Sunday, January 27, 2008

Merck and Schering Plough, scapegoats

By now the whole world has heard the story of the Vytorin trial, Enhance, which showed that the drug, a combination of Zocor and Zetia, was a failure. What this trial did--or should have done--is lay to rest the spurious cholesterol hypothesis for once and for all. But here's where I think the drug companies are getting an inappropriate amount of undeserved flack.

What's going on is that a cherished hypothesis is heading for the trash heap, and people are looking around for someone to blame.

So now we have NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo investigating whether the two pharma companies that were collaborating on the drug, Merck and Schering-Plough deliberately buried the results of the Enhance trial.

Who knows whether or not they did this. But as damning as it sounds, the whole drama around the results is just a distraction. The real news here is that the trial failed, as did the Torcetrapib trial before it, which had the same results. And as long as we're assigning blame, why don't we consider some of the other, more obvious culprits? Maybe Mr. Cuomo should look in his own backyard.

For starters, there's the FDA. This government agency was so enamored of the idea that LDL is bad, it decided to approve any drug that lowered it, without requiring that the drugmaker show that the pill had any effect on heart disease. Then there's NHBLI, which has doggedly pushed the cholesterol theory. And what about university and government backed medical researchers? Shouldn't one of them have taken note of the mounting evidence against the hypothesis and done something about it?

And why, I might ask, is no blame placed at the feet of doctors--the men and women who routinely prescribe such treatments at Zetia and Vytorin and Tocetrapib without considering their worth. As any citizen knows, it's impossible to get through an appointment with one of these folks--no matter his or her specialty--without a lecture about the dangers of high cholesterol and saturated fat.

With all this in mind, I think we should cut these companies a little slack. Clearly, they were sincere in their belief that the drug would work. Otherwise, why would they conduct the trial? So instead of shooting the messenger, I suggest everyone stop and look at the message. Because when it comes down to it, we're all going to be looking to these evil, terrible drug companies for the next panacea.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The strangest job ad I've ever seen on Craigslist

As a writer, I'm aware we can be called upon to do some strange jobs. But today's ad on Craigslist takes the cake. The listing reads, in part: "Writer needed to work as Private Investigator," with the following job description: "Private investigations firm is seeking a writer willing to work as a private investigator. The concept behind this position is to provide the writer with the foundation to create a magazine or newspaper column dedicated to investigating infidelity, fraud, and computer crimes." Whaa??? But then it really gets weird.

In the job description, there are several qualities listed that the "writer should possess." They are:
• The ability to perform the job of private investigator
• The ability to perform as a team player
• The ability to retain critical investigative procedures
• The ability to elicit behavior from the investigative subjects
• The ability to ask pertinent questions of the investigative subjects
• The ability to act
• The ability to perform the above tasks while wearing a bodywire or a hidden camera
• The ability to meet a deadline
• The ability to search for and gather information
• The ability to respond to reader inquiries and situations with varying degrees of intelligent humor, wit, sarcasm, and common sense.
• A passion for helping those who are victims

Varying degrees of intelligent humor, wit, and saracasm, eh? Could this be the kind of intelligence that sniffs out phony job listings? Or, is this for real and they're just hoping for some kind of free publicity? Pretty likely, especially considering the salary for the position will "be negotiated upon experience and media contacts."

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Silicon Wadi

Bluetooth, firewalls and VoIP. According to this video, all three of these technologies were developed in Israel. Who knew?

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The great Vytorin saga ... simplified

The mad scramble to explain the results of the recent Vytorin/Zetia study has started. In essence, the study, known as ENHANCE, was a failure, in spite of the fact that the drug massively lowered LDL cholesterol. In Forbes today, Matthew Herper tries to explain this mess. But it isn't really a mess. It's all so simple. High cholesterol, or LDL, does not, I repeat NOT, cause heart disease. So, lowering LDL doesn't do anything to fix the problem. Why isn't anyone just coming out and saying this? Hmm. Hard to say.

Dr. Steven Nissen, with the powerful Cleveland Clinic has all but done so. But the rest of the cardiological world, not to mention the drug companies, are instead bending themselves into various pretzel shapes in an attempt to explain the results away. There must still be a danger there, and surely we've got to ensure that people keep meeting their "cholesterol goals" at all costs, they are saying.

