Monday, March 28, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking
Happy Monday, everyone! Reporter Rebecca Robbins here, filling in for Megan for a couple days. Let's get started on today's health and science news.

STAT Special Report: Google’s bold bid to transform medicine hits turbulence under a divisive CEO

Verily, Google’s ambitious life sciences startup, has made impressive hires and generated plenty of buzz since it launched three years ago. But a volatile CEO and an exodus of top employees are creating turmoil behind the scenes, STAT has found.

In a special report out this morning, STAT West Coast editor Charles Piller profiles Andrew Conrad, the well-connected scientist and entrepreneur entrusted by Google to run Verily. Under Conrad’s leadership, a dozen top managers, scientists, and engineers have departed Verily in the past year, leaving a workplace environment that some say was unusually dispiriting even in the stressful culture of Silicon Valley. 

Piller told me he had originally expected to write “a pretty conventional profile of an interesting and important figure in biotech.” But as his reporting on Conrad progressed over the course of three months, the story evolved into “a depiction of a person with complex behaviors and motives,” Piller told me. Read the whole thing here.

New this morning: Going home can mean living longer

Patients with terminal cancer often struggle to decide whether to receive palliative care in the hospital or in the comfort of their own homes. New research published in the journal Cancer may help inform that difficult choice. A large study of terminal cancer patients found that those who went home didn’t fare any worse — and the sickest actually lived longer — than those who stayed in the hospital. More here.

Do we have good data on that drug?

Regulators are increasingly warning drug companies for flawed record-keeping about how their products are manufactured and tested. The FDA issued 10 such warning letters last year, the most in at least a decade, according to a new analysis from the consultancy group PricewaterhouseCoopers. Interestingly, almost all of these violations are happening at overseas facilities. The findings, PwC researcher Alexander Gaffney told me, raise some interesting questions about whether "the US consumer is potentially being presented with drugs that are maybe not quite as regulators would hope they would be in terms of quality."

Illuminating the biochemistry of disease

The potential of magnetic resonance imaging to track chemical reactions in the body has been stymied by how tricky it is to detect small clusters of molecules. Now, researchers have developed a new type of molecular tag that can be polarized, in the reaction illustrated above, allowing for long-lasting and powerful MRI signals from within the body.

Lab Chat: Building a better drug to fight C. diff infections 

Hospitals and nursing homes have long battled the bacterium Clostridium difficile, which can dangerously inflame the colon. In 2011 alone, nearly 15,000 people died from those infections. A natural compound called InsP6 has shown promise in neutralizing C. diff toxins, and now new research in mice finds that swapping out a single atom in InsP6 makes it much more effective. Here’s what the study’s senior author, Dr. Tor Savidge of Baylor College of Medicine, told me about the findings, published in Science Advances.

What's wrong with the way InsP6 works now?

It doesn't work efficiently enough when delivered as an oral therapy. One reason is it's not potent enough. Although it may cleave some toxin, it doesn't neutralize enough toxin to make it effective as a drug.

How does your research overcome that problem?

These toxins have evolved to activate when they enter the cell of the host. So our strategy here has been to try to head-fake these toxins to think they're actually inside the cell. So we flush the extracellular system with a redesigned compound so the toxin thinks it's inside the cell. It then cleaves, rendering the toxin inactive in terms of its ability to cause disease. 

There might be toxic metals in your chocolate

Perhaps think twice before munching on that leftover Easter candy. Lab testing of 50 popular chocolates found that 35 of them, including ones made by Hershey, Godiva, and Trader Joe’s, tested above the “safe harbor threshold” defined in California for levels of lead, cadmium, or both, according to consumer advocacy group As You Sow. Experts disagree about the dangers posed at these levels, but the group is petitioning makers of these chocolates to add warnings to their labels.

When public health gets precise

You’ve heard all about precision medicine. But how about “precision public health”? The Gates Foundation is increasingly setting its sights on that concept. "A precision public health approach really looks at where the disease appears, and when, in what populations," Gates Foundation CEO Sue Desmond-Hellmann told STAT Washington correspondent Dylan Scott at a gathering Friday in Washington, D.C.

The philanthropic powerhouse has already backed a surveillance system to document the time, place, and cause of infant mortality in developing countries. Next up, they hope to deploy related tools to tackle malaria and intestinal infections, Desmond-Hellmann told Scott.

What to read around the web today

  • With the threat of an ad ban looming, pharma is fighting to repair its reputation. Adweek
  • Why vaccination rates are so low in some wealthy nations. The Economist
  • How another moonshot to cure cancer has roiled MD Anderson Cancer Center. Houston Chronicle

More reads from STAT

  • A controversial anti-vaccination documentary got pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival.
  • Judith Lasker, the evangelist against global health “voluntourism.”
  • Why science would benefit from being self-refereed.

Thanks for reading! I’ll be back tomorrow with more.


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