Dana-Farber gets big grant to study microbe-cancer links

A    cluster    of    Escherichia coli       bacteria    magnified 10,000 times.

A cluster of Escherichia coli bacteria magnified 10,000 times.

From The New England Council (newenglandcouncil.com)

Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute was recently awarded a $25 million grant to conduct research about how specific microbes in the body may lead to colorectal cancer. The grant from Cancer Research UK was awarded to Dana-Farber alone out of 130 teams who had applied for the funding.

With this funding, Dana-Farber will research the difference between healthy microbiomes and those related to cancer. The researchers will also attempt to manipulate the microbiomes to prevent and treat cancer. The National Cancer Institute estimates that colorectal cancer will be the third-most common cancer diagnosed in 2018.

Dr. Matthew Meyerson, one of the investigators on the new project, said “Microbiome research has already thrown up a range of unexpected findings. With new genomic technologies, we can map the microbiome in incredible detail, so now is the right time to be investigation the phenomenon of cancer.”

The Marcotte Center for Cancer Research, at Dana-Farber.    — Photo by    Addi.ez.chemin

The Marcotte Center for Cancer Research, at Dana-Farber.

— Photo by Addi.ez.chemin



David Warsh: 3 big things to know about Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg.

Michael Bloomberg.

SOMERVILLE, Mass.

If it weren’t for the intricate machinery of party governance, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 76, might be the odds-on favorite to be the Democratic nominee in 2020 and president in 2021. He is sensible and seasoned.

His major drawback is that he is a billionaire, like the incumbent, though far richer than Donald Trump. My favorite odds-maker puts Bloomberg’s chances at about 4 percent. Starbucks entrepreneur Howard Schultz, another billionaire, is going fold his bid sooner or later, just as asset-manager Tom Steyer did his last month, but Bloomberg isn’t going away. He hasn’t declared yet, so it’s much too soon to speculate about possible pathways to the nomination. Therefore, invest a few minutes in a little background.

Bloomberg’s biography is the first thing. Lengthy profiles will be written. I’ve read a few in the past, including Joyce Purnick’s 2009 biography, and I look forward to reading more. But meanwhile, I took advantage of the January thaw to visit his boyhood home in Medford, Mass. It is not far over the Mystic River and through the woods from my office in Somerville.

The Bloomberg family moved to a modest two-story colonial house at 6 Ronaele Rd., in 1945, when he was 3. His father, an accountant for a dairy company, born in Chelsea, Mass., bought the deed from his lawyer in order to circumvent a tacit ban on sales to Jews in the newly developed subdivision.

William Bloomberg died in 1963, at 57. Charlotte Bloomberg lived there until she died in 2011, at 102. Her son visited her frequently, and paid for a redesign of her synagogue, but Bloomberg himself left Medford in 1960 for Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Business School and Manhattan. His loose ties with the little city in which he grew up were nicely explored in 2012 by New York Times reporter Michael Grynbaum.

A second thing worth knowing about Bloomberg has to do with some changes last year in his business. You may remember how be got into the news business, by reverse engineering it. With the $10 million severance payment he received after Phibro Corp. acquired Salomon Brothers in 1981, Bloomberg – who had previously been banished to the firm’s back office – founded a bond-data business of his own. The real-time databank he assembled, equipped with a steadily growing battery of analytic tools, was vastly superior to the tables that newspapers offered in their financial pages. Bloomberg was able to sell subscriptions to his desk-top terminals for prices eventually reaching $20,000 a year.

In 1990, he hired Matthew Winkler, a Wall Street Journal reporter and editor, to build a staff for the brand-new Bloomberg News. The newsroom grew at an astonishing pace, until it had become one of the world’s largest news organizations, with 2,700 editors, reporters and commentators, arrayed in 150 bureaus around the world. The company put much of its news reports on the Web for free, but access to the whole remained the privilege of the high-paying few.

In 2009, Bloomberg bought the venerable BusinessWeek magazine from McGraw Hill, reorganized its coverage, and put his name on the cover. In 2015. he hired John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist, to oversee all of Bloomberg News, and shape up a staff that had grown in ramshackle fashion. Last summer, the company took another important step towards becoming a proper news business, placing its previously free consumer news behind a metered paywall, offering full-access subscriptions at $35 a month, and slightly more content for $40 a month.

That strategy – It’s-Worth-What-You-Pay-for-It – brought Bloomberg News more nearly in line with the practices of The New York Times, The Washington Post, the WSJ and the Financial Times. It also made Bloomberg himself seem more of a newspaper publisher, complications and all, than a technocrat. (Bloomberg’s Rich List doesn’t mention the boss; Forbes pegs him at around $48.5 billion.)

What’s the third thing about Bloomberg? It is the observation with which I began. If he were 10 years younger, a good deal less wealthy, and fresh out of office, he’d likely be the front-runner in the presidential race now taking shape – ahead of four inexperienced senators, a former vice president and a thoroughly tarnished incumbent.

True, Bloomberg’s negatives are high with some traditional Democrats – stop-and-frisk policies as mayor, intimate ties to Wall Street, and a proudly prickly personality. Can the party leadership swallow their pride long enough to win an election? Bloomberg is old – 77 this month. Can the rising generation continue to work the ‘tweendecks of politics for another few years? What if Beto O’Rourke, 46, endorsed him? Would he enter the race if Joe Biden decided to run? (Perhaps not. Here, from The Atlantic last week, is Edward-Isaac Dovere’s well-informed account of Bloomberg’s planning.)

