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Friday, June 17, 2016

The Readout by Damian Garde & Meghana Keshavan

Welcome to The Readout, your daily look at what's happening in the world of biotech. Today, we talk the Wild West that is medical apps, a CRISPR surprise, and the UK biotech scene. Need more? Visit statnews.com.

Should digital health be regulated like air travel?

Health apps are "the digital snake oil of the early 21st century," according to American Medical Association CEO James Madara. (AMA)

The American Medical Association’s CEO ruffled some feathers this past weekend when he gave a speech that sharply condemned much of digital health as “snake oil.” That bluntness was by design, he told STAT: “I wanted to put this forward and articulate this in a way that could not be mistaken, the scale of this problem,” Dr. James Madara said. 

He cited a recent study from the Commonwealth Fund that looked at more than 1,000 health-care apps for patients — and found that just 43 percent of iOS apps and 27 percent of Android apps were likely to be useful. So many misfires is concerning, Madara said, because the stakes are so high. “When you’re talking about the health of a nation, that’s something is more in the line of the safety of the aeronautics industry. It’s not just toys that people play with,” he told STAT.

A dark horse in CRISPR

Editas Medicine is planning to get its first gene editing-based therapy, for a rare eye disease, into human trials next year; everyone thought that would make it the first to test CRISPR on actual people. But, as STAT's Sharon Begley reports, a group from the University of Pennsylvania is angling to cut the line with a CRISPR-fueled treatment for cancer.

A (sort of) banner year for the UK’s (arguably) booming biotech scene

If you look at the purple bars, things are going great! (BIA)

There’s long been a sort of crisp on the shoulder among UK biotech types, many of whom insist that the nation has some of the best science in the world; it just doesn't have the ingredients for entrepreneurial growth. According to a new report from a local trade group, things are only marginally improving.

First, the good news: According to the UK BioIndustry Association, the local industry raised a best-ever £489 million in VC funds last year, accounting for more than one-third of the entire European haul. 

But fully 40 percent of the UK total came from one aberration, a £205 million round for Immunocore. The net number of financings actually declined for the second straight year, totaling just 15. For comparison, Massachusetts notched 57 financings in the same period, and California netted 99.

Perhaps most alarming, however, is the state of early-stage funding. Not a single pound went to a seed-stage biotech company in 2015, according to BIA, suggesting that it remains quite difficult to turn UK science into a UK business. In the US, to make an unfair comparison, investors put $1.1 billion into seed-round biotechs last year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Oh and Brexit won’t help.

Bill Gates, biotech tourist

Bill Gates has supported gene editing, infectious disease research, and that awful paperclip that wants to help you write a letter. (jacques Brinon/AP)

Billionaire Hamilton enthusiast Bill Gates came to Boston yesterday for the annual American Society of Microbiology conference and had a sit-down with STAT. He also made the rounds among the local biotech scene, because "it's moving at slightly higher speed here than anywhere else," he said.

"It’s a very fun part of my job," Gates said. "Last week, I met with people from the Wyss Institute and Synlogic. Today I met with Editas.... I went to Intarcia, which is actually doing a diabetes thing [and has] a delivery system that’s super interesting to us for some of our diseases." Gates also gave a nod to the institute founded by a fellow billionaire philanthropist: "You know, I’m over at the Broad a lot."

Check out the full Q&A.

Meanwhile, in Theranos

After months of appearing on televisions and in magazines, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes will at long last make time for a scientific congress. (JP Yim/Getty Images)

Brief update on America’s favorite questionably ethical blood testing firm: A fourth consumer lawsuit has been filed, according to the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, and it, like the others, is seeking class-action status.

Separately, the transparency-averse company is slated to present some actual data behind its blood tests at a conference in August, promising to compare its finger-prick technology with traditional methods.

And, most importantly, the polls remain open in our contest to name the reportedly in-development movie on the whole Theranos saga.

More reads

  • How personal stem cell factories could open the door to new diabetes treatments. (STAT)
  • How does Pfizer decide which drugs to bet big money on? (Business Insider)
  • Cambridge, Mass.'s Mersana Therapeutics raised $33 million in venture cash, money that will help get its top cancer project into human trials. (Press release)
  • Goldman Sachs monitors its employees' emails for phrases including "I will sue you" and "call the SEC." (CNBC)
  • Biotech company Paratek said its in-development antibiotic succeeded in a late-stage trial, the first of two needed to win regulatory approval. (Press release)

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Thanks for reading! Until Monday,

Damian & Meghana

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