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Brainstorm Health: 23andMe and Diabetes, Death by Video Chat, Trump Budget

Happy Monday, readers. I hope you enjoyed your weekend.

Would you want to be told you’re dying over a video screen attached to a robot?

A 78-year-old California man received news of his demise in exactly that fashion, the BBC reports. A robotic unit used to conduct telemedicine visits came into Ernest Quintana’s hospital room, where he was with his granddaughter and a friend of his daughter’s, and a doctor on its video screen (sitting at an unknown remote location) reportedly told him that his lungs were irrevocably damaged and he would soon die. Quintana passed away the following day.

Both Quintana’s granddaughter and his daughter’s friend, Julianna Spangler, expressed incredulity that the technology would be used in such a fashion, especially as Quintana’s wife wasn’t in the room as he was being delivered a fatal prognosis via video chat.

Spokespeople for Kaiser Permanente’s Greater Southern Alameda County region expressed regret over the incident in a statement, and stated its usual policy is to have a health care person in the room—in the flesh—during such telehealth consultations, and stressed that the original diagnosis involved in-person physician visits and direct communication.

But the entire episode brings up a real concern for an era of increased telehealth use. Currently, Medicare, the health insurance program for elderly patients, largely doesn’t cover telemedicine services; that’s set to begin changing in the coming years under new proposed regulations.

As the popularity of remote medical visits grows—and polls have shown there is a strong demand for such services, including among the elderly—incidents like what happened to Quintana will have to be incorporated into doctors’ training so that they can perfect their “webside manner.” That, in turn, will likely take a broader conversation between health care workers and patients on what’s appropriate to transmit via video feed, whether a patient is in a hospital or at her own home.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


23andMe adds diabetes risk test to its repertoire. 23andMe is adding another component to its genomic testing and risk assessment arsenal—a test that informs customers of their predisposition to type 2 diabetes. What’s especially interesting about the development is the science behind the tech; 23andMe developed the risk test with data gleaned from some 2.5 million customers who opted to allow their information to be used for research purposes. This was then used to come up with a framework for identifying genetic variants correlated with a risk of type 2 diabetes. “When customers learn about their genetic likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, we believe there is an opportunity to motivate them to change their lifestyle and ultimately to help them prevent the disease,” said Anne Wojcicki, CEO and Co-Founder of 23andMe, in a blog post. (Fortune)


Axovant shares soar on early gene therapy data. Axovant, part of the federation of biopharma firms under the Roivant Sciences umbrella, finally got a bit of positive news with (early) clinical data for its experimental gene therapies to treat Parkinson’s and Tay-Sachs disease. Axovant’s new focus on gene therapies was a much-needed pivot for the company following a brutal setback for an experimental Alzheimer’s treatment, which failed in clinical trials. But the true test will be if the early results for these gene therapies, both in safety and efficacy, can hold true in larger, late-stage clinical studies. Axovant shares closed up more than 14% in Monday trading.

Zafgen rocked by clinical safety concern for rare disease drug. The second time may not be the charm for biotech Zafgen. Shares of the Boston-based firm cratered nearly 25% in after hours Monday trading as an experimental treatment for obesity stemming from a rare disease called Prader-Willi syndrome raised a safety alert even before actual human testing had begun. That’s the second major setback to Zafgen on this front following the failure of another experimental treatment called beloranib. (Endpoints News)


Trump budget proposes major health care cuts. The Trump administration on Monday released its proposed budget for fiscal year 2020. These kinds of documents, particularly under a divided Congress like today’s, are akin to statements of principles. It would never pass a Democratic House but does signal the administration’s priorities and thinking on a host of important issues. And when it comes to health care, the new budget makes some major changes. For one, it would cut some $865 billion from Medicare in the form of fewer reimbursements to providers (akin to what the original Affordable Care Act did and was later attacked for by 2012 presidential contenders Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan); but a more controversial may be its proposal to overhaul the Medicaid program for the poor, giving states far more flexibility to cut benefits by turning Medicaid into a “block grant” system. And there’s a whole lot more packed into the budget document.

Kaiser Permanente expands anti-homelessness initiative. Kaiser Permanente has launched a new partnership with the nonprofit group Community Solutions as it expands an ongoing program to combat chronic homelessness. “Kaiser Permanente is investing in efforts to reduce homelessness and housing insecurity because there is a proven link between housing and health,” said Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson in a statement. The hospital system announced the collaboration, part of the “Built for Zero” initiative, at South by Southwest; it will involve using real-time data analytics to try and find patterns in the socioeconomic factors that lead to homelessness, particularly chronic homelessness.


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee
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