Jelly Beans, Booze, and B-Vitamins

The FDA’s policy guidelines on nutritional fortification include the so-called “jelly-bean rule:” the FDA considers it inappropriate to fortify candy or soda with nutrients because to do so would allow “misleading health claims” to be made about a putatively unhealthy product. Candy companies that tried to add vitamins their products to market them as “healthier” have already been targeted by the FDA. But take a quick glance at the shelves of any convenience store: the “healthy”, vitamin enriched snacks and drinks are so full of sugars, flavors and sweeteners that it would take a doctorate in metaphysics, rather than medicine, to distinguish them from the candy and soda. So, maybe the FDA’s stance on adding a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down has relaxed. With that in mind, here’s a little thought experiment. I’d like to bring a proposal back from the eighties: that inexpensive alcoholic beverages be fortified with allithiamine, a fat-soluble analogue of Vitamin B1.[1] Why? The fortification could dramatically reduce the incidence of Wernicke’s encephalopathy and Korsakoff’s Syndrome among the homeless and alcoholic population.

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Playing the Long Game: Epigenetics and Public Health

Good investing takes time, foresight and patience. You have to thoughtfully spend now for a big return in ten years. But when it comes to investments in public health, everybody wants to make a quick and easy buck. I’ve written before about the need for more emphasis on preventive care over “heroic medicine”: it costs less, it’s easier to administer and it leads to better outcomes. But fully realizing the potential of preventive care and public health initiatives takes more than vaccines and check-ups. The government could invest in an unlimited buffet of hospital examinations and laboratory tests for all, but if people can only afford food that leaves them obese and diabetic or if they live in neighborhoods where crack dens and meth labs outnumber the schools, the investment is not going to pay off. Addressing the social determinants of health has incredible potential to improve outcomes on a population level.

Efforts are already being made. The government aims for “Health in All Policies” by promoting holistic education programs for poor youths and funding better food in stores in neglected communities. Other initiatives focus on fighting food insecurity among families or homelessness among pre and post natal mothers. The topic was covered well in this article from the Kaiser Family Foundation. They break the social determinants of health into the broad categories of social, economic and environmental factors. Things like economic stability, neighborhood and physical environment, education, food and social context play a massively underappreciated role in health outcomes. The article contains a graphic on the impact of different factors on the risk of premature death. Apparently, healthcare has the smallest impact at 10%. Individual behaviors carry the biggest single impact at 40%. The social and environmental factors that the article focuses on contribute 20%. The last factor was genetics, at 30%. As I was reading, I remembered seeing this article on epigenetics and it struck me that the separation of genetics from behavior and environmental factors might be a little artificial.

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Drained Swamps and Quackery: Some Thoughts on Efficacy

“What makes drug development long and expensive is the need to prove, beyond statistical doubt, that your damn drug works”

Michael Gilman, Biotech Entrepreneur

2017 is going to be terrific. Tremendous, even. Things are going to change, big league.

7770160314_61e7536762_kThe new President has promised fantastic reforms to the drug industry. He’s going to get the big players in the pharmaceutical industry around a table and negotiate huge price reductions. Of course, he’s not going to touch their bottom line. If anything, he’s going to improve it. Innovation is being choked by over-regulation and he’s going remove burdensome FDA hurdles. But he has Executive Orders to give and walls to build, so he’s drafting in the very best people to help. We’re still waiting for those people to be officially named. Meanwhile, the media have had a month and a half of fun and speculation. The volume and variety of names being thrown around make it feel like a food fight at a Chinese buffet. One of those names is Peter Thiel.

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ACA Repeal and the End of Heroic Medicine

Last week, I saw Dr Atul Gawande speak at Health Action 2017. Healthcare advocates and activists sat around scribbling notes and clutching at their choice of whole-food, cold-pressed, green and caffeinated morning lifelines. Gawande speaks softly, lyrically and firmly; the perfect bedside manner for healthcare advocates in these early days of the Trump presidency. He calmly announced to the congregation that the age of heroic medicine is over. Fortunately, he continued, that’s a good thing.

