TEDMED Blog

What If We Built a Healthy America Like This?

This guest blog is by Joe Marx, a senior adviser and senior communications officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Across the nation, a sea change in health is happening. In small Native American communities and sprawling metropolises, rural regions, and small- to mid-size cities, people are coming together and connecting the dots between health and all the other aspects of our lives: education, jobs, housing, food, parks, community safety. They’re acting on the knowledge that our health and well-being are greatly influenced by a web of social factors, such as where we live and the strength of our families and communities.

At the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we believe that seeing and acting on these connections does more than make individuals healthier. It helps our communities prosper and thrive, and by extension it raises the health of our great nation as a whole. It’s a movement taking shape that we call a Culture of Health.

Copyright 2016 Tyrone Turner. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Copyright 2016 Tyrone Turner. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

In a Culture of Health, hospitals are a voice at the table on ways to prevent violence in our communities. Schools serve as neighborhood “hubs” where people can get health and social services. Social workers give those at risk of hunger prescriptions for free fresh vegetables and fruit. Artists are social entrepreneurs and changemakers, helping communities overcome racism and the roots of inequities that shouldn’t, but often do, determine how long and how well we live.

These reflections are real examples drawn from this year’s seven winners of the RWJF Culture of Health Prize. Each year, we present the Prize to honor the unique and innovative approaches of communities that have made great strides toward ensuring all residents have the opportunity to live longer, healthier, and more productive lives.

While each community embodies unique strengths and history, many face common challenges, including poverty, education gaps, lack of affordable housing and transportation, and disparities in residents’ access to health care and healthy food.

Prize-winners are endlessly creative in the ways they tackle these challenges. They imagine infinite possibilities where others might see only limitations.

Take, for example, Cecilia Gutierrez, president and CEO of Miami Children’s Initiative, which is working to improve schools, health and employment opportunities in the Liberty City neighborhood—an area hard hit by joblessness, low-performing schools, crime, drugs, and poor health. The initiative’s “cradle-to-college” support system offers services ranging from neonatal nutrition and early-learning centers to after-school programs and college prep classes. As the fruit of all that labor, Gutierrez imagines a day when thousands of kids from Liberty City will be in colleges and universities across the country.

“That’s when we’ll know that we’ve been successful,” she says.

Copyright 2016 Tracie Van Auken. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Copyright 2016 Tracie Van Auken. Courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Or Alderwoman Marla Smith, of Pagedale, MO—one of 24 contiguous municipalities in St. Louis County that collaborate to improve health, education, economic development and housing in their shared school district. She imagines a time when Pagedale, long-abandoned by businesses, will be “popping” again—when the discount supermarket, bank and cinema that opened in recent years are joined by a health clinic and a restaurant and residents can gain a greater sense of social connectedness and well-being.

Smith is talking about so much more than a fun night out when she says, “Who wouldn’t want to go have dinner and go to a movie?” She’s expressing a vision of better health for the community.

For every challenge communities face on the road to better health for all, there’s a “What if” question that may lead to a solution. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing more stories of creativity and innovation from the 2016 RWJF Culture of Health Prize-winners. Perhaps one of these stories will spark your own ideas around the questions: “What if MY community gave every resident the chance to thrive? And what can I do to help us get there faster?”

Engage with RWJF at TEDMED 2016

Last year at TEDMED, we kicked-off a conversation with our partner, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), around building a Culture of Health – a movement to improve the health and well-being of everyone in img_2000America. Our discussion last year focused on Making Health a Shared Value, one action area of the RWJF Culture of Health Framework, and this year we’re excited to explore another action area – Creating Healthier, More Equitable Communities. This conversation will be inspired by your perspective and input about what makes your communities – the places where you live, work, learn, and play – healthy, and the role we can all play in making them healthier, and more equitable.

From now throughout TEDMED 2016 and beyond, we look forward to creatively exploring RWJF’s 2016 TEDMED What If? question: “What if we valued our community’s health as much as our own?”

We’ll start this conversation with a pre-event #healthycommunities social media campaign – so join us on Twitter @TEDMED and @RWJF to share your thoughts about the importance of #healthycommunities and pictures of healthy places in your own community. We’re starting today, so look for these prompts and share your responses – we’ll incorporate them into an installation in The Hive onsite in Palm Springs!

How could grocery stores better support a Culture of Health? #healthycommunities

How would you reimagine playgrounds to build a Culture of Health? #healthycommunities

How could parking lots be used to create #healthycommunities?

How can transportation policy better support #healthycommunities?

Also, stay tuned for a ten-part Blog Series, curated by RWJF, showcasing the real and tangible ways that communities around the country are implementing programs focused on health and equity. Featuring each of the seven RWJF 2016 Culture of Health Prize winning communities, and several guest posts from TEDMED community members, this series is sure to inspire us all to improve the health and equity of our own communities.

img_2011Continuing what we hope is a robust and dynamic conversation and engagement on-line leading up to TEDMED, a Creating Healthier, More Equitable Communities Lunch will take place in Palm Springs on Thursday, December 1st. Over lunch, the entire TEDMED Delegation will gather as a community to explore programs, activities and policies that play a vital role in creating healthier, more equitable communities and help to build a Culture of Health around the country.

We can’t wait to hear from you and learn about the big and small ways that you are improving the health and equity of your community!

A prescription for… art?

It’s safe to say that, when we think about personalized medicine, one of the last things that comes to mind is music. But, should it? These days, music streaming apps aren’t only organized by genre; you can easily find curated playlists that are designed to put you in a certain mood, or help you reach a goal (how about some “Cure those Monday morning blues” or “Songs to wake up happy,” anyone?). Many of us regularly use music as a tool to help us focus on the task at hand, or to pump ourselves up before a challenging workout.

