Richard Harris

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris reports on science issues for NPR's newsmagazines Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.

Harris, who joined NPR in 1986, has traveled to the ends of the earth 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 and the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro (for a story about tuberculosis).

In 2010, Harris’ reporting uncovered that the blown-out BP oil well in the Gulf of Mexico was spewing out far more oil than asserted in the official estimates. He covered the United Nations climate negotiations, starting with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, followed by 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 of the journalism and science industries’ most prestigious awards. The University of California at Santa Cruz awarded Harris the 2010-11 Alumni Achievement Award – the school’s highest honor. 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.

As part of the team that collaborated on NPR's 1989 series “AIDS in Black America,” Harris was awarded a Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, a first place award from the National Association of Black Journalists and an Ohio State Award. In 1988, Harris won the American Association for the Advancement of Science Journalism Award for his report, “Anti-Noise: Can Technology Turn Noise into Quiet?” which explored a revolutionary technology that uses computer-generated noise to cancel out, not just mask, unwanted noise.

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. Under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Harris spent the summer of 1980 as a Mass Media Science Fellow reporting on science issues for The Washington Star, in Washington, D.C.

Harris is co-founder of the Washington, D.C., Area Science Writers Association, as well as past president of the National Association of Science Writers.

A California native, Harris was valedictorian of his college graduating class at the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1980. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology, with highest honors.

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11:01am

Tue July 28, 2015
Shots - Health News

Happy 50th Birthday, Medicare. Your Patients Are Getting Healthier

Originally published on Thu July 30, 2015 8:49 am

A Yale University study analyzed the experience of 60 million Americans covered by traditional Medicare between 1999 and 2013, and found "jaw-dropping improvements in almost every area," the lead author says.
Ann Cutting Getty Images

Here's a bit of good news for Medicare, the popular government program that's turning 50 this week. Older Americans on Medicare are spending less time in the hospital; they're living longer; and the cost of a typical hospital stay has actually come down over the past 15 years, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

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6:14pm

Thu July 23, 2015
Health

What If Chemo Doesn't Help You Live Longer Or Better?

Originally published on Fri July 24, 2015 11:10 am

For best quality of life, many cancer patients who can't be cured might do best to forgo chemo and focus instead on pain relief and easing sleep and mood problems, a survey of caregivers suggests.
iStockphoto

Chemotherapy given to patients at the end of life often does more harm than good, according to a study that calls into question this common practice.

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2:36pm

Fri July 10, 2015
Shots - Health News

FDA Boosts Its Heart-Attack Warning On NSAIDs, Sows Confusion

It's long been known that taking NSAID pain relievers can increase risk of stroke and heart attack.
iStockphoto

If you're one of the 29 million Americans who regularly take ibuprofen, naproxen or similar drugs for pain, you may be scratching your head a bit over the latest word out of the Food and Drug Administration.

The FDA has strengthened its words of caution for people who use these nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs, but in a way that may be confusing.

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5:06am

Fri July 10, 2015
Shots - Health News

Bill To Boost Medical Research Comes With A Catch

Originally published on Fri July 10, 2015 12:11 pm

National Institutes of Health funding has been flat for years.
iStockphoto

Update 12:04 PM Friday: The House passed the 21st Century Cures Act Friday morning. The vote was 344 to 77.

Original post: The House of Representatives is planning to consider a bill Friday that could give a big cash infusion to medical research, which has been struggling in recent years. But the bill would also tweak the government's drug approval process in a way that makes some researchers nervous.

Despite those worries, many scientists are cheering on the legislation.

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1:39pm

Tue July 7, 2015
Shots - Health News

Heroin Use Surges, Especially Among Women And Whites

Originally published on Wed July 8, 2015 10:57 am

A user prepares drugs for injection in 2014 in St. Johnsbury, Vt.
Spencer Platt Getty Images

Health officials, confronted with a shocking increase in heroin abuse, are developing a clearer picture of who is becoming addicted to this drug and why. The results may surprise you.

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4:25pm

Thu June 11, 2015
Shots - Health News

Got Water? Most Kids, Teens Don't Drink Enough

Originally published on Fri June 12, 2015 2:17 pm

Kids and teens should get two to three quarts of water per day, via food or drink, research suggests.
iStockphoto

Most American children and teenagers aren't drinking enough fluids, and that's leaving them mildly dehydrated, according to a new study. In fact, one-quarter of a broad cross-section of children ages 6 to 19 apparently don't drink any water as part of their fluid intake.

