Avro aims to deliver drugs to children and the elderly through skin patches


Avro, a life sciences startup in Y Combinator’s current batch, is banking on a method to deliver medications to populations unable to swallow or chew — It will administer them through the skin.

Starting with allergy medications, the startup is developing skin patches that release drugs commonly used in seasonal allergies for children. The patches act much like nicotine patches, which deliver nicotine to those trying to quit smoking, but can deliver a variety of drugs, such as allergy medications, through our body’s largest organ.

Co-founder Shakir Lakhani, who suffers from both seasonal and food allergies himself, tells TechCrunch he wanted to start with allergy relief not just for personal reasons but because its an area where children are resistant to taking the medications already out there.

“There’s medications that say they taste like banana but don’t really taste like banana, ” he said. “The drugs are also relatively safe so it’s something we can work with without being too worried.”

It’s also not the first company to offer transdermal drug delivery. Miami-based pharmaceutical company ProSolus creates skin patches for delivery of various generic drugs and over-the-counter products, Fremont outfit Zosano makes specialty transdermal patches for delivery of migraine-reducing medicines and Viaskin is making a patch for kids with peanut allergies — though clinical trials have so far not gone well.

These companies could easily start offering the same types of patches as Avro, should the startup prove the market need.

One advantage is that the drugs Avro wants to use in its patches are already out there — it wouldn’t need to prove they work. They just need to prove the delivery method is safe and effective.

But the startup has a long way to go before getting these patches into the hands of consumers. First, Avro will need FDA approval to sell in the United States and Canada, where the company plans to market its patches. To get there, it will need to conduct some human clinical trials, which Lakhani says he’s in the process of looking into at the moment but believes he’ll be able to get up and running in Q3 of this year.

Lakhani also mentioned his skin patches could eventually offer other types of medicines.

“We’re looking at things like people suffering from near degenerative diseases and more intense diseases that inhibit your ability to swallow like Multiple Sclerosis,” he told TechCrunch. “I think those will be really interesting avenues for us to go down in the future and we’re just starting to initiate conversations with other companies who might be good partners for us.”

Swiss pharma company Roche is buying Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion


Roche, the global pharmaceutical company from Switzerland today announced it will scoop up Flatiron Health, a startup analyzing real-time oncology data to help cancer patients and doctors in a $1.9 billion deal.

Flatiron has also confirmed the deal in a tweet.

Two years ago, Roche led a $175 million deal in the startup at a $1.2 billion valuation. At the time of the deal, Roche agreed to buy several of Flatiron’s subscription-based software products, positioning the company for an eventual initial public offering.

Flatiron CEO and co-founder Nat Turner said back then he planned to IPO in “two to three years,” according to the New York Times. The plan was to raise yet another round of funding before doing so. However, it seems Roche has other plans.

“This is an important step in our personalised healthcare strategy for Roche, as we believe that regulatory-grade real-world evidence is a key ingredient to accelerate the development of, and access to, new cancer treatments,” Roche CEO Daniel O’Day said in a press release regarding the acquisition today. “As a leading technology company in oncology, Flatiron Health is best positioned to provide the technology and data analytics infrastructure needed not only for Roche, but for oncology research and development efforts across the entire industry.”

O’Day also mentioned the need to preserve Flatiron’s autonomy as a subsidiary. Turner also mentioned to CNBC that all employees, including the founding team, would stay on with the company.

Founding members Turner and Zach Weinberg both hailed from Google before pitching in to healthcare. In total, the two were able to raise over $313 million since Flatiron’s launch in 2012.

The $1.9 billion deal, which will be on a fully diluted basis and subject to certain conditions, is expected to close in the first half of this year, according to Flatiron.

Featured Image: Getty Images

Swiss pharma company Roche is buying Flatiron Health for $1.9 billion


Roche, the global pharmaceutical company from Switzerland today announced it will scoop up Flatiron Health, a startup analyzing real-time oncology data to help cancer patients and doctors in a $1.9 billion deal.

Flatiron has also confirmed the deal in a tweet.

Two years ago, Roche led a $175 million deal in the startup at a $1.2 billion valuation. At the time of the deal, Roche agreed to buy several of Flatiron’s subscription-based software products, positioning the company for an eventual initial public offering.

Flatiron CEO and co-founder Nat Turner said back then he planned to IPO in “two to three years,” according to the New York Times. The plan was to raise yet another round of funding before doing so. However, it seems Roche has other plans.

“This is an important step in our personalised healthcare strategy for Roche, as we believe that regulatory-grade real-world evidence is a key ingredient to accelerate the development of, and access to, new cancer treatments,” Roche CEO Daniel O’Day said in a press release regarding the acquisition today. “As a leading technology company in oncology, Flatiron Health is best positioned to provide the technology and data analytics infrastructure needed not only for Roche, but for oncology research and development efforts across the entire industry.”

O’Day also mentioned the need to preserve Flatiron’s autonomy as a subsidiary. Turner also mentioned to CNBC that all employees, including the founding team, would stay on with the company.

Founding members Turner and Zach Weinberg both hailed from Google before pitching in to healthcare. In total, the two were able to raise over $313 million since Flatiron’s launch in 2012.

