A decade ago, Elizabeth Summers' options for birth control suddenly narrowed. Doctors diagnosed her with Factor V Leiden, a rare genetic disorder, after discovering blood clots in her lungs. The condition increases the risk of clotting, so physicians told Summers to stay away from the pill and other hormone-laden contraceptives. "Modern medicine has generally failed to provide me with an effective and convenient option," she says.

But new birth control options are emerging for women like Summers. These alternatives promise to provide more choices to women who can't ingest hormones or don't want to suffer their unpleasant side effects.

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Jared Whitlock
Jared Whitlock is a freelance health reporter. His work has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, WIRED and Voice of San Diego, with support from USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He's a current fellow in MIT's Knight Science Journalism program.
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Robert Thomas was a devoted runner, gym goer, and crew member on a sailing team in San Diego when, in his 40s, he noticed that his range of movement was becoming more limited.

He thought he was just getting older, but when he was hiking an uphill trail in Lake Tahoe, he kept tripping over rocks. "I'd never had this happen before," Robert says. "I knew something was wrong but didn't know what it was."

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Emily Mullin
Emily Mullin is a science and biotech journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, National Geographic and Smithsonian Magazine.
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Photo by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.

Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.

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David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.

Sickle cell patient Bridgett Willkie found herself being labeled an addict when she sought an opioid prescription to control her pain.

(Left photo, courtesy of Willkie; on right, photo © by steheap/Adobe)

"That throbbing you feel for the first minute after a door slams on your finger."

This is how Central Florida resident Bridgett Willkie describes the attacks of pain caused by her sickle cell anemia – a genetic blood disorder in which a patient's red blood cells become shaped like sickles and get stuck in blood vessels, thereby obstructing the flow of blood and oxygen.

"I found myself being labeled as an addict and I never was."

Willkie's lifelong battle with the condition has led to avascular necrosis in both of her shoulders, hips, knees and ankles. This means that her bone tissue is dying due to insufficient blood supply (sickle cell anemia is among the medical conditions that can decrease blood flow to one's bones).

"That adds to the pain significantly," she says. "Every time my heart beats, it hurts. And the pain moves. It follows the path of circulation. I liken it to a traffic jam in my veins."

For more than a decade, she received prescriptions for Oxycontin. Then, four years ago, her hematologist – who had been her doctor for 18 years – suffered a fatal heart attack. She says her longtime doctor's replacement lacked experience treating sickle cell patients and was uncomfortable writing her a prescription for opioids. What's more, this new doctor wanted to place her in a drug rehab facility.

"Because I refused to go, he stopped writing my scripts," she says. The ensuing three months were spent at home, detoxing. She describes the pain as unbearable. "Sometimes I just wanted to die."

One of the effects of the opioid epidemic is that many legitimate pain patients have seen their opioids significantly reduced or downright discontinued because of their doctors' fears of over-prescribing addictive medications.

"I found myself being labeled as an addict and I never was...Being treated like a drug-seeking patient is degrading and humiliating," says Willkie, who adds that when she is at the hospital, "it's exhausting arguing with the doctors...You dread them making their rounds because every day they come in talking about weaning you off your meds."

Situations such as these are fraught with tension between patients and doctors, who must remain wary about the risk of over-prescribing powerful and addictive medications. Adding to the complexity is that it can be very difficult to reliably assess a patient's level of physical pain.

However, this difficulty may soon decline, as Indiana University School of Medicine researchers, led by Dr. Alexander B. Niculescu, have reportedly devised a way to objectively assess physical pain by analyzing biomarkers in a patient's blood sample. The results of a study involving more than 300 participants were published earlier this year in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Niculescu – who is both a professor of psychiatry and medical neuroscience at the IU School of Medicine – explains that, when someone is in severe physical pain, a blood sample will show biomarkers related to intracellular adhesion and cell-signaling mechanisms. He adds that some of these biomarkers "have prior convergent evidence from animal or human studies for involvement in pain."

Aside from reliably measuring pain severity, Niculescu says blood biomarkers can measure the degree of one's response to treatment and also assess the risk of future recurrences of pain. He believes this new method's greatest benefit, however, might be the ability to identify a number of non-opioid medications that a particular patient is likely to respond to, based on his or her biomarker profile.

Clearly, such a method could be a gamechanger for pain patients and the professionals who treat them. As of yet, health workers have been forced to make crucial decisions based on their clinical impressions of patients; such impressions are invariably subjective. A method that enables people to prove the extent of their pain could remove the stigma that many legitimate pain patients face when seeking to obtain their needed medicine. It would also improve their chances of receiving sufficient treatment.