The Harvard scientists who turned up the finding were initially looking into the consumption of sugary drinks in schools and looking for ways to steer children toward water instead — a much healthier beverage.

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3:45am

Thu June 11, 2015
Shots - Health News

Data Dive Suggests Link Between Heartburn Drugs And Heart Attacks

Originally published on Thu June 11, 2015 1:19 pm

A Stanford University study explored the medical records of millions of people looking for patterns. People taking proton-pump inhibitors for chronic heartburn seemed to be at somewhat higher risk of having a heart attack than people not taking the pills.
IStockphoto

Electronic medical records may seem like a distraction when your doctor is busy typing on a screen instead of looking you in the eye. But, as a new study shows, these systems have the potential to help identify some drug side-effects.

Researchers at Stanford University gathered about 3 million electronic medical records — with patients' names and other identifying material stripped away — to look for a link between a popular heartburn drug and heart attacks.

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5:43pm

Tue June 9, 2015
Shots - Health News

Costs Of Slipshod Research Methods May Be In The Billions

Originally published on Wed June 10, 2015 3:10 pm

iStockphoto

Laboratory research seeking new medical treatments and cures is fraught with pitfalls: Researchers can inadvertently use bad ingredients, design the experiment poorly, or conduct inadequate data analysis. Scientists working on ways to reduce these sorts of problems have put a staggering price tag on research that isn't easy to reproduce: $28 billion a year.

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5:07pm

Wed June 3, 2015
Shots - Health News

International Group Says Mammograms Of 'Limited' Value For Women In 40s

Originally published on Thu June 4, 2015 5:00 pm

A federal health task force that has been criticized for its mammography recommendations now has scientific support from the World Health Organization.

The WHO's International Agency for Research on Cancer has just finished its review of mammography to screen for breast cancer, and it, too, concludes that the value of these screening X-rays is "limited" for women in their 40s.

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5:27pm

Tue May 26, 2015
Goats and Soda

How Worried Should We Be About Lassa Fever?

Originally published on Tue May 26, 2015 6:31 pm

A single Lassa fever virus particle, stained to show surface spikes — they're yellow — that help the virus infect its host cells.
London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

An unidentified New Jersey man died after returning home from West Africa, where he had contracted Lassa fever, a virus that has symptoms similar to those of Ebola. Federal health officials are treating the case with caution because the virus, which commonly is spread by rodents, can occasionally spread from person to person.

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3:37am

Mon May 25, 2015
Shots - Health News

Multiple Sclerosis Patients Stressed Out By Soaring Drug Costs

Originally published on Tue May 26, 2015 3:20 pm

Maria Fabrizio for NPR

American medicine is heading into new terrain, a place where a year's supply of drugs can come with a price tag that exceeds what an average family earns.

Pharmacy benefit manager Express Scripts says last year more than half a million Americans racked up prescription drug bills exceeding $50,000.

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5:58pm

Wed May 13, 2015
Shots - Health News

Smokers More Likely To Quit If Their Own Cash Is On The Line

Originally published on Thu May 14, 2015 3:25 pm

A new study finds that employer-based programs to help people stop smoking would work better if they tapped into highly motivating feelings — such as the fear of losing money.

This conclusion flows from a study involving the employees of CVS/Caremark. Some workers got postcards asking them if they wanted a cash reward to quit smoking. One card ended up in the hands of Camelia Escarcega in Rialto, Calif., whose sister works for CVS.

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2:03pm

Wed May 6, 2015
Goats and Soda

Smartphones Can Be Smart Enough To Find A Parasitic Worm

Originally published on Wed May 6, 2015 7:55 pm

The posterior end of the Loa loa worm is visible on the left. The disease-causing worm can now be located with a smartphone/microscope hookup. That's a big help because a drug to treat river blindness can be risky if the patient is carrying the worm.
BSIP UIG via Getty Images

Smartphones aren't simply an amazing convenience. In Africa they can be used to make a lifesaving diagnosis. In fact, scientists are hoping to use a souped-up smartphone microscope to help them eradicate a devastating disease called river blindness.

Onchocerciasis, as the disease is also known, is caused by a parasite that's spread by flies. Thirty years ago, it was simply devastating in parts of Africa, like Mali.

