Mary Carmichael

Stories by Mary Carmichael

  • When The Body Attacks Itself

    The immune system is what keeps most people's bodies healthy and free of disease, but for as many as 23 million Americans, it is a cause of disease, too. In autoimmune disorders, the system goes haywire, mistaking the body's own tissues for foreign invaders and destroying them. Drugs for these conditions, which include type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and lupus, have been elusive. But on Sunday, scientists are reporting in the journal Nature that they have found a set of 30 genes that go awry in autoimmune disorders—and that could be potential targets for cures. NEWSWEEK's Mary Carmichael spoke with two of the discoverers, Richard Young, a biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Whitehead Institute, and Alexander Marson, an M.D./Ph.D. student in Young's lab. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: What do these 30 genes normally do in a healthy person's body?Richard Young: There was a very, very important discovery made about a decade ago, which was that a specialized class of ...
  • A New Era Begins

    Stem-cell research is divided into two major camps: one focused on cells from adults, the other on the controversial technique that destroys embryos. But important research published Sunday supports the idea of a third way, a new category of stem cells that are readily available, perhaps ethically trouble-free and possibly as powerful and flexible in function as their embryonic counterparts: "amniotic-fluid stem cells," found in both the placenta and the liquid that surrounds growing fetuses.The cells are "neither embryonic nor adult. They're somewhere in between," says Dr. Anthony Atala, a tissue-engineering specialist at Wake Forest University who led the research team. (The study appears in the journal Nature Biotechnology.) The "AFS cells" rival embryonic stem cells in their ability to multiply and transform into many different cell types, and they eventually could be hugely helpful to doctors in treating diseases throughout the body and building new organs in the lab. At the...
  • Stem Cells Are Where It's At

    Seventeen years ago, Richard Burt, an immunologist at Northwestern University, had a crazy idea. What if he could press the "restart" button on his patients, destroying their faulty immune systems and building them new ones? The regeneration process would be hard, but he'd heard about something called stem-cell research that might help. It took eight years to get FDA approval. "When we did that first patient," he says, "you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife."Today Burt has treated 170 patients with stem cells, and increasingly, others are following his lead. There are now more than 1,000 stem-cell therapies in early human trials around the world. The vast majority use cells from patients' own bone marrow, but doctors are also using cells from healthy adults, and last month saw the first patient treated with embryonic cells, which have triggered much debate in the United States. After years of being thought of as science fiction--the domain of animal labs and the distant...
  • A Terrible Mystery

    Thomas Insel spent years training as a psychiatrist in the 1970s, and in all that time he saw not one child with autism. In 1985, curiosity sent him searching; it took several phone calls to find a single patient. His only prior exposure to the disorder was a lecture in which Bruno Bettelheim "explained that it was due to evil mothers." The '70s were, he says, "an era of psychiatry that had no science."Today's psychiatry has science--and it is science--and increasingly, it is offering hope for patients with autism. As director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Insel now heads an agency that funds autism research all over the nation and also conducts projects of its own. Thanks to revolutions in neuroscience and genetics, scientists are starting to unravel the shroud of mystery that has hung over autism since it was first described in 1943. But with each new discovery, more questions arise.That includes the most fundamental question of all: what is autism? Although the...
  • Drugs: Family Docs Join the Drug War

    In the war on drugs, the White House has tried just about every weapon--punitive policy, rehab programs, ads featuring fried eggs. For its next strike, it has some new recruits: family doctors. Seventeen states currently have simple, federally funded drug-and-alcohol-screening programs in place at major trauma centers. The Office of National Drug Control Policy is now trying to take the idea into general practitioners' offices nationwide. "Most people who have a problem with drinking are right under the radar, and they're not seeing specialists. Family doctors could find them," says Larry Gentilello, professor of surgery at the University of Texas-Southwestern Medical School. "We're trying to convince these doctors that if they do nothing else ... they will have had a major impact on public health," says Bertha Madras, the ONDCP's deputy director for demand reduction. She may well be right. Gentilello, who came up with an early version of the questionnaire favored by the ONDCP, says...
  • The Writer Will See You Now

