Monday, October 5, 2015

Morning Rounds by Megan Thielking

Happy Monday, everyone, and welcome to your quick rundown of what's going to be big in science and medicine today. 

And the Nobel in medicine goes to... 

Two big wins for the treatment of parasitic disease in this morning's Nobel announcement: The medicine and physiology award honors novel therapies that slashed mortality from and incidence of malaria and roundworm infections, affecting the lives of 3.4 billion people at risk for parasitic diseases. The first winners, William C. Campbell of the US and Satoshi Omura of Japan, developed a treatment that significantly reduced the frequency of parasitic diseases like river blindness and lymphatic filariasis. The two scientists share the prize with Youyou Tu of China, who developed a malaria drug that saved more than 100,000 lives a year in Africa alone. 

Stat senior science writer Sharon Begley notes that the research honored today dates to the 1970s and 80s, showing the Nobel committee is still working through a two-generation-long backlog of scientific breakthroughs. In other words: Today's hottest researchers may be revolutionizing medicine with innovations like immune-boosting oncology treatments and gene editing technology  but they might have to cool their heels a few decades before  getting that pre-dawn call from Stockholm.

Tune in today: Gene editing debate kicks off

Scientists and policymakers will gather this morning to prep for the big international gene editing summit to be held this December in Washington, D.C.

What you can expect: Great background on the history of gene editing and an update on China’s recent research using the super simple gene editing technology known as CRISPR.

What you’ll have to wait 'til December to hear: The hotly-contested ethics questions surrounding genome editing (think designer babies) aren’t on the agenda today, but you can bet they’ll be on the table come summit time.

If you're looking for drama: One of the panels will feature rival CRISPR scientists Feng Zhang and Jennifer Doudna, who are fighting over the patent on the technology. Either, or both, could snag the Nobel Prize in chemistry on Wednesday if the committee breaks tradition and honors a discovery that's just a few years old. 

Then read this:  WIRED writer Sarah Zhang argues that focusing on the rivalry misses the real drama of the scientific advances that led to CRISPR. 

Last word: Watch the panel at 9 AM ET here, and follow me on Twitter if you can’t tune in — I’ll be sharing the highlights.

Are insurers discriminating against hepatitis patients? 

Most of the major insurers in Florida are requiring patients to shell out as much as 50 percent of the cost for hepatitis B and C drugs, and the same holds true in other states, according to an analysis out this morning from the AIDS Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group. The insurers classify  these hepatitis drugs as "top tier," which causes copays to skyrocket. Carl Schmid, the group's deputy executive director, told me the practice amounts to illegal discrimination against people with certain illnesses. His goal: Get states, and the feds, to start enforcing the law.

Hey, send me on my way

Gas shoots these microparticles deep into wounds — against the flow of blood. It’s perfect for getting treatments to internal bleeding sites, where topical drugs can’t reach. Read about the new research in Science.

Coming today (maybe): Big trade pact affecting Big Pharma

The US and 11 other nations are close to nailing down terms of the huge trade pact known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The US pushed to give drug companies a 12-year exclusive patent on biologic drugs such as new cancer treatments. But Australia, Chile and other nations protested that would bump up costs by delaying competition from generics. It looks like the US blinked; the emerging deal limits patents on biologics to eight years in some cases and five in others, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Stat's Pharmalot columnist, Ed Silverman, says the industry is disappointed. Both big drug companies and small biotech startups call a longer period of exclusivity essential to bringing in the revenue they need to cover research costs. Negotiators "missed the opportunity to encourage innovation," the trade group PhRMA complained. Of course, the five years of tense negotiations will be moot unless Congress ratifies the deal — and that's no sure thing.

Inside Stat: Biotech diplomacy

Countries including Canada and Mexico are bringing promising entrepreneurs to Kendall Square in Cambridge, Mass., a hub of biotech research. The visitors work with local mentors to learn crucial skills — such as how to pitch a startup to investors. Stat reporter Andrew Joseph has more from Kendall.

Norovirus outbreak hits Nevada schools

Nearly 400 people, mostly kids and teachers, are down for the count with nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea thanks to a norovirus outbreak at several schools in Reno, Nev. The virus hasn’t led to any hospitalizations or deaths but janitorial crews have a lot of sanitizing to do. One county health department spokesman chalked up the spread of the virus to a simple truth: “Younger kids probably aren’t the best when it comes to hygiene,” he told the AP.

Genetics tests are in hot water, again

A hot new area of personalized medicine — using genetic tests to pick and choose the best psychiatric drugs to prescribe — might not be all it’s cracked up to be, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting finds. The tests are growing in popularity, with about 600,000 given over the past three years. Medicare has even started picking up the bill for one genetic test used on patients with depression.

Here’s the problem: Most evidence that the tests work comes from small studies paid for by the companies. Other concerns include an FDA loophole that leaves many genetics tests unregulated and ethical questions about doctor-researcher relationships. Read the full story here in the Boston Globe.

Gene therapy treatment takes on blindness

The first gene therapy in the US may be inching closer after biotech startup Spark Therapeutics announced today that its treatment for a genetic eye disease restored vision in a small group of patients. The clinical trial tested how well patients could navigate an obstacle course in dim light. But the company didn't release many details, the New York Times reports. Previous studies have suggested that the effect of a rival gene therapy medication targeting blindness fades over time.

Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this item incorrectly stated that the effect of Spark's therapy faded; in fact, that study looked at a different product. 

Tweet for thought

Slate writer Will Saletan leaves us with little food for thought on the way into work today — what’s the more realistic goal, really?

The best reads around the web today

  • A powerful new way to diagnose mystery illnesses. The Boston Globe
  • Why doctors are rethinking breast cancer treatment. Time
  • Most money on research gets wasted on bad studies, but these billionaires want to change that. Vox

Thanks for reading!

Until tomorrow, 


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