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5:04am

Mon May 4, 2015
Shots - Health News

Sepsis, A Wily Killer, Stymies Doctors' Efforts To Tame It

Originally published on Tue May 5, 2015 12:48 pm

Bob Skierski at the beach in Avalon, N.J., just hours before he fell ill and went to the hospital. He never went home.
Courtesy of Jennifer Rodgers

If you ran down the list of ailments that most commonly kill Americans, chances are you wouldn't think to name sepsis. But this condition, sometimes called blood poisoning, is in fact one of the most common causes of death in the hospital, killing more people than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined.

Jennifer Rodgers learned about sepsis the way many people do — through personal experience.

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5:20am

Sun May 3, 2015
Shots - Health News

Who Keeps Track If Your Surgery Goes Well Or Fails?

Originally published on Mon May 4, 2015 4:37 pm

XiXinXing iStockphoto

In order to improve the quality of health care and reduce its costs, researchers need to know what works and what doesn't. One powerful way to do that is through a system of "registries," in which doctors and hospitals compile and share their results. But even in this era of big data, remarkably few medical registries exist.

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2:13pm

Thu April 30, 2015
Shots - Health News

Small Plague Outbreak In People Tracked To Pit Bull

Originally published on Fri May 1, 2015 2:14 pm

Rod-shaped specimens of Yersinia pestis, the bacterial cause of plague, find a happy home here in the foregut of a flea. Fleas can transmit the infection to animals and people, who can get pneumonic plague and transmit the infection through a cough or kiss.
Science Source

For the first time in 90 years, U.S. health officials say they have diagnosed a case of the plague that may have spread in the air from one person to another. Don't be alarmed — the plague these days is treatable with antibiotics and is exceptionally rare (just 10 cases were reported nationwide in 2014).

And if the plague has become mostly a curiosity in the United States, this case is more curious than most.

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5:27pm

Mon April 27, 2015
The Two-Way

Big Aftershocks In Nepal Could Persist For Years

Originally published on Tue April 28, 2015 6:20 pm

A man stands near collapsed houses in Bhaktapur, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, on April 27, two days after a magnitude-7.8 earthquake hit Nepal. Aftershocks tend to get less frequent with time, scientists say, but not necessarily gentler.
Prakash Mathema AFP/Getty Images

Aftershocks following Saturday's magnitude-7.8 quake in Nepal are jangling nerves and complicating rescue operations. So far, there have been more than a dozen quakes of magnitude 5 or higher, and another two dozen between magnitude 4.5 and 5.

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2:49pm

Wed April 15, 2015
Shots - Health News

Personalizing Cancer Treatment With Genetic Tests Can Be Tricky

Originally published on Wed April 15, 2015 6:52 pm

Sequencing the genes of a cancer cell turns up lots of genetic mutations — but some of them are harmless. The goal is to figure out which mutations are the troublemakers.
Kevin Curtis Science Source

It's becoming routine for cancer doctors to order a detailed genetic test of a patient's tumor to help guide treatment, but often those results are ambiguous. Researchers writing in Science Translational Medicine Wednesday say there's a way to make these expensive tests more useful.

Here's the issue: These genomic tests scan hundreds or even thousands of genes looking for mutations that cause or promote cancer growth. In the process, they uncover many mutations that scientists simply don't know how to interpret — some may be harmless.

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5:26pm

Fri April 10, 2015
Shots - Health News

Clam Cancer Spreads Along Eastern Seaboard

Originally published on Mon April 13, 2015 8:50 am

The blood cancer in soft-shell clams poses no risk to humans, but it does kill the shellfish.
Pat Wellenbach AP

Not every clam is, as the expression goes, happy as a clam. Even shellfish, it turns out, can get cancer. And it just might be that this cancer is spread from clam to clam by rogue cells bobbing through the ocean, scientists reported Thursday in the journal Cell.

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6:07pm

Wed April 8, 2015
Shots - Health News

Link Between Heart Disease And Height Hidden In Our Genes

Originally published on Thu April 9, 2015 11:53 am

Shorter people are more likely than taller folks to have clogged heart arteries, and a new study says part of the reason lies in the genes.

Doctors have known since the 1950s about the link between short stature and coronary artery disease, "but the reason behind this really hasn't been completely clear," says Nilesh Samani, a cardiologist at the University of Leicester in the U.K.