    It’s not an official medical report, and it won’t help doctors treat the patient it’s about, but Dr. Dena Rifkin’s write-up tells a story that the dry clinical language of medicine never could. “There are startling moments that you don’t forget,” it begins, and clearly this was one of them—a night in which a young Rifkin, not even yet an M.D., stumbled out of sleep and into a pa­tient’s room to find him soaked in blood. “The patient looked up at me, and opened his mouth as if to speak,” she writes. “Blood came out instead of words, slick and shiny as an oil spill.”That patient is long since out of her hands, and it’s too late to help him. But by writing about him, Rifkin may be helping herself—and, in the long run, her future patients. The piece was her submission to a Yale writing workshop for young doctors taught by the medical writer Dr. Abraham Vergh­ese. Rifkin liked the seminar so much she went back for a second round with author Dr. Richard Selzer. And the program’s or...
  • A Piece of the Puzzle

    Earlier this week, scientists announced that they had for the first time pinpointed a common version of a gene that strongly increases the risk for autism. Children with the gene variant have more than double the normal risk of developing the disorder. Researchers say the gene, called MET, is definitely not the only one with a role in autism—other genetic differences, as well as environmental factors, are almost certainly involved—but the discovery has the potential to reshape the way scientists search for those causes. However, it's important to note that it will be years before the true impact of this research will be known. NEWSWEEK's Mary Carmichael spoke with Vanderbilt University's Pat Levitt, a developmental neurobiologist who led the study. Excerpts:NEWSWEEK: What does the MET gene do? How does it work, or in cases of autism, not work?Pat Levitt: The gene does a lot of different things. First, for the architecture of the brain to develop properly, there are genes whose...
  • Case Study: A Standard Approach

    It's been 124 years since caleb Cooley Dickinson, cousin of the poet Emily, endowed the hospital in Northampton, Mass., that bears his name--and he'd barely recognize the modern institution it has become. Cooley Dickinson Hospital has gleaming operating rooms; in April 2007, it will open a large new building. Nonetheless, a few things haven't changed much at the hospital since its benefactor was alive. Take its way of keeping medical records. In the age of smart cards, Cooley Dickinson manages its medication information using paper and pencils. Patients carry wallet-size yellow cards that list their medications, their last vaccinations and their contact information; when they visit doctors, they present their info for updating. The cards are part of a recent overhaul that has focused on deceptively simple, and mostly affordable, ideas. "Sometimes, we get so focused on the latest technology," says director of quality Donna Truesdell, "that it's easy to lose sight of the basics."Those...
  • They Call Her 'Lucy's Daughter'

    It's been 3.2 million years since she died--and 32 since she was unearthed from the Ethiopian desert and christened after a Beatles song--but the prehuman fossil known as Lucy can still draw a crowd. Six hundred people showed up last Thursday at Georgia College & State University to meet her discoverer, Don Johanson, who was promoting his book "From Lucy to Language." From now on, though, Lucy will have to share the spotlight. On the same day, halfway around the world in Addis Ababa, a Johanson protégé named Zeresenay Alemseged was showing off another, newly revealed Australopithecus afarensis fossil--a toddler the media nicknamed "Lucy's baby." And in Georgia and elsewhere, the little girl captured the public imagination as her relative had three decades earlier. After his speech, Johanson says, "somebody asked me how it felt to be a grandfather."Technically, he shouldn't be passing out cigars. The new specimen--whose real name is Selam, or "peace," in Amharic--was born about 5...
  • Med-School Makeover

    Dr. A. Scott Pearson's patient had a problem--two problems, actually, and only one of them seemed fixable by a surgeon. The patient, an elderly man, needed to have a tumor removed from his colon. He also didn't want to have the operation. Pearson, a surgical oncologist at Vanderbilt University, could have sent his reluctant patient home. Instead, he and his residents asked to hear the backstory. "He was the sole provider for his wife, who was an invalid," Pearson says. "He couldn't put her care in jeopardy while he got better." A team of doctors and social workers arranged temporary care for the patient's wife, and soon he lay recovering in a hospital bed.Pearson may have exceptionally good instincts, but his technique is increasingly being taught in med schools. Known as narrative medicine, it's part of a new approach among physicians and medical educators to consider patients' personal stories as much as their test results in determining the course of treatment. Dr. Rita Charon of...
  • HIV: Learning From Monkeys and Chimps

