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The Readout Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Bluebird says its gene therapy ‘unlikely’ to have caused cancer

Gene therapies came under intense scrutiny last month, when Bluebird Bio disclosed that a patient with sickle cell disease developed acute myeloid leukemia while being treated with its experimental infusion, Lentiglobin. A second patient was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a bone marrow disease that can lead to leukemia. The clinical trials were suspended temporarily. 

Yesterday, however, Bluebird said that an investigation had concluded that it was “very unlikely” that its sickle cell gene therapy triggered cancer in the first case, and the diagnosis in the second remains unconfirmed. It is now aiming to resume trials.

Read more.

Antibiotic prescriptions — and resistance — rose last year 

Remember those early days of Covid-19, when antibiotic drugs like azithromycin were pushed as potential treatments for the mysterious, pneumonia-causing virus? Well, now we’re seeing a rise in antibiotic resistance, a new study from the Pew Charitable Trusts finds — thanks to physicians overprescribing these drugs in the first six months of the pandemic. 

In 96% of the cases, STAT’s Ed Silverman writes, antibiotics were given to patients before there was any confirmation of a bacterial infection. This is largely because physicians were likely worried about secondary bacterial infections linked to pneumonia, and didn’t know how to differentiate lung disease caused by microbes versus the virus. Whatever the cause, 52% of admitted patients were given at least one antibiotic, even though just 20% ended up actually needing one. 

“Overprescribing on this scale could negatively impact the progress we’ve made in the fight against antibiotic resistance in recent years,” the report noted. 

Read more.

Walter Isaacson profiles a CRISPR gene editor

STAT’s Patrick Skerrett chatted with noted biographer Walter Isaacson to discuss his newest book, “The Code Breaker,” which details the birth of CRISPR gene editing — and the bitter rivalry it spawned. Isaacson explains why he chose to focus more on Jennifer Doudna than Feng Zhang, and how the pandemic has shifted the competitive tone in the gene editing community a bit. 

“I’ve spent so much time with Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna,” he said. “I know that, like almost every research scientist I’ve met, they are really motivated by the good they can do for humanity. And this is just a real reminder of that.” 

Listen to the First Opinion Podcast here, or check out a transcript of the chat here

Convalescent plasma falls short in clinical trial

Another blow for the idea that convalescent plasma might help improve Covid-19 survival: A new preprint details how these transfused antibodies failed to improve survival in patients hospitalized with Covid-19.

The U.K.-based RECOVERY study, though not yet peer-reviewed, enrolled 11,558 patients and found that there was little to no difference in the outcomes in any of the study’s subgroups — regardless of age, sex, ethnicity, or days since the onset of symptoms. 

The finding is unlikely to convince proponents of convalescent plasma, who believe that it must be given to patients earlier in the course of their disease to be effective. 

More reads

  • Four lessons from IBM’s failure to transform medicine with Watson Health. (STAT)
  • Northwestern U's novel gene-silencing RNA drug shows promise in glioblastoma. (FierceBiotech)

Thanks for reading! More tomorrow,


Thursday, March 11, 2021


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