But in the end, Herper's article sums up where the real peril lies.

Summarizing a Wall Street analyst's notes, he writes, "it is the growth of the cholesterol franchise that is in danger."

Bye bye Meg, we hardly knew ye

What is there to say? Meg Whitman ran eBay for a decade, lending a certain glamour and cache to the online auction company. Okay, maybe glamour is an overstatement. But I'll bet many a young female tech hopeful out there saw Meg's face on the cover of Fortune and thought, "if she can do it, so can I." The dirty little secret of Silicon Valley is that there are far too few Whitmans and Fiorinas out there, and far too many doughy men in suits. And Meg made some smart calls while at eBay, wouldn't you say? Paypal. Good move. Skype. A definite maybe. It could pan out some day, if they figure out how to get people to pay for it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Where to find what to do

Not long ago, I was driving around San Francisco when my husband pointed to a large billboard advertising a show THAT NIGHT of The Pogues. Back in my misspent youth, I was a huge fan of the band. I couldn't believe they were still together, much less playing The Fillmore. But of course by the time we saw the billboard, it was too late to change our plans and go to the show. And here's where event planning sites like Zvents, Upcoming, and Eventful can really come in handy. I'd heard of Upcoming, but something about the name just never stuck with me. (And it looks like they were acquired at some point by Yahoo, which feels a little sad somehow.)

I'm not the type to bookmark, so as soon as I forgot the name, I stopped using it. But Zvents has a certain ring to it, don't you agree? A friend of mine at the gym told me about it--her husband works there--and I was pleasantly surprised by its interface. What's even cooler is that you can search events not just by type, but also by city. It has the entire Bay Area broken down. This week in Mountain View, for example, you can take a class in "Snowshoeing basics," and in Sausalito, they're showing a double feature of "The Birds" and the original "Willie Wonka." Hang around Sausalito long enough, and you can catch the Marin County Secondary School Science Fair on February 11. There, you'll see the Silicon Valley geniuses of the future in action.

Intelligent design?

This video is a strong argument in favor of evolution. How could any caring, thoughtful creator make us so vulnerable to manipulation? Or maybe He just has a twisted sense of humor.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Will big pharma's loss be biotech's gain?

Cholesterol drugs are falling on their own sword. Pfizer, Merck and Schering Plough had great hopes for such patent extenders as Torcetrapib and Zetia, but they turned out to be less than useless. As BusinessWeek reports this week, even statins--the $28 billion a year behemoth drug--aren't nearly as miraculous as they've been made out to be, and are waaay overprescribed.

All of this madness spells opportunity for a handful of small, scrappy biotech firms have been working on therapies for heart disease that have nothing to do with cholesterol lowering. A few of them, after the jump.

Cholesterol isn't the key to treating heart disease, and a few smart scientists have known this for over a decade. They suggest heart attacks and strokes are the result of inflammation of the arteries, brought on by stressors of various types. So, in their view, arteries aren't comparable metal pipes that get all gunked up with cholesterol, but living entities. Makes a whole lot more sense when you think about it.

With the advent of high speed gene sorting technology, some small firms have been able to pinpoint some of the ways that inflammation starts. Leading the pack are AtheroGenics of Alpharetta, Ga. which has an anti-inflammatory heart disease drug in phase three clinical trials, and deCODE Genetics of Rekyavik, Iceland, which is in the late second stage of clinical trials for its drug, also aimed at reducing inflammation in the arteries.

Celera Diagnostics is also in this cutting edge field. This company has identified genetic biomarkers that can predict not only a person's susceptibility to heart disease, but also their ability to respond to existing treatments, such as statins. Read my article about them here.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Steve Jobs rebuffs SF blogger

Apple fans love Steve Jobs, but as Forbes' Brian Caulfield reports today, Jobs "can't love them back, at least not the way they want." What a great line. (Okay, full disclosure, I know Brian--he was my editor at Red Herring and is also one of my favorite tech biz writers.)

According to the article, Jobs was so swamped with fans at the MacWorld Expo in San Francisco this week that a few got dissed, not least Violet Blue, a Mac fan who writes the popular blog Tiny Nibbles, and is a well known San Francisco blogger, vlogger and author. She's also a sex advice columnist for the Chron. Hardly a nobody.