    HIV, like any other virus, has one goal--and it isn't killing. The goal is to reproduce, and since viruses do that by hijacking their hosts' cells, they can't further their own existence after they've killed off those cells. The ideal virus (for its own sake, and also for ours) might be one that didn't make its host sick--more of a hitchhiker than a killer.Such viruses do exist, including HIV-related viruses found in African green monkeys, sooty mangabeys and other primates. In these monkeys, says virologist Frank Kirchhoff, "the immune system tolerates the virus." The reason, says a new paper in Cell by Kirchhoff and others, may be that the simian viruses suppress the monkeys' immune reactions to them. But in its evolution from monkey virus to human scourge, HIV lost that characteristic. As a result, the human body goes haywire fighting the virus, exhausting its own immune system.The chimp version of the virus--unlike the monkey one, but like the human one--doesn't temper the...
  • Science: Who's That Stunner?

    Enlightened types say they're "self-aware" when they mean they're one with the universe. But for scientists who study animal behavior, the term "self-awareness" has always meant something much more down to earth. Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating whether animals, like humans, can think about themselves, their past and their future. To find out, they draw markings on animals' bodies and put them in mirrored rooms. If the animals spot the markings and pose so as to examine them better, they understand that they're seeing themselves. According to the theory, they're self-aware.The trouble is, increasingly, scientists are finding that the theory doesn't always match the data. Creatures that don't have brains built for self-awareness (at least as we know it) have recently passed the mirror test. Other animals that strike out show signs of self-awareness in the wild. And still others seem to be "semi-self-aware"--they don't quite pass, but they don't quite fail, either....
  • Dolphins: 'Bob's in a Picture!'

    According to scientific naming, the dolphin above is called Tursiops truncates, but it probably thinks it's named something more like "Bob." Marine biologists announced last week that dolphins compose their own unique signature whistles and clicks that identify them within their communities--or, put more simply, dolphins have names.Despite a wide range of pseudo-cultural and learning behaviors recently discovered across the animal kingdom, dolphins are one of only two animal species known to name themselves. (The other is the spectacled parrotlet; bats and budgerigars may name their living groups but not necessarily themselves.) Scientists don't know why dolphins choose the call signs they do, although a male may be more likely to compose a whistle that sounds like his mom's. They also don't know why the dolphins seem so self-centered: "They say their names a lot," says researcher Laela Sayigh. This doesn't necessarily mean Bob the Dolphin swims around shouting "Bob!" all day. The...
  • Physics: From Time To Time

    Ronald Mallett, a University of Connecticut physics professor, thinks time travel is possible--and he's designed an experiment that could do it. Basically, he wants to "swirl" empty space the way you'd swirl coffee in a cup, using a laser as the stirrer. Because space and time are more or less the same, swirling empty space could also swirl time. Mallett would then drop subatomic particles into his roiling cup of space-time and see if they're hurtled a few nanoseconds into the future.The idea sounds esoteric, but it's based in solid theory: Einstein's, in fact. "It's anchored in the general and special theories of relativity, and that's why people take it seriously," Mallett says. But not everyone. Robert Ehrlich, a physicist at George Mason University, says the idea of time travel is "not disreputable"--scientists have been suggesting time-travel mechanisms for decades--but that Mallett's plan has a major flaw: his device is small enough to sit on a desktop. While it may very well...
  • Videogames: Playing It Smart

    Parents who worry about violent video-games would have loved last week's rankings on Amazon. Holding steady at No. 2 was Brain Age, a Nintendo DS game that features no shooting and lots of studying. It's been out for a year in Japan, where it's sold more than 3 million copies, and came out in the States last week. Along with its upcoming sequel, Big Brain Academy, and the PlayStation Portable's Practical Intelligence Quotient, it's part of a wave of games designed to sharpen players' minds as well as their hand-eye coordination.The games are fun--and they really might work. Brain Age is based on the work of Japanese neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima, who says the game's 14 quick tasks, including Sudoku, speed-reading and simple math, can keep the brain "young." One medical clinic in Toronto is even using Brain Age as therapy for Alzheimer's patients. Players' scores are given as "ages," with 20 as the ideal--and as players improve, they get "younger." Maybe that's why the game is so...
  • 'Vintage' Bugs Return

