Health Highlights: May 9, 2019

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by the editors of HealthDay:

Precision Medicine Finds Hidden Health Problems in Study

A deep dive into patients’ genetic and molecular makeup revealed a number of medical conditions that required treatment, researchers report.

They suggest that this so-called precision medicine approach could eventually help doctors diagnose and treat diseases long before they cause symptoms, The New York Times reported.

However, critics say this method will never be cost-effective and will lead to overtreatment of some patients.

In their study, the researchers collected huge amounts of genetic and molecular data on 109 volunteers and discovered undiagnosed conditions such as heart disease and diabetes in some of them.

“It turns out 53 out of 109 people learned something really, really important from doing these deep profiles,” study author Michael Snyder, chair of the genetics department at Stanford University, told The Times.

He’s co-founder of a company called Q which promises “a comprehensive picture of your health — in 75 minutes or less.”

The findings show how common diseases may arise in different people along different molecular paths, according to Ali Torkamani, director of genome informatics at Scripps Research Translational Institute. He was not involved in the study.

When doctors can record genetic activity in their patients, “then you could start thinking about more rational ways of intervening,” Torkamani told The Times.

While some scientists praised the study as a proof of principle for precision medicine, other experts have doubts about whether collection of genetic and molecular data will benefit patients.

“They carpet-bomb the body with tests and basically assume that the discovery of everything they hit is beneficial,” Dr. Henrik Vogt, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oslo, in Norway, told The Times. “But there may be lots of collateral damage they don’t consider.”

He also noted that the study authors did not compare the outcomes of their volunteers to people who were getting standard medical care.

“It’s hard to know what the results mean,” Vogt said.

Precision medicine is still in its early stages and one question is how patients might cope with constant monitoring, Karen Meagher, a bioethicist at the Mayo Clinic who was not involved in the study, told The Times.

“Some people are going to be really overwhelmed by the technology,” Meagher said.

“The approach is unlikely to work for people most in need — those who are poor, are barely hanging on, and have other things to worry about than monitoring themselves constantly,” Vogt said.


Generic Version of HIV Prevention Drug Available in U.S. By Sept. 2020

A generic version of the HIV prevention pill Truvada will be available in the United States by September 2020, a year earlier than expected, according to Gilead Sciences.

When taken daily, Truvada prevents HIV transmission. This approach is called HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

“Gilead reached an agreement with Teva Pharmaceuticals in 2014 to allow the early launch of a generic version of Truvada into the market in 2020, a year earlier than required,” Douglas Brooks, Gilead’s executive director for community engagement, wrote in an email shared with NBC News by the advocacy group PrEP4All.

A month’s supply of generic Truvada is available in countries around the world for as little as $70, but the drug costs $1,600 to $2,000 in the United States.

Activists launched a campaign to convince Gilead to make the generic drug more widely available to combat the global HIV epidemic, NBC News reported.


FDA Approves New Drug for Rare Neuromuscular Disease

A new drug to treat children with a rare neuromuscular disease has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but it’s not clear if it will be any cheaper than an existing drug.

The disease, called Lambert-Eaton myasthenic syndrome (LEMS), weakens and fatigues muscles, and causes agonizing pain.

There is an existing drug, called Firdapse, but it costs $375,000. The new drug is called Ruzurgi and the FDA approved if for treatment of children with LEMS, ages 6 to 17, CNN reported.

While approved for children, use of the drug in adults with LEMS is possible, according to Dr. Vincent Rajkumar, a hematologist oncologist with the Mayo Clinic.

Ruzurgi is made by a company called Jacobus Pharmaceutical Co., which has not announced a price for the drug. Owner Laura Jacobus said the company wants to make sure the drug is affordable for patients, CNN reported.


Kentucky Teen Who Refused Chickenpox Vaccination Now Has Chickenpox

A Kentucky teen who was banned from school for refusing vaccination against chickenpox has come down with the disease, his lawyer says.

Jerome Kunkel, 18, developed chickenpox symptoms last week and may recover by next week, the lawyer told NBC News.

Kunkel is a student at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart Assumption Academy. A chickenpox outbreak at the school in March led state health officials to order unvaccinated students to stay away from school. Kunkel challenged the ban in court but was unsuccessful.

Kentucky Health Department spokesman Doug Hogan declined comment Wednesday, NBC News reported.

Kunkel and his family do not regret their decision against vaccination, according to family attorney Christopher Wiest.


Prices Will Soon be Included in TV Drug Ads

In response to public demands for action to control drug costs, the top U.S. health official says TV ads for prescription drugs will soon have to include prices.

Regulations requiring drug companies to disclose list prices of medications costing more than $35 for a month’s supply have been finalized, Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.

The prices are expected to appear in text toward the end of TV commercials, when potential side effects are being listed. The new policy, which could take effect as early as this summer, covers all brand name drugs covered by Medicare and Medicaid, which is nearly all medications.

The drug industry opposes the move, saying companies prefer to list prices on their websites, the AP reported.

“What I say to the companies is if you think the cost of your drug will scare people from buying your drugs, then lower your prices,” Azar said. “Transparency for American patients is here.”

Azar also said the Trump administration is willing to consider permitting Americans to import lower-priced prescription drugs from other countries if it can be shown to be safe and to actually help patients save money, the AP reported.

The latest government figures show that the prices of the 10 most widely advertised drugs range from $488 to $16,938 per month or for a usual course of therapy.

Policies such as disclosing prices won’t make drug companies lower their prices, say Democrats, who want Medicare to negotiate on behalf of patients, the AP reported.