DNA helix

FT Health has covered a vast range of topics since our first newsletter in February. Here's a selection of the year's highlights from FT correspondents.

Andrew Jack, head of curated content: Health was subject to significant political change in 2017. As we highlighted at the start of the year, coverage was a big issue: from Donald Trump's squeeze of Obamacare in the US and funding crises in the National Health Service in the UK, to the growing advocacy for "universal health coverage" by Tedros Adhanom, the new head of the World Health Organization.

Reviews of US funding and that of other donors at a time of growing populism and attacks on aid put fresh emphasis on the need for poorer countries to invest more in their own health systems — something the World Bank plans to take up next year. The new head of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, TB and Malaria gave renewed emphasis to value for money. 

Clive Cookson, science editor: In medical science, the most important theme of the year has been gene editing. The new technology called CRISPR enables scientists to change DNA in living cells far more quickly and accurately than previous methods of genetic manipulation. Experiments are already under way to edit dangerous genes out of human embryos, though this controversial procedure, which would pass genetic changes on to future generations, has not been tested in the clinic.

David Crow, senior US business correspondent: The approval just this week by the US Food and Drug Administration of Spark's Luxturna, the first ever gene therapy, heralds the advent of a new type of medicine that tackles disease by inserting DNA directly into the body. There is one catch — costs could hit $1m per patient. Meet the patients and scientists who made it happen.

Sarah Neville, global pharmaceuticals editor: Pharma’s drive into big data was the key trend of 2017. Initially slow to respond to respond to the disruption of digitisation, the industry grasped its importance as it confronted pricing pressures, ever-larger quantities of patient data and more empowered consumers.


Drug costs and pharma profits A US government report found pharma and biotech revenues increased from $534bn to $775bn between 2006 and 2015. Two-thirds of companies increased annual profit margins — some by 20 per cent in certain years. Efforts to make prescription drugs cheaper are making little headway: one drug that was free now costs $109,00 a year. Meanwhile, new data show pharma lobbying surged in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. (NGAO, Boston Globe, Washington Post, GAO, NPR/Kaiser)

Three questions

We talked to Katie Dain, chief executive of the NCD Alliance, who has recently returned from the second annual forum.of the non-communicable diseases group.

Why has civil society proved less effective at tackling NCDs than HIV?

NCDs cover a whole array of disease and risk factors. It’s a lot harder to build a people’s movement around these issues. There is strong movement in the different groups but taking it to the broader level is more difficult. There is not that sense of fear and urgency as in HIV/Aids. But you have to be in it for the long haul.

What more needs to be done to tackle non-communicable diseases?

Funding is still really lacking and progress has been very slow, especially in dealing with childhood obesity. We need to look at taxing unhealthy commodities such as alcohol, tobacco, sugar and sweet beverages; meaningful involvement of people living with the conditions; and saving lives through access to NCDs via improved health systems, essential medicines and technology. We must improve accountability for results.

Is “big food” a threat similar to “big tobacco”?

The new publication “Fool me twice” looks at the tactics of big food and big alcohol and how very similar they are to big tobacco. This is going to be one of the core battlegrounds of the high-level meeting next year: how much influence multinational companies have in policy development and negotiations in political declarations. We’ve previously seen a lot of efforts to try to water down interventions being negotiated by governments.

Some of your top FT reading this year

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker — for a longer life, press snooze 

Allergan deal with Mohawk tribe casts patent shadow

Six things you need to know about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Can robots make up for Japan’s care home shortfall?

Global childhood obesity rises 10-fold in 40 years

From elsewhere

European Medicines Agency staff survey on post-Brexit locations. (EMA)

The state of health in the EU (European Commission)

Tackling universal health coverage (WHO/World Bank)

'Sleep should be prescribed': what those late nights out could be costing you (Guardian)

How death has changed over 100 years in Britain (Guardian)

Most read from the journals

Network-wide reorganisation of procedural memory during NREM sleep (eLIFE)

Focus on physical activity can help avoid unnecessary social care (BMJ)

Wine glass size in England from 1700 to 2017: a measure of our time (BMJ)

Measuring progress and projecting attainment on the basis of past trends of the health-related SDGs (Lancet)

Lost in thought — The limits of the human mind and the future of medicine (NEJM)

News round-up

Stealth repeal of Obamacare Republican tax reforms severely weaken the American Care Act, repealing the individual mandate, killing subsidies, halving insurance enrolment periods, curtailing marketing and enabling slimline health plans that could further damage Obamacare. “They obviously couldn't kill it, so they're trying to starve it slowly,” said one Democrat. (Politico)

Venezuelan tragedy An NYT photo essay tracks the situation in Venezuela's hospitals since the economy began to collapse in 2014. Emergency rooms are being overwhelmed by children suffering from severe malnutrition — a situation concealed by a “near-total blackout of health statistics.” (NYT)

US life expectancy dips again American life expectancy declined for the second consecutive year in 2016. An estimated 63,600 people died of overdoses, two-thirds caused by opioids. A study examines the affect of austerity programmes on health and mortality in Europe. (Stat, FT audio)

Doctor demand The UK's General Medical Council — the body that keeps the official register of medical practitioners — said the supply of new doctors had not kept pace with demand; dependence on non-UK qualified doctors had increased in some specialities; the UK risked becoming a less attractive place for overseas doctors to work; and the strain on training was continuing. The British Medical Association said a fifth of EEA doctors had made firm plans to leave the country since last June's Brexit referendum. (GMC, BMA)

Best from the journals

Food safety Since 1958 when Congress gave the FDA the authority to ensure the safety of chemicals in food, thousands have entered the system. Yet their long-term, chronic effects have been woefully understudied and their health risks inadequately assessed. (PLoS) 

Key takeaways The consumption of more takeaway meals by children is associated with longer-term problems such as obesity and heart disease. (BMJ Archives of Disease in Childhood)

Podcast of the week

Living with dementia Sarah Neville reports on a pioneering experiment at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in the UK, which has shown the benefits of integrating people with dementia into the community and listening to their voices to gain a better understanding of the disease. 

Read more about the FT’s seasonal appeal in support of Alzheimer’s Research UK. (FT)

In case you missed it

Previous edition: Universal health cover

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Final thought

The FT Health team sends a big thank you to all our readers and especially those of you who have suggested improvements to our newsletter. Feel free to contact us at any time with your ideas and join the debate on Facebook and Twitter.

We wish you all a pleasant and peaceful holiday period. And don't forget your elf and safety . . .

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