Top Healthcare Conversations of 2008

Many of the great healthcare thinkers and bloggers wrapped up 2008 with end-of-year considerations of the important developments in their fields, and some looked ahead with predictions for 2009.

Transgenic Chickens Manufacture Expensive Drugs

Outsourcing pharma to the barnyard could make important drugs affordable to all.

Reverse Genetic Engineering

Scientists at the University of Utah have retrogressed the genetic development of a mouse, reconstructing a half-billion-year-old gene by combining key portions of two modern mouse genes that descended from the archaic gene.

Even with Omega-3s, Cloned Pigs Won’t Make Healthy Bacon

Omegapigs
As a happy member of the Bacon of the Month Club and Polish since birth, I’m a big fan of pork. But today’s media frenzy over an article in Nature Biotechnology about some cloned pigs with meat rich in omega-3 fatty acids promises more than any pork lover can hope for: healthy bacon. We wrote a few months ago about transgenic pigs making medicine in their milk, but the latest  pigs — the two on the right in this beauty shot at three weeks old — are supposed to be healthier for humans to eat because of a roundworm gene added before birth.

According to the unfrenzied article by David Biello in Scientific American:

Yifan Dai of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues first transferred the roundworm gene–fat-1–to
pig fetal cells. Randy Prather of the University of Missouri and his
collaborators then cloned those cells and transferred them into 14 pig
mothers. Twelve pigs were subsequently born and six of them tested
positive for the gene and its ability to synthesize omega-3 fatty acids.

Seventeen authors are listed for the Nature Biotechnology article. It’s a great piece of science that will make it possible to study the effects of omega-3s in pig models of the human heart (and way way way down the road we might get some roundworm bits added to our own genes — maybe). But even with plenty of omega-3s, the new pigs’ bacon and other cured meats — if they were ever approved for human consumption — would still be rich in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium nitrites. "Less unhealthy" might be more accurate, but be that as it may, the press release has been posted, the AP story has been picked up, and the major media around the world are on the case.

Aubrey de Grey on 60 Minutes

60min Last night, CBS News 60 Minutes covered "The Quest for Immortality" featuring an interview with Aubrey de Grey, keynote speaker at the Health IC Summit that I’m chairing in New York later this month. Aubrey’s matter-of-fact approach to the issues of extreme life extension, what he calls Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, makes it difficult to argue that aging is inevitable or that we shouldn’t try to find a cure for it. Ironically, his mildly skeptical and long-past-retirement-age interviewer was Morley Safer (age 74) who works with Andy Rooney (age 86) and Mike Wallace (age 87) on a program whose average viewer is pushing 60. The balancing view came from Jay Olshansky at the University of Illinois. It mainly amounts to "the search for immortality is always futile."

The web video starts with a short piece on Ray Kurzweil, although I don’t remember that from last night’s broadcast. The site has Firefox compatibility problems, so you may need to use Microsoft’s Internet Explorer to see the clip. You can get the transcript here.

Aubrey de Grey’s Health IC Summit keynote is scheduled for Wednesday, January 25, 2006.

Transgenic Pigs’ Milk to Treat Cancer

PigIn another demonstration of Korea’s emerging biotech prowess, scientists at Chungnam National University have cloned pigs that have been genetically modified to produce an expensive cancer treatment. Professor Park Chang-sik and his team at the Research Center  for Transgenic Cloned Pigs said that four female piglets are expected to express GM-CSF (granulocyte-macrophage colony stimulating factor) in their milk next year. GM-CSF, marketed by Berlex Pharmaceuticals under the trade name Leukine, builds up white blood cells in patients with leukemia and anemia or those who have low white blood cell counts during cancer treatment. From Berlex, GM-CSF costs more than $100 per daily dose. According to an article in The Korea Times, "Park expected the GM-CSF produced by genetically
engineered pigs would be commercially viable in a decade after going
through a serious of clinical tests."

At-Home Pharmacogenomics: Mail Order DNA Tests

Genelexdrugreactionb"The Perfect Gift for the Genetic Age"

Doctors prescribing medicines use way too much trial and error to match drugs and doses. If the first prescription doesn’t work, they try a different drug, change the dosage or start looking for interactions with other drugs the patient is taking. Success is counted when the side effects are not too gruesome and the patient improves.

Pharmacogenomics, combining pharmaceutical knowledge with our increasing understanding of the human genome, analyzes a patient’s genotype to find prescriptions that maximize effectiveness and minimize side effects. It can also reduce adverse drug reactions, a major cause of healthcare mortality.

Ten years ago, genetic testing like this was strictly a laboratory affair. Today, you can do it at home with products like Genelex’s mail order DNA test kits that screen for drug reactions, identify disease tendencies and even check ancestry and paternity. Tests cost anywhere from $250 for an identity profile to $1,590 for a Platinum Package.

The Genelex web site is split into branches "For the Public" and "For Medical Professionals." It’s the public side that suggests DNA testing as a nice gift … maybe for Fathers Day or Valentines Day, I guess.