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MIA in the Medical Revolution: A Sense of Urgency

There was a moment yesterday when Vice President Joe Biden’s words got caught in his throat.

He was addressing an intimate crowd at the StartUp Health Café in San Francisco about the White House Cancer Moonshot—the widely praised initiative he had begun leading just a year ago and that, only days from now, was slated to lose its potent “White House” prefix—when he began talking about his eldest son.

Beau Biden had been the state of Delaware’s attorney general and a decorated veteran who had served in Iraq. In 2013, a few years after returning from the war, the forty-four year old was diagnosed with Stage 4 glioblastoma, a diagnosis that the vice president said his entire family “knew was the equivalent of a death sentence.” So Joe, the Dad, set out to learn everything he could about the disease during his son’s year-and-a-half fight to survive. “The most important thing I learned,” he recounted, “was that we’ve reached—you all have reached in science—an inflection point in cancer….I found myself realizing that maybe, although we couldn’t save our son, that maybe we could…”

That’s when the words disappeared for a long moment and a father’s grief took over.

In a day in which investors and entrepreneurs young and old shared business cards and elevator pitches, in which the notion of healthcare as deal-making and commerce reigned supreme, Biden’s seconds-long flash of wordlessness was a rare moment of clarity.

We don’t just need innovation. Or investment. Or a clever new strategy. We need a change in the circadian rhythm of medical science: We need speed.

“My absolute conviction is that we have to inject an overwhelming sense of urgency into this fight,” Biden told the shoulder-to-shoulder gathering on Monday afternoon.

“We can save millions of lives by progressing faster.”

These, in my view, ought to be the guiding words of the healthcare revolution.

More news below.

Clifton Leaf
@CliftonLeaf
clifton.leaf@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

This company is launching an AI-powered “digital doctor.” Digital health firm HealthTap today announced that it’s launching Dr. A.I., which the company describes as “a personal Artificial Intelligence-powered ‘physician’ that helps route users to doctor-recommended insights and care immediately.” HealthTap founder and CEO Ron Gutman gave me a personal demonstration of how the tech works before the holidays. It’s basically a far more advanced (and guided) version of WebMD; but rather than have users try to play a guessing game matching their symptoms with thousands of possible medical conditions, the Dr. A.I. platform asks a series of directed questions about what kinds of symptoms the patient is experiencing (for example, light-headedness, pain in a certain region of the body, trouble sleeping, etc.). It then uses real-world patient question data compiled from more than 100,000 physicians over six years in order to compile a list of possible conditions that may be afflicting the patient, and then ranks them in order of seriousness from low risk to advising an emergency room visit. And the software, which is connected to HealthTap’s broader digital connection services to physicians and medical experts, can even connect users to doctors and specialists right from the app.

St. Jude updates heart device after cyber security concerns. Last year, St. Jude Medical and acquirer Abbott Laboratories was hit with a federal government probe into claims that St. Jude’s popular heart devices had security vulnerabilities that made them vulnerable to life-threatening hacking. On Monday, Abbott announced that it’s taken steps to update the devices’ cyber security features. The updates will be automatically applied to the products; but the Department of Homeland Security’s Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team (ICS-CERT) says that there are still some lingering concerns. “St. Jude Medical is continuing to work with ICS-CERT and the FDA to address additional security issues that have been identified,” said the agency in a statement. (Fortune)

GE’s hiring practices in Saudi IT services unit wins it an ACE. General Electric has been awarded the State Department’s prestigious global 2016 Award for Corporate Excellence (ACE) for its efforts to recruit a diverse workforce, especially in its IT services sectors, in countries like Saudi Arabia. For instance, GE has an All-Women Business Process & IT Services Center in Riyadh that employs more than 1,000 women and has a goal of eventually getting to 3,000 female hires. GE CEO Jeff Immelt, who’s made workforce diversification a priority for the company, argues that the hiring tactic is ultimately a win for everybody. “The All-Women Business Process Center is an innovative solution that enabled us not only to provide career opportunities for the well-educated and talented Saudi females but also to build in-country capabilities that’ll have lasting impact, in what is an important market going through transformative changes,” he said in a statement. As Cliff’s written before, digital health firms in general could use a whole lot more female talent. (Healthcare IT News)

