TEDMED 2011 finished up with a short morning session for attendees to learn just a little bit more before they checked out of the Del and headed out of San Diego. On the whole, the TEDMED crew once again pulled off a spectacular conference. The quality of the talks (especially Day 3) and social events was exceptional and we’d like to give a big thanks to the TEDMED team for working so hard to put on such a meaningful event.
Jay Walker himself started off the morning by showing us some rare artifacts from his amazing library of human imagination. Most interesting was a punch card from the Jacquard loom, the first machine to use an automated and replicable input of instructions to reliably repeat an action. This innovation from the early 1800s inspired Charles Babbage years later as he built his difference engine, largely considered to be the foundation of modern computing technology. Along with the punch card from the loom itself, Jay had a small book of prayers where each page was woven out of silk using the Jacquard loom itself. This served as an incredible marketing piece for the loom and instantly changed people’s notions at the time of what a loom could do.
After the intro, psychiatrist John Wynn came on stage to talk largely about his work and thoughts on how people interpret their mortality. He told a story about a cancer patient who, after a long relationship with Dr. Wynn, was finally found to be incurable. After hearing this poor prognosis, the patient asked Dr. Wynn why he should spend any time with her at all given she was going to die soon and he could be helping other people. This woke him up to the realization that cancer patients who do poorly are often ashamed, in large part because those that do well are often considered heroes. John advocates a more accepting and nuanced approach to helping patients and people in general confront and discuss mortality.
Up next was engineer Joseph DeSimone who in an amazing talk told us about how he is bringing the world of semiconductors to medicine. He and his multidisciplinary team have engineered a process to carve out nano-patterns on silicon wafers and use a substance they call “liquid teflon” to create a thin film that serves as a template for particles they’d like to create. Think of what he is doing as building nano-scale ice cube trays that allow scientists to reliably craft nano-particles of any shape. But why does this matter? Let’s say you wanted to create the most optimal inhalable medication for asthma. Current powdered compounds have an imprecise and irregular shape, which affects dosage consistency, lung penetration, etc. With Joseph’s technology they can model the aerodynamics of their designed particles.
His lab is also working on building particles that stick to specific cell types as well as manipulating the pH sensitivity of a pharmaceutical mixture so that when a nano-particle gets into a cell does it dissolves. If successful, this would allow for Trojan horse sort of treatment, where cancerous cells might pick up the drug in a nano-particle, bring it into the cell, and only then (in the slightly more acidic environment) would the particles dissolve to kill the cell.
Lastly, Joseph and team are attempting to build better vaccines. Most modern vaccines use sub-units of particular pathogens in order to train the body to launch an immune response. If you were building a vaccine for say, measles, you might break off and duplicate a few proteins from the measles virus that the body would learn to recognize and quickly mount an assault against if the real threat occurred. This is effective, but the body has no conception of the overall shape of the pathogen, something Joseph believes would help in developing stronger immunity. By creating little nano ice cube trays in the size and shape of actual pathogens, he is able to create particles that closely resemble the bugs themselves, and then coat or embed them with sub-units from traditional vaccines. In one of his experiments, Joseph saw a twelve-fold increase in immune response by simply shaping the inoculation like the actual pathogen.
After Joseph, Noble Prize winning Peter Agre took the stage to talk about his recent travels using science as a point of connection and diplomacy between countries. His status as a scientist has enabled him to make several trips to North Korea, for instance, in the hope of forming personal connections outside of politics that might down the road lead to favorable political change, less repression, etc. He showed us remarkable pictures from North Korea’s newest science academy, in which students are required to wear suits and march to class, but over time and when pressed, reveal themselves to be normal, curious young-adults fascinated about the scientific world around them.
As a closing performance to TEDMED 2011, beat poets Sekou Andrews and Steve Connell got on stage next and gave a stunning performance. If you haven’t seen these two in action, it’s worth having a watch here. They performed a piece that served as commentary on the TEDMED move to Washington DC in April, that portrayed attendees as revolutionaries of sorts, ready to storm the capital and demand change in our health care system that will allow us to live healthier lives.
Sekou and Steve got a standing ovation and Jay Walker came back on stage to provide closing remarks. We’ve already given the key details of the TEDMED move to DC in day three’s coverage, but suffice it to say that the conference has a new agenda – learn from and put pressure on government institutions to help promote the health of the nation through smart policy. Though Jay made it clear that TEDMED itself will remain a nonpartisan organization, there is an undercurrent of activism that he anticipates will come from bringing the new TEDMED “delegates” into DC to talk about and display cutting edge thought and technology in medicine. This is clearly an ambitious move, a step to turn TEDMED into less of a conference and more of a movement. We’re certainly looking forward to next April.
Thanks again to the TEDMED team for your hard work!