Even worse, the group surrounding Jobs "sniggered" when he turned his back to her, according to the article. Ouch! I'll tell you what I think happened: a beautiful woman wants to take a pic with Jobs, and he and his friends are so thrilled that their geekiness is now worthy of such attention, they turn into blithering idiots. Which in my book makes them unworthy.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Could the cholesterol house of cards be falling?

Today's New York Times reports that in light of recent trials of Zetia and Vytorin, maybe lowering cholesterol isn't the way to prevent heart disease. This is huge. And it's about #$!%ing time!

As I mentioned in a previous post, these trials shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone who has reviewed the research and trial data on heart disease. For my master's thesis on genomics at Columbia, I found out very quickly that cholesterol isn't the cause of heart disease. If anything, it's what's known as a "risk factor." That is, for some people, high cholesterol could mean that they're more likely to develop heart disease. But even on that count, it's a highly unreliable measure. Or, to put it more bluntly, the whole cholesterol theory which has dominated cardiology for the past four decades, is a house of cards. And who am I? A scientist? A cardiologist? Hardly! I'm a journalist, for God's sake. How hard can this be to figure out?

Could the world finally be waking up to this? If so, the implications are massive. No more low-fat diets. No more enforced statin therapy for anyone with cholesterol over 160. And maybe, just maybe, the way will be cleared for a new set of theories, so that the western world's number one killer can finally be stopped. And to that, I say hallelujah.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

My Prof, My Gang Leader

I just heard from an old Columbia J School classmate of mine that our guest lecturer, Sudhir Venkatesh got slammed by some guy at Gawker for his participatory gang activity in the 90s. Apparently, he crossed the line on numerous occasions while following crack king J.T. around the Chicago projects, even going so far as to get a "boot in" during a gang beating. I got to know Prof. V fairly well during his stint as our "guest lecturer" in the MA program's Evidence and Inference class. And here's what I think of all this, after the jump.

Sudhir V., who has his very own chapter in Freakonomics, is one of the biggest hotshots in the hotshot field within sociology known as "ethnography," which involves following around the urban poor in an attempt to get rid of liberal guilt ... er, I mean, in order to learn about their needs and challenges.

Here at UC Berkeley, we've got Loic Wacquant, who also went to Chicago's Southside, and tried to turn his skinny, white French self into a boxer. By immersing themselves in the lives of these people, they believe they get a unique view of otherwise hidden worlds. Do they lose "objectivity"? Yep. Good thing no other academics or journalists ever do that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Second Life slaps down TV

A new Deloitte survey found that 69 percent of Americans consider their computer more entertaining than their TV, reports my friend Jon Greer in his new BNET column, "Catching Flack." But here's a little detail I found even more amazing, after the jump...

This tidbit from the Deloitte study should give everyone pause: Second Life is a better place to do product placement than anywhere else online, at least as far as 19 percent of GenXers are concerned. That's my generation for ya. We love escape, and we love buying stuff. What better way to mix them than to stick a can of Pepsi in the hand of some hot young avatar while mixing it up at the Angry Ant? Still, that's a big number. Should make every big advertiser think about getting into virtuality, wouldn't you say?

Zetia doesn't work

You've seen the ads. I've seen the ads. Zetia acts in that "special" way to rid your body of cholesterol. But as the New York Times reported yesterday, the drug is worse than useless. How can this be? According to the ads, this drug is miraculous. It literally digs the cholesterol out of your food before it can do you any damage. The ad was so popular and clever, it won a best brand of year award on the Pharma Marketing Blog.

There's only one small problem with Zetia. It doesn't do a damn thing. Oh, wait, it does one thing--it lowers cholesterol. By 15 to 20 percent in most patients. But it has absolutely zero effect on heart disease and stroke prevention.

But wait, you say. How can it be that a drug lowers cholesterol but doesn't prevent heart disease? What about statins? They lower cholesterol and they also help prevent heart attacks and strokes. What gives?

