It’s only the second day here at the Kennedy Center and we have to say that TEDMED seems to have pulled out all the stops. The first session of the day began with our favorite nerdy science singer and songwriter, Jill Sobule, but this time she was accompanied by a special guest: none other than NIH Director and leader of the Human Genome Project, Dr. Francis Collins. Rather, given how Dr. Collins played his six string and sang, it’s fair to say that he was accompanied by her. With lyrics like these, the song could alternatively have been called “Disease Don’t Care” or “Knock Out Disease:”
“Disease don’t care if you’re black or white / Disease don’t care if you’re left or right / Disease don’t care if you’re rich or poor / Disease will find a way to come’a’knocking on your door / So come on people won’t you join me please? / Let’s bring it all together and knock out disease!”
Following the song, Dr. Collins gave an equally, well, actually better speech on the NIH’s goal of making the drug discovery pipeline faster. He began by citing that though 4,000 diseases have known molecular causes, only 250 have treatments available. His own laboratory discovered the cause of cystic fibrosis almost 25 years ago, but it was only this year that a molecular treatment became available to a subset of patients. He also cited the rare but devastating advanced aging condition known as progeria, and to the audience’s surprise and honor asked an inspirational 15-year old boy with the disease named Sam Berns to join him on stage for a brief Q&A. Sam discussed how he deals with the disease, why he participates in clinical trials (to help advance the research that may eventually lead to a cure), and what his interests are (playing in a band, socializing with his friends in the US and abroad). It was the first of two patient encounters today that visibly affected the audience and changed the pace of the talks. After a standing ovation for Sam, Dr. Collins continued speaking about some initiatives to accelerate the drug discovery pipeline, such as the NIH’s work with the private sector to access their vast libraries and repurpose drugs that were originally discovered for one disease to treat other conditions as well (Tamoxifen as an example, which is now also used for bipolar disorder in addition to breast cancer). Another trend he mentioned is the lab-on-a-chip drug testing model. In order to take full advantage of this “remarkable moment in medicine,” Dr. Collins called for three things: (1) more resources, (2) new partnerships between the stakeholders, and (3) young and enthusiastic talent.
TEDMED Curator Jay Walker was up next and amazed the audience with his story about Apollo 11, the first lunar landing, and how the difference between success and a crash landing was literally 20 seconds of fuel. Not many know, however, that the astronauts had telemetry straps that measured their vital signs. With that intro he brought out a fascinating piece from his Library of the History of Human Imagination: the original ECG recording during that landing interval – signed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – that clearly shows the rapid heartbeats of the astronauts. Amazing.
The morning session had a number of other fascinating talks by great speakers, including the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s CEO, Risa Lavizzo-Mourey; Mars Inc’s Global Director of Plant Research, Howard Shapiro, who discussed engineering seeds to make plants more nutritious; Institute of Medicine Executive Officer Judith Salerno and VP of HBO Documentary John Hoffman, who together spoke about and showed an exclusive preview of their new documentary and campaign about obesity, The Weight of the Nation (there’s also a companion book soon to be available); and ultramarathon champion Scott Jurek who was joined onstage by Cookie Monster for a funny segment about eating healthy that wrapped up the first session of the day.
The second session also had an all-star line-up, beginning with Director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, who provided some interesting insights into preventive medicine and both acute and chronic diseases. Following him was Dr. Ivan Oransky, the Executive Editor of Reuters Health, who spoke while tossing around a baseball because he compared doctors trying to predict outcomes of patients in healthcare with baseball scouts trying to predict future performance of young talent in the major leagues: namely, that it is random to a large extent. He also satirically lamented the increasing medicalization of society; that is, everyone now has either diabetes or pre-diabetes, hypertension or pre-hypertension, death or pre-death. Next up was Todd Park, the US Chief Technology Officer whom Medgadget has interviewed before, who spoke about Cincinnati’s experiment in care delivery (e.g. electronic health record sharing) and how the early results seem promising. He was followed by Dr. Jacob Scott, who is sort of a renaissance man as a Navy-commissioned submarine nuclear reactor operator (which didn’t leave him much room for independence and creativity), AP physics teacher, high school wrestling coach, radiation oncologist and now a doctoral student in mathematics at Oxford. His key point was that medical doctors have the potential to be the great connectors in the biomedical field, however the current system does not select for, or at least bring out, the necessary creativity and innovation in today’s medical students. His word for it: “imaginectomy.” The second session of the day wrapped up with a Q&A hosted by Dr. Larry Brilliant (of Google and polio fame) with FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret ‘Peggy’ Hamburg. She answered questions about drug resistance, tobacco usage, and germanely drugs and medical devices. According to her, the FDA is as fast or faster than its European counterparts in approving certain devices and they are trying to speed up their pre-market approval process while at the same time ensuring regulatory safety.
