Rob Stein

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.

An award-winning science journalist with more than 25 years of experience, Stein mostly covers health and medicine. He tends to focus on stories that illustrate the intersection of science, health, politics, social trends, ethics, and federal science policy. He tracks genetics, stem cells, cancer research, women's health issues and other science, medical, and health policy news.

Before NPR, Stein worked at The Washington Post for 16 years, first as the newspaper's science editor and then as a national health reporter. Earlier in his career, Stein spent about four years as an editor at NPR's science desk. Before that, he was a science reporter for United Press International (UPI) in Boston and the science editor of the international wire service in Washington.

Stein is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He completed a journalism fellowship at the Harvard School of Public Health, a program in science and religion at the University of Cambridge, and a summer science writer's workshop at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass.

Stein's work has been honored by many organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association of Health Care Journalists.

That word "microbiome" — describing the collection of bacteria that live in and on our bodies — keeps popping up. This time, researchers say that children whose parents clean their pacifiers by sucking them might be less likely to develop allergic conditions because of how their parents' saliva changes their microbiomes.

Scientists have discovered what may be an important new risk factor for heart disease. And here's the surprising twist: The troublesome substance seems to be a waste product left behind by bacteria in our guts as they help us digest lecithin — a substance plentiful in red meat, eggs, liver and certain other foods.

Doctors say the research further illustrates the complicated relationship we have with the microbes living inside us, and could lead to new ways to prevent heart attacks and strokes.

Scientists reported Wednesday that they had developed a way to measure how much pain people are experiencing by scanning their brains.

The researchers hope the technique will help doctors treat pain better, but the work is also raising concerns about whether the technique might interfere with doctors simply listening to their patients.

Now, when someone is in pain, a doctor has no way to judge its severity except to ask questions, a method that often is inadequate.

Scientists say they have found a way to get a glimpse of people's dreams.

"Our results show that we can predict what a person's seeing during dreams," says Yukiyasu Kamitani, a researcher at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan.

Philosophers, poets and psychologists have long shared a fascination with dreams. But Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley says solving the mystery of our dreams is one tough problem.

More than 1 million people are dying prematurely every year from air pollution in China, according to a new analysis.

"This is the highest toll in the world and it really reflects the very high levels of air pollution that exist in China today," says Robert O'Keefe of the Health Effects Institute in Boston, who presented the findings in Beijing this week.

A controversial government proposal to test the anthrax vaccine in children would be unethical without first conducting much more research, a presidential commission concluded Tuesday.

"The federal government would have to take multiple steps before anthrax vaccine trials with children could be ethically considered," Amy Gutmann, who chairs the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, tells Shots. "It would not be ethical to do it today."

U.S. drivers are much more likely than Europeans to drive while distracted, federal health officials report Thursday.

Nearly 69 percent of Americans who drive say that they talked on their cell phones while driving at least once in the previous month, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That's a lot higher than what was reported by Europeans in another survey. Only 21 percent of British drivers reported chatting on their cell phones while behind the wheel, for example. In Germany and France it was about 40 percent.

Federal officials warned Tuesday that an especially dangerous group of superbugs has become a significant health problem in hospitals throughout the United States.

These germs, known as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, or CRE, have become much more common in the last decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the risk they pose to health is becoming evident.

Hoping to reduce unnecessary antibiotics use, the American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday issued new guidelines for how doctors should diagnose and treat ear infections.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This year's flu vaccine looks like it's not doing much to protect older people. New numbers in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the vaccine has only been effective about a quarter of the time for people 65 and older. NPR's Rob Stein joins me to explain what that means. And Rob, tell us more about these numbers coming from the CDC.

This year's flu vaccine appears to be doing a unusually poor job of protecting the elderly, federal health officials reported Thursday.

Overall, this year's flu vaccine appears to be only about 27 percent effective for people ages 65 and older, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports in this week's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Richard Kessinger loves to hit the gym. But some days he needs a little something to get him pumped up for his weightlifting routine.

"You might be a little bit sore. You might be tired. You might have had too many beers the day before," says Kessinger, 23, of Arlington, Va. "So you might start putting up a set and you get a few reps in and you're like, 'I'm not feeling this. I can't keep going.' "

Baby boomers have a reputation for being addicted to exercise and obsessed with eating well.

But that story didn't jibe with what physician Dana E. King and his colleagues see walking through the door of their family practice every day in Morgantown, W.Va.

A key federal panel Friday recommended placing new restrictions on Vicodin and similar prescription painkillers.

At the conclusion of an emotional two-day hearing, the Food and Drug Administration advisory committee voted 19-10 to recommend the agency change how drugs that contain the opioid hydrocodone are classified as controlled substances.

