Penn Cancer Research Called “Newest Miracle Cure”

In case you’ve missed it, Philly docs have scored some big headlines recently. After nearly thirty years in development at the University of Pennsylvania, a novel cancer treatment that many are calling the most promising yet could be just weeks away from hitting the market.

Back in July, the gene therapy known as CAR T, named for the chimeric antigen receptor T-cells it utilizes, was unanimously recommended for approval by an FDA advisory committee. The recommendation is as close to a predictor of approval as a treatment can get. The long path of immunotherapy research and trials – headed by Dr. Carl June – that led to the submission for FDA approval was recently chronicled in a Time feature titled “Inside Cancer’s Newest Miracle Cure.” After years of trials with an erratic range of results, June’s major breakthrough came when he identified a biological marker unique to cancerous leukemia cells that allowed him to tweak his treatment to make it a little more targeted. Read more »

Spark Therapeutics Gene Therapy for Blindness Moves Forward With FDA

Photo via Creative Commons

There’s a greater chance now than ever before that the Food and Drug Administration‘s first two approved gene therapies will both come from Philadelphia.

This week, the FDA granted “priority review” status to Spark Therapeutics’ biologics license application for Luxterna, a groundbreaking treatment for a specific inherited retinal disease that causes blindness. The news came less than a week after the FDA’s advisory panel submitted a unanimous vote to approve what will likely become the first approved gene therapy in the United States, the University of Pennsylvania and Novartis‘ CAR-T leukemia treatment.

The concept of gene therapy, or inserting functional genes into cells with malfunctioning or inactive copies, has different implications for both treatments. While a gene therapy treatment for cancer targets immune cells that have “gone rogue,” Spark Therapeutics’ Luxterna would be the first approved gene therapy for a genetic disease, tasked with targeting a different type of inherently defective cell. Read more »

Study: Why Your Bedtime Matters Just As Much As the Number of Hours You Sleep

Sure, setting a bedtime alarm might sound like an eye-roll-worthy suggestion. But a new study performed by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital shows that doing so could have some eye-roll-tempering impacts on your life. Think: better work performance and the ability to actually stick to your morning workout schedule — for once!

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Drexel’s Virtual Butt Draws National Attention — Again

Photo courtesy Dr. Benjamin Lok

Photo courtesy Dr. Benjamin Lok

Last week, as I scrolled through my Facebook feed on my phone, I kept seeing the same photo of a seated man with his gloved hand inside a plastic dummy’s butt. It looked like a CPR class gone terribly wrong. I didn’t read the accompanying articles because, well, there were other things to do. But when I was told today that the dummy had been developed, in part, by a professor at Drexel, I got interested. A Philly connection? I had to learn more. My priorities are in order.

Turns out, the photograph is of a medical student giving a virtual patient a prostate exam. It’s part of a project called the Virtual Patients Group, which includes computer scientists, medical doctors, pharmacists, psychologists, and educators all doing research and development into improving interpersonal skills in healthcare environments. They provide tools for medical school curricula and public health exhibits—tools like Patrick, pictured in the photo, a virtual human who is half-onscreen and half-mannequin. The interpersonal interaction with Patrick (voiced and controlled by an instructor) includes taking his history. When it comes time for the physical exam, the actual mannequin—which has sensors inside—allows the student to perfect the hands-on technique. This combination of onscreen virtual patient and mannequin for hands-on application is also in use for breast exams, another intimate scenario in which medical students need practice with bedside manner and a gentle, precise touch.

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How Philly Doctors Are Saving the World

For our latest Top Doctors cover story, we went beyond the doctor’s office to the labs where Philadelphia-based researchers work to eradicate diseases that claim millions of lives each year. To read about their bold advances, scroll down or use these links to jump to a specific topic: Read more »

Penn, Mayo Clinic Launch ‘Seizure Detection Challenge’

The University of Pennsylvania, Mayo Clinic and other groups announced a program called Seizure Detection Challenge with $8,000 in prizes. The challenge is hosted by, a site where researchers can crowdsource data. And here I thought crowdsourcing was just good to figure out what movie you want to see. The challenge is an attempt to help researchers combat medication-resistant epilepsy.

Here’s how it works:

Contestants will analyze retrospective prolonged intracranial EEG data recorded from four dogs with naturally occurring epilepsy and from eight patients with medication-resistant seizures during evaluation for epilepsy surgery. The contestant or group that can identify the earliest EEG changes leading to seizures with the fewest false alarms wins.

EEG is a recording of spontaneous brain activity and is generally used to diagnose epilepsy.

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