The third session of the day focused on shape, perception, and possibility, opening up with a mind-blowing show by the dancers-illusionists Momix. Simply put: you must see this show (at least on YouTube, though preferably in person); it will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Next up was physicist Albert-Laszlo Barabasi who had an interesting comparison between car mechanics and doctors. He said mechanics are able to fix cars because they have four complete elements: a parts list, blueprints, diagnostics, and replacement parts. Doctors only truly have the parts list (the human genome) at this point. He then delved into the promise of network theory in providing the other parts and completed the analogy by comparing the blueprints to the network map, diagnostics to genomics/metabolomics/proteomics, and replacement parts to gene therapy. He urged doctors of the future to become “networkologists,” echoing Dr. Scott’s remarks that future doctors need to channel their creativity and innovation. Up next was Seth Cooper, the University of Washington researcher and creator of the popular crowd-sourced protein folding game, FoldIt. He discussed the future of gamification in solving large scientific problems that computers have not been able to tackle. At the conclusion of his talk he was joined by ‘mimi’ a middle-aged English woman and lab technician who happened to be one of the best players on FoldIt, and therefore one of the best protein folders on the planet, thus showing an exciting benefit of crowd-sourced games: tapping into a previously unexplored talent pool.
The next talk was by Dr. Marc Triola, NYU School of Medicine’s Associate Dean for Educational Informatics, and his collaborator John Qualter, the co-founder and media director of BioDigitial Systems. They provided a fascinating demo of the biodigital human, a freely accessible 3D interactive human for medical education that not only shows normal and static anatomy but also dynamic pathology. The goal is to create a “living ecosystem” of tools that “democratize and decentralize” medical education, and for the sake of both opportunity for the talent pool (like mimi from FoldIt) and general societal literacy, we hope they succeed. In a few days we’ll be posting a video interview and demo of BioDigital Systems’ technology with Marc and John.
From the biodigital human to the “quilled” human, the next speaker was visual artist Lisa Nilsson who amazed the audience with her beautiful representations of anatomy using a novel artistic process. Jay Walker then brought out more antiques from his Library, including some of the oldest handwritten bibles (one from 1250 AD) and a page from an original Gutenberg bible, to discuss the use of ink on paper. He then took out an e-reader and proclaimed that our generation may be the last to rely on paper and ink. Next up was the CEO of mc10, David Icke, who gave a tremendous presentation on pliable electronics that look like tattoos and can measure vital signs such as pulse and ECG. With the aid of a few breath-taking animations he introduced the potential of these flexible electronics to monitor patients and athletes as well as implementation of this technology in medical devices like catheters and organ implants. The company plans to release their first commercial, unregulated flexible electronics for sport applications later this year, and we look forward to learning more and keeping you updated. Finally, the session concluded with UMass Researcher Diane Kelly who spoke about her novel findings about the architecture of mammalian penises, which brought plenty of enlightenment and humor alike to the TEDMED audience.
The final session of the day focused on mental disorders and began with a brief cameo from Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, who discussed the need to change behaviors and prevent kids from smoking, followed by a memorable poetic performance by spoken word artists Sekou Andrews and Steve Connell. The next two speakers, Brandeis professor Dr. Gregory Petsko and Brigham & Woman clinical neurologist Dr. Reisa Sperling, focused on the ticking epidemiological time bomb of Alzheimer’s Disease – which Petsko compared to an incoming asteroid that would kill 100 million people by 2050 – and emerging therapeutic and diagnostic (e.g. the newly-FDA approved PET amyloid imaging) potentials. From Alzheimer’s to autism, the next speaker was Virginia Breen, the mother of an autistic child, Elizabeth, who gave a heart-wrenching description of Elizabeth’s struggle with her inability to speak yet her profound intelligence hidden within. As with Sam earlier in the day, the audience gave a standing ovation to Elizabeth for taking the TEDMED stage at the end of her mother’s speech. The session and day wrapped up with a speech by Duke neuroengineer Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, whom we’ve covered a number of times before for his pioneering work on brain machine interface.
With all of the innovation, imagination, and inspiration that emerged today, it’s hard to see what they left for Days 3 and 4. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you posted!