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10/10/14 7:30pm

Tobacco Plants Hold Key To Ebola Virus Cure ZMapp


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The experimental drug ZMapp has been used to treat several Ebola-infected patients, and the key to its success lies in the use of tobacco plants.

Mapp Biopharmaceuticals, the company that developed the ZMapp vaccine, injects the leaves of tobacco plants with the genes that create the necessary antibodies to neutralize the Ebola virus. The tobacco plants in turn assimilate the genes and begin manufacturing the antibody. The leaf material is harvested once the plants begin turning yellow, a sign they are about to die from infection.

While this process is more effective than using antibodies harvested from mice, it is still time consuming and costly. It costs up to $100,000 to treat a single patient and takes approximately 78 tobacco plants and up to 10 days to harvest just one dose of the Ebola-curing antibodies. And as the Ebola virus continues to spread through West Africa, Mapp Biopharmaceuticals is finding themselves in short supply.

Yuri Gleba with Icon Genetics is working with Mapp Biopharmaceuticals to streamline the laborious process and hopes to lower the amount of required tobacco plants. “If everything is properly optimized, those plants can be full of that antibody,” said Gleba.

Aside from the painstaking harvesting process, lack of government funding is also to blame for the insufficient ZMapp supply. “They’re right now manufacturing additional lots,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, Dir., National Institutes of Health. “It probably won’t be ready now until maybe a month-and-a-half to two months.”

Other drug companies like Chimerix Inc., Tekmira Pharmaceuticals and BioCryst are researching different experimental antiviral drugs to treat Ebola, and the World Health Organization has also approved blood transfusions from an Ebola survivor.

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By Brent McCluskey

electronic cigarettes

10/10/14 5:30pm

Loose E-Cig Laws Could Mean Fewer Restrictions Later On



As the federal government slowly works towards regulating the use and taxation of electronic cigarettes, many states have enacted their own laws that could make putting future restrictions on the devices more difficult.

In 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it planned to take authority over of e-cigarettes, but it wasn’t until last April that they proposed their first set of regulations. State lawmakers have filled the void by placing age restrictions on the purchase of e-cigarettes, but experts are concerned about state legislation that prevents taxes on the nicotine devices.

While most lawmakers agree e-cigarettes should not be in the hands of children, there is dispute over how the nicotine devices should be classified. Currently, 31 states have declared e-cigarettes as “alternative nicotine,” but lawmakers say this definition could hinder future taxation on the products, especially if research later determines they are unhealthy.

Members of Congress, state leaders, and public health groups have also expressed concern over the way e-cigarettes are currently marketed. The FDA has shared a similar sentiment, but said their proposal wouldn’t ban television advertisements. “Part of what is driving those elected officials are public health concerns that we share about any aspect of the marketing of this emerging technology that is appealing to the kids,” said Mitch Zeller, director of the FDA’s Center for Tobacco Products.

The FDA realizes they have been slow to act on the rising use of e-cigarettes, but says they plan to implement their recent proposal as quickly as possible. “It took us too long to get the proposed rule out and we don’t intend a repeat of that as we go from proposed to final,” said Zeller.

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By Brent McCluskey

drug abusing seniors

10/10/14 3:30pm

Does Retirement Contribute to Senior Substance Abuse?



Alcohol and drug abuse rates among adults aged 65 years or older have more than doubled in the last decade, and are expected to reach even higher numbers in the years to come.

This statistic is part of a growing number of reports on this alarming trend, which affects about 17% of the 35 million seniors in the United States. While alcohol is the substance most frequently abused by this demographic, a 2013 report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) found that illicit drug use among adults between the ages of 50 and 64 rose from 2.7% in 2002 to 6% in 2013.

While the changes wrought upon the body by aging have a significant impact on the physical impact of alcohol and drugs on seniors, other studies have shown that retirement may have the most far-ranging effect on incipient or latent substance abuse. More specifically, it is “the conditions leading to retirement, and the economic and social nature of the retirement itself,” that may lead many seniors into greater drug and alcohol use, as Peter A. Bamberger and Samuel B. Bacharach found in studies conducted for their book Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic.

“In retirement, there can be depression, divorce, death of a spouse, moving from a big residence into a small residence,” said substance abuse counselor Steven Wollman. Seniors may turn to substance abuse as a means of curbing feelings of loneliness, anxiety, or plain boredom.

“For anyone who’s an addict, [that’s] the No. 1 trigger.” The medical community’s inability or lack of time to properly diagnose chemical dependency may also be a contributing factor, as well as the similarity between many normal signs of aging, like memory loss or confusion, and symptoms of substance impairment.

As the SAMHSA report “Substance Abuse Among Older Adults” noted, a collaborative effort between clinicians, family members, and social service providers to “be on the lookout for signs of problems” might represent the first line of defense against this growing problem.

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By Paul Gaita


10/10/14 1:00pm

Cannabis as Addictive as Heroin?