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4:49pm

Mon March 23, 2015
Shots - Health News

Why The War On Cancer Hasn't Been Won

Originally published on Tue March 24, 2015 12:26 pm

Vidhya Nagarajan for NPR

When President Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer in 1971, there were high hopes that scientists were close enough to understanding the underlying causes that many cures were within reach.

We obviously haven't won the war.

In fact, a prominent cancer biologist argues that the conceptual framework for understanding cancer has come full circle over the past 40 years.

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4:07pm

Mon March 23, 2015
Shots - Health News

Stats Split On Progress Against Cancer

Originally published on Tue March 24, 2015 8:33 am

Find other stories in the Living Cancer series at WNYC.org.
WNYC

When someone asks whether we're winning the war on cancer, the discussion often veers into the world of numbers. And, depending on which numbers you're looking at, the answer can either be yes or no.

Let's start with the no.

The number of cancer deaths in this country is on the rise. It climbed 4 percent between 2000 and 2011, the latest year in official statistics. More than 577,000 people died of cancer in 2011. That's almost a quarter of all deaths. Those aren't just personal tragedies – the figure represents a growing burden on America.

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6:03pm

Wed March 11, 2015
Shots - Health News

Results Of Many Clinical Trials Not Being Reported

Originally published on Wed April 1, 2015 4:07 pm

Glenn Lightner in 2012 at age 13. His father searched clinicaltrials.gov for years, to no avail, hoping to find a promising experimental cancer treatment that might save his son's life.
Courtesy of Lawrence Lightner

Many scientists are failing to live up to a 2007 law that requires them to report the results of their clinical trials to a public website, according to a study in Thursday's New England Journal of Medicine.

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4:16pm

Thu February 19, 2015
Shots - Health News

A Biological Quest Leads To A New Kind Of Breast Cancer Drug

Originally published on Thu February 19, 2015 8:13 pm

It's a good start when experimental compounds stop the proliferation of cancer cells in the lab. But, as many researchers have learned the hard way, that's just an early step toward creating a worthwhile treatment.
Science Source

Each year, the Food and Drug Administration approves dozens of drugs, but often those medicines don't make a huge difference to people with disease. That's because these "new" drugs are often very much like existing medicines — or are, in fact, existing medicines, approved for a slightly different purpose.

But every now and then the FDA approves a truly new drug. And that's the story of Pfizer's palbociclib, brand name Ibrance, which the agency approved for the treatment of a common form of advanced breast cancer.

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3:42am

Thu February 12, 2015
Shots - Health News

Smoking's Death Toll May Be Higher Than Anyone Knew

Originally published on Thu February 12, 2015 9:09 am

Tobacco smokers are more likely than nonsmokers to die from infection, kidney disease and, maybe, breast cancer.
iStockphoto

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.

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4:35pm

Thu February 5, 2015
Shots - Health News

FDA Commissioner Hamburg Grappled With Global Challenges

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 6:31 pm

Dr. Margaret Hamburg will have served almost six years as FDA commissioner by the time she leaves, far longer than the recent tenure for chiefs of the agency.
J. David Ake AP

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.

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4:56pm

Mon February 2, 2015
Goats and Soda

Lack Of Patients Hampers Ebola Drug And Vaccine Testing

Originally published on Wed February 4, 2015 11:39 am

A nurse administers an experimental Ebola vaccine Monday at Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. Researchers aim to give shots to 27,000 people during the large trial.
John Moore Getty Images

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.

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1:23pm

Fri January 30, 2015
Shots - Health News

Obama Wants Funding For Research On More Precise Health Care

Harvard University student Elana Simon introduces President Obama before he spoke at the White House Friday about an initiative to encourage research into more precise medicine.
Mandel Ngan AFP/Getty Images

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.

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4:17am

Fri January 30, 2015
Shots - Health News

Could This Virus Be Good For You?

Originally published on Fri January 30, 2015 10:46 am

Augustine Goba (right) heads the laboratory at Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone. He and colleagues analyzed the viral genetics in blood samples from 78 Ebola patients early in the epidemic.
Stephen Gire AP

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.

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3:03pm

Wed January 21, 2015
Shots - Health News

Scientists Give Genetically Modified Organisms A Safety Switch

Originally published on Wed January 21, 2015 7:37 pm

Scientists reprogrammed the common bacterium E. coli so it requires a synthetic amino acid to live.
BSIP UIG via Getty Images

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.

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