Published: Fri, 28 Apr 2017 00:00:00 -0400
Last Build Date: Fri, 28 Apr 2017 23:08:20 -0400
Thu, 27 Apr 2017 12:30:00 -0400When Brent Reider, a 58-year-old medical-device inventor from Oxford, Ohio, set out to develop a fix for the suprisingly widespread problem of female urinary incontinence, one of the last things on his mind was building a better orgasm. He was just trying to use a neuromuscular electrical stimulator (NMES) device to strenghten women's pelvic floor muscles so that they could better control their bodies in the face of changes wrought by aging, childbirth, and other life experiences. Yet by the time he brought his newest contraption, the Yarlap, to market last year, he'd discovered something that only a very few (and almost always female) researchers had ever seriously thought about: A woman's pelvic floor is almost unfathomably complicated, designed by evolution to control and influence all sorts of bodily functions from bladder control to posture to sexual functioning. The pelvic floor's health and strength affects not just obvious parts of a woman's anatomy but also her lower back, hips, and knees. As important, Reider found that his device, which uses low-level electrtical stimulation to strengthen the pelvic floor muscles, not only helps cure incontinence but often heightens a woman's ability for sexual satisfaction in a way that the most-dedicated Kegel practitioner could only dream about. Reider's findings, which draw on work by academic researchers such as Beverly Whipple and Elisabeth Lloyd, has been published in The Journal of Women's Health, Issues and Care, and crosses boundaries between sex and medicine that are rarely acknowledged, let alone traversed. Unsurprinsingly, then, when it came time to start certifying the device through the Food and Drug Administration (which has been tasked with "clearing" medical devices for safety and efficacy since the 1970s) and marketing it through sites such as Amazon and Facebook, Reider and his business partner, his 24-year-old daughter MaryEllen, ran into a different but equally knotty set of issues. It turns out that neither the government nor social media are quite ready for a medical device that transcends the traditionally separate categories of sex and medicine. In the latest Reason podcast, I talk with the entrepreneurs about the difficulties in launching a device that not only promises to help the one-in-three women (including many high-performance female athletes) who experience incontinence but also reconfigures the way we think about personal health and well-being. The Yarlap, says MaryEllen Reider, can be bought without a prescription and is an example of a medical technology that's "about improving your lives and taking your health into your own hands." As such, it joins a growing roster of "electroceuticals" and other devices, drugs, and techniques that empower individuals to improve their lives in very specific and personalized ways. Subscribe, rate, and review the Reason Podcast at iTunes. Listen at SoundCloud below: src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/319607721%3Fsecret_token%3Ds-XYBGP&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast! (Archive here.) Subscribe at iTunes. Follow us at SoundCloud. Subscribe at YouTube. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy. Nick Gillespie: Brent, what is the problem that the Yarlap was designed to address originally? Brent Reider: The Yarlap is designed to treat female urinary incontinence, both stress and urge incontinence, and of course incontinence. Nick Gillespie: Now we are talking, we're all in Oxford, Ohio, where Brent and Mary Ellen or Brent lives and they work out of. I live their part time. Brent is a friend of mine, I want to say that upfront, and that's how I learned about his business and industry. The reason we're talking about this is because the Yarlap is one of a class of new devices, a type of device, that is allowing people to take more power and more contr[...]
Wed, 26 Apr 2017 17:25:00 -0400The world's leading researchers of psychedelic drugs met in Oakland, Calif., this past weekend at Psychedelic Science 2017, sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Science (MAPS). I attended for for a story I'm working on about MDMA-assisted therapy, and thought I'd share some items from my notebook. Why do LSD trips last so long? Psilocybin and MDMA are both active in the body for two to three hours when administered in tens of milligrams. LSD, meanwhile, is administered in micrograms (1 mcg is .001 mg) and yet the drug experience can exceed eight hours. UNC-Chapel Hill's Dave Nichols, a medicinal chemist who's been studying psychedelics for decades, shared some new research that explains why. Imagine a carnivorous pitcher plant. That's the 5-HT2B serotonin receptor. Lysergic acid diethylamide, LSD, is a fly. Instead of attaching to the top of the receptor, the LSD molecule gets pulled inside and the top of the receptor closes around it. Basically, LSD trips last forever because the drug gets trapped in a brain cage. (Nichols' team published their findings in January. You can read more about them here.) What happens when you inject psilocybin? The psilocybin-assisted therapy study conducted by Johns Hopkins University--which found that moderate and high doses of psilocybin, in conjunction with psychotherapy, reduced anxiety and depression in cancer patients--used gel caps as the method of administration. Most recreational users just eat the mushrooms or brew them into