Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

Harris has traveled to all seven continents for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis), and Japan to cover the nuclear aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
In 2010, Harris' reporting revealed that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. That revelation led the federal government to make a more realistic assessment of the extent of the spill.

Harris covered climate change for decades. He reported from the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and including Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR's award-winning 2007-2008 "Climate Connections" series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many prestigious awards. Those include the American Geophysical Union's 2013 Presidential Citation for Science and Society. He shared the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Communication Award and was a finalist again in 2011. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry. Since 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Harris three times with its science journalism award.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues related to the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore. He started his career as an AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow at the now-defunct Washington (DC) Star.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, and is past president of the National Association of Science Writers. He serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A California native, Harris returned to the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, to give a commencement address at Crown College, where he had given a valedictory address at his own graduation. He earned a bachelor's degree at the school in biology, with highest honors.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved a first-of-its-kind drug that reduces the number of migraines among people prone to these sometimes crippling headaches.

Sometimes less may be better when it comes to treatment for breast cancer. A new study finds that women who have been diagnosed with early-stage HER2-positive breast cancer did just as well with six months of treatment with the drug Herceptin (trastuzumab) as did women who received a 12-month course of this treatment.

And the women with the shorter treatment had fewer side-effects, most notably less damage to their hearts.

Children and adolescents are getting fewer prescription drugs than they did in years past, according to a study that looks at a cross-section of the American population.

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Scientists have launched two large studies to test a medical treatment that, if proven effective, could have an enormous impact on the leading cause of death in American hospitals.

The treatment is aimed at sepsis, a condition in which the body's inflammatory response rages out of control in reaction to an infection, often leading to organ damage or failure. There's no proven cure for sepsis, which strikes well over 1 million Americans a year and kills more than 700 a day.

A team of surgeons says it has repaired the genitals of a serviceman severely injured by an explosion in Afghanistan. It's the first time a penis has been transplanted to treat a war wound.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore say 11 surgeons were involved in the 14-hour surgery in March.

There's encouraging news for cancer treatments that stimulate the immune system to attack cancer cells. A widely used immunotherapy drug appears to be useful in a greater number of patients with lung cancer.

The drug called Keytruda, or pembrolizumab, is already prescribed to a group of patients who have a type of malignancy called non-small cell lung cancer. It's the principal form of lung cancer and found most commonly in people who have smoked.

Doctors encounter all nature of odd things in their daily lives. Sometimes the stories end up as more than coffee-room chatter. Consider a case that spills over from the clinical to the culinary: the hot pepper and the horrible headache.

Medical marijuana appears to have put a dent in the opioid abuse epidemic, according to two studies published Monday.

The research suggests that some people turn to marijuana as a way to treat their pain, and by so doing, avoid more dangerous addictive drugs. The findings are the latest to lend support to the idea that some people are willing to substitute marijuana for opioids and other prescription drugs.

Michael Robertson was on his summer vacation a few years ago and had just proposed to the woman who would become his wife when he decided he needed to see a doctor.

"I'd been having symptoms for a few months but it was during an intense work period, drinking too much coffee, not getting enough sleep, so I kind of chalked it up to that," Robertson says. Unfortunately, the doctor had a more dire diagnosis: stage 4 rectal cancer.

A major medical association today suggested that doctors who treat people with Type 2 diabetes can set less aggressive blood sugar targets. But medical groups that specialize in diabetes sharply disagree.

Half a dozen medical groups have looked carefully at the best treatment guidelines for the 29 million Americans who have Type 2 diabetes and have come up with somewhat differing guidelines.

Flu is still rampant across the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the epidemic has peaked. It eased a bit last week, for the second week in a row.

Influenza is still claiming lives. The CDC reported 17 flu deaths among children last week, bringing the total pediatric deaths to 114. Adult deaths from the flu are not tracked directly.

The technology that drives science forward is forever accelerating, but the same can't be said for science communication. The basic process still holds many vestiges from its early days — that is the 17th century.

Some scientists are pressing to change that critical part of the scientific enterprise.

Here's what they're confronting: When researchers studying the biology of disease make a discovery, it typically takes nine months for them to get their results published in a journal.

A quarter of a million Americans die every year from sepsis, which is the body's reaction to overwhelming infection. This cascade of organ failure can be nipped in the bud if health care workers know it's ramping up, but that's often not easy to do.