Niculescu says it's "theoretically possible" that there are some conditions which, despite being severe, might not reveal themselves through his testing method. But he also says that, "even if the same molecular markers that are involved in the pain process are not reflected in the blood, there are other indirect markers that should reflect the distress."

Niculescu expects his testing method will be available to the medical community at large within one to three years.

Willkie says she would welcome a reliable pain assessment method. Well-aware that she is not alone in her plight, she has more than 500 Facebook friends with sickle cell disease, and she says that "all of their opioid meds have been restricted or cut" as a result of the opioid crisis. Some now feel compelled to find their opioids "on the streets." She says she personally has never obtained opioids this way. Instead, she relies on marijuana to mitigate her pain.

Niculescu expects his testing method will be available to the medical community at large within one to three years: "It takes a while for things to translate from a lab setting to a commercial testing arena."

In the meantime, for Willkie and other patients, "we have to convince doctors and nurses that we're in pain."

Ray Cavanaugh
Ray Cavanaugh is a freelance writer from Massachusetts. He enjoys very long walks, stopping occasionally to indulge in his Kindle Paperwhite.

Due to federal regulations, access to abortion medications is restricted, despite their record of safety and efficacy.

(© maxplay2/Adobe)

A few days before Christmas 2015, Paige Alexandria, a 28-year-old counselor at the Austin Women's Health Center in Texas, found out she was pregnant.

Alexandria had missed the cutoff for a medication abortion by three days.

"It was an unplanned pregnancy, and instantaneously I knew I needed an abortion," Alexandria recalls. Already a mother of two children, one with special needs, a third child was not something Alexandria and her husband felt prepared to take on. "Mentally, I knew my limit. I wasn't prepared for a third and I didn't want one," she says.

At an ultrasound appointment one week later, scans showed she was a little over eight weeks pregnant. Alexandria opted to have an abortion as soon as possible, and preferably with medication. "I really wanted to avoid a surgical abortion," she says. "It sounded a lot more invasive, and I'm already uncomfortable with pap smears and pelvic exams, so I initially went in wanting to do the pill."

But at the time, medication guidelines stipulated that one of the pills, called Mifepristone, could only be prescribed to end a pregnancy at eight weeks gestation or earlier – Alexandria had missed the cutoff by three days. If she wanted to end the pregnancy, she would need to undergo a surgical abortion, otherwise known as a vacuum aspiration abortion.

With a vacuum aspiration abortion, doctors dilate the cervix and manually aspirate out the contents of the uterus. Medication abortion, on the other hand, consists of the patient taking two pills – Mifepristone, which blocks the hormones that help the pregnancy develop, and Misoprostol, which empties the uterus over a period of days, identical to a miscarriage.

Alexandria was upset about the change of plans but resolute in her decision to end the pregnancy. "The fact that I didn't really have a choice in how my procedure was performed has made the experience just a little more sensitive for me," she says. She scheduled the earliest available appointment for a surgical abortion.

Paige Alexandria would have chosen to terminate her pregnancy with medication if the regulations were less stringent.

(Photo courtesy of Alexandria)

Like Alexandria, many people looking to terminate a pregnancy opt to do so with medication. According to research from the Guttmacher Institute, medication abortions accounted for nearly 40 percent of all abortions in the year 2017 – a marked increase from 2001, when medication abortions only accounted for roughly five percent of terminations. Taken 24-48 hours apart, Mifepristone and Misoprostol have a 95-99 percent success rate in terminating pregnancies up to 63 days – or nine weeks – of gestation, according to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG).

But even though the World Health Organization (WHO) considers medical abortion to be highly safe and effective, the medication is still carefully guarded in the United States: Mifepristone is only available for terminating pregnancies up to 10 weeks gestation, per the FDA, even though limited research suggests that both are safe and effective at terminating pregnancies between 12 and 20 weeks.

Additionally, a separate set of regulations known as a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS) means that patients can only take Mifepristone under specific circumstances. Mifepristone must be distributed in person by a healthcare provider – usually interpreted in most states as a doctor or nurse practitioner – who has registered with the drug's manufacturer. The medication cannot be distributed through a pharmacy, so doctors who wish to provide the drug must stock the medication in-office, and both the provider and the patient must sign a form that warns them of the "risk of serious complications associated with Mifepristone," according to the FDA.

"REMS is a set of restrictions that the FDA puts on the distribution of drugs it considers dangerous or risky in some way," says Dr. Elizabeth Raymond, an OB-GYN and senior medical associate at Gynuity Health Projects. Although not always called REMS, these restrictions have been imposed on Mifepristone since the medication was approved by the FDA in 2000, Raymond says.