    Growing up in Peoria, Ill., in the 1950s, Lance Rodewald caught "measles and mumps and probably German measles," and though he doesn't remember suffering through any of them, his wife, Patricia, assures him they were all "absolutely miserable" experiences. She knows because she had them, too. Infectious diseases were a midcentury rite of passage. But as Rodewald grew up, he watched those childhood terrors retreat. Doctors started vaccinating widely in the '60s and '70s, and by the time he was old enough to have kids of his own, it seemed the only common illness left for American parents to worry about was chickenpox.Scientists developed a vaccine for that as well. But even after his kids made it safely to adolescence, Rodewald, 52, didn't assume that the era of infectious disease in kids in the United States was over. As a pediatrician and director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Immunization Program, he had looked at the data--and seen that "all these diseases are...
  • Leading the Hunt For Cancer Genes

    Thirty years ago, Joan Brugge was a bright college student on her way to a career in math. But when her sister developed a fatal brain tumor, she turned to the library and was stunned to find that there was "basically nothing known" about the cause of the illness. She set out to change that. Now a pioneering researcher at Harvard, Brugge is one of the creators of the new Breast Cancer 1000 genetic database. She recently spoke with NEWSWEEK's Mary Carmichael. ...
  • Spring Fevers

    A few weeks ago Ashley Ramirez was visiting a couple of close friends in Omaha, Neb., who were hospitalized following a car accident when she started running a fever and noticed a small lump on her neck. By the next day the lump was "completely massive" and the University of Iowa student was a patient in the hospital herself, hopped up on pain meds and waiting on a diagnosis that baffled doctors couldn't give her. Still sick, she returned to the University of Iowa and took to bed; when friends came by, they teased her for trying to eke out a few words through her cheeks, now swollen like a chipmunk's. By the time her doctors finally called her days later with test results, hundreds of kids across the Midwest were suffering similar symptoms, and Ramirez knew she was one of the unlucky ones. "They told me, 'you have the mumps,'" she says, "and I was like, 'Yeah, thanks, I kind of figured that out.'"For the last three weeks, mumps, a virus many people think of as an early-20th-century...
  • Taking to the Air

    Whatever you call the new Transition, says its inventor, Carl Dietrich, just don't call it a flying car--even if it's the closest thing to one that exists. The Transition runs on regular gas. But you can drive it to the airport, extend its origami-like wings, take off at double the highway speed and fly up to 800 kilometers away, then touch down and park it in your host's garage. Although it's not likely to replace your standard flightless car--driving it requires a sport pilot's license--Dietrich, an MIT grad student, expects the Transition to be on the road in two years.
  • Inventions: Taking to The Air

    Look, in the sky--it's a bird! It's a plane! It's... a personal air vehicle? Whatever you call the new Transition, says its inventor, Carl Dietrich, just don't call it a flying car--even if it's the closest thing to one that exists. The Transition runs on regular gas. But you can drive it to the airport, extend its origami-like wings, take off at double the highway speed and fly up to 500 miles away, then touch down and park it in your host's garage. With the wings folded, the Transition is about the size of an Escalade, with a little less cargo space. Of course, it's a little more difficult to maneuver--it requires a sport pilot's license--so it's not likely to replace your standard flightless car. "It's not like every Joe Schmo and soccer mom on a cell phone is going to be driving one," says Dietrich, an MIT grad student who won the school's top prize for young innovators.Nonetheless, he expects the Transition will be a big hit with weekend warriors (it has enough room for skis...
  • Gut Flora? Great!

