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Brainstorm Health: Keytruda Lung Cancer Trial, Virtual PT, Novartis Gene Therapy Deal

Happy Monday, readers! I hope you had a great weekend. This is Sy.

Digital tech is slowly but surely creeping into the medical sphere. Just consider the ways in which patients are clamoring for more telemedicine and virtual doctor visit options while medical schools are harnessing virtual reality systems like Microsoft’s Hololens to teach anatomy to young surgeons. Now, a new study suggests that virtual physical therapy (PT) may be more effective and cheaper than the old-school variety.

The research was conducted by Cleveland Clinic scientists, centered on technology developed by Reflexion Health, and was published in the Journal of Knee Surgery (since, well, it featured patients going through PT after hip or knee surgeries).

Reflexion’s Virtual Exercise Rehabilitation Assistant (VERA) system is meant to help patients stick to the physical therapy regimens that can help them recover from those kinds of serious surgical procedures. According to the (admittedly small) initial study, which examined 157 knee surgery patients, it was a success, with 80% of the participants sticking with the home PT regimens prescribed by their physicians. Reflexion says that rate usually hovers much lower at somewhere between 35% and 70% (although those numbers are based on self-reported patient surveys, which can be unreliable).

But the data pulled from the study is still striking. “Patients in the study spent an average of approximately 27 minutes per day exercising over the course of an average 30 days in recovery,” wrote the researchers. The combination of the VERA platform and telemedicine visits—important to people who aren’t at full physical capacity—reportedly “resulted in associated savings in time, steps, and money for patients, providers, and payers.”

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

Could Medicare cover seniors’ Uber tab to the hospital? Forbes contributor Bruce Jaspen has an intriguing piece out on the ways that recent moves by the federal government may allow Medicare Advantage, the private component of the massive government health care program for seniors and disabled Americans, to pay for “supplemental services” like trips to the hospital—which could prove a boon for ride-sharing service like Uber and Lyft, which are already making significant moves into the medical transportation business. The agency that runs Medicare announced last week that it was “reinterpreting the standards for health-related supplemental benefits in the Medicare Advantage program to include additional services that increase health and improve quality of life”—criteria which could possibly include hospital rides for the sick, disabled, and elderly. (Forbes)

INDICATIONS

Merck stock soars on Keytruda’s triumph over chemo. Shares of drug giant Merck spiked more than 6% (!) in Monday trading. That’s a massive upswing for a company with well over $140 billion in market value. The reason for the rise? The continuing domination of Merck’s flagship cancer immunotherapy drug Keytruda, which may soon be able to be prescribed as a go-to, first-line treatment for lung cancer (the second most diagnosed cancer in America and by far the deadliest) without the need for chemotherapy at all if newly reported study results hold steady. (Fortune)

Novartis snaps up gene therapy upstart AveXis for $8.7 billion. Fresh Novartis CEO Vas Narasimhan has made the first major acquisition of his still-young tenure leading the Swiss pharmaceutical giant: The company is buying AxeVis, a gene therapy-focused biotech, in a deal valued at $8.7 billion. What’s more, AxeVis is working in a critical and hugely difficult therapeutic space—spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), an inherited and degenerative muscle-wasting disease. Narasimhan has previously stated his interest in precision medicine and rare diseases (I’ll be speaking with him this afternoon, so more on this soon). (Fortune)

THE BIG PICTURE

California considers a radical health care price control bill. Single payer health care is all the rage in certain sections of the left-wing political arena. But a new bill proposed in California would be equally ambitious in scope (and bring up a lot of the same sharp criticisms)—but without that headline-catching name and with an important difference in approach. The bill would set up an “all payer rate setting” system. This is one that strives for many of the same goals as single payer; but rather than have that eponymous “single payer” (i.e., the government or government-backed entity), the system of private insurance and hospitals would remain, albeit with some major changes. For instance, these firms would all be subject to price controls based on the rates that Medicare pays for various health care services. The bill is backed heavily by labor unions and consumer advocacy groups; doctors’ organizations and hospitals are warning that it would lead to care rationing and a loss of access to medical services. (Los Angeles Times)

REQUIRED READING

20 Advocacy Groups Say YouTube Illegally Collects Data on Kidsby Hallie Detrick

Commentary: How These Useless Doctors’ Exams Are Raising Health Care Costsby Niran Al-Agba & Meg Edison

Why Apple Co-Founder Steve Wozniak Joined the #DeleteFacebook Movementby David Meyer

Predicting Success for Mark Zuckerberg’s Trip to Washington, D.C.by Adam Lashinsky

Produced by Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

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