tea. Over in Europe, however, researchers have experimented with intravenous administration. Apparently, it's like "rocketing [someone] out of a cannon"; the come-up takes place over roughly a minute, rather than half an hour. Well, duh. Except, at a Q&A later in the day, Nichols revealed LSD doesn't work any quicker when administered via IV. It truly is the Good Friday mass of psychedelic drugs. Prohibition makes this kind of research stupidly expensive: The Imperial College of London pays 1,500 British Pounds per dose of UK Home Office-approved psilocybin, according to researcher Leor Roseman, who noted that street prices are a fraction of that. (The ICL is currently doing a ton of interesting psychedlelic research right now.) I'm not sure how easy it is to obtain isolated psilocybin on the black market, but the mushrooms themselves grow on cow shit and dead plant matter. Stateside, dried psilocybin shrooms go for about $5-$10 per gram, according to various mycophile message boards and my own independent research. The most common (and cheapest) strains contain about .6 mg of psilocybin per gram of dry weight, and more exotic (read: expensive) strains have as much as 1.6 mg per gram. The Home Office essentially charged the ICL a penalty for studying a drug that should never have been banned. This kind of oblique research penalty is not unique to psilocybin, or to the UK. Cannabis researchers in the U.S. have to buy their bud from NIDA's monopoly operation, and it is not quality stuff. Psychedelic researchers are cautiously optimistic about Scott Gottlieb at FDA: Gottlieb, Trump's nominee for head of the Food and Drug Administration, has said he'd like to speed up the drug approval process, perhaps using more flexible clinical trial designs. What does this mean for MAPS, currently sponsoring clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy? MAPS clinical sites recently completed stage two trials, and the group is now negotiating stage three protocols with the FDA. All they really need is for the agency to treat them like it would any other sponsor of a new drug application. That may sound like a small ask, but the FDA's history with psychedelic researchers is replete with periods of capricious obstructionism. The agency environment changed in the mid 2000s, leading to the current research boon. MAPS Founder Rick Doblin expressed optimism that things will continue apace under Gottlieb. Placing a marker: MDMA will beat marijuana out of schedule I: The FDA-approval timeline MAPS shared with conference attendees[...]
Tue, 25 Apr 2017 15:10:00 -0400
(image) The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that "most Americans should consume less sodium." The CDC asserts, "Your body needs a small amount of sodium to work properly, but too much sodium is bad for your health. Excess sodium can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart disease and stroke. Together, heart disease and stroke kill more Americans each year than any other cause."
Yet, evidence has been gathering for years that the amount of salt consumed by most Americans is not causing them appreciable harm. A new study that followed more than 2,600 people for 16 years in the Framingham Offspring Study, once again, debunks the Federal nutrition nannies' dire claims about salt. The new results are being reported by at the American Society for Nutrition Scientific Sessions during the Experimental Biology 2017 meeting in Chicago.
"We saw no evidence that a diet lower in sodium had any long-term beneficial effects on blood pressure," said Boston University School of Medicine lead researcher Lynn Moore. "Our findings add to growing evidence that current recommendations for sodium intake may be misguided."
The press release announcing the results noted:
The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting sodium intake to 2,300 micromilligrams* a day for healthy people. For the study, the researchers followed 2,632 men and women ages 30 to 64 years old who were part of the Framingham Offspring Study. The participants had normal blood pressure at the study's start. However, over the next 16 years, the researchers found that the study participants who consumed less than 2500 milligrams of sodium a day had higher blood pressure than participants who consumed higher amounts of sodium.
Other large studies published in the past few years have found what researchers call a J-shaped relationship between sodium and cardiovascular risk--that means people with low-sodium diets (as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans) and people with a very high sodium intake (above the usual intake of the average American) had higher risks of heart disease. Those with the lowest risk had sodium intakes in the middle, which is the range consumed by most Americans.
"Our new results support these other studies that have questioned the wisdom of low dietary sodium intakes in the general population," said Moore.
The researchers suggest that some subset of Americans may be especially salt sensitive and would benefit from consuming less. Better tests should be devised to identify such people so that the rest of us can consume our sodium in peace. As always folks, if your goal is to protect your health strive for moderation in what you eat and drink.
For more background on the ongoing collapse of dietary puritanism, see my article "The Red Meat, Eggs, Fat and Salt Diet."
*Press release said "grams," but as astute readers noted, it's really micromilligrams**. Fixed. **Haste makes mistakes.
