Plenary: Five People Changing the Face of Bioscience
If there is one belief that unites the "Five People Changing the Face of Bioscience" it's that "business as usual" does not work anymore. Kicking off the second day of Partnering for Cures, the speakers on the five-person panel, moderated by Josh Sommer, executive director of the Chordoma Foundation, shared a common goal to transform the way the healthcare and bioscience industries operate through innovative thinking.
It was this common mindset that led Halle Tecco, co-founder and CEO of Rock Health, to recognize that, during her time working for the Apple App Store, that most of the talented, young app innovators were building games, social networks, and better advertising systems. That didn't seem right to Tecco, who asked herself a simple question: "How can we get the best young minds working in healthcare?" Leaving Apple, Tecco took her idea and began Rock Health, which works as a start-up accelerator of healthcare and technology companies.
Geoffrey Ling's moment of clarity came about in a much different way. Now the deputy director of the Defense Sciences Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Ling spent 27 years in the Army Medical Corps and was deployed to combat zones multiple times. During a deployment in Iraq in 2005, Ling was on hand when a group of reserved military police was brought in after being injured in an improvised explosive device attack. One of the soldiers had a broken back but thankfully there was no spinal damage. In other words, it was a "million-dollar wound" – he would get to go home but suffer no permanent injury.
That's when the soldier began to cry. "He didn't want to go home," explained Ling. "He said, 'Here I get to do something special: I'm helping [the Iraqis] build a new country. But back home, I'm an assistant manager at a fast-food restaurant.'"
It suddenly struck Ling that not enough of healthcare focuses on "figuring out what patients want." The wounded soldier wanted to get back to duty. The challenge then for the healthcare industry – which is Ling's challenge at DARPA – is to help him do that. It was that kind of reverse thinking that led Ling and his team to develop the first prosthetic arm controlled by the mind – a breakthrough innovation covered by 60 Minutes.
Jessica Richman, co-founder and CEO of uBiome, was thinking along similar lines before staring her company. "My motivation is to change the process of citizen science to allow the public to be part of the process," she explained. Far too much of healthcare is delivered in a top-down structure, where the patient is often the last one consulted about his or her own healthcare. Richman's goal is to change that dynamic – to "democratize" healthcare so that the patient becomes a valuable member of the treatment pipeline.
For Adrien Treuille, an assistant professor of computer science and robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, the world is "unbelievably under-utilized." By this he means that so many bright minds across the globe never get the chance to tap their talent for the greater good. As he explained, this is not much of a problem in the United States, where talented young people have a ready path toward exploiting their potential to the fullest. But elsewhere, that's simply not the case.
For example, Treuille told a story about a game he helped design called "Foldit." The game asked users to "fold" proteins in the best possible way (i.e., at its lowest energy state). The game reached hundreds of thousands of people, many whom never knew about folding proteins at all. Indeed, one of the best players was "a 35-year-old autistic librarian from Denmark." He had uncovered a skill he never knew he had, which told Treuille that "most people in the world are not contributing at a tenth of what they could."
Since childhood, Laura Deming had been asking questions. Why weren't people angrier when someone dies of natural causes? Why does there have to be a correlation between diseases and aging? This questioning mentality led Deming to MIT at age 14, where she continued to study the science of aging and discovered more perplexing riddles.
For instance, why is the field of aging so behind other fields like cancer research and bioscience when they are all so closely connected? Now a partner at the Longevity Fund, Deming focuses her energies on bringing in investors to fund therapies to extend the human health span. Concerned that most scientists spend their time on curiosities, not something patients need, Deming is dedicated to solving the most insoluble of riddles: why we age.
As Sommers concluded, the five-member panel epitomized the purpose of FasterCures: "New approaches are needed to accelerate the search for cures. Business as usual will not achieve that goal."