    You may use antibacterial dish soap and wash your hands every time you sneeze, but Jeffrey Gordon wants you to know that you're crawling with germs. Gordon, the director of the Center for Genome Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, studies bacteria and ancient forms of single-celled life called archaea--and no matter how clean you think you are, your gut would make him a pretty good laboratory. It's oozing with 750 trillion bacteria and archaea, and there's very little you can do about it.Then again, you probably wouldn't want to do anything about it, because those little guys are good for you. The microbes in your gut have genes of their own, and, as scientists are now learning, those genes are essential to the body's functioning. Gut flora help the immune system ward off more-dangerous bugs; they break down nutrients; they may even manipulate how the body stores fat. If doctors could control the flora, they might be able to stave off disease with a completely new...
  • The Gene Hunter

    To call Dr. Tom Hudson modest would be putting it, well, modestly. One of the world's premier investigators of genetically linked disease, he discovered four years ago that DNA is inherited in chunks--the principle at the heart of the HapMap, the recently completed project describing millions of variations in the human genome. Yet Hudson, 44, an associate professor of medicine and human genetics at McGill University in Canada, says: "I was just the biologist on the team. I'm not the person who decided you need .1 microns here and .5 there." He'll admit only to having "a knack for engineering and gadgets."Hudson is much more voluble on the subject of the Human Genome Project, the 13-year effort to identify more than 20,000 genes in the human DNA lineup, which he helped make happen. If you're wondering why the project hasn't produced enough drugs to stock your cabinet yet, he says, never fear: combined with information from the HapMap and tools like the ones his lab is developing now,...
  • Immunity's Master Controller

    Like many pharmaceutical researchers, Dr. Arthur Krieg is working on a cure for cancer. He also hopes to eradicate AIDS, lupus, hepatitis C, even allergies. And he hopes to do all this with a single kind of drug. He's no mad scientist. His company, Coley Pharmaceuticals, focuses on the innate immune system, the body's defense mechanism against thousands of vastly different pathogens. Coley's dream is to control that system, manipulating its response so precisely that bacteria, viruses and even tumor cells won't have a chance.The innate system is the body's main line of defense against bad guys--a burglar alarm and a police force all in one. Until recently, doctors have essentially treated it as the Rodney Dangerfield of the body. "When I was in medical school, the innate immune system didn't get much respect," says Krieg. What changed all that was the discovery in the late '90s of "toll-like" receptors--primitive yet powerful microscopic structures (named after the German word for ...
  • Analyze These!

    Considering how few people use higher math in their lives, or even remember much of it from high school, the popularity of books on chaos theory and number theory and higher-dimensional geometry is, well, a paradox. Brian Greene's best-selling "The Elegant Universe," on string theory, kicked off the most recent outpouring in 1999, followed by John Derbyshire's "Prime Obsession," Steven Strogatz's "Sync" and Janna Levin's "How the Universe Got Its Spots," a gorgeously written collection of unsent letters to her mom on cosmology and topology. Last year's "The Road to Reality" by Roger Penrose was a best seller abroad despite its 1,136 pages. And, of course, there's the movie and play "Proof." When Gwyneth Paltrow gets involved, you know it's big.The latest entry is Mario Livio's "The Equation That Couldn't Be Solved," a wide-ranging exploration of the phenomenon of symmetry, focused on, well, a seemingly unsolvable equation. Specifically, it's the "quintic," one step up from the dread...
  • Eggs, Lies, Stem Cells

    Hwang Woo-Suk may be a scientist, but in South Korea, he's virtually a rock-and-roll star. The first researcher to extract stem cells from a cloned human embryo, Hwang has an Internet fan club (its women are especially enthusiastic) and a worldwide reputation. In October, after he announced plans for a vast international stem-cell institute, his popularity went platinum. But then, last week, it turned out he was a little too rock-star for his own good. He'd broken the first rule in a profession devoted to truth: he lied.In 2002 and 2003, Hwang's lab was facing a shortage of the human eggs it needed to perform research, so two of his subordinates donated their own. An affiliated hospital paid several more women about $1,400 each to do the same. At the time, Hwang said that volunteers unknown to him had donated all the eggs in his experiments without compensation. He may have believed his own statement; the staffers participated under false names. But after he learned where the eggs...
  • Algae: So Has It Called Yet?