Sat, 22 Apr 2017 08:00:00 -0400FDA enforcement of its absurd rules governing mandatory calorie menu labeling, passed in 2010 as part of Obamacare, is set to begin on May 5, after years of delays. In 2015, the FDA delayed implementing the rules until December 2016, after the presidential election. At the time, The Hill speculated that a new "Republican president could choose to scrap the rule altogether." That hasn't happened. Yet. But in December 2016 the FDA delayed enforcing the rules until May 5, 2017, which is the deadline that now looms. The FDA interprets its menu-labeling rules as requiring mandatory calorie labeling of most foods sold by "restaurants and similar retail food establishments if they are part of a chain of 20 or more locations, doing business under the same name, offering for sale substantially the same menu items and offering for sale restaurant-type foods." Owners of more than twenty vending machines must also comply with the rules. The rules would be a disaster. They'll cost at least $1 billion. And if they're grounded in science, that science is shoddy. The purpose of menu-labeling rules in general is to help consumers make smarter (read: lower-calorie) choices. But the very premise that mandatory menu labeling accomplishes this is flawed. Research demonstrates that menu labeling doesn't improve consumer food choices. That's something I first noted here in 2011, and which subsequent reports have also shown (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). So can the rules be stopped? Yes. Congress could act by repealing or amending the menu-labeling rules. Or food sellers whose First Amendment rights would be violated by rules that compel speech for no constitutionally supported reason could ask a court to halt implementation of the rules. Or the FDA could delay the rules from taking effect. Each of these is possible. But how likely are these outcomes? While the clock is ticking, furious efforts are underway to halt the rules. Earlier this year, Congress introduced a bill supported by the American Pizza Community, an advocacy group that includes pizza companies like Domino's and Pizza Hut. The bill, the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, would exempt most pizza-delivery companies and delay implementation of the menu-labeling rules by at least two years. A comparable bill passed out of the House last year but died in the Senate. While pizza makers are working in Congress, two other groups that oppose the law, the National Grocers Association and National Association of Convenience Stores, petitioned the FDA this month in an effort to delay or halt implementation of the rules. The petitioners argue compliance with the "unworkable" rules is impossible; that the costs of complying are exorbitant and far exceed FDA estimates; that the FDA exceeded its authority in adopting the rules; that the rules run afoul of the First Amendment; and that the rules are "inconsistent with the [Trump] Administration's agenda to alleviate unnecessary regulatory burdens on business." Pushing back against these efforts is the voice of the restaurant industry—the National Restaurant Association—a staunch supporter of the FDA menu-labeling rules. That stance might surprise some—if for no other reason than that it's got some basis beyond rent-seeking. "With more and more states adopting their own menu-labeling rules, the National Restaurant Association... sought a shield against this death by 1,000 cuts by pushing for one uniform national menu-labeling rule," I explained in a 2013 column. Will one or more of the aforementioned approaches succeed in stymying the rules from taking effect on May 5? Repeal seems like something Congress won't stomach. Consider that the GOP's ham-fisted attempts to repeal, replace, or rename (or whatever) the Affordable Care Act completely ignored the ACA's menu-labeling provisions. Amending the rules via the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act seems a more likely path. "[T]here's now been so much time and money sunk into the process th[...]
Fri, 21 Apr 2017 13:00:00 -0400As a neonatologist, I worry about patients with pulmonary hypertension. This unforgiving disease, sometimes seen after premature birth, can end with sudden death from constricting blood vessels in the lungs. One minute a baby in the neonatal ICU may be sleeping comfortably; moments later, doctors and nurses are giving chest compressions and rescue medications. A pulmonary hypertension crisis, as these frightening episodes are called, starts with a drop in the blood oxygen level. That drop triggers a monitor to beep. It's up to the nurse to hear the sound, come to the bedside and take action. The first and most effective step in stopping a pulmonary hypertension crisis is simple: Give oxygen. But a nurse caring for another patient might be delayed for 30 seconds, and the loss of that time can lead to brain injury or death. In an age of self-driving cars and 400-ton airplanes that can land themselves in blinding fog, it makes no sense that hospitalized patients are surrounded by lifesaving machinery that can be activated only by a person pressing a button or turning a knob. Modern transportation augments human judgment and reaction times with a computer's superior ability to continuously respond to dozens of fluctuating variables. Yet in medicine, safety remains stubbornly reliant on human intervention. FDA regulation impedes innovation My patients with pulmonary hypertension are often attached to a respirator with adjustable oxygen settings. The respirator sits inches below the monitor that indicates how much oxygen is in the blood. But the two machines can't communicate with each other. If they could, it would be possible to increase the flow of oxygen automatically the moment a crisis is detected. In 2009, engineers developed just this kind of closed-loop respirator and introduced it in several hospitals as part of a feasibility study. It increased the time premature babies spent at a safe oxygen level by more than two hours per day. But no biotechnology company has marketed the idea. There are other examples of automated systems with unrealized potential to save lives, and not just in the neonatal ICU. Software that scans an ECG for subtle heartbeat variability can identify patterns—undetectable to the human eye—that indicate an elevated risk of heart attack. Hospital beds that play audible feedback during an emergency promote more effective CPR. Yet patients are not benefiting because neither of these tools has been commercialized. Why haven't these innovations attracted the industry backing necessary to make them widely available? One reason is that the process of getting FDA approval for new devices—particularly those deemed "life-sustaining"—is often even more complicated and expensive than getting approval for drugs. In the Journal of Public Economics, Harvard Business School professor Ariel Dora Stern recently described how FDA hurdles discourage companies from investing in innovation. Often, the more profitable strategy is to wait for someone else to spend the time and money required to get approval for a new device, and then enter the market later with something similar that will face less scrutiny. Dr. Stern estimates that regulatory obstacles add an average of US$6.7 million to the cost of introducing a new medical device. For a company developing an ICU monitor, for instance, that will ultimately sell for less than $35,000 per unit, this up-front commitment can be prohibitive. A consequence is that small biotechnology firms (with annual revenue less than $500 million) rarely gamble on getting new inventions approved. Dr. Stern's paper notes that less than 17 percent of novel device applications to the FDA come from small companies. This is different from new drug applications, the majority of which originate at smaller firms. What's behind this discrepancy? Research has shown that while companies pay a steep price for pioneering new medical devices, the first firm to market a new type of drug[...]
