Weekend Links

Tiny organoids on a thumb

We’ve hand-picked a mix of Massachusetts General Hospital and other research-related news and stories for your weekend reading enjoyment:

Tiny Marvels – Miniature versions of organs help scientists understand disease and fine-tune treatments in ways that work in mice can’t match.

Global C-Section Rates on the Rise – Caesarean section rates have increased in most countries during the past decade, with substantial variations between and within countries, Massachusetts General Hospital researchers reported.

Study links smartphone use with depression in teens – Research from Steven Schlozman, a child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, suggests excessive cell phone use by teens may be contributing to a mental health crisis in that age group.

Why teenagers eat Tide pods

A Mysterious Amnesia, Related to Opioid Overdose, Creeps Beyond New England

The Communicator’s Art – Richard Besser’s insights from a career talking public health to the public

top photo courtesy of Proto Magazine

Weekend Links


We’ve hand-picked a mix of Massachusetts General Hospital and other research-related news and stories for your weekend reading enjoyment:

Creative Minds: A New Way to Look at Cancer

Better Patient-Provider Communication Needed for Obesity Care

Eugenics 2.0: We’re at the Dawn of Choosing Embryos by Health, Height, and More

6 Speaking Tips for Scientists and Engineers (editor’s note: Melissa Marshall, featured in this article, recently spoke to Mass General clinicians about how to effectively present scientific work. We were so impressed by her talk that we wanted to introduce her to our readers) 

Looking for a great book for the young scientist in your life? The long list of 2018 AAAS/Subaru SB&F (Science Books and Films) Prize winners for Excellence in Science Books has been released. Prizes are awarded each year in the following categories:

  • Children’s Science Picture Books
  • Middle Grade Science Books
  • Young Adult Science Books
  • Hands on Science Books

See the full list here


Top photo: courtesy of Tim Lahan, MIT Technology Review

More than Just Hindering Fires – Can Flame Retardants Interfere with Fertility?

PFRs fertility.png

In a new study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, a team of researchers investigated the potential connection between exposure to flame retardant chemicals found in household products— called PFRs — and pregnancy. While we can’t conclude from the results that products like yoga mats cause infertility, the findings bolster pre-existing research suggesting an association between PFRs and reproductive complications.

What are PFRs?
PFRs (organophosphate flame retardants) are a class of chemicals that are commonly used in the polyurethane foam in upholstered furniture, baby products such as nursing pillows, bouncers, and swings, and yoga mats (to name a few) to make them less flammable.

What’s the risk with PFRs?
They can spread from the foam into the air and dust. Considering the ubiquity of PFR-containing products, we likely inhale the chemicals on a regular basis without even knowing it. Although scientists don’t yet have enough conclusive evidence to say that PFRs are bad for our overall health, a growing body of research suggests exposure to PFRs can disrupt the hormones involved in reproduction and embryo/fetus growth. This new study expanded the evidence base by specifically looking at possible connections between exposure to PFRs and pregnancy.

What did the study involve and what did they find?
A team of researchers, including Mass General’s Russ Hauser, MD, MPH, ScD, followed 211 women who went to the Mass General Fertility Center to be evaluated for in vitro fertilization (IVF). The researchers checked the women’s urine for traces of PFRs and found that more than 80% of the women had traces of three types PFRs in their urine. After a cycle of IVF treatments, those with high levels of the chemicals were 31% less likely to have the embryo successfully implant in the uterus, 41% less likely to achieve pregnancy, and a 38% less likely to have a live birth than those with low levels.

What do the results mean? The research team looked at the correlation between traces of PFR and pregnancy outcomes but did not study whether PFR exposure was the cause of pregnancy complications.  Thus, we can’t conclude that exposure to PFR-containing products leads to infertility. However, the findings suggest an association between high levels of PFR exposure and poor pregnancy outcomes. Additionally, because researchers didn’t look at which specific PFR-containing products were the source of the chemical exposure, we can’t single out yoga mats or sofas as the culprits.

Are there limitations to the study?
The study participants were drawn from a small pool of women who were living in and around Boston, so it is not representative of the population at large. Plus, all participants were recruited from an IVF clinic, which suggests they many participants were predisposed to fertility issues coming into the study.

What’s next?
There’s an ongoing debate about the rational for putting flame retardants like PFRs in household products. Studies like this one provide compelling evidence for a potential association between PFR exposure and negative health outcomes like infertility, though more research needs to be conducted.  There are also questions as to how effectively PFRs prevent fires. In 2010, a group of 145 scientists from 22 countries published a statement detailing their concerns that flame retardants weren’t worth the health risks they posed.

