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Brainstorm Health: Genome on a Blockchain, Budget Deal, U.S. Life Expectancy Drop

February 9, 2018, 8:43 PM UTC

Hello and happy Friday, readers! This is Sy.

That’s the ambitious quest driving Nebula Genomics, a company founded and advised by a crew of geneticists and Harvard grads. Genomics expert George Church and his colleagues released a new white paper this week detailing the logic behind the enterprise, which seeks to sequence genomes for less than $1,000, place them onto a secure blockchain, and then give you the power to do what you want to with your protected genomic data while raking in cryptocurrency, as MIT Technology Review’s Emily Mullin reports.

The company’s overarching purpose would be to displace common consumer genetic sequencing firms like 23andMe and Helix. Nebula would ostensibly set itself apart from those outfits by giving you control over who can access your genomic data (while also providing a more full-scale genetic analysis) for the purposes of research and drug development. The blockchain element, the logic goes, ensures both consumer control and security while cutting out the in-between players.

“The Nebula model… eliminates personal genomics companies as middlemen between data owners and data buyers. Instead, data owners can acquire their personal genomic data from Nebula sequencing facilities or other sources, join the Nebula blockchain-based, peer-to-peer network and directly connect with data buyers,” wrote Church and his colleagues in the white paper. “This model reduces effective sequencing costs and enhances protection of personal genomic data. It also satisfies the needs of data buyers in regards to data availability, data acquisition logistics, and resources needed for genomic big data.”

The model would combine a number of burgeoning technologies in both fintech and health care. Not only would you be able to get insight into your genetic makeup and, if you want, fuel drug research—you’d actually be paid via cryptocurrency “Nebula tokens” for doing so.

That latter part is what may give some people pause. Nebula still needs to figure out how to hand out its so-called “Nebula tokens” or whether it will have an initial coin offering (ICO). And, understandably, there’s a fair amount of skepticism out there about the early crypto-trend. But it’s hard to deny that Nebula’s mission in the health care space is an intriguing one.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


Virta scores big with type 2 diabetes digital health study. Virta Health notched some impressive, one-year clinical trial results for its digital health-based, type 2 diabetes control platform. What's striking about the Virta tech is that it takes surgery and medication out of the diabetes treatment equation; users are given continual, daily access to clinical professionals who advise them on their dietary regimens (on an extremely granular level, in many instances) in order to control blood sugar. The latest trial results? "60 percent of those completing one year had type 2 diabetes reversed"  while taking no glycemic control medications or only metformin, according to the peer-reviewed study in Diabetes Therapy.


S&P downgrades Teva amid continued struggles. Embattled generic drug giant Teva issued a sobering, conservative 2018 outlook during its latest earnings call, falling short of analyst expectations. Competition in the generic drug market has been hitting Teva hard, leading to a major management shakeup by new CEO Kare Schultz and massive layoffs as the firm attempts to pay down debt and right its business model. Teva stock is down more than 43% in the past 12 months. (TheStreet)


Budget deal favors some health programs over others. Congress passed a two-year budget deal late last night after some high-profile drama (and a brief government shutdown). Health care had a prominent role to play in the deal—but some programs were given greater shrift than others. For instance, Obamacare's Independent Payment Advisory Board, a cost-control mechanism that's never actually been invoked but championed by some prominent health economists, was repealed; the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) was also extended an addition four years on top of the six-year extension passed by Congress last month. But there was no sign of provisions to stabilize Obamacare's marketplaces. Given the repeal of the health law's individual insurance mandate in the GOP tax bill passed last year, a lack of policies to address Obamacare markets could lead to premium increases in 2019. (New York Times)

U.S. life expectancy continues to decline. A new study outlines some of the major reasons that American life expectancy dropped for two consecutive years, as my colleague Grace Donnelly reports. "We are seeing an alarming increase in deaths from substance abuse and despair," said Steven Woolf, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of the report, Grace writes. "He added that the amount of the decrease in life expectancy is actually less alarming than the fact that addiction and a decline in the emotional wellbeing of Americans have been significant enough to drag down the country’s average length of life." (Fortune)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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