Skip to Content

Brainstorm Health Daily: February 16, 2017

Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!

So shouted Howard Cosell two minutes into the first round of the Sunshine Showdown in Jamaica, as a punishing upper cut from George Foreman sent Smokin’ Joe to the canvas on January 22, 1973.

And if you listen very closely, there are echoes of Cosell’s legendary incantation, his exultant chime, in this one-sentence call made yesterday by a three-judge patent trial and appeal board in Alexandria, Virginia:

“In light of the determination that the parties’ claims do not interfere…we enter judgment of no interference-in-fact, which neither cancels nor finally refuses either parties’ claims.”

It takes a second or two, but you can hear, in those words, the brutal poetry of pugilism. The biggest biotech fight of the century thus far, the heavyweight title bout between the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT and the University of California over the ownership of the CRISPR-Cas9 genome-editing technology—or the Thrilla in Virginia, as I described it in December—is over. And decided by the most technical of TKOs.

“Down goes Doudna!” the words from the patent office cry.

That would be Jennifer Doudna, of UC Berkeley, who developed the modern-day version of CRISPR—a revolutionary hack of an age-old bacterial defense system—with Emmanuelle Charpentier, who is now affiliated with Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. The technique, widely hailed as a breakthrough, allows for the simple and (mostly) precise editing of virtually any genome.

But…the most valuable patents for this invention (at least for now) will remain with the Broad scientist who got the patent office to “fast track” his claim. Yesterday’s ruling effectively said that Feng Zhang’s adoption of the technique in human and mouse cells was, in fact, a new and patentable invention rather than an “obvious” extension of Doudna’s and Charpentier’s work. (Sharon Begley at STAT has a nice analysis here as well as a link to the patent appeal board’s 51-page explanation of its judgment.)

That decision could be worth billions of dollars to the Broad and its parent institutions. And in my view, it will also put yet another chill on collaborative science, forcing inventors to keep their discoveries close to the vest until they’re absolutely sure they’ve unlocked every last cent of financial value. Expect university lawyers and tech transfer offices to tighten those lids even more than they already do.

After that first knockdown by Foreman in the 1973 bout, the champ got his mandatory eight count and then returned to his feet. But in round two, Frazier would go to the mat five more times before the fight was called.

The University of California released a press release yesterday that suggests it isn’t giving up hope. But just as with the Foreman-Frazier fight, this match is clearly won.

More news below.

Clifton Leaf
@CliftonLeaf
clifton.leaf@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

Can brain scans predict autism in babies? New research published in the journal Nature suggests that examining babies’ brain scans through age two can help predict an autism diagnosis. In fact, scientists were able to correctly identify which babies would eventually receive an autism diagnosis with 80% accuracy (they analyzed 150 infants’ scans, many of whom were at high risk for developing autism because they had elder siblings with the condition). There appear to be two distinct differences between those likely to be diagnosed autistic and control groups: 1) a rapid increase in brain surface area between six and 12 months; and 2) a rapid increase in brain volume between 12 and 24 months. Simply put, “their brains grew too fast, compared to controls,” said senior study author Joe Piven. The study is particularly encouraging because autism diagnoses are currently done on children between the ages of two and four, and earlier diagnoses allows for more effective treatment measures. (Fortune)

A Star Trek-like visor can help the legally blind see. Here’s one from the final frontier: a device called the eSight 3 can help legally blind people see with the help of a liquid lens, optical prisms, and a high resolution display. The tech resembles the visor made famous by LeVar Burton’s character in the T.V. series Star Trek: The Next Generation. “I remember putting them on and looking up and I saw my husband who I’d been married to for eight years and had never seen before,” one blind patient who uses the eSight 3 told CNET. “And my 2-month-old son, who we had just brought home from the hospital and he was holding him and it was the most beautiful image, like it’s burned in my mind for the rest of my life.” eSight CEO Dr. Brian Mech says that the non-invasive device has a 50-50 shot at working on various eye conditions, although it’s currently more effective for diseases such as macular degeneration and diabetes-related vision loss than it is for glaucoma. (CNET)

Microsoft is teaming up with a major medical center. Tech giant Microsoft announced today that it’s launching a new health care medical research effort in collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The project, dubbed Healthcare NeXT, will serve as a brain hub for producing new health technologies. “We’re creating a new internal incubator to create collaborations with great health care companies,” Microsoft corporate vice president Peter Lee tells my colleague Barb Darrow. “At NExT, we have one foot in research and one foot on the business side. We work a bit like an internal startup incubator and venture capital fund with the exit strategy to compel Microsoft senior leadership to bet big on new things.” Microsoft is among a wave of tech companies including IBM and GE with major ambitions in the health care space, particularly when it comes to using machine learning and artificial intelligence to bolster the medical system. (Fortune)

