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Brainstorm Health Daily: March 23, 2017

March 23, 2017, 4:04 PM UTC

Good morning, readers. This is Sy with your daily dose of health news.

A team of researchers from the Boston Children’s Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) set out to answer a question: How did the Arkansas mumps outbreak of 2016 pick up steam – and, specifically, how much of a factor did vaccination rates play in the regions hardest-hit by the infectious disease?

To answer, Maimuna Majumder and her team at HealthMap, a software-driven epidemiology outfit based out of the Boston Children’s Hospital, collected troves of local public health data to begin mapping out the outbreak’s progression.

There have been 3,000 mumps cases in Arkansas across 33 counties since the flareup originated last August. Majumder and the HealthMap team collected county-wide data that was being released by the Arkansas Department of Public Health, which included information such as the age, location, and school districts of the (mostly) children who contracted mumps.

But, as Majumder notes in a piece for NPR, simply having this data wasn’t quite enough to suss out the outbreak’s overall progression since it lacked historical context. And so the researchers used a HealthMap tool called the Digital Surveillance System to crawl through social media and news reports and then turn it into information that can be used for epidemiological studies. This same tool has previously been used to predict and map flu outbreaks based on local trends and Google searches.

With this new information in hand, the team was then able to project exactly how many cases had resulted over the course of the outbreak. And, even more interestingly, the scientists were able to piece together how low the vaccination rates were in the large Arkansas counties from where the disease spread by combining surveillance data on vaccinations and mathematical models. Their conclusions? The communities where the outbreak hit particularly hard likely had two-dose mumps vaccination rates of anywhere from 70% to 89% – considerably lower than the requisite 96% immunization rate which is thought to provide herd immunity.

And there it is. An epidemiological mystery solved with the help of big data and some smart analytics.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


A phone app that can track and analyze sperm. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women's Hospital have created a cheap but innovative new way of analyzing sperm that could become as much of a game-changer for male infertility tests as the private pregnancy test was for women. The method involves using a smartphone app in conjunction with a specially-designed phone case containing multiple lenses which can magnify sperm samples (inserted into the device via a special tube and disposable microchip) in conjunction with an LED light. The app then takes one-second videos of the semen and can use this information to record highly accurate data about the sperm. "We have demonstrated that the smartphone-based semen analyzer can accurately measure sperm concentration, motility, total sperm count, total motile sperm count, and linear and curvilinear velocities using a small volume (<35 μl) of an unwashed, unprocessed semen sample loaded into a disposable microchip," wrote the researchers. "We developed an automated smartphone-based diagnostic assay with the potential to make male fertility testing as accessible, easy, fast, and private as pregnancy tests." (STAT News)

A Trump budget provision could hit digital health startups. President Donald Trump's budget has alarmed some within the medical community over big cuts to scientific and health care agencies. But a little-noticed provision could also hit digital health startups, according to FierceHealthcare. The budget actually doubles user fees for the Food and Drug Administration. While such a big increase in fees collection may be okay for massive pharmaceutical and medical device companies, smaller firms may not be able to afford such extravagant expenses. "A big concern will be small companies that don't have much cash to spend on user fees,” one expert told FierceHealthcare. "Small companies have been an enormous source of innovation in digital health." (FierceHealthcare)


Sanders and Cummings urge PTC to slash former Marathon Duchenne drug's price. In a letter to PTC Therapeutics Stuart Peltz, Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings and Sen. Bernie Sanders are demanding to know what the pharma company plans to do about the price of deflazacort, a steroidal treatment that was recently approved as a drug to treat the genetic muscle-wasting disease Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Petlz and PTC made the controversial decision to buy the treatment from Marathon Pharmaceuticals, which faced massive backlash after hiking its list price to $89,000 for Duchenne patients despite its widespread availability and low cost in other countries. Sanders and Cummings insisted that PTC price the treatment more in line with the $1,000 to $2,000 price tag of other nations.

Novartis drug doesn't make the cardiovascular outcomes cut. Novartis heart drug serelaxin failed a late-stage trial, likely putting the kibosh on an experimental treatment the firm had hoped could eventually rack up billions in sales after receiving marketing approval. "We are disappointed this study did not confirm the efficacy of RLX030," said Novartis drug development head Vas Narasimhan in a statement. With Serelaxin's failure, the pharma giant will have to raise its hopes for the heart failure medication Entresto, which itself has been pulling in lower-than-expected sales despite high initial hopes. (Reuters)

Big layoffs reportedly planned at Teva, but how many is unclear. Generic drug specialist Teva has had a rough couple of years. So it's not too surprising that the company is girding for some big budget cuts, including layoffs. But Teva is denying initial media reports suggesting that it will be lopping off up to 6,000 members of its workforce, which would be approximately 11% of the entire company. However, it will press on with what it's calling its "efficiency program" for cutting out unprofitable activities and freezing recruitment. "The efficiency program is an integral part of Teva's business reality. The program includes, among other things, ending unprofitable activities and consolidating functions, in addition to freezing recruitment and natural employee turnover," the company said in a statement. "These processes are conducted through a continuous open dialog with the employees. This will be the practice, including in Israel, as necessary. We would like to stress that the numbers which were published in the media are incorrect." (Fortune)


The lay of the land ahead of the Trumpcare vote. It is a chaotic day on Capitol Hill as the House GOP leadership and Trump administration try their very best to hold a floor vote on the American Health Care Act (AHCA), which has recently seen a string of public criticisms from Republicans. Despite the confusion and ongoing horse trading over the legislation (President Trump has reportedly agreed to conservative lawmakers' requests to nix Obamacare's "essential health benefits" standards for insurers, although even this olive branch may not go far enough to get them on board), the GOP would love to see a vote today. The reason? It's the seven-year anniversary of President Obama signing the Affordable Care Act into law, and would ostensibly make for a nice symbolic victory. Stay tuned. (Fortune)

A sting operation shines a light on the darker aspects of academic journals. A fascinating new investigation pulls back the curtain on the world of academic journals - and the potential corruption and unethical behavior that can plague them. The "sting" team sent out editorial board applications for a sham candidate named Anna O. Szust to 360 journals. Szust's carefully constructed CV and scientific profile were inadequate to be the editor of a major journal; and yet, at least eight relatively well-credentialed journals appointed her as an editor (alongside 40 "predatory" journals). (Nature)

Former pharmacy executive convicted in New England meningitis outbreak case. The 2012 meningitis outbreak stemming from unsanitary conditions at a New England-area compounding pharmacy (and which killed 64 people) has finally led to a conviction - but not on murder. The former head of the pharmacy, Barry Cadden, has been convicted of racketeering, conspiracy, and fraud while being acquitted of second-degree murder charges. (Houston Chronicle)


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How Snapchat's IPO Became One of Wall Street's Biggest Flopsby Shawn Tully

Amateur Baseball Players Get High-Tech Bats to Perfect Their Swingsby Barb Darrow

Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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