Tuesday, 25 February 2014

From Runner to Sloth – what’s the value of wristbands ?

'....calories were for burning and not counting.....'

At the age of seven I was being taught the rudiments of skiing in the forests above Oslo; by ten I was running everywhere, in my teens I was subjected to rigorous Summer athletics training and as my working life started so I tried to train in 10 day cycles: nine on and one off.  To me and my mates calories were things we burnt and we needed lots of them – we certainly didn’t need to watch them.

But time marches on and drags us all down with it.  In my case it was a matter of going from extreme activity to the normal existence of office life where we tend to take no more exercise than required to replenish our tea or coffee, with the occasional stroll to a meeting or perhaps some long distance travel.  Whatever, these are physically slothful activities in which calories do become important, intakes need to be watched and, if we are not careful, our condition deteriorates.

About two years ago along came a variety of fitness devices – small wristbands that purported to measure activity, and in some cases sleep, calories taken and, in one device, time.  I was instantly entrapped by these things and worked my way through the Nike Fuelband, Jawbone’s UP and now the Fitbit Flex.  Each has its strongpoints, but are they useful or are they just gimmicks ?

After 14 months of trial and error I’ve come to the conclusion that whilst of reduced value to the super-active, they do, within their limits have a very definite place in the lives of we who are members of the vast Tribe of the Human Sloth. 

Why ?

v  They set targets.  For some reason the Health & Fitness industry has decreed that we should move 10,000 steps in each 24 hours and that’s surprisingly difficult to achieve if all you do is go to work by some mechanical means, sit around all day with brain fully engaged but body relaxed, and then go home, possibly via an inviting pub, again by mechanical means.  I’ve noticed that on such a day I rarely surpass 6,000 steps.

v  They measure intake.  After an inactive day it comes as a bit of a shock to see on the App of whichever device you are using, figures in red showing that total calories consumed have exceeded those used up.  We don’t want too many of those days.

v  They provide reminders.  The Fitbit Flex sends little messages when you are getting near the day’s target and then congratulates you if and when you pass the magic 10,000 (it also vibrates at that point, which can cause you to spill that end-of-day glass of wine if the lifting of the latter coincides with the sudden vibration !).

v  They provide competition, which may or may not be a good thing.  These devices can, if you let them, communicate with different social media channels and so allow your friends and colleagues see how you are getting on.  This can introduce an element of fun.  A training regime that has some fun in it will always be more effective than one that’s all about hard work.

As with all things these measurement devices are only effective if used consistently.  Entering food and liquids consumed, and various daily activities can become a bit tiresome.  But if used consistently and with an aim, I do believe that they can change behavior, monitor what we are doing in a positive way and, in some cases, provide clear evidence to our medical minders that we are, or are not, following their guidelines.

I suspect also that we’d better get used to this sort of thing because some day, perhaps not so far off, our Doctors will expect us to pass them a device that they will be able to interrogate as part of their Consultancy in order to find out exactly what’s going on.

The future’s (almost) here !
Jonathan Thomson is COO of Branding Science.

As part of our Digital Work, Branding Science has extensive experience with these devices.
For more information, please get in touch!

Thursday, 20 February 2014

So long as the fridge is full: a day in the life of a market researcher

If you work in the market research industry I’m sure you are already very familiar with the early morning starts, the delayed trains, cancelled flights, and stuffing your face on the move – not to mention the long hours spent holed up in a dark room, so oblivious to the outside that the apocalypse could happen and you would be none the wiser.

But for those of you who don’t work in market research and wonder what goes on behind the glass – no wild parties here, unfortunately – allow me to elaborate.

We conduct the majority of our research in a viewing facility. Think of those detective dramas, like CSI: New York, when they are interrogating a suspect and they are observing it from behind a huge one-way mirror. Our team, including clients, watch the research as it’s happening live.

Almost all respondents accept that they will be observed. Some even wave to our team behind the glass. And for our moderators, it’s quite daunting to conduct an interview with so many colleagues and clients present. But for the moderator, and I’d imagine the respondent too, after 5 minutes you forget about that fact entirely.

