Sep 7, 2017

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

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Putting a price on new cancer drugs

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new immunotherapy for treating a type of leukemia that affects children and young adults. The manufacturer, Novartis, expects it will cost about $475,000 for the one-time personalized treatment in which a patient's immune cells are removed, modified so they attack cancer cells, and then infused back into the body. Other companies are working on similar therapies for other cancers — with tentative success and serious setbacks.

As these new drugs begin to enter the market, we asked five experts: How should their value be determined? Their answers:

Axios stories to spark your brain
  • Found: Another black hole in the Milky Way may have been discovered, writes astrophysicist Paul Sutter.
  • Clock's ticking: Erica Pandey reports on how pregnancy affects the immune system. "With the model 'immune clock' on hand, doctors may be able to predict whether a woman will deliver preterm by observing if that clock is ticking too slow or too fast."
  • Hurricane history: Chris Canipe captures the scope and intensity of the Atlantic's storms over the past 30 years in this incredible interactive visual.
The cancer scientists who just won the prestigious Lasker

Douglas Lowy and John Schiller, scientists from the National Cancer Institute, will be presented the prestigious Lasker Award on Sept. 15 for their research that led to the development of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccines. They're hopeful their approach could be used for more vaccines against other viral infections that cause cancer.

Schiller and Lowy, who is acting NCI director, talked to Axios about the vaccine's use in the U.S. and cancer prevention efforts.

The highlights:

  • What's next: They're looking at whether one dose of the vaccine can provide long-term protection from HPV. Lowy: "In terms of trying to improve the vaccine, the approach is really to try to see if it can be delivered in a more cost-effective manner that can be logistically simpler." A single dose regimen could make a big difference in the developing world, where the majority of cervical cancer cases occur.
  • Cancer's challenge, per Schiller: "It's a constant moving target, and each cancer can almost be considered its own, separate little organism in its own, separate little species."
  • On the award recognizing an advance in preventing cancer: "I hope that it will lead to more emphasis in the areas of cancer prevention, cancer screening, and also trying to understand better what causes cancer, because in those different areas, making progress means that we can [prevent] the development of cancer before it even starts," says Lowy.

Read more here.

Wildfires in the West

Smoke from over a hundred wildfires burning across the West is smothering the country, Axios' Erin Ross writes. Thousands of people have been evacuated and homes burned. Firefighters are dousing flames, bulldozing, and doing backburning operations to protect homes and lives. Officials say resources to fight the fires are stretched thin.

In the map above, created by Axios Visuals editor Lazaro Gamio, the dots are infrared anomalies, most caused by fires, as seen from space. The dots disappear when they're obscured by smoke or clouds, and sometimes the satellite picks up things that aren't fires. The brighter the dot, the more likely it is to be a wildfire.

The numbers:

  • 140 fires are burning almost 2 million acres.
  • As of Thursday morning, there are 213 helicopters, 1,833 fire engines, and over 26,000 people actively fighting fires.
  • The estimated firefighting cost to date is over $271 million in Oregon and Washington alone.
  • In British Columbia, Canada, over 3 million acres have burned, making it their worst year of fires in history.

Bonus: Erin breaks it down in our first Axios Sourced video.

What we're reading elsewhere
  • Big questions: Last month, researchers reported using gene editing to fix a mutation in human embryos. Now, some are doubting whether the feat was actually achieved, per Ewen Callaway at Nature. A story to be continued, for sure.
  • Future of food: NatGeo's Frank Viviano looks at food and ag innovation in the Netherlands' "Food Valley."
  • Crying to survive: Natalie Angier's latest in the NYT on how mammals react to crying. "The sound of an infant's cry arouses a far quicker and stronger response in action-oriented parts of the adult brain than do similarly loud or emotionally laden noises, like a dog barking or a neighbor weeping."
  • Another form of communication: The Atlantic's Ed Yong writes about a study that found a parasitic plant known as dodder can act as a wire that transmits alarm signals (for example, about a caterpillar infestation) between host plants. (Personal note: I studied dodder as a graduate student and am fascinated by them. If you want to talk parasites, email me.)
Something wondrous

Jupiter is home to the solar system's most powerful auroras but their source is a mystery. On Earth, auroras are created when the solar wind blows over the planet's magnetic fields and drives electrons into oxygen and nitrogen in the atmosphere. Those electrons then emit photons that the luckiest of us get to see as the vibrant colors of the Northern and Southern Lights.

On Jupiter, it's different. The rotation of the planet in its own magnetic field, not the solar wind, can generate 400,000 volts of charge as it pushes electrons toward the atmosphere. But unlike on Earth, that doesn't create Jupiter's brightest auroras, scientists reported in Nature yesterday.

"We assumed the most intense auroras were created by these strong potentials that we expected to find. We've found them but they don't seem to be as important as we thought. Something else is stepping in," study author Barry Mauk from Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory told Axios.

Best guess: As charged electrons in plasma gases above the planet's atmosphere interact with plasma waves, they gain or lose energy. Over time, Mauk says, in a random fashion, electrons at different energies may hit the atmosphere and cause auroras.

What's next: The orbit of NASA's spacecraft Juno will soon pass closer to the aurora over Jupiter's northern pole. Mauk hopes that will tell them more about the processes at play.

Alison Snyder