As we look back on 2019, we at STAT find ourselves a little jealous.
There has been a lot of stellar health and science journalism this year, and below is a roundup of the stories we wish we had written.
And we’d be remiss if we didn’t admit the origins of this annual tradition — Bloomberg Businessweek did it first, and head over there for more great reads.
19 years old, in jail and begging to go to the hospital
Story by Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken, CNN Investigates
Photographs by Melissa Lyttle for CNN
Teaira Shorter’s appendix ruptured while she was in jail, serving time for minor offenses such as not wearing a seatbelt. She began to experience symptoms while in custody but her pleas for medical help were ignored for days — which ultimately resulted in a life-threatening infection.
This investigation of an individual case sheds light on institutional problems in our foster care and prison system that put vulnerable populations at terrible risk. Melissa Lyttle’s photographs bring us directly into the life of this young woman trying to move forward.
— Contributed by Alissa Ambrose
The redemption of James Wilson, gene therapy pioneer
By Ryan Cross, Chemical & Engineering News
When a young man in Wilson’s clinical trial of a gene therapy died, in 1999, it basically shut down the field for a decade — and made Wilson a pariah. C&EN’s profile shows us not only how the tragedy made Wilson reassess his approach to science but also how it turned him into one of gene therapy’s most outspoken critics: Although he believes deeply that repairing genes can cure some of our most devastating diseases, Wilson is also outspoken about the risky approaches that some gene therapy studies are taking today.
— Contributed by Sharon Begley
Digital Jail: How Electronic Monitoring Drives Defendants Into Debt
By Ava Kofman, ProPublica
To read this piece is to see today’s equivalent of a Dickensian debtors’ prison. Ava Kofman lays out, detail by infuriating detail, how digital technologies touted as progress are used to criminalize poverty. Supposedly, installing ankle monitors is a way to get people out of jail. But because companies charge the wearers daily fees they often can’t keep up with — and because their devices make it especially hard to land or hold down a job — the practice ends up sweeping more people behind bars. Kofman masterfully weaves a tale of bodies controlled by private firms, of lives upended by machines that were supposed to set them free. As one young man puts it, “I get in trouble for living. For being me.”
— Contributed by Eric Boodman
By Martin Enserink, Science
Photography by Tom Bouyer, Expedition 5300
Journalist Martin Enserink journeyed high into the Andes to write about research into the effects of chronic mountain sickness — traveling, effectively, into thin air. He and photographer Tom Bouyer, whose striking photographs make this a visually arresting piece, traveled to La Rinconada, Peru, the world’s highest settlement and a gold mining town. If that activity draws to mind the wild, wild west, hang on to that thought. Enserink described La Riconada, which is north of Lake Titicaca, as “Madmaxian,” observing that the researchers typically retreat to their hotel rooms by 8 p.m. for safety’s sake.
This forgotten part of the world is perilous for other reasons. People living in an environment with half the oxygen available to lungs at sea level can experience a host of physical ailments. These researchers would like to pave the way to therapies for chronic mountain sickness, but first need to better define what living and working at this altitude does to human bodies. It’s a fascinating read.
— Contributed by Helen Branswell
Sheriffs’ Ads Slammed Drug Imports, and Big Pharma Helped Pay the Tab
By Ben Elgin, Bloomberg
At first, the foreboding ads flooding D.C.-area television sets didn’t make much sense: Why would an advocacy group representing America’s sheriffs care whether states can import prescription drugs from Canada? Bloomberg investigated and found an answer: The pharmaceutical industry was funding the ads through an intermediary group, the Partnership for Safe Medicines. In a year already dominated by heavy-handed lobbying and advocacy surrounding prescription drug pricing, Bloomberg spotlighted one of the most brazen examples of indirect ad campaigns meant to gin up antagonism toward attempts at lowering drug prices.
— Contributed by Lev Facher
The Birth-Tissue Profiteers
By Caroline Chen, ProPublica
Chen’s exhaustive investigation of the unregulated $2 billion stem cell industry showed how questionable marketing practices and misleading scientific claims are duping patients into paying thousands of dollars for injections of amniotic stem cells that don’t work. Chen’s work prompted the Food and Drug Administration to ramp up its enforcement efforts.