A term or even two of a Bloomberg presidency would give the nation intelligent and even-handed leadership. The major parties would have time to groom a new generation of leaders and narrow their differences somewhat. However unlikely it may be to succeed, Bloomberg’s candidacy is worth taking seriously.

David Warsh, a veteran columnist and an economic historian, is proprietor of economicprincipals.com, where this piece first ran.

'Fire and Light' in Fitchburg

“   Plusquamperfect   ’’    (‘‘Past Perfect Participle’’) ( oil and fire on canvas), in the show “Fire and Light: Otto Piene in Groton, 1983-2014,’’ at the Fitchburg Art Museum, Feb. 9-June 2.      —    Photograph © Ante Glibota.     The gallery says:    “‘Fire and Light’ presents the work of the late internationally renowned artist, Otto Piene (1928-2014) , focusing on artworks created when the German-borne artist lived in Groton, Mass.     “Piene's relentless exploration of light, fire and air led to groundbreaking achievements in art and technology   . ‘   Fire and Ligh   t’    offers a rare opportunity for visitors to experience Piene's immersive artworks and contemplate Piene's vision and practice.’’

Plusquamperfect’’ (‘‘Past Perfect Participle’’) ( oil and fire on canvas), in the show “Fire and Light: Otto Piene in Groton, 1983-2014,’’ at the Fitchburg Art Museum, Feb. 9-June 2.


Photograph © Ante Glibota.

The gallery says:

“‘Fire and Light’ presents the work of the late internationally renowned artist, Otto Piene (1928-2014) , focusing on artworks created when the German-borne artist lived in Groton, Mass.

“Piene's relentless exploration of light, fire and air led to groundbreaking achievements in art and technology. ‘Fire and Light’ offers a rare opportunity for visitors to experience Piene's immersive artworks and contemplate Piene's vision and practice.’’



Peter Certo: The huge U.S. hypocrisy about Venezuela

Anti-government protests in Caracas.

Anti-government protests in Caracas.

For some months now, Venezuela’s socialist government has lurched through a series of escalating crises — hyperinflation, mass protests, political violence — while both the government and its opposition have flirted with authoritarianism.

It isn’t pretty — and to hear the right wing tell it, it’s the future the U.S. left wants for our own country. As if to prevent that, the Trump administration is now fomenting a coup in Venezuela.

They’ve publicly recognized an unelected opposition leader as president, discussed coup plans with Venezuela’s military, and sanctioned oil revenues the country needs to resolve its economic crisis. They’re even threatening to send U.S. troops.

They’ll tell you this about restoring “democracy” and “human rights” in the South American country. But one look at the administration officials driving the putsch perishes the thought.

Take Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently spoke at the United Nations calling on countries to stand “with the forces of freedom” against “the mayhem” of Venezuela’s government.

This fall, the same Pompeo shared a photo of himself beaming and shaking hands with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince — just as the prince’s order to kill and dismember a U.S. resident journalist was coming to light. The same prince is carrying on a U.S.-backed war in Yemen, where millions are starving.

Does this sound like a man who gives one fig for democracy, or against mayhem?

Or take Pompeo’s point man on Venezuela, the dreaded Elliott Abrams. Pompeo said Abrams was appointed for his “passion for the rights and liberties of all peoples.” More likely, it was Abrams’ history as Reagan’s “Secretary of Dirty Wars” (yes, that’s a real thing people called him).

A singularly villainous figure, Abrams vouched for U.S. backing of a genocidal Guatemalan regime and Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s. And when a UN report cataloged 22,000 atrocities in El Salvador, Abrams praised his administration’s “fabulous achievement” in the country.

Abrams was convicted of lying to Congress about U.S. support for Nicaragua’s brutal Contras, but that didn’t prevent him from serving in George W. Bush’s State Department — which backed not only the Iraq war but an earlier coup attempt in, you guessed it, Venezuela.

“It’s very nice to be back,” Abrams told reporters. I bet!

Finally there’s National Security Adviser John Bolton, who recently took a cute photo with the words “5,000 troops” written on a notepad. Bolton still thinks the Iraq war was a good idea, and he’d like one with Iran too. Do we think it’s bread and roses he wants for Venezuela?

For all its faults, Venezuela achieved tremendous things before the current crisis — including drastic reductions in poverty and improvements in living standards. Mismanagement and repression may have imperiled those gains, but that’s no justification at all for the U.S. getting involved. In fact, U.S. sanctions have worsened the economic crisis, and U.S. coordination with coup plotters has poisoned the country’s political environment even further.

The future of Venezuela’s revolution is for Venezuelans to decide, not us. All that can come of more intervention now is more crisis, and maybe even war.

Instead of regime change, the U.S. — and especially progressive politicians (looking at you, Nancy Pelosi) — should back regional dialogue and diplomacy. While Democratic Party leaders appear to back Trump, a few representatives — such as Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — are bravely backing a diplomatic course.

For all the right’s warnings that the left wants to “turn the U.S. into Venezuela,” we should pay careful attention to what the people who gave guns to death squads and destroyed the Middle East want to do with it. Because unlike the left, they’re already running our own country

Peter Certo, OtherWords.org’s editor ,Froworked as a researcher for Right Web, an Institute for Policy Studies project that studies neoconservative foreign policy figures.

Don Pesci: In defense of the cardinal virtues and Catholic orthodoxy

An image personifying the four virtues  (  Ballet Comique de la Reine  ,  1582).

An image personifying the four virtues (Ballet Comique de la Reine, 1582).

VERNON, Conn.

