Come Hear the “Inside Story”

On Saturday, November 2nd the Bank Street Bookstore in NYC is hosting an event for authors of children’s and young adult books called Inside Story.  The event is “an opportunity for teachers, librarians, and children’s book lovers to become acquainted with 2013 releases, a group of traditionally-published authors and illustrators [who] will share the “inside story” behind their publications.”

I’ll be there at the bookstore at 4:30pm speaking about For the Good of Mankind? and signing books.  Refreshments are provided!



Thank You, Librarians!

Just want to let all the wonderful librarians at the NYC Librarian Conference know how great it was to meet you and hear about your concerns.  The Common Core State Standards are indeed a challenge to implement, and hats off to all of you on the front lines!


The Nonfiction Panel (from left to right) Melissa Jacobs-Israel, Sandra Athans, Me, Tonya Bolden, and Mark Stewart.

The Nonfiction Panel (from left to right) Melissa Jacobs-Israel, Sandra Athans, Me, Tonya Bolden, and Mark Stewart.

Librarian Conference at Citi Field

If you are a teacher or a librarian, join me at the Librarian Conference at Citi Field presented by the New York City Library System on October 29th.  I’ll be speaking on the Nonfiction Panel moderated by Melissa Jacobs-Israel, a Coordinator in the Office of Library Services.  We’ll be talking about how nonfiction children’s books can be used to teach the Common Core State Standards.  See you there!

Medical Experiments on Skid Row Alcoholics Condemned

I continue to be saddened by the sheer number of medical experiments doctors performed on powerless people who did not give informed consent.  Gina Kolata’s article in the New York Times October 17th about Skid Row alcoholics who agreed to biopsies of their prostates in return for free meals, a bed and cancer treatment, sickened me.  But they did not surprise me.

Before federal laws and regulations were enacted in the 1970s, hundreds of medical experiments were routinely performed on people without a voice to say no, including orphans, the mentally ill, prison inmates, women and African Americans.  In fact, one of the most difficult issues I faced in writing For the Good of Mankind? was trying to limit and choose which experiments to include.

In the Skid Row case, Kolata writes that many of the men who later were treated for cancer suffered serious complications such as rectal bleeding, impotence and incontinence.  Doctors surgically removed testicles and gave the men large doses of estrogen, a highly risky therapy that was not the standard care.

Journalist’s like Kolata must continue to uncover these horrifying medical experiments.  Let these experiments be a reminder of what should never be allowed to occur again, particularly as we navigate through the ethical issues in clinical trials, genetic therapies, the sequencing of the genome and stem cell research.

Kepler Telescope Can’t Be Fixed

The Kepler telescope's field of view includes about 150,000 stars in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations in the Milky Way. Courtesy Carter Roberts, NASA/Ames Research Center

The Kepler telescope’s field of view includes about 150,000 stars in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations in the Milky Way. Courtesy Carter Roberts, NASA/Ames Research Center

The planet hunting community is mourning the loss of the Kepler Space Telescope, and so am I. Since May, Kepler technicians have been trying to fix the telescope’s broken reaction wheel, a mechanism that keeps the telescope steady and controls where it is aimed. But on August 15th, NASA announced that Kepler would no longer be able to search for extrasolar planets.

But all is not lost: astronomers have collected mountains of data about the numbers and sizes of extrasolar planets, and how many planets orbit in the habitable zone of their parent stars. Since the telescope was launched in 2009, Kepler has detected 3,548 planet candidates. At this point, astronomers have confirmed that 135 of them are indeed planets. And just this past April the Kepler team announced the discovery of two planets that so far are the most similar to Earth. The two planets lie in the habitable zone of star Kepler 62 and are 50% bigger than Earth.

William Borucki, the principal investigator of the Kepler mission, told the New York Times that “The most exciting discoveries are going to come in the next few years as we search through this data. In the next few years we’re going to be able to answer the questions that inspired Kepler: Are Earthlike planets common or rare in the galaxy?”

Most of us have gazed into the night sky and wondered whether there are other planets like Earth “out there.” In fact, astronomer Geoff Marcy says that questions like these fueled his desire to develop the first method for detecting extrasolar planets. Kepler’s legacy has been to provide us with an important piece to the puzzle about what lies beyond Earth. Now we know that most of the stars that light up the night sky have orbiting planets. It remains to be seen how many of them support alien life.

Henrietta Lacks in the News

In my new book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? THE SHAMEFUL HISTORY OF HUMAN MEDICAL EXPERIMENTATION, I discuss the case of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman who died of cervical cancer in 1951. And today, over 60 years later, Lacks is back in the news again. This time, family members learned that scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory had published the family’s genome on line, and that the National Institute of Health (NIH) was poised to reveal similar information in a research paper. Both organizations did not get authorization from the Lacks family, whose descendants were concerned that others would have access to private genetic information.

