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The Patriots and The Mystery of the “Miraculous Comeback”

Watching the New England Patriots—trailing 21-zip in the second quarter, down 25 points in the third, 19 points in the hole with less than 600 seconds to go in regulation—rally to win the Super Bowl in overtime, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was some mysterious science behind “the miraculous comeback”: something measurable, or at least point-to-able, that captures the transformation of human spirit that drives an individual—or, more inexplicably, a team of separate beings—to see “victory” when “loss” is flashing all around them.

What turn-of-a-switch lets the Cleveland Cavaliers, with backs against the wall in last year’s NBA championship series, take three straight from a seemingly charmed and unstoppable Golden State Warriors? What explains how, two months later, Britain’s Mo Farah could trip and fall in the Olympic 10,000 meters race, then get back to his feet and win gold? What explains the Cubs, Game 7, November 2016?

(I mean, seriously, the Cubs!)

And yet, more remarkable than even the Cubs’ World Series victory is Sharon Belvin, whom I interviewed last spring for a feature on Sean Parker.

Belvin, who in 2004 was a 22-year-old grad student in New Jersey, was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma, a disease that then typically killed five out of six patients within five years. She was given soft words and hard chemo, which in 2004 was pretty much what there was to offer.

“Her first IV infusions came in a toxic sweep on a Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. She got married that Saturday…Instead of the wedding dress she had picked out, she wore a white suit to cover the Port-a-Cath and tubes sticking out of her body. The cancer soon spread to her brain. Her chest cavity filled with 12 liters of fluid. Her body was breaking down. She couldn’t breathe.”

Then an oncologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering offered Belvin a last-ditch hope—to be a human guinea pig for an experimental drug designed, it was hoped, to release the brakes on the body’s own immune defenses, allowing Belvin’s legions of home-grown T cells to attack the cancer. She got four infusions of the drug. The cancer disappeared and never came back.

Great science, you say? Absolutely. Hell yes. But still only a fraction of cancer patients at the advanced state Belvin was at, and given the drug Belvin got, experience the kind of medical “comeback” she did.

Almost no one recovers full verbal skills and motor function after being in a minimally conscious state for a long duration—a trauma brought on by serious brain injury. But this 39-year-old patient did…after 19 years in MCS.

Medical scientists have long marveled at—and done their best to understand—such rare recoveries across the spectrum of pathologies. But for now, the miracles of the human body, as with those of the human spirit, remain mostly inexplicable.

Which brings us back to the Super Bowl.

Sure, tens of millions of us last night tried to make sense of how the Pats pulled it off—we screamed, we tweeted, we threw nachos at the wall in both joy and anger. But As veteran Sports Illustrated writer Greg Bedard put it this morning: “For the players, coaches and personnel involved on the winning side, there’s none of that. They just relish being the last team standing in early February. There are no ‘What the heck just happened?’ stunned faces; only satisfied smiles and quiet moments.

Alright, fine. Let ’em enjoy it.

Clifton Leaf
@CliftonLeaf
clifton.leaf@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

Pharma was conspicuously absent from the Super Bowl. One year after a number of Super Bowl drug ads drew widespread criticism, the biopharma industry opted out from any DTC advertising during one of the most-watched live events in America. There wasn’t a single drug ad during Sunday’s thrilling Super Bowl matchup between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons. One possible explanation? Last year’s trio of commercials – for an AstraZeneca opioid-induced constipation treatment, an irritable bowel drug from Valeant, and the Jublia toenail fungus-fighter (also from Valeant) – were panned by critics and viewers. AstraZeneca’s advertisement drew the most fire, with politicians such as Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin slamming the company and partner Daiichi Sankyo for seemingly trying to capitalize off of the ongoing heroin epidemic. “In the midst of America’s opiate and heroin addiction crisis the advertisement was not only poorly timed, it was a shameful attempt to exploit that crisis to boost your companies’ profits,” Shumlin wrote in a letter to the companies demanding that the ad be taken down. Considering the hefty $5 million price tag for a 30-second Super Bowl spot, it may not be too surprising that drug makers sat this year out as pricing controversies continue to swirl.