Gawande’s remarks echoed a piece he published in the New Yorker. He writes that for thousands of years, humans fought injury, disease and death much like the ant fights the boot. Cures were a heady mixture of quackery, tradition and hope. Survival was largely determined by luck. Medical “emergencies” did not exist; only medical “catastrophes”. However, during the last century, antibiotics and vaccines routed infection, polio and measles. X-rays, MRIs and sophisticated lab tests gave doctors a new depth of understanding. New surgical methods and practices put doctors in a cage match with Death and increasingly, doctors came out with bloody knuckles and a title belt. Gradually, doctors became heroes and miracles became the expectation and the norm. This changed the way we view healthcare. Gawande writes, “it was like discovering that water could put out fire. We built our health-care system, accordingly, to deploy firefighters.”

But the age of heroic medicine is over. Dramatic, emergency interventions are still an important part of the system. However, Gawande insists that the heavy emphasis on flashy, heroic work is misplaced. Much more important is “incremental medicine” and the role of the overworked and underappreciated primary care physician.

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Defeating Death (And Taxes)

“It is one of the most powerful tools our species has created. It helps doctors fight disease. It can predict global weather patterns. It improves education for children everywhere. And now, we unleash it…on your taxes.”

Super Bowl 2017 was an absolute cracker. My passport is not American and my accent is not Bostonian, but somewhere amidst the drama and the crowd and the cheesy nachos, I was drawn in and hooked. I roared and gasped and choked on cheap beer all the way to that nail-biting finish. Go Pats.

But, as it was my very first Super Bowl, I was told to keep an eye on the ads. Sure enough, they were hilarious, inspiring, maddening and perplexing by turn. One of them, however, hit me harder than Keanu Neal.

This ad, from H&R Block, announced that they will be using IBM’s Watson to deliver their services. Watson is, perhaps, the most impressive artificial intelligence that our species has yet produced. H&R Block is a consumer tax services provider.

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Congressional Ignorance and the OTA

“Who is making all these decisions about science and technology that are going to determine what kind of future our children live in? Just some members of Congress? But there’s no more than a handful of them with any background in science at all! … This combustible mixture of ignorance and power is… going to blow up in our faces”.

– Carl Sagan, in interview with Charlie Rose

ota_sealThe Office of Technology Assessment (the “OTA”) was founded in 1972. It was charged by Congress with providing “competent, unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social and political effects” of new technologies. It made predictions and forecasts about what new developments were likely and distilled the entire assessment into impartial advice and actionable steps for Congress. It was a key source for the government’s development of public policy. It was also a pioneer in citizen engagement: it was among the first of the government agencies to publish its papers online.

During its existence, it published over 750 reports on everything from acid rain to medical waste management to bioterrorism. Despite its successes, it was defunded in 1995.  This move has been compared to “Congress giving itself a lobotomy” (Chris Mooney – Republican War on Science). Chris Mooney argues that defunding the OTA was not so much a budgetary decision as a political move designed to allow the reigning party to recruit partisan scientists who would “scientifically validate” their own policy goals. Readers can examine the reports of the various Presidents’ Councils on Bioethics and draw their own conclusions. Continue reading

Genomic Testing, Reflective Equilibrium and the Right Not To Know

Almost any test can return incidental results. An incidental result is something demonstrated by the test but not an answer to the test’s original question. Trying on a new pair of trousers, for example, can tell you whether or not they fit. It can also return the incidental result that the holiday feasting hadn’t been as kind to your waistline as you had hoped. Incidental results in genetic testing can be even more alarming. Whether done for clinical or research purposes, genetic tests can reveal a range of mutations, markers and predispositions far beyond the range being tested for. As technology advances, it expands the breadth of possible results.

Incidental results can often impart life changing information. Many can be a cause for dramatic but potentially life saving medical intervention: the presence of BRCA1 and BRCA2 variants that indicate an increased risk of breast cancer, for example.Where incidental results suggest that a patient might have an increased risk of developing a condition in the distant future, that information might allow them to act immediately to mitigate that risk. Genetic testing might also reveal inherited or inheritable mutations that could be crucial information for a patient’s entire family. Even outside the realm of disease, a genetic test might reveal something that could have huge psychological or social ramifications for a patient: for example, a test might reveal true paternity. However, the potentially life altering nature of some of these findings, in contexts where they are not being looked for or even expected, has led to questions about whether they should be revealed to the test subject at all.