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While previous research has revealed the addictive nature of marijuana, one new British study claims the drug’s grip can be as powerful as heroin.

According to a 20-year study by Professor Wayne Hall, an adviser to the World Health Organization and leading expert at King’s College in London, marijuana isn’t just massively addictive; it’s also harmful to mental and physical health.

Hall found that 15% of teenagers and 10% of adults who regularly smoke marijuana are dependent on the substance and have extreme difficulty quitting. “If cannabis is not addictive, then neither is heroin or alcohol,” Hall said. “It is often harder to get people who are dependent on cannabis through withdrawal than for heroin. We just don’t know how to do it.”

The paper also noted the health dangers of long-term use of marijuana, which include cancer, bronchitis, and heart attacks. Cannabis use also doubles the risk of psychosis and schizophrenia, and those trying to wean off the substance can experience anxiety, insomnia, loss of appetite, and depression. “There is no doubt that heavy [marijuana] users experience a withdrawal syndrome as with alcohol and heroin,” Hall said.

Although some marijuana users are able to successfully quit, more than half return to the drug within six months, Hall found. “Rates of recovery from cannabis dependence among those seeking treatment are similar to those for alcohol."

In light of the new study, Mark Winstanley of the Rethink Mental Illness charity challenged the government to more effectively educate the public on the dangers of marijuana use.

“The common view that smoking cannabis is nothing to get worked up about needs to be challenged more effectively,” Winstanley said. “Instead of classifying and reclassifying, government time and money would be much better spent on educating young people about how smoking cannabis is essentially playing a very real game of Russian Roulette with your mental health.”

Meanwhile, Hall's study has been taken to task by media outlets comparing it to Reefer Madness-style hysteria.

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By Brent McCluskey

drug overdoses

10/10/14 10:30am

Drug Overdose Deaths Exceed Traffic Fatalities for the First Time In Minnesota



Public safety officials in Minnesota have voiced concern after drug overdose deaths exceeded traffic-related fatalities for the first time ever.

The state Health Department reported that in 2013, 503 Minnesotans died from drug overdoses, compared to 374 deaths from motor vehicle accidents. About 200 of these overdose deaths came from prescription painkillers, while 91 came from heroin. Since 2000, nearly 5,000 people throughout the state have died from overdoses.

“It’s heartbreaking for families and the community and for me,” said Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, “I sometimes feel like I’m losing that war, but I’m not sure what else to do other than to try to raise the awareness in the communities of the dangers of this. I think we need to scream about it, not just talk about it.”

Cody Wiberg, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, believes that the state’s prescription drug problem comes from overtreating chronic pain with painkillers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. To help combat the issue, the pharmacy board has actively worked to shut down websites illegally selling these medications.

Law enforcement agencies have also created drug take-back programs, community forums, drug courts, and a combined drug task force. Health officials launched a synthetic drug awareness website last August called, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar introduced legislation in 2011 which banned numerous synthetics.

However, several of these accidental overdose deaths have led to criminal charges for the person distributing the drug. Emily Frye of Oakdale was convicted and sentenced to seven years behind bars for selling 23 methadone pills to a Scandia man who overdosed and died. Last May, two young adults and three teenagers were charged in the overdose death of Tara Fitzgerald, a 17-year-old honor student who took a synthetic drug marketed as LSD. Two of the five have since pleaded guilty.

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By McCarton Ackerman

drug reform

10/10/14 8:30am

California Proposition Could Reduce Non-Violent Drug Felonies To Misdemeanors



California voters could soon take a stand against cops and prosecutors within the state by passing a referendum that would not only downgrade drug possession felonies to misdemeanors, but also reinvest prison money in drug treatment.

If Proposition 47 is approved, an estimated 40,000 felonies per year would be downgraded to misdemeanors, up to 10,000 state prisoners could be eligible to have their sentences retroactively reduced, and many people currently behind bars in county jails might be released immediately.

"We know the system is broken. We've known it for 30 years," said Dionne Wilson, a cop’s widow who has become the face of the campaign. "The people of California have the opportunity now to say we've had enough, we need a new way forward."

Because it costs $62,000 per year to house an inmate, the state could potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Proposition 47 suggests that 65% of the money saved would go towards mental health addiction treatment, while the remaining 35% would be allotted for reducing school truancy and victims' services.

Although the California GOP has formally rejected the measure, it was supported by half of Republican voters and 62% of all voters in a recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California. Conservative voters who support the measure believe that reducing non-violent drug felonies to misdemeanors will ultimately make it easier to obtain employment and will reduce recidivism throughout the state.

It’s the latest attempt to right some of the wrongs of unfair drug policies that have plagued the state for decades. California passed the Fair Sentencing Act earlier this month, which ensures that anyone convicted of most offenses involving crack cocaine will not receive harsher punishments than those convicted of the same crimes involving the powder form of the drug.

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By McCarton Ackerman


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