The $1.9 billion deal, which will be on a fully diluted basis and subject to certain conditions, is expected to close in the first half of this year, according to Flatiron.

Featured Image: Getty Images

Human sequencing pioneer George Church wants to give you the power to sell your DNA on the blockchain


The blockchain is the buzziest thing on the internet these days and now MIT professor and godfather of the Human Genome Project George Church wants to put your genes on it.

His new startup Nebula Genomics plans to sequence your genome for under $1,000 (the current going rate of whole genome sequencing) and then add your data to the blockchain through the purchase of a “Nebula Token.”

The idea sounds outlandish but Church and his colleagues laid out in a recently released white paper that this will put the genomic power in the hands of the consumer, as opposed to companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, which own your genomic data after you take that spit tube test.

These companies sell that data in large swaths to pharmaceutical and research companies, often for millions of dollars. However, using the blockchain, consumers can choose to sell their own data directly.

Many people have yet to  sequence their data, mostly due to cost or privacy concerns but with the option to then sell that data to drug companies, possibly discover cures for rare diseases and the possibility of making a buck while doing it could sweeten the incentive to sequence.

Those buying up tokens and sequencing their DNA through Nebula don’t have to sell it for money, of course, and Nebula says they can still discover insights about their own genetics through the company app without sharing it elsewhere, if they desire.

However, all bought and sold data will be recorded on the blockchain, which is a technology allowing for the recording of all transactions using a key code known only to the person who holds the information.

Will people go for this new proposition to buy a token, sequence their own data and then sell it directly? Nebula is too new to tell right now. The tokens also aren’t likely to accumulate in value like bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies as they are only redeemable for an individual’s DNA data, which the company has said it will do in partnership with Veritas Genetics, a company Church also co-founded.

Sequencing costs are also likely to drop in the future so a Nebula Token is likely to drop in value as the price goes down. However, as Nebula co-founder Dennis Grishin told Stat News about the announcement, people “will probably be directly and indirectly buying tokens from individuals to resell them to data buyers” to try and make a profit.

A few other startups, like EncrypGen, Luna DNA, and Zenome, have mentioned building platforms where individuals can sell their DNA data as well, though none of them offer whole genome sequencing and folks would need to obtain their data from a third-party source first.

Those interested in buying up tokens and selling their DNA through Nebula will also have to wait a bit. The platform is not open to do so at the moment. However, the company says it should be ready in the next few months.

Featured Image: Rick Friedman / Contributor/Getty Images

This company will tell you which vitamins and supplements to take based on your DNA


Nutrigene believes your genes may hold the secret to what you might be missing in your diet. The company will send you tailor-made liquid vitamin supplements based on a lifestyle quiz and your DNA.

You fill out an assessment on the startup’s website, choose a recommended package such as essentials, improve performance or optimize gut health and Nutrigene will send you liquid supplements built just for you.

Founder Min Fitzgerald launched the startup out of Singularity and later accepted a Google fellowship for the idea. Nutrigene is now going through the current YC class. Her cofounder and CTO Van Duesterberg comes from a biotech and epigenetics background and holds a PhD from Stanford.

The idea sounds a bit far-fetched at first — simply import your DNA and you magically have all your nutritional needs taken care of.  However, Dawn Barry, former VP at Illumina and now president of Luna DNA, a biotech company powered by the blockchain, says it could have some scientific underpinnings. But, she cautioned, nutrigenetics is still an early science.

Amir Trabelsi, founder of genetic analysis platform Genoox, agrees. And, he pointed out, these types of companies don’t need to provide any proof.

“That doesn’t mean it’s completely wrong,” Trabelsi told TechCrunch. “but we don’t know enough to say this person should use Vitamin A, for example….There needs to be more trials and observation.”

Still, the vitamin industry is big business, pulling in more than $36 billion dollars in just the U.S. last year. With or without the genetic component, Nutrigene promises to deliver high-quality ingredients, optimized in liquid form.

Fitzgerald says the liquid component helps the supplements work ten times better in your body than powder-based pills and, she says, some people also can’t swallow pills.

Hesitant, I agreed to try it out for myself. The process was fairly easy and the lifestyle quiz only took about 10 minutes. Then, I sent in my raw data from my 23andMe account.

Though genetics are a factor in Nutrigene’s ultimate formulation, Fitzgerald told me the DNA part is pretty new and that my biometric details and goals were more indicative of how the company tailored my dosages.

However, I did apparently need more B12, according to Fitzgerald. “Hence we gave you a good dose of B12 in your elixir,” Fitgerald told me.

Does the stuff work? Tough to say. I didn’t feel any different on Nutrigene’s liquid vitamins than  I do normally. Though, full disclosure, I’ve been taking what I believe to be some pretty good pre-natal vitamins from New Chapter and a DHA supplement from Nordic Naturals for almost a year now while I’ve been building a baby in my womb. My doctor tested my nutritional levels at the beginning of my pregnancy through a blood sample, seemed pleased with my choice to take prenatals and didn’t tell me to do anything different.

