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Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Welcome to The Readout, where we keep you on top of the latest in biotech. For more in-depth coverage of biopharma, subscribe to STAT Plus. On Twitter: @damiangarde@megkesh, and @statnews.

Warning: Your genetic data could be hacked

Talk about a wake up call: Researchers at the University of Washington are out this morning with a warning that the DNA sequencing pipeline — the whole chain of companies and servers and clouds that analyze and store genetic data — is vulnerable to hacking. 

Not only that, the team was able to create a strand of synthetic DNA encoded with a malware. When it was fed into a sequencer, the malware let them take remote control of the computer, as STAT's Usha Lee McFarling reports.

The team was co-led by Tadayoshi Kohno, a computer science professor known for sounding early alarms on the hackability of new technologies such as internet-linked cars, electronic voting machines, and pacemakers.

Read more on STAT Plus.

Like a credit score, but for how long you'll stay fertile

Here's the latest startup targeting women anxious about their ability to get pregnant: Modern Fertility, which yesterday unveiled a forthcoming $149 test that will provide a "fertility score," calculated on a scale from 1 to 100. "Now, instead of 'waiting and seeing,' you can better understand your fertile years," the company says.

What goes into that score? The company's still developing the algorithm with help from physicians, according to CEO and co-founder Afton Vechery, but it will factor in a woman's age and her levels of up to 10 hormones — including ones often used to assess "ovarian reserve."

Ovarian reserve testing is increasingly popular, but it can't predict a woman's likelihood of getting pregnant, or how long she'll be able to conceive, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The group only recommends it for women over 35 who have struggled to get pregnant.

Vechery, however, didn't rule out marketing her test to younger women. As she told STAT: "We believe information is the first step and that the dialogue about fertility should not start at the age of 35+."

Sponsor content by TetraScience

Biotech leaders drive operational efficiency

One of the greatest challenges for any growing company is how to elegantly scale critical operations without disrupting the business. For a growing biotech organization, this undertaking is made all the more complicated when one introduces the intricacies of laboratory workflows. What may have worked as a small team, rarely works just one month later.

An upcoming live webinar seeks to demystify these challenges and offer new strategies to overcome them. Learn more here.

The thing about liquid biopsy

... is that  hard to determine which blood flotsam is cancerous and not merely cancer-esque.

Take this new study from China, conducted by Grail's Dennis Lo. The good news: His team successfully spotted nasopharyngeal cancer in patients by using only a blood test. Less good news: There were a lot of false positives, and the results don't necessarily herald an advance for the field.

As STAT's Sharon Begley reports, the researchers screened 20,174 men and found that 1,112 had the tell-tale DNA signs of Epstein-Barr, a virus that can cause nasopharyngeal cancer. But upon further testing, only 34 of those patients actually had cancer.

And that's in a relatively low-hanging-fruit population.

“Most cancers aren’t caused by viruses,” said Dr. H. Gilbert Welch of Dartmouth. “I don’t think we can generalize much from this.”

Grail is heartened anyway, planning to commercialize the test in Asia.

Bringing immunotherapy to diabetes

Although diabetes is a disease of the immune system, decades of attempts at immunotherapy for this condition have fallen flat. Now, however, a form of peptide immunotherapy used to ward away childhood food allergies seems to have promise in treating Type 1 diabetes.

A small British clinical trial published in Science Translational Medicine found that proinsulin peptides — that is, compounds that ultimately help form insulin — can keep the disease from progressing. The immune systems of patients taking placebo continued to kill off their insulin-producing pancreatic cells. But patients taking the immunotherapy were able to continue making their own insulin. 

It’s a tiny trial — just 27 subjects — but the results are intriguing.

Happy birthday! Here's $1.1 billion

Consider your most recent birthday. Perhaps you scrolled through the halfhearted well-wishes on Facebook that seem to dwindle in number each year. Maybe you endured a workplace gathering among so many phone-gazing colleagues, or winced as an elderly relative probed just a bit too deeply into your life on that annual call.

Anyway Vivek Ramaswamy got $1.1 billion for his

Or at least his Roivant Sciences did, courtesy of a syndicate led by SoftBank. It's easy to get hung up on that big dollar figure. But the timing of this investment is much more important than the total.

Read more.

More reads

  • A Chinese billionaire may get a monopoly on a cancer drug backed by U.S. taxpayers. (STAT Plus)
  • Citing a "conflict," GlaxoSmithKline vet Moncef Slaoui abruptly quits Intellia board. (Endpoints)
  • Venture capitalist wages war against Parkinson's, searches for miracle after his own diagnosis. (CNBC)

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Thanks for reading! Until tomorrow,

Damian & Meghana

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