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Brainstorm Health: Vitamin B Cancer Risk, Merck’s Trump Boost, Novartis Leukemia Drug Price

August 23, 2017, 4:02 PM UTC

Good morning, readers! This is Sy.

A new study making the rounds suggests that high intake of B vitamins is associated with an increased risk for lung cancer. Let’s look beyond the headlines and into some of the research’s details and caveats.

First, the topline numbers: The study was an observational one rather than a randomized control trial, the latter of which is considered to be the “gold standard” of clinical studies. The sample size, however, was huge—it involved more than 70,000 adults aged 50 to 76. More than 800 of these people were found to have invasive lung cancers over the study’s course, and the risk seemed to be especially associated with men who took discrete supplements with vitamin B6 or B12. “[U]se of vitamin B6 and B12 from individual supplement sources, but not from multivitamins, was associated with a 30% to 40% increase in lung cancer risk among men,” wrote the researchers.

Strikingly, this same effect wasn’t seen in women. And even among men, there was one specific group who really drove the trend: Smokers. Smoking is one of the single biggest risk factors for lung cancer, which makes up more than 13% of all new cancer diagnoses and more than one in four cancer deaths in the U.S.

What the research seems to suggest is that male smokers who take more than the recommended levels of vitamin B6 and B12 seem to have a higher risk for lung cancer, perhaps even considerably so. That’s important because, at the very least, this correlation appears to suggest that taking mega-doses of vitamins to improve general health (including for cancer risk) isn’t an effective strategy and certainly doesn’t reverse the effects of smoking.

Now for some more caveats: The sample, while large, was overwhelmingly made up of white people, and the measure of vitamin intake was based on surveys rather than blood draws (which could potentially lead to some misleading results). Furthermore, some public health experts note it’s possible that cancer itself can change the vitamin levels in the blood.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Novartis launches smartphone-driven MS trial with ResearchKit. Swiss pharma giant Novartis is going digital in its multiple sclerosis research. Rather than the standard, manufactured clinical trial setting, the drug maker will use smartphone sensor-based data to determine both the challenges faced by MS patients and identify possible treatment methods which may be especially effective. The program for the trial was created using Apple's ResearchKit mobile platform. (PharmaTimes)


Merck's post-Charlottesville perception boost. Plenty of companies eventually absconded from President Trump's jobs-focused CEO councils following his response to violence in Charlottesville. But one in particular appears to have gotten a significant (if temporary) boost to positive buzz and word-of-mouth: Merck, whose chief executive Ken Frazier was the first to quit Trump's manufacturing council. (Fortune)

Novartis CAR-T leukemia drug draws early pricing apprehension. Speaking of Novartis—the company's experimental CTL019, which is expected to be the first approved drug in a revolutionary new cancer treatment space that turns the body's own immune cells into cancer-killers, is already facing some apprehension from doctors and patient groups who are worried about its eventual pricing. Analysts expect a course of therapy could ring in at a list price of more than $500,000 (perhaps inevitable considering the intensive manufacturing process involved with the technology). (Kaiser Health News)


Senate schedules Obamacare hearings. A critical Senate committee has scheduled two hearings on approaches to fixing the Affordable Care Act's individual insurance marketplaces. The first of the hearings (scheduled for September 6) will feature insurance commissioners while the second one will involve input from governors. Senators are in the process of figuring out a way to shore up Obamacare's marketplaces on a bipartisan basis following the demise of repeal efforts this summer. (ABC News)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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