The Superbugs Are Here

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Antibiotic-resistant bacteria will kill millions in the coming decades. Can we fix the broken economic and research models that could produce new treatments?

From my cover story in the May 31, 2019, Newsweek

In January, Columbia University revealed that four patients at its Irving Medical Center in New York had been sick with an unusual version of E. coli , a common gut bacterium. NwswkSuperbugsCoverAlthough the news largely escaped attention in the media, it ricocheted through the world of infectious disease experts. The Columbia E. coli had a mutation in a gene, MCR-1, that confers a terrifying attribute: imperviousness to colistin, the final-line-of-defense antibiotic for the bug. “We’re looking to the shelf for the next antibiotic, and there’s nothing there,” says Erica Shenoy, associate chief of the infection control unit at Massachusetts General Hospital….Read more

The Munchies Paradox

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Researchers are trying to untangle the surprisingly complex relationship between pot and appetite

From my article in Elemental on May 13, 2019

Convenience stores in about 2,000 of the United States’ 3,200 or so counties saw a jump in junk food sales between 2006 and 2016. The indulgent counties were all in or close to states that legalized recreational marijuana at some point during that 10-year time period, just before sales surged.

The new data fits well with the experiences of hundreds of millions of people who use cannabis and with what science knows about pot. Or does it? In hundreds of studies of pot and appetite, the results are, well, disjointed. If there is any sort of consensus, it’s that longer-term use of pot is more closely associated with people maintaining what doctors classify as healthier weights than it is with people ending up glued to the couch, overeating….Read more

With a Simple Twist, a ‘Magic’ Material Is Now the Big Thing in Physics

QuantaGrapheneImage2The stunning emergence of a new type of superconductivity with the mere twist of a carbon sheet has left physicists giddy, and its discoverer nearly overwhelmed.

From my April 30, 2019, article in Quanta Magazine (also published in Wired)

Pablo Jarillo-Herrero is channeling some of his copious energy into a morning run, dodging startled pedestrians as he zips along, gradually disappearing into the distance. He’d doubtlessly be moving even faster if he weren’t dressed in a sports coat, slacks and dress shoes, and confined to one of the many weirdly long corridors that crisscross the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Jarillo-Herrero has never been a slacker, but his activity has jumped several levels since his dramatic announcement in March 2018 that his lab at MIT had found superconductivity in twisted bilayer graphene — a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon crystal dropped on another one, and then rotated to leave the two layers slightly askew….Read more

China is Winning the 5G Race. Who Cares?

NwswkChina5gImageThe U.S. Lags China in the next big technological advance in cellphone networks. But not where it counts.

From my article (part of the cover story) in the May 10, 2019, issue of Newsweek

“The race to 5G is on, and America must win,” said Trump in mid-April.

It’s no secret that he’s focused on China, led by giant telecommunications manufacturer Huawei. But which 5G race can the U.S. hope to win? There are really three: one to provide the equipment on which the new networks are built; one to roll out the services widely; and another to develop the whole package—the software, devices, services and business processes that take advantage of 5G’s blinding speed and near-instant responsiveness. The distinction is critical, because the U.S. has already lost the first race and may lose the second. But the U.S. could still win the third race—and reap the main economic benefits of 5G….Read more

The Price of Digital Health

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Personalized health care and artificial intelligence could improve your life—at a cost to your privacy

From my cover story in the April 5, 2019, issue of Newsweek

Andres Rubiano first got the news that his blood pressure was too high in the 1990s, when he was in his late 30s. His doctor prescribed medication and encouraged him to get more exercise and cut down on salt, a regimen Rubiano wasn’t very diligent in following. Then, four years ago, his doctor convinced him to enroll in a pilot project. Once a day, Rubiano slipped on an automatic cuff that wirelessly relayed blood pressure readings to a team of clinicians. His Apple Watch sent off heart-rate and physical-activity readings. Soon, Rubiano was getting text messages and emails about his readings, and his doctor called every month to discuss them. His blood pressure dropped from 150 over 100 to a reasonable 130 over 78….Read more

We all love Marie Kondo. So why is tidying up so hard?