This company’s tech IDs bacterial criminals. When it comes to treating an infection, time is of the essence. Unfortunately, it can take days to suss out exactly which bacteria types are wreaking havoc on a patient. And that’s critical to know since different pathogen strains may be susceptible (or not) to certain types of antibiotics. Enter ID Genomics, which has created a simple, 30-minute test which can tell physicians the genetic makeup of one of the most common infections: UTIs. Armed with this genomic information, doctors can then prescribe the right kind of antibiotic for a specific infection. “It is like we are creating a criminal dossier of bacterial strains,” ID Genomics founder Dr. Evgeni Sokurenko told Modern Healthcare. “Just based on the fingerprint we can already say what is the best way to deal with it and what antibiotics should be used.” (Modern Healthcare)

INDICATIONS

Another biopharma giant faces probes into patient assistance programs. Biotech giant Biogen has joined the ranks of drug makers facing probes over patient assistance programs. These programs are meant, as the name implies, to help patients afford various treatments which may be out of their financial reach. But a number of companies including Valeant, Gilead, Celgene, and now Biogen are being investigated by federal regulators for potentially gaming the system in order to boost sales for their own treatments. For instance, Biogen is being asked about its pricing, rebate, and co-pay assistance programs for a quartet of drugs to ensure that its sales practices are on the up and up. Other companies are being investigated for allegedly predicating charitable donations on nonprofit groups shepherding patients to their specific products. (FiercePharma)

Key Pfizer breast cancer drug gets the cold shoulder in the U.K. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the U.K.’s stringent drug price watchdog, has struck again. This time, the victim is Pfizer’s Ibrance, part of a new class of breast cancer drugs that has already become a blockbuster for the pharma giant, with sales at about the $2 billion mark in 2016. NICE has decided that the treatment is too pricey to warrant widespread NHS coverage, especially since the agency feels that its benefits to overall survival rates remain unproven. The price watchdog is a regular thorn in pharma’s side in the U.K., and some drug makers have accused it of endangering innovation and restricting patient access through its practices.

Bristol-Myers’ Opdivo racks up another cancer indication with Merck’s Keytruda in hot pursuit. Bristol-Myers Squibb’s cancer immunotherapy star Opdivo got a bit of good news, racking up yet another cancer indication. Opdivo is now FDA-approved to treat bladder cancer, adding to a list of indications which includes melanoma, certain lung cancers, kidney cancer, and Hodgkin lymphoma. But rival Merck, whose competing therapy Keytruda is on its way to lap Opdivo in the lucrative lung cancer market, is also gearing up for its own bladder cancer label expansion in the U.S., submitting to regulatory filings to the FDA over the weekend.

THE BIG PICTURE

Will Tom Price use the administrative state to unravel Obamacare? Congressman Tom Price, whose nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS) was off to a rocky start in the cloud of potential ethics concerns, could be confirmed as HHS Secretary as early as this week, according to Politico. The question is: What will he do once he takes the reins? Price is a well known Obamacare critic. But Congress has yet to agree on anything approaching a concrete plan on repealing and replacing the health law. That’s where Price could take matters into his own hands, since the HHS Secretary has broad authority to implement rules and regulations affecting the ACA. He could potentially loosen requirements such as Obamacare’s health insurance purchasing mandate or certain mandated benefits such as free contraceptive coverage. (Politico)

Meanwhile, Trump says a replacement plan may not come for another year. As for the actual work of repealing, replacing, repairing, or rebranding Obamacare, things are still very much in limbo. President Donald Trump said during an interview on Fox News on Sunday that a replacement may not be ready until 2018. “Maybe it’ll take till sometime into next year, but we’re certainly going to be in the process,” he told Bill O’Reilly, adding, “I would like to say by the end of the year at least the rudiments but we should have something within the year and the following year.” (New York Times)

REQUIRED READING

Super Bowl-Watching Americans Really, Really Love Chicken Wings, by Andrew Nusca  

Apple, Google, and Microsoft File a Legal Brief Opposing Trump’s Immigration Banby Reuters

Even More NFL Quarterbacks Are Training in VRby David Z. Morris

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

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