Thu, 06 Apr 2017 14:40:00 -0400
(image) Back in 2013 the regulators at the Food and Drug Administration basically shut down the burgeoning field of direct-to-consumer personal genomics when it ordered the genotype screening company 23andMe to stop testing new consumers for genetic health risks. Why? Because the regulators had ginned up some speculative scenarios in which, for example, a woman who tested positive for a deleterious BRCA breast cancer variant would run to her kitchen, grab a butcher knife, and lop off her breasts (I exaggerate slightly.) As a long time and happy 23andMe customer, I was particularly irked by the FDA's nonsensical decision to keep people in the dark about their genetic makeup.
Before the FDA brought its hammer down, 23andMe was developing a wonderful explanatory interface to help customers understand their genetic information. The company provided some insights on more than 200 health risks, drug responses, and inherited traits - and was adding more all of the time.
After 2013, the company was allowed to tell folks what their genes suggested about their ancestry and traits like dry earwax or the likelihood that their second toes are longer than their big toes. (As if anyone needs genetic tests to discern that information.) In their "wellness" reports, the company could inform customers about how their genes affect the speed with which they metabolize caffeine or their tolerance for milk.
Today, the company is announcing that the FDA is loosening its noose a bit and permitting it to tell customers some genetic risk information for ten different conditions, including late-onset Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, celiac disease and hereditary thrombophilia (harmful blood clots). As an early customer, the company had already provided me with some genetic insights with regard to all of these health risks, plus about 140 others.
Here's hoping that the Trump administration will roll back these unnecessary regulations and free up personal genome companies like 23andMe to provide Americans with access to their genetic information.
To find out what's genetically wrong with me, click over to SNPedia where I have posted the results of my 23andMe genotype screening tests for all to see.
Tue, 21 Mar 2017 17:02:00 -0400
(image) The anaesthetic ketamine has been a popular party drug for decades due to its ability to put users in a blissful mood. Earlier this month, the American Psychiatric Association released a consensus statement acknowledging that the drug might also be a breakthrough treatment for severe depression.
The statement authors write that seven studies--all placebo-controlled, double-blind, and randomized--provide evidence that ketamine therapy is a "rapid and robust, albeit transient" response to severe clinical depression. The treatment is effective within hours, while conventional antidepressants generally take weeks to work. The transient nature of the drug, meanwhile, suggest it works best with twice-weekly dosing.
Ketamine hasn't been approved for treating depression, but Yale psychiatrist Gerard Sanacora succinctly explained to NPR why the drug's off-label status hasn't deterred him:
Sanacora says other doctors sometimes ask him, "How can you be offering this to patients based on the limited amount of information that's out there and not knowing the potential long-term risk?"
Sanacora has a simple answer.
"If you have patients that are likely to seriously injure themselves or kill themselves within a short period of time, and they've tried the standard treatments, how do you not offer this treatment?"
It certainly seems that the long-term risks of ketamine therapy, regardless of how severe they may be, are preferable to the short-term risk of a successful suicide attempt.
The APA paper closes with the hunch that "economic factors make it unlikely that large-scale, pivotal phase 3 clinical trials of racemic ketamine will ever be completed," which means patients with treatment-resistant depression who'd like to give ketamine a shot will need an appointment at one of a handful of clinics offering ketamine treatment. Or, they can apply for enrollment in a philanthropic or federally funded ketamine study, of which there don't appear to be many.
This is a rather strange fate for a drug that the APA says has "generated much excitement and hope for patients with refractory mood disorders and the clinicians who treat them," but it's also an indictment of the Food and Drug Administration's regulatory process. Ketamine is off patent, which means no pharmaceutical company is going to spend several million dollars per phase to get approval for a drug formulation that any company could turn around and sell, no matter how many lives it might save.
Mon, 13 Mar 2017 14:32:00 -0400Products regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) account for about 20 cents of every dollar of annual spending by U.S. consumers, amounting to more than $2.4 trillion in annual consumption that includes medical products, food and tobacco. The agency regulates medicines, diagnostic tests, medical devices, food safety including those made from modern biotech crops and livestock, food labeling, and tobacco and nicotine products. What the agency's bureaucrats decide has signifcant impact on U.S. economic growth and the livelihoods of Americans. President Donald Trump has nominated physician and American Enterprise Institute scholar Scott Gottlieb to become commissioner of the agency. Gottlieb earlier served as deputy commissioner during the Bush administration. Gottlieb has long been a critic of FDA's increasingly risk-averse culture that is slowing down the approval of new medicines. Defenders of the agency often cite data suggesting that the agency approves new medicines faster than other drug approval agencies abroad. That is true if only the period of time after a drug maker has submitted its New Drug Application (NDA) for approval is taken into account. More consequentially, increasing FDA requirements for longer and more extensive clinical trials before the NDA is submitted has substantially lengthened the periods and raised the costs of getting new treatments from petri dishes to patients' bedsides. Consider that researchers at the Tufts University Center for the Study of Drug Development have estimated that in 1991 it cost $412 million (2013 dollars) to develop and obtain approval for a new pharmaceutical. Last year, they calculated that it now takes more than $2.5 billion, a six-fold increase. Gottlieb, who has been associated with venture capital side of medical innovation, will seek to change the agency's culture from the current highly precautionary approach to one that more readily recognizes that benefits always come with risks. Under his direction, the agency would likely exercise a lighter regulatory hand over the development of new medical apps and diagnostics while seeking to work out the best way to speed up the approval of novel therapeutics based on stem cells and gene-edting technologies like CRISPR. Gottlieb is keen to get generic drugs approved quickly in order to bring down prices for consumers. In an August 2016 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he noted it now takes more than 2 years for the agency to approve a generic drug application and that the costs had risen from $1 million in 2003 to over $15 million now. He added, "This means that a drug may not face brisk generic competition until it exceeds $25 million in annual revenue. Thanks to these changes, infrequently used generics—such as clomipramine for major depression—may now have only one competitor and cost as much as branded drugs." Gottlieb also cited research that estimated the FDA's proposed generic labeling rule would expose generic drug manufacturers, who supply 84 percent of all prescriptions, to failure-to-warn product liability lawsuits, costing more than $5 billion in 2017. That rule is supposed to be finalized in April. As commissioner, Gottlieb might be able to halt it. While not a radical reformer, Gottlieb clearly has a good understanding of how over-regulation has been slowing down innovation in medicines and foods.[...]