And the answer is ... you read it here, folks. High cholesterol does not cause heart disease. Statins work because they have other properties unrelated to cholesterol. It's painful but true. Someone somewhere got it wrong, and for some odd reason, no amount of proof--not even this latest Zetia finding--seems to undo it. Go figure. Or go check out this radical site, and have your mind blown.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Michael J. Fox's Crusade

I just found out that there hasn't been a single new treatment for Parkinson's Disease in 40 years. Veteran actor Michael J. Fox, founder of a foundation to support Parkinson's research appeared on Forbes's video network to talk about the work his foundation is doing to change all that. View it here.

I admit it, part of the reason I tuned in was to check and see if there was any validity to Rush Limbaugh's assertion that Fox was "exaggerating the effects of the disease" for political effect when he made a commercial in favor of Missouri Dem. Senator Claire McCaskill. And the answer is ... who knows? Who cares? Michael is eloquent despite his tremors and makes a powerful argument in favor of finding ways to smooth the way for research into new therapies and diagnostics.

So, here's my question: what was going on 40 years ago that is not going on today? Why was it possible to bring the current treatment, L-Dopa on to the market in the 1960s, while nowadays, despite the explosion of biopharma and a 21st century level of medical sophistication, we've got nothing?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

NYT's Story a Story Machine. Coincidence?

I can't help noticing how often the "most popular" list on the New York Times site includes articles by recent Columbia J School grad Louise Story. Today, for example, I noticed that her piece on Burt's Bees was number five, despite the fact it appeared last Sunday. Great story, too, as are so many she finds on the advertising beat. In fact, Story writes one killer story after another, starting with her Sept. 2005 front pager on Ivy League women who want to be stay-at-home moms and going up to the present.

Could her name have something to do with it?

Turns out there's a term for this kind of thing, "nominative determinism," coined by the "Feedback" column in the New Scientist. They've also been called "aptonyms." Turns out there are several Dr. Doctors out there, not to mention all these appropriate doctor names.

Other examples include: Larry Speakes, a White House spokesman for several presidents, most notably President Reagan, and elite runner DeeDee Trotter. There are a whole lot of others on the Wikipedia entry on the topic, which also lists the many academic studies into the question, at least one of which suggests that people will move to a city or town that matches their name. So, for example, people named Louis live in disproportionate numbers in St. Louis.

I can attest that there is something to all this. I have chosen to live most of my adult life in California, a Sunshiney state if you ever saw one. Not only that, but my last name means (roughly translated) "from the west." Though I did marry into it, it's still a bit eerie, don't you think?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Greentech Media is da bomb

I'm working on a story that involves clean tech--you know, that new hot thing that's going to help the world get a little cooler--and I've found an invaluable aid. Greentech Media, started by my former Red Herring colleague Jennifer Kho, is a treasure trove of news and data about anything and everything related to solar, wind, biomass and just about every other green idea out there. I'm so proud of Jenn, who was a mere mortal reporter like the rest of us and made the leap to publisher simply on the basis of her deep knowledge and understanding of this vast and growing field.

I'm also discovering just how useful this site is. It's easy to navigate. My first search yielded valuable information. (A miracle.) Even the advertising was helpful, giving a sense of which investors and law firms are getting on the clean tech bandwagon. Good going, Jenn!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Facebook will host Israel Web Tour

Just got an email from the folks at Israel Web Tour, which I blogged about earlier this month. Looks like the folks at Facebook will be hosting some special sessions at their Palo Alto digs during the event, which brings promising Israeli Web 2.0 startups to Silicon Valley to be sniffed over by VCs and other industry heavies.

The session will include time with Facebook's Platform team so they can get "under the hood" and learn how they might use Facebook's API to their own business advantage, according to a short press release on the Israel Web Tour page. Will they invite Robert Scoble to join them, do you think?

Monday, January 7, 2008

Hedge funds taking over Silicon Valley startups?

Not long ago, I wrote a piece about hedge funds grabbing a piece of the pie that used to belong almost solely to venture capitalists. I used as my key example the now embattled Pay by Touch, which makes digital signature equipment to be used at grocery store checkouts.

Now, it looks as if the hedge funds that built Pay by Touch may be taking it down. In 2005, the company was backed to the tune of $130 million by Och Ziff Capital Management, Farallon Capital Management (a San Francisco fund), and Plainfield Asset Management. But this wasn't anything like getting financed by venture capitalists. It was in the form of a senior secured note--in other words, a loan. The remainder of that round, $55 million, was also in the form of debt instruments, known as convertible promissory notes.

