When HR Team-Building Is on Fire

(p. B2) Walking barefoot across hot coals, an ancient religious ritual popularized in recent years as a corporate team-building exercise, has once again bonded a group of co-workers through the shared suffering of burned feet.

In the latest case of the stunt going wrong, 25 employees of a Swiss ad agency were injured Tuesday [June 14, 2022] evening while walking over hot coals in Zurich, officials said. Ten ambulances, two emergency medical teams and police officers from multiple agencies were deployed to help, according to the Zurich police. Thirteen people were briefly hospitalized.

. . .

Mr. Willey, who taught for years at the University of Pittsburgh, once shared the world record for the longest distance walked on hot coals.

The promises made by corporate retreat organizers are frequently unjustified, Mr. Willey said.

“They’re telling you that it’s all in your mind, and this will give you powers that will continue,” he said. “It’s not in your mind. Anybody can do it. And I don’t think the confidence you get from it is necessarily going to last that long.”

Mr. Willey said that coals at 1,000 degrees are safe to walk on for 20 feet or more, adding that he walked on coals at that temperature for 495 feet without getting a blister.

On his website, he writes that at a brisk walk your bare foot comes into contact with coals for just around a second, which is not enough time for heat to be transmitted painfully from coals to the human flesh. Both the coals and skin have vastly lower thermal conductivity than, for instance, metal, he said.

But mistakes can lead to injuries. These include curling your toes and trapping a coal between them; walking on coals that are too hot; choosing the wrong type of wood, since some get hotter than others; and performing a fire walk on a beach, where your feet might sink into sand, Mr. Willey said.

For the full story, see:

Alex Traub. “Company’s Team-Building Exercise Involved Hot Coals. It Ended Badly.” The New York Times (Monday, June 20, 2022): B2.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 17, 2022, and has the title “Walking on Hot Coals: A Company Event Goes Wrong.”)

Key Healthcare Issue Is Not How to Divvy Up a Fixed Pie, But How to Grow the Pie Through New Cures

(p. A23) . . . in the second phase of my illness, once I knew roughly what was wrong with me and the problem was how to treat it, I very quickly entered a world where the official medical consensus had little to offer me. It was only outside that consensus, among Lyme disease doctors whose approach to treatment lacked any C.D.C. or F.D.A. imprimatur, that I found real help and real hope.

And this experience made me more libertarian in various ways, more skeptical not just of our own medical bureaucracy, but of any centralized approach to health care policy and medical treatment.

This was true even though the help I found was often expensive and it generally wasn’t covered by insurance; like many patients with chronic Lyme, I had to pay in cash. But if I couldn’t trust the C.D.C. to recognize the effectiveness of these treatments, why would I trust a more socialized system to cover them? After all, in socialized systems cost control often depends on some centralized authority — like Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence or the controversial, stillborn Independent Payment Advisory Board envisioned by Obamacare — setting rules or guidelines for the system as a whole. And if you’re seeking a treatment that official expertise does not endorse, I wouldn’t expect such an authority to be particularly flexible and open-minded about paying for it.

Quite the reverse, in fact, given the trade-off that often shows up in health policy, where more free-market systems yield more inequalities but also more experiments, while more socialist systems tend to achieve their egalitarian advantages at some cost to innovation. Thus many European countries have cheaper prescription drugs than we do, but at a meaningful cost to drug development. Americans spend obscene, unnecessary-seeming amounts of money on our system; America also produces an outsize share of medical innovations.

And if being mysteriously sick made me more appreciative of the value of an equalizing floor of health-insurance coverage, it also made me aware of the incredible value of those breakthroughs and discoveries, the importance of having incentives that lead researchers down unexpected paths, even the value of the unusual personality types that become doctors in the first place. (Are American doctors overpaid relative to their developed-world peers? Maybe. Am I glad that American medicine is remunerative enough to attract weird Type A egomaniacs who like to buck consensus? Definitely.)

