The Coke Challenge… Kind of

It’s a testament to the staying power of the Pepsi Challenge —first introduced in 1975—that random pedestrians aren’t freaked out by bubbly strangers asking them to eat unlabeled food. Instead, the offer evokes a giddiness at being selected for such an important task.

So the people chosen for a recent “Coke Challenge” were understandably intrigued, even excited at the prospect of learning a bit more about their own tastes. Instead, they got a brush with death.

The “coke” in this case was, of course, cocaine—one baggie filled with pure powder, and the other containing cocaine laced with enough fentanyl to kill anyone who snorted it. Cocaine is increasingly being cut with the synthetic opioid to increase its effects, but that is driving overdose deaths. In 2017, the CDC attributed more than 7,500 deaths to cocaine laced with fentanyl or other synthetic opioids.

Fentanyl tampering can’t be detected by sight, smell, or taste, so recreational drug users take a risk every time. They’re also in more danger than regular drug users, because they typically have no tolerance to opioids.

Like the real Pepsi Challenge, though, the head-to-head comparison was a marketing tactic, created by DanceSafe, a U.S.-based non-profit that sells fentanyl test strips they say can detect the presence of the drug. The organization’s focus is on safety and education in the electronic dance community and is known for bringing adulterant screeners to raves that can check for unexpected tampering. DanceSafe is neither for or against drug use, so there’s no judgment in the campaign, just a bit of humor, evident in the tagline, “Know before you blow.”

Rather than taking a staunch anti-drug approach, the campaign focuses on reducing potential harm to people who choose to use recreational drugs. The video of the challenge was released in time for International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31.

Why it’s Hot:

Sometimes you don’t have to reinvent the wheel – you just need to re-frame it (re-spoke it? re-mount it? cars, Idk). Part of what makes this execution so relevant is it takes something everybody knows (the Pepsi Challenge) and turns it on its head. Grounding something foreign (fentanyl) in a cultural known (taste testing) lends credibility and lightheartedness to a topic that can seem daunting.

Culturally, this product also fits into a new attitude surrounding drugs. With the opioid epidemic continuing to grow and fatalities rising, gone are the days of “just say no” and “this is your brain on drugs” (cue cracking eggs) – the priority with products like DanceSafe and Naloxone is trying to reduce overdoses when people use drugs. Question: Will this new mindset surrounding drugs have any halo effect on the medical field as a whole?

Source: AdAge

Amazon to Buy Online Pharmacy PillPack, Jumping Into the Drug Business

Amazon announced Thursday that it would acquire PillPack, an online pharmacy with a nationwide reach, in a deal that could quickly make the online giant a major player in the drug business.

The deal is precisely the kind of news that the health care industry has been fearing for months, as Amazon hinted that it was interested in expanding its reach to include prescription drugs, a $560 billion business.

One barrier to entry for Amazon had been the bureaucratic hassle of securing pharmacy licenses in each state. But in acquiring PillPack, it is essentially leaping over that hurdle because the company is licensed to ship prescriptions in 50 states.

Anxiety over what Amazon might do in health care has unsettled the industry and has been seen as one factor in a wave of recently proposed mergers, including CVS’s acquisition of Aetna and a union between the health insurer Cigna and Express Scripts, the pharmacy benefit manager. Last fall, perhaps in a move to get ahead of Amazon, CVS announced it would offer next-day delivery of prescription drugs and same-day service in some big cities.

The entry of Amazon into the pharmacy business could make it easier for the big pharmacy benefit mangers to persuade the Justice Department that their contemplated mergers with insurance companies will not harm consumers by hindering competition.

PillPack, which started in 2013, is an online pharmacy that distributes its pills in easy-to-use packages designed for consumers with chronic conditions and multiple prescriptions. The company sorts prescriptions by the dose and includes a label with a picture of each pill and notes on how it should be taken. It has long been seen as a potential target for larger businesses looking to expand their reach in online drug sales, including Amazon and Walmart.

While innovative, it is not necessarily a major player in the pharmacy world, bringing in about $100 million in revenue in 2017, according to the company.

Opioids Haven’t Solved Chronic Pain. Maybe Virtual Reality Can

Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles is one of an increasing number of teaching hospitals testing the technology of how virtual reality can improve patient outcomes. Dr. Brennan Spiegel, one of the clinical researchers leading the charge is focused on pain management. Over the past few years he’s conducted clinical trials that show a pair of 3-D goggles can reduce the experience of pain — all kinds, from joint injuries to cancer — by a quarter. Now he is tackling chronic pain. More than 25 million Americans are afflicted by chronic pain. All too often, addictive painkillers are the only treatment option for those patients. And with opioids claiming the lives of nearly 100 people every day, doctors are scrambling to find non-addictive alternatives. Virtual reality might soon be one of them, if the science can show it really works.

Scientists started probing the power of VR to ease suffering more than 20 years ago. VR pioneer Hunter Hoffman, a researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, launched the first pain studies in the early 2000s, using an eight-pound helmet hooked up to a computer the size of a small refrigerator. Today, companies, such as AppliedVR, are building collections of 3-D content designed to combat pain, like a VR version of Netflix. “We’re trying to figure out how to prescribe the right experience to the right person based on their needs and their interests,” says President Josh Sackman. So far his team has designed two dozen worlds, each one falling into one of four categories: distraction, relaxation, escape, and education. Patients could choose a variety of experiences, like swimming with dolphins or flying over the fjords of Iceland in a helicopter, or just sitting on a beach and thinking about life. A voice in your ear might talk you through a breathing exercise, or ask you to contemplate the people and things that bring you joy. VR works by distracting your brain. Playing a game distracts the pain by closing down pathways that would transfer pain signals from your peripheral nervous system. The more immersed you are, the less pain you feel.

Why It’s Hot
As Americans learned last week when President Trump declared the opioid crisis an public health emergency, wouldn’t it be great if people coming out of surgeries recovering from an accident could walk out of a hospital with a set of VR goggle instead of a painkiller prescription. In his next study, Dr. Spiegel is working with a major insurance company to evaluate whether or not virtual reality can reduce the number of opioids taken by people who’ve been recently injured on the job. Hopefully, VR will continue showing a strong case that it is an effective way to reach patients. And that it becomes the one, smart alternative to a prescribed painkiller.

Hot Topic: Human Gene Editing

In April of 2015, Chinese scientists shocked (and horrified some) by revealing they had used DNA-editing techniques, one known as “germline editing,” to alter a gene in human embryos. The altered embryo was not incubated to birth, but the action did set off a large debate on ethics, etc of messing with the basic building blocks of human life.

An international conference just ended on Dec 3rd in DC, and it left open the door to gene editing in humans, a technique that alters an organism’s genetic material and what is thus passed on to future generations.

The 3-day conference included scientists from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine; the UK’s Royal Society, and the Chinese Academy of Science.

While all parties agreed that “it would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing,” they did not close the door to eventual clinical use of this “editing,” in which DNA of eggs, sperm or embryos are altered in a manner that carries forward to all of the cells of the resulting progeny. These changes would also be passed on to subsequent generations and become part of the human gene pool. The panel concluded, “As scientific knowledge advances and societal views evolve, the clinical use of germline editing should be revisited on a regular basis.”

In the short-term, new gene-editing techniques on adult  human cells may have potential to create new therapies that harness the immune system to fight disease or blunt/reverse the effects of some hereditary diseases.

Why It’s Hot

This topic brings in a  host of perspectives and debatable platforms from ethics, religion, medicine, etc. A quintessential question is: just because we can do it, should we?

Glasses Let the Legally Blind See Again

SmartSpecs-AugmentedGlassesBlindVA-ST is a startup from the University of Oxford that has developed a wearable that allow the legally blind to see. Technically a head-worn computer, the SmartSpecs use cameras and an on-board computer to generate easy-to-view frames.

The SmartSpecs device is simple to put on, sits comfortably on the eyes and is very portable. Despite its size, the device has three camera sensors, a processor and a display.

For people with difficulty in seeing colors and contrast, the glasses can convert scenes into simple, high-contrast image fields. This can help legally-blind people see object locations in relevance to other items in the scene.

The depth camera, the one which can record the distance of an object from the wearer, also functions in the dark. With the use of the Smart Specs, a legally blind person may easily navigate independently both during day and night.


The SmartSpecs run on Android and microprojectors display the processed images onto the transparent lenses. The wearable also has zoom and pause functions for viewing scenes in greater detail. Customizable to user needs, the SmartSpecs can display various amounts of detail.

Source: PSFK

Why It’s Hot:

At SXSW, I focused on wearables, and there was a lot of discussion as to the breakthrough medical uses they may have. This is a great example of that type of application — and makes you wonder what advances may be in store in the near future

Organs on Demand?

3-D printers have been used to produce toys, jewelry, even food. Scientists have already been using the printers to print tiny strips of organ tissue. While printing whole human organs is years away, the process–called bioprinting–is developing at a fast pace.

Scientists harvest human cells from biopsies or stem cells, then allow them to multiply in a petri dish. The resulting mixture or “biological ink” is fed into a 3-D printer, “which is programmed to arrange different cell types, along with other materials, into a precise three-dimensional shape.”

There are steps showing the promise: last year a 2-year-old girl in Illinois, born without a trachea, received a windpipe built with her own stem cells through a similar process.

3D Organ Printing







Click here to view the video on

Why It’s Hot

Printed organs could be used for drug or vaccine testing, freeing researchers from less accurate methods that involve animals or synthetic models. Of course, printed organs may also be used in transplants. According to the CNN article, about 18 people die in the US each day waiting in vain for a transplant due to the shortage of available organs. There are ethical arguments around the use of 3D printed organs, including that they are likely to be very expensive and out of reach of all but the wealthiest people. In the near future, at least, it is more likely the technology will allow development of small pieces of organ tissue to replace diseased or damaged tissue.