“The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice”

-- “A Defense of Humilities, The Defendant’’ (1901), G.K. Chesterton

Small “o” orthodox Christians of a certain age will be familiar with the cardinal virtues. They are: prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice – all under attack by a secular culture that, judging by Hollywood or Washington, D.C., standards, appears to have won the battle. But, never fear, the four cardinal virtues form the breastplate of a church against which, its founder once proclaimed, the gates of Hell shall not prevail.

The cardinal virtues, St. Augustine tells us, better enable us to pursue the good life: “To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one's heart, with all one's soul and with all one's efforts; from this, it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is prudence).”

Peter Wolfgang is the executive drector of the Family Institute of Connecticut (FIC). His helpmeet is his wife, Leslie, the mother of seven children. A born-again Catholic, Wolfgang is on speaking terms with the members of FIC’s Clergy Advisory Council, which include the Rev. LeRoy Bailey, Jr., senior pastor, The First Cathedral, Bloomfield; Rabbi Yehoshua S. Hecht, Beth Israel Synagogue, Norwalk; and Rev. Earl M. Inswiller, Jr., Living Waters Fellowship Church, Windsor Locks. A member of the Connecticut Bar, Wolfgang holds a juris doctorate from University of Connecticut School of Law and sports a bachelor's degree in International Studies from The American University in Washington, D.C., all of which helps when he finds himself locking horns with a variety of secularized Jews and Christians and practical atheists. As defined by Jacques Maritain, practical atheists are those who believe that “they believe in God and... perhaps believe in Him in their brains but... in reality deny His existence by each one of their deeds." Wolfgang is not a practical atheist.



Q: I don’t think you will dispute that we live in a secular age, a time in which religious proscriptions – and, perhaps more importantly, the Judeo-Christian view of things – has been bleached from the public square. Prayers, except those said very privately in a closet, are discouraged in public schools. I’m old enough to recall a time when contraception was frowned upon in Catholic circles; it still is, but in the religiously bleached wider society, contraception is an unquestioned given. Abortion too – even late-term abortion -- is defended by “Catholic” legislators and Jewish public officials.

Here in Connecticut, Planned Parenthood counts among its most fervent proponents U.S. Sen. Dick Blumenthal, who is Jewish, and Rosa DeLauro and John Larson, both of whom are Catholic. For a half century and more, we have witnessed a moral army in full retreat. Many Christians keep asking themselves “Where are the red lines?” Dostoyevsky used to say that for those who have shucked off religion, everything is possible. He was echoed by Nietzsche, who wondered what the future would look like in a world that had buried the Hebraic-Christian God.

That appears to be our world – of cringingly obliging Christians, practical atheists, moral libertines, and phony Christian politicians who have colluded, along with practical atheists, to imprison Christianity in what the French used to call “the little ease,” a cell so small that, while in it, the prisoner could neither stand nor sit nor lie prone. Let me ask you, where are the red lines in our culture, and are they still informed by the Judeo-Christian faith? Before answering, you might want to explain what a born-again Catholic is.



A: “I don’t know if ‘born-again Catholic’ quite captures it but I appreciate what you are trying to convey. I am someone who believes in and tries to live according to the Catholic faith. Not always successfully, as my pastor could tell you if he were not under the seal of confession. But the point of your question, I think, is that there are Catholics who are trying and there are Catholics who seem not to be trying. We should all try, and harder.

“The red lines of our culture have shifted at a dizzying speed. Judeo-Christian faith seems to be, at best, a bystander in that shift and at worst, road kill. Consider as one example the vulgar play The Vagina Monologues. Catholic watchdog groups had for years complained whenever it was shown on a Catholic college campus, to little effect. Only when transgender persons objected —because, it was claimed, the play was offensive to ‘women without vaginas’ —did it begin to be banned. That says something about who really sets the red lines in our society—and what is the real faith of those colleges.

Q: “Yeah, it’s difficult to parody that sort of behavior. Who is it – or perhaps what is it – that establishes the real ‘red lines’ in a community, if it is not valued tradition? Not to beat the Chesterton drum too often, but he was brought late in life to the Catholic faith. And the world against which he persuasive inveighed was very much like our own. He defined tradition as the democracy of the dead: ‘Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.’ Many moderns appear to be making up tradition – even history is fungible – as they go along their merry way. It seems to me that a tradition undefended from assault is a tradition abandoned. In law, as you know, and in politics as well, silence signifies assent. The opposite of silence may not be reasoned speech; it may be the chatter of cultural assassins. How should faithful Christians oppose such forces?

A: “Some demons can only be cast out through prayer and fasting. We must, first of all, attend to both. St. Joan of Arc made her soldiers go to confession before they went into battle. Christians should strive for holiness, to model in our own lives the better world we hope to bring about.

“Secondly, we must engage in the public sphere: education, lobbying and, yes, politics. Not to do so is to shirk our duty as citizens in a democratic republic. Very few Christians in the history of the world have lived in a society as free as ours. To not take advantage of that freedom is to be like the unprofitable servant who buried his one talent in the ground. No Christian should want to be that guy.

“And - I can’t emphasize this enough - our adversaries are using every means at their disposal to win the day. It pains me to say that Cultural Marxism has more fervent believers than does Jesus Christ. But that is what I often see.’’