What can people do to protect themselves in the meantime?
While it’s nearly impossible to fully avoid PFRs, consumers can minimize exposure by looking for products that have a natural flame retardant like leather or wool fabric, or seek out organic yoga mats. In a Huffington Post article, lead author Courtney Carignan of the Harvard T. Chan School for Public Health said that other precautions, like good-hand washing practices before meals, can also help lower levels of these chemicals in the body.

Potentially Dangerous Pregnancy Complication Leads to Significant Health and Cost Burdens for Mothers and Their Babies

What should be a joyous and exciting time for soon-to-be parents can sometimes take a turn for the worse if the mother develops a blood-pressure related condition called preeclampsia. Globally, preeclampsia and other related disorders of pregnancy are a leading cause of maternal and infant illness and death.

Because little is known about the extent of the health and cost burden of preeclampsia in the United States, a team of researchers including senior investigator Anupam B. Jena, MD, PhD, a physician in the Department of Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, sought to quantify preeclampsia’s impact.

The study, published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, found that preeclampsia results in billions of additional healthcare costs and can increase the short- and long-term health risks for mother and baby, underscoring the need to do more to understand the disorder and prevent it from occurring.

Anupam Jena quoto

Here are five things to know:

    1. 1. Preeclampsia is a condition that only occurs during pregnancy and postpartum and can lead to serious, even fatal, complications for both the mother and the unborn baby. It is characterized by high blood pressure and usually begins after 20 weeks of pregnancy (in the late 2nd or 3rd trimesters) and up to six weeks after delivery. Symptoms include protein in the urine, swelling, sudden weight gain, and headaches; however, some women with rapidly advancing disease report few symptoms. Preeclampsia can’t be reversed and currently, the only “cure” for preeclampsia is delivery of the baby.
    1. 2. Driven in part by older maternal age and greater obesity, rates of preeclampsia are rising rapidly. Since 1980, cases have increased steadily from 2.4% to about 5% today. “From an epidemiologic perspective, preeclampsia is growing at a rate more rapid than diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, and chronic kidney disease — diseases for which substantial research and treatment funding have been allocated,” says Jena. Although preeclampsia has affected pregnant women for many years, the true cause remains unknown.
    1. 3. Women affected by preeclampsia are at an increased long-term risk for cardiovascular diseases, such as heart attacks and hypertension, and liver or kidney failure in the years and decades after delivery. When preeclampsia causes the blood vessels to constrict and reduce blood flow to vital organs including the uterus, it can also cause short- and long-term health complications for the baby including low birth weight, and cerebral palsy, epilepsy, blindness and deafness later in life. In addition, the baby may suffer the effects of prematurity if delivered early.
    1. 4. Taking into account the level of care needed to treat mothers and babies affected by the condition, Jena and the research team calculated that the cost of preeclampsia within the first 12 months after birth is $2.18 billion in the United States ($1.03 billion for mothers and $1.15 billion for infants). Considering the short- and long-term health risks associated with preeclampsia for both the mother and the baby, this number is only a mere minimum estimate of the total economic and health burden imposed by the condition.
    1. 5. “This new research underscores the urgent need to continue research into its causes and to implement strategies that may help women manage this condition,” commented William Callaghan, MD, chief of Maternal and Infant Health Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Check out this video to learn more about Dr. Jena’s research:

Women’s Health Week 2017

In honor of National Women’s Health Week this week, we put together a few highlights of the many Massachusetts General Hospital researchers who are investigating important topics pertaining to women’s health:

Eve Valera, PhD, a researcher at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, is working to learn more about the traumatic brain injuries suffered by women in abusive relationships:

A team from the Pediatric Surgical Research Laboratories in the Department of Surgery discovered a hormone that may protect and preserve ovaries during chemotherapy:

Researchers at the Cancer Center found that a specialized screening protocol may improve detection of ovarian cancer in high-risk women:

A collaborative study between researchers at Mass General and Boston University School of Medicine found evidence implying that alcoholism may have different effects on the reward system in the brains of women than it does in men:

Eating Soy May Help Women Undergoing IVF

Bisphenol A, also referred to as BPA, is a chemical found in many common food containers including plastic water bottles, with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimating that more than 96% of Americans have BPA in their bodies.

It can mimic estrogen, an important female sex hormone, with 100 previous studies linking BPA to numerous health problems, including reproductive problems, and women who are trying to conceive are advised to try to reduce their exposure to BPA.

(Russ Hauser,  MD, MPH, ScD, from the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Biology, is senior author of the study.)