Microbes can be our friends.
There’s nothing like finding a book that changes your mind. But more satisfying still is finding one that opens it—that pries apart your old synaptic connections and stuffs into those gaps ideas you might never have imagined otherwise. For me, Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes is such a book.
In this extraordinary debut, Yong—a lyrical, inventive, and deeply informed science writer for The Atlantic, and blogger for National Geographic—lifts the veil off a world that seems fantastical in scale: the trillions upon trillions of microbes that live within us, on us, and all around us. Yong is a literary van Leeuwenhoek, shining a makeshift microscope on this teeming realm of bacteria, viruses, protozoa, and other invisible organisms—mysterious beasts that van Leeuwenhoek, in the 17th century, called “animalcules.” And Yong reports each unusual symbiosis, each staggering statistic—“Every person aerosolizes around 37 million bacteria per hour”—with an infectious sense of marvel.
Among the mind-opening tales is that of Jack Gilbert and family, who spend much of their day swabbing not only themselves, but also their home’s light switches, doorknobs, walls, counters, and floors, in an attempt to catalog the multitudes of microbiota who squat rent-free in their house. But what’s truly striking is (a) how much this community changes from day to day, as friends come to visit or as the family dog shuttles in and out—in each case, leaving an “aura” of bacteria in their wake the way a badger or hyena leaves a telltale scent. And (b) how important this ever-adjusting diversity is to our well-being.
Indeed, a failure to understand the benefits of the typically benign, co-regulating microbial neighborhoods we live in (along with a general overriding fear of “germs”) may actually be contributing to the high rates of dangerous infection in hospitals—which lead to the some 90,000 deaths a year by some reports. By rigorously disinfecting such environments could we be unwittingly creating a safe haven for the most deadly pathogens?
Gilbert is investigating this critical question and others. You see, when not home-swabbing, he’s a professor of surgery at the University of Chicago and group leader for microbial ecology at Argonne National Laboratory (where he leads a much, much larger effort to “biomap” microbial communities across the globe, an effort known as the Earth Microbiome Project). The work so far is already sparking some key questions in the digital health realm. Can our bacterial body guests, for example, play a role, in precision medicine? Well, funny you should ask.
More news below.
GlaxoSmithKline wins FDA clearance for a “smart inhaler.” British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline’s respiratory drug franchise is part of the old guard with long-standing products like the best-selling COPD and asthma treatment Advair. But in the face of mounting generic drug competition for that flagship medicine, the company has been trying to push its portfolio into the next generation through newer therapies like Breo Ellipta, which was approved in 2013. Now, Glaxo and partner Propeller Health have nabbed a Food and Drug Administration green light for a digital system that can be used in conjunction with Ellipta to monitor when patients are taking their medicine. The platform involves sensors that can be attached to inhalers which then relay data to a bluetooth-enabled smart phone app. The hope? “[T]o gain valuable insights into usage patterns with the ultimate goal of driving improvements in patient care while reducing the complexity and cost of clinical trials,” according to GSK respiratory R&D head Dave Allen. (FierceBiotech)
Blockchain: The key to solving the health IT security mess? Blockchain is becoming a critical new technology in sectors ranging from banking to food safety. And a number of prominent healthcare executives believe that the digital ledger platform at the heart of cryptocurrencies like BitCoin has enormous potential in the field, according to Modern Healthcare. “For us, this itch is about simplifying the customer experience in getting care—having (an electronic) handshake with a doctor so they take pre-authorization out of it,” insurance giant Humana’s chief innovation officer, Chris Kay, told the publication. While use of the technology is still in its early stages, the expert consensus seems to be that it can be leveraged to ensure the protected exchange of data and better organize digital transactions. Capital One recently announced that it’s partnering with firms like blockchain startup Gem to bring the blockchain to health claims processing and analytics. (Modern Healthcare, Fortune)
GE Healthcare’s CEO thinks getting more women into health tech is critical. GE Healthcare chief John Flannery wants more women to get into leadership roles in healthcare—and he has a plan to help make it happen, at least on a small scale. Flannery promoted an ongoing GE initiative with Tata Trusts to train 10,000 workers in the health tech sphere in India, with the goal of having at least half of them be women, in a post on his LinkedIn account. The rationale, according to Flannery, is simple: women and children are particularly susceptible to medical challenges in developing nations, and having more female perspectives in the health field is essential to addressing those problems. (Healthcare IT News)