As the New York Times aptly stated in an editorial today, this failure to respect the family’s privacy is just “another twist in the saga of Henrietta Lacks.” Doctors first extracted cells from Lacks’s tumor without her permission, and then began to grow a long line of cells that continue to thrive and multiply to this day. The cells, dubbed HeLa cells, have been used in countless research studies, have helped to develop many vaccines and treatments for cancer, and have even rocketed into outer space. The tragedy of the Lacks story, which is well-documented by science journalist Rebecca Skloot in her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, is that the family never knew that the cells were being used to benefit science and never received money from the companies that profited.

Now, at long last, the Lacks family’s privacy will be honored. The NIH has agreed to limit NIH-financed experiments on the Lacks genome (not experimentation with HeLa cells). They also appointed two family members to a committee that will okay any research. Hopefully, all researchers, even those not funded by the NIH, will follow the guidelines.

Although the Lacks saga is one that dates back for decades, the privacy issues surrounding publication of an individual’s genome are very real today, particularly when so much information is just a Google search away. Researchers must balance the need to study the genome for scientific purposes with individual rights to privacy.

My New Book Arrives

Book Cover
The U.P.S. man delivered a 46 pound box to our house today, and inside were the author copies of my new book, FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? THE SHAMEFUL HISTORY OF HUMAN MEDICAL EXPERIMENTATION. I just love the beautiful cover.

Marcy Searches For Alien Life

Astronomer and world-famous planet hunter Geoff Marcy is not just searching for extrasolar planets these days. Now he’s looking for signs of alien civilizations. The Washington Post and other media announced today that Marcy received a $200,000 grant from the Templeton Foundation to pursue a project aimed at finding out “Are we alone?”

Marcy is combing through the data accumulated by the Kepler Space Telescope. Kepler was launched in 2009, and it detects planets by observing the dimming of stars as planets cross in front of them. (See earlier post about Kepler’s malfunction.) Marcy wonders whether some of the dimming might be due to lasers or something else (perhaps an alien space ship?).

As Marcy told Peter Brannen of the Washington Post, “I do know that if I saw a star that winked out, then at some point it winked back on again, then winked out for a long, long time and then blinked on again, that that would be so weird,” he says. “Obviously that wouldn’t constitute the detection of an advanced civilization yet, but it would at least alert us that follow-up observations are warranted.”

Kepler Mission Endangered

Courtesy of NASA/Ames Research Center

Courtesy of NASA/Ames Research Center

Oh no. The Kepler Space Telescope — responsible for detecting 135 confirmed planets and over 3,500 planet candidates — is malfunctioning and has shut down. The problem stems from a faulty reaction wheel that keeps the telescope pointed and aimed.

Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has been a huge success. The telescope points to stars in the Cygnus and Lyra constellations, and detects planets by catching the dimming of starlight as the planets pass in front of their parent stars. Kepler’s mission is to find out just how many planets are “out there.” So far, about 230 of the planet candidates are about the size of Earth. About 820 appear to be rocky planets like Earth that are only twice as big as our own planet.

Dennis Overbye of the New York Times reported that astronomer Geoff Marcy said that the Kepler data was crucial, and that without it “astronomers would be ‘right on the edge’ of answering the question of how common other Earths are, but with less statistical certainty than originally desired.”

Keep your fingers crossed that the Kepler team can fix the problem!

Premature Infants Die and Are Blinded: How Do We Balance the Risks to Study Participants With the Advancement of Medicine?

What a coincidence — just days after I sent the final edits of my book FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND? THE SHAMEFUL HISTORY OF HUMAN MEDICAL EXPERIMENTATION to my editor at Lerner Publishing, the New York Times reported today about yet another clinical trial gone awry. In this case, the parents of premature infants were not adequately informed about the risks associated with a clinical study where oxygen was administered to the babies. Sadly, many of the infants died or were blinded.

As Sabrina Tavernise reported, “The underlying ethical question remains: How do researchers balance protecting these most vulnerable patients from the risks of medical studies with the potential benefits of such research for all premature babies?” This is the fundamental balancing test explored in my new book, and one which bioethicists continually debate.

Dr. Jerry Menikoff, Director of the Office of Human Rights Protections (OHRP), severely criticized the 23 hospitals involved in the trials, and said that it was “deeply troubling” that none of the doctors adequately warned the parents. “My goal is to make sure the parents are appropriately protected. It’s not too much to expect,” Dr. Menikoff said.

When I interviewed Dr. Menikoff for my book, he emphasized the need to make consent forms clearer, so that study participants truly understand the risks of an experiment. I’m happy to see he continues to watch over us.