Tinu Abayomi-Paul works as a writer and activist, plus one unwanted job: Trying to fill her opioid prescription. She says that some pharmacists laugh and tell her that no one needs the amount of pain medication that she is seeking. Another pharmacist near her home in Venus, Tex., refused to fill more than seven days of a 30-day prescription.
To get a new prescription—partially filled opioid prescriptions can’t be dispensed later—Abayomi-Paul needed to return to her doctor’s office. But without her medication, she was having too much pain to travel there, much less return to the pharmacy. She rationed out the pills over several weeks, an agonizing compromise that left her unable to work, interact with her children, sleep restfully, or leave the house. “Don’t I deserve to do more than survive?” she says.
Abayomi-Paul’s pain results from a degenerative spine disorder, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, and more than a dozen other diagnoses and disabilities. She is part of a growing group of people with chronic pain who have been negatively impacted by the fallout from efforts to prevent opioid overdose deaths.
Guidelines for dispensing these pills are complicated because many opioids, like codeine, oxycodone, and morphine, are prescribed legally for pain. Yet, deaths from opioids have increased rapidly since 1999 and become a national emergency. Many of them, such as heroin, are used illegally. The CDC identified three surges in opioid use: an increase in opioid prescriptions in the ‘90s, a surge of heroin around 2010, and an influx of fentanyl and other powerful synthetic opioids in 2013.
As overdose deaths grew, so did public calls to address them, prompting the CDC to change its prescription guidelines in 2016. The new guidelines suggested limiting medication for acute pain to a seven-day supply, capping daily doses of morphine, and other restrictions. Some statistics suggest that these policies have worked; from 2016 to 2019, prescriptions for opiates fell 44 percent. Physicians also started progressively lowering opioid doses for patients, a practice called tapering. A study tracking nearly 100,000 Medicare subscribers on opioids found that about 13 percent of patients were tapering in 2012, and that number increased to about 23 percent by 2017.
But some physicians may be too aggressive with this tapering strategy. About one in four people had doses reduced by more than 10 percent per week, a rate faster than the CDC recommends. The approach left people like Abayomi-Paul without the medication they needed. Every year, Abayomi-Paul says, her prescriptions are harder to fill. David Brushwood, a pharmacy professor who specializes in policy and outcomes at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says opioid dosing isn’t one-size-fits-all. “Patients need to be taken care of individually, not based on what some government agency says they need,” he says.
‘This is not survivable’
Health policy and disability rights attorney Erin Gilmer advocated for people with pain, using her own experience with chronic pain and a host of medical conditions as a guidepost. She launched an advocacy website, Healthcare as a Human Right, and shared her struggles on Twitter: “This pain is more than anything I've endured before and I've already been through too much. Yet because it's not simply identified no one believes it's as bad as it is. This is not survivable.”
When her pain dramatically worsened midway through 2021, Gilmer’s posts grew ominous: “I keep thinking it can't possibly get worse but somehow every day is worse than the last.”
The CDC revised its guidelines in 2022 after criticisms that people with chronic pain were being undertreated, enduring dangerous withdrawal symptoms, and suffering psychological distress. (Long-term opioid use can cause physical dependency, an adaptive reaction that is different than the compulsive misuse associated with a substance use disorder.) It was too late for Gilmer. On July 7, 2021, the 38-year-old died by suicide.
Last August, an Ohio district court rulingset forth a new requirement for Walgreens, Walmart, and CVS pharmacists in two counties. These pharmacists must now document opioid prescriptions that are turned down, even for customers who have no previous purchases at that pharmacy, and they’re required to share this information with other locations in the same chain. None of the three pharmacies responded to an interview request from Leaps.org.
In a practice called red flagging, pharmacists may label a prescription suspicious for a variety of reasons, such as if a pharmacist observes an unusually high dose, a long distance from the patient’s home to the pharmacy, or cash payment. Pharmacists may question patients or prescribers to resolve red flags but, regardless of the explanation, they’re free to refuse to fill a prescription.
As the risk of litigation has grown, so has finger-pointing, says Seth Whitelaw, a compliance consultant at Whitelaw Compliance Group in West Chester, PA, who advises drug, medical device, and biotech companies. Drugmakers accused in National Prescription Opioid Litigation (NPOL), a complex set of thousands of cases on opioid epidemic deaths, which includes the Ohio district case, have argued that they shouldn’t be responsible for the large supply of opiates and overdose deaths. Yet, prosecutors alleged that these pharmaceutical companies hid addiction and overdose risks when labeling opioids, while distributors and pharmacists failed to identify suspicious orders or scripts.
