TEDMED Sessions Seek the Patterns in Health Care and Life Sciences That Hold Ideas Together

Xconomy San Diego — 

It may be that TEDMED founder Richard Saul Wurman is the Brett Favre of emcees, or perhaps he’s like Al Pacino in Godfather III, who proclaims in exasperation, “Just when I thought I was out—they pull me back in!

But after a five-year hiatus, TEDMED has returned this week (opening last night at San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado), and Wurman, who is both the TEDMED chairman emeritus and lead master of ceremonies, stepped back onstage for what must be a familiar role. He is the folksy glue that brings the sometimes-esoteric show back to Earth as leading thinkers in medicine, health care, and life sciences deliver 15- to 20-minute talks about their work and big ideas.

So, for example, after J. Craig Venter, a leader in genomic sequencing and synthetic biology, ended his presentation last night, Wurman took the stage and reassured the crowd by saying, “I’ve heard Craig speak a number of times. And I don’t understand it all…”

The four-day TEDMED symposium, which costs $4,000 per person to attend (and is sold out), follows a format similar to the first conference in Technology, Entertainment, and Design (TED) that Wurman established in 1984. Chris Anderson acquired rights to that TED business in 2001 and Boston entrepreneur (and Xconomist) Marc Hodosh got rights earlier this year to TEDMED and its focus on health care. Wurman told us he had agreed to help Hodosh out this year, and between sessions he often helped the audience by identifying themes they would likely see emerging in presentations to come.

“Maps are also patterns, and patterns are the threads that run through this conference,” Wurman said. “They are the constructive tissue that holds ideas together.” Those emerging ideas include:

—J. Craig Venter, the co-founder and CEO of San Diego-based Synthetic Genomics, said about 21 million genes have been discovered since the first genome was sequenced in 1995—“and over 20 million have been taken from the deck of my sailboat.” (Venter’s sailboat, the Sorcerer II, embarked from San Diego in March on an expedition to collect and sequence marine organisms.) Venter also outlined synthetic biology research that aims to transplant a chromosome from one cell into another cell—and turn it into a different species. Venter says, “I think it’s possible we’ll have the first species powered by a synthetic chromosome by the end of this year, although that’s something I’ve been saying now for two years.”

—Anthony Atala, a urologist and director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, showed how researchers are using “smart biomaterials” to patch damaged organs and grow new heart valves, blood vessels, liver, muscle, skin, ears, and even fingers. Still, Atala said, “90 percent of patients on transplantation waiting lists are waiting for kidneys.” He also noted that the organs with lots of blood vessels—the heart, liver, and kidney—are the hardest to grow.

—Bill Davenhall, who leads the health and human services marketing team at ESRI, the Redlands, CA, company that specializes in geographic information systems, argued for the creation of new programs and training in “geo-medicine”—and for ensuring that GIS data can be included in electronic health records. He demonstrated his point with a map that shows geographical areas in mid-Atlantic and Midwestern states where heart attacks occur far more frequently than other parts of the country. Davenhall, who said he suffered a heart attack in 2001, associates environmental factors in the places where he has lived with the higher incidence rate. He grew up with high levels of sulfur dioxide in Scranton, PA, before moving to Louisville, KY, with high levels of chloropene and benzene. He now lives east of Los Angeles in Redlands, CA, which has high levels of airborne particulates, carbon dioxide, and ozone. He told the audience, “Doctors never ask me about my place history. But if I wanted to have a heart attack, I’ve lived in the right places.”

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