From Health and Fitness

DNA Tattoos Are the Final Frontier of Love

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It all began with a floating leg.

Or, more specifically, an idea came tattooed on the leg of a woman kicking through the water in Key Largo, Fla., seen clear as day through Patrick Duffy’s diving goggles. Mr. Duffy, who ran a scuba diving therapeutic program for military veterans with his father, was inspired by the tattoo; it was her dedication to her late husband, a Navy SEAL killed in combat.

“In that moment, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to turn that tattoo into a reliquary?’” Mr. Duffy said. “To put a piece of something she cared about, maybe even her husband, into the tattoo itself?”

Four years, a handful of dedicated colleagues and nearly a dozen patents later, Mr. Duffy has brought the idea to life with Everence, a product he and his partners hope will deepen bonds — in the most literal and physical way — between family, friends and loved ones.

It is about as biologically intimate as one can get. Everence is a powdery substance synthesized from a sample of DNA, something as simple as a few thousand cells from a swab of a person’s inner cheek, or from cremated ashes. A small vial of Everence can be brought to a tattoo artist and added to any type of inks.

The result: A tattoo imbued with the DNA of another human being — or, if you prefer, a dog, cat or other furry friend.

Patrick DuffyCreditColin Devon Moore

In so doing, Mr. Duffy and Endeavor Life Sciences, his company, join the ranks of a winding list of biohackers, artists and technologists dabbling in the world of biogenic tattoo artistry. Many have mixed ash, hair or other material with inks to include organics in tattooing for years.

But that practice has long been left to underground artists, a subculture unto itself with a dark, self-aware nickname: “morbid ink.” So far this has been something of a symbolic gesture, as the organic material introduced into their inks would eventually be absorbed into a subject’s body.

Others write off the practice as part of the growing bodyhacking movement — think “Neuromancer” meets “Miami Ink.” Biohackers are often looked down on by scientists for their more relaxed, or more adventurous, approach to ethical questions in medicine.

In recent years, the practice of has been reanimated, so to speak, by armchair enthusiasts. There is the D.I.Y. crowd, such as Skin46, who seek to raise money on Kickstarter for biogenic tattoo efforts based on hair samples. CGLabs, a Canadian outfit, is pioneering its own method, primarily marketed as DNA preservation (though not necessarily for the ink-stained crowd).

Everence takes a different approach. Customers are asked to mail their DNA samples to Endeavor’s laboratory in Quonset, R.I., where the material is milled, sterilized and enclosed in microscopic capsules of PMMA — you know it as plexiglass — which is often used in medical applications like dentures, bone cement and cosmetic surgery.

Thanks to its little envelope, instead of the DNA disappearing into the body, it is captured permanently in the ink of the tattoo. Mr. Duffy and his partners believe this creates an even more palpable, resonant bonding experience.

The pitch is a curious, emotionally poignant one coming from Mr. Duffy, a gruff, plain-spoken New Yorker with a background in real estate and a degree in political science. But after starting the nonprofit therapeutic scuba diving program for veterans with his father nearly a decade ago, Mr. Duffy, 40, said he was inspired to find new ways of connecting people while honoring those they may have lost.

Everence powder, which can be added to tattoo ink.CreditColin Devon Moore

A rube to the worlds of both tattoo artistry and biomedical engineering, Mr. Duffy spent the past four years seeking out experts in both fields, eventually finding advisers including Dr. Bruce Klitzman, an associate professor of surgery at Duke University, who endorses the practice: He says it’s as safe as traditional tattoo inks.

Mr. Duffy and Dr. Edith Mathiowitz, a professor at the Center for Biomedical Engineering at Brown University, have patented the technology. Dr. Mathiowitz’s work has focused on what applications polymers like PMMA can have in the human body, and she previously worked on removable tattoo ink projects.

Under the United States Food and Drug Administration, tattoo inks are viewed as cosmetics, a designation that Everence will also adopt. Historically, the agency has not regulated them, though it continues to warn consumers of the inherent risks of tattooing, including infection, allergic reactions or developing granulomas from foreign particles in the body.

Mr. Duffy insists that he has done his homework on safety. And, in an interview, Dr. Mathiowitz noted that the company will follow the strict regulations around how cosmetics must be created, as outlined by the F.D.A.

Mr. Duffy also found a partner in Virginia Elwood, a 37-year-old tattoo artist in Brooklyn who was taken by the idea almost immediately after Mr. Duffy pitched it to her over email. Their meeting was a stroke of fate: Mr. Duffy’s email was sent to her spam folder, and she opened it only because she thought he was the actor who played the father on the 1990s sitcom “Step by Step.”

