These Abortion Drugs Are Proven Safe and Effective. Why Can't Patients Use Them?
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
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 is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.