Tag: Kim Bellard

Health Care’s Debt Problem


Among the many things that infuriate me about the U.S. healthcare system, health systems sending their patients to collections – or even suing them – is pretty high on the list (especially when they are “non-profit” and./or faith-based organizations, which we should expect to behave better).

There’s no doubt medical debt in the U.S. is a huge problem. Studies have found that more than 100 million people have medical debt, many of whom don’t think they’ll ever be able to pay it off. Kaiser Family Foundation estimates Americans owe some $220b in medical debt, with 3 million people owing more than $10,000. It’s oft cited that medical debts are the leading cause of bankruptcy, although it’s quite not clear that is actually true.

So you’d think that helping pay off that debt would be a good thing. But it turns out, it’s not that simple.

A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) by Raymond Kluender, et. alia, found that, whoops, paying off people’s medical debt didn’t improve their credit score or financial distress, made them less likely to pay future medical bills, and didn’t improve their mental health.

“We were disappointed,” said Professor Kluender told Sarah Kliff in The New York Times. “We don’t want to sugarcoat it.”

The researchers worked with R.I.P. Medical Debt, a non-profit that buys up medical debt “at pennies on the dollar,” to identify people with such debt, and then compared people whom R.I.P. Medical Debt had helped versus those it had not. One set of people had hospital debts that were at the point of being sold to a collection agency, and another had debts that had already been sent to collection. And, perhaps to highlight how little we understand our healthcare system, they asked experts in medical debt what their expectations for the experiment were.

Much to everyone’s surprise, having debt paid off made no difference between control and debt-relief groups. I.e.,

  • “We find no average effects of medical debt relief on the financial outcomes in credit bureau data in either of our experiments.
  • We similarly estimate economically small and statistically insignificant effects on other measures of financial distress, credit access, and credit utilization.
  • We find that debt relief causes a statistically significant and economically meaningful reduction in payment of existing medical bills.
  • We estimate statistically insignificant average effects of medical debt relief on measures of mental and physical health, healthcare utilization, and financial wellness, with “opposite-signed” point estimates for the mental health outcomes relative to our prior.”

In short: 

Our findings contrast with evidence on the effects of non-medical debt relief and evidence on the benefits of upstream relief of medical bills through hospital financial assistance programs. Our results are similarly at odds with views of the experts we surveyed, pronouncements by policymakers funding medical debt relief, and self-reported assessments of recipients of medical debt relief. 

Amy Finkelstein, a health economist at the MIT and a co-director of J-PAL North America, a nonprofit group that provided some funding for the study, told Ms. Kliff: “The idea that maybe we could get rid of medical debt, and it wouldn’t cost that much money but it would make a big difference, was appealing. What we learned, unfortunately, is that it doesn’t look like it has much of an impact.”

If only it was that easy.

To be clear, there were three key statistically significant effects:

  • “small improvements in credit access for the subset of persons whose medical debt would have otherwise been reported to the credit bureaus,
  • modest reduction in payments of future medical bills, and
  • worsened mental health outcomes, concentrated among those who had the largest amount of debt relieved and those who received phone calls to raise awareness and salience of the intervention.”

The authors admitted they had not expected the mental health results and had no good explanation, but their “preferred interpretation is that recipients of the cash payments viewed the transfers as insufficient to close the gap between their resources and needs, raising the salience of their financial distress and harming their mental health.”

As Neale Mahoney, an economist at Stanford and a co-author of the study, told Ms. Kliff: “Many of these people have lots of other financial issues. Removing one red flag just doesn’t make them suddenly turn into a good risk, from a lending perspective.”

The authors concluded:

Nonetheless, our results are sobering; they demonstrate no improvements in financial well-being or mental health from medical debt relief, reduced repayment of medical bills, and, if anything, a perverse worsening of mental health. Moreover, other than modest impacts on credit access for those whose medical debt is reported, we are unable to identify ways to target relief to subpopulations who stand to experience meaningful benefits.

On the other hand, Allison Sesso, R.I.P. Medical Debt’s executive director, told Ms. Kliff that study was at odds with what the group had regularly heard from those it had helped. “We’re hearing back from people who are thrilled,” she said.