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Unified Patents and Brexit: Britain’s Back on Board

By Seán Finan

After several failed attempts, years of protracted negotiations and a glacial ratification process, it seemed as if Brexit would finally put an end to the nascent European Unitary Patent. Last week, however, the UK confirmed its intention to ratify the Unified Patent Court Agreement and to move forward with the plans for the creation of a single European Patent. If the UK goes ahead, the agreement would only be a German ratification away from coming into force. This means that we could see a single European patent by 2017.

So, what is the European Unitary Patent? How would it interact with the current patent regime in the EU? What would its introduction mean for the future of pharma and biotechnology in Europe?

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Losing the Arms Race: Health Policy and Anti-Microbial Resistance

By Seán Finan

And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed…

H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds  

The WHO World Antibiotic Awareness Week ran from 15-22 November. It coincided with similar European and American initiatives. So, in the interests of raising awareness, I thought I would highlight a few figures.

Photo by Rocky Mountain Laboratories, NIAID, NIHAntimicrobial resistance currently causes an estimated 70,000 deaths annually. If current practices continue, the death toll is expected to hit to ten million per year by 2050. That works out at about one death every three seconds.

The threat isn’t limited to increased mortality. Anti-microbial resistance could cast medical practice back to turn-of-the-century standards. Turn of the 20th century, that is. Without antibiotics, the chance of infection turns chemotherapy and invasive surgeries into mortal gambles. During these procedures, the body’s immune system is subject to massive exposure and needs antibiotic support. Even ordinary nicks and scratches can lead to fatal infections without effective antibiotics.

So what is antimicrobial resistance? How does it come about? What can we do to combat it and prevent the “antibiotic apocalypse”?

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New Tech, New Rules: Organoids and Ethics at the CJEU

Introduction

Last week, while attending a conference, organized by the Petrie-Flom Center in conjunction with a number of other Harvard institutions, on the ethics of early embryo research and the future of the 14-day rule, I was struck by the presentations on recent developments in stem cell technology. The speakers outlined fascinating developments in human brain organoids. And, since my own cranial organoid is becoming increasingly single track, I started wondering about the potential patentability of such inventions.

An intestinal organoid grown from Lgr5+ stem cells

An intestinal organoid grown from Lgr5+ stem cells

By way of very brief explanation, a human brain organoid is a structure of cells created in vitro through the stimulation of human stem cells. A recent paper has concluded that, given the right conditions for their development, these cell cultures can grow to resemble a 20 week-old human brain in vivo in a number of important respects.

At the conference, Dr John Aach, of the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School highlighted the potential of these technologies to form the basis of innovative research and treatments. However, he also highlighted new ethical questions posed by them. In particular, (and I fear I may be grossly oversimplifying his much more subtle presentation) he noted that a sufficiently developed human brain organoid might have the capacity to feel pain. Such technologies might fall to be regulated alongside human embryos created for research. In most jurisdictions, developing an embryo beyond 14 days of gestation is prohibited, whether by law or soft regulation. The rule originally struck a balance between the interests of research and the demands of ethics: day 14 usually marks the appearance of the primitive streak in an embryo and presents a convenient point to place an ethical limitation on research.  Dr Aach noted, however, that a brain organoid does not fall under the traditional definition of embryo. As such, its development is not necessarily subject to the 14-day rule. And yet, the creation of a clump of cells that feels pain is clearly a cause for ethical concern. He argued that the time has come to re-examine the rule in light of technological advancements like organoids. Its replacement, he argued, should not be based on canonical limits but on the underlying moral concerns. Continue reading

Driven to Abstraction: The Implications of McRO for Diagnostic Patents

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Last month, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit (“CAFC”) handed down their decision on the case of McRO, Inc. v. Bandai Namco Games Am. Inc (Fed. Cir. Sep. 13, 2016) (“McRO”). Commentators have already hailed the decision as providing significant clarity and guidance on subject-matter eligibility for patents under 35 U.S.C. §101 (“§101”) and on pre-emption. It has been lauded by Erich Andersen of Microsoft for providing key guidance for software developers. Others have remarked on the implications for those seeking patents on methods of medical diagnosis. Though not binding on the Supreme Court (and by no means a guarantee of the direction that Court might eventually take), I believe inventors in the medical arena can draw critical guidance on drafting patent claims from McRO. The decision might also signal a shift in attitude in the CAFC, towards a much more welcoming view of diagnostic patents.