Alas, it was a different Mr. Duffy, though Ms. Elwood took him up on his idea. She shares a matching tattoo with her partner, Stephanie Tamez, each with the other’s Everence inked in. Ms. Elwood also plans to get a tattoo with Everence containing DNA from her mother, who died years ago from cancer.

Ms. Elwood at Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn.CreditNathan Bajar for The New York Times

“We’re connected to so many things in this world right now, be it through social media or sticking photos in the cloud, and I find that personally to be a bit hollow sometimes,” Ms. Elwood said. “So instead of taking something precious to me and uploading a picture of it to a server, I’m actually carrying it on my body, in my skin.”

Ms. Elwood, Mr. Duffy and their partner Boyd Renner have also managed to gain the support of dozens of top tattoo artists like Scott Sylvia, Valerie Vargas and Mike Rubendall, all of whom will promote Everence to their sizable followings. Signing up such marquee names of the tattoo world was no easy feat, considering the delicate nature of the subject matter.

It won’t be as fast or cheap as picking a piece of tattoo flash from the wall on a less-than-sober Friday night. Everence will sell for $650, which includes the kit, the process of creating the powder and eventual return to the client months later. That is, for now, the price for a permanent product that will become a part of the customer for the rest of her life. (Initially, Everence will take a limited amount of pre-orders to gauge demand, and the company will offer payment plans for those who cannot afford to pay all at once.)

The possibilities could extend beyond tattoos. Mr. Duffy sees a future in which paintings, textiles or other emotionally resonant items are imbued with Everence. For him, the point is to continue carrying that idea that came to him in the shape of a tattooed leg years ago.

“It’s not meant to deliver a drug, and it’s not meant to augment the body,” said Mr. Duffy, whose half-sleeved arm contains Everence from his daughter, tattooed into a smattering of black birds in flight. “It’s about the emotion.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page ST8 of the New York edition with the headline: Now You Can Take Them With You (and Also in You). Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Podcast: ‘What The Health?’ Is Health Care Spending Still The Hungry, Hungry Hippo?

Congress is trying to wrap up its work for the year, but unsettled questions remain about the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the fate of the individual mandate insurance requirement from the Affordable Care Act and other health issues. Meanwhile, outside Washington, major mergers are happening within the health care system and the federal government reports that the rate of increase in health spending slowed in 2016.

This week’s “What the Health?” guests are:

Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News
Stephanie Armour of The Wall Street Journal
Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo
Margot Sanger Katz of The New York Times

They discuss these topics and other health news of the week, including the state of open enrollment for 2018 health insurance.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The iron-clad promises on health care that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) secured for her vote for the tax bill may be splintering.
  • Although a number of health programs could see funding cut as a result of the tax bill, lawmakers promise that they will protect Medicare.
  • Former Obama administration officials are worried that last-minute insurance enrollment on the federal marketplace could be anemic this year, because the Trump administration has not promoted the law.
  • The merger mania of the past week highlights insurers’ interest in having a piece of the action in other parts of the health care system.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists recommend their favorite health stories of the week they think you should read, too.

Julie Rovner: Tonic.Vice.com’s “Why Do People Hate Obamacare, Anyway,” by Julie Rovner

Stephanie Armour: The New York Times’ “Millions Pay The Obamacare Penalty Instead Of Buying Insurance. Who Are They?” by K.K. Rebecca Lai and Alicia Parlapiano

Alice Ollstein: The Washington Post’s “Rep. Trent Franks Of Arizona, Who Asked Staffers If They Would Bear His Child As A Surrogate, Says He Will Resign,” by Mike DeBonis and Michelle Ye Hee Lee.

Margot Sanger Katz: Vox.com’s “Emergency Rooms Are Monopolies. Patients Pay The Price,” by Sarah Kliff.

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcher or Google Play.

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Congress is trying to wrap up its work for the year, but unsettled questions remain about the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the fate of the individual mandate insurance requirement from the Affordable Care Act and other health issues. Meanwhile, outside Washington, major mergers are happening within the health care system and the federal government reports that the rate of increase in health spending slowed in 2016.

This week’s “What the Health?” guests are:

Julie Rovner of Kaiser Health News
Stephanie Armour of The Wall Street Journal
Alice Ollstein of Talking Points Memo
Margot Sanger Katz of The New York Times

They discuss these topics and other health news of the week, including the state of open enrollment for 2018 health insurance.