Patients and pharmacists fear red flags
The requirements that pharmacists document prescriptions they refuse to fill so far only apply to two counties in Ohio. But Brushwood fears they will spread because of this precedent, and because there’s no way for pharmacists to predict what new legislation is on the way. “There is no definition of a red flag, there are no lists of red flags. There is no instruction on what to do when a red flag is detected. There’s no guidance on how to document red flags. It is a standardless responsibility,” Brushwood says. This adds trepidation for pharmacists—and more hoops to jump through for patients.
“I went into the doctor one day here and she said, ‘I'm going to stop prescribing opioids to all my patients effective immediately,” Nicolson says.
“We now have about a dozen studies that show that actually ripping somebody off their medication increases their risk of overdose and suicide by three to five times, destabilizes their health and mental health, often requires some hospitalization or emergency care, and can cause heart attacks,” says Kate Nicolson, founder of the National Pain Advocacy Centerbased in Boulder, Colorado. “It can kill people.” Nicolson was in pain for decades due to a surgical injury to the nerves leading to her spinal cord before surgeries fixed the problem.
Another issue is that primary care offices may view opioid use as a reason to turn down new patients. In a 2021 study, secret shoppers called primary care clinics in nine states, identifying themselves as long-term opioid users. When callers said their opioids were discontinued because their former physician retired, as opposed to an unspecified reason, they were more likely to be offered an appointment. Even so, more than 40 percent were refused an appointment. The study authors say their findings suggest that some physicians may try to avoid treating people who use opioids.
Abayomi-Paul says red flagging has changed how she fills prescriptions. “Once I go to one place, I try to [continue] going to that same place because of the amount of records that I have and making sure my medications don’t conflict,” Abayomi-Paul says.
Nicolson moved to Colorado from Washington D.C. in 2015, before the CDC issued its 2016 guidelines. When the guidelines came out, she found the change to be shockingly abrupt. “I went into the doctor one day here and she said, ‘I'm going to stop prescribing opioids to all my patients effective immediately.’” Since then, she’s spoken with dozens of patients who have been red-flagged or simply haven’t been able to access pain medication.
Despite her expertise, Nicolson isn’t positive she could successfully fill an opioid prescription today even if she needed one. At this point, she’s not sure exactly what various pharmacies would view as a red flag. And she’s not confident that these red flags even work. “You can have very legitimate reasons for being 50 miles away or having to go to multiple pharmacies, given that there are drug shortages now, as well as someone refusing to fill [a prescription.] It doesn't mean that you’re necessarily ‘drug seeking.’”
While there’s no easy solution. Whitelaw says clarifying the role of pharmacists and physicians in patient access to opioids could help people get the medication they need. He is seeking policy changes that focus on the needs of people in pain more than the number of prescriptions filled. He also advocates standardizing the definition of red flags and procedures for resolving them. Still, there will never be a single policy that can be applied to all people, explains Brushwood, the University of Florida professor. “You have to make a decision about each individual prescription.”
Some roommate frustration can be expected, whether it’s a sink piled high with crusty dishes or crumbs where a clean tabletop should be. Now, research suggests a less familiar issue: person-to-person transmission of shared bacterial strains in our gut and oral microbiomes. For the first time, the lab of Nicola Segata, a professor of genetics and computational biology at the University of Trento, located in Italy, has shown that bacteria of the microbiome are transmitted between many individuals, not just infants and their mothers, in ways that can’t be explained by their shared diet or geography.
It’s a finding with wide-ranging implications, yet frustratingly few predictable outcomes. Our microbiomes are an ever-growing and changing collection of helpful and harmful bacteria that we begin to accumulate the moment we’re born, but experts are still struggling to unravel why and how bacteria from one person’s gut or mouth become established in another person’s microbiome, as opposed to simply passing through.
“If we are looking at the overall species composition of the microbiome, then there is an effect of age of course, and many other factors,” Segata says. “But if we are looking at where our strains are coming from, 99 percent of them are only present in other people’s guts. They need to come from other guts.”
If we could better understand this process, we might be able to control and use it; perhaps hospital patients could avoid infections from other patients when their microbiome is depleted by antibiotics and their immune system is weakened, for example. But scientists are just beginning to link human microbiomes with various ailments. Growing evidence shows that our microbiomes steer our long-term health, impacting conditions like obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
Previous work from Segata’s lab and others illuminated the ways bacteria are passed from mothers to infants during the first few months of life during vaginal birth, breastfeeding and other close contact. And scientists have long known that people in close proximity tend to share bacteria. But the factors related to that overlap, such as genetics and diet, were unclear, especially outside the mother-baby dyad.
