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Brainstorm Health: Trump HHS Pick, Cholesterol Gene Editing, Bill Gates Dementia Funding

President Donald Trump on Monday announced that he is nominating Alex Azar, a former top executive at U.S. pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, to be the next Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Trump’s previous HHS Secretary, Tom Price, resigned in September following a scandal centering on his use of private chartered jets on the taxpayer dime.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Azar would oversee one of the most sprawling and powerful federal agencies in America. HHS houses everything from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS)—which is tasked with running major national health care programs like Medicare, Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and Obamacare—to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes for Health (NIH), the Indian Health Service (IHS), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

One striking aspect of the nomination is Azar’s history as a prominent executive in the drug industry—a sector that Trump hasn’t been shy about criticizing over high drug prices and lavish price increases. After serving in the George W. Bush administration’s HHS, first as general counsel and then as a deputy HHS Secretary from 2005 to 2007, Azar moved on to several high-level posts at Eli Lilly—including as the president of Lilly USA, the drug maker’s main U.S. arm. Azar left the company at the beginning of 2017 to “pursue other career opportunities.”

The Trump White House says Azar’s combination of public and private sector experience will serve him well at a time when the administration is seeking big changes to Obamacare and regulatory agencies like the FDA. “He will be a star for better healthcare and lower drug prices!” wrote Trump in a tweet on Monday morning.

There’s a chance Azar may not face the same level of grilling and controversy that previous HHS Secretary Price did during his own Senate confirmation hearings (although Azar’s drug industry ties may prompt some scrutiny). Azar was confirmed unanimously in a Senate voice vote to his role as Deputy Secretary under the Bush administration in 2005.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Using gene editing to fight high cholesterol. American scientists have used the groundbreaking CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing platform, in combination with nanotechnology, to switch off a gene involved in cholesterol production—for good. The hope is this tech may one day be used to control high cholesterol by controlling gene expression in humans. “We’ve shown you can make a nanoparticle that can be used to permanently and specifically edit the DNA in the liver of an adult animal,” said study author Daniel Anderson. (Reuters)


Novartis aims to take a slice of the heart attack survivor market. Novartis will seek Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for the treatment canakinumab in a certain group of heart attack survivors. The Swiss drug giant said that a late-stage clinical trial showed the treatment cut the risk of adverse cardiac events by 25% in a specific subset of patients (an improvement over its effect on the wider patient pool). (Reuters)


Bill Gates pouring $100 million into dementia research. Billionaire Bill Gates is investing $50 million of his personal fortune in the Dementia Discovery Fund. The London-based private-public partnership fuels dementia research; down the line, Gates plans on investing another $50 million to smaller companies trying innovative new approaches to treating and preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. As Gates notes, Alzheimer’s cases have been ballooning alongside global life expectancy and is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. (Fortune)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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