BHN exclusive: Mass docs pitch products to investors

tech-transfer1 Kids like things that light up, like the twinkling sneakers. But the illuminated catheter that Dr. Farhad Imam told investors about yesterday is designed for pediatricians, not kids. Imam, a fellow in the neonatal intensive care unit at Children’s Hospital, was one of the presenters at Monday’s “Early-Stage Life Sciences Technology Conference” at Harvard Medical School.

            Sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center, the event, in organizers’ words, offers

            an opportunity for research institutions and recently formed Massachusetts companies to present their life sciences technologies to an audience of angel investors, venture capitalists and corporate investors.

            So, doctors like Imam – who usually present to fellow researchers, not VCs – had ten minutes to pitch their inventions. Among their offerings: a potential artificial retina, a new system to shrink tonsils and a device to accurately deliver drugs to the brain. The scientists came from a range of area hospitals and schools, including Dana Farber Cancer Center, Boston College, MIT and McLean Hospital.

            Imam said that, in most cases, doctors fail to properly place PICCs- peripherally inserted catheters – on the first try. The illuminated catheter produced by his Brookline-based Lumos Catheter Systems uses ” visible light channeled through the patients body,”  he told the audience of about 150. “I think we can significantly improve on the 85 percent failure rate.”

            He noted that doctors place 1.5 million PICCs each year, with 15 percent of those in children. With improved technology and lower costs, the market for these catheters is $130 million and growing, he told the group.

            Although university tech transfer efforts like this one have been around for a while, the Harvard hospitals have been slow to embrace the concept. From this event, it seems that is changing.  

            But, the debate over the growing overlap between academia and industry remains unresolved. All major research universities have tech transfer offices that encourage scientists to patent and promote their findings. Medical breakthroughs make it to market and universities collect fees to fund more research.

            For more on that point of view, see the Associations of University Technology Managers or the Mass Tech Transfer Center.

            Still, some see the effort as threat to academic integrity. Researchers, who think they can make a profit off of their findings face clear conflicts of interest, critics say.  

            For more on that, see the Integrity in Science project at the Center for Science in the Public interest or this new study out of the Harvard:

            Policies and management of conflicts of interest within medical research institutional review boards: results of a national study.

                       The relatively high proportion of IRBs without a requirement that voting members disclose industry relationships is inconsistent with current guidance, and likely results in lapses in awareness of when members with conflicts vote on protocols. There was no clear consensus on where oversight responsibility for member-industry relationships should lie.

              For some of my reporting on the topic, see my story on Nature Network Boston.

 Universities have long engaged in technology transfer: patenting discoveries and licensing them to companies with the capacity to develop, test, manufacture, and market new products.

But Harvard aims to take technology transfer a step further. Rather than letting outside companies do early-stage product development with its research, Harvard wants to do product development itself.



BHN Exclusive: Health inequalities are not black and white

           I happened to check out a campus event on inequality and health after teaching my NU class last week. What I learned is that color is an issue, but not the only issue.

            Latinos, people from Asia and the Pacific islands, gays and people with developmental disabilities also have concerns.

(This last definition was invented as a more dignified way of describing “individuals with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy and other seizure disorders, sensory impairments, congenital disabilities, traumatic injuries, or conditions caused by disease (polio, muscular dystrophy, etc.))”

            “Usually, when we talk about health disparities, we’re usually talking about a black and white paradigm, but that paradigm is shifting,” said Ramani Sripada of MAP (Mass Asian and Pacific Islanders) for Health.  (Toll Free: 1-800-479-7251 –Their website seems to be down. )

            Health inequality means some groups have poor access to doctors,  insurance, nutritious food and space to exercise. But it also refers to different health outcomes, or rates of disease. For example, African-American women are less likely to develop breast cancer than white women, but more likely to die from it. (For more on the topic in general, see NIH’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities.)

            Not enough scientists look specifically at these groups in their research, according to the speakers. For example, no one understands the high rate of cervical cancer among Vietnamese women, Sripada said.

            Judith Bradford of the Fenway Institute, said colleting data on LGBTs (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) is key to getting action on issues like higher rates of smoking, domestic violence and obesity.   

            “If your group isn’t measured by the folks fighting the battles, if they don’t have the numbers – it’s hard,” she said.  