    Birds do it. Bees do it. But placozoans? Since they were discovered in a saltwater aquarium 100 years ago, these simplest of animals have been thought of as, well, just not that into each other. Many marine invertebrates reproduce by budding, and since scientists never observed placozoans in coitus, they assumed the creatures were asexual, too. In the 1970s, a German biologist thought he saw placozoan eggs floating in a dish. But "the only strain that was making these egglike things died," says Yale biologist Ana Signorovitch.Last year Signorovitch also spied some egglike structures, and when she did genetic tests on her placozoans, she found evidence of sex as incontrovertible as a stain on a blue dress. Sexual reproduction always mixes up DNA, and, as Signorovitch reports in a recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, placozoans have jumbled genes. Now scientists have to see if the little guys are, in fact, guys, girls or hermaphrodites. Signo-rovitch also wants to...
  • Medicine: The Future Arrives Early

    In science, revolutions almost always take longer than their instigators expect--we're still waiting for our flying cars--so when National Institutes of Health director Dr. Elias Zerhouni says that "over the next five years, we're going to discover the most important genes that are associated with the most important diseases," it's easy to be skeptical. But the project that may make that possible is way ahead of schedule.Scientists compiling the HapMap, a database of small but significant points in the human genome called SNPs that vary from person to person, were supposed to have announced last week that they had catalogued 1 million SNPs. But they made that announcement eight months ago. By the time their original deadline for the three-year project arrived, they had analyzed almost four times that many, prompting Secretary of Health Mike Leavitt to nearly lose his breath calling the project "a profound step forward," "a triumph for collaborative science" and "a landmark...
  • REBUILDING THE HEART

    A million lonely ballads notwithstanding, with time, the human heart can recover from an emotional wound. In medicine, however, the prognosis is often bleaker, and time only makes a physical injury worse. If starved for oxygen, heart cells die, their places usurped not by fresh replacements but by scarring. Burdened with useless tissue, with no hope of new reinforcements, the remaining muscle cells in the heart take on more responsibility, working harder to pump the blood. The heart grows larger with the strain but rarely regains its original strength. Despite doctors' efforts to save them with drugs, catheters, stents and surgery, 5 million Americans currently suffer from heart failure. Half will die within five years of diagnosis. Their hearts are, in effect, permanently broken.But the emotional heart does not yield easily to the idea that the physical heart can be defeated. So cardiologists have started pursuing an unorthodox strategy--shoring up the dying hearts with stem cells,...
  • SHUTTLE UPS AND DOWNS

    It is NASA's old reliable, the craft the agency depends on when it needs to prove something big. Discovery was the shuttle that delivered the Hubble telescope and 77-year-old John Glenn into space, and revived NASA as the first ship to launch (in 1988) after the Challenger explosion two years earlier. The orbiter had two missions last week: to dock with the International Space Station, and to demonstrate, again, that the loss of a shuttle need not mean the loss of the entire program. As soon as the ship roared into the sky, it seemed to have met the latter goal. But jubilant spectators could not see what NASA's cameras did. In an eerie reflection of the Columbia disaster, chunks of insulating foam had broken off, despite a $1.5 billion attempt to prevent that kind of problem. Now, as Discovery sits docked in space, its brethren are grounded.The shuttle's commander said Friday that she was "quite surprised" pieces had fallen off the ship, but not everyone was. After the Columbia...
  • STUDY: EYE ON THE STORM

    Since the days of Homer, sailors have theorized about the signals of a coming storm (the presence of dogs, cormorants or whistling sailors) and the signals of calm waters (black cats, swallows or, oddly enough, naked women). A new study suggests at least one superstition may have some basis in science. Seamen in the era of tall ships often poured oils into the water in the hope of averting hurricanes. The oils probably coated the surface and prevented droplets of ocean spray from evaporating as the wind whipped the sea.Those droplets, according to two UC Berkeley mathematicians, are one of the major reasons hurricanes can build up to such ridiculous speeds. Normally, as winds churn, they develop eddies, just as rivers do, and the resulting turbulence slows them down a bit. But when water droplets evaporate through the roiling air and then rain back down into the sea, they straighten out those eddies the way a comb straightens tangled hair. That means less turbulence, which allows...