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Brainstorm Health: Fingerprint Sensor, Gene Therapy Value, More FDA Approvals

Happy Friday, winter solstice, and “heading into the holidays” day, readers. This will be our last missive for two weeks.

But we leave on an interesting note. On Friday, IBM researchers announced the creation of a sensor that sits atop one’s fingertip in order to measure the progression of Parkinson’s disease patients. The wearable device, which performs continuous monitoring and uses machine learning software, was announced via a press release and article published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“One method to measure a disease’s progression is to attach skin-based sensors to capture things like motion, the health of muscles and nerve cells, or changes in sweat gland activity, which can reflect the intensity of a person’s emotional state. But with older patients, such skin-based sensors can often cause problems, including infection,” said the researchers.

And therein lies the promise of this technology, they say. Parkinson’s is a degenerative condition that eats away at motor functions. And a crucial marker of such functions rests at a patient’s fingertips.

“We interact with objects throughout the day using our hands, such as the tactile sensing of pressure, temperature, surface textures and more. Our team realized it might be possible to derive interesting signals from how the fingernail bends throughout the course of a day, as we use our fingers to interact with our environment, and tap into the power of AI and machine learning to analyze and derive valuable insights from that data,” wrote the IBM researchers.

The sensor is sensitive enough to suss out the tiniest of movements and assess metrics such as grip strength—metrics that require evaluation on the micron scale. It’s, well, pretty cool stuff.

Have a wonderful break, and we’ll be back in your inbox on Monday, January 7 (and reporting from the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference).

Sy Mukherjee


FDA approves another pair of drugs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is closing out the year much as it began—on a serious drug approval binge. The agency on Friday approved a pair of drugs for serious blood disorders: Alexion Pharmaceuticals’ Ultomiris and Stemline Therapeutics’ Elzonris (the former is for the treatment of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria while the latter is meant to treat blastic plasmacytoid dendritic cell neoplasm, a pair of rare diseases). That brings the FDA’s new drug approval haul to a record-shattering 59 on the year.

$2 million? $4 million? How much for a one-time gene therapy? The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER)—a well-established watchdog on issues of drug pricing—finds that a one-off gene therapy for spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) comes with some serious value (and may be more cost-effective compared to existing conventional therapies like Biogen’s Spinraza over the long term). But just how valuable? ICER’s analysis assumes a placeholder figure of a $2 million list price for the Novartis therapy, which is considerably less than what the company has estimated to be the level of value the experimental treatment provides; both Novartis and Biogen expressed some beefs with the analysis.


Obesity and the root of cancer. A new study suggests that obesity is at the root of 1 in 20 cancer cases across the globe. That’s a problem that’s even more prevalent in higher-income countries compared to developing nations, say the study authors. Being overweight or obese has been linked in previous research to more than a dozen cancers, including gall bladder, ovarian, liver, kidney, and other cancers. (Reuters)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee

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