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Cranky commentary by Cynthia Robbins-Roth

To continue the spirit of Halloween, we start off our monthly roundup of BioWhirled fun with this important news flash from my favorite journal, The Funny Times ...

Zombies in News of the Weird ... and True
Chuck Shepard's "News of the Weird" alerted us to innovative researchers associated with the Department of Mathematics and Faculty of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, Canada. (OK, so the BBC Science reporter also covered this story ...)

The researchers set up mathematical models to study the spread of new infectious diseases in humans, using the biology of a known lethal, rapidly spreading infection — zombies.

Zombies, the team points out, can turn the living into more zombies with a single bite, and they are really hard to stop permanently. Unless you decapitate them, those pesky zombies keep flaring back up spreading more infection.

In other words, for a basic model considering Susceptible (S), Zombie (Z), and Removed (R):
S' = Π – βSZ – δS
Z' = βSZ + ζR – αSZ
R' = δS + αSZ – ζR

There is a major scientific discussion regarding whether the team erred by basing the model on biological assumptions from classic zombie movies in which zombies are shambling slow-moving monsters. The more recent films portray zombies as fast-paced go-getters.

The paper concludes that humanity's only hope of surviving such an infection is to "hit them hard and hit them often." The BBC reports that Professor Neil Ferguson, a chief government advisor on controlling swine flu spread, feels the zombie model does "have parallels with some infectious diseases." He mentioned certain fungal and viral infections that are tough to kill, or lie dormant before recurring and re-infecting.

Want to see the the full details for yourself? Check out "Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection," by Philip Munz, Ioan Hudea, Joe Imad and Robert J, Smith?. In Infectious Disease Modelling Research Progress, eds. J.M. Tchuenche and C. Chiyaka, Nova Science Publishers Inc. pp. 133-150, 2009.

More BioCrime ...
While not as scary as Bernie Madoff, biotech's bad boys are still grabbing attention and frightening potential investors.

Omeros IPO Prospectus Details 'Mistakes'
Luke Timmerman reported in Xconomy that the newly IPOed firm is being accused by its former CFO of submitting false time sheets for work funded by the National Institutes of Health. Richard Klein is suing the company for improper termination one month after he reported to the audit committee that the CEO and the vice president of R&D were instructing staff to tamper with grant-related time sheets.

The company denied this, then filed court documents revealing Omeros had "alerted the NIH of internal mistakes." Omeros said NIH accepted the firm's conclusion that there was no overbilling. And of course all of this ended up in the IPO prospectus. (See BioWorld Today, Oct. 9, 2009.)

Former Intermune CEO Convicted of Wire Fraud
And in California last month, the former CEO of Intermune Inc. was convicted in federal court of wire fraud "for the creation and dissemination of false and misleading information about the efficacy of InterMune's drug Actimmune (Interferon gamma-1b) as a treatment for idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis," according to the U.S. Department of Justice. A seven-week jury trial led to this verdict. Scott Harkonen is looking at a maximum potential sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

FBI agent Stephanie Douglas was pretty clear about what the evidence showed in court: "Mr. Harkonen lied to the public about the results of a clinical trial and offered false hope to people stricken with a deadly disease."

Three Years for Lying
In a stunning show of imaginative fabrication that tops Harkonen's, Biopure Corp.'s former senior vice president of regulatory affairs, Howard Richman, got caught lying to a federal judge and was sent to jail for three years for his efforts. It seems Richman created an alternate universe by claiming he had terminal colon cancer — complete with forged letters and faked phone calls to attorneys — in an attempt to avoid an SEC lawsuit.

That lawsuit, filed in September 2005, claimed Richman, along with former CEO Thomas Moore and General Counsel Jane Kober, helped lie to investors about the FDA approval prospects for Biopure's blood substitute Hemopure.

Firings Abound at Sequenom
And finally, Sequenom Inc.'s board announced in late September that it is firing CEO Harry Stylli and Senior VP Elizabeth Dragon, while CFO Paul Hawran and Steven Owings, the vice president for commercial development of prenatal diagnostic tests, resigned. Three unnamed employees also were fired. Sequenom stock plunged 48 percent to $3.20 per share. (See BioWorld Today, Sept. 30, 2009.)

This action was based on a board special committee concluding that company management "failed to put in place adequate protocols and controls for the conduct of studies" and alleged that "certain of the company's employees also failed to provide adequate supervision," according to a press release.

This all started with clinical testing for a prenatal test for Down syndrome generating "inadequately substantiated claims, inconsistencies and errors" that ended up in press releases and public statements. These problems led to 40-plus witnesses being interviewed and more than 300,000 documents and emails being scrutinized — massive legal bill to come.

Sequenom has since reported meeting with the SEC, the US Attorney's office, NASDAQ and the FBI. Investors have filed several class action suits over the mess.

Look guys, investors already know that they can't do direct due diligence on the sector's science without their very own Ph.D./M.D. (and even those degrees don't prevent being misled). Now that it's shoved in their faces that multiple management teams have been caught actively lying to them, how do they trust any management?

BioWorld's biotech soap opera "All My Clones" is getting easier and easier to write ... And that's downright scary.

The Ig Nobel Awards ... So We Can End on a Happy Note
The Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) have awarded the 2009 Ig Nobel awards as follows:

Veterinary medicine: Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson for showing that cows with names give more milk than unnamed cows.

Economics: Executives of four Icelandic banks for showing how tiny banks can become huge banks, and then become tiny banks again.

Chemistry: Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor Castao for creating diamonds out of tequila.

Medicine: Donald Unger for cracking just the knuckles on his left hand for 60 years to see whether knuckle-cracking contributes to arthritis.

Physics: Katherine Whitcome, Liza Shapiro and Daniel Lieberman for figuring out why pregnant women don't tip over.

Public health: Elena Bodnar, Raphael Lee and Sandra Marijan for inventing a brassiere than can be converted into a pair of gas masks.

Mathematics: Gideon Gono and the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank for printing bank notes in denominations from 1 cent to $100 trillion.

Biology: Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu and Zhang Guanglei for demonstrating that bacteria in panda poop can help reduce kitchen waste by 90 percent.

Robbins-Roth, Ph.D., founding partner of BioVenture Consultants, can be reached at biogodess@earthlink.net. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BioWorld Today.

Published: November 5, 2009