The Japanese neatness consultant has inspired millions to declutter. But the mania also raises some interesting questions.

marie_kondoFrom my article in the January 19, 2019, issue of New Scientist

A CLUTTER-free kitchen, living room or office resonates with a clean, graceful aesthetic. Neatness implies organisation and discipline. Stress and inefficiency disappear with stray socks and the morning’s dishes. That’s the promise of Japanese neatness consultant Marie Kondo, as she espouses “the life-changing magic of tidying up” in her Netflix series. But why are so many of us obsessed—and defeated—by the demands of tidiness? Read more

Clinical Trials Have the Best Medicine but Do Not Enroll the Patients Who Need It

Most cancer patients never get into lifesaving drug trials because of barriers at community hospitals

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From my article in the January 2019 issue of Scientific American

The drugs available in clinical trials often represent the latest in research, and many turn out to be significantly more effective than standard treatments. But whereas about one third of cancer patients in the U.S. meet the criteria for a trial with a new drug, only about 4 percent end up in such tests, according to National Cancer Institute estimates. The main reason for the massive shortfall: in the nonacademic community hospitals where most cancer patients are treated, doctors do not feel they have the time, the incentives or the support to learn about available trials, to qualify and enroll patients, or to provide the extra follow-up care such trials often call for. Because nationally about 85 per-cent of cancer patients end up at community hospitals, most of the low participation in cancer trials is attributable to the failure of those hospitals to enroll their patients. Major academic hospitals enroll about 20 percent or so of cancer patients in trials, but community hospitals typically enroll less than one percent.

All of which makes it astonishing that a small community hospital in the middle of rural Nebraska manages to place some 35 percent of its cancer patients in trials. That achievement is due almost entirely to the sheer determination and dedication of a single doctor named Mehmet Copur…. Read more (may be paywalled)

How Autonomous Vehicles Will Transform Cities and Suburbs

NwswkDriverlessCoverOnly181206Driverless cars are coming fast. That could be a big upgrade to life in America—or a complete nightmare, if we don’t quickly take control of the situation

From my cover story in the Dec. 14, 2018, issue of Newsweek.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the automobile was heralded as a way to free cities from the scourge of horse manure. Cars delivered on that promise, and they made us a far more mobile society. But they also stuck us with a slew of pervasive problems that haunt us today: urban blight, suburban sprawl, congestion, a rich-poor divide, a health-crushing lack of physical activity and enough pollution to upend the Earth’s climate.

Most U.S. cities seem positioned to once again allow technology to overwhelm them. New York City, for example, currently has no testing program in place for driverless cars—General Motors was planning one for 2019 but canceled it when the City Council raised concerns about safety. Singapore, some European countries and China are taking steps to prepare for AVs, but not one major U.S. city has introduced new traffic or development laws intended to boost AVs or push drivers to use them. If cities don’t get their development acts together soon, driverless vehicles will likely make traffic far worse in the coming years….Read more

How to Almost Learn Italian

Language apps like Duolingo are addictive—but not particularly effective.

From my article in the December 2018 issue of The Atlantic

Late one chilly evening last September, I excused myself from a small group huddled around a campfire to peck at and mumble into my phone.

No way was a camping trip going to make me miss my Italian lesson.

For most of the preceding year, I had religiously attended to my 15-minute-or-so daily encounters with the language-learning app Duolingo. I used it on trains, while walking across town, during previews at the movie theater. I was planning a trip to Rome in the late spring, and I’ve always been of the mind that to properly visit a country, you’ve got to give the language a shot.

But I had another reason for sticking with it: Duolingo is addictive….Read more

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How Traveling Abroad for Medical Care Can Make Surprising Sense

Americans whose treatments aren’t covered by insurance are saving thousands and getting good care by going outside the country

From my article in the November 2018 issue of Men’s Journal

MensMedTourismThree years ago, Justin Bull was goofing around with friends, swinging on a tree rope, when he lost his grip. The 29-year-old multi-sport athlete and dirt biker plunged 35 feet, landing on his right shoulder and snapping a tendon. Worse yet, he was uninsured, which meant getting surgery in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, would cost $40,000, all out-of-pocket. “I was looking at going into serious debt,” he says.

Then Bull’s mother made a surprising suggestion: Go abroad to get it done. A few years before, she’d traveled to the Czech Republic for surgery on her ankle. The procedure had been top-notch, complication-free, and a huge cost-saver. Bull did some research and opted for the Hospitales Amerimed in Cancún, Mexico—an orthopedic-surgery destination for professional athletes worldwide. Bull says it couldn’t have gone better. Total cost of airfare, a week in a resort for two, and all medical costs: $7,400. He checked with two U.S. surgeons afterward who said the work on his shoulder passed muster….Read more