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Diagnosing Autism In Minutes; Finding New Uses For Old Drugs

Every week, Kaiser Health News reporter Jessica Marcy selects interesting reading from around the Web.

Time: Can Autism Really Be Diagnosed In Minutes?
Autism is an extremely complex diagnosis. Parental insight, physician observations and hours of data can factor into determining whether a child actually has the condition or is just a little on the quirky side. Now a Harvard researcher, Dennis P. Wall, has published research about a Web-based tool he developed that promises to diagnose autism in minutes, not hours — a proposition that Wall has floated for some time now and has some autism experts so skeptical they’re not even willing to speak on the record about it. Wall, director of the computational biology initiative at the Center for Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School and associate professor of pathology at the school, combines computer algorithms along with a seven-point parent questionnaire and a home video clip to make a speedy online assessment of whether a child has autism (Bonnie Rochman, 4/11).

The Atlantic: Teaching Old Drugs New Tricks
Even as the medical world makes great advances in drug testing, development cycles can still take years, if not decades. In the case of cystic fibrosis, for instance, scientists were able to detect the disease’s molecular cause by as early as 1989 — but it’s taken nearly three decades to push a drug to market. Could there be a faster way to cures? If NIH director Francis Collins has his way — perhaps. By studying the human genome and noticing similarities among the molecular effects of certain diseases, Collins believes pharmaceuticals designed to target one affliction can have surprisingly positive effects on other illnesses. We just need to match the right drugs with the right diseases (Brian Fung, 4/11).

The New Yorker: Club Med
This year, a few hundred thousand intrepid American travellers will head to places like Thailand and Costa Rica, in search of something that they can’t find in the United States. They won’t be looking for Mayan ruins or ancient Buddhist temples, but something a bit more practical: affordable medical care. These medical tourists will be getting root canals, knee surgeries, and hip replacements at foreign hospitals. If health-care costs in the U.S. keep rising—and especially if Obamacare is overturned by the Supreme Court—more of us may soon be joining them. For decades, wealthy people from developing countries have come here for care, but these days medical tourists travel all over the world. And while it’s hard to disentangle the stats from the hype—a number of countries portray themselves as favored destinations—it’s clear that millions of people are now doing this. The Bumrungrad hospital, in Bangkok, treats four hundred thousand foreign patients annually. Malaysia had almost six hundred thousand medical tourists last year. And South Korea had more than a hundred thousand, nearly a third of them American. For Americans, the attraction is obvious: medical care is a lot cheaper abroad (James Surowiecki, 4/16).

American Medical News: California, Vermont Consider Tougher Vaccine-Exemption Rules
Recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and a growing immunization opt-out rate are pushing physician organizations in California and Vermont to seek greater restrictions on exemptions from school-entry immunization requirements. Every state allows exemptions for children with medical contraindications verified by a physician, and all but two states let parents with religious objections skip immunizing their children. An additional 20 states allow exemptions based on parents’ philosophical or personal beliefs. Requirements for securing personal-belief exemptions vary by state but are often as easy as signing a form (Kevin B. O’Reilly, 4/9).

AARP Magazine: The War On Cancer
In this era of pink ribbons and yellow Livestrong bracelets and a proliferation of races to cure cancer, it’s easy to forget that just three or four decades ago, a cancer diagnosis was likely a death sentence. In the early 1970s, the five-year survival rate for all invasive cancers was a dismal 43 percent, and the treatments — disfiguring surgery, almost unbearably toxic chemotherapy, indiscriminate radiation — were so dreadful that many patients considered them worse than the disease. Today, the five-year survival rate for all cancers is 67 percent. Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — still the triad of successful cancer treatment — are more precise, causing much less pain and disfigurement. But the real turning point for patients … occurred in 1971, with the signing of the National Cancer Act (Tom Slear, April/May 2012).