INDICATIONS

How J&J’s $30 billion Actelion acquisition went down. One of the year’s biggest biopharma M&A scuffles came to an end in January when Johnson & Johnson finally struck a deal to buy Actelion, Europe’s biggest biotech and a maker of pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) drugs. In the process, French pharma giant Sanofi was eventually spurned despite a brief period when it seemed like the company was close to snagging a deal. How did Sanofi lose out? According to Reuters, Actelion’s board was simply more comfortable with the offer J&J presented. “J&J’s proposal offered significantly greater transaction certainty because the transaction documentation was nearly final and because J&J had already completed the required due diligence.” As they say, the early bird catches the worm. (Fortune)

Valeant snags FDA approval for potentially lucrative psoriasis drug. The much-maligned (and financially hobbled) Valeant Pharmaceuticals got a spark of good news Wednesday as the FDA approved its Siliq (brodalumab), a treatment for moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis. The psoriasis market is a massive global space, and many of the best-selling drugs in the world are anti-inflammatory medications to treat conditions like psoriasis, psoriatic arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and other such disorders. But Valeant’s desire to rack up a blockbuster treatment could run afoul of a black box warning imposed by the FDA because Siliq users experienced an increase in suicidal thoughts. Although the agency noted a causal relationship hadn’t been established between the drug and suicidal ideation, it’s imposing a risk mitigation program on the drug which contains more restrictions on who can prescribe or receive it.

The politics of Marathan Pharma’s Duchenne drug price hike are getting messy. As I’ve been reporting, Marathon Pharmaceuticals is taking heat over its plans to hike a cheap and old steroid’s list price by $88,000 in the U.S. in order to treat the symptoms of rare disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy. The backlash and a Congressional inquiry led Marathon CEO Jeffrey Aronin to hit pause on the launch as it holds discussions with patient groups and payers and reassesses its options. And the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) lobbying outfit is praising that decision. “We are pleased Marathon decided to pause the launch of their medicine to solicit additional input from patients and other stakeholders,” said PhRMA CEO Steven Ubl in a statement. “Their recent actions are not consistent with the mission of our organization.” Furthermore, PhRMA is now reviewing Marathon’s membership in the powerful trade group. But that’s where things get a little awkward: Aronin is actually on PhRMA’s board. And given the organization’s massive new push to shed the industry’s price gouging reputation and highlight innovative research, he may not be there for much longer.

THE BIG PICTURE

Aetna’s CEO thinks Obamacare is in a death spiral. Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini issued some strong criticisms of Obamacare during a Wall Street Journal event on Wednesday, saying that its marketplaces are in a “death spiral” and predicting that even more insurers will retrench from its exchanges in the coming weeks. “It’s not going to get any better, it’s getting worse,” he said. Bertolini went on to promote several policies he believes can stabilize individual insurance marketplaces, including a reinsurance fund to protect health insurers from risk. Earlier this week, Humana announced that it would be exiting Obamacare’s marketplaces in 2018, and the Trump administration on Wednesday issued new rules loosening some of the health law’s provisions. (Fortune)

Americans are super stressed about the Trump presidency. Talk about politics-induced stress: an American Psychological Association (APA) poll taken between January 4 and 19 finds that 57% of U.S. adults feel that the current state of politics is a source of stress, and that they’re feeling more stressed now than they were just six months ago. The APA’s Katherine Nordal has some helpful advice for dealing with the situation. “For many, the transition of power and the speed of change can cause uncertainty and feelings of stress, and that stress can have health consequences. If the 24-hour news cycle is causing you stress, limit your media consumption,” she said in a statement. (Fortune)

Trump’s pick to run the crucial CMS testifies before Senate Finance Committee. Seema Verma, President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), stared down the Senate Finance Committee in a round of questioning this morning. If confirmed, Verma will be one of the most powerful administrators in the Trump administration, overseeing massive health programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare. She’s best known for crafting Indiana’s unique Medicaid expansion waiver, which requires enrollees for the safety net program for the poor to make monthly contributions toward their coverage. “I will work toward ushering in a new era of state flexibility and leadership to drive better outcomes,” Verma told the Finance Committee in her prepared remarks. (Politico)

REQUIRED READING

The World’s Most Admired Companiesby Fortune Staff

Private Equity Firm Blackstone Buys London-Based Cloud Computing Companyby Reuters

The Good and Bad in Trump’s Economyby Anna Teregulova and Shawn Tully

Skype Co-Founder’s Firm Closes Europe’s Biggest Tech Fundby Reuters

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

Find past coverage. Sign up for other Fortune newsletters.