, Mr. Kennedy drew a parallel between President Kennedy’s focus on civil rights as a moral issue and the cause of the mentally ill, telling the audience of psychiatrists “What you all do in the field of mental health is to help lessen the marginalization of too many Americans…I think we have a historic opportunity now, with the implementation of the Mental Health Parity Bill and the [Affordable Care Act] to break down the segregation of mental health from overall health.”

Referencing his own struggles with substance abuse, depression and bipolar disorder and his role in Congress as chief sponsor of the parity bill, Mr. Kennedy decried the current insurance reimbursement system as being “wholly inadequate” for treating chronic mental conditions. “If we treated diabetics the way we treat alcoholics and addicts, we’d be waiting till we were cutting off their toes and they’d lost their eyesight before we paid for treatment,” he said, to applause.

He was equally emphatic regarding the politics involved in securing funding for One Mind’s 10-year plan. “If you consider how much money we put into neuroscience today compared to the burden of [mental] illness, any CEO in the country would be kicked out of their job for not doing enough research…it just doesn’t compute,” he said, again to applause.

He acknowledged there would be challenges. “I can’t tell you we’re going to be successful, but at least I’m going to do my part to see that we try something different.”

The AAGP plenary session was supported in part by an educational grant from Lilly USA, LLC.

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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NBA Legend Bill Walton Grateful, ‘Feelin’ Fine’

Five years ago NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton returned home to San Diego from a road trip when “my spine collapsed,” he told attendees at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Bill Walton holds court in San Diego. Doug Brunk/IMNG Medical Media

Years of debilitating back problems had finally caught up with him. He had spent more than 4 decades on the road as a basketball player then as a television broadcaster, navigating his 6-foot, 11-inch frame through “horrendous hotels I couldn’t stand up in, sitting in chairs built for children” and being cramped in the cabins during “mind-numbing airplane flights, [logging] 800,000-plus miles a year.”

He spent 2 years mainly lying in a horizontal position on the floor, he said, “in excruciating, unrelenting pain. If I had had a gun, I would have used it. I was standing on a bridge knowing full well that it was better to jump than to go back to what was left.”

But then he was saved, he said, “by doctors like you, by innovating companies like the ones changing the world of dermatology.” More than 3 year ago Mr. Walton underwent an 8-hour experimental surgery on his spine – his 36th orthopedic operation.

“They straightened everything up, bolted it back together,” he said, noting that the foundations of the procedure involved placement of two titanium rods and an Erector-Set-like cage. This was followed by a week in a medically induced coma, 73 postoperative days on morphine, “and the long hard climb back to trying to figure out how to play the game of life and how to get on that mountain one more time.”

During his recovery, Mr. Walton, now 59, said that he was reminded of how lucky he’d been in life, of the support of his parents, friends, and “heroes and role models who stood for principle, who lived their lives with passion and purpose. And they believed in more than material accumulation.”

To borrow a phrase from the Grateful Dead gem “Touch of Grey,” well-known Deadhead Mr. Walton appears to be “feelin’ fine” these days. His views on sports are as colorful as ever. He described basketball as “the perfect game of all, unlike football, which is basically a halfway house between the Army and prison. And baseball, which is a bunch of guys out of shape scratching themselves, standing around, taking steroids, and waiting for the game of life to come to them.”

Welcome back, Bill.

— Doug Brunk

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Revolutionizing Ischemic Brain Management, at a Stroke

When Dr. Jeffrey Saver announced last week at the International Stroke Conference that treatment of acute, ischemic stroke patients with the Solitaire retrievable stent produced a 61% rate of complete recanalization, he predicted that this landmark result would quickly propel acute stroke management into a new era.

It sounds a bit audacious for the results of a study with 113 randomized patients to change the face of U.S. management of acute, ischemic stroke patients, but Dr. Saver laid out a compelling scenario at the meeting. In essence, it’s the right result for the right device at the right time.

MRI head scan/courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Ranveig Thattai/creative commons license

Acute stroke care in America is already poised at an important threshold. Last week, The Joint Commission, the U.S. organization responsible for accrediting health-care institutions, announced their newly crafted criteria for credentialing Comprehensive Stroke Centers. By next year, Dr. Saver predicted, 100-200 such centers will have received this designation into the highest tier of acute stroke management. He expects all these locations to treat patients with the Solitaire stent, as well as a few others. “At least 250” U.S. sites should be using it within the next couple of years, he told me. In addition, an emergency-medicine culture already exists to ambulance acute stroke patients to one of the 1,000 Primary Stroke Centers that now exist in America, use imaging to identify the ones who qualify for intravenous lytic therapy with tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA), start administering the drug, and then transfer them to a center that can apply more advanced care, a strategy know as “drip and ship.”