            The program also included representatives of The Arc of Mass and The Latin American Health Institute .  (MAPP seems to be having some trouble with its web site so I’ll update it when I have more info.)  

  Also, check out the NYTimes story today on U.S. hospitals and immigrants.

 Many arrive with health problems seldom seen in this country – vitamin deficiencies, intestinal parasites and infectious diseases like tuberculosis, for instance – and unusually high levels of emotional trauma and stress. 

Over time, as they pick up Western habits, some develop Western ailments, too, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease, and yet they often question the unfamiliar lifelong treatments these chronic diseases need.


Home health care’s really bad apples


My sisters and I took care of our elderly father during his last years. He needed help long before he needed a nursing home. So, like anyone who has looked into home care, I know that it is a costly, complicated endeavor. Plus, my father did things like get a crushes on the aides. As they say in my neighborhood – Gawd bless ‘im. He was 88 when he died two years ago.      

So, David Abel’s story in today’s Globe gave me the creeps. While home health and personal care aides put up with a lot of grief from their charges sometimes, it can go both ways.

One personal care attendant was arrested last year in Boston, accused of leaving a quadriplegic with cerebral palsy undressed, lacking water, and without stockings that prevent blood clots. Last summer, another attendant allegedly charged thousands of dollars on the credit cards of her patient. A year before, an attendant in Brockton was charged with creating an alias and defrauding the state of more than $20,000 to treat himself.

As the state Medicaid program has significantly increased the amount of money it spends on personal care attendants over the past decade, reports of fraud, abuse, and neglect have tripled, state officials said. The correlation raises new concerns about a system that requires no training, certification, or criminal background checks for attendants and operates with minimal oversight over the low-paid home healthcare workers.

Here’s a link to Commonwealth Care Alliance, which offers help for caregivers. Try to remember that most home aides work very hard for little pay. You try changing a diaper on a 200-pound person who can’t sit up and calls you racist names.   

 P.S. The Wall Street Journal Health Blog – which just won an award from the Association of Health Care Journalists — has a good post on the latest consensus report on health reform. Sounds kind of thin to me.

WSJ rips Mass Connector health plan

Today’s editorial in the conservative Wall Street Journal opinion section rips into the Mass health plan. Their argument is based on the old claim equating government attempts at control costs to rationing.

They also embrace the new party line: cost controls and evidence-based medicine means Big Brother won’t let you get that MRI.

Single payer folks – most on the other end of the political spectrum — don’t like the plan much either. They mostly argue that setting up a quasi-government-run insurance program will work better. See David Himmelstein’s presentation to members of Congress here

Read the state’s description of the plan here.

My family’s health insurance comes from a job in a shrinking industry dealing with waves of layoffs.  Cost of the care for Mass plan — and all other plan — are a key concern. But, I get some piece of mind knowing we have the Mass Connector to fall back on, even if it is not perfect and means I have to skip a scan or two.

As far as evidence-based medicine goes, I care what my doctor thinks, but I like the idea that she’s guided by recent research, not just her habits or the last journal article she happened to read.

Conflict of interest tsunami continues

The Globe has been all over the Congressional investigation into conflicts of interest in medical research.  Today’s paper has a story on Tufts administrators apparently refusing to sit on a campus panel on the topic because it would also include an aide to US Senator Charles Grassley. The Republican lawmaker is leading the probe, which is  looking at a Tufts researcher, among others.

 Tufts University has withdrawn an invitation for a top aide to US Senator Charles E. Grassley to give the keynote speech at a conference on conflicts of interest in medicine and research, leading one conference organizer to pull out and question the university’s commitment to academic freedom.

The University-wide Committee on Ethics rescinded the invitation on March 13, according to e-mails obtained by the Globe. The messages said top Tufts officials refused to allow other administrators to be panelists at the meeting if Grassley’s aide spoke, saying it was inappropriate to do so while Grassley is investigating ties between a Tufts professor and the drug industry.

Sheldon Krimsky, a Tufts professor of Urban & Environmental Policy who tried to help organize this event, has written extensively about  industry-academic relationships. His 2004 book is called  Science in the Private Interest.

Also, more details are emerged earlier this last week  about Harvard child psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Biederman and his relationships with drug makers. Again, the ever-reliable Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe reports:

The expanded inquiry is based in part on slide presentations that summarize projects at the Johnson & Johnson Center for Pediatric Psychopathology Research, a center at Massachusetts General Hospital that was funded by Johnson & Johnson and headed by Biederman from 2002 to 2005.

