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Brainstorm Health: U.S. Life Expectancy Falls, Medical Schools’ Female Surge, Pfizer Merck Diabetes Drug

December 21, 2017, 7:37 PM UTC

Hello and happy solstice, readers! This is Sy.

Let’s keep things short and to the point on the shortest day of the year. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has released a new report on U.S. life expectancy and, bluntly, what’s killing Americans. The agency’s sobering assessment? Life expectancy in America has fallen for the second straight year. And there’s a likely culprit that bears a disproportionate share of the blame this time around: Drug overdoses, especially those tied to the opioid crisis.

The 2015 life expectancy drop was the first time American longevity dipped since 1993; the 2016 shortfall is modest but significant, projecting an average 78.6 years of life. That’s a 0.1% decline, which may not sound like much, but is enough to have public health officials worried. (Women still have a significantly higher life expectancy than men at 81.1 years, versus 76.1 years for men.)

In fact, there were more than 63,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, including more than 40,000 from opioid overdoses. The most concerning trend may be among “synthetic” opioids like fentanyl since deaths among this opioid class doubled between 2015 and 2016.

If the trend continues, America could well see the third straight year of life expectancy decline next year—the first time such an event would occur in about a century.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Are new CAR-T cancer therapies cost-effective? According to the Institute of Clinical and Economic Review (ICER), probably! ICER isn't exactly known for being a drug industry cheerleader, no matter how ballyhooed the underlying medical innovation. The cost-effectiveness watchdog has reached harsh conclusions about some of biopharma's most touted therapies, judging many to be too expensive relative to their benefits. But ICER says in its new (preliminary) report that pricey new CAR-T cancer drugs which re-engineer patients' immune cells to beat back cancer may actually be worth the price. The data is still in its early stages with these medications, though, and ICER is awaiting public comments on its report's methodology.


Merck, Pfizer finally join the hot new class of diabetes drugs. U.S. drug giants Merck and Pfizer have won Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for Steglatro (ertugliflozin), part of a new type of diabetes medications called SGLT2 inhibitors. These kinds of drugs work a bit differently from traditional type 2 diabetes therapies—they wind up expelling excess glucose through urine. But Merck and Pfizer's entry into this specific field falls behind major competitors like Eli Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, and others. (Reuters)


There's a surge in women attending medical school. Here's a 2017 milestone: "Women comprise 50.7% of the 21,338 people entering medical school in 2017, compared to 49.8% of the entering class last year," according to figures from the Association of American Medical Colleges. That means the incoming class of medical school students will be, for the first time ever, majority women. (Fortune)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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