Science, Health & Tech

We cover these essential linchpins of the Pittsburgh regional economy, and how they impact residents' personal health and employment. 

Overcoming Opioids: Easing An Epidemic 1 Doctor At A Time

Jun 17, 2017
Carla K. Johnson / AP

Even doctors can be addicted to opioids, in a way: It's hard to stop prescribing them.

Melissa Jones is on a mission to break doctors of their habit, and in the process try to turn the tide of the painkiller epidemic that has engulfed 2 million Americans.

It was in doctors' offices where the epidemic began, and it's in doctors' offices where it must be fought. So Jones is using some of the same tactics pharmaceutical sales forces used to push their potent pills into communities — this time, to get them out.

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Highmark Health says Allegheny Health Network will build a state-of-the-art cancer institute at Pittsburgh's Allegheny General Hospital as part of a $200 million investment in cancer care.

The health network says about a half-dozen more community cancer treatment centers will be added in the region over the next two years. Officials didn't release the locations of the centers, which will bring as many as 175 health care jobs to western Pennsylvania, but said they would offer medical and radiation oncology care.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Allegheny Health Network and Highmark are partnering to invest $200 million in a 50,000 square-foot academic cancer center on the North Side and satellite cancer care offices throughout the region.

Allegheny General Hospital president Jeff Cohen said the satellite centers are meant to improve access and make health care more affordable and convenient for patients.

Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

Mary Ann Merranko went to see one of her favorite bands, Rusted Root, at the now defunct venue The Beehive in Oakland in 2001.

She made her way to the front of the crowd and ended up right next to the speaker. When she emerged onto Forbes Avenue later that night, she noticed a ringing in her ears.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Outside Woodland Hills Academy in Turtle Creek, there’s a little playground with swings, a jungle gym and a couple spring-mounted toy horses. You can’t see it or smell it, but according to data gathered by Carnegie Mellon University, the kids who play there are breathing in about 8 parts per billion of nitrogen dioxide and about 5 micrograms per cubic meter of black carbon.

NASA Picks Up 12 New Astronauts, Including 2 From Pennsylvania

Jun 8, 2017
Bill Ingalls / NASA via AP

NASA chose 12 new astronauts Wednesday from its biggest pool of applicants ever, hand-picking seven men and five women who could one day fly aboard the nation's next generation of spacecraft.

The astronaut class of 2017 includes doctors, scientists, engineers, pilots and military officers from Anchorage to Miami and points in between. They've worked in submarines, emergency rooms, university lecture halls, jet cockpits and battleships. They range in age from 29 to 42, and they typically have led the pack.

Seth Perlman / AP

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said he's pursuing a new consent decree that would allow the state to take control over the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, including all pending lead line replacements. 

Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

Two years ago, Sean Ferguson, of Hampton Township, was walking through a parking lot at the University of Dayton. He said the next thing he remembers is waking up in UPMC Mercy Hospital.

Lightning had struck the ground and threw Ferguson into a car, breaking his jaw. The electric current from the lighting ran through his body and sent him into cardiac arrest. Several students responded, but only one knew how to perform CPR until an ambulance arrived.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

RE2 Robotics first spun out of Carnegie Mellon University in 2001 to build off-road vehicles for the U.S. Department of Defense, but now its researchers are working to develop the next generation of robotic arms.

The 40 people who work at the Lawrenceville-based company now focus on building arms for robots used to defuse improvised explosive devices, or IEDs.

Cynthia Goldsmith/Dr. A. Harrison/Dr. P. Feorino/CDC / AP

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have developed a new test that can detect dormant HIV in patients’ cells that is cheaper and more efficient than the current test used by clinics.

Pitt scientists announced their discovery last week in Nature, a national scientific journal that focuses on immunology and biotechnology.

Elaine Thompson / AP

A Pennsylvania psychiatrist and his colleagues are noticing some troubling mental health trends related to joblessness among their white, working-class patients. And those trends seem inextricably tied with the current political climate.

Dr. Kenneth Thompson is the president of the American Association for Social Psychiatry. He’s based in Pittsburgh, and said many of his patients fall into a very specific category—they’re white, male, high school-educated former Democrat-voters who supported Donald Trump for president.

Pennsylvania DEP

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is warning residents about dangerously high levels of radon.

Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas that may cause up to 21,000 lung cancer deaths a year nationally.

A spokesperson for the agency says he could not share which area is affected.

The agency says at least one home has a radon level 25 times higher than recommended. In a letter sent to one resident, the agency says Pennsylvania generally has "some of the highest radon values in the country."

Katie Blackley / 90.5 WESA

If there’s an explosion in Allegheny County, Nancy Love is ready to investigate.

Love has worked nearly two decades with the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office Trace Division evaluating evidence from explosions and trying to determine what chemicals were involved.

