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Tag: NIH

A Case for Open Data

A couple of weeks ago, President Obama launched a new open data policy (pdf) for the federal government. Declaring that, “…information is a valuable asset that is multiplied when it is shared,” the Administration’s new policy empowers federal agencies to promote an environment in which shareable data are maximally and responsibly accessible. The policy supports broad access to government data in order to promote entrepreneurship, innovation, and scientific discovery.

If the White House needed an example of the power of data sharing, it could point to the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC). The PGC began in 2007 and now boasts 123,000 samples from people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, ADHD, or autism and 80,000 controls collected by over 300 scientists from 80 institutions in 20 countries. This consortium is the largest collaboration in the history of psychiatry.

More important than the size of this mega-consortium is its success. There are perhaps three million common variants in the human genome. Amidst so much variation, it takes a large sample to find a statistically significant genetic signal associated with disease. Showing a kind of “selfish altruism,” scientists began to realize that by pooling data, combining computing efforts, and sharing ideas, they could detect the signals that had been obscured because of lack of statistical power. In 2011, with 9,000 cases, the PGC was able to identify 5 genetic variants associated with schizophrenia. In 2012, with 14,000 cases, they discovered 22 significant genetic variants. Today, with over 30,000 cases, over 100 genetic variants are significant. None of these alone are likely to be genetic causes for schizophrenia, but they define the architecture of risk and collectively could be useful for identifying the biological pathways that contribute to the illness.

We are seeing a similar culture change in neuroimaging. The Human Connectome Project is scanning 1,200 healthy volunteers with state of the art technology to define variation in the brain’s wiring. The imaging data, cognitive data, and de-identified demographic data on each volunteer are available, along with a workbench of web-based analytical tools, so that qualified researchers can obtain access and interrogate one of the largest imaging data sets anywhere. How exciting to think that a curious scientist with a good question can now explore a treasure trove of human brain imaging data—and possibly uncover an important aspect of brain organization—without ever doing a scan.

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Open Access: The Next Steps


A useful and well-written summary of open access to publications in the medical field triggered some thoughts I’d like to share. The thrust of the article was that doctors need more access to a wide range of journal publications in order to make better decisions. The article also praises NIH’s open access policy, which has inspired the NSF and many journals.

My additional points are:

  • Open publication adds to the flood of information already available to most doctors, placing a burden on them to search and filter it. IBM’s Watson is one famous attempt to approach the ideal where the doctor would be presented right at the point of care with exactly the information he or she needs to make a better decision. Elsewhere, I have reported on a proposal to help experts doctors filter and select the important information and provide it to their peers upon demand–a social networking approach to evidence-based medicine.
  • Not only published papers, but the data that led to those research results should be published online, to help researchers reproduce the results and build on them to make new discoveries. I report in an earlier article on this site about the work of Sage Bionetworks to get researchers to open their data. Of course, putting up raw data leaves many challenges: one has to be careful to deidentify it according to accepted standards. One has to explain the provenance of the data carefully: how it was collected and massaged (because data sets always require some culling and error-correction) so it can be understood and properly reused. Finally, combining different data sets is always difficult because they are collected under different conditions and with different assumptions.

What Do mHealth Leaders Need Most From Our Government? Clarity.

My job and my life intersected in a profound way when my daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. Years working in mobile innovation didn’t prepare me for how personally relevant mHealth so quickly became. Her clinical trial at Stanford University, supported by the National Institutes of Health through Congress’ Special Diabetes Program, featured a world-class endocrinologist working alongside software coders, applications developers, algorithm writers, network engineers and other mobile innovators. They were all pushing together for what could be a revolution in diabetes management—the artificial pancreas.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about my daughter’s experience and share my thoughts on how government can help encourage the next wave of mHealth innovation, when I was invited to testify before Congress on mobile innovation and health care.

America’s leadership in the mobile economy — 40,000 apps and counting in the broad mHealth category — matches America’s leadership at the cutting edge of medical technology.

Mobile devices, wireless networks and targeted applications are enabling better, more seamless and cost-effective care that empowers and informs stakeholders on both sides of the stethoscope.