Under the heading “Key Projects for 2005,” one slide promises to provide a J&J subsidiary, Janssen, “with critical competitive data on safety and efficacy of risperidone (an antipsychotic) in children” under age 10, while another talks about expanding use of the drug Concerta for teenagers with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Another slide indicates that a benefit of the center is to help J&J develop new uses for its drugs.

In a seven-page letter sent yesterday to Harvard University president Drew Gilpin Faust and Mass. General president Dr. Peter Slavin, (US Senator Charles )Grassley, a Republican, said he is concerned about the implications of the slides and asks why they “suggest an expectation of positive outcomes” prior to the clinical trials.

Last stop. Please take your belongings and your patients’ medical records

That headline was too hard to resist.  From today’s Globe

Paperwork containing the personal medical information of at least 66 patients at Massachusetts General Hospital was lost this month when an employee apparently left it on an MBTA train.

The hospital sent out letters last week to patients whose identities were included in the lost paperwork, telling them the information listed their names and dates of birth, and private medical information, including their diagnoses and the name of the provider with whom they met. The material constituted billing records for patients who attended the hospital’s Infectious Disease Associates outpatient practice on Fruit Street on March 4.

Deborah A. Adair, the hospital’s privacy officer and director of health information services, said in a statement released yesterday that while the incident was regrettable, the hospital followed privacy laws by immediately alerting affected patients and authorities, including the state attorney general’s office and the Department of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation.

 In case you were wondering, it was the Red Line.

For more on medical privacy see the HHS HIPAA site

Food, glorious (local) food

Both the soundtrack to “Oliver!” and the local foods movement make me happy.  People are joining community-supported farms and trying to avoid food shipped in from far away. Even the Harvest Co-op, after struggling for years, is healthier. Today’s NYTimes business section leads with this story.   

After being largely ignored for years by Washington, advocates of organic and locally grown food have found a receptive ear in the White House, which has vowed to encourage a more nutritious and sustainable food supply.

The Globe had a story yesterday about how local farms are expanding and adding new crops in response.

These days, homegrown produce in Massachusetts means a lot more than cranberries and McIntosh apples. Flourishing ethnic crops and immigrant farmers have helped fuel a larger trend that increased the number of farms in the state by 27 percent from 2002 to 2007, surging to a level not seen since the 1960s, according to a census released last month by the US Department of Agriculture.

Big changes. When Harvest Co-op was started by BU students in the 1970s, you couldn’t buy whole wheat bread in the grocery store, no less tofu, Celestial Seasons tea or organic anything. You had to go to hippy-run restaurants like Ithaca’s Moosewood or BU’s Hedge School to get vegetarian food. 

But, as soon as someone figured out they could profit from it, natural foods went corporate. The FDA’s willingness to let companies use health claims in marketing helped drive the shift. Now, we’re left with two Whole Foods stores flanking the Harvest Co-op in Cambridge.

 For some people, links between the environment, local business and healthy eating are easy to see. For the rest, awareness of agribusiness and food safety arrived on a plate of nasty spinach, tomatoes or Nabs.  

 For more on this, see Nutrition Action. This newsletter comes from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the folks who let you know that most of your take-out food has off-the-charts levels of fat and salt.  

 You can find ways to join this effort all over New England. Start with the state’s Mass Grown site. Here are a few others:   

 The Harvest Co-op , which also has a store in JP, hosts deliveries from local CSA farms. In Cambridge, the nearby parking lot turns into a summer/fall farmer’s market mid-day Mondays.

  In fact, I’m just going to steal their links.

 Clear Conscience Cafe (C3Cafe) In front of the Cambridge Co-op Store, it’s a LEED-certified cafe serving local and organic food and drinks

Equal Exchange Fair Trade Coffee and other products. Where Harvest’s Coffee comes from!

Red Tomato; Reinventing local food systems  

The best cheese from Vermont Family Farms (and a co-op)!

Red Fire Farms CSA

Sustainable Food News

 The Times also has a story today about whether organic food equals better health.

Finally, a disclosure – I was a lentil-slinger at Hedge School briefly and later at UMass’s Earthfoods — one of several token carnivores.