As statisticians would say, anecdotes are not data.


Removing medical debt seems like a can’t-lose idea. A number of states and local governments have passed programs to pay off medical debt (most working with R.I.P. Medical Debt) and a number of others are considering it.

Last fall the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau initiated rulemaking that would remove medical bills from credit reports. It has also, according to NPR, “penalized medical debt collectors, issued stern warnings to health care providers and lenders that target patients, and published reams of reports on how the health care system is undermining the financial security of Americans.”

Director Chopra admits: “Of course, there are broader things that we would probably want to fix about our health care system, but this is having a direct financial impact on so many Americans.”

If nothing else, the new study should remind us that our health system is best at putting band-aids on problems rather than solving them. The problems we should be addressing include: why are so many charges so high, why aren’t people better protected against them, and why don’t more Americans have enough resources to pay their bills, especially unpredictable ones like from health care services?

I’m glad R.I.P. Medical Debt is doing what it is doing, but let’s not kid ourselves that it is solving the problem.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented, and now regular THCB contributor

Microplastics, Major Problem


It’s been almost four years since I first wrote about microplastics; long story short, they’re everywhere. In the ground, in the oceans (even at the very bottom), in the atmosphere. More to the point, they’re in the air you breathe and in the food you eat. They’re in you, and no one thinks that is a good thing. But we’re only starting to understand the harm they cause.

The Washington Post recently reported:

Scientists have found microplastics — or their tinier cousins, nanoplastics — embedded in the human placenta, in blood, in the heart and in the liver and bowels. In one recent study, microplastics were found in every single one of 62 placentas studied; in another, they were found in every artery studied.

One 2019 study estimated “annual microplastics consumption ranges from 39,000 to 52,000 particles depending on age and sex. These estimates increase to 74,000 and 121,000 when inhalation is considered.” A more recent study estimated that a single liter of bottled water may include 370,000 nanoplastic particles. “It’s sobering at the very least, if not very concerning,” Pankaj Pasricha, MD, MBBS, chair of the department of medicine at the Mayo Clinic, who was not involved with the new research, told Health

But we still don’t have a good sense of exactly what harm they cause. “I hate to say it, but we’re still at the beginning,” Phoebe Stapleton,a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Rutgers University, told WaPo.

A new study sheds some light – and it is not good. It found that people with microplastics in their heart were at higher risk of heart attack, stroke, and death. The researchers looked at the carotid plaque from patients who were having it removed and found 60% of them had microplastics and/or nanoplastics. They followed patients for three years to determine the impacts on patients’ health and found higher morbidity/mortality.

“We are reasonably sure that the problem comes from a frailty of the plaque itself,” says Giuseppe Paolisso, a professor of internal medicine and geriatrics at the University of Campania Luigi Vanvitelli in Naples, Italy, and one of the study’s authors. “We suppose due to the fact that the plaques with microplastics and nanoplastics have a higher degree of inflammation, this kind of plaque can be broken more easily; and once they are broken, they can go into the blood streams.”

“This is pivotal,” Philip Landrigan, an epidemiologist and professor of biology at Boston College, who was not involved in the study, wrote in an accompanying opinion piece. “For so long, people have been saying these things are in our bodies, but we don’t know what they do.” He went on to add: “If they can get into the heart, why not into the brain, the nervous system? What about the impacts on dementia or other chronic neurological diseases?”

Scary stuff.

If that isn’t scary enough, an article last year in PNAS found: “Indeed, it turns out that a host of potentially infectious disease agents can live on microplastics, including parasites, bacteria, fungi, and viruses.” Even worse: “Beyond their potential for direct delivery of infectious agents, there’s also growing evidence that microplastics can alter the conditions for disease transmission. That could mean exacerbating existing threats by fostering resistant pathogens and modifying immune responses to leave hosts more susceptible.”

However much you’re worrying about microplastics, it’s not enough.