The virtuous cycle of investment in the mobile ecosystem — from networks, to handsets and tablets, to applications — provides an unparalleled foundation for dramatic advances in the nation’s health and wellness. My message to Congress was to lean in and strike a reasonable and circumspect balance that both protects patient safety and privacy and propels the dramatic, mobile-fueled advances we are seeing through American medicine today.

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Waste Not

In some ways, the Insititute of Medicine is like the famed “Academy” of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Having membership conferred is the ultimate accolade in a field full of brains, competition, money, and ego. A major difference is that the IOM doesn’t give out annual awards for best studies or best theories–the whole institute is comprised of lifetime achievement award winners.

That’s why when the IOM issues a report, it garners a lot of attention.

Their most recent, “Best Care at Lower Cost: The Path to Continuously Learning Health Care in America” attracted the usual spate of headlines:

I’ve looked over the report–it’s been released in ‘pre-publication’ form on their website, and you can read the whole thing. It’s a worth a click over, because even if you can’t slog through 350+ pages, they’ve made several executive summary features (including a top ten list) andgraphics that do a great job of conveying the authors’ findings and recommendations. A few things jumped out at me:

  • $750 billion of our collective annual $2.3 trillion health care outlay does not improve health
  • we still have far too many errors in hospitals
  • too many patients discharged from hospitals are readmitted in less than a month (20%!)
  • which points to the lousy job we do ‘transitioning’ people from hospital to home
  • communication amongst medical personnel is abysmal

The report uses analogies from many industries. There’s the requisite comparison to aviation, since the safety record of commercial airlines is enviable. But there are also comparisons to hotels, manufacturing, general contractors, engineers, and even ‘mission control’ at NASA. [Health care does not compare favorably to NASA. Doctors should, but are not working for a common purpose like getting people to the moon.]

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Conflicts Of Interest In Guideline Development: A Dirty Little Secret Gets Aired Again

By DAVID WILLIAMS

An Archives of Internal Medicine article (Conflicts of Interest in Cardiovascular Clinical Practice Guidelines) is getting a lot of notice this month. In essence, many of the physicians who develop guideline that influence practice patterns and payment decisions have conflicts. The authors recommend only allowing those without conflicts to write the guidelines.

This isn’t a new issue. In 2006 I wrote a piece (Another dirty little secret is out in the open) and am reposting it below because it’s timely:

A year ago in Time to deal with medicine’s dirty little secrets?, I wrote about a variety of practices that are relatively well-known in the health care field but would be shocking to outsiders. Industry often takes the blame for “aggressive marketing tactics,” and no doubt some of that is deserved. But physicians are also culpable.

The open secrets include the ghostwriting of journal articles by industry sponsors, physicians and academic medical centers holding ownership stakes in companies whose products they are researching, the clinical role sometimes played by orthopedic sales reps, and perhaps the most egregious example: physicians who set guidelines having financial relationships with the companies that benefit from how those guidelines are set.

Now we have a new example, which is even more serious than usual. A recent New England Journal of Medicine article blames Eli Lilly for overzealous promotion of Xigris. According to the Boston Globe:

Eli Lilly and Co. funded medical guidelines created for the treatment of [sepsis] in an effort to boost sales of a drug with questionable benefits. The allegation was made by senior scientists at the National Institutes of Health. [They] said Lilly tried to shape the guidelines for use of the drug Xigris by sponsoring a three-pronged marketing campaign

The first two phases are by now almost standard practice in the industry:

  1. Lilly paid a task force to spread the word that hospitals were rationing Xigris because of its cost, which forced docs “to decide who would live and who would die”
  2. Lilly “orchestrated” the development of practice guidelines to treat sepsis that called for early use of Xigris (an example of the phenomenon I have described before)

But then Lilly allegedly took a third step, which was a little shocking even to me:

Now, Lilly is sponsoring lobbying efforts to turn the guidelines into quality standards. Hospitals that follow such quality measures receive higher payment from insurers.

What’s happening here? Basically, an influential group of doctors is being lazy and greedy, and Lilly is enabling their behavior. The doctors put their fingers in the cookie jar and Lilly keeps restocking it. The public is paying for the cookies –in the form of higher product sales and sub-optimal health care– and should get fed up!

I have no problem with companies using legal means to promote their products, even if their tactics are “aggressive.” They owe it to their shareholders to maximize return on investment. But it isn’t in their long-term interest to push things as far as the medical profession often lets them.