Mon, 13 Mar 2017 13:45:00 -0400src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/9fMN80wkYvM" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Josiah Zayner is a scientist and entrepreneur who quit his government job in a NASA lab to start The Odin, a synthetic biology company run out of his garage. For $150, anyone can now purchase the cutting-edge "gene editing" tool CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) through The Odin's online shop. Zayner champions do-it-yourself "biohacking" as the future of science and often draws comparisons between his work and that of the computer scientists and hackers of the '80s and '90s who eventually become the titans of Silicon Valley. "I think [genetic engineering] is really going to become a consumer industry," says Zayner. "Consumers drive a lot of technological advancement." Biohackers like Zayner, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far, Zayner hasn't had to do either. But the launch of a new product that allows users to engineer fluorescent yeast by inserting a gene from a bio-luminescent jellyfish drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after officials learned that breweries were using the product to create glowing beer. They called up Zayner to discuss potential regulatory pitfalls. Officials on the call, which Zayner recorded and posted on his YouTube channel, sound hesitant to make any hard-and-fast declarations about Zayner's work, but they do clearly express the opinion that the yeast modification constitutes a "food color additive," which is subject to pre-market approval by the agency. They instruct him that he should change the language on his website so that nobody construes the yeast as a food product. Zayner then asks them what will happen if he doesn't change anything, to which one of the officials replies, "Well, there's a number of things that we could do, from a warning letter...to, where, if it got to the point where we would, you know, seize material." They also tell him to keep track of who is buying the yeast kit and suggest that he could face "trouble" if breweries continue to use the product, even if he changes the marketing language. "This is who I'm dealing with, a bunch of bullies," says Zayner. "Bullying people into doing what they want, not for scientific reasons, not for the betterment of the public...just because." Zayner is not the only one in the genetics industry burdened with regulatory uncertainty. Another such case is that of Antony Evans at TAXA, a San Francisco-based synthetic biology company that aims to engineer plants to supplement or replace common household items. They currently have a glowing plant in development, which Evans envisions as an alternative to nighttime lighting, and fragrant moss that could act as an organic air freshener. He's had products jammed up by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the past. "If you're an entrepreneur creating a regulated article, the cost to getting that product to market is extremely high," says Evans. "That's why a lot of entrepreneurs are starting in the edges." Evans believes that it's the pre-market approval process that stymies innovation among small, lean startups, which cannot afford to wait years and spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to take a product to market. The FDA does allow products that only contain substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) to go straight to market, but Zayner and Evans both believe the list of GRAS substances is far too limited and the process for approval needlessly burdensome and time-consuming. "We have no idea how much we are inhibiting [innovation], but we just know that we are because it's almost impossible to launch a plant GMO company." Watch the full video above. Produced by Zach Weissmueller by Alexis [...]