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Wait Till Health Care Tries Dynamic Pricing


Nice try, Wendy’s. During an earnings call last month, President and CEO Kirk Tanner outlined the company’s plan to try a new form of pricing: “Beginning as early as 2025, we will begin testing more enhanced features like dynamic pricing and day-part offerings along with AI-enabled menu changes and suggestive selling.” 

None of the analysts on the call questioned the statement, but the backlash from the public was immediate — and quite negative. As Reuters described it: “the burger chain was scorched on social media sites.”

Less than two weeks later Wendy’s backtracked – err, “clarified” – the statement. “This was misconstrued in some media reports as an intent to raise prices when demand is highest at our restaurants,” a company blog post explained. “We have no plans to do that and would not raise prices when our customers are visiting us most.”

The company was even firmer in an email to CNN: “Wendy’s will not implement surge pricing, which is the practice of raising prices when demand is highest. This was not a change in plans. It was never our plan to raise prices when customers are visiting us the most.”

OK, then. Apology accepted.

At this point it is worth explaining a distinction between dynamic pricing and the more familiar surge pricing. As Omar H. Fares writes in The Conversation: “Although surge pricing and dynamic pricing are often used interchangeably, they have slightly different definitions. Dynamic pricing refers to any pricing model that allows prices to fluctuate, while surge pricing refers to prices that are adjusted upward.”

Uber and other ride sharing services are well known for their surge pricing, whereas airlines’ pricing is more dynamic, figuring out prices by seat by when purchased by who is purchasing, among other factors.

Wendy’s wouldn’t be the first company to use dynamic pricing and it won’t be the last. Drew Patterson, co-founder of restaurant dynamic pricing provider Juicer, told The Wall Street Journal that dozens of restaurant brands used his company’s software. The company’s website doesn’t publicize those brands, of course. Still, he emphasized: “You need to make it clear that prices go up and they go down.” 

Dave & Busters is public about its pricing strategy. “We’re going to have a dynamic pricing model, so we have the right price at the right time to match the peak demand,” Dave & Buster’s CEO Chris Morris said during an investor presentation last year.  On the other hand, Dine Brands (Applebee’s/IHOP) Chief Executive John Peyton said. “We don’t think it’s an appropriate tool to use for our guests at this time.”

The potential revenue benefits are obvious, but there are risks, as Wendy’s quickly found out. Mr. Fares says: “One of the biggest risks associated with dynamic pricing is the potential negative impact on customer perception and trust. If customers feel that prices are unfair or unpredictable, they may lose trust in the brand.”

What Wendy’s tried to announce is not ground-breaking. Catherine Rampell pointed this out in a Washington Post op-ed:

In other words, things will be cheaper when demand is low to draw in more customers when there’s otherwise idle capacity. Lots of restaurants do this, including other burger chains. It’s usually called “happy hour.” Or the “early-bird special.” Non-restaurants do it, too. Think the weekday matinee deals at your local movie theater or cheaper airfares on low-traffic travel days.

Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported: “An estimated 61% of adults support variable pricing where a restaurant lowers or raises prices based on business, with younger consumers more in favor of the approach than older ones, according to an online survey of 1,000 people by the National Restaurant Association trade group.” 

I wonder what the support would have been if the question had been about healthcare instead of restaurants. 

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We Freeze People, Don’t We?


Perhaps you’ve heard about the controversial Alabama Supreme Court ruling about in-vitro fertilization (IVF), in which the court declared that frozen embryos were people. The court stated that it has long held that “unborn children are ‘children,’” with Chief Justice Tom Parker – more on him later – opining in a concurring opinion:

Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself. Even before birth, all human beings bear the image of God, and their lives cannot be destroyed without effacing his glory.


Many people have already weighed in on this decision and its implications, but I couldn’t resist taking some pleasure in seeing “pro-life” advocates tying themselves in knots trying to explain why, when they legislated that life begins at conception, they didn’t mean this kind of conception and that kind of life.

John Oliver was typically on point, noting that the Alabama ruling was “wrong for a whole bunch of reasons. Mainly, if you freeze an embryo it’s fine. If you freeze a person, you have some explaining to do.”