Whatever everyday health insurance coverage is worth to the sick person, a cure for a heretofore-incurable disease is worth more. The cancer patient has more to gain from a single drug that sends the disease into remission than a single-payer plan that covers a hundred drugs that don’t.

. . .

. . ., the weakness of the liberal focus on equalizing cost and coverage is the implicit sense that medical care is a fixed pie in need of careful divvying, rather than a zone where vast benefits await outside the realm of what’s already available.

. . .

. . . once you’ve become part of the American pattern of trying anything, absolutely anything in order to feel better — and found that spirit essential to your own recovery — the idea of medical cost control as a primary policy goal inevitably loses some of its allure, and the American way of medical spending looks a little more defensible. To just try things without counting the cost can absolutely run to excess. But sometimes what seems like waste on the technocrat’s ledger is the lifeline that a desperate patient needs.

For the full commentary, see:

Ross Douthat. “Being Sick Changed My Views on Health Care.” The New York Times (Thursday, January 20, 2022): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 19, 2022, and has the title “How Being Sick Changed My Health Care Views.”)

The commentary quoted above is related to the author’s book:

Douthat, Ross. The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery. New York: Convergent Books, 2021.

“Don’t Give Up and Say There’s No Point”

(p. A18) TOKYO—The world’s oldest verified living person, Kane Tanaka of Japan, has died at age 119.

. . .

According to Japanese news accounts, Ms. Tanaka loved chocolate and carbonated drinks and hoped to live to 120. Her motto was “Don’t give up and say there’s no point. Live with all your heart.”

For the full story, see:

Chieko Tsuneoka. “World’s Oldest Person Dies at 119.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 26, 2022): A18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 25, 2022, and has the title “World’s Oldest Person, Japan’s Kane Tanaka, Dies at 119.” The print version has a longer first sentence than the online version, which is quoted above.)

“Byzantine Health Care System” Slowed Rollout of Effective COVID Anti-Viral Medication Paxlovid

(p. A16) GREENBELT, Md. — Last month, the owner of a small pharmacy here secured two dozen courses of Pfizer’s new medication for treating Covid-19, eager to quickly provide them to his high-risk customers who test positive for the virus.

More than a month later, the pharmacy, Demmy’s, has dispensed the antiviral pills to just seven people. The remaining stock is sitting in neatly packed rows on its shelves here in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. And the owner, Adeolu Odewale, is scrambling to figure out how to get the medication, Paxlovid, to more people as cases have increased over 80 percent in Maryland in recent days.

“I didn’t expect that I was still going to be sitting on that many of them,” he said of the pills he still has on hand. “It’s just that people need to know how to get it.”

. . .

But with the medication now more abundant, pharmacists, public health experts and state health officials say that encouraging the right people to take it, and making it easier for them to access, could help blunt the effects of another Covid wave.

State health officials say that many Americans who would be good candidates for Paxlovid do not seek it out because they are unaware they qualify for it, hesitant about taking a new medication, or confused by the fact that some providers interpret the eligibility guidelines more narrowly than others.

Since the medication has to be prescribed by a doctor, nurse practitioner or physician assistant, people have to navigate an often byzantine health care system in search of a prescription, then find a pharmacy that carries the treatment, all within five days of developing symptoms. The medication, prescribed as three pills taken twice a day for five days, is meant to be started early in the course of infection.

. . .

More than 630,000 courses of the drug — roughly a third of the supply distributed to date — are currently available, and the federal government has been sending 175,000 courses to states each week, according to federal data.

. . .

Giving pharmacists prescribing power could help people get the treatment much more quickly and easily, public health experts say. But regulators at the F.D.A. and other federal health officials believe there is reason to not allow pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid themselves, even though some Canadian pharmacists can do so. The treatment can interfere with certain medications and should be prescribed at a lower dose for people with kidney impairment, which is measured with a blood test.