INDICATIONS

Teva CEO explains why the company’s sales guidance was off by $1 billion. Drug giant Teva had to make a pretty serious revision to its 2017 guidance last week, cutting more than $1 billion off of its sales forecast for the year. At the ongoing J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference in San Francisco, CEO Erez Vigodman offered an explanation: the snafu can be traced to a hot hand fallacy of sorts where Teva projected new product sales to keep up the robust pace of the past five years. But that didn’t happen in 2016, leading to inflated expectations in the initial July sales forecast. In fact, new launches added just $140 million to Teva’s coffers last year. “[Teva will] do everything in our power to make sure that something like that does not happen again,” said Vigodman at JPM. Still, the sheer scope of the guidance revision has some analysts questioning whether Teva’s personnel is suited to the task of properly accounting for and projecting the drug maker’s business. (FiercePharma)

More details emerge about Moderna’s pipeline strategy. Moderna Therapeutics has no shortage of cash. In fact, at $5 billion, it’s the most highly valued private biotech in the country. But the secretive firm, which is building out a highly experimental messenger RNA (mRNA) drug platform, has plenty of skeptics, including STAT‘s Damian Garde. Garde and others have pointed to key personnel departures and a lack of evidence about exactly how effective Moderna’s pipeline prospects might be. At the J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference, the firm pulled back the curtains on its strategy a bit, revealing that it’s concentrating on five clinical vaccines programs as a way of introducing its platform to the market. But that decision is also raising some eyebrows since vaccines are inherently a low-margin business. Moderna, for its part, argues that it’s playing the long game by demonstrating that mRNA is a feasible drug delivery method that can be used to make a wide variety of treatments. (Endpoints)

Kite plots big moves into Asian markets as pioneering CAR-T drug nears an FDA filing. Kite Pharma, which is locked in a race with pharma giant Novartis to be the first company with an approved CAR-T therapy on the market, is partnering with Japan’s Daiichi Sankyo in a $250 million deal that will net Kite $50 million in upfront cash. CAR-T is a hot new space in cancer treatment which involves modifying a patient’s immune T-cells to target cancers before infusing the re-engineered cells back into the body. It’s shown particular promise in blood cancers like non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which Kite is targeting for its first CAR-T approval. The Daiichi partnership will give Kite access to the Japanese market as well as the firm’s manufacturing assets (CAR-T drugs are particularly hard to scale thanks to their highly personalized nature). (Reuters)

THE BIG PICTURE

The global cost of smoking is $1 trillion per year. Here’s a whopper of a stat: a new study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) finds that the cost of smoking to the global economy is more than $1 trillion per year, easily dwarfing the approximately $269 billion in tobacco taxes collected between 2013 and 2014. And continued smoking growth in poorer nations will contribute to millions of more tobacco-related deaths by 2030. “The number of tobacco-related deaths is projected to increase from about 6 million deaths annually to about 8 million annually by 2030, with more than 80% of these occurring in LMICs (low- and middle-income countries),” wrote the study authors. The $1 trillion-plus figure is a combination of preventable smoking-related health care costs and lost productivity. (Fortune)

UnitedHealth continues its health services buyout spree. Health care giant UnitedHealth Group is continuing the buying spree for its Optum health services unit, snapping up the major surgical care provider Surgical Care Affiliates for $2.3 billion. It’s the latest in a series of horizontal buyouts in the health care field for UnitedHealth Group, which already contains the insurance giant UnitedHealth and a burgeoning roster of actual primary care and ambulatory service providers. (Wall Street Journal)

REQUIRED READING

Indian Think Tank Says Credit Cards, ATMs Will Be ‘Irrelevant’ By 2020by Feliz Solomon

Are Millennial Leaders Different? by Alan Murray

President Obama Was Officially Terrible for Hedge Fundsby Jen Wieczner

Here’s What Wall Street Has to Say About Valeant’s L’Oreal and Sanpower Dealsby Lucinda Shen

Produced by Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

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