FT Health: Stem cells — pushing the boundaries

Innovation v regulation, state-sponsored quackery, the language of madness

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Japan's groundbreaking efforts in stem-cell science have created a powerful domestic industry that enjoys a 12 per cent share of the nation's medical research budget. But fears are being voiced that state interference could blunt the country's cutting edge.

Other countries have also decided it is time to intervene. The US Food and Drug Administration last week announced a crackdown on "unscrupulous actors" in regenerative medicine — a move sweetened with a promise to also expedite approval for legitimate treatments.

Regulation of the stem cell industry is not only vexing regulators in the world's richest countries. The World Health Organization has also raised concerns over the increasing number of businesses offering stem cell therapies and the lack of an international framework to report and monitor the risks and benefits of these new treatments.

As science continues to push against the boundaries of regulation, the tussle between ethics, safety and innovation in health seems only likely to intensify. (FT, NYT, WHO)

Listen to our podcast on Japan’s stem cell "moon shot" here


Chartwatch 

Life expectancy has increased substantially in recent centuries and is a key measure of a population’s health but its calculation is not straightforward. (Our World in Data)


News round-up

Post-flood fears As waters from South Asia's worst floods in a decade recede, thousands have been hit by diarrhoea, malaria and dengue. Up to 41m people in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have been affected by the crisis. (Reuters, Red Cross)

Yemen blame game As the number of cholera cases in Yemen passes 600,000, a UN official has said Saudi Arabia should fund all humanitarian aid to the country, accusing its military coalition of hampering efforts. Two-thirds of the 28m population face food shortages and lack access to clean water (Al Jazeera, Reuters, FT).

Zika disappointment Sanofi has halted its Zika vaccine project, pointing to reduced US funding. The drugmaker had come under fire over its intended pricing strategy. "Herd immunity" seems to be curtailing infections in Florida. (Stat, Chicago Tribune)

Ebola initiative Researchers are developing a platform to share hitherto scattered data on Ebola. Co-ordinated by the UK Infectious Diseases Data Observatory, the project is looking for west African leadership in the hope this will also lessen public mistrust of scientists. In Sierra Leone, a cartoon character is being used to persuade locals that chlorine disinfects — and does not kill patients. (Nature, PLoS)

Novartis: doctor in the house Vas Narasimhan, the Swiss drugmaker's head of drug development, will replace Joe Jimenez as chief executive, a rare example of a doctor becoming a pharma chief. But will a move from the laboratory to the boardroom improve returns for shareholders? Rival Eli Lilly announced job cuts and a focus on new medicines while AstraZeneca was boosted by good news on its cancer pipeline. (FT)

'State-sponsored quackery' The growth of traditional Chinese medicine could lead to money being diverted from science-based treatments. China's regulator has approved 60,000 TCM medicines — almost a third of the country's pharmaceuticals market, the world's second largest. (The Economist)

Opioid crisis Private equity firms are increasingly involved in the US opioid crisis, investing $2.9bn in treatment facilities last year. The first count of US drug overdoses for 2016 shows a jump of 22 per cent over 2015 to 64,000 with deaths from fentanyl more than doubling. A study says the crisis is holding back the US jobs recovery. (WSJ, NYT, FT)

Premature births Researchers have discovered a way to heal ruptures in the membrane that surrounds the foetus, giving hopes for reduction of the one-in-nine pregnancies that currently end in premature birth before 37 weeks. (FT)

Hacking health Silicon Valley's brightest are turning their attention to the 5bn people who lack access to basic surgical care and for whom minor injuries become life-threatening. (Newsweek)

Cancer claims IBM pitched its Watson supercomputer as a real breakthrough in cancer care but a report suggests the company failed to fully assess the challenges of deploying it in hospitals. Alphabet, Google's parent, is backing a machine-learning cancer treatment. (Stat, FT)

Indonesia's smoking epidemic Indonesia has the highest percentage of male smokers in the world thanks in part to lax regulation and low prices. More than 267,000 Indonesia children are estimated to use tobacco every day. (CNN Health)

Skin lightening Global spending on skin lightening is set to triple to £31bn by 2024 but the quest for the "perfect skin" — via cosmetic creams, skin bleaching, chemical peels, laser treatments and "whitening pills" — is not just a cultural phenomenon — it's also dangerous. (Mosaic)

Unhealthy hearts Analysis of data from the NHS Heart Age Test, revamped this week, shows that one in 10 50-year-old men has the heart of a 60-year-old. A high heart age increases the risk of dementia, heart attack, stroke, chronic kidney disease and diabetes. (Public Health England)

Time for a salt shake-up? Experts have warned of the effects of sodium on blood pressure and heart disease since the 1970s but could the war on salt have gone too far? (NPR)

Teleporting specimens Genome pioneer Craig Ventner has built a prototype machine that works like a 3D printer for biological material. The "Digital to Biological Converter" would allow doctors to send DNA of viruses direct to laboratories, which could produce vaccines and send on to hospitals. (The Times)


Best of the journals

Antimicrobial resistance Refugees are contributing to the growth of AMR as they flee countries with collapsed infrastructures and poor hygiene. South East Asia is causing particular concern. (Journal of Global Antimicrobial Resistance, BMJ collection)

Zika and brain cancer A new paper says the Zika virus could be used to fight types of brain cancer after tests on glioblastoma, a lethal variant. (Journal of Experimental Medicine)

Genetics and health A large study of British and American genes examines their influence on the health of subsequent generations. A UK professor has granted full public access to all 6bn biochemical letters of his genetic code — and encouraged others to do likewise. (PLoS Biology, FT)

Visualising genomic data New tools, inspired by Google Maps, are allowing researchers to chart the complex structures of chromosomes. (Nature)

Plastic surgery warning As adverts for plastic surgeons proliferate across social media platforms such as Instagram, a new warning on their bona fides. (Aesthetic Surgery Journal)


Podcast of the week

That way madness lies Stephen Fry on the language of mental health and how modern technical terms — bipolar, sociopathic, narcissistic, obsessive compulsive, on the spectrum — have permeated everyday usage. (BBC Radio, 28m)


In case you missed it

Last edition: Life sciences strategy must be funded

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Final thought

Can graphic design save your life? The Wellcome Collection's exhibition which opened in London this week — showcasing everything from 17th century plague posters to Florence Nightingale's innovative datagraphics, and the striking Aids campaigns of the 1980s — is a timely reminder that public health programmes are only as effective as their successful communication. 

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