Local drug firm goes on ‘Dr. Oz’ with new potential patient — Charlie Sheen

Feb 15, 2016

Local drug firm goes on ‘Dr. Oz’ with new potential patient — Charlie Sheen

A screengrab of the Feb. 10 Dr. Oz Show with Charlie Sheen and CytoDyn CEO Nader Pourhassan.
A screengrab of the Feb. 10 Dr. Oz Show with Charlie Sheen and CytoDyn CEO Nader Pourhassan. Sheen wants to participate in the biotech’s drug trial.

Little pharmaceutical company CytoDyn is touting its appearance on Dr. Oz with Charlie Sheen, whom it wants to enroll in its HIV-drug clinical trial — what could go wrong? Also, Amazon taps the crowd for Internet of Things ideas, and Porch.com

Charlie Sheen may not be the perfect celebrity endorser these days: alcohol and drug abuse, outbursts that got him fired from his TV sitcom, a chase after crazy alternative therapies to keep his HIV suppressed.

And “The Dr. Oz Show,” with a history of promoting fad diets and unfounded medical claims, may not be the best platform for a drug company CEO to explain a legitimate clinical trial.

Yet there they were — the recovering but mercurial Sheen, the unctuous Oz and the chief executive of Vancouver, Wash.-based CytoDyn — on Wednesday’s episode of the doctor’s show, talking up the possibility that the fallen TV star would enroll in ongoing testing of the tiny company’s still-unapproved treatment.

“If he is accepted to the trial, he will be putting away all of his pills and he will be taking two subcutaneous injections every week,” CytoDyn CEO Nader Pourhassan told Oz.

“I’m very excited by this,” said Sheen, who had just finished recounting his Mexican misadventure with a longhair doctor whose treatment centered on the milk of arthritic goats. “This feels like the next wave of the future for treatment.”

CytoDyn’s shares, trading just above $1, got a temporary 10 percent bump that seems unimpressive in the volatile world of penny stocks.

Pourhassan said in an interview that he’s well aware of the red lines for a publicly traded drug company subject to oversight by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

“We were approached by Charlie Sheen’s people. … When they asked us to do this show we said we had to check with our regulatory teams,” he said. “Charlie is not getting paid by us,” he added.

Pourhassan said he was careful to tell viewers the company’s drug, called PRO 140, is just in the investigational stage.

The company’s subsequent news release, however, quotes him making seemingly broader claims: “Not only does PRO 140 fully suppress the HIV virus, it also relieves the toxicity issue associated with the current meds. The repeatedly proven PRO 140 antibody offers a more convenient experience with almost no side effects.”

Experienced clinical-trial watchers said the Oz show — repeatedly criticized for spreading unsubstantiated or even incorrect information — is a dubious place to be talking about an ongoing clinical trial.

“It’s a bit unusual for the CEO of a company that’s working with the FDA to go on a TV show,” said Gail Gillenwater, principal at Pharma Development Solutions in Seattle, adding, “FDA tends not to like it when a CEO is touting a drug that’s not approved.”

David Gortler, a longtime FDA pharmacology expert now with the consulting firm FormerFDA.com, said going on Dr. Oz with Sheen “is worse than weird, it sounds desperate to me.”

“People should be reminded that that show is entertainment. … I mean the guy is a used-car salesman. He’s a physician up there talking, but it’s entertainment.”

Pourhassan said his goal was boosting not the company’s stock, but enrollment in its clinical trial, which began in June and needs 300 patients.

The outside research firm conducting the PRO 140 clinical trial “said that for recruitment purposes this would be great,” said Pourhassan. “We need to start letting the patients of the world know.”

The company’s regulatory filings say PRO 140 was granted a fast-track designation by the FDA — a seal of approval for a potentially important drug. But that was a decade ago, and the company acknowledges that with its slow progress since then, “our ability to obtain accelerated approval may be lost.”

— Rami Grunbaum: rgrunbaum@seattletimes.com

Drones, babies — all in the cloud
For Amazon, the Internet of Things is literally taking flight.

