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Brainstorm Health: Sewage and the Opioid Epidemic, Grindr HIV Status Sharing, Pfizer Allogene Deal

For a century and a half, epidemiology has been an effective strategy for tracing the root causes of infectious disease outbreaks—as John Snow demonstrated in 1854, when he painstakingly mapped cases of cholera in London and eventually traced them to a single contaminated well and water pump in the Soho district of the city.

Now, a twist on that tactic is being employed to monitor the consumption of opioids and other drugs in various cities and towns around the world, according to a fascinating article by Michael Kelly that now appears on Opioid Watch, a brand new online news resource from the nonprofit Opioid Research Institute.

The technique, called “hotspotting,” analyzes an area’s sewage water to measure traces of legal and illegal drugs and track their changes over time. “Wastewater analysis,” Kelly explains, “can reveal the collective drug habits of communities, providing a more accurate picture than self-reported surveys. It can also alert communities to budding problems in their midst at an earlier stage than grim emergency-room statistics and overdose deaths.”

One large European study, for example—which examined sewage from 60 cities in 19 countries—discovered an acute use of methamphetamine in two eastern German cities (Chemnitz and Erfurt), heavy use of cocaine in Zurich and Barcelona, and a notable level of MDMA (ecstasy) use in Amsterdam, Kelly reports.

Seeing what drugs people in a community are really using—and how much—won’t change behavior by itself. But it’s the first step, arguably, in setting up effective interventions.

The story is one of several fascinating discoveries on Opioid Watch, a site curated by Roger Parloff, who for years was a senior writer at FORTUNE and one of the most gifted reporters to have graced these halls. The site also offers breaking news and up-to-date stats on this topic as well as current status reports on litigation and other judicial action. It’s really worth checking out.

More news below.

Clifton Leaf, Editor in Chief, FORTUNE


Grindr faces backlash after HIV status sharing report. A BuzzFeed report from Monday sparked backlash against the popular LGBTQ social media and dating platform Grindr for sharing personal user information—including HIV status—with third party applications Apptimize and Localytics. Grindr initially defended general data sharing practices as “standard” for the “mobile app ecosystem” for purposes such as testing the Grindr app’s performance. Late Monday, the company finally announced that it would stop sharing the HIV status data with third parties. Earlier this year, Grindr announced a new (optional) initiative to remind users to get tested for HIV and point them to local screening locations. (Fortune)


Pfizer signs cancer cell therapy deal with Allogene. Drug giant Pfizer has inked a deal with biotech Allogene Therapeutics to further develop a new kind of cancer immunotherapy treatment called CAR-T therapy. Pfizer will hold a 25% stake in Allogene (although other financial details were not disclosed) and Allogene will receive rights to 16 different early, experimental CAR-T assets licensed through an existing Pfizer deal with French drug makers Cellectis and Servier. CAR-T is a type of treatment that uses the body’s own T-cells to fight cancer by reengineering them to target the offending cells. (Reuters)

Celgene stock dips amid COO departure. Biotech giant Celgene dipped another 2% in Tuesday afternoon trading after news broke of president and chief operating officer Scott Smith’s immediate departure. There was no explanation for the exodus (Smith has been at the company for 10 years and was promoted to COO and president just last year); but it’s likely part of CEO Mark Alles’ efforts to reshuffle management as the company, a longtime darling of the biotech investment community, has faced a number of clinical setbacks, including for key experimental drugs. (Xconomy)


Breast cancer information disappears from HHS website. A new report by the Sunlight Foundation’s Web Integrity Project finds that the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Women’s Health scrubbed important information about breast cancer, screenings for the disease, and links to other resources (such as information about Obamacare benefits related to breast cancer) with no advance warning. HHS spokespeople say the information was removed because it wasn’t utilized regularly and wasn’t particularly mobile-friendly; but critics raised questions about the administration’s earlier efforts to remove online government material about public health issues, including for LGBTQ Americans. (Fortune)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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