The CMS chief rebukes pharma’s pricing habits to its face. Andy Slavitt, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), had some choice words for drug makers during the Biopharma Congress in Washington, D.C. last week. The HHS official addressed a number of key industry topics, such as changing payment models for cancer care and reducing the waiting period for getting innovative products to market. But he also hit on the elephant in the room: drug price hikes. Slavitt noted that price increases are far more pervasive than even the media attention to controversial moves such as Mylan’s EpiPen price hike suggests, and asserted that something needs to change. “You know, last year when I spoke here, the price increases at Turing were making news, and I told you I didn’t want this industry to be defined by its worst actors,” he said. “I defended the industry then, but the more data that’s revealed, the more bad actors you find, and I’m telling you now: it’s too many… Drug costs have become the health policy issue Americans are most anxious to see us act on, and we have a responsibility to them to explore all the options available us to make their medications more affordable.” (CMS)
Did Sarepta’s Duchenne drug approval come with “no scientific basis?” Details continue to emerge about the Food and Drug Administration’s controversial approval of Sarepta’s pioneering therapy for the rare disorder Duchenne muscular dystrophy. And the newest batch of information reveals exactly how much tension and disagreement there was within the agency over approving the drug, whose efficacy in small trials was modest enough that at least one major insurer has refused to cover it. The FDA’s Dr. Janet Woodcock pushed for accelerated approval of the treatment despite opposition from her own staff. And one official, Dr. Ellis Unger, was particularly critical of the process that led to the FDA’s green light and disagreed that trials had shown the drug’s potential to be effective. “I think it will be important for the regulatory record to reflect that there was no scientific basis underlying the conclusion of ‘reasonably likely’ [clinical benefit] in this case. This was simply a judgment call by Dr. Woodcock,” he wrote in an email exchange. (STAT News, Fortune)
This map shows the most-searched drugs in each state. Chicago’s Coyne College and Digital Third Coast teamed up to create a map of the most-searched brand name drugs in each state. And the results could help biopharma understand exactly where their products might be needed while also shedding light on population health trends. Some of the notable findings? New Yorkers seek out the HIV prevention treatment Truvada; the Pfizer smoking cessation therapy Chantix is a huge search item in states like Montana and North Dakota; and Californians look up Viagra in big numbers. (FiercePharma)
THE BIG PICTURE
President Obama delivers a robust defense of science during his Bill Maher interview. In a telling commentary on the state of science in 2016 America, President Barack Obama spent a significant portion of his interview with comedian Bill Maher (which aired on Maher’s HBO show on Friday night) sticking up for scientific integrity and the reality of objective truths. Obama bemoaned what he called the “balkanization” of news sources that has made everything, including subjects with clear scientific consensus such as climate change, debatable, and called out school boards which have been watering down students’ scientific curricula. The president also said it was critical to shape policy around wherever the science leads, including on controversial new technologies such as genetically modified organisms (GMOs). (Fortune)
Retired NFL player Ricky Williams promotes marijuana as alternative pain therapy. Ricky Williams, the Heisman trophy-winning college football superstar and former NFL pro, says that his career would look very different if the league had sanctioned the use of marijuana to treat pain rather than other medications. Williams was at an Oregon dispensary last week promoting marijuana as a painkiller alternative and predicted that many current NFL players would opt for it if given the chance. (Oregon Live)
“Bottled air” is becoming more popular in India and China. The smog crisis in India and China has gotten so bad that some companies are selling “bottled air” to high-end consumers. Firms like Vitality Air and Green and Clean are hawking the products as a way to combat the potentially devastating health effects of pollution (Vitality even sells flavored versions of its air). The bottles aren’t exactly tailored for a general audience, though. Prices can range anywhere from $20 to $100 a pop. (Fortune)
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Elon Musk Thinks Automation Will Lead to a Universal Income, by David Z. Morris
|Produced by Sy Mukherjee|
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