Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.

Harris has traveled to all seven continents for NPR. His reports have originated from Timbuktu, the South Pole, the Galapagos Islands, Beijing during the SARS epidemic, the center of Greenland, the Amazon rain forest, the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis), and Japan to cover the nuclear aftermath of the 2011 tsunami.
In 2010, Harris' reporting revealed that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. That revelation led the federal government to make a more realistic assessment of the extent of the spill.

Harris covered climate change for decades. He reported from the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and including Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Harris was a major contributor to NPR's award-winning 2007-2008 "Climate Connections" series.

Over the course of his career, Harris has been the recipient of many prestigious awards. Those include the American Geophysical Union's 2013 Presidential Citation for Science and Society. He shared the 2009 National Academy of Sciences Communication Award and was a finalist again in 2011. In 2002, Harris was elected an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society. Harris shared a 1995 Peabody Award for investigative reporting on NPR about the tobacco industry. Since 1988, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has honored Harris three times with its science journalism award.

Before joining NPR, Harris was a science writer for the San Francisco Examiner. From 1981 to 1983, Harris was a staff writer at The Tri-Valley Herald in Livermore, California, covering science, technology, and health issues related to the nuclear weapons lab in Livermore. He started his career as an AAAS Mass Media Science Fellow at the now-defunct Washington (DC) Star.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, and is past president of the National Association of Science Writers. He serves on the board of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

A California native, Harris returned to the University of California-Santa Cruz in 2012, to give a commencement address at Crown College, where he had given a valedictory address at his own graduation. He earned a bachelor's degree at the school in biology, with highest honors.

The U.S. surgeon general lists 21 deadly diseases that are caused by smoking. Now, a study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine points to more than a dozen other diseases that apparently add to the tobacco death toll.

To arrive at this conclusion, scientists from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and several universities tracked nearly a million people for a decade and recorded their causes of death.

Dr. Margaret Hamburg is stepping down from one of the toughest jobs in the federal government: commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

The agency regulates drugs and medical devices and has an important role in food safety. And it's a highly contentious job. No matter what you do, someone's going to complain that you're either too easy on industry or standing in the way of progress.

On Monday, the first 12 volunteers received an experimental Ebola vaccine in Liberia, launching vaccine trials there. Over the next year or so, scientists hope to inject 27,000 volunteers. The goal is to test two different shots that could protect people from the deadly disease.

You may soon be able to donate your personal data to science. There are plans afoot to find 1 million Americans to volunteer for a new Precision Medicine Initiative that would anonymously link medical records, genetic readouts, details about an individual's gut bacteria, lifestyle information and maybe even data from your Fitbit.

Viruses are usually thought of as the bad guys — causing everything from Ebola and AIDS to hepatitis and measles. But scientists have been following the curious story of a particular virus that might actually be good for you.

The virus is called GB Virus-C, and more than a billion people alive today have apparently been infected with it at some point during their lives, says Dr. Jack Stapleton, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Iowa.

Researchers at Harvard and Yale have used some extreme gene-manipulation tools to engineer safety features into designer organisms.

This work goes far beyond traditional genetic engineering, which involves moving a gene from one organism to another. In this case, they're actually rewriting the language of genetics.

The goal is to make modified organisms safer to use, and also to protect them against viruses that can wreak havoc on pharmaceutical production.

Asthma affects children regardless of where they live and whether they are rich or poor. But scientists have long thought that living in poor urban neighborhoods adds an extra risk for this troublesome lung inflammation. A new study suggests that's not necessarily the case.

Asthma is often triggered by something in the environment, so in the 1960s, scientists started looking for places where asthma was especially bad.

Though the United States is still leading the world in research related to diseases, it is rapidly losing its edge, according to an analysis in the American Medical Association's flagship journal JAMA.

If you look at biomedical research around the globe, the United States funded 57 percent of that work a decade ago. The U.S. share has since dropped to 44 percent, according to the study published online Tuesday.

Ebola vaccine developers are on track to start testing their products in West Africa in about a month, the World Health Organization said at a press conference today.

And it's a race against the clock — testing will become more challenging if the number of new Ebola cases continues to drop.

Scientists say they have discovered a natural compound from bacteria that may prove to be a potent new antibiotic. This news comes at a time when many current antibiotics are losing their oomph — germs become resistant to them.

The new compound is especially intriguing because it appears that it might not lose its germ-killing potential, according to a report published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

A drug that is used worldwide to treat malaria is now being tested as a treatment for cervical cancer. This surprising idea is the result of a new laboratory technique that could have far-reaching uses.

Our story starts with Dr. Richard Schlegel at Georgetown University Medical Center. He's best known for inventing the Gardasil vaccine to protect women from cervical cancer.

Great balls of cells! Scientists are developing mock human organs that can fit in the palm of your hand.

These organs-on-a-chip are designed to test drugs and help understand the basics of how organs function when they are healthy and when they are diseased.

For instance, you have your gut-on-a-chip being developed at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. It's a high-tech approach to dealing with a scourge of the low-tech world.

Two potential Ebola vaccines are currently being tested in people, to see if they're safe and to figure out the best dose.

Both trials have encountered some of the typical travails of vaccine research.