This story of a man who nearly died in the hospital actually started in the woods of Washington's Cascade Mountains last summer.

"I was cutting for a logging outfit up on these rock cliffs and I felled a 150-foot fir tree into [some] maple trees," says Kristopher Kelly, a 51-year-old lumberjack. The maples "had a bunch of dead tops — they call 'em widow makers," Kelly says. "You don't want to get under them because they'll make you a widow."

Federal health officials say that, as they anticipated, the flu vaccine isn't very effective this year — but they say it has still prevented thousands of serious illnesses and deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures that, overall, the flu vaccine is 36 percent effective at preventing disease. One bright point for parents of young kids: Children ages 6 months to 8 years responded significantly better to the vaccine than older Americans.

The peak of the flu season could still be several weeks away, federal health officials cautioned Friday.

"We may be on track to break some recent records," said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly all states are still reporting widespread flu activity, with less severe reports only coming from Oregon and Hawaii.

"Flu is incredibly difficult to predict and we don't know if we've hit the peak yet," Schuchat said in a call with reporters. "We could still see several more weeks of increased activity."

The current flu season is still getting worse, federal health officials said Friday. And it continues to take a toll on children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported an additional 16 flu deaths among children, bringing the nationwide total this season for youngsters to 53.

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People diagnosed with cancer understandably reach for the very best that medical science has to offer. That motivation is increasingly driving people to ask to have the DNA of their tumors sequenced. And while that's useful for some malignancies, the hype of precision medicine for cancer is getting far ahead of the facts.

It's easy to understand why that's the case. When you hear stories about the use of DNA sequencing to create individualized cancer treatment, chances are they are uplifting stories. Like that of Ben Stern.

The results of an IQ test can depend on the gender of the person who's conducting the test. Likewise, studies of pain medication can be completely thrown off by the gender of the experimenter. This underappreciated problem is one reason that some scientific findings don't stand the test of time.

Could babies be at higher risk of developing Type 1 diabetes from drinking formula made from cow's milk? That idea has been circulating for some time but the evidence has been scant and contradictory. A study published Tuesday makes it seem less likely.

There are two types of diabetes, and both are on the rise. It's clear that a major driving force behind the increase of Type 2 diabetes, which mainly affects adults, is the eating habits that are also driving the rise of obesity.

Federal taxpayers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into a quest for blood samples, medical information and fitness readouts from a million Americans. It's called the All of Us precision medicine initiative, and it's the biggest push ever mounted to create a huge public pool of data that scientists — and anybody else who is interested — can mine for clues about health and disease.

Proponents say this big data approach to medicine will be revolutionary. Critics aren't so sure.

You might not suspect that the success of the emerging field of precision medicine depends heavily on the couriers who push carts down hospital halls.

But samples taken during surgery may end up in poor shape by the time they get to the pathology lab — and that has serious implications for patients as well as for scientists who want to use that material to develop personalized tests and treatments that are safer and more effective.

Scientists say they have created a partly man-made bacterium that can produce proteins not found in nature. This new life form, the latest development in a field called "synthetic biology," could eventually be used to produce novel drugs.

When was the last time you were asked to sit without saying a word for five minutes before your blood pressure was measured? If your answer was "I never remember doing that," you're in good company.

Yet that is one of the many rules that medical professionals are supposed to follow when measuring your blood pressure.

A child who was on the verge of death from a rare inherited disease has been treated with genetically engineered skin cells that replaced most of the skin on his body.

The treatment represents a notable success for the field of gene therapy, which has suffered many setbacks. And it's potentially good news for children suffering from a painful and often deadly skin condition called epidermolysis bullosa.

Cancer drugs cost far less to develop than industry-backed research asserts, an analysis published Monday asserts. Research and development costs are a major reason that drug companies justify high prices, so this dispute has a direct bearing on the cost of medical care.

American doctors have been noticing an increase in osteoarthritis of the knee. They have suspected two driving forces: more old people and more people who are overweight.

A study published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences argues that's far from the whole story. Even correcting for body mass index and age, osteoarthritis of the knee is twice as common now as it was before the 1950s.

It's always appealing to think that there could be an easy technical fix for a complicated and serious problem.

For example, wouldn't it be great to have a vaccine to prevent addiction?

"One of the things they're actually working on is a vaccine for addiction, which is an incredibly exciting prospect," said Dr. Tom Price, secretary of Health and Human Services.

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