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TEDMED 2010: Technology and the people

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


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SAN DIEGO— On day two of TEDMED, running between Oct. 27 and 30, three themes stood out: the difference between children and adults for therapies; the connection between animals, people and disease; and how genetics will shape health care.

Frances Jensen of Harvard University and Children’s Hospital Boston explained the dramatic differences between developing and adult brains. With faster synapses, teens learn faster than adults, for instance. But as a consequence, they also "get addicted faster, longer and stronger than adults do," she said. Because teens have more synaptic material to affect, they suffer greater brain damage from alcohol than in adults. Differences in developing brain mean should have "no more hand-me-down drugs" for youths, added Jensen.

Signaling receptors are also very different in epileptic children and adults. “They might as well be different species,” said Jensen, who added that we need age-specific therapies for epilepsy.

Barton Kamen of the American Cancer Society spoke of the general improvements in cancer survival in the past 35 years—except for 15- to 40-year-olds. Cancer kills 12 million patients a year worldwide, a trillion dollars in cost. "For 35 years I’ve been taking care of kids with cancer,” said Kamen. "I’ve trying to put myself out of business.” Nearly 70,000- 15 to 40-year-olds in U.S. every year diagnosed with cancer. "We lose 20 percent of them." Late diagnosis is one problem. Another factor, Kamen says, is that only a small proportion of youths get on clinical trials, impeding progress.

Better medicine regimens can help survival rates. One strategy Kamen said has met with success is "metronomic dosing": "finding the smallest dose that works and leaving it there.” More info is available at www.cancercharter.org and www.metronomix.org

A couple of speakers looked at the relation between animal health and human health. Harold Schmitz, chief science officer of Mars, noted that in 1957, when Sputnik was launched, the event triggered commitment to fundamental research. Many of today’s technologies descended from those investments. Agriculture, food science, veterinary science, however, were passed by, he said. If we had invested, he said, “we wouldn’t have problems mentioned this morning.” He gave two examples of plants and animals benefiting human health: In 2000, flavinols, in fruits, vegetables and cocoa, were found to increase nitric oxide in vasculature. And in 2009, "We developed a partnership with NIH" for human-animal bond research, says Schmitz. People with pets suffer less stress.

Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance and a disease ecologist, described risks of disease outbreaks from areas that have stressed ecosystems as well as zoos, because of living density. Essentially, where humans and animals are “in conflict” is where disease emerges, said Daszak. This is "good news, because if we’re the cause, we can stop it." One example is monitoring pets. He said the “world’s scariest animal” from a pathogen perspective is the adorable sugar glider, a kind of flying squirrel. “They are so cute, we want to keep them as pets,” but they come from potential pandemic hotspots. An app called Pet Watch identifies pets that are the “most healthy” for us and for the environment.

Turning to the topic of genetics and health, George Church of Harvard University and Craig Venter of the Craig J. Venter Institute described growing gene sequencing and manipulation capabilities. “Why should we synthesize or make radically new genomes?” asked Church. “I would argue for safety and productivity.” Helpful genes can be built in. Also, “We’re not going to be sequencing your gene once but many times,” added Church, to monitor different microbial components. PersonalGenomes.org is currently monitoring the genomes of 16,000 volunteers.

With the recent announcement in the journal Nature of the 1,000th genome sequenced, Venter noted that “What we need is 10 million” to truly understand human variation. We also need to study the human microbiome, which influences disease. Work by Venter and others on manipulation of DNA to create synthetic genomes will help in the study and treatment of disease. “NIH has funded our group to make synthetic pieces of every flu virus that’s ever existed,” said Venter. That could speed flu-vaccine development from several months to several weeks or days.





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