Allegheny County Health Department

Allegheny County may not have seen a huge jump in obesity rates, but it certainly hasn't seen a downward trend, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Allegheny County Health Department.

CMU via Youtube

Touch screens have become part of our everyday lives, but the technology has its limits. They are always relatively flat and are fixed to another product, like a cell phone or a computer.

But researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have figured out a way to make just about any object into a touch sensitive device.

Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

Results from a University of Pittsburgh survey published last week found that the presidential election impacted women's decisions about their contraception.

Megan Harris / 90.5 WESA

One in five people who undergo a popular weight loss surgery is likely to develop an alcohol use disorder within five years, according to a new study from the University of Pittsburgh.

Bob Casey Says Medicaid Cuts Would Hurt Special Education

May 20, 2017
Ben Allen / WITF

The Republican-backed health care bill that passed the U.S. House would cut $880 billion from the Medicaid program over the next decade.

Pennsylvania's senior U.S. Senator says that move will not only rob people of heath care, but hurt the commonwealth's schools.

Democratic Senator Bob Casey says most people don't realize Medicaid funds help provide special education services, health screenings, and early intervention pre-k programs that benefit children with disabilities.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 fm WESA

In 2007, Mike Formica had just sold his tech start up and was looking for something to do when he was approached by a group of scientists from The University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. 

They wanted a device that would detect joint swelling in the hands of people who suffer arthritis. Formica jumped on board and started to look for a solution, but wasn’t happy with what he found.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner wants the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority to stop all partial lead line replacements in the city.

Ewa Krawczyk / National Cancer Institute via AP

University of Pittsburgh researchers have found a gene editing technique that could be used to treat aggressive forms of cancer.

Flickr user University of Exeter

For the first time, scientists have created a three-dimensional map of a vertebrate brain on a nanometer scale.

A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, and at this level, one can see individual neurons and how they connect to each other.

Dr. David Hildebrand said the project represents a step forward in brain imaging, particularly at a small scale.

“We are now able to leverage modern technologies, both imaging technology and computer technology, to image at nano-meter scale resolutions,” Hildebrand said. “Small brains, but entire vertebrate brains.”

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Life expectancies in southwestern Pennsylvania are on par with the national average, according to a new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Life expectancies in the region ranged from 77 years in Fayette County to 79 years in Butler County.

Both the state and national averages are close to 79 years.

The study, authored by researchers at the University of Washington, also looked at historical data.

Behind The Headlines: Pennsylvania's Opioid Crisis Up-Close

May 10, 2017
Jessica Kourkounis / Keystone Crossroads

To be addicted

With an increasing number of opioid overdoses in Pennsylvania, attention from state and local officials is growing as well as public attention around the issue. In 2015, there were more than 3,500 drug related overdose deaths in the state, which marked a sharp increase from the previous year. In Philadelphia, 900 people died as a result of overdoses, which is three times the number of homicide victims.

You don’t wake up and say, ‘I want to be a heroin addict.’ 

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Nesra Yannier said, growing up in Turkey, school was kind of boring.

“The education system was based on memorization, so I always thought it should be different and should be helping kids understand the reasons rather than memorizing facts,” she said.

When Yannier was working on her Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University, she sought ways to make learning more engaging and struck upon the idea of pairing digital applications with real-word educational toys.

Flickr user nicdalic

Thirty separate water systems in Southwestern Pennsylvania violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 2015, according to a new report from the National Resources Defense Council.

Sarah Kovash / 90.5 WESA

New research from the Rand Corporation shows that who you are – including your race, education and income – is a big predictor of how healthy you eat. But where you live matters, too.

Since 2011, Rand has compared the health of residents in Homewood, a food desert, with the Hill District, which went 30 years without a grocery store before finally getting one in 2013.

Marcus Charleston / 90.5 WESA

Allegheny County could become the first in the state to require all children to be tested for high lead levels in their blood.

The county Board of Health on Wednesday unanimously recommended the proposal, which would require two tests, around ages 1 and 2. The regulation must be approved by the county council and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. It would take effect next January.

Director Karen Hacker said she believes testing is necessary, because most homes in the county were built before lead was banned in paint.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Water parks are becoming more and more popular across the country.  But not everyone can play.

“Water has really never been a part of the special needs community,” said Morgan’s Wonderland General Manager Ron Morander.

Flickr user A.

Hospital policies that restrict how pharmaceutical companies may market their drugs to doctors change physician prescribing behavior, according to a new study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The study, a joint effort of Carnegie Mellon University and six other higher education institutions, showed that when such policies were in place, marketed drugs were prescribed 8.7 percent less often while non-marketed drugs were prescribed about 6 percent more often.

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