There's a simple test that scientists could use to make sure the cells they're studying in the lab are what they think they are. But most of the time, academic scientists don't bother.

That omission is a problem. One study found that between 18 percent and 36 percent of all cell lines have been misidentified. And this kind of mistaken identity is one reason that many results from experiments run in scientific labs can't be reproduced elsewhere.

There's a major flaw in many medical research studies that seems so basic that you'd think scientists would be smart enough to avoid it.

It turns out that cells studied in the laboratory often get mixed up. A researcher who thinks she is studying breast cancer cells might in fact be using melanoma cells.

It's a surprisingly common problem — even in some of the top scientific labs.

You might wonder why 48 million Americans get food poisoning every year, yet there are some animals that seem to be immune from even the nastiest germs.

We're talking here about vultures, which feast on rotting flesh that is chockablock with bacteria that would be deadly to human beings. In fact, vultures have a strong preference for that kind of food.

It's now Goliath versus Goliath in the quest for an Ebola vaccine.

Until now, the two leading candidates for a vaccine to protect against the Ebola virus were being led by global pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline on the one hand, and a tiny company in Ames, Iowa, that was virtually unknown, on the other.

In an ideal world, health care workers returning from West Africa would get a quick blood test to prove they aren't carrying the Ebola virus. A test like that would likely put to rest some of the anxiety surrounding these doctors, nurses and scientists.

Unfortunately, even the best blood test in the world can't do that.

The test uses a technology called PCR, for polymerase chain reaction. It can detect extraordinarily small traces of genetic material from the Ebola virus.

The World Health Organization says that efforts are on track to distribute an experimental Ebola vaccine in West Africa in January.

Two potential vaccines are now being tested for safety in people, and Russia is developing another one. While quantities will be limited, scientists say even a relatively small supply of vaccine can help bring the epidemic under control.

Plans are afoot to test drugs to treat Ebola in West Africa — and those studies could have far-reaching benefits far beyond this rapidly expanding epidemic.

That's because some of the drugs are based on nascent technologies that can be used to treat other infectious diseases — and even inherited ailments, such as Duchenne muscular dystrophy.

If you have been following the various posts about beer on The Salt, you may have noticed a pattern: Many of the folks making beer have a scientific background. There's good reason for that. People don't make beer. Yeast does. Well, OK — it's a partnership.

And sometimes, it's a two-way street between the brewery and the lab.

Interest in drugs that might be used to treat Ebola virus has hit a fever pitch, but the buzz isn't simply about fear of Ebola, or about saving lives in poor nations of West Africa. It's also about money.

Scientists cleaning out an old laboratory on the National Institutes of Health campus in Bethesda, Md., last week came across a startling discovery: vials labeled "variola" — in other words, smallpox.

Under international convention, there are supposed to be only two stashes of this deadly virus: one at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, and another at a similar facility in Russia.

The CDC swooped in to collect the vials and carted them off to a secure lab at its Atlanta headquarters.

Researchers are developing a radical way to diagnose infectious diseases. Instead of guessing what a patient might have, and ordering one test after another, this new technology starts with no assumptions.

The technology starts with a sample of blood or spinal fluid from an infected person and searches through all the DNA in it, looking for sequences that came from a virus, a bacterium, a fungus or even a parasite.

Members of Amish communities in Ohio traveled to the Philippines for heartfelt reasons: They were there on service projects to help less fortunate people. Unfortunately, they came home with unwelcome hitchhikers: measles viruses.

Those travelers hadn't been vaccinated against this highly contagious disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday. As a result, they have triggered an outbreak of more than 130 cases, primarily among their unvaccinated friends and relatives in Amish communities.

For the first time in decades, researchers trying to develop a vaccine for malaria have discovered a new target they can use to attack this deadly and common parasite.

Finding a target for attack is a far cry from having a vaccine. And the history of malaria vaccines is littered with hopeful ideas that didn't pan out. Still, researchers in the field welcome this fresh approach.

Many potential new drugs look like they could be big winners — at least when judged by how well they work in mice or other lab animals. Over the years, there have been a number of promising cancer "cures," possible Alzheimer's treatments, and candidate drugs for holding back the ravages of various degenerative diseases.

But, time after time, these great promises fade away once the potential treatments are tried in people. There are lots of reasons for that. Humans aren't rodents, for starters.

Whooping cough was once one of the leading killers of babies around the world. Now that it's largely controlled with a vaccine, scientists have had a chance to figure out how the disease came into being in the first place.

That story is told in a study published online this week in the journal mBio. And it turns out that whooping cough arose quite late in human history.

Eighteen years ago, scientists in Scotland took the nuclear DNA from the cell of an adult sheep and put it into another sheep's egg cell that had been emptied of its own nucleus. The resulting egg was implanted in the womb of a third sheep, and the result was Dolly, the first clone of a mammal.

Dolly's birth set off a huge outpouring of ethical concern — along with hope that the same techniques, applied to human cells, could be used to treat myriad diseases.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is terrifying because there's no drug to treat this often fatal disease. But the disease is so rare, there's no incentive for big pharmaceutical companies to develop a treatment.

Even so, some small companies, given government incentives, are stepping into that breach. The result: More than half a dozen ideas are being pursued actively.

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