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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Good morning, folks! Here's what you need to know about health and medicine today. 

Heavily funded drug price debate gears up in California

Drug makers like Merck and Pfizer have been pouring money into fighting a closely-watched November ballot measure in California that would cap drug prices by preventing state programs like Medicaid from paying more than the federal VA pays for individual drugs. At the end of June, the campaign opposing the measure had $66 million in the bank. But a new poll suggests that the "Yes" campaign, which had just $7 million in cash at the end of June, has the upper hand so far.

Two-thirds of likely voters said they would probably or definitely vote to cap drug prices, according to an online survey of 800 people commissioned by the "Yes" campaign. The drug industry-backed "No" campaign, which argues the measure would create red tape and make it harder for patients to access medications, fired back yesterday. Spokesperson Kathy Fairbanks called the new poll results misleading, noting that the survey didn't use the specific language that will appear on the November ballot.

The long and short of the average-sized person in the US

The average weight in the US has climbed more than 15 pounds in the past two decades, according to new data out from the CDC this morning. Here’s how we stack up:

  • The average US man tipped the scales at 195.7 pounds in 2014. In 1994, the average US man weighed 180.7 pounds.

  • The average US woman weighs 168.5 pounds, compared to 152.3 pounds in 1994.

  • The average US man tops out at just over 5 feet 9 inches, while the average woman stands about 5 feet 4 inches tall.

Mayo Clinic introduces new heart attack diagnostic

Mayo Clinic just introduced a new test that could help doctors better predict a patient's heart attack risk and proceed with the best treatment. “There are tons of heart attack blood tests,” says Mayo Clinic cardiologist Dr. Allan Jaffe. But they only add incremental value over the standard clinical variables that predict heart attack: gender, diet, age, blood pressure, propensity to smoke. The new diagnostic measures the level of ceramides — lipids that build up in patients likely to die from a cardiac condition in three years — in the blood. They make a strong biomarker for heart disease and could help doctors decide a treatment regimen for a patient. Right now, though, it's only available for use inside the Mayo Clinic's reference labs. They showcased the diagnostic during this week's American Association for Clinical Chemistry conference, STAT's Meghana Keshavan reports from the meeting.

sponsor content by phrma

Data-driven information sharing between health care professionals and payers is key

Patients, health care professionals and insurers all seek more information about the safety, effectiveness and value of medicines. But federal regulations governing information-sharing about medicines have not kept up with this new reality. Today, FDA regulations must keep up with the pace of drug development and our understanding of available treatments for patients. Read more in PhRMA’s new principles intended to establish responsible, science-based parameters for accurate and trusted information sharing.

Inside STAT: How one study shook up the fMRI field

The web lit up with panic, concern, and controversy this June when a study called into question the validity of “some 40,000 fMRI studies.” The study suggested that the software used in the brain scans, also known as functional MRI, had a crucial flaw. Then, one of the paper’s authors, Thomas Nichols, spoke up: “There is one number I regret: 40,000.” But as the dust settles from the incident, there’s a new standard for self-scrutiny when it comes to fMRI research. STAT’s Anna Vlasits has more on the growing pains of the field.

Parsing out how immunotherapy drugs affect immune cells 

Cells that respond best to PD-1 inhibitors shown in yellow. (Courtesy Emory Vaccine Center)

Immunotherapy drugs known as PD-1 inhibitors have been approved by the FDA for melanoma, lung, and bladder cancer, but they don’t work in a majority of patients. Now scientists are parsing out how they work in an attempt to make them more effective. The drugs act on a protein called PD-1 which is carried on the surface of immune T cells — but not all T cells respond to the drugs the same way. In a new study, scientists zeroed in on those T cells to find which ones are super-loaded with receptors that respond to PD-1 inhibitors most effectively. 

Knowing that could help researchers find new drugs that'll also stimulate those cells to respond, and eventually, be used in combination therapies along with PD-1 inhibitors. "You have to increase the number of cells responding to increase the effectiveness of the drugs," study author and immunologist Rafi Ahmed of Emory explained to me. 

Senators seek help making substance abuse treatment more accessible

A bipartisan crew of senators wants CMS to work harder to improve access to substance abuse treatment. In a new letter, 31 senators say they want CMS to change a federal rule that prohibits Medicaid from paying for some services provided to patients seeking substance abuse treatment. Right now, Medicaid isn’t allowed to reimburse states for residential addiction treatment in a facility with more than 16 beds. The senators say that needs to change to open more doors for patients struggling with substance abuse disorders.

The evolutionary advantage to being able to tolerate smoke

Scientists have pinpointed a genetic mutation exclusive to humans that helped our ancestors adapt to smoke exposure. The mutation makes us more tolerant to the chemicals smoke and fire release into the air, helping the human body process them at the right speed to minimize harmful effects. That may have given early humans an evolutionary advantage over Neanderthals by helping us process the pollutants created from cooking with fire. But it’s also possible the mutation might have given humans the tolerance needed to smoke cigarettes, say the authors of a new paper on the subject. 

Floss doesn't work to prevent cavities 

In case you missed the news yesterday of the dental scandal of the century, brace yourself. There's no solid evidence to suggest that flossing can prevent cavities or gum disease, the AP reports. The government subtly scrubbed the flossing recommendation out of its most recent dietary guidelines. Now, officials admit that flossing hasn’t been researched like it should’ve been to warrant a recommendation in the first place.

What to read around the web today

  • Can you trust yourself to make healthful food choices when ordering on a touch screen? Slate 
  • Drones will begin delivering blood and medicine in the US. The Verge
  • Petition against female genital mutilation evokes an angry backlash. NPR
  • Biogen's stock jumps amid takeover speculation. Boston Globe

More reads from STAT

  • If you get sick at the Olympics, don't expect a private hospital room
  • Few women in Zika-threatened states use highly effective birth control methods. 
  • Pharmacy benefits managers are restricting access to many drugs next year. 

Thanks so much for reading! Back bright and early tomorrow morning, 

Megan

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