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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

A Taste of #TEDMED 2012: Appetizers

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Innovation. Story telling. Discovery. Connections. Beauty. Heartbreak.

TEDMED 2012 had it all. What seemed initially like disparate sessions later proved to be a carefully planned series that wove together important themes for making a healthier future.

The three days of immersion were, at times, overwhelming, but the careful planning interspersed intense talks with music or dance, all illuminating different aspects of healing, well-being, resilience, and persistence.

Traces

Traces

I was quite surprised that the conference began with an acrobatic/dance performance Traces by Les 7 doights de la main. Their grace and raw power was amazing. As curator and emcee Jay Walker explained, “Performing arts open our minds and imaginations to things we don’t think are possible.” This dance troupe was a great illustration of combining the art and science of medicine and an apt metaphor to start the TEDMED conference.

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson

Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, further set the mood with his inspiring story about the power of identity and how important it is if you can get people to imagine a future they would not otherwise be able to. He was moving: “We have the capacity to do great things...” tempered by his admonition, “We are going to be judged by our willingness to confront...injustice.” Our mission is to do things “burdened by the challenges, but liberated by the possibilities.” And he reminded us that the “opposite of poverty is not wealth...but justice.” A brilliant attorney, he set the stage, reminding us how social justice is at the core of health.

Francis-Collins-and-Sam

Sam Berns and Francis Collins

NIH Director Francis Collins told us that we have 4,000 disorders with a known molecular basis but only 250 have treatments. He vividly illustrated the urgent need for progress by introducing 15 year old Sam Berns, who has the body of an 80 year old, from his disease, progeria. Given the progress in treating progeria in the past decade, Sam tells us that “if that drive exists [in researchers] anybody can cure any disease.” Sam is also a powerful advocate for clinical trials. (This is sorely needed; even among cancer patients, fewer than 5% participate in trials). And Sam is full of life and optimism, as are some of the young patients I care for with other devastating diseases.

Dr. Collins also focused on the potential of repurposing drugs, urging pharmaceutical companies to “open their drug freezers” to test drugs that have already passed safety hurdles. For example, AZT (zidovudine), the first effective treatment for AIDS, was initially developed as a treatment for cancer. I was fascinated, too, by his description of a “lung on a chip,” that might eventually eliminate much animal testing. In the future, he postulated there might be a “You on a Chip,” for personalizing drug treatment.

I hope this first course taste of TEDMED 2012 whets your appetite for the next course. It will be coming up shortly…

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Images provided by TEDMED.

Related at Scientific American:

Words, influence, and identity

Is medical school admission squashing creativity?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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