Industry leans on the reputations of individual physicians (aka “key opinion leaders”), medical societies (aka guideline writers), and journals to legitimize their marketing messages. It’s up to the medical profession to scrutinize industry claims and issue independent guidelines and quality standards. Sometimes these claims hold up and deserve to be propagated. Sometimes they don’t. If the docs and journals don’t do their jobs they deserve to lose credibility.

It’s hard to know the extent to which medical guidelines are already corrupted. The situation is a bit like the incident when the Chinese President’s plane was refitted. In the process of fixing up the plane someone inserted a bunch of listening devices (presumably at no extra charge). When the Chinese checked out the plane and realized it was bugged they had to rip the whole thing up. That’s something like what is going on within the major payers. They’ve stopped treating journal articles and guidelines as objective and have started doing their own analyses. But do we really want to leave health care decisions just to them?

Here’s some free advice to the different players in health care:

  • Industry: Feel free to market your products and services aggressively, but don’t take things too far. If you do you’ll end up killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. No one will trust doctors, guidelines or journals anymore
  • Physicians: Remember that pharma and device companies are not stupid. If they spend money supporting your research or sending you to conferences or sponsoring continuing medical education it’s because they expect to get a return on their investment. It’s awfully hard to remain objective in such instances. Your job is to adopt the best medical practices and put the patient first –sometimes that requires expensive new treatments and sometimes old, cheap standbys are better
  • Payers: Go ahead and challenge the objectivity of journal articles and guidelines. On the other hand, don’t pretend that low cost is always synonymous with best treatment. Expect physicians to keep you in line on that.
  • Patients: You need to look out for yourself. Find a good, honest physician. Take a look at who’s sponsoring the educational materials you receive. Ask your physician about alternative treatments and do some research yourself

New Cures! Faster! Faster!

I wrote here the other day about the NIH’s new translational medicine plans. The New York Times article that brought this to wide attention didn’t go over well with director Francis Collins, who ended up trying to disabuse people of the idea that the NIH was going to set up its own drug company.

But there’s been an overwhelming negative response from the academic research community, largely driven (it seems) by worries about funding. Given the state of the budget, flat funding would be seen as a victory by NIH, so this isn’t the best environment to be talking about putting together a great new institute. The money for it will, after all, have to come out of someone else’s pile. Collins spends most of that statement linked above denying this, but it’s hard to see how there won’t be problems.

I think, though, that there’s an even more fundamental problem here. In the latest BioCentury, there’s an interesting sidelight on all this:

In comments submitted to NIH, Joseph Zaia, associate director of the Center for Biomedical Mass Spectrometry at the Boston University School of Medicine, argued against setting timetables for research results. “I do not believe that running medical science on a short sighted business time schedule will produce more cures faster. It will, however, deplete NIH resources very rapidly and possibly tear down an infrastructure of knowledge that took decades to create.” Zaia complained that the NCATS “process seems to be driven by the FasterCures movement sponsored by Michael Milken,” which he said has “been masterful in manipulating the political system for their purposes, and forcing NIH into this reorganization.”

FasterCures’ Margaret Anderson, executive director of the non-profit group that advocates for accelerating medical innovation, submitted a letter strongly endorsing NCATS, which she said “will provide a significant stimulus to moving ideas out of the lab and into the clinic.” Continue reading…

NIH and Drug Innovation

For most of the past decade, Democrats and Republicans in Congress have competed over who could pour more money into the National Institutes of Health, the largest funder of biomedical research in the world.

But the party is over. The budget cuts proposed by a leading House Republican this week included cancellation of the $1 billion that the Obama administration wanted to add to the $31 billion NIH budget.

It was part of a broad assault on science funding that was announced by appropriations chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., who also called for large cuts at the National Science Foundation, the White House Office of Science, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The purpose, according to Rogers, is “to rein in spending to help our economy grow and our businesses create jobs.”

If creating jobs is his goal, Rogers might want to take a look at a new study that appeared yesterday in the New England Journal of Medicine, which found that publicly-funded research is a far more important contributor to the creation of new drugs and vaccines than previously thought. The classical view of innovation is that government funds basic science, while industry comes up with the new and innovative products based on that science.Continue reading…