The case in question wasn’t specifically about IVF, nor did the ruling explicitly outlaw it. It was a case about a patient who removed stored embryos and accidentally dropped them, and the couples whose embryos were destroyed wanted to hold that patient liable under the Wrongful Death of a Minor Act. The court said they could. Note, though, that neither the patient nor the clinic was being charged with murder or manslaughter…yet.

Although the Alabama Attorney General has already indicated he won’t prosecute IVF patients or clinicians, the ruling has had a chilling effect on fertility clinics in the states, with The University of Alabama at Birmingham health system and others indicating they were putting a pause on IVF treatments.

Justice Parker has long been known as something of a theocrat; as The New York Times wrote:

Since he was first elected to the nine-member court in 2004, and in his legal career before it, he has shown no reticence about expressing how his Christian beliefs have profoundly shaped his understanding of the law and his approach to it as a lawyer and judge.

His concurring opinion claimed: the state constitution had adopted a “theologically-based view of the sanctity of life.” Alabama is not alone. Kelly Baden, the vice president for public policy at the Guttmacher Institute, told BBC: “We do see that many elected officials and judges alike are often coming at this debate from a highly religious lens.”

Speaker Johnson has said:

The separation of church and state is a misnomer. People misunderstand it. Of course, it comes from a phrase that was in a letter that Jefferson wrote. It’s not in the Constitution. And what he was explaining is they did not want the government to encroach upon the church — not that they didn’t want principles of faith to have influence on our public life. It’s exactly the opposite.

And here we are.

Many Republicans are backtracking on the ruling.

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Why Not, Indeed?


Recently in The Washington Post, author Daniel Pink initiated a series of columns he and WaPo are calling “Why Not?” He believes “American imagination needs an imagination shot.” As he describes the plan for the columns: “In each installment, I’ll offer a single idea — bold, surprising, maybe a bit jarring — for improving our country, our organizations or our lives.”

I love it. I’m all in. I’m a “why not?” guy from way back, particularly when it comes to health care.

Mr. Pink describes three core values (in the interest of space, I’m excerpting his descriptions):

  • Curiosity over certainty. The world is uncertain. Curiosity and intellectual humility are the most effective solvents for unsticking society’s gears.
  • Openness over cynicism: Cynicism is easy but hollow; openness is difficult but rich.
  • Conversation over conversion: The ultimate dream? That you’ll read what I’ve written and say, “Wait, I’ve got an even better idea,” and then share it.

Again, kudos. One might even say “move fast and break things,” but the bloom has come off that particular rose, so one might just say “take chances” or “think different.” Maybe even “dream big.”

Around the same time I saw Mr. Pink’s column I happened to be reading Adam Nagourney’s The Times: How the Newspaper of Record Survived Scandal, Scorn, and the Transformation of Journalism. In the early 1990’s The Times (and the rest of the world) was struggling to figure out if and how the Internet was going to change things. Mr., Nagourney reports how publisher Arthur Sulzberger (Jr) realized the impact would be profound:

One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to recognize that ink on wood delivered by trucks is a time consuming and expensive process.

I.e., contrary to what many people at The Times, and many of its readers, thought at the time, the newspaper wasn’t the physical object they were used to; it was the information it delivers. That may seem obvious now but was not at all then.  

Which brings me to health care. Contrary to what many people working in healthcare, and many people getting care from it, might think, healthcare is not doctors, hospitals, prescriptions, and insurance companies. Those are simply the ink on wood delivered by trucks that we’re used to, to use the metaphor.

And it doesn’t take a rocket science to recognize that what we call health care today is a time consuming and expensive process – not to mention often frustrating and ineffective.

Why not do better?

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Zombie Viruses of the Permafrost


We’ve had some cold weather here lately, as has much of the nation. Not necessarily record-breaking, but uncomfortable for millions of people. It’s the kind of weather that causes climate change skeptics to sneer “where’s the global warming now?” This despite 2023 being the warmest year on record — “by far” — and the fact that the ten warmest years since 1850 have all been in the last decade, according to NOAA.