Q: Well, yes, Marx announced rather volubly that religion is the opiate of the people. In our day, opioids have become the opium of the people – that and a politics from which the religion of the people appears to have fled from hearts and minds of nominally Catholic politicians. Some Catholics appear not to be disturbed by what we might call a return to the catacombs, Christianity in a closet. It is all very well to say that besieged Catholics should not retreat from the public square, but we are living in a time in which prominent politicians such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein feel free to say unblushingly that 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett may not be fit for service on the court because of her Catholic faith. Let me quote her exactly: “You are controversial,” Feinstein said to Barrett. “You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail. When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you. And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for years in this country.” Only yesterday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a cultural Catholic, joyously signed a bill that would allow late term abortion. Are we losing the battle? If so, where is the cavalry? In past times, the church had been reinvigorated by both the clergy and, more importantly, the laity.



A: “There are still more examples that could be cited. Senators Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) recently attacked a Trump judicial nominee’s membership in the Knights of Columbus because the Knights are pro-life and for traditional marriage—positions held by any faithful Catholic—and asked if he would resign in order to be confirmed. That is where we are at. Faithful Christians are being told that they are not full citizens under the law and that they have no place in the public square.


”In the short term, yes, we are losing the battle. The Family Institute of Connecticut regularly gets call from state residents in big corporations who tell us their performance review hinges on their acceptance of anti-Christian agendas that are contrary to their faith. This was almost unheard of before the judicial imposition of same-sex marriage.’

”If there is to be a cavalry to save the day, it will not be the institutional Church. Demographic decline, clergy sex abuse and increasing hostility from the centers of power in our society have put the Church in survival mode. At best, the Church is focused on protecting the liberty of its own institutions. At worst, as we saw in the initial reactions to the boys from Covington Catholic High School, some Church leaders throw their own most faithful followers under the bus.


”But it is wrong for the laity to expect the clergy to do what ought to be our job. The Church ought to equip us and support us but it is the role of the laity to defend faith and morals in the public square. My biggest concern is a clericalism of the laity, that the most devout Catholics become so obsessed with the various crises of the Church that they are not focused on fulfilling the responsibilities of their state of life: educating themselves on the attacks on faith and family, lobbying their elected representatives and volunteering to help elect candidates who share their values and to defeat candidates who attack those values.]

“The cultural Left, particularly in Connecticut, is heavily invested in these things. Politics is their faux-religion. Catholics—and adherents of other orthodox faiths--should not let it be said that our secular adversaries believe in their fake religion more than we believe in our real one. Catholics—and the faithful of the Protestant and Jewish communities—must get involved in the public defense of faith and family.’’



Don Pesci is an essayist who lives in Vernon

E-mail: donpesci@att.net

PCFR dinner speaker to look at America in the Arctic

page1-660px-Political_Map_of_the_Arctic.pdf.jpg


The speaker at the Feb. 20 dinner meeting of the Providence Committee on Foreign Relations  (thepcfr.org) will be Prof. Walter Berbrick, founding director of the Arctic Studies Group at the U.S. Naval War College. He'll talk about future U.S. policies and programs for that region, which is increasingly affected by great power politics.

For more information and to sign up, please hit this link.


Todd McLeish: Hawks feasting on songbirds at your feeders

Cooper’s hawk.

Cooper’s hawk.

From ecoRI News (ecori.org.)

For at least two decades, many people who provide seed to feed the songbirds in their backyard have provided anecdotal evidence of an increase in the number of bird-eating hawks that visit their feeders. Now, an analysis of 21 years of data collected by Cornell University has confirmed those observations by noting that Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, which prey primarily on songbirds, have been colonizing urban and suburban areas during winter because of the availability of prey at bird feeders.

According to Jennifer McCabe, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison whose study focused on birds in the Chicago area, many hawk species had declined significantly by the middle of the 20th Century because of hunting and pesticide use. Populations of most hawks, including the Cooper’s and sharp-shinned, have rebounded since then — largely because of legal protections and the banning of particularly harmful pesticides — enabling the birds to colonize areas that they had previously ignored.

In a research paper published in November in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, McCabe found that the two hawk species, which look similar and are collectively called accipiters for their genus name, occupied about 26 percent of the area in and around Chicago in the 1990s. Two decades later they were found in nearly 67 percent of the area.

Birders in Rhode Island have also reported anecdotal evidence of an increase in accipiter numbers in recent decades, especially Cooper’s hawks. Rachel Farrell, a member of the Rhode Island Avian Records Committee, has noted several Cooper’s hawks nesting in Providence in recent years, and she calls their presence at feeders in winter “commonplace, unremarkable, and therefore not generally reported [any more] from suburban areas.”

“In the beginning years of our study, sites were occupied around the fringe of the city, and through time they moved into the inner city,” said McCabe of her study site in Chicago. “The main driver for this colonization is prey abundance. They seem to be cuing in on feeders that have a lot of birds. That’s the driver that keeps the hawks there: prey abundance at feeders.”

Her findings were initially counterintuitive, because accipiters nest in forested habitats. Their narrow wings and long tail enable them to maneuver quickly through densely forested landscapes and chase down small birds, a behavior the larger soaring hawks such as the common red-tailed hawk can’t do. The soaring hawks typically feed on slower-moving rodents.

“We did our study in winter, so the birds weren’t concerned about finding the perfect tree for nesting,” McCabe said. “They were more concerned about survival.”

The relative absence of tree cover in urban areas and the abundance of pavement and other impervious surfaces didn’t seem to discourage the hawks from colonizing cities, she said. In fact, the more tree cover a site had, the less likely it was to attract accipiters in winter. The key factor was prey availability. As long as there were bird feeders attracting an abundance of small songbirds to the area, the hawks moved in.