“If we look at strain sharing between a mother and an infant at five years of age, for example, we cannot really tell which was due to transmission at birth and which is due to continued transmission because of contact,” Segata says. Experts hypothesized that they could be caused by bacterial similarities in the environment itself, genetics, or bacteria from shared foods that colonized the guts of people in close contact.
Strain sharing was highest in mother-child pairs, with 96 percent of them sharing strains, and only slightly lower in members of shared households, at 95 percent.
In Italy, researchers led by Mireia Valles-Colomer, including Segata, hoped to unravel this mystery. They compared data from 9,715 stool and saliva samples in 31 genomic datasets with existing metadata. Scientists zoomed in on variations in each bacterial strain down to the individual level. They examined not only mother-child pairs, but people living in the same household, adult twins, and people living in the same village in a level of detail that wasn’t possible before, due to its high cost and difficulties in retrieving data about interactions between individuals, Segata explained.
“This paper is, with high granularity, quantifying the percent sharing that you expect between different types of social interactions, controlling for things like genetics and diet,” Gibbons says. Strain sharing was highest in mother-child pairs, with 96 percent of them sharing strains, and only slightly lower in members of shared households, at 95 percent. And at least half of the mother-infant pairs shared 30 percent of their strains; the median was 12 percent among people in shared households. Yet, there was no sharing among eight percent of adult twins who lived separately, and 16 percent of people within villages who resided in different households. The results were published in Nature.
It’s not a regional phenomenon. Although the types of bacterial strains varied depending on whether people lived in western and eastern nations — datasets were drawn from 20 countries on five continents — the patterns of sharing were much the same. To establish these links, scientists focused on individual variations in shared bacterial strains, differences that create unique bacterial “fingerprints” in each person, while controlling for variables like diet, demonstrating that the bacteria had been transmitted between people and were not the result of environmental similarities.
The impact of this bacterial sharing isn’t clear, but shouldn’t be viewed with trepidation, according to Sean Gibbons, a microbiome scientist at the nonprofit Institute for Systems Biology.
“The vast majority of these bugs are actually either benign or beneficial to our health, and the fact that we're swapping and sharing them and that we can take someone else's strain and supplement or better diversify our own little garden is not necessarily a bad thing,” he says.
"There are hundreds of billions of dollars of investment capital moving into these microbiome therapeutic companies; bugs as drugs, so to speak,” says Sean Gibbons, a microbiome scientist at the Institute for Systems Biology.
Everyday habits like exercising and eating vegetables promote a healthy, balanced gut microbiome, which is linked to better metabolic and immune function, and fewer illnesses. While many people’s microbiomes contain bacteria like C. diff or E. coli, these bacteria don’t cause diseases in most cases because they’re present in low levels. But a microbiome that’s been wiped out by, say, antibiotics, may no longer keep these bacteria in check, allowing them to proliferate and make us sick.
“A big challenge in the microbiome field is being able to rationally predict whether, if you're exposed to a particular bug, it will stick in the context of your specific microbiome,” Gibbons says.
Gibbons predicts that explorations of microbe-based therapeutics will be “exploding” in the coming decades. “There are hundreds of billions of dollars of investment capital moving into these microbiome therapeutic companies; bugs as drugs, so to speak,” he says. Rather than taking a mass-marketed probiotic, a precise understanding of an individual’s microbiome could help target the introduction of just the right bacteria at just the right time to prevent or treat a particular illness.
Because the current study did not differentiate between different types of contact or relationships among household members sharing bacterial strains or determine the direction of transmission, Segata says his current project is examining children in daycare settings and tracking their microbiomes over time to understand the role genetics and everyday interactions play in the level of transmission that occurs.
This relatively newfound ability to trace bacterial variants to minute levels has unlocked the chance for scientists to untangle when and how bacteria leap from one microbiome to another. As researchers come to better understand the factors that permit a strain to establish itself within a microbiome, they could uncover new strategies to control these microbes, harnessing the makeup of each microbiome to help people to resist life-altering medical conditions.
Forget taking a deep breath. Around the world, 99 percent of people breathe air polluted to unsafe levels, according to data from the World Health Organization. Activities such as burning fossil fuels release greenhouse gases that contribute to air pollution, which could lead to heart disease, stroke, asthma, emphysema, and some types of cancer.
“The burden of disease attributable to air pollution is now estimated to be on a par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking, and air pollution is now recognized as the single biggest environmental threat to human health,” wrote the authors of a 2021 WHO report.
The majority of lung cancer is attributed to smoking. But as pollution levels have increased, and anti-smoking campaigns have discouraged smoking, the proportion of lung cancers diagnosed in non-smokers has grown. The CDC estimates that 10 to 20 percent of lung cancers in the U.S. currently occur in non-smokers.