One of the parts of the globe warming the fastest is the Arctic, which is warming four times as fast as the rest of the planet. That sounds like good news if you run a shipping company looking for shorter routes (or to avoid the troubled Red Sea area), but may be bad news for everyone else.  If you don’t know why, I have two words for you: zombie viruses.

Most people are at least vaguely aware of permafrost, which covers vast portions of Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. Historically, it’s been literally frozen, not just seasonally but for years, decades, centuries, millennia, or even longer. Well, it’s starting to thaw.

Now, maybe its kind of cool that we’re finding bodies of extinct species like the woolly mammoth (which some geniuses want to revive). But also buried in the permafrost are lots of microorganisms, many of which are not, in fact, dead but are in kind of a statis. As geneticist Jean-Michel Claverie of Aix-Marseille University, recently explained to The Observer: “The crucial point about permafrost is that it is cold, dark and lacks oxygen, which is perfect for preserving biological material. You could put a yoghurt in permafrost and it might still be edible 50,000 years later.”

Dr. Claverie and his team first revived such a virus – some 30,000 years old — in 2014 and last year did the same for some that were 48,000 years old. There are believed to be organisms that ae perhaps a million years old, far older than we’ve been around. Scientists prefer to call them Methuselah microbes, although “zombie viruses” is more likely to get people’s attention.

He’s worried about the risks they pose.

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Au Contraire


Last week HHS announced the appointment of its first Chief Competition Officer. I probably would have normally skipped it, except that also last week, writing in The Health Care Blog, Kat McDavitt and Lisa Bari called for HHS to name a Chief Patient Officer. I’ll touch on each of those shortly, but it made me think about all the Chiefs healthcare is getting, such as Chief Innovation Officer or Chief Customer Experience Officer.  

But what healthcare may need even more than those is a Chief Contrarian. 

The new HHS role “is responsible for coordinating, identifying, and elevating opportunities across the Department to promote competition in health care markets,” and “will play a leading role in working with the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to address concentration in health care markets through data-sharing, reciprocal training programs, and the further development of additional health care competition policy initiatives.” All good stuff, to be sure.

Similarly., Ms. McDevitt and Ms, Bari point out that large healthcare organizations have the staff, time, and financial resources to ensure their points of view are heard by HHS and the rest of the federal government, whereas: “Patients do not have the resources to hire lobbyists or high-profile legal teams, nor do they have a large and well-funded trade association to represent their interests.” They go on to lament: “Because of this lack of access, resources, and representation, and because there is no single senior staff member in the federal government dedicated to ensuring the voice of the patient is represented, the needs and experiences of patients are deprioritized by corporate interests.” Thus the need for a Chief Patient Officer. Again, bravo.

The need for a Chief Contrarian – and not just at HHS – came to me from an article in The Conversation by Dana Brakman Reiser, a Professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School. She and colleague Claire Hill, a University of Minnesota law professor, argue that non-profit boards need to have “designated contrarians.”

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AI Inside


Well: 2024. I’m excited about the Paris Olympics, but otherwise I’d be just as happy to sleep through all the nonsense that the November elections will bring. In any event, I might as well start out talking about one of the hottest topics of 2023 that will get even more so in 2024: AI.

In particular, I want to look at what is being billed as the “AI PC.” 

Most of us have come to know about ChatGPT. Google has Bard (plus DeepMind’s Gemini), Microsoft is building AI into Bing and its other products, Meta released an open source AI, and Apple is building its AI framework. There is a plethora of others. You probably have used “AI assistants” like Alexa or Siri.

What most of the large language model (LLM) versions of AI have in common is that they are cloud-based. What AI PCs offer to do is to take AI down to your own hardware, not dissimilar to how PCs took mainframe computing down to your desktop.  

As The Wall Street Journal tech gurus write in their 2024 predictions in their 2024 predictions:

In 2024, every major manufacturer is aiming to give you access to AI on your devices, quickly and easily, even when they’re not connected to the internet, which current technology requires. Welcome to the age of the AI PC. (And, yes, the AI Mac.)

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A Place to Call Home


Congratulations, America. We have another new record, albeit a dismal one. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are now 653,000 homeless people, up 12% from the prior year. As one can imagine, compiling such a number is problematic at best, and no doubt misses a non-trivial number of such unfortunate people.