The data for the study comes from Project FeederWatch, a citizen science project in which participants periodically count the birds and bird species at their feeders. Sponsored by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada, the program began in 1987 and now includes more than 20,000 volunteers from across North America.

Since bird feeding is among the most popular pastimes in the United States, with some surveys finding that more than 40 percent of households participate, it’s likely that the accipiters that have colonized urban and suburban areas will not go hungry.

The impact the hawks are having on the population of common feeder birds such as sparrows, chickadees, titmice, and nuthatches hasn’t been measured, but it’s unlikely they will be impacted in the long term. They may even receive a boost, since other studies have found that urban accipiters primarily target invasive birds such as pigeons, starlings, and house sparrows, potentially easing competitive pressures on native species.

A study of the recolonization of Britain by sparrowhawks, which also feed on birds, provides additional insights. When sparrowhawks were extirpated from Britain, it became less necessary for their primary prey, house sparrows, to be vigilant for the predators.

“Over 30 years, they lost this anti-predator behavior,” McCabe said, “and when the hawks came back, they ended up decimating the house sparrow population.”

Whether North American feeder birds’ vigilance for predators declined following the eradication of hawk populations half a century ago is uncertain. But even if they did, it’s not likely to last long.

“If the birds lost their anti-predator behavior, they’ll regain it pretty quickly now that the hawks are back,” McCabe said. “People’s backyards won’t be picked clean by hawks.”

Rhode Island resident and author Todd McLeish runs a wildlife blog.

Slow it down

February, from the  ‘‘  Très riches heures du Duc de Berry   .’’

February, from the ‘‘Très riches heures du Duc de Berry.’’

“February... Now more than ever one must remind oneself that it is wasteful folly to wish that time would pass, or - as the puritanical old saying used to have it - to kill time until it kills you.’’

— Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970), a naturalist, scholar and writer who lived in the semi-countryside of Redding, Conn., before moving to Arizona. He famously wrote about the song of the spring peepers as a sound of spring coming on, and so of hope. Mark Twain also lived in Redding.

The center of Redding, Conn.

The center of Redding, Conn.

A spring peeper.

A spring peeper.

“Mother Bear and Cubs,’’ in Huntington State Park, Redding.

“Mother Bear and Cubs,’’ in Huntington State Park, Redding.



Mass. lawsuit unveils aspects of how the Sackler family reaped a vast fortune off OxyContin

The Sackler family, famously obsessed with raising their social status, have given most of their charitable gifts to already rich elite institutions. Here, for example, is the Sackler Building at Harvard.

The Sackler family, famously obsessed with raising their social status, have given most of their charitable gifts to already rich elite institutions. Here, for example, is the Sackler Building at Harvard.

By Christine Willmsen, WBUR  and Martha Bebinger, WBUR

Via Kaiser Health News

BOSTON

The first nine months of 2013 started off as a banner year for the Sackler family, owners of the pharmaceutical company that produces OxyContin, the addictive opioid pain medication. Stamford, Conn.-based Purdue Pharma paid the family $400 million from its profits during that time, claims a lawsuit filed by the Massachusetts attorney general.

However, when profits dropped in the fourth quarter, the family allegedly supported the company’s intense push to increase sales representatives’ visits to doctors and other prescribers.

Purdue had hired a consulting firm to help reps target “high-prescribing” doctors, including several in Massachusetts. One physician in a town south of Boston wrote an additional 167 prescriptions for OxyContin after sales representatives increased their visits, according to the latest version of the lawsuit filed Thursday in Suffolk County Superior Court in Boston.

The lawsuit claims Purdue paid members of the Sackler family more than $4 billion between 2008 and 2016. Eight members of the family who served on the board or as executives as well as several directors and officers with Purdue are named in the lawsuit. This is the first lawsuit among hundreds of others that were previously filed across the country to charge the Sacklers with personally profiting from the harm and death of people taking the company’s opioids.

WBUR along with several other media sued Purdue Pharma to force the release of previously redacted information that was filed in the Massachusetts Superior Court case. When a judge ordered the records to be released with few, if any, redactions this week, Purdue filed two appeals and lost.

The complaint filed by Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Maura Healey says that former Purdue Pharma CEO Richard Sackler allegedly suggested the family sell the company or, if they weren’t able to find a buyer, to milk the drugmaker’s profits and “distribute more free cash flow” to themselves.

That was in 2008, one year after Purdue pleaded guilty to a felony and agreed to stop misrepresenting the addictive potential of its highly profitable painkiller, OxyContin.

At a board meeting in June 2008, the complaint says, the Sacklers voted to pay themselves $250 million. Another payment in September totaled $199 million.

The company continued to receive complaints about OxyContin similar to those that led to the 2007 guilty plea, according to unredacted documents filed in the case.

While the company settled lawsuits in 2009 totaling $2.7 million brought by family members of those who had been harmed by OxyContin throughout the country, the company amped up its marketing of the drug to physicians by spending $121.6 million on sales reps for the coming year. The Sacklers paid themselves $335 million that year.

The lawsuit claims that Sackler family members directed efforts to boost sales. An attorney for the family and other board directors is challenging the authority to make that claim in Massachusetts. A motion on jurisdiction in the case hasn’t been heard. That attorney hasn’t responded to a request for comment on the most recent allegations.

Purdue Pharma, in a statement, said the complaint filed by Healey is “part of a continuing effort to single out Purdue, blame it for the entire opioid crisis, and try the case in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.”

