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Happiness is Hot

Apr 30, 2012, 9:15 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

Paul Tarini Paul Tarini

Happiness is gaining currency today, particularly in relationship to health and medicine. That’s what we’ve been hearing ever since Harvard School of Public Health researchers Julia K. Boehm and Laura Kubzansky published their report “The Heart’s Content: The Association Between Positive Psychological Well-Being and Cardiovascular Health” in the Psychological Bulletin, under a grant from Pioneer. This is the first study of its kind to look closely at how positive psychological well-being—including happiness and optimism—plays a role in heart health.

The story was indeed hot – gaining attention from USA Today, The Huffington Post, TIME’s Healthland blog, WebMD, The New York Times’ Well Blog,,,,, and hundreds more – and being shared throughout social networks and on the web.

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New Data Reveals High Death Rates From Clostridium Difficile (C. diff)

Mar 8, 2012, 11:35 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

A new Vital Signs report issued March 6 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows rates of infection with Clostridium difficile (C. diff) are at historic highs and must be curtailed. C. diff can cause cramps, severe diarrhea and, in some cases, death.

Also on March 6, Extending the Cure—a project funded by the Pioneer Portfolio that studies antibiotic resistance—released a new analysis showing high C. diff death rates in parts of New England. In fact, the Extending the Cure analysis shows that as of 2007 Rhode Island, Maine, and Connecticut had the highest death rates for C. diff in the nation.

These top three states had death rates that were more than double the national average of 2.15 deaths per 100,000 people.  The trend is visualized using the interactive mapping platform of ResistanceMap, Extending the Cure’s online tool that tracks antibiotic use and drug resistance in North America and in Europe.

At the same time, the mapshows that most Southern and Western states had death rates from C. diff that were below the national average. For example, Georgia, Colorado, and Idaho reported less than one death per 100,000 people from these infections in 2007. “The geographical variation points to the need for additional research to better understand the epidemiology of C. diff infections and highlight the most effective ways of preventing their spread,” says Ramanan Laxminarayan, director of Extending the Cure, the D.C-based research project funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio.

While C. diff has long been linked to hospitals, the CDC report finds that patients can acquire the infection in all medical settings, including nursing homes and outpatient clinics. Those most at risk are patients who take antibiotics, which can wipe out the good bacteria living in the gut, allowing C. diff to thrive.

C. diff infections can be reduced by judicious use of antibiotics, according to the CDC, which notes that about 50 percent of all antibiotics prescribed are not necessary. Reducing unnecessary antibiotic use will not only help prevent C. diff infections, but also curtail the growing problem of antibiotic resistance.

Addressing the rising rates of C. diff infections will require a multifaceted approach.  In addition to promoting antibiotic stewardship, health officials must work towards better infection control and early diagnosis at hospitals and other facilities where C. diff and other health care-associated infections can spread from patient to patient or from one facility to the next.

 In addition, policymakers, researchers, and others can use visualizations, like the map from Extending the Cure, to identify regions of the country with the most serious problems and look for targeted solutions to the rising tide of C. diff and other disease-causing bacterial pathogens.

Check out the new data and let us know what you think: Do you have a story to tell about a solution to the problem with C. diff?

Follow @ExtendgtheCure on Twitter to track coverage of this study.

The False Dichotomy of Nature Versus Nurture

Dec 14, 2011, 3:05 AM, Posted by Pioneer Blog Team

We all attribute certain traits to nurture and others to nature. “I’m stubborn. I get that from my dad’s side. My ambition and leadership skills? I learned those.” But Pioneer grantee Nicholas A. Christakis says more of the traits we typically attribute to culture have evolutionary roots, including who we choose as friends and whether or not we practice healthy behaviors.

In this week’s TIME magazine, Christakis argues that a new synthesis of biological and social science – biosocial science –can unearth solutions to some of the world’s most vexing public health problems. He writes that we can use our understanding of biology and behavior to address problems like how to get medications or tools to remote villages, control the behavior of dangerous crowds, or predict an epidemic before it happens. Christakis, a Pioneer grantee and a professor of sociology and medicine at Harvard, contributed this essay as one in a series by TIME’s most influential people in the world.

You can also learn about Christakis’ innovative research into how humans interact and coordinate in response to the behavior of one’s social partners in a recent Pioneer-funded article published in Science and in this profile.

Read the TIME essay, review Christakis’ work on patterns of human coordination and defection, tweet your thoughts about the nature versus nurture argument, or comment below. We’d love to hear what you think.

The Tip of the Iceberg for Science: Massive Biobank Starts Yielding Results

Oct 27, 2011, 9:35 AM

What do you get when you take 100,000 genotyped biological specimens and link them to longitudinal medical, environmental, behavioral and demographic data? You get Kaiser Permanente’s Research Program on Genes, Environment and Health (RPGEH), a Pioneer-supported effort that has developed the most robust and comprehensive research resource of its kind in the world.

At an unprecedented pace, researchers from the RPGEH biobank at Kaiser Permanente, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco Institute for Human Genetics, have collected 170,000 samples and genotyped over 100,000 of them in just over a year. While currently the largest biobank in the United States, the ultimate goal is even more impressive: to collect data from a half million members of the Kaiser Permanente health plan linked to their electronic health records and population surveys – creating the largest, most comprehensive biobank on the planet.

Early research findings generated from the RPGEH data were presented this month at the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics and the International Conference on Human Genetics in Montreal and are featured in the November issue of Nature Medicine. From an investigation of prostate cancer among African American men to a multi-ethnic study on bipolar disorder to a pharmacogenetic study of response to metformin, a drug used to treat type-2 diabetes, the RPGEH biobank is already starting to deliver.

But this is just the beginning - experts say that the possibilities for studying genetic and environmental influences over time thanks to this project are endless, with enormous potential for accelerating both the pace and breadth of medical research. The implications not only for the science community, but also for public health leaders and patients, are immeasurable. Stay tuned.

Posting from TED: Bacteria May Be The World's Best "Risk" Players

Feb 9, 2009, 12:24 AM, Posted by Paul Tarini

According to Dr. Bonnie Bassler’s TED presentation on Friday, bacteria operate inside your body in way that’s similar to the game of RiskBassler’s a molecular biologist at Princeton and she studies the way bacteria communicate with each other.  She said they’ve found that bacteria send out a simple chemical signal that can only be read by bacteria of the same type.  When there’s enough bacteria sending enough like-minded signals, the bacteria launch an attack (technically, it exercises a specific behavior it’s genetically programmed to exercise…in some cases that could be good for the host, in others, such as with MRSA, it could be really bad).  This communication is called quorum sensing.

It’s more complicated and more elegant, though.  Bacteria have a second simple chemical signal they send out.  This one can be read by all bacteria.  It tells a particular type of bacteria what other types of bacteria are in the host and how much of it is there.  Too much of bacteria Y, and bacteria X won’t launch its attack/exercise its behavior.

In Risk, it was always one thing to get control of Australia and another to gain enough reinforcements to successfully attack another piece of territory.  And the question of whether to attack was always informed by the size of your opponent’s army.

Bassler’s work is more than just a game.  It suggests a new approach to dealing with bacterial infections, one that involves interfering with the communication mechanism of the bacteria.  This may open up whole new avenues for pharma companies working to fight infections in this age of intensified antibiotic resistance.  In a related vein, policy changes that could facilitate the development of new antibiotics were outlined in the report "Extending the Cure: Policy research to extend antibiotic effectiveness," produced under a grant led by Ramanan Laxminaryan