Would Nutrigene’s formula be ideal for someone else? Possibly, especially if that person holds a high standard for ingredients in their supplements or has a hard time swallowing pills. However, it seems the jury is still out on the science behind vitamins tailored to your genetics and, like Trabelsi mentioned earlier, we likely need a lot more study on the matter.

For those interested in trying out Nutrigene, you can do so by ordering on the website. Package pricing varies and depends on nutritional needs but starts around $85 per month.

NIH study links cell phone radiation to cancer in male rats


New studies from the National Institutes of Health — specifically the National Toxicology Program — find that cell phone radiation is potentially linked with certain forms of cancer, but they’re far from conclusive. The results are complex and the studies have yet to be peer reviewed, but some of the findings are clearly important enough to warrant public discussion.

An early, partial version of this study teasing these effects appeared in 2016 (in fact, I wrote about it), but these are the full (draft) reports complete with data.

Both papers note that “studies published to date have not demonstrated consistently increased incidences of tumors at any site associate with exposure to cell phone RFR [radio frequency radiation] in rats or mice.” But the researchers felt that “based on the designs of the existing studies, it is difficult to definitively conclude that these negative results clearly indicate that cell phone RFR is not carcinogenic.”

In other words, no one has taken it far enough, or simulated the radio-immersion environment in which we now live, enough to draw conclusions on the cancer front. So this study takes things up a notch, with longer and stronger exposures.

The studies exposed mice and rats to both 900 MHz and 1900Mhz wavelength radio waves (each frequency being its own experiment) for about 9 hours per day, at various strengths ranging from 1 to 10 watts per kilogram. For comparison, the general limit the FCC imposes for exposure is 0.08 W/kg; the absolute maximum allowed, for the extremities of people with occupational exposures, is 20 W/kg for no longer than 6 minutes. So they were really blasting these mice.

“The levels and duration of exposure to RFR were much greater than what people experience with even the highest level of cell phone use, and exposed the rodents’ whole bodies. So, these findings should not be directly extrapolated to human cell phone usage,” explained NTP senior scientist John Bucher in a news release accompanying the papers. “We note, however, that the tumors we saw in these studies are similar to tumors previously reported in some studies of frequent cell phone users.”

The rodents were examined for various health effects after various durations, from 28 days to 2 years.

Before I state the conclusions, a note on terminology. “Equivocal evidence” is just above “no evidence” on the official scale, meaning “showing a marginal increase of neoplasms that may be test agent related.” In other words, something statistically significant but ultimately still somewhat mysterious. “Some evidence” is above that, meaning a more measurable response, followed by the also self-explanatory “clear evidence.” Note that this

At 900 MHz:

Some evidence linking RFR with malignant schwannoma in the hearts of male rats, no evidence for same in female rats. Equivocal evidence linking exposure to malignant brain glioma in females. Other tumors of various types in both sexes “may have been related to cell phone RFR exposure,” meaning the link is unclear or numbers aren’t conclusive. Less serious “nonneoplastic lesions” were more frequent in exposed males and females.

At 1900 MHz:

Equivocal evidence of carcinogenicity in lung, liver, and other organ tissues in both male and female mice.

Although I would hesitate to draw any major conclusions from these studies, it seems demonstrated that there is some link here, though the level of radiation was orders of magnitude beyond what a person would ever experience in day to day life.  As the researchers point out, however, relatively short term studies like this one do little to illuminate the potential for harm in long-term exposure, such as babies who have never not been bathed in RF radiation.

An interesting side note is that the radiation-exposed rodents of both types lived significantly longer than their control peers: 28 percent of the original control group survived the full 2 years, while about twice that amount (48-68 percent) survived in the exposed group.

Two explanations are proffered for this strange results: either the radiation somehow suppressed the “chronic progressive nephropathy” that these mice tend to suffer from as they age, or possibly reduced feed intake related to the radiation might have done it. Either way, no one is suggesting that the radiation is somehow salutary to the rodents’ constitutions.

The reports and data run to hundreds of pages, so this is only a quick look by a non-expert. You can look over the full reports and supplemental materials here, but as this is a major study you can also expect replication, analysis and criticism from all quarters soon, including a scheduled external expert review organized by the NTP in March.

Featured Image: PeopleImages/Getty Images

Watch what it actually looks like when CRISPR snips a strand of DNA


The CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique is an important concept to know about in these days of biotech advances, but it can be pretty difficult to visualize properly. Is it really like molecular scissors? Where does the DNA go? Is it a big molecule or a small one? Fortunately a group has created a 3D animation of the process that shows it at the molecular level.

You can watch the animation, created by biologists at Russia’s Skoltech Institute and the Visual Science organization, below or at the latter’s website:

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Wonder how accurate it really is? It got the thumbs-up from none other than Jennifer Doudna, one of the people who helped discover and refine CRISPR techniques:

Molecular animations are an essential way to demystify and explain complex biological systems. Through the use of stunning imagery and attention to detail, Visual Science and Skoltech have captured the dynamic mechanisms of CRISPR-Cas proteins and their use as research tools.

These animations were created as part of a “nonprofit education project,” so if you’d like to license, modify, or otherwise use them for educational purposes, go for it.

Featured Image: Visual Science and Skoltech