— Contributed by Adam Feuerstein
Martin Shkreli Steers His Old Company From Prison—With Contraband Cellphone
By Rob Copeland and Bradley Hope, Wall Street Journal
This is the story of how Martin Shkreli, the cartoonishly disgraced biotech entrepreneur, continued to run his synonymous-with-greed drug company from federal prison. There are memorable cameos from inmates called “Krispy” and “D-Block,” fascinating details about a corporate power struggle, and an Austrian interior designer who made a regrettable investment. But the star of course is Shkreli, whose jailhouse persona lands somewhere between Jordan Belfort and Pepe the Frog. Despite lots of seemingly reasonable advice to just give it a rest, he remains convinced of his own gift for drug development and incapable of ever, for any reason, logging off.
— Contributed by Damian Garde
Heart Attack at 49—America’s Biggest Killer Makes a Deadly Comeback
By Betsy McKay, Wall Street Journal
Our job as journalists is to notice the obvious, and this story does that brilliantly. For years, cardiovascular disease has been in decline, and it was expected to fall below cancer as the leading cause of death. In the words of Robert Anderson, chief of the CDC’s mortality statistics branch, “It’s highly unlikely given the current trend that there will be a crossover anytime soon.” In fact, the rates of heart attack and stroke mortality among people in their 40s and 50s are increasing. The story even takes a paragraph to embrace a celebrity angle, noting the deaths due to stroke of ’90s icons John Singleton, who directed “Boyz N the Hood” and Luke Perry, who played bad boy Dylan McKay on “Beverly Hills, 90210.” But the story does more, explaining how heart disease patients have changed over 20 years. Once, they were men who smoked and had sky-high LDL levels. Now they are younger, more obese, and more likely to be women. The big question left behind is what society can do to put cardiovascular disease back in decline.
— Contributed by Matthew Herper
Do no harm
By Mike Hixenbaugh and Keri Blakinger, NBC News and the Houston Chronicle
In this series, reporters from NBC News and the Houston Chronicle reveal how incorrect determinations of various forms of child abuse have imprisoned relatives or separated them from children. These are incredibly complicated stories involving vulnerable children, and they show how difficult it can be to distinguish between accident and abuse. But the series reveals the ties among children’s hospitals and child welfare and law enforcement agencies and the authority conceded to doctors by the legal system. What comes across is how parents’ worries about a sick or injured child might just be the start of their nightmare.
— Contributed by Andrew Joseph
Human Contact Is Now a Luxury Good
By Nellie Bowles, New York Times
We’ve all heard the stories of the Silicon Valley pioneers who, after having gotten us all hopelessly addicted to our phones, now carefully limit their own children’s screen time. In this smart and provocative news analysis, reporter Nellie Bowles examines that phenomenon — as well as its flip side. She tells the story of a health-tech startup called Care.Coach that employs workers in the Philippines and Latin America to operate digital avatars that live within tables and are being tested as companions for low-income seniors in the U.S. It’s a telling example, she writes, of a growing class divide in how care, education, and all those services and interactions that make up our lives get delivered. “As more screens appear in the lives of the poor, screens are disappearing from the lives of the rich,” Bowles writes. It’s an observation that’s lingered with me — and shaped how I, as a health-tech reporter, think about covering the growing number of health-care inventions that get delivered through screens.
— Contributed by Rebecca Robbins
Carcinogens Have Infiltrated the Generic Drug Supply in the U.S.
By Anna Edney, Susan Berfield, and Evelyn Yu, Bloomberg Businessweek
Bloomberg’s Anna Edney has owned the “generic drugs might kill you” beat literally all year long, from three features over three days in January to a cover story in September to right up to the week she started her maternity leave. (Congratulations, Anna!) Pharmaceutical manufacturing and quality control is rarely the flashiest or the easiest thing to write about. But she and her colleagues showed real problems in the oversight of generic drug factories in the U.S. and overseas — and illustrated the consequences lackluster oversight can have for real people. My hat is also tipped to Justin Metz, who did the simple and perfect cover photo illustration for one of Edney’s stories in the Sept. 16 edition of Businessweek.
— Contributed by Kate Sheridan
The Fertility Doctor’s Secret
By Sarah Zhang, The Atlantic
The Atlantic’s Sarah Zhang has done fantastic reporting this year on the cultural ramifications of consumer DNA testing, including this story about an Indiana fertility doctor named Donald Cline. Decades ago, Cline allegedly used his own sperm to impregnate his patients without telling them. DNA tests from 23andMe and Ancestry.com have turned up at least 50 children Cline fathered with his patients. This story — told with sensitivity and gripping detail — examines how those children found each other and how Cline’s actions have impacted their lives.
— Contributed by Megan Thielking