The viewing facility staff are almost always pleasant. They show you to your room. They point out where the limitless supply of snacks are (my favourite part of the induction) and the nicely stocked fridge (from water to wine), the air conditioning controls and the audio control. The essentials of fieldwork. Tea and coffee are offered and ALWAYS accepted. Overall, it’s like being shown around your hotel room.
If the travel was difficult, the first thing you want to do is collapse into a chair, with some facility chairs being more comfortable than others. You might be wondering why I mention this. Well, when you are expected to sit on a chair for fieldwork days from 10am to 10pm, the chair often becomes your best friend. And best friends should always be a comfort.

Our moderators have to be on the ball – you are there to take notes, but also to identify and interpret respondent insight, which takes a great deal of intellectual concentration. However, the most rewarding part of fieldwork can be the dialogue you have with your clients. You can debate their business objectives in the backroom after particularly insightful interviews and formulate a strategy alongside them. It’s an extremely productive way of working and we always encourage our clients come to central location days for this reason.

Setting up the interview room is all about asking where the respondent should sit so that the camera (we use to video them for analysis purposes) can capture them, and the size of the table in terms of how many respondents you are interviewing and the nature of the materials you are testing.

With room set up it’s all about the atmosphere you want to create between you and the respondent. You want them to feel sufficiently relaxed so that they are more willing to open up when asked questions. You want to be close enough to show them materials whilst not invading their personal space. And ultimately you want them to enjoy the experience.

And then there are the subtle touches you have to think about with regards to the topic of the discussion. If you are interviewing patients with diabetes it would not be prudent to have a big plate of biscuits etc. There are obviously many more examples.

Each respondent is different, of course. And the most exciting part is understanding how best to approach an interview based on their personality and engagement levels. No two interviews are ever the same, which is what makes the job both unpredictable and fascinating.
Sofia Fionda is a Research Executive in the Branding Science London office.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Cupcakes and Conferences

Branding Science at the Pharma Market Research Conference
It has become a tradition: the Pharma Market Research Conference, one of the main conferences focused on pharmaceutical market research in the US (as its name suggests), took place this Thursday and Friday, in the midst of cataclysmic weather conditions.

Despite Mother Nature’s twisted sense of humor, a decent crowd made it to the Hilton in Parsippany NJ, showing the dedication of market research professionals to this event.

As in the last couple of years, Branding Science was present with a great stand that never misses the mark, sparking a flurry of positive reactions and smiles among clients and leaving competitors green with envy (but yet smiling as well).


Needless to say, our branded cupcakes were a huge hit (they were really delicious, made by House of Cupcakes, famous winner of ‘Cupcake Wars’, for those familiar with this popular show).

Cupcakes were only one of our tools to lure clients into our stand: the USB keys were even more popular, but we also gave out calendars, as well as flyers and a great infographic created for the circumstance.


Overall, with a favorable client-agency ratio (were present companies such as Merck, Ipsen, BI, Takeda, Celgene, Daiichi, Onyx,Forest Labs, Bayer and many others) and an interesting mix of sessions - mostly revolving around new technologies in market research, emotional insights as a driver of brand strategy, storylining and patient-centric market research - the Pharma Market Research 2014 was a great forum for us to showcase our capabilities and make connections that will hopefully have a positive impact on our business in the future.

And yes, surprisingly, there were leftover cupcakes….

This article was written by Joelle Gryniewicz in our US office.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Accidental Blockbusters: Disulfiram


“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing had happened.” Winston Churchill

Disulfiram is a drug used to support the treatment of chronic alcoholism. It came about after a strange occurrence in the 1920’s; men working in a rubber factory suddenly found that when hitting the pub after work, they had lost their tolerance to alcohol. This was largely ignored at the time until 20 years later Dr Erik Jacobsen investigated the use of disulfiram to treat intestinal worms. He ingested some of the drug before attending a dinner party, where he proceeded to become violently sick. This led to the connection between disulfiram and alcohol intolerance which further explained why the workers in rubber factories faced similar effects, as disulfiram is a product of chemicals used in their factory.

