October 10, 2013.
Science, health, technology thought leaders gather at UC San Diego for event.
(From left) Nicholas Spitzer of UC San Diego, Kris Framm of GlaxoSmithKline and Ralph Greenspan of UC San Diego
If there’s one thing the science, health and technology thought leaders at last week’s The Atlantic Meets the Pacific forum can agree on, it’s this: “Things are going to break a lot more before they get better.”
That sentiment, put into words by Smart Patients CEO and former Google Chief Health Strategist Roni Zeiger, was echoed again and again at the forum by some of the greatest minds from the worlds of academic research, small and big business, clinical medicine and public policy who were interviewed by journalists from The Atlantic magazine.
The third annual forum, which was held Oct. 2 to 4, is a collaboration between The Atlantic and the University of California, San Diego, and follows in the tradition of The Atlantic’s prestigious Aspen Ideas Festival and the Washington Ideas Forum.
This year’s panelists – among them several well known and up-and-coming professors and physicians from UC San Diego – were all in agreement that the world’s aging population, the advent of ‘smart’ devices and the resulting avalanche of scientific and medical data are creating both overwhelming opportunity and overwhelming challenges for healthcare, and in particular cancer care. It’s not yet clear, however, how quickly the coming revolution will take place, or who will pay for it.
Granted, those in attendance at the forum weren’t feeling especially optimistic given that the event coincided with a Congressional standoff over the nation’s Affordable Care Act, which had by then led to a government shutdown. In an interview with The Atlantic’s Washington Editor at Large Steve Clemons, alternative health advocate Deepak Chopra put the crisis in very Deepak Chopra-like terms: “The biofield of Washington, D.C., right now is certainly not coherent.”
Biofields, explained Chopra, are the magnetic fields transmitted by every cell in our bodies, and he claims they can be increasingly measured in scientific ways.
“[You can] correlate states of consciousness with states of biology using mathematical algorithms and correlate that with crime, with hospital admissions, with traffic accidents, with social unrest, with quality of leadership,” he said. “If you all hear the expression, ‘I went into this room, and it was very stressful, you could cut it with a knife, it was so tense,’ or, “I went into this holy temple or this shrine and I felt at peace’ – now we can biologically measure that.”
It’s a theory that no doubt sounds strange to researchers and clinicians used to measuring vital signs like heart rate and blood pressure, not vital signs pertaining to consciousness. But Big Data is forcing Big Medicine to change in big ways, and smart, wireless devices, combined with powerful algorithms, are now able to measure and analyze data that weren’t previously quantifiable.
Take cancer research. Several of The Atlantic Meets the Pacific sessions addressed advances in clinical treatments for cancer, as well as the elements that need to cohere for the many forms of cancer to be cured or, as Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute CEO Kristiina Vuori put it, “to work toward a solution where cancer might be seen as a chronic disease you can live with.”
An oft-repeated observation at the forum related to the way that the so-called biological ‘-omics’ – genomics, proteomics and metabiomics – are changing the way cancer drugs are developed.
“The whole field of oncology is going through a transition similar to what the Internet went through in the ’90s,” remarked Dr. Scott Lippman, director of the UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center. “We’re looking now at redefining cancer, and the classic trial designs that we all grew up with don’t really apply now. This is not a vision we have that in 10 to 20 years we’ll get there. It’s happening now. If we identify certain genetic factors in a patient and correlate that with certain drug treatments, we’re seeing dramatic responses.”