This means, in essence, that's it not hard for hedge funds to take complete control of a company when it starts to stumble. For Pay By Touch, this may not be such a bad thing, but plenty of other tech start-ups have gone to hedge funds for their backing. Could this be the beginning of a crisis?

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Doing the ChaCha

There's been a certain amount of buzz around "human-powered search engine" ChaCha's latest text search service for mobile phones. Not only is it unique (well, sort of), but it will be the official text messaging service for this year's Sundance Film Festival.

I met ChaCha founder Scott Jones last spring. In fact, he posted the article I wrote about his company on his own blog. He's had a slew of coverage since then. The odd thing about all this is that my article, like so many others, points out that ChaCha is hardly the "magic" search engine he promises it to be. I found it nearly impossible to use, with search after search turning up results that were less than helpful, and many involving unforgivable wait times.

So, why would Bob Redford (or whoever runs Sundance these days) put his trust in this wonky, unpopular search engine? I can think of only one answer: Scott himself. The man's a dynamo of the pre-bubble variety. As I can attest, he has what author John D. Gartner calls the "Hypomanic Edge" that makes even the most hardened reporter start to dance (or should I say cha cha?) to his beat. Kinda makes you wonder what he's doing running a company out of a shopping mall in Indiana.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Middle Schoolers Teach us about MySpace

I've had some trouble understanding the Facebook/MySpace phenomenon. Call me an old fogie. Or, even worse, call me a technophobe. But I just don't get why I would want to waste valuable time updating my wall or putting out a status update to a bunch of strangers.

Yet, I'm beginning to learn about it from the middle school girls who flock to my local library in the mid-afternoon each weekday, fluttering around one another like noisy pigeons. Most are Spanish speaking, and it's obvious that they don't have computers at home. So, they line up, sometimes waiting as long as an hour to get onto the free PCs and spend a few precious minutes on their page. The librarians look defeated. None of the girls shows the slightest interest in the library's other offerings--those papery items that sit, old media style, on the metal shelves, gathering dust.

But I see something else. During their allotted fifteen minutes of online time, these young women are no longer stuck in this static, suffocating farm town. They are reaching out, if only to flirt with some cute guy halfway across the world whom they will never meet. And in doing so, they are getting from the Internet the one thing us old fogies probably never will. A moment of transcendence.

The huge, important company you've maybe never heard of

My good friend and former editor Brian Caulfield wrote a kickass cover story for this week's issue of Forbes. His subject: graphics chipmaker Nvidia.

I admit it. I'd never heard of the company. I'm no gamer, and so have never had the urge to cram extra graphics chips into my computer. But now I am enlightened. I know, for example, that without their "brawny" microchips, we'd have "no high-definition Web video, no visual kick from battling aliens in the lush digital forests of the Crysis game."

Turns out this same technology is being used by scientists to understand the neurological structure of the brain, and could have a number of other real life applications.

As the article shows, Nvidia is a robust company that has been grabbing market share from its chief rival, ATI. What amazed me is the company's 46 percent gross margins. So, it's not just gamers that know its name--Wall Street has rewarded Nvidia with 34 percent rise in stock price over the past year. Nice.

Gearing up for Israel Web Tour

I missed this last year because I was too busy chasing Eric Schmidt for Red Herring. But this February 4-7 I'll be going to Yahoo's San Francisco Brickhouse to check this thing out. The Israel Web Tour showcases the hottest web startups coming out of Israel. The site also announces that one of its 2006 winners, Yedda was just acquired by AOL. Go blue star!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Daily Show Crossing Picket Line?

No real surprise that Leno, Letterman and Conan are back on the air despite a strike by the Writers Guild of America. But starting January 7, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report will be back on Comedy Central after a two month hiatus. Really? What do their writers think of that? And what about their left-leaning audience?

Back in November when the strike first started, Daily Show writer Jason Rothman appeared on YouTube with a rather unfunny bit explaining that the writers were demanding compensation for digital use of their work. The piece took aim at Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, who was suing YouTube to the tune of $1 billion for unauthorized use of clips, while at the same time attempting to claim that digital work is valueless.

But anyhow, strikes are fun! Look, Tenacious D will play for you.