Pharmacists say that they are highly trained and well equipped to conduct such screening themselves. Michael Ganio, senior director of pharmacy practice and quality at the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, said pharmacists could get Paxlovid to patients faster if they could prescribe it, “without having to call a physician’s office and wait for a call back, and hope it happens within five-day period.”

For the full story, see:

Noah Weiland. “Plenty of Covid Pills, Not Many Prescriptions.” The New York Times (Wednesday, April 27, 2022): A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 26, 2022, and has the title “With Supply More Abundant, Pharmacies Struggle to Use Up Covid Pills.” The online version says that the article appeared on p. A18 of the print version, but in my National edition of the print version, it appeared on p. A16.)

Crispr Gene-Editing Tried Against Cancer

(p. D4) Doctors have for the first time in the United States tested a powerful gene-editing technique in people with cancer.

The test, meant to assess only safety, was a step toward the ultimate goal of editing genes to help a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer. The editing was done by the DNA-snipping tool Crispr.

The procedure was feasible and safe, early results indicate, but whether it is fighting the disease is unclear. Only three patients have been treated so far, and the longest follow-up is nine months. All three patients are in their 60s, with very advanced cancers that had progressed despite standard treatments like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

“The good news is that all of them are alive,” said Dr. Edward A. Stadtmauer, the section chief of hematologic malignancies at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center. He added, “The best response we’ve seen so far is stabilization of their disease.”

For the full story, see:

Denise Grady. “Editing Genes in Bid to Fight Cancer.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 12, 2019): D4.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Oct. 7, 2020 [sic], and has the title “Crispr Takes Its First Steps in Editing Genes to Fight Cancer.”)

Art Diamond Discusses “Policy Hurdles in the Fight Against Aging” on Caleb Brown’s Cato Daily Podcast

Caleb Brown, of the Cato Institute, posted an interview with me yesterday (May 27, 2022) on his “Cato Daily Podcast.” The topic, “Policy Hurdles in the Fight against Aging,” is related to a chapter in my book-in-progress on medical entrepreneurship that is to be entitled Less Costs, More Cures: Unbinding Medical Entrepreneurs.

Bennet Chose Pig’s Heart Since “It Was Either Die or Do This Transplant”

(p. A3) A man who had the first transplant to replace his human heart with a genetically-modified pig’s heart without immediate rejection died Tuesday afternoon at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, two months after the groundbreaking surgery.

. . .

While Mr. Bennett only lived with the pig heart for a couple of months, Dr. Parsia Vagefi, UT Southwestern Medical Center’s chief of the division of surgical transplantation, said people shouldn’t view the transplant as a failure and that he hopes it serves as a “new beginning” for xenotransplantation.

“I think what this shows is just the enormous amount of progress that’s been made and hopefully it’s just the beginning that we continue to grow on,” he said.

Mr. Bennett wasn’t eligible for a more typical heart transplant because he didn’t comply with doctors’ orders or attend follow-up visits. Several transplant centers—including the Maryland one—declined to list him for the chance to get a human heart, according to David Bennett Jr. , Mr. Bennett’s son. He also didn’t regularly take his medication, the younger Mr. Bennett previously said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had granted Mr. Bennett’s operation emergency authorization on New Year’s Eve. “It was either die or do this transplant,” he said the day before his surgery, according to the University of Maryland Medicine. The handyman and father of two called the transplant his “last choice.”

For the full story, see:

Allison Prang. “Pig-Heart Recipient Dies 2 Months Later.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 10, 2022): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 9, 2022, and has the title “The Patient Who Received a Pig Heart Dies Two Months After Transplant.” The first two sentences after the ellipsis appear in the online, but not the print, version.)

Imposing Permanent Daylight Savings Time Is Like Imposing Permanent Jet Lag

(p. A19) . . . when the U.S. Senate recently passed a bill to make daylight-saving time permanent, sleep experts became more alarmed.