Raymond is part of a growing number of physicians and researchers who want to eliminate the REMS requirements for Mifepristone, also known by its brand name Mifeprex. In 2017, Raymond and several other physicians authored a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) arguing that Mifepristone is extremely safe and needlessly over-regulated.

"When the FDA first approved [Mifepristone] and imposed these requirements, they might have made sense 19 years ago when there was limited information about the use of this treatment in the United States," says Dr. Daniel Grossman, director at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at UCSF and co-author of the 2017 report in the NEJM. "Now, after 19 years, it's clear that this medication is very safe, and safer than a lot of others available in a pharmacy."

Since 2000, Mifepristone has been implicated in 19 deaths, making its mortality rate 0.00063 percent.

According to their research, over three million people have taken Mifepristone since it was approved in 2000. Since then, Mifepristone has been implicated in 19 deaths, making its mortality rate 0.00063 percent. Even then, the risk is inflated, Grossman says.

"The requirement is that practitioners need to report any deaths that occur after taking these medications, and so you'll see deaths included in that figure which are homicides or suicides or something unrelated to taking Mifepristone," says Grossman. In contrast, Acetaminophen – better known as Tylenol – was associated with 458 overdose deaths between 1990 and 1998, as well as 56,000 emergency room visits and 26,000 hospitalizations. Sildenafil, better known as Viagra, was linked to 762 deaths in the first twenty months after it was approved by the FDA. Yet neither Tylenol nor Viagra have been burdened with the same REMS restrictions as Mifepristone.

"It's clearly about more than just the safety of the medication at this point," says Grossman. "It's more about stigma related to abortion and politics."

For people who want a medication abortion, the REMS requirements mean they often need to take off work to schedule a doctor's appointment, arrange for transportation and childcare, and then arrange an additional doctor's appointment days afterward to take the second dose of medication. While surgical abortion procedures are quicker (usually a one-day outpatient procedure, depending on gestation), many people prefer having the abortion in the comfort of their home or surrounded by family instead.

Paige Alexandria, who counsels people seeking abortions at her job, says that survivors of sexual violence often prefer medical abortions to surgical ones. "A lot of time survivors have a trauma associated with medical instruments or having pelvic exams, and so they're more comfortable taking a pill," she says.

But REMS also creates a barrier for healthcare providers, Grossman says. Stocking the medication in-office is "a hassle" and "expensive," while others are reluctant to register their name with the drug manufacturer, fearing harassment or violence from anti-choice protestors. As a result, the number of practitioners willing to provide medical abortions nationwide is severely limited. According to Grossman's own research published in the journal Obstetrics and Gynecology, 28 percent of OBGYNs admitted they would administer medication abortions if it were possible to write a prescription for Mifepristone rather than stock it in-office.

Amazingly, the restrictions on Mifepristone have loosened since it first came on the market. In 2016, the FDA updated the guidelines on Mifepristone to allow its use until 10 weeks gestation, up from eight weeks. But doctors say the REMS restrictions should be eliminated completely so that people can obtain abortions as early as possible.

"REMS restrictions inhibit people from being able to get a timely abortion," says Raymond, who stresses that abortion is generally more comfortable, more affordable, and safer for women the earlier it's done. "Abortion is very safe no matter when you get it, but it's also easier because there's less risk for bleeding, infections, or other complications," Raymond says. Abortions that occur earlier than eight weeks of gestation have a complication rate of less than one percent, while an abortion done at 12 or 13 weeks has a three to six percent chance of complications.

And even for people who want a medication abortion early on in their pregnancy, REMS restrictions make it so that they may not have time to obtain it before the 10-week period lapses, Raymond says.

"If you're seven weeks pregnant but it takes you three weeks to figure out travel and childcare arrangements to go into the doctor and take this medication, now you're at the cutoff date," she says. "Even if you manage to get an abortion at nine weeks, that's still a later gestational age, and so the risks are increased."

In 2016, at a little over nine weeks gestation, Alexandria completed her abortion by having a D&E. But because she didn't have anyone to drive her home after the procedure, she wasn't able to have sedation throughout, something she describes as "traumatic."

"I had the abortion completely aware and coherent, and paired with the fact that I hadn't even wanted a surgical abortion in the first place made it harder to deal with," Alexandria says.

"When you're just a day or two past eight weeks and you want an abortion – why is medication not immediately available?"

Today, Alexandria shares her story publicly to advocate for abortion care. Although she doesn't regret her surgical abortion and acknowledges that not everyone experiences surgical abortion the same way she did, she does wish that she could have gone a different route.

"If I had to do it over, I would still try to do the pill, because [the surgical abortion] was such a terrifying experience," she says. "When you're just a day or two past eight weeks and you want an abortion – why is medication not immediately available? It just doesn't make sense."

Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.