The mechanism between air pollution and the development of lung cancer has been unclear, but researchers at London’s Francis Crick Institute recently made an important breakthrough in understanding the connection. Lead investigator Charles Swanton presented this research last month at a conference in Paris.
Pollution awakens mutations
The Crick Institute scientists were able to identify a new link between common air pollutants and non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC). They focused on pollutants called particulate matter, or PM, that are 2.5 microns wide, narrower than human cells.
Most cancer diagnosed in non-smoking people is NSCLC, but this type of cancer hasn’t received the same research attention as more common lung cancers found in smokers, according to Clare Weeden, a cancer researcher at the Crick Institute and a co-author of the study.
“This is a really underserved and under-researched population that we really need to tackle, as well as lung cancers that occur in smokers,” she says. “Lung cancer is the number one cancer killer worldwide.”
In the past, some researchers believed air pollution caused mutations that led to cancer. Others believed these mutations could remain dormant without any detriment to health until pollutants or other stressors triggered them to become cancerous. Reviving the latter hypothesis that carcinogens may activate pre-existing mutations, instead of directly causing them, the Crick researchers analyzed samples from 463,679 people in the UK and parts of Asia, noting mutations and comparing changes in gene expression in mice and human cells.
“The mutation can exist in a nascent clone without causing cancer,” says Emilia Lim, a bioinformatics expert and a co-first author of the Crick study. “It is the carcinogen that promotes a conducive environment for this one little clone to grow and expand into cancer. Through our work, we were able to revive excitement for this hypothesis and bring it to light.”
The study explains a confusing pattern of lung cancer developing, particularly in women, despite a lack of environmental risk factors like smoking, secondhand smoke, or radon exposure. The culprit in these cases may have been too much PM 2.5 exposure.
Other researchers had previously identified a link between mutations in certain genes that control epidermal growth factor receptors, or EGFR mutations, and the development of NSCLC. In a 2019 study of 250 people with this type of cancer, about 32 percent had the mutation. Women are more likely to have EGFR mutations than men.
Not everyone who has the EGFR mutation will develop lung cancer. Respirologist Stephen Lam studies lung cancer at the BC Cancer Research Centre in Vancouver, Canada, but was not involved in the Crick Institute research. He says the study explains a confusing pattern of lung cancer developing, particularly in women, despite a lack of environmental risk factors like smoking, secondhand smoke, or radon exposure. The culprit in these cases may have been too much PM 2.5 exposure.
More exposure leads to inflammation and lesions
The Crick researchers found that an excess of PM 2.5 in the air sparked an inflammatory process in cells within the lung. This inflammation set the stage for NSCLC to develop in people and mice with existing EGFR mutations.
The researchers also exposed mice without EGFR mutations to PM 2.5 pollution—an experiment that couldn’t be ethically conducted in humans—to link pollution exposure to NSCLC. The mice experiments also showed that NSCLC is dose-dependent; higher levels of exposure were associated with higher number of cancerous lesions forming.
Ultimately, the study “fundamentally changed how we view lung cancer in people who have never smoked,” said Swanton in a Crick Institute press release. “Cells with cancer-causing mutations accumulate naturally as we age, but they are normally inactive. We’ve demonstrated that air pollution wakes these cells up in the lungs, encouraging them to grow and potentially form tumors.”
Preventing cancer before it begins
Targeted therapies already exist for people with EGFR mutations who’ve developed NSCLC, but they have many side effects, according to Weeden. Researchers hope that making more definitive links between pollutants and cancer could help prevent people with EGFR or other mutations from developing lung cancer in the first place.
Along those lines, as an additional component of their study presented last month, the Crick researchers were able to prevent cancer in mice that had the EGFR mutations by blocking inflammation. They used an antibody to inhibit a protein called interleukin 1 beta, which plays a key role in inflammation. Scientists could eventually use such antibodies or other therapies to make a drug treatment that people can take to stop cancer in its tracks, even if they live in highly polluted areas.
Such potential could reach beyond lung cancer; in the past, Crick and other researchers have also found associations between exposure to air pollution and mesothelioma, as well as cancers of the small intestine, lip, mouth, and throat. These links could be meaningful to a growing number of people as climate change intensifies, and with increases in air pollution from fossil fuel combustion and natural disasters like forest fires.
Plus, air pollution is just one external condition that can flip the switch of these inflammatory pathways. Identifying a link between pollution and cancer “has wide ramifications for many other environmental factors that may [play] similar roles,” Weedon says. She hopes that the Crick study and future research in this area will offer some hope for non-smokers frustrated by cancer diagnoses.