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Friday, November 6, 2015

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

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Happy Friday, everyone! Welcome to Morning Rounds, where I bring you the day's biggest and most interesting stories in science and medicine. 

STAT exclusive: PhRMA wants to undo the mess Big Pharma made

The industry group PhRMA is trying to distance itself from the price-gouging public image Big Pharma has these days. It's not easy, given the barrage of criticism from presidential candidates and the outrage from the public. So PhRMA is going all out. Not long ago, it would’ve been unheard of for PhRMA to criticize industry players — but it's now doing just that. Stat D.C. correspondent Dylan Scott has the inside story of PhRMA’s campaign to rehab the industry's image. 

A big discovery in how to dissolve cataracts

Cataracts aren't much of a problem in the US and Europe — there's a quick surgery to fix them — but they blind millions of people around the world. "It's a huge public health problem," Jason Gestwicki, a biochemist at University of California at San Francisco, told me. Gestwicki and his team found a new way to dissolve the protein that causes buildup on the eye, as described in research just published in Science

They screened thousands of compounds and found one that can "melt" the bunched-up proteins that cause cataracts. In the lab, the concept worked well: "You just add the molecule and it'll slowly clear up the milky-white appearance of the cataract," Gestwicki said. It's only been tested in vitro and in a mouse model but the research points to the potential for a drug delivered by eye-dropper to cure cataracts — if it can be proven as safe as the current surgical option. 

Inside STAT: Feng Zhang and the power to swiftly edit DNA

Feng Zhang gives CRISPR the nursery rhyme treatment. Dom Smith and Matthew Orr/STAT

At the center of the global hype over the immensely powerful gene-editing technology known as CRISPR stands Feng Zhang, a mild-mannered biologist with a mind for risky research who's changed the face of science. CRISPR has huge implications for ecology and for humanity — in essence, it can be used to customize DNA. It's such a powerful tool, global experts are meeting next month to debate ethical standards for its use. 

But long before the CRISPR discovery, Zhang drew inspiration from an unlikely source: Jurassic Park. Zhang told STAT senior writer Sharon Begley that the film’s mashing up of dinosaur and frog DNA clued him in that “biology might also be a programmable system.”  Take a fascinating, deep dive into the story of Zhang and the technology that’s changing the way science works. And if you're still confused about CRISPR, watch our video from STAT multimedia producer Dom Smith; he has  Zhang explain the technology to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star."

New this morning: A life expectancy gap gets a little narrower

The gap in life expectancy between blacks and whites in the US  is shrinking, new numbers from the CDC show. In 2013, that gap stood at 3.6 years, down from about six years in 1999.  Why the gains? The CDC says it's due to lower death rates in blacks from heart disease, cancer, and HIV. 

Lab Chat: Measuring kidney disease risk with a blood draw

Researchers have identified a protein that can predict kidney disease risk years in advance, just as cholesterol is a predictive marker for cardiovascular disease. The protein, known as suPAR, can be measured in a simple blood test. I chatted with lead researcher Dr. Jochen Reiser about his findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine

How can the suPAR finding make it easier to practice preventive medicine? 

By the time you get diagnosed with kidney disease at the earliest stage possible right now, you've basically already given up the kidney because the damage has started. Now, by measuring suPAR, we'll be able to say 'This patient most likely will get kidney disease and this patient will not.' 

How's it comparable to the way doctors check up on cholesterol? 

If you have high cholesterol, you have a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. If you have high suPAR, you have a high risk of developing chronic kidney disease. Cholesterol you can modify by eating healthier, losing weight, doing sports. You can also modify suPAR levels by doing those things — but those will only decrease it at most by about 20 percent. 

Pfizer doubles down on providing free drugs to the needy

Pharma giant Pfizer announced yesterday it'd be expanding its financial assistance to patients who need help affording pricey drugs. The nitty gritty: Pfizer's adding 44 additional meds to its list of prescriptions that come free of charge to people who earn up to four times the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that's $97,000. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also jumped into the drug pricing fray yesterday, writing to all 50 state Medicaid directors and pharma giants such as Merck and Johnson & Johnson to air concerns about access to pricey drugs, including hepatitis C treatments that run upwards of $100,000. 

Jeb's a bit jealous of Trump's vitamin deal

On the campaign bus in New Hampshire with Jeb Bush yesterday, our colleague Matt Viser of the Boston Globe asked the candidate about STAT's investigation of Donald Trump's network selling customized vitamins based on bad science. "Trump has a vitamin deal? I never got those deals. What the hell?'' Bush asked. Not that he was surprised: "His business is really effectively a brand. It's his name that he parlays into income, I guess.''

What to read around the web today

  • The DEA chief thinks medical marijuana is a joke. Science disagrees. Vox
  • A condom shortage is hurting India's AIDS fight. Reuters
  • Drugs, greed, and a dead boy. New York Times

More good reads from STAT

Thanks for reading! Enjoy your weekend,

Megan

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