Purdue went on to charge Healey with attempting to “vilify” Purdue in a complaint “riddled with demonstrably inaccurate allegations.” Purdue said it has more than 65 initiatives aimed at reducing the misuse of prescription opioids. The company says Healey fails to acknowledge that most opioid overdose deaths are currently the result of fentanyl.

Purdue fought the release of many sections of the 274-page complaint. Attorneys for the company said at a hearing on Jan. 25 that they had agreed to release much more information in Massachusetts than has been cleared by a judge overseeing hundreds of cases consolidated in Ohio. Purdue filed both state and federal appeals this week to block release of the compensation figures and other information about Purdue’s plan to expand into drugs to treat opioid addiction.

The attorney general’s complaint says that in a ploy to distance themselves from the emerging statistics and studies that showed OxyContin’s addictive characteristics, the Sacklers approved public marketing plans that labeled people hurt by opioids as “junkies” and “criminals.”

Richard Sackler allegedly wrote that Purdue should “hammer” them in every way possible.

While Purdue Pharma publicly denied its opioids were addictive, internally company officials were acknowledging it and devising a plan to profit off them even more, the complaint states.

Kathe Sackler, a board member, pitched “Project Tango,” a secret plan to grow Purdue beyond providing painkillers by also providing a drug, Suboxone, to treat those addicted.

“Addictive opioids and opioid addiction are ‘naturally linked,'” she allegedly wrote in September 2014.

According to the lawsuit, Purdue staff wrote: “It is an attractive market. Large unmet need for vulnerable, underserved and stigmatized patient population suffering from substance abuse, dependence and addiction.”

They predicted that 40-60 percent of the patients buying Suboxone for the first time would relapse and have to take it again, which meant more revenue.

Purdue never went through with it, but Attorney General Healey contends that this and other internal documents show the family’s greed and disregard for the welfare of patients.

This story is part of a reporting partnership between WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

A version of this story first ran on WBUR’s CommonHealth. You can follow @mbebinger on Twitter.



Llewellyn King: Confusing empathy with policy

“La Cucana’’ (greasy pole), by Francisco Goya.

“La Cucana’’ (greasy pole), by Francisco Goya.

WEST WARWICK, R.I.

Mark Twain once observed that no one would try to play a fiddle in public without some prior instruction in the instrument, but no one had such hesitation when it came to writing.

Clearly, many candidates these days think you can run for president without any political experience or with precious little. The unqualified and the marginally equipped seem to believe they are uniquely gifted to be president of the United States.

At the moment a large school of Democrats feel that because they empathize with the working poor, the struggling middle class and are appalled by the excesses of the plutocrats, they can, when elected, put it all right. They confuse empathy with policy and achievability.

Then there are those who subscribe to the belief in business as the incubator of all skills. These are the people who believe — and they could well line up for former Starbucks CEO Howard Shultz — that if you can run a business, you can get a handle on Washington. It is a myth that just won’t die. If one can make a lot of money, it proves just one thing: One has made a lot of money. Running based on commercial success and Washington failure doesn’t work. The two worlds are not subject to the same laws of nature, as it were.

In business, you can walk away from failure; in politics, it follows you. If a franchise deal fails in business, you abandon it. You can’t abandon Russia or China because you can’t get a deal. And you can’t abandon the poor because you think you can’t afford them.

Politics is, above all, learned, and it is learned in political places — school boards, community associations, unions and state legislatures. Anywhere where offices are elective.

If you want to succeed in reshaping Washington, the first thing to do is to understand it and respect it. Yes, respect it.

We are so inured to people running against Washington that we forget that it is the product of all the others who ran against it. Washington, like all complex systems, is the sum of its parts, from the lobbyists to the agencies, and the laws which Congress has passed.

Washington is a seething, dynamic system, not too complex to be reformed but way too complex to be a candidate for simple solutions. Look at the supreme political amateur Donald Trump and see how his plan to upend Washington and “drain the swamp” has fared. In engineering and science, if you want to change something, first understand it — know its parts and their functions before you start.

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, failed to reform the State Department because he didn’t feel he needed to understand it. He failed in his own right, even without the difficulties that Trump piled on him.

If politics is war by another means, then don’t show your hand. You don’t tell the enemy where you’ll dig in or what secret weapon you’ll bring to bear. To declare the rate of tax you favor (70 percent for the rich), how you are going to implement a national healthcare system (extend Medicare) and who you’ll not  listen to (lobbyists are a great source of information), and what limits you are going to put on yourself (to draw attention to your rectitude) is neither the way to get elected nor to do the peoples’ business. Caring isn’t a plan.

Many successful presidents, from Washington to Clinton, have been bad businessmen. The best qualification for the office isn’t how well you’ve done at something else, but to have run something big and political like a charity, an advocacy group, a school, a city or a state. That way you learn the art of give a little, take a lot. Those who haven’t had this administrative experience need to study it over and over.

As Lloyd George, the British prime minister during the last part of World War I, wrote, “There is no greater mistake than to try to leap an abyss in two jumps.” Every day, I read someone is setting out to prove him wrong and run for president without regard to the geography of the politics.

On Twitter: @llewellynking2
Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of
White House Chronicle, on PBS. He is based in Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

'What's Groton into you?'

At the time this postcard was printed, in 1912, Danbury was the hat-making capital of America.

At the time this postcard was printed, in 1912, Danbury was the hat-making capital of America.

“When they can hear each other over the wind and the music, they speak Connecticut: I will not Stamford this type of behavior. What’s Groton into you? What did Danbury his Hartford? New Haven can wait. Darien’t no place I’d rather I’d rather be.”


― David Levithan, in “Are We There Yet?’’

