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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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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1:13pm

Tue January 20, 2015
Shots - Health News

The City Might Not Be To Blame For High Asthma Rates

Originally published on Sat January 24, 2015 4:15 pm

Dr. Stephen Teach helps Jeffery Ulmer listen to his daughter Alauna's asthmatic breathing at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Alauna's mother, Farisa, holds her. The District has one of the highest rates of pediatric asthma in the country.
Jahi Chikwendiu Washington Post

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.

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1:00pm

Tue January 13, 2015
Shots - Health News

U.S. Funding of Health Research Stalls As Other Nations Rev Up

Originally published on Thu January 15, 2015 8:32 am

U.S. funding for medical research by source, 1994-2012. (Data were adjusted to 2012 dollars using the Biomedical Research and Development Price Index.)
American Medical Association

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.

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2:17pm

Fri January 9, 2015
Goats and Soda

Ebola Vaccine Will Soon Be Tested In West Africa

The windows at Redemption Hospital in Monrovia, where Ebola cases are treated, are streaked with chlorinated water as a disinfectant.
Tommy Trenchard for NPR

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.

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1:19pm

Wed January 7, 2015
Shots - Health News

Scientists Hit Antibiotic Pay Dirt Growing Finicky Bacteria In Lab

Originally published on Thu January 8, 2015 12:39 pm

You don't want to run into methicillin-resistantStaphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. A potential new antibiotic could help fight this bug.
CDC

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.

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3:38am

Wed January 7, 2015
Shots - Health News

A Bed Of Mouse Cells Helps Human Cells Thrive In The Lab

Originally published on Wed January 7, 2015 12:35 pm

Dr. Richard Schlegel and postdoctoral fellow Nancy Palechor-Ceron use a microscope to look at human epithelial cells growing on mouse fibroblasts at Georgetown University Medical Center.
Lauren Wolkoff/Georgetown University

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.

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4:19pm

Fri January 2, 2015
Shots - Health News

Researchers Create Artificial Organs That Fit In Your Hand

Originally published on Mon January 5, 2015 4:16 pm

Postdoctoral researcher Jennifer Foulke-Abel holds the gut-on-a-chip inside the lab at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Richard Harris NPR

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.

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5:11am

Fri December 26, 2014
Research News

Solving The Mystery Of Why Rock Ants Avoid Right Turns

Originally published on Thu February 5, 2015 1:15 am

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Delivery drivers plan their route with as many right turns as possible. Left turns - they're just a hassle. But get this - there is a species of ant that prefers left turns. And this got NPR's Richard Harris curious.

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4:00pm

Thu December 11, 2014
Shots - Health News

Unexpected Joint Pain Seen In Test Of Experimental Ebola Vaccine

A shipment of experimental Ebola vaccine is opened at a hospital in Geneva.
Mathilde Missioneiro AP

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.

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4:54am

Wed December 10, 2014
Shots - Health News

Scientists Often Skip A Simple Test That Could Verify Their Work

Originally published on Wed December 10, 2014 5:34 pm

When the wrong cells take over, scientists' experiments can be derailed.
Chris Nickels for NPR

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.

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