Legislators picked the wrong time, they say.

Our internal clocks are connected to the sun, which aligns more closely with permanent standard time, says Muhammad Adeel Rishi, a pulmonologist and sleep physician at Indiana University. When the clocks spring forward, our internal clocks don’t change but are forced to follow society’s clock rather than the sun. DST is like permanent social jet lag.

Dr. Rishi is one of the authors of a 2020 position statement from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional society, supporting making standard time—not daylight-saving time—permanent.

. . .

One of the big problems with permanent DST, objectors note, is that in the winter the sun will rise later and many schoolchildren will be walking to school in the dark.

On the western edge of the eastern time zone in Indiana, for instance, the sun won’t rise in the winter until about 9 a.m., notes Dr. Rishi. “You’re basically putting these kids two hours off from their circadian biology,” he says.

For the full commentary, see:

Sumathi Reddy. “YOUR HEALTH; Body Clock Needs Sun In Morning.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 24, 2022): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 23, 2022, and has the title “YOUR HEALTH; Why Permanent Daylight-Saving Time Is Seen as Bad for Your Health.”)

Discoverer of Catalyst Role of mRNA Had Trouble “Getting His Work Published”

(p. B12) Sidney Altman, a molecular biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for sharing in the discovery that ribonucleic acid, or RNA, was not just a carrier of genetic information but could also be a catalyst for chemical reactions in cells — a breakthrough that paved the way for new gene therapies and treatments for viral infections — died on April 5 [2022] in Rockleigh, N.J.

. . .

HAs seems to happen so often in science, Dr. Altman stumbled upon his discovery. “I wasn’t looking for what I found,” he said in a 2010 interview with Harry Kreisler at the Institute for International Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

He had studied how a small RNA molecule, called transfer RNA, carries genetic code to make new proteins. Some of the code is not necessary, so an enzyme cuts it out before it is used.

Then, in 1978, Dr. Altman began studying an RNA-cutting enzyme from E. coli bacteria that was composed of an RNA molecule and a protein. He managed to separate the two pieces and test them to see how they reacted in the enzyme process. Much to his surprise, he discovered that the protein did not perform as an enzyme without the RNA molecule. He later discovered that the RNA molecule could be the catalyst, even without the protein.

The finding ran completely contrary to what at the time was established theory, which held that it was the proteins that were the catalysts in enzymes.

The discovery of what are now known as ribozymes was so radical that Dr. Altman had trouble getting it accepted.

Joel Rosenbaum, a professor of cell biology at Yale and a colleague of Dr. Altman’s, told Chemistry World magazine that when Dr. Altman first tried to get other scientists to accept his research, “the community of molecular biologists, including several at Yale working on RNA, did not want to believe the work.”

“He had a hard time obtaining invitations to speak at scientific meetings and, indeed, getting his work published,” Dr. Rosenbaum said.

For the full obituary, see:

Dylan Loeb McClain. “Sidney Altman, Who Stumbled on a Breakthrough in Genetics, Dies at 82.” The New York Times (Saturday, April 16, 2022): B12.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 18, 2022, and has the same title as the print version.)

Gary Becker Foresaw a Cure for Obesity that Daniel Kahneman Wrote Was “Implausible”

I have found much of value in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. But the following passage is not included in what I value.

A famous example of the Chicago approach is titled A Theory of Rational Addiction; it explains how a rational agent with a strong preference for intense and immediate gratification may make the rational decision to accept future addiction as a consequence. I once heard Gary Becker, one of the authors of that article, who is also a Nobel laureate of the Chicago school, argue in a lighter vein, but not entirely as a joke, that we should consider the possibility of explaining the so-called obesity epidemic by people’s belief that a cure for diabetes will soon become available. He was making a valuable point: when we observe people acting in ways that seem odd, we should first examine the possibility that they have a good reason to do what they do. Psychological interpretations should only be invoked when the reasons become implausible—which Becker’s explanation of obesity probably is.