Having the Solitaire device takes this approach a step further, making it “drip, ship, and grip,” he told me, with grip being the step when the thrombus causing the stroke is engaged and removed.

“We stand poised at a new era, our first experience with highly effective cerebral revascularization,” he said at the meeting last week. “The open secret in our field is that t-PA or the devices now available deliver treatment that fails most of the time.” Intravenous t-PA by itself produces full recanalization in about 5% of patients, while existing devices up this to 25%; for Solitaire the rate was 61% in the new randomized study, and the rate of full or partial recanalization was 83%.

This new level of success with Solitaire will make a big difference in how widely the treatment gets used, he told me.

Dr. Jeffrey Saver MITCHEL ZOLER/Zoler/Elsevier Global Medical News

“I think motivations [to use endovascular interventions] will shift with a more reliable device. That will drive wider uptake.” He called it a “paradigm shift” and a “game changer.”

Rapid application of effective endovascular therapy “was the vision of acute stroke care that was a hazy dream when I first became a stroke neurologist 20 years ago,” Dr. Saver said. “I think that in the next few months and years it will become the reality.”

—Mitchel Zoler (on Twitter @mitchelzoler)

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HPV Changes the Face of Head/Neck Cancer

Just a few years ago, tobacco and alcohol use were presumed to be the main causes of head and neck cancers. Evidence of oropharyngeal cancer associated with human papillomavirus (HPV) first appeared about 10 years ago, but it wasn’t until 2010, with the publication of 2 papers showing far greater survival among HPV-positive patients with head and neck cancer, that oncologists suddenly realized that they were likely dealing with two distinct diseases.

“It’s become clear that the disease we thought was one disease related to tobacco and alcohol is now being parsed into two major categories,” Dr. Maura L. Gillison said last week in Phoenix at the 2012 Multidisciplinary Head and Neck Cancer Symposium. At the meeting, she presented her group’s data showing that the overall prevalence of oral HPV infection in people aged 14-69 years is 6.9%, and that the prevalence is much higher among men than women. The Merck-supported trial paper was published online in JAMA on January 26, coinciding with her presentation.

Tissue section from a head and neck cancer patient / Courtesy of Tom Carey, Ph.D.

In a separate talk, Dr. Gillison summarized previous work from her group showing that the incidence of HPV-related cancer is rising while HPV-negative cancer is declining, consistent with the decline in tobacco use and changes in sexual behavior that increase HPV transmission. Overall survival of head and neck cancer has improved over the last decade, a trend that is likely due both to the improved prognosis among HPV-positive patients and to the decline in tobacco use rather than to advances in treatment, she said.

This recently heightened role of HPV in head and neck cancer  – and the awareness of it – has impacted the field of oncology in several ways. For one, it has dramatically changed the way research is done, conference chair Dr. Ezra Cohen told me. “It has made a tremendous difference in the way clinical trials are conducted, because it makes absolutely no sense to lump these patients together. Now all clinical trials will either stratify for HPV status or design completely separate studies, because they truly are two biologically different diseases.”

Clinically, patients with head and neck cancers are now routinely tested for HPV. This wasn’t the case prior to 2010. And those who test positive are counseled differently, since their prognosis is better. Indeed, Dr. Cohen said, HPV-positive head/neck cancer patients appear to respond better to just about every type of treatment, including surgery.

What’s more, Dr. Gillison told me, HPV has essentially upended some of the tools oncologists use to predict outcomes in head and neck cancer patients. One example is the current tumor staging system, which doesn’t take into account HPV status. A Stage 3 or 4 cancer which carries a poor prognosis among HPV-negative patients might carry the prognosis now associated with Stage 1 cancer among those who are HPV-positive. And another factor that has been shown to predict poor outcome in HPV-negative patients, the presence of extracapsular extension, appears to have little impact in those who are HPV-positive.

“So all these things that we take as firmly established and drivers of treatment decisions in this new setting are all in question,” she said.

Tissue section from the same head/neck cancer, with brown stain of an HPV marker protein called p16 / Courtesy of Tom Carey, Ph.D.

Thus far there have been no major changes in treatment, but Dr. Cohen believes that is likely to change as more data become available. He is currently leading a clinical trial  in collaboration with Novartis Pharmaceuticals looking at treatment with reduced radiation doses – and thereby reduced toxicity – for patients who have a good response to induction chemotherapy. Such patients are usually HPV positive.

Another study, funded by the National Cancer Institute, randomizes HPV positive patients to radiation combined with either chemotherapy or a monoclonal antibody, with the hypothesis that the latter will be better tolerated.

Dr. Cohen cautioned that treatment changes won’t come immediately. “Many of us in the field believe that there will be different therapies developed for [HPV-positive] patients, but it takes time to do that. It’s hard to make those changes, especially when we are curing the majority of these patients.”

-Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)

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