A few years ago, a doctor started prescribing Michael Israel painkillers for bad cramps in his gut. Israel had been struggling with Crohn's disease, a chronic digestive disorder, since he was a teenager.

"So he was prescribed, you know, Lortab, or Vicodin or whatever. You know, they would flip-flop it from one to another," says Avi Israel, Michael's father.

Then one day, Michael confessed that something was wrong.

Federal health officials say this year's flu season shaping up to be especially severe for the elderly.

According to the latest update from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people age 65 and older who are getting the flu jumped sharply in the last week or so. They are being hospitalized at a rate of about 82 per 100,000 cases. That's the rate that is seen during severe seasons, officials said.

Federal healthy officials said Friday there are some early signs this year's flu season may be easing in some parts of the country. But they stressed it's far too early to tell whether the flu season has peaked.

The number of states reporting widespread flu activity is up to 47, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But flu activity nationally fell slightly in the CDC's most recent data. Five states reported less flu than a week earlier, according to the CDC.

The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday that it was requiring companies that make Ambien and similar sleeping pills to sharply cut the doses of the drugs.

This year's flu season started about a month early, prompting federal health officials to warn it could be one of the worst in years. They're urging everyone to get their flu shots.

But like every flu season, there are lots of reports of people complaining that they got their shot but still got the flu. What's up with that?

Well, as Michael Jhung of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains, there are lots of possible reasons.

Katie Alonzo was stunned when doctors told her they couldn't get a drug her 10-year-old daughter, Abby, was taking to fight lymphoma.

"When a doctor says, 'This is what you need to take.' And then all of a sudden somebody tells you, 'Well, that is what you need to take but this isn't available so we're going to try this instead,' it's very scary," say Alonzo, who lives in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

When Sarah Gardner was 34, she started getting really worried about whether she'd ever have kids.

"I bought this kit online that said that they could tell you your ovarian reserve," Gardner, now 40, says. These kits claim they can tell women how long their ovaries will continue producing eggs and how much time they have left to get pregnant.

"Well, mine said, 'we advise really you have a baby now.' Well, sadly that letter arrived three weeks after I just split up with my long-term partner. So, yeah, it opened a massive can of worms really," she says.

This year's unusually early flu season is continuing to intensify, federal health officials say.

The number of states now reporting widespread flu activity doubled to eight in the past week, according to the latest update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's.

Last week Alaska, Mississippi, New York and South Carolina were reporting widespread flu. Now, Alabama, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island have joined the list.

We all know that nobody's perfect. But now scientists have documented that fact on a genetic level.

Researchers discovered that normal, healthy people are walking around with a surprisingly large number of mutations in their genes.

It's been well known that everyone has flaws in their DNA, though, for the most part, the defects are harmless. It's been less clear, however, just how many mistakes are lurking in someone's genes.

When Christine Rowan gave birth prematurely in August, her new baby was having problems breathing. So Rowan brought her daughter, Zoe, to the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C., for genetic testing.

"It's funny because when we first had the testing done, we didn't even really think about the fact the testing was going to lay out all of her DNA," says Rowan, 32, who lives in Northern Virginia.

But while Rowan and her husband were waiting for the results, questions started popping into their heads.

Members of a House subcommittee clashed repeatedly Wednesday with U.S. Food and Drug Commissioner Margaret Hamburg over the outbreak of meningitis caused by contaminated steroid injections.

Public health officials are warning that people in areas devastated by Superstorm Sandy face many risks in the aftermath and are urging people to protect themselves from health threats in the water, air and even their refrigerators.

As millions of people try to put their lives back together, the most obvious threat is the floodwaters themselves. In many places, the water could be a toxic stew.

Bill Sneddon had a feeling he was in trouble when his doctor called with his latest test results.

"I just had a premonition that something's not right," said Sneddon, 68, of Ocean Township, N.J.

And, sure enough, Sneddon's instincts were right. He had prostate cancer.

"Well, it's an eye-opener, you know. I didn't know if I had to buy a yard sale sign, you know," he said. "It's a shocking thing ... It always happens to someone else."

Geneticist reported Wednesday that they had crossed a threshold long considered off-limits: They have made changes in human DNA that can be passed down from one generation to the next.

The researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland say they took the step to try to prevent women from giving birth to babies with genetic diseases. But the research is raising a host of ethical, social and moral questions.

Doctors who specialize in treating infertility are making a big change in their position on a controversial practice. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) has concluded that freezing women's eggs to treat infertility should no longer be considered "experimental."

The group plans to officially announce the change on Monday.

Scientists in Japan report they have created eggs from stem cells in a mammal for the first time. And the researchers went on to breed healthy offspring from the eggs they created.

While the experiments involved mice, the work is being met with excitement — and questions — about doing the same thing for humans someday.

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