The rich folks next door

Townhouses on Louisburg Square, on Beacon Hill, Boston. Some call the square the epicenter of Boston wealth.

Townhouses on Louisburg Square, on Beacon Hill, Boston. Some call the square the epicenter of Boston wealth.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary,’’ in GoLocal24.com

‘Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo commendably wants the state to be a lot more like Massachusetts – a desire reflected in her State of the State address and her (too?) ambitious budget proposals. That’s especially true when it comes to her ideas on how to advance public education -- K-college/voke school -- the heart of her program, around which hovers the question of how tough her administration will be willing and able to be on standards, as measured by tests.

The legislature is casting a gimlet eye on how she would fund her proposals, which would hike some fees, broaden the currently rather narrow sales tax and “scoop’’ some money from some quasi-public agencies. And who knows what might happen if we get a recession in the next year or so? We’d like to see contingency plans.

By the way, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker also wants to raise taxes, in part to boost education aid to the localities. Among his proposals: putting a levy on opioid sales, broadening the excise tax to include vaping products, and boosting the tax that homeowners pay when they sell their house. The $150 million a year projected to come from this levy is supposed to go “resiliency-building’’ projects to address such effects of global warming as increased coastal flooding, flooding that’s already cutting property values in some places.

The biggest problem that all Rhode Island governors have in trying to implement programs like Massachusetts’s is simply that the Ocean State, while richer (in median household income, etc.) than the majority of states is much poorer than the Bay State, with its huge wealth-creating (and thus tax revenue) machine in Greater Boston based on technology, world-famed higher education, financial services and health care. (Consider that Massachusetts General Hospital alone has just announced a $1 billion building project).

Rhode Island, which has been much slower than Massachusetts to move away from its old mill culture, has nothing like this. But it does have proximity to Boston, which it must leverage with its own strengths, especially in such sectors as design and marine-related industries. The best thing that Rhode Island could do economically is make itself part of Greater Boston.

Philip K. Howard: Red tape has replaced responsibility


440px-NARA_Backstage_Pass_(2011-08)_-_14.jpg


For decades now, Americans have slogged through a rising tide of idiocies. Getting a permit to do something useful, say, open a restaurant or fix a bridge, can take years. Small businesses get nicked for noncompliance of rules they didn’t know. Teachers are told not to put an arm around a crying child. Doctors and nurses spend up to half the day filling out forms that no one reads. Employers no longer give job references. And, in the land of the First Amendment, political incorrectness can get you fired.

We’d all be better off without these daily frustrations. So why can’t we use our common sense and start fixing things?

But common sense is illegal in Washington. Red tape has replaced responsibility. No official has authority even to do what’s obvious. In 2009, Congress allocated $800 billion, in part to rebuild America’s infrastructure. But it didn’t happen because, as President Obama put it, there’s “no such thing as a shovel-ready project.” Even President Trump, a builder, can’t get infrastructure going. The entire government was shut down in a spat over one project, the Mexican border wall, that the parties don’t agree on. How about fixing the broke rail tunnel coming into New York?

Washington’s ineptitude is only the tip of the iceberg. A bureaucratic mindset has infected American culture. Instead of feeling free to do what we think is right, Americans go through the day looking over our shoulders: “Can I prove that what I’m about to do is legally correct?”

Every Republican administration since Reagan has promised to cut red tape with deregulation. “Washington is not the solution,” as Reagan put it: “It’s the problem.” But Washington has only gotten bigger during their terms in office. That’s because deregulation is too blunt: Americans want Medicare, clean water, and toys without lead paint.

Americans are not stupid. Government drives people nuts because it prevents anyone from being practical. Nothing’s wrong with requiring a permit for a new restaurant, but should you have to go to 11 different agencies? Who has the job of moving things along in Washington and making sure officials focus on real issues? That would be, uh, no one.

No one designed Washington’s giant bureaucracy either. It just grew, like kudzu, since the 1960s. Its organizing idea is to tell everyone exactly how to do everything correctly. Mindless compliance replaced human judgment. A new problem? Write another rule. The steady accretion of rules is why government has become progressively paralytic over the past few decades.

Back in the old days, of say, JFK or the late Sen. Majority Leader Howard Baker, government fixed problems by giving some official that job and then holding them accountable. Congress authorized the Interstate Highway System with a 29-page statute, and nine years later over 21,000 miles had been built. Today, the red tape would probably prevent it from being built at all.

It’s time to bite the bullet: Washington can’t be repaired; it must be replaced. Creating a coherent governing framework is not so daunting. Most bureaucratic detail is irrelevant when people are allowed to take responsibility again.

Instead of bickering over a laundry list of reforms, Americans should demand a few core principles:

* Radically simplify regulation. Law should set goals, not require mindless compliance with thousand-page rulebooks. Let Americans take responsibility and meet public goals in their own ways. More local control will not only work better but restore pride and self-respect.

* Accountability is key. Democracy is toothless without accountability. Accountability today is lost in legal quicksand and then strangled by public unions. Fairness should be protected with oversight, not exhausting lawsuits.

* Shake up Washington. Obsolete laws, bureaucratic stupor, partisan politics and lobbyists’ money all preserve the status quo. Reboot everything. Disrupt the electoral process by changing campaign rules. Move most agencies out of Washington — the bureaucratic culture there is toxic. Let the FDA go to Boston or San Diego. Send the worker safety agency to Ohio.

Experts say that change is impossible, pointing to the gridlock in Washington. Incremental change may be impossible, but big change is inevitable. Americans are fed up. That’s why they elected Donald Trump president and why Democrats are steering to the far left.

