Category Archives: Amusements

Back to the 1980s: My day at UC Berkeley

I was in the San Francisco Bay Area on business last week, and spent an interesting and enjoyable day on the University of California Berkeley campus, where I experienced two blasts from the past.

Choosing Wisely is the name of an initiative to prevent unnecessary use of medical tests and procedures. But it could also describe how I selected my 10th grade biology lab partner at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, MA in the early 1980s. At the time Mike Eisen was a smart guy who also happened to be the son of two scientists. He was a good  (and mischievous) student who knew a heck of a lot about fruit flies.

It will surprise no one from those days that Mike went on to become a prominent scientist himself with a lab at Berkeley. Speaking on behalf of my classmates, I will say we are also relieved that his mischievousness has been productively channeled into disrupting the scientific publishing industry for the public good as co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLOS) rather than for the development of nuclear hand grenades or brain erasers, as seemed plausible back then.

In any case, Mike and I had a lot of fun catching up on work and life.

Later I had the pleasure of attending a graduate class taught by Veronica Miller, who is also the Executive Director of the Forum for Collaborative HIV Research, a long term client of ours. This groundbreaking class (US FDA, Drug Development, Science and Health Policy) in the UC Berkeley School of Public Health is all about drug development and the role of the FDA, using the examples of HIV and Hepatitis C.

There were two guest speakers: Romas Geleziunas, a scientist from Gilead who talked about what it will take to cure HIV, and a patient advocate, Matt Sharp, who was diagnosed in 1988 and has been on the leading edge of activism and research ever since. It was interesting to hear him discuss the early days of ACT UP with a group of students who are too young to remember what it was all about.

It made me think back to my 11th grade oral communications class with Mrs. Z in 1984. For our culminating project we had to give a speech on a topic we considered important and that others should know about. I had been reading about AIDS that year and was very concerned about the epidemic and how it could grow to affect the whole society. The conventional wisdom (passed down from the seniors) was it was best to do a speech about Mrs. Z’s cat, since that was the main thing that interested her. I decided to ignore that advice and did my speech on AIDS anyway, and spent a lot of time prepping it. When it came time to deliver my speech, Mrs. Z was chewing gum, filing her nails and looking out the window. I got a B, one of the few grades I remember from high school. (By the way, very few of my teachers were like Mrs. Z!)

On the one hand it seems like the last 30 years have flown by pretty quickly. On the other hand, the early 80s do feel pretty remote.

By healthcare consultant David E. Williams of the Health Business Group

Paying their bills: A novel idea in Southern Europe

For years some have argued that Americans subsidize health care in the rest of the world by paying high prices for drugs. European and other governments take advantage of the fact that profits in the US market are enough to cover the cost of drug development and use their leverage to get lower prices. There are different ways to look at this issue; some think US payers get ripped off and should pay the lower prices that are available abroad.

But lately things have gotten a little more absurd, with drug makers “selling” their wares to cash-strapped European countries but then not getting paid for a year or more –if ever. Greece appears to be the worst offender, and drug companies have been reluctant to cut them off. Spain has been acting similarly as it struggles with economic calamity.

Spain owes more than 6 billion Euros to pharmaceutical companies. It has been considering new ways to cut costs but the industry has been pushing back. Now Spain has come up with a new plan: cut its drug budget but guarantee that it will pay its bills. What a novel idea!

Why are we surprised by caffeinated chewing gum?

Wrigley’s caught a lot of grief this week when the FDA decided to start investigating the effects of caffeine added to food and beverage. Apparent the new Alert Energy Caffeine Gum was too much to take. Wrigley’s says it’s pitching the gum to adults, not kids, but that’s hard to prove. There are a bunch of other new caffeinated products around including jelly beans and waffles.

Now I’m not saying the FDA is necessarily wrong to have a look at this topic. In particular chewing gum may be a concern because of the way the caffeine is absorbed and the potential to ingest a lot of pieces. It just shouldn’t come as a surprise that companies would invent these products.

The gum has about 40 mg of caffeine per stick. That’s about half of what a cup of coffee has (although there’s lot of variation) and similar to a can of coke. It’s less than what’s in Mountain Dew. There have been foods on the market for a long time with that much caffeine. Take coffee ice cream, for example. Some varieties have more than 80 mg per cup, and I don’t think the FDA is going to keep kids away from it.

Food and beverage makers aren’t that clever, and you can count on them to try a variety of ways to entice snackers beyond the standard sugar and salt. Just so the FDA doesn’t get surprised next time around, here’s my recipe for a new concoction:

  • Lollipop containing caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and marijuana

You may scoff, and yet nicotine pops have been tried in the past, alcohol and caffeine have been mixed in drinks, and marijuana legalization is proceeding at least in some states.