Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Ontario health minister on overpaid physicians

From the National Post:
Health Minister Eric Hoskins complained Wednesday about the billing practices of some Ontario doctors, who he said were taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from home care and other services. “Unpredictable and frankly out of control billing by some doctors is a problem that creates huge income for some doctors, but it leaves less for family doctors,” said Hoskins.  

“It leaves less for our salaried doctors in community health centres, it squeezes our ability to invest more money in home care and community care, and it robs of us of the capacity to responsibly plan our health care spending each year.”
I never thought he'd have the guts to finally say that.

BC company offers free cancer tumour screening to 1,500 Canadians

From the CBC:
Free cancer tumour genetic screening? That's the unusual offer from Contextual Genomics, a private company in Vancouver.

Starting this month, the first 1,500 Canadians who get their oncologists to send in their tumour samples will have their cancer tested using the the company's trademarked Find-It Cancer Hotspot Panel at no charge. After that, the test will be offered for sale for less than $1,000.

"You could call it marketing, but it's making this test available to people who haven't had access to it before," said Contextual Genomics CEO Chris Wagner. The idea is that there might be a drug out there that can target the particular cancer mutation. But that's if a drug exists, and if it's approved for use, and if the oncologist knows what to do.
This is progress. Why attempt to make an issue of a private company providing a new test? Most of Canadian health care is delivered by private companies anyways.

That said, the Contextual Genomics is making an excellent strategic decision to offer their test for free. I'm actually surprised that they're limiting it to 1,500 people; the marginal cost of running these tests can be pretty low, especially for those testing highly specific mutations. I'm not so sure about the full cost of delivery, though.

After this phase of their National Access Program, my guess is that they'll eventually offer some kind of compassionate access program for those that can't pay ~$1,000 out of pocket.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How bioRxiv will make journals pay for publishing research papers

Preprint servers are the future of scientific publishing.

There's a detailed article on biological research and the controversies surrounding the bioRxiv preprint server up at The National Post:
After several dozen biologists vowed to rally around preprints at an “ASAPbio’’ meeting last month, [bioRxiv] has had a small surge, and not just from scientists whose august stature protects them from risk. On Twitter, preprint insurgents are celebrating one another’s postings and jockeying for revolutionary credibility.

For most of the history of organized scientific research, the limitations of technology made print journals the chief means of disseminating scientific results. But some #ASAPbio advocates argue that since the rise of the Internet, biologists have been abdicating their duty to the public — which pays for most academic research — by not sharing results as quickly and openly as possible.

Unlike physicists, for whom preprints became a default method of communicating discoveries in the 1990s, biomedical researchers typically wait more than six months to disseminate their work while they submit it — on an exclusive basis — to the most prestigious journal they think might accept it for publication. If, as is often the case, it is rejected, they try another journal. As a result, it can sometimes take years to publish a paper ... and because science is in many ways a relay, with one scientist building on the published work of another, the communication delays almost certainly slow scientific progress.
Yes, paper reviews are slow and definitely consume resources, but they are usually helpful. Later on in the article, there's a bit of fearmongering that preprints will be 'detrimental to science' and that the world will end, etc. but that's coming from editors that are incentivized to keep scientists paying for the review process.

What I'd really like to see in the near future is a model where scientists post their work to bioRxiv to stake claim to something new in their field, and where it's incumbent on journals to bid for the right to accept good papers into the review process. Why shouldn't labs be compensated after the fact for doing high quality research, in addition to being funded in advance as in the current system?

Several factors work for in favor of this model:

  1. Scientists will still preprint research that's of good quality in an effort to receive journal bids. In fact, they'll still have an incentive to produce work that's as high quality as possible.
  2. Journals will still be in a position to offer a proper peer-review for preprints, and in some (most?) cases this means that the version of the paper published by the journal will be of better quality than the pre-print.
  3. Journals won't need staff to deal with inquiries from every researcher thinking that their paper is good enough to review. Instead, scouts will contact labs since they know what's out there.
  4. Excessive resources won't be spent on polishing little papers so that they're 'good enough' for submission to a journal. If someone has one or two interesting figures they can still publish it, get a DOI, and get on with their career.
  5. The corollary of #3 is that the need for a 'Journal of Negative Results' is eliminated. Just preprint the damn results and get a bit of credit for it.

I don't think preprints are the threat that some folks are imagining; on the contrary, they should improve the system at a time when the model of 20th century publishing seems to be broken or at best dysfunctional.

So if you have any other ideas reach out on @CheckmateSci.

Monday, March 14, 2016

How to name your biotech startup properly

From STAT:
Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, named after a star in Orion’s belt. “It marks the strength of our vision, and gives our effort a clear association with something that’s up in the sky,” said Chief Executive John Maraganore.

However, the Cambridge company did what many in the industry do: they tweaked the spelling, from Alnilam (the star) to Alnylam, to help it stand out to investors, in Google searches, and in trademark filings.

The word Alnylam derives from Arabic — it means “string of pearls” — and in this, too, the company’s name is illustrative of a larger industry trend: Names drawn from words in Latin, Greek, or other foreign languages.

Avak Kahvejian, who helps build life science startups at Flagship Ventures, said “one of the tricks” he uses is to run English words associated with his companies’ technologies through an online translator. That’s how he named his most recent startup, Cambridge-based Rubius Therapeutics, which launched in December to engineer red blood cell-based drugs. (Rubius means “red” in Latin.)
The article also touches on a company working in the CD47 receptor space that decided to go a much less romantic naming route: Forty Seven Inc.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Those fighting over Editas are in it for the long haul

When I first started following the promising CRISPR/Cas9 technology after the chance that shRNA/RNAi technology becoming biotech's Holy Grail seemed to fizzle, I thought that having two or more research groups reporting CRISPR technology wasn't surprising; it was just another example of the well known multiple discovery effect operating in science.

However, the CRISPR story sounds much more like a tale of politics and competition (money necessarily follows) instead of that of independent people fighting over first rights to the same bright idea.

Via TechCrunch:
Two of Editas founders, UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and the Broad Institute’s (BI) Feng Zheng, are credited with pioneering CRISPR/Cas9, a gene-editing technology that has radically advanced the biotech industry. Editas uses this technology to develop therapies to treat humans at a genetic level.

Those with a genetically induced cancer would be able to receive treatment to snip out parts of the faulty gene sequencing using this technology, for example.

Though Doudna is listed as one of the founders of the company, she left Editas two years ago to create the competing Caribou Biosciences in Berkeley, California. However, BI filed for the CRISPR patents for Zheng and was originally awarded the rights to them.
It'll be interesting to see how this unravels.