What’s missing is not public demand for change but a coherent vision of how Washington can work again. My proposal is basic: Replace the dense bureaucracy and put humans in charge again. Empower Americans, at all levels of responsibility, to make practical and moral daily choices. Then hold them accountable for how they do. Let Americans be American again.

Philip K. Howard, a New York-based lawyer, civic leader and writer, is chairman of Common Good and author of Try Common Sense: Replacing the Failed Ideologies of Right and Left.


Chris Powell: Smoke screen for other sales-tax increases; another police-pay scam

380px-Floris_Claesz._van_Dyck_001.jpg


Sometimes trial balloons are meant to be shot down, which seems to be the case with the report that Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont is considering repeal of the state sales-tax exemptions for groceries and medicine, necessities of life.

No tax policy could be more retrograde. But when this balloon is popped, as it surely will be, people may be less resentful about what follows from the governor on the sales tax -- a call to consider repealing some of its many other exemptions, which may cost nearly $3 billion every year.

Good arguments can be made for some exemptions, particularly when repealing an exemption may drive so much business out of state that tax receipts will fall instead of rise. But the decisive argument for some exemptions has been only that an influential special interest wanted it.

A comprehensive study of sales tax exemptions, often urged by former state Sen. Tony Guglielmo, R-Stafford, who just retired, should have been undertaken by the General Assembly long ago. It shouldn't have to wait another three weeks for the governor's budget. Legislators should get started on it now, while they're wasting their time on trivial legislative proposals.

xxx

While it is impoverished and heavily dependent on state financial aid, Bridgeport managed the other day to pay its police chief, Armando Perez, $172,000 in vacation, personal, sick, holiday, and compensatory time accrued in his 28 years with the city's police department, money for which he no longer would qualify upon leaving the police union to become chief.

This accrual of time-off benefits is common in police departments and other government agencies in Connecticut and can amount to a second pension for people who already have pretty good first pensions from the government. It's a racket, and since municipal finance and state government finance are now so intertwined and so desperate, the practice should be ended by state law prohibiting accrual of more than a few months' worth of time-off benefits.

Police work is said to be stressful, but when an officer can go 28 years without fully using his ordinary time off and without becoming a physical and mental wreck, thereby amassing more savings just with accrued time off than ordinary taxpayers can amass from their full incomes in a lifetime, police work itself is a racket.

Where is the governor or state legislator with the courage to confront the police unions about this, thereby establishing that government in Connecticut isn't always a racket too?

xxx

Two Republican state legislators, Reps. Fred Camillo of Greenwich and Brenda Kupchick of Fairfield, have joined Secretary of the State Denise Merrill, a Democrat, in proposing legislation to deny public access to voter registration information. The idea is to protect personal privacy.

But privacy can be achieved here only at the expense of making it impossible for people outside the government itself to detect election fraud, even as state government invites such fraud by issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and New Haven city government invites it by issuing city identification cards to illegals. If the voter rolls weren't public, Connecticut last year might not have discovered that the Republican nominee for governor, political neophyte Bob Stefanowski, had never voted in the state he suddenly had presumed to run.

Voting requires assumption of a public office established by the state Constitution -- the office of elector. This much public identification is simply civic duty and should be sustained.

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.

'Women of Jazz'

From the show “Women of Jazz: Portraits by Kate Shaffer,’’ at the Carney Gallery, Regis College, Weston, Mass., opening Feb. 7.  The gallery says:    “Reflecting the diverse spectrum of talent from the 1920s to the present, from composers and bandleaders, to singers and producers, this exhibit honors the remarkable contribution women have made to this truly American form of musical expression.’’

From the show “Women of Jazz: Portraits by Kate Shaffer,’’ at the Carney Gallery, Regis College, Weston, Mass., opening Feb. 7.

The gallery says:

“Reflecting the diverse spectrum of talent from the 1920s to the present, from composers and bandleaders, to singers and producers, this exhibit honors the remarkable contribution women have made to this truly American form of musical expression.’’

Explosive dependence

Gas-valve cover in Boston.

Gas-valve cover in Boston.

From Robert Whitcomb’s “Digital Diary, in GoLocal24.com

The recent natural-gas emergency on Aquidneck Island calls to mind the need for New England to accelerate its slow move away from polluting and flammable (and, in the case of gas, explosive) fossil fuel brought from far away and toward local renewable sources, which means mostly wind and solar power. Of course, this will require steady improvement in battery technology and much new construction, onshore and offshore. Ultimately, electricity from these sources will provide all of the electricity needed to run our homes, including heat, and do it cleanly.

Making New England less dependent on fossil fuel is not only good for the environment but it strengthens its economy by making it more energy-independent. And consider that the companie

Meanwhile there’s the good news that commercial fishermen are talking with Orsted U.S. Offshore Wind (which took over Deepwater Wind) on how to ease the interactions between offshore wind companies and the fishermen. The fishermen’s group is called the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance and represents fishermen from Maine to North Carolina.

While recreational fishermen tend to like the sort of offshore wind operation that’s up off Block Island because the wind-turbine supports act as reefs that lure fish, commercial fishermen are leery that wind farms will limit their ability to move around. Their fears are exaggerated but must be addressed. Of course, they, too, would benefit from the fact that wind farms tend to attract fish.

What the fishermen should really worry about is the Trump administration’s push for drilling for oil and gas off the East Coast. While a big offshore wind farm might inconvenience some commercial fishermen, think about what a big oil spill would do….