Among the takeaways from this week’s podcast:

  • The iron-clad promises on health care that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) secured for her vote for the tax bill may be splintering.
  • Although a number of health programs could see funding cut as a result of the tax bill, lawmakers promise that they will protect Medicare.
  • Former Obama administration officials are worried that last-minute insurance enrollment on the federal marketplace could be anemic this year, because the Trump administration has not promoted the law.
  • The merger mania of the past week highlights insurers’ interest in having a piece of the action in other parts of the health care system.

Plus, for “extra credit,” the panelists recommend their favorite health stories of the week they think you should read, too.

Julie Rovner: Tonic.Vice.com’s “Why Do People Hate Obamacare, Anyway,” by Julie Rovner

Stephanie Armour: The New York Times’ “Millions Pay The Obamacare Penalty Instead Of Buying Insurance. Who Are They?” by K.K. Rebecca Lai and Alicia Parlapiano

Alice Ollstein: The Washington Post’s “Rep. Trent Franks Of Arizona, Who Asked Staffers If They Would Bear His Child As A Surrogate, Says He Will Resign,” by Mike DeBonis and Michelle Ye Hee Lee.

Margot Sanger Katz: Vox.com’s “Emergency Rooms Are Monopolies. Patients Pay The Price,” by Sarah Kliff.

To hear all our podcasts, click here.

And subscribe to What the Health? on iTunesStitcher or Google Play.

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First Edition: December 8, 2017

Cities, Counties and Schools Sidestep FDA Canadian Drug Crackdown, Saving Millions

Schenectady County, N.Y., is on track to pay 20 percent less on prescription drugs for its employees this year than in 2003.

Flagler County, Fla., expects to save nearly $200,000 in 2017 on brand-name medicines for its 800 workers, its total drug costs having fallen by 10 percent since last year.

Kokomo, Ind., has found a way to save so much money buying drugs that it offers employees a 90-day supply of dozens of popular brand-name medicines for free.

While the nation grapples with soaring prices of drugs, dozens of cities, counties and school districts across the country have quietly found a solution they say protects their budgets and saves workers money: They are helping their employees buy medicines from pharmacies in Canada and overseas, where prices are up to 80 percent cheaper.

“We love it … it’s a win-win for us and our employees,“ said Anita Stoker, benefits and wellness manager for Flagler County, on Florida’s northeastern coast, which in 2015 started offering its employees a program to get drugs from pharmacies in Canada, England, Australia and New Zealand.

The numbers are growing, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the practice of importing prescription drugs is illegal and is stepping up enforcement, with raids on stores that helped people order overseas, and even visiting some customers’ homes to collect evidence of illegal purchases.

So far, the FDA has made no move to shut down these employee benefit programs — a few dating back over a decade, but most far more recent.

Asked about its view of the programs, an agency spokeswoman said: “The FDA does not comment on its compliance or enforcement strategy regarding specific FDA-regulated products. When non-compliance with FDA regulations is found, the agency may take, and has taken, a variety of advisory, administrative and judicial actions depending on the violations identified.”

The FDA doesn’t prosecute consumers buying medicines from foreign pharmacies for personal use, although — if detected — such packages are intercepted at the border as contraband and their contents returned or destroyed.

But signaling it may be stepping up enforcement — at least against middlemen who facilitate the practice — the FDA in October raided nine Central Florida storefronts that helped a mostly senior population buy drugs from Canada and other countries. The stores don’t stock any medicines but assist consumers in ordering drugs from foreign pharmacies. Criminal investigators warned the store’s owners they were operating illegally and could face fines or jail time. They were not shut down.

Bill Hepscher, co-owner of Canadian MedStore, which owns six of the nine storefronts visited by the FDA, defends his practice, saying he’s only helping consumers do what the FDA says they can do without fear of government prosecution. He said it’s not fair that his stores get targeted for assisting consumers while municipalities across the country are doing the same thing for their employees. This includes the school district in Pasco County, where Hepscher has one of his stores.

Bill Hepscher, co-owner of the Canadian MedStore, outside his Lakeland, Fla., location. Six of the nine stores that federal agents searched in October are owned by Canadian MedStore. (Phil Galewitz/KHN)

Congress has passed legislation legalizing the importation of prescription drugs several times in the past 20 years, but both Democratic and Republican administrations have opted not to implement it. The FDA has said reimporting medicines from outside the United States is dangerous because of the possibility that medications are counterfeit, mislabeled or otherwise unsafe — a view vigorously supported by the industry.

The pharmaceutical industry applauded the recent FDA raids. “We welcome the FDA’s action to crack down on drug importation schemes,” said Holly Campbell, a spokeswoman for PhRMA.

But rising drug prices have given this reimportation idea new life — in Congress and in practice.