Mon, 13 Mar 2017 12:00:00 -0400Josiah Zayner is a scientist and entrepreneur who quit his government job in a NASA lab to start The Odin, a synthetic biology company run out of his garage. For $150, anyone can now purchase the cutting-edge "gene editing" tool CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) through The Odin's online shop. Zayner champions do-it-yourself "biohacking" as the future of science and often draws comparisons between his work and that of the computer scientists and hackers of the '80s and '90s who eventually become the titans of Silicon Valley. "I think [genetic engineering] is really going to become a consumer industry," says Zayner. "Consumers drive a lot of technological advancement." Biohackers like Zayner, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far, Zayner hasn't had to do either. But the launch of a new product that allows users to engineer fluorescent yeast by inserting a gene from a bio-luminescent jellyfish drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after officials learned that breweries were using the product to create glowing beer. They called up Zayner to discuss potential regulatory pitfalls. Officials on the call, which Zayner recorded and posted on his YouTube channel, sound hesitant to make any hard-and-fast declarations about Zayner's work, but they do clearly express the opinion that the yeast modification constitutes a "food color additive," which is subject to pre-market approval by the agency. They instruct him that he should change the language on his website so that nobody construes the yeast as a food product. Zayner then asks them what will happen if he doesn't change anything, to which one of the officials replies, "Well, there's a number of things that we could do, from a warning letter...to, where, if it got to the point where we would, you know, seize material." They also tell him to keep track of who is buying the yeast kit and suggest that he could face "trouble" if breweries continue to use the product, even if he changes the marketing language. "This is who I'm dealing with, a bunch of bullies," says Zayner. "Bullying people into doing what they want, not for scientific reasons, not for the betterment of the public...just because." Zayner is not the only one in the genetics industry burdened with regulatory uncertainty. Another such case is that of Antony Evans at TAXA, a San Francisco-based synthetic biology company that aims to engineer plants to supplement or replace common household items. They currently have a glowing plant in development, which Evans envisions as an alternative to nighttime lighting, and fragrant moss that could act as an organic air freshener. He's had products jammed up by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the past. "If you're an entrepreneur creating a regulated article, the cost to getting that product to market is extremely high," says Evans. "That's why a lot of entrepreneurs are starting in the edges." Evans believes that it's the pre-market approval process that stymies innovation among small, lean startups, which cannot afford to wait years and spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to take a product to market. The FDA does allow products that only contain substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) to go straight to market, but Zayner and Evans both believe the list of GRAS substances is far too limited and the process for approval needlessly burdensome and time-consuming. "We have no idea how much we are inhibiting [innovation], but we just know that we are because it's almost impossible to launch a plant GMO company." Watch the full video above. Produced by Zach Weissmueller by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmueller. Music by Jon Luc Hefferman. Subscribe to our YouT[...]
Mon, 06 Mar 2017 14:49:00 -0500
(image) Every now and then I like to get soy milk in my coffee instead of the usual skim milk. I have no misconceptions about the product's origins or nutritional value, yet the dairy industry is so worried that consumers like me are being misled by alternatives such as soy, almond, or rice "milk" that it wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to crack down on non-dairy milk substitutes, the Associated Press reports.
"Standards of identity" for food are requirements mandated by the FDA regarding what specifications a food product must meet in order to use a certain label. These regulations are justified as necessary to protect the consumer.
The standard of identity for milk is rather extensive, but in short, it requires that it be "obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows." As Jim Mulhern, president of the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF), insisted in the AP report, "Mammals produce milk, plants don't."
The group has for decades asked the FDA to do something about this problem. Now, the NMPF might finally get its wish. A bill was recently introduced to the Senate that would require the FDA to enforce the standard of identity rule. The bill, coyly titled the Defending Against Imitations and Replacements of Yogurt, Milk, and Cheese To Promote Regular Intake of Dairy Everyday Act (or the DAIRY PRIDE Act, for short), was unsurprisingly sponsored by Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Democrat hailing from Wisconsin. A similar bill has been introduced to the U.S. House by Reps. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), and Sean Duffy (R-Wisc.).
Supporters of the DAIRY PRIDE Act claim that over 80 percent of Americans are not meeting the recommended daily dairy intake, and say imitation dairy products do not have the same nutritional value as their "authentic" counterpart. Furthermore, the NMPF complains in a press release that the FDA's lax enforcement "hurts dairy farmers that work tirelessly to ensure their dairy products meet FDA standards and provide the public with nutritious food."
In a letter dated February 2000, NMPF Vice President of Regulatory Affairs Robert D. Byrne decried that soy products were actively competing against the dairy industry. "In many instances, these soy-based beverage products are positioned on the grocery shelf alongside milk and other dairy products in a clear attempt to compete with dairy products as a beverage," he wrote. "In addition, the labeling of soy beverages and accompanying marketing language attempt to portray to consumers that these products are, in fact, dairy-like products by using the term 'milk' on the label."
At least he was honest about the motivations for this push.
Fri, 03 Mar 2017 14:48:00 -0500If President Donald Trump is serious about reforming how the Food and Drug Administration operates, he could start by requiring the agency to use common sense when regulating alternatives to smoking. Alternatives like snus, for example. The Swedish-made tobacco product consists of a small packet, similar to a tea bag, that's filled with tobacco powder and placed in the upper lip. It delivers a jolt of nicotine but doesn't come with the same health risks as smoking or using chewing tobacco. But you wouldn't know that by looking at the label. Swedish Match, the company that makes snus, has been trying since 2014 to get permission from the FDA to identify its product as a safer alternative to smoking. In Sweden, where snus is marketed that way, its popularity is credited with cratering smoking rates and associated diseases, and Swedish Match executives believe they could reshape the American tobacco market (and improve smokers' health) in much the same way. In December, the FDA ruled that snus would have to continue carrying a warning about the potential for causing tooth decay and gum disease, but punted on the more important question: whether snus could be marketed in the U.S. as less dangerous than cigarettes. "Because there is already a warning label, they're not inclined to remove it no matter how much evidence we present," says Jim Solyst, vice president for federal regulatory affairs for Swedish Match, in an interview published by Tobacco Reporter, a trade publication. That's where Trump enters the picture. In his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, the president specifically identified the FDA as a target for his administration's regulatory reform effort. The FDA's "slow and burdensome approval process," Trump said, prevents too too many advances from reaching those in need. He was talking specifically about the FDA's approval process for new drugs—an area where FDA foot-dragging can literally cost lives, as Reason's Ron Bailey pointed out earlier this week—but the same logic makes a case for changing how the administration regulates tobacco, with an eye towards improving Americans' health. Slow and burdensome certainly describes what Swedish Match has gone through. The company has filed more than 130,000 pages of applications with the FDA since May 2014, according to Tobacco Reporter, in trying to become the first product to gain the coveted "modified-risk tobacco product" designation. "We think that telling smokers that these products are 97 percent safer than similar products is the key message; this message is getting lost," Solyst told the trade publication. Swedish Match sees the obvious marketing benefit of earning that designation, but that doesn't cancel out the very real public health benefits that could be realized if snus was more widely used. The research continues to pile up. A peer-reviewed study published in Tobacco Control found that snus "does not appear to cause cancer or respiratory diseases" and cardiovascular risks from using snus were lower than with smoking. A study conducted in Norway and published in Nicotine and Tobacco Research found that using snus was much more effective at getting smokers to quit using cigarettes than nicotine replacement products like patches and gum. Snus-ers were three times as likely to quit smoking as smokers using nicotine gum, the researchers found. They believed snus was so effective because it delivered a nose of nicotine that was almost the same as cigarettes and provided a "sensory effect that medicinal nicotine products perhaps lack" because snus smells and tastes like tobacco. Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported in 2007 that 200,000 smoking-related deaths per year could be prevented if tobacco uses across the whole[...]