In this post, I’ll briefly address the facts and decision in McRO. During that discussion, I believe a discussion of the facts and decision of last year’s CAFC case of Ariosa Diagnostics, Inc. v. Sequenom, Inc. 788 F.3d 1377 (Fed Cir. 2015) (“Sequenom”) will be illustrative. I’ll then briefly compare the two and discuss what the implications might be for biomedical patents moving forward.

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A Common Morality?

By Seán Finan

600px-lab_mouse_mg_3244Last week, a patent application in India was refused, apparently on the basis that the invention under review could have been used to counterfeit money. This practice of denying patents on the basis of public policy or morality is almost as old as the practice of granting patents. For example, the State of Monopolies was enacted in England in 1624 to prohibit monopolies where they would be “mischievous to the State”. In many other jurisdictions, patents on food and medicines were prohibited, on the basis that the public good served by these products outweighed any claims of monopoly rights by the inventor. The other approach is preferred in the US. Cases like Diamond v Chakrabarty removed much of the normative question from American patent law and it has been strongly argued that a patent application “is not an ethical event.”

Whether a patent can be refused on the basis of morality is a difficult enough question, but the problem is compounded once the “morality” in question is not confined to a single jurisdiction. The harmonization of patent law across Europe in the last fifty years has forced the European Patent Office (EPO) to consider how to make a moral judgement on behalf of all the contracting states to the European Patent Convention. Its approach has been neither consistent between cases nor consistent with the underlying treaties. I would like to give a quick sketch of the contrast between the European legal framework and its manifestation in the decisions of the EPO.

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The Once and Future Regulation of Biotechnology

By Seán Finan

whitehouse_slideOn 16th September, 2016, the White House released two documents jointly authored by the FDA, the EPA and the USDA. Together, the “Update to the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology” (the “Update”) and the “National Strategy for Modernizing the Regulatory System for Biotechnology Products” (the “Strategy”) will form the basis for the federal government’s regulatory policy for biotech for the foreseeable future. So, where did these documents come from? What do they contain?

Background

Last year, the federal government asked the FDA, the EPA and the USDA to

  1. Clarify the current roles and responsibilities of the EPA, FDA, and USDA in the regulatory process;
  2. Develop a long-term strategy to ensure that the Federal regulatory system is equipped to efficiently assess the risks, if any, of the future products of biotechnology; and
  3. Commission an expert analysis of the future landscape of biotechnology products

(Source)

14 months, three public meetings and 900 responses to a Request for Information later, the two documents were released. The Update sets out to respond to the first of the above prompts and the Strategy aims to respond to the second. An answer to the third is still in the pipeline.

Aims

The underlying policy is made explicit in the first paragraph of the Strategy’s Executive Summary (p4):

The policy of the United States Government is to seek regulatory approaches that protect health and the environment while reducing regulatory burdens and avoiding unjustifiably inhibiting innovation, stigmatizing new technologies, or creating trade barriers

Apart from clarifying the current roles of the FDA, EPA and USDA and setting out the path for future developments, both documents make it clear that they aim

  • to help the public understand how the safety of biotechnology products is evaluated and
  • to help businesses navigate the current regulatory structure.

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Kidneys and Livers, Made to Order?

By Seán Finan

Last week, Organovo might just have revolutionised the pharmaceutical industry. The San Diego-based company specialises in producing structures that mimic the behaviours and functions of human tissue, using 3D bioprinting. They announced last week that they were beginning the commercial manufacture and sale of their ExVive Kidney. The product models the proximal tubule of the human kidney and holds significant promise for clinical trials of new drugs. The commercialization of the ExVive Kidney follows the release of ExVive Human Liver Tissue in 2014.

In essence, Organovo is using 3D printing technology to produce samples of “human” tissue that can be used to test the toxicity of new drugs. The printing process, known as 3D bioprinting, involves extracting human cells, culturing them and suspending them in a solution. The resulting “bioink” is fed through a modified 3D printer. Layer by layer, the printer deposits cells, producing a mass with a similar structure and density to a sample of, for example, human liver. Just like “organ on a chip” technology, these synthetic liver and kidney samples present significant advantages over traditional clinical testing.

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