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Brainstorm Health: 23andMe and Michael J. Fox, Tobacco Trojan Horse, Drone Delivered Kidney

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I hope you had a great weekend, readers. Happy Monday.

Michael J. Fox’s eponymous Parkinson’s foundation is teaming up with DNA testing firm 23andMe, the group tells Fortune.

The new project is dubbed the Fox Insight Data Exploration Network (or Fox DEN) and will serve as the analytics platform for a Parkinson’s study being funded by the actor-advocate-patient’s Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research (MJFF).

“Parkinson’s is an extremely variable disease that affects individual patients in unique ways. This complicates drug development and clinical trial design,” said MJFF chief executive Todd Sherer in a statement. “Fox DEN addresses this by bringing the patient experience at an unprecedented scale to researchers and amplifying the patient voice in the development of new therapies for Parkinson’s.”

Here’s how the initiative works: 23andMe customers can opt-in to the Fox Insight study, which includes data gleaned from patient surveys about the day-to-day lives of people living with the degenerative disorder (such as symptom onset, general health and diseases status, and other such metrics). The optional program then pools participants’ de-identified survey data with de-identified genetic data from 23andMe’s at-home DNA tests.

One major goal of the study is to give researchers and drug developers more insight into how Parkinson’s patients, who often have very different reactions to their disease, should be segmented for clinical purposes, and how their divergent experiences should inform medical advice, according to 23andMe. That could mean analyzing the interplay between environmental factors and genetics or other kinds of correlations that are difficult to assess without “real world” data.

This is the latest in a slew of clinical research partnerships 23andMe has struck with drug makers and academic institutes. British pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline took a $300 million stake in the company last year to spur medicine development, for instance. The Michael J. Fox Foundation, for its part, has deployed some $900 million to fuel Parkinson’s research since its inception in 2000.

Read on for the day’s news.

Sy Mukherjee


A kidney transplant delivery—by drone. A robot has officially conducted the first-ever transport of a kidney meant for transplant in the U.S. The drone-done delivery was a project between the University of Maryland School of Medicine and its sister engineering school, and the kidney was transported about three miles from West Baltimore to the University of Maryland Medical Center. For organ transplants, which are extremely time sensitive, the use of drone tech could be a boon to the “last mile” transport problem that leaves many recipients waiting. (USA Today)


Biogen bulks up board of directors. Biotech giant Biogen is expanding from an 11-person to a 14-person board of directors, the company announced Monday (of whom 13 are independent). The company may be trying to stack up its board as it mulls M&A opportunities after its devastating setback in Alzheimer’s disease treatment. Biogen stock was down slightly in Monday trading.

FDA expands Sanofi cholesterol drug’s label. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is giving French drug maker Sanofi and its partner Regeneron a bit of a boost, expanding the label for its pioneering cholesterol-slashing medication Praluent. The agency has now approved the drug as a treatment to cut the risk of adverse heart-related events such as heart attacks and strokes. It was unclear whether Praluent’s ability to severely cut “bad” cholesterol levels would translate to such outcomes; the FDA now believes there’s enough evidence to suggest it does. It’s a much-needed expansion for the drug makers, who have struggled to sell the pricey medication (even after a sharp price cut) in the midst of cheaper alternatives such as generic statins. (Reuters)


A Big Tobacco Trojan horse? Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made waves when he announced he’d be introducing a bill to hike the legal smoking age to 21. But Politico reports that some Big Tobacco companies actually support the measure, viewing it as a way to influence public health policy that may actually cut against their bottom line even more (such as the war on any kind of flavored products). “The industry-backed bills [in states] also have halted broader pushes to ban menthol cigarettes or raise state taxes enough to dissuade potential smokers. Some would even exempt tobacco products that aren’t yet on the market,” reports Politico. (Politico)

Marcia, Marcia, Marcia… The measles outbreak and ensuing pro-vaccination efforts have now engulfed, of all things, an old episode of the classic TV show The Brady Bunch. Vaccine opponents have pointed to a 1969 episode of the sitcom in which the entire Brady family comes down with the measles to suggest that people are just worrying too much about the current outbreak. One person who takes major offense to that? Maureen McCormick, the actress who played Marcia on the show and has since had her image transformed into anti-vaxxer memes. “I think it’s really wrong when people use people’s images today to promote whatever they want to promote and the person’s image they’re using they haven’t asked or they have no idea where they stand on the issue,” McCormick told NPR. “As a mother, my daughter was vaccinated.” (NPR)


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Produced by Sy Mukherjee
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