“Homelessness is solvable and should not exist in the United States,” said HUD Secretary Marcia L. Fudge. Well, yeah, like kids without enough food, pregnant women without access to adequate prenatal care, or people without health insurance, yet here we are.

HUD says that the increase was driven by people who became for the first time, up some 25%. It attributes this to “a combination of factors, including but not limited to, the recent changes in the rental housing market and the winding down of pandemic protections and programs focused on preventing evictions and housing loss.” As with the recent increase in child poverty, the lessons that we should have learn from our COVID response didn’t survive our willingness to put the pandemic behind us.

Jeff Olivet, executive director of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, told AP: “The most significant causes are the shortage of affordable homes and the high cost of housing that have left many Americans living paycheck to paycheck and one crisis away from homelessness.” The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates we’re missing some 7 million affordable housing units, so I suppose we should be relived there are “only” 653,000 homeless people.

“For those on the frontlines of this crisis, it’s not surprising,” Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, also told AP. Indeed, we’ve all seen news accounts of homeless encampments spreading seemingly out of control, many of us have spotted homeless people as we go about our daily lives, and yet most of us don’t want either homeless people or low income housing units in our neighborhoods.

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From Xenobots to Anthrobots


There were many things I could have written bout this week – e.g., in A.I., in quantum computing, even “transparent wood” — but when I saw some news about biological robots, I knew I had my topic.

The news comes from researchers at Tufts University and Harvard’s Wyss Institute. Their paper appeared in Advanced Science, introducing “a spheroid-shaped multicellular biological robot (biobot) platform” that they fondly dubbed “Anthrobots.” Importantly, the Anthrobots are made from human cells.

Let’s back up. In 2020, senior researcher Michael Levin, Ph.D., who holds positions at both Tufts and Harvard, worked with Josh Bongard, Ph.D. of the University of Vermont to create biological robots made from frog embryo cells, which they called Xenobots.  They were pretty impressive, capable of navigating passageways, collecting material, recording information, healing themselves from injury, and even replicating for a few cycles on their own, but the researchers wanted to find out if they could create biological robots from other types of cells – especially human cells.

Well, the new research showed that they could. They started with cells from adult trachea, and without genetic modification were able to demonstrate capabilities beyond those Xenobots had demonstrated. Lead author Gizem Gumuskaya, a PhD. student said: “We wanted to probe what cells can do besides create default features in the body. By reprogramming interactions between cells, new multicellular structures can be created, analogous to the way stone and brick can be arranged into different structural elements like walls, archways or columns.”   

The Anthrobots come in different shapes and sizes, and are capable of different motions. Ms. Gumuskaya is quite excited about their capabilities:

The cells can form layers, fold, make spheres, sort and separate themselves by type, fuse together, or even move. Two important differences from inanimate bricks are that cells can communicate with each other and create these structures dynamically, and each cell is programmed with many functions, like movement, secretion of molecules, detection of signals and more. We are just figuring out how to combine these elements to create new biological body plans and functions—different than those found in nature.

Even better, Ms. Gumuskaya pointed out: “Anthrobots self-assemble in the lab dish. Unlike Xenobots, they don’t require tweezers or scalpels to give them shape, and we can use adult cells – even cells from elderly patients – instead of embryonic cells. It’s fully scalable—we can produce swarms of these bots in parallel, which is a good start for developing a therapeutic tool.”

They tested Anthrobots’ healing capabilities by scratching a layer of neurons, then exposed the gap to a cluster of Anthrobots called a “superbot.”  That triggered neuron growth only in that area. The researchers noted: “Most remarkably, we found that Anthrobots induce efficient healing of defects in live human neural monolayers in vitro, causing neurites to grow into the gap and join the opposite sides of the injury.”

“The cellular assemblies we construct in the lab can have capabilities that go beyond what they do in the body,” said Dr. Levin. “It is fascinating and completely unexpected that normal patient tracheal cells, without modifying their DNA, can move on their own and encourage neuron growth across a region of damage.”

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