RALEIGH — When it came to the life science and health-related stories, there was no shortage of copy in 2019. From Merck’s expansion plans to the pitfalls of vaping and fake meat, it all made for big headlines — and lots of page views — on TechWire.
As part of a series of articles looking back at the top stories that defined the year, here’s a snapshot of some of the most clicked on stories related to life sciences and health:
It’s widely accepted that the flu should be avoided at all costs. But some people have their price, it seems. A few selfless souls signed up to get infected with influenza A (the infamous H1N1 virus, which has caused pandemics) as part of a study conducted by scientists from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. For a handsome sum of up to $3,300, 80 adult participants across four research facilities — including Duke University — received a nasal spray with the virus and spent at least one week at an inpatient facility to learn more about the virus.
The Duke Human Vaccine Institute (DHVI) landed multiple contracts totaling up to $400 million over seven years from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) to overhaul the flu vaccine. It’s all part of a national drive by the NIAID to develop a longer-lasting, more broadly protective vaccine to replace the seasonal flu shot. If the options on all three contracts are exercised, it would be the largest federal multi-contract award supporting one program in Duke’s history.
Looking for a minimum $60,000-salary job, but think you need a college degree to apply? Think again. Merck, a major New Jersey-based pharma company currently developing a vaccine against HPV, made headlines this year when it decided to expand its facilities here in the region, investing around $650 million and creating more than 400 jobs over the next five years in Durham and Wilson. But more to the point, it’s about what kind of jobs: manufacturing. We’re talking operations and support-function roles, with starting salaries ranging from $60,000 to $80,000 a year. No college degree required.
It wasn’t a good year for the PR of e-cigarettes. Back in May, a study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology revealed that e-cigarette flavors can damage the cells that line your blood vessels and perhaps your heart health down the line. It added to growing evidence that the flavored “e-liquids” used in vapes can hinder human cells’ ability to survive and function. The authors say these changes, some observed in the absence of nicotine, are known to play a role in heart disease.
By December, there were cases of e-cigarette, or vaping, product use associated lung injury reported in all 50 states. Across the United States, there have been 2,290 cases of vaping-related lung injury linked to vaping as of November 20, according to the CDC. A total of 47 deaths have been confirmed in 25 states and the District of Columbia.
Back in March, readers were transfixed with a study commissioned by NASA and the European Space Agency that involved women staying in bed for 60 days to help them study how weightlessness affects the human body. As a reward for participating in the study, they were paid 16,500 euros, or about $18,522. By simulating weightlessness’ effects with bed rest, scientists hope to develop methods to counteract the impacts of weightlessness so that astronauts do not have to spend most of their days on the space station exercising.
Fake meat burger made big headlines this year with two popular options: the Impossible Burger, in over 5,000 restaurants in the United States, Hong Kong, Macao, and Singapore, and the Beyond Burger, available at more than 35,000 locations, including the meat aisles in supermarkets. But nutritionist Lisa Drayer offered some words of caution. “The faux meat burgers also rank higher in sodium than the beef and turkey burgers, with the Impossible Burger containing 370 milligrams of sodium, and the Beyond Burger containing 390 milligrams. The beef patty contains only 65 to 75 milligrams of sodium, depending on the brand, and the turkey burger has 95 to 115 milligram,” she wrote. “If you’re eating these burgers simply in the name of saving calories, or sodium, or saturated fat, you might want to rethink your decision.”
In August, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer made headlines when it announced plans to invest $500 million in its Sanford operations, creating 300 jobs as the company expands its gene therapy efforts. That’s in addition to spending some $600 million to acquire Chapel Hill-based startup Bamboo Therapeutics in 2016. The following year, the company said it would expand gene therapy research and development, as well as jobs, with a $100 million package linked to the Bamboo Therapeutics deal and research done at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
In October, scientists revealed that they had developed a new gene-editing technology that could potentially correct up to 89% of genetic defects, including those that cause diseases like sickle cell anemia. The new technique is called “prime editing,” and was developed by researchers from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who published their findings Monday in the journal Nature.
In July, Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina and Amerigroup Partnership announced plans for “st least” 350 new jobs in Cary and Winston-Salem to support its new Medicaid plan called Healthy Blue.
The plan, launched in November, also means new offices in Cary and Winston-Salem. Some 200 people – clinical staff, case managers, people with nursing backgrounds – were hired in Cary. The other jobs will be primarily for customer support and will be based in the Triad. More jobs are expected to be created in 2020 as the program is rolled out.