When you drink alcohol, it is normally degraded by the body into a substance called acetaldehyde. When you drink too much, acetaldehyde builds up in the body and this is what causes you to have a stonking hangover. An enzyme called alcohol dehydrogenase clears acetaldehyde out of the body but not necessarily as rapidly as you drink.

Disulfiram blocks this enzyme meaning that if you even have a sip of alcohol, you will immediately feel the same effects as if you had had a 3 day bender.

Disulfiram is sold in tablets where the effects last less than a week. However in Russia, where there is a long, destructive history with alcohol, you can have a procedure where a Disulfiram capsule is implanted into your buttocks and remains there for three years. In Moscow alone there are dozens of clinics where you can get this procedure done. In fact up to 80 % of alcohol addiction treatments in Russia are from this capsule procedure. Drinking alcohol with this tablet implanted in you is thought by Russians ‘to kill you’. Of course this would in fact be entirely unethical, but the symptoms may suggest as such to the patient. An antidote for these effects can be bought for $300 which renders the drinker back to full health.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

The Fault in Our Stars

Have you seen the new trailer for The Fault in Our Stars, the adaptation of John Green’s bestselling novel?
It’s the story of a girl named Hazel Grace Lancaster, who was diagnosed with Stage 4 thyroid cancer with metastatis when she was 13 years old. Rather than a sentimental book, however, The Fault in Our Stars is an engaging, heart-wrenching, and – believe it or not -  funny story about what it’s like to be a teenager. She happens to have cancer, but the disease is only a part (albeit a major one) of her journey. It is through that unique lens that John Green lets us sympathize and even empathize with someone suffering in ways most of us have never experienced.

Thyroid cancer comprises just 1% of all cancer cases in the UK and the condition is actually quite rare in children, which is what makes Hazel Grace’s experience all the more unique – especially because she is based on a real person. Esther Earl, a teenager diagnosed with thyroid cancer before she died in 2010, became famous online for her video diary which dealt with her experience of cancer. She befriended John Green before her death, helping to inspire the character of Hazel Grace. A collection of her writings has just been published under the title This Star Won’t Go Out.

We’ve worked with thyroid cancer before at Branding Science, understanding the patient pathway from endocrinologist care to oncologist involvement in the metastatic stages – the sort of doctors Hazel Grace would have been seeing. We’ve also worked in understanding the treatment landscape. Although Hazel Grace was on a fictional drug (Phalanxifor), she would have actually been treated with a drug like Lenvatinib or Sorafenib.

Since it’s World Cancer Day today, Branding Science has been reflecting on how books like The Fault in Our Stars and This Star Won’t Go Out can bring rare diseases to light that might not otherwise have the attention, support, or even research they need. More than that, however, they bring the patients to life, underlining how life still goes even with a cancer diagnosis.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Bacteria: Good and Bad and how to tell them apart

“I love bacteria because they remind me of God,” said the professor. He was religious and the head of the department of microbiology and biotechnology in Tel-Aviv University, explaining how religion and science can thrive together. “Bacteria are everywhere, you cannot see them and they can do ANYTHING – just like God”, he exclaimed.

Indeed bacteria are everywhere and they are definitely in our bodies covering our skin and lining our intestines, giving us our distinctive smell, eating away our dead cells and share our food. They provide us with valuable source of vitamins that cannot be obtained otherwise and they protect us from infections of other microorganisms. Some of us call them ‘good bacteria’ to differentiate our helpful little friends from the dangerous disease causing microbes. Our ‘friendly bacteria’ are actually symbiotic and opportunistic at the same time. We are dependent on our flora as much as under its’ threat.
Try to remember when was the last time you were prescribed a course of antibiotics. How did you feel?