In hearings last week, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he would oppose the nomination of Alex Azar, a former drug company CEO, as head of Health and Human Services unless Azar commits to implementing an importation plan. Told by Azar that the problem was guaranteeing safety, Paul replied: “That’s b.s. The American people think it’s b.s. that you can’t buy drugs from Europe or from Canada or Mexico or other places.”

A growing number of city and county officials argue that their employees should have the option to buy less expensive drugs and that helping them do so doesn’t violate any laws.

In recent years, millions of Americans have driven over the border to Canada and Mexico or used the internet to buy medicines from foreign pharmacies for personal use.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2016 found that 8 percent of respondents said they or someone in their household had imported a drug at some point, a figure that would translate to about 19 million adults in the U.S. based on current Census population estimates.

In the early 2000s, several states, including Maine and Illinois, briefly maintained websites to help residents buy drugs from Canada. The programs were discontinued, amid opposition from federal authorities, the pharmaceutical industry and GOP politicians. Now, cities, counties and school districts are stepping in.

Consumers need a doctor’s prescription just as they would to buy medicine from their local pharmacy.

Drugs ordered from overseas often come with the same packaging as in the U.S. CanaRx, based in Windsor, Ontario, and ElectRx, based in Detroit, says it vets the pharmacies (generally in Canada, England and Australia) to ensure customers get the real product. Counties, cities and schools — as well as a growing number of private companies — contract with one of these companies for online service.

These companies do not sell to individuals. They sell only a three-month supply of medicine and do not provide drugs that are available as generics in the U.S.

The price savings for common medicines outside the U.S. can be huge, since other nations negotiate prices with drug manufacturers or allow cheaper generic equivalents to be sold more rapidly.

Take Canadian MedStore, for example. It sells a 90-day supply of Januvia for $83, imported from England. The same supply of the diabetes drug can cost $423 in the U.S. An Advair Diskus, which goes for $417 in the U.S., MedStore gets from New Zealand and sells for $96. Xarelto, a popular blood thinner, costs $89 per month imported from England, versus $485 a month in the U.S.

Companies selling drugs from Canada and overseas say the FDA’s safety concerns are unjustified. The recent FDA raids on Hepscher’s Florida storefronts followed a sting operation in which undercover agents purchased medicines from overseas — all of which proved in testing to contain the ingredients matching the medicines ordered.

But FDA spokeswoman Lyndsay Meyer said: “The ones that we found and tested may have been [safe], but that doesn’t mean that they all were. We do believe that it’s unsafe. You never know what you’re going to get or how they were stored — it’s a gamble. And importantly, it’s prohibited under federal law.”

Cities and counties that facilitate online ordering from overseas often do so on the advice of their insurance brokers. “In this day and age, when it’s common for employers to see a 20 or 30 percent annual increase in drug costs, we are seeing a negative drug trend in Flagler County — that’s unheard of,” said Sherry Bugnet, an account executive with The Bailey Group, an insurance broker in St. Augustine, Fla.

Schenectady County, N.Y., has worked with CanaRx for over a decade to allow employees to buy drugs overseas, saving more than $10 million during that period, with no complaints; prescriptions involve no copay if the service is used. The few times drugs were confiscated at an international mail-processing facility by customs officials, CanaRx merely re-sent the shipment.

“It helps us keep our tax rate down and helps us give cost-of-living increases to employees,” said Chris Gardner, a county attorney who helped start the program, through which he has ordered medicines for cholesterol and blood pressure.

Since 2012, Kokomo, Ind., has let its employees get brand-name drugs with no copayment if they order from Canada and overseas through ElectRx. “Our employees like it, and it’s very simple and easy to use. Their doctor fills out a prescription, they send it in, and the medication goes right to their home,” said Kathy Horton, director of human resources for the city, about 60 miles north of Indianapolis.

Encouraged by the successes in other parts of Florida, Patricia Howard, senior manager for benefits and risk at Pasco County Schools, said the county in July started offering the international pharmacy option to its 9,600 employees and dependents to buy brand-name drugs.

Employees pay zero for their first 90-day order, then $10 for each 90-day refill. About 75 workers have used the program.

Other parts of Florida will soon join in. Both the Palm Beach County Clerk & Comptroller and the city of Sarasota are set to unveil similar programs in January. ”I have no questions about the legality, as that’s already been vetted,” said April Bryan, the city’s general manager of human resources.

Carmen Catizone, executive director of the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, a nonprofit association that promotes safe pharmacy practices, said: “If cities and counties have done their due diligence to ensure their employees are getting drugs from reputable sources, then there is nothing wrong with it,” he said. “If not, they could be playing Russian roulette.”

KHN’s coverage of prescription drug development, costs and pricing is supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.

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