Source: Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011, p. 412.

Gary Becker is vindicated again:

(p. A16) An experimental drug has enabled people with obesity or who are overweight to lose about 22.5 percent of their body weight, about 52 pounds on average, in a large trial, the drug’s maker announced on Thursday.

The company, Eli Lilly, has not yet submitted the data for publication in a peer-reviewed medical journal or presented them in a public setting. But the claims nonetheless amazed medical experts.

“Wow (and a double Wow!)” Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, chief executive of Verve Therapeutics, a company focusing on heart disease drugs, wrote in a tweet. Drugs like Eli Lilly’s, he added, are “truly going to revolutionize the treatment of obesity!!!”

Dr. Kathiresan has no ties to Eli Lilly or to the drug.

. . .

The Eli Lilly study lasted 72 weeks and involved 2,539 participants. Many qualified as obese, while others were overweight but also had such risk factors as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, cardiovascular disease or obstructive sleep apnea.

They were divided into four groups. All received diet counseling to reduce their calorie intake by about 500 a day.

One group was randomly assigned to take a placebo, while the other three received doses of tirzepatide ranging from 5 milligrams to 15 milligrams. Patients injected themselves with the drug once a week.

. . .

The medications are among a new class of drugs called incretins, which are naturally occurring hormones that slow stomach emptying, regulate insulin and decrease appetite. The side effects include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. But most patients tolerate or are not bothered by these effects.

For the full story, see:

Gina Kolata. “Experimental Obesity Drug Produces 20% Weight Loss.” The New York Times (Friday, April 29, 2022): A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 1, 2022, and has the title “Patients Taking Experimental Obesity Drug Lost More Than 50 Pounds, Maker Claims.” Where there is a slight difference in wording between the online and the print versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Kahneman’s book is:

Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

CAR T Therapy Is a Durable “Cure” for Some Leukemia Cancers

(p. A17) Doug Olson was feeling kind of tired in 1996. When a doctor examined him she frowned. “I don’t like the feel of those lymph nodes,” she said, poking his neck. She ordered a biopsy. The result was terrifying. He had chronic lymphocytic leukemia, a blood cancer that mostly strikes older people and accounts for about a quarter of new cases of leukemia.

“Oh Lordy,” Mr. Olson said. “I thought I was done for.” He was only 49 and, he said, had always been healthy.

Six years went by without the cancer progressing. Then it started to grow. He had four rounds of chemotherapy but the cancer kept coming back. He had reached pretty much the end of the line when his oncologist, Dr. David Porter at the University of Pennsylvania, offered him a chance to be among the very first patients to try something unprecedented, known as CAR T cell therapy.

In 2010, he became the second of three patients to get the new treatment.

At the time, the idea for this sort of therapy “was way out there,” said Dr. Carl June, the principal investigator for the trial at Penn, and he had tempered his own expectations that the cells he was providing to Mr. Olson as therapy would survive.

“We thought they would be gone in a month or two,” Dr. June said.

Now, a decade later, he reports that his expectations were completely confounded. In a paper published Wednesday in Nature, Dr. June and his colleagues, Dr. J. Joseph Melenhorst and Dr. Porter, report that the CAR T treatment made the cancer vanish in two out of the three patients in that early trial. All had chronic lymphocytic leukemia. The big surprise, though, was that even though the cancer seemed to be long gone, the CAR T cells remained in the patients’ bloodstreams, circulating as sentinels.

“Now we can finally say the word ‘cure’ with CAR T cells,” Dr. June said.

Although most patients will not do as well, the results hold out hope that, for some, their cancer will be vanquished.

For the full story, see:

Gina Kolata. “Potential Leukemia Cure Leads to New Mysteries.” The New York Times (Thursday, February 3, 2022): A17.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Feb. 2, 2022, and has the title “A Cancer Treatment Makes Leukemia Vanish, but Creates More Mysteries.”)