I have been on such a course only three weeks ago, augmentin it was, a generic brand, and in a way I was relieved the manufacturer was not one of our clients (so I did not have to fill an adverse event form). Nevertheless, I was unwell. The antibiotics killed the bacteria on the lining of my gut affecting digestion and making me uncomfortable (forgive me for not giving more detail). It is a well-known side-effect that made me ponder over a tub of yoghurt, why not try and make targeted antibiotics? Wouldn’t it be grand if you could target bacteria causing disease and spare whole body’s flora? If we could differentiate good bacteria from bad?

What are bacteriophages?
Bacteriophages are viruses that propagate by infecting bacteria, their hexapods land onto their prey (Figure 1) and inject their DNA into the bacteria, giving it orders to multiply bacteriophages until the bacteria bursts, the progeny moves on to the next bacteria and so on. Bacteriophages are specific to a bacteria strain which gives them a potential to be employed as targeted antibiotics.

It is intuitive that we could utilise the specific power of bacteriophages into treating specific infections, but for some reason the technology has not been taken by the western world.

Phage treatment has been approved and in use in Russia and Georgia since the 1920s. It actually had been in use before penicillin was even discovered in 1928. However, somehow the fear of viruses and the excitement over chemicals has led to antibiotics being developed and widely used, and now we are facing a possible crisis of multiple drug resistant strains of bacteria (MDR). Some call MDR risk ‘the perfect storm’, with only a handful of new antibiotics developed since the 1980s, we are not prepared for the next outbreak.

At the Eliava institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, infections are being treated with bacteriophages.  For example, a case of tonsillitis is treated by gargling a bacteriophage broth and the patient is cured in 6 hours, no antibiotics involved.  In the UK a seven day antibiotics course is the standard of care.

Figure 1 Bacteriophages T4 sitting on a bacteria injecting their DNA into it (electron microscopy image Science museum),
What are the difficulties in producing bacteriophage based antibiotics?
First of all safety, the use of an entity that self-replicates and have the ability to evolve is difficult to regulate as a fixed chemical entity or biologic. Bacteria are likely to develop resistance to bacteriophages. When such a resistance develops it is likely that the bacteriophages will mutate accordingly, but that may cause issues with produced batches and regulation in mass production.

Formulation issues - you can’t get bacteriophages through our digestive tract, how can we bring them to their target? Can bacteriophage be inhaled for treatment of tuberculosis?  

Another issue with bacteriophages is that they cause bacterial lysis that releases endotoxins. These are toxic to patient and may cause severe side effects such as fever. 

Bacteriophages can be genetically modified to not lyse their target bacteria so one virus would kill one bacteria without bursting its walls. The dead bacteria will then be cleared by the immune system, also such attenuated bacteriophage would be easier to regulate. Just like the use of attenuated viruses in vaccines.

The main reason is a general lack of interest in developing antibiotics because of low return on investment (until there is an outbreak).

Bacteriophages have been used in the western world, for the invention of the probably the most profitable drug ever made.

In the 1990s the phage display technology was invented and utilised by Cambridge Antibody Technologies (CAT) and BASF. The scientists at CAT engineered bacteriophages to express antibody segments and used the ability of bacteriophage bacteriophages to mutate to create many different antibodies, called a phage display library. This library was reacted against TNF╬▒ (Tumor Necrosis Factor), the best matching antibody was chosen, cloned and mass produced as a humanised monoclonal antibody. Manufacturing and marketing were given to Abbot, and the brand Humira was named.  Humira is widely used to treat psoriasis, ankylosing spondylitis (AS) rheumatoid arthritis (RA), ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease.

The next most likely development in modern medicine will have to be a targeted antibiotic, maybe a bacteriophage? What do you think?
Figure 2 bacterial culture killed by bacteriophages (Wikipedia). Bacteria –white. Hole formed by dead bacteria in the middle.

Dr Shai Senderovich is a Research Executive at Branding Science,
Any opinions in this article belong to the author and do not represent Branding-Science.