Image courtesy of ShutterstockThere’s nothing particularly surprising about the fact that music affects how we feel. But, do we really understand what it does to our brains and bodies? The physiological and neurological effects of music are largely a mystery – one that Ketki Karanam, Head of Science at The Sync Project, is eager to solve. The Sync Project – whose Advisory board members include artists like Peter Gabriel, as well as neuroscientists and machine learning experts – is designing the first large scale data collection and machine learning models to understand these effects. It will identify how music’s structural properties – like beat and tempo – can affect our biometric rhythms, such as heart rate, sleep patterns, and brain activity.

The goal of the initiative? To identify potential music therapeutics that would serve as an alternative to drugs for health issues like insomnia, pain, and anxiety. Like Ketki, the relationship between music and medicine has also been a lifelong interest for Richard Kogan, who has led a distinguished career as both a psychiatrist and a concert pianist. A professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College, Richard has developed a series of renowned lecture-recitals, in which he examines the influence of psychological and psychiatric factors on the creative work of great composers, like Schumann, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Gershwin. In part, Richard is motivated by a desire to destigmatize mental illness by highlighting savants with mental disorders, whose symptoms may have inspired their creative processes.

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Scarred for Life, Ted Meyer

For both Ketki and Richard, music and medicine are inseparable. But does the relationship between the two extend beyond music, to other forms of art? According to artist and curator Ted Meyer, it does. Having been diagnosed with Gaucher disease, a rare genetic illness, at age 6, Ted spent years in hospital rooms creating paintings that depicted the loneliness, fatigue, and pain he experienced. Decades later, after a new drug was discovered to treat those symptoms, the subject of Ted’s art has changed. Today, his 18 year old project, “Scarred for Life,” chronicles the trauma and courage of people who have lived through accidents and health crises. Using this mixture of personal stories and a love for art, Ted has set out to improve the doctor-patient relationship. As an Artist in Residence at the USC Keck School of Medicine, Ted curates patient-artists whose work ties to the medical curriculum; for example, an artist with asthma for a class on the respiratory system. Ted hopes to expand this program to other medical schools, with a goal of teaching future doctors to look at their patients beyond their diagnoses, and view them as complex, whole human beings.

We are delighted that Ketki, Richard, and Ted will each be speaking on the TEDMED 2016 stage, where they will share their discoveries and unique insights about the relationship between art and medicine. We invite you to join us this November 30-December 2, in Palm Springs, CA, to learn more from them and other extraordinary speakers.

The Hopeful Future of Precision Medicine

Many of us have experienced the pitfalls of a “one-size-fits” all approach to medicine, where physicians prescribe treatment for the “average patient” instead of the one sitting in front of them. By not accounting for the variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle that are often so closely tied to health and illness, treatments end up falling short and sometimes do more harm than good. Fortunately, the “precision medicine” movement, which takes into account the patient’s unique characteristics when prescribing treatment and prevention strategies, has gained traction in recent years.

In 2015, President Obama funded the Precision Medicine Initiative to ensure that researchers could focus on creating efficient and effective ways to integrate more personalized treatment plans into the current healthcare and medical system. This year, we’re excited to have some of the front-runners in the precision medicine movement on the TEDMED stage!

Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark. Image provided by PanTher Therapeutics.

Photo credit: Bryce Vickmark. Image provided by PanTher Therapeutics.

An immediate goal of the Precision Medicine Initiative is to apply this approach to catalyze cancer research. While we have learned more about cancer prevention, detection, and treatment in the past 2 decades than we have learned in the previous centuries, we still haven’t found a treatment that doesn’t harm the patient in the process. The TEDMED 2016 Hive company PanTher Therapeutics is working to change this. As their CEO Laura Indolfi puts it, “it seems very counterintuitive to have a whole body treatment to target a specific organ.” The company is studying the precise delivery of existing, already proven chemotherapy agents directly onto the tumor using flexible plastic patches for consistent, slow release over time. PanTher is completing pre-clinical testing prior to initiating human trials for patients with pancreatic cancer, but hope to apply the same technique to treat other forms of cancer in the near future.

Another goal of the Precision Medicine Initiative is to harness the power of data to highlight trends about disease and health, in search of more effective treatments. This is precisely what Andrew A. Radin and his team at twoXAR are working on. The TEDMED Hive organization has produced efficacy signals in preclinical studies in multiple diseases. To date, twoXAR has completed over 75 disease prediction models and has 9 drug discovery collaborations, including both rare and common conditions.

Ultimately, the Precision Medicine Initiative aims to translate this method of prevention, treatment and care across all fields of health and healthcare. One area where precision medicine could have a measurable impact is in the study of neurodegenerative diseases, due to the relationship between genetics and neurodegenerative disease. The TEDMED 2016 Hive organization Denali Therapeutics is researching the genetic causes and biological processes underlying neurodegenerative disease and using this information to create targeted treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases. Led by Chief Medical Officer, Carole Ho, Denali’s research team has identified multiple drug targets that could lead to breakthroughs in the treatment of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

TEDMED 2016 Hive organization Frequency Therapeutics is looking to uncover the body’s hidden biological potential to heal itself. Led by Co-Founder, President and CEO, David Lucchino, Frequency Therapeutics is developing small molecule drugs that activate progenitor cells within the body to restore healthy tissue in a precise and controlled way. With recent discoveries in stem and progenitor cell biology, Frequency Therapeutics is creating therapies that could reverse sensory hearing loss by targeting specific hair cells within the inner ear. Their approach is promising not just for the almost 1 billion people across the world who are affected by hearing loss, but for the potentially large impact on other diseases as well.

Image provided by Charles Chiu.

Image provided by Charles Chiu.

