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Brainstorm Health: Parker Institute CRISPR Breakthrough, Pfizer Reorganization, Gym Tax Deductions

Hello, readers! This is Sy.

CRISPR is by all accounts a fascinating technology. Its headline feature is that it can literally be used to slice, dice, and otherwise manipulate the body’s genetic code—functions that could carry staggering implications for treating everything from inherited disorders to cancer to HIV/AIDS one day.

Now, new (though extremely early) research suggests that CRISPR could be used to vastly improve upon a new form of cancer-fighting methods that turn the body’s own immune T cells into specially targeted killers that attack cancerous tissue.

If this technique sounds generally familiar, it’s because a pair of therapies from drug giants Novartis and Gilead called Kymriah and Yescarta, part of a new class known as CAR-T, were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last year. Those treatments involve extracting immune T cells, re-engineering them in a lab to home in on cancers, multiplying them, and then inserting them back into patients’ bodies. The results can be staggering for certain hard-to-treat blood cancer patients.

But that T cell re-engineering process is stymied by the need to use “viral vectors”—an expensive and expansive biological constraint that, simply put, slows down the ability to insert beneficial DNA into an immune cell and the amount of genomic data that can be repurposed for cancer-killing purposes. The experimental technique being tested by UCLA and UCSF scientists (backed by the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, established by tech entrepreneur and philanthropist Sean Parker) could theoretically bypass those constraints and create a cheaper, faster, and more efficient process for manufacturing cancer hunters out of a patient’s own biology by modifying certain cells’ building blocks.

And it has implications beyond cancer, too. The “cut and paste” system uses an electrical field to facilitate the rapid removal and replacement of DNA, which could eventually help fight infectious, hereditary, and other diseases as well.

“This is a rapid, flexible method that can be used to alter, enhance, and reprogram T cells so we can give them the specificity we want to destroy cancer, recognize infections, or tamp down the excessive immune response seen in autoimmune disease,” said UCSF’s Alex Marson, senior author of the new study, in a statement. “Now we’re off to the races on all these fronts.”

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee
@the_sy_guy
sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com

DIGITAL HEALTH

FDA approves AI diagnostic device. The FDA has approved a software program called IDx-DR, the first-ever AI-driven diagnostic device that doesn’t require a physician specialist to interpret its results. The technology is used to diagnose the diabetes-related eye disease diabetic retinopathy by examining high resolution scans of a patient’s retina. (The Verge)

INDICATIONS

Novartis exits the antibiotics business. Novartis has joined the parade of biopharma companies exiting the antibiotics business, shutting down its antiviral and antibacterial research units. “While the science for these programs is compelling, we have decided to prioritize our resources in other areas where we believe we are better positioned to develop innovative medicines that will have a positive impact for patients,” the company said in a statement. That follows similar decisions by firms like Eli Lilly and AstraZeneca; but it’s a troubling scenario given the rise of antibiotic-resistant bugs, and indicative of the crummy business incentives the industry has in the prevention and anti-infectious disease space.

Pfizer plots a major reorganization. On Wednesday, drug giant Pfizer announced a significant reorganization that involves separating its consumer health business. Pfizer’s overall business will include the following divisions as of 2019: Innovative Medicines, Established Medicines, and Consumer Healthcare. The company has been looking for a buyer for its consumer medicine arm, and the new move comes as multiple legacy Pfizer drugs are facing patent expiration. (Reuters)

THE BIG PICTURE

Would a gym tax deduction really help anything? Congress is currently working on a bill that would allow for up to $1,000 per year in itemized tax deductions for gym memberships and fitness classes. That may sound good on paper—but just how effective would it be from a public health standpoint? The nature of the itemized deduction means such a plan, ostensibly meant to get Americans to get more exercise, would disproportionately benefit those who are already healthy and wealthy.

REQUIRED READING

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California Beat Its 2020 Emissions Target Four Years Earlyby Lucas Laursen

Workers Are Quitting Their Jobs at Dotcom Bubble Ratesby Brittany Shoot

Puerto Rico’s Bankrupt Utility Has No Leader After Pay Scandalby Bloomberg

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

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