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Brainstorm Health: New Zealand’s HIV Prevention Plan, Apple Watch Diabetes Study, FDA Vs Kratom

February 7, 2018, 6:31 PM UTC

Hello and happy hump day, readers! This is Sy.

New Zealand is about to take a pioneering approach to fighting HIV/AIDS—by publicly funding pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medication Truvada, manufactured by U.S. biotech giant Gilead. Taking this drug daily has shown to offer more than 90% (and as much as 99%) effective protection against HIV in clinical trials, and certain New Zealand residents will soon be able to get a three-month supply for just $5 (oh, and that’s five New Zealand dollars, which is about $3.64 in U.S. money).

The drastic price cut (Truvada currently costs about $30 per day in New Zealand) could go a long way toward widescale HIV prevention, as the discount will be targeted toward the most high-risk residents. That includes men who have sex with men, transgender people who have sex with men, those with higher chances of engaging in risky sexual behavior such as sex without a condom, and people with partners who are HIV positive.

“Together with safe sex practice, early diagnosis, and access to treatment, we expect that PrEP will significantly reduce HIV transmission rates in New Zealand,” Sarah Fitt, the chief executive of New Zealand’s public pharmaceutical management agency Pharmac, told Stuff.

The aggressive funding decision was driven by New Zealand’s struggles with HIV infection, particularly in the past few years. The virus’ spread has even been labeled an epidemic, with cases rising every year since 2011 (although total infections still remain relatively low compared with other nations). A number of other regions, including Scotland and Canada’s Ontario, provide public funding for PrEP.

Safe sex practices and the growing popularity of Truvada may have also helped lead to a striking decline in HIV infections in the U.S., according to Annual infections declined 18% between 2008 and 2014, according to government figures—although the progress remains uneven across various communities and demographics. While most U.S. insurance plans at least partially cover PrEP, it can be prohibitively expensive for Americans without health coverage (or those with extremely high drug co-pays on their insurance plans).

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Cardiogram study finds that Apple Watch is impressively good at detecting diabetes. A new study from the University of California, San Francisco and Cardiogram finds that the Apple Watch can detect early signs of diabetes with 85% accuracy, adding to a slew of trials under the groups' DeepHeart study which indicate the Watch can be used to detect irregular heart rhythms, sleep apnea, and hypertension. Cardiogram co-founder Brandon Ballinger told Fortune that it's an exciting result since the Apple Watch's heart monitor is the same kind of heart rate sensor used in other fitness trackers and wearables, including Android Wear. So just how can the algorithm detect diabetes through measuring heart rates? "Your heart is connected with your pancreas via the autonomic nervous system. As people develop the early stages of diabetes, their pattern of heart rate variability shifts," explained Cardiogram in a statement.


FDA ramps up its war on kratom. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Scott Gottlieb has officially labeled the herbal supplement kratom, used by many to treat depression, anxiety, and pain, the "O" word—opioid. "[A]s the scientific data and adverse event reports have clearly revealed, compounds in kratom make it so it isn’t just a plant—it’s an opioid," said Gottlieb in a statement. "And it’s an opioid that’s associated with novel risks because of the variability in how it’s being formulated, sold and used recreationally and by those who are seeking to self-medicate for pain or who use kratom to treat opioid withdrawal symptoms." The FDA also released reports of some three dozen deaths associated with kratom use on Tuesday. (FDA)


The selling of a "baseless" diet. My colleague Beth Kowitt has a fascinating story on the... unusual new diet fad called Whole30. This food regimen is overwhelmingly dismissed by nutritionists as baseless and extreme (it forces you to cut out added sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, dairy, MSG, sulfites, baked goods, or junk foods for a full month), particularly for weight loss. And yet that very expert skepticism may be part of its appeal. "Gunnar Lovelace, co-founder and chief strategy officer of online organic and natural retailer Thrive Market, which has a partnership with Whole30, says that consumers today 'don’t trust their traditional sources anymore.' Instead, people like [Whole30 creator Melissa] Hartwig 'have amazing communities getting more traffic often than established media brands,'" writes Beth. (Fortune)

Controversial biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong to acquire LA Times. Tronc, formerly Tribune Co., has sold the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune to LA's richest man and the world's richest doctor, Patrick Soon-Shiong. Soon-Shiong is known as a showman with a penchant for flair and bold claims, such as his mission to "solve cancer" (he's also a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers, has hobnobbed with former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump, and is a physician-turned-biotech entrepreneur). But he's no stranger to controversy, either. His biotech companies NantHealth and NantKwest have both lost more than 80% of their values since their IPOs, he was accused of stock sale fraud by, of all people, Cher, and a Politico investigation from last year found that his charitable NantHealth Foundation has been used to prop up his own businesses and not-for-profits. Soon-Shiong has denied those allegations and labeled them "malicious." (Fortune)


Noise Pollution May Impact Heart Health, According to New Researchby Sarah Gray

Bitcoin Is Less Volatile Than Stock Market Volatility Index, SEC Chair Saysby Jen Wieczner

New York Lawmakers Want Tide to Stop Making Its Pods Look So Tastyby Nathsha Bach

Google is Developing a Video Game Streaming Serviceby Chris Morris

Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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