Wed, 01 Mar 2017 15:15:00 -0500President Donald Trump described the Food and Drug Administration's drug approval process as "slow and burdensome" in his speech to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday. He observed that the FDA process "keeps too many advances... from reaching those in need." His solution is to "slash the restraints" at the FDA to speed new drugs to the bedsides of patients. To illustrate his criticisms Trump pointed to Megan Crowley in the gallery, a young woman who has survived Pompe disease which is caused by a genetic glitch that prevents her cells from properly processing glycogen. After she and her younger brother was diagnosed with the disease in 1998, her father John Crowley co-founded the biotech company Novazyme to develoop a treatment. Megan and her brother began taking the recombinate enzyme replacement therapy in 2003. The enzyme treatment was tested on several dozen patients and submitted to the FDA in 2005. The agency took only 9 months to approve the drug in 2006. That may not seem particularly slow and burdensome, but a new Tufts University study reports more typically that getting a new drug from development through the FDA process takes more than a decade and costs about $2.6 billion. As it happens, Crowley is head of Amicus Therapeutics which has developed an enzyme replacement treatment for Fabry Disease. In November, the FDA rejected its initial submission for approval and ordered the company to conduct further clinical trials. Interestingly, the Amicus' new drug was approved by European Union drug regulators in May, 2016. Another way to think about the development of the Pompe treatment is that it took three years for the drug to get FDA approval after Crowley had begun dosing his children with it. If they had had to wait an extra three years for FDA approval, Megan and her brother might well have succumbed to their illness. As I have argued, the FDA should be modernized so that new treatments become available to patients once they have made it through the Phase II safety testing. Patients who choose the new treatments would essentially be enrolled in Phase III efficacy trials. This would drastically cut the time and the expense it takes to get new medicines to people. I am not alone in urging this reform of the drug approval process. In a February 14, 2012 Wall Street Journal op-ed, former FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach argued that "after proof of concept and safety testing, the [new therapeutic] product could be approved for marketing with every eligible patient entered in a registry so the company and the FDA can establish efficacy through post-market studies." Elsewhere von Eschenbach pointed out this FDA reform would mean that new drugs could ... ...come to market after promising early-stage research in targeted patients, with appropriate post-marketing studies required. Payers and patients would be the ultimate judge about the quality of the product, and companies could learn from the experience to develop superior products if needed. Companies would still be liable for unforeseen side effects, but patients and doctors would be warned -- through the drug's labeling -- that the product had been approved based on promising but provisional research. Gradually replacing or reducing dependence on Phase 3 trials with smaller, faster adaptive trials and post-market surveillance would have a positive impact on medical innovation and the U.S. economy.... To head the FDA, Trump is reportedly thinking of nominating venture capitalist Jim O'Neill who argued in 2014: "We should reform [the] FDA so there is approving drugs after their sponsors have demonstrated safety—and let people start using them, at their own risk. Let's prove efficacy after they've been legalized." Sounds good to m[...]
Wed, 08 Feb 2017 00:01:00 -0500Oh, no! I did it again. It was a foolish mistake. But I slipped. I read The New York Times. This is bad for my health, because I get so mad at the smug socialist spin, but how can I not read it? It's my hometown paper. My wife wakes me up with indignant questions like, "How can you say government is too big? The Times says ..." Aargh! Nearly every day brings a new Times outrage. Saturday, a front-page story smeared Labor Secretary nominee Andy Puzder. The story begins, "Decades before President Trump nominated him ... Puzder went to battle with federal labor regulators ..." Wait a second. "Decades before"? They went back decades to criticize him? Actually, three decades—to 1983, when as a young lawyer, Puzder represented a client whom the Labor Department accused of squandering union money. The Times went on to say: "He has repeatedly argued that economic regulations stifle economic growth." Puzder "argued" that? Regulations obviously stifle growth. That's their purpose—to protect workers by putting limits on businesses' pursuit of profit. Regulation is a big reason this post-recession recovery has been so weak. In just the last 10 years, the Department of Labor added regulations that require another 70 million hours of paperwork. Monday: "Trump's FDA Pick Could Undo Decades of Drug Safeguards." Oh, no! Trump will poison America with unsafe drugs! President Trump hasn't actually made his Food and Drug Administration pick yet, but the Times worries "his push for deregulation might put consumers at risk." The reporter cites thalidomide, which, 60 years ago, "caused severe birth defects in babies whose mothers had taken the drug in pregnancy. Since then, the FDA has come to be viewed as the world's leading watchdog for protecting the safety of food and drugs, a gold standard..." Fool's gold. The FDA protected American babies from thalidomide not by being smart, but by being so slow. By the time thalidomide neared approval, its bad effects were visible in Europe. The Times eagerly reports damage done by drugs: "Drug safety watchdogs point to examples like the painkiller Vioxx, which was withdrawn from the market ... " But "invoking Vioxx as the icon for such looseness is itself ignorant looseness," says my medical researcher brother, Tom. "FDA approvals are tradeoffs between benefits and risks. The FDA knew about Vioxx's risks. It was the company, not the FDA, that withdrew the painkiller. Many doctors now say it was an ill-advised move that deprives patients of a good alternative. Vioxx's risks are no greater than painkillers like Motrin sold over the counter. The Times avoids detailing just how onerous today's regulation is. The reporter says, "The agency sets a 10-month goal for approving standard drugs." Gee, goals are nice, but does the agency honor them? The Times doesn't say. It also doesn't mention that the 10-month goal only applies to the final step of regulation—after all trials are done. The entire process takes an average 16 years and $2.6 billion. Americans want protection from bad drugs, but how many of us suffer needless pain, or die, while waiting those 16 years? How many die because a drug's developers cannot raise $2.6 billion? One more smear: "President Trump's pick to lead the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, has aggressively moved to roll back consumer protection regulations." Consumer protection? No. Socialist idiocy. The Times says Pai "stopped nine companies from providing discounted high-speed internet service to low-income individuals." No, he stopped a $9.25/month government subsidy for high-speed internet. "He withdrew an effort to keep prison phone rates down," says the Times. No, he stopped FCC lawyers from fighting about in-sta[...]
Tue, 07 Feb 2017 08:30:00 -0500There seem to be embarrassing new "Internet of Things" failures every week now. Sometimes, they are on the humorous side, like when a "smart toilet" was hacked to randomly flush at startled bathroom-goers. Other times, they can be disturbing, as in case of critical vulnerabilities in St. Jude's implantable cardiac devices that could put users' lives in the hands of hackers. But in all cases, these failures tend to grab headlines and inflame calls for government regulation. It's not hard to see why. When faced with some kind of public dilemma, many people immediately assume that the government alone can solve the problem. And when you throw in futuristic fears about losing control of everyday things around us, the prospect of a savior from above seems all the more necessary. But we must take care that such "solutions" don't create more problems than they supposedly solve. Such would almost certainly be the case with one recent proposal: a "Department of Technology Policy." A 'World-Size Robot' Recently, Bruce Schneier, a veteran in information-security studies and leading voice in technology policy, penned a long article for the New Yorker in which he argues for the creation of a new federal agency—the "Department of Technology Policy"—that would consolidate control of technological regulations into a single body. Schneier explains how the incredible rate of "smart"-device adoption has created some new and unprecedented security challenges. Few people realize just how quickly IOT devices have saturated the world around them. This will only accelerate—Schneier likens the rise of IOT technologies to building a "world-size robot," with all of the sensors, commands, and computations to match. And with an expanded connected reality comes an expanded digital threat set. Computer bugs and software vulnerabilities no longer merely endanger personal data and hardware, they can potentially shut down connected home devices or hijack moving cars and even cause us physical harm. Indeed, there have been considerable security problems with connected devices. Often, the issues are theoretical: Security researchers warn the public at conferences and in journals of major vulnerabilities they discover in popular consumer routers or printers or security cameras—vulnerabilities which may or may not end up getting patched. But sometimes these vulnerabilities are actually exploited. Last October, some of the Internet's most popular websites—Twitter, Amazon, GitHub, Reddit—were knocked offline thanks to insecure IOT devices. Some malicious actor was able to infect an army of DVRs, cameras, baby monitors, and printers with a malware called Mirai, directing these devices to launch a distributed-denial-of-service (DDOS) attack on those websites' hosting provider, Dyn. While the attack was short, and the fallout was mostly limited to inconvenience and loss of sales, it was a major warning signal for security researchers who envisioned how such an attack could have been much more devastating. The main problem, as Schneier sees it, is that many companies developing and selling connected devices do not have the right security chops to make sure that they are safe before people buy them. Technology companies like Google and Apple have large dedicated teams to locate and patch software vulnerabilities as soon as possible—and even this process is imperfect. Now, companies who have no such software experience may put IOT products out to market without the necessary testing, which could create major unexpected problems down the road. And the home consumers who buy such devices are seldom equipped to evaluate the security settings on their own. Whose Failure? While Sch[...]