Jeff Barr, the chief evangelist of Amazon.com’s cloud computing business, this past week announced the results of a hardware hacking contest in which enthusiasts used Amazon Web Services’ Internet of Things (IoT) tools. One of the two first-prize winners was a drone controlled by voice using Amazon Echo, the same cylindrical digital concierge that helped Alec Baldwin and Dan Marino plan their raucous Super Bowl party, according to Amazon’s first Super Bowl ad.

A 2-minute video showcasing the project started out with a human voice (probably that of project author Chris Synan) asking Alexa, the artificial-intelligence software animating Echo, for the meaning of the word drone, which it promptly provided. (One of Alexa’s most well-known features is regurgitating entries from Wikipedia.)

It was followed by a demonstration of a drone taking off, moving a specific distance, turning and landing, all in response to the voice of its human master.

The second first-prize winner came from Marian Mihailescu, a new parent who came up with a plan to pepper a baby and his crib with sensors to record and analyze the behavior of sleeping (or not sleeping) infants. A dashboard would enable parents “to draw intelligent observations about the baby’s sleep preferences” and even record how much nighttime each parent is spending with the baby to help fairly settle the inevitable disputes.

More than 850 people participated in the so-called “AWS IoT Mega Contest,” created by Amazon in collaboration with Hackster, an online community of Internet-connected hardware enthusiasts.

It’s a sign of how the still largely experimental sector has the potential to become a big business, one that Amazon plans to tap. And not only for developers banking on the AWS cloud-computing platform. Consumers devoted to home automation are already using Echo to control their living-room lights.

In a post on the AWS blog, Barr wrote down among his conclusions that “IoT is here now. People are building devices, sites and applications that are sophisticated and useful.”

But he also said that making them work in the real world is “a lot harder than running within the clean, abstract confines of a virtual machine.” A successful IoT application, he wrote, “must be prepared to deal with erroneous or missing data, intermittent connections, and more.”

Both first-prize winners received a Kindle Fire HD 10 tablet.

Second- and third-prize winners included a system that automatically pings authorities in case of a car crash and a system to remotely water houseplants and check on their health.

— Ángel González: agonzalez@seattletimes.com

Porch still swinging after a rough year
Porch CEO Matt Ehrlichman is quick to admit that the Seattle home-improvement startup grew too fast. Otherwise, he points out, he would not have had to lay off 93 people in October.

“I learned about the power of focus,” he said in an interview Thursday. “… I think we hired too many people and tried to build too many things.”

Porch’s big layoffs last fall came after years of accelerated growth and big-name partnerships, notably with home-improvement giant Lowe’s. The young startup was heralded in the media for its rise. Many were shocked when the news of the cuts hit.

Porch raised a $65 million funding round last January, a quick follow-on to its $27.6million round that closed in September 2014. The company took over the former zulily space in Seattle’s Sodo neighborhood and boomed to nearly 500 employees.

Porch has had a hard few months, at least as far as employees go. After the layoffs, a few key executives departed, including the company’s chief financial officer and the head of recruiting.

In an interview this month with USA Today, which awarded Ehrlichman the title of Entrepreneur of the Year 2014, the 36-year-old CEO detailed the company’s bumpy 2015 and the decision to cut back. He even considered selling the business at one point.

Porch, it seems, had tried to branch into too many things. The company’s flagship product, a website that connects homeowners to home contractors, was partly overshadowed by other ventures, including a program that used employees to facilitate the connection. That program, called Porch Home Assistant, was killed.

Ehrlichman said his goal now is to focus everyone on the central idea of the company and build at a steady pace.

“Getting the company healthy was the right thing to do,” he said.

But it still faces doubters. Cutting a significant part of its staff has led to some of the first negative press Porch has had.

Ehrlichman is sticking to his guns. He says the company, which now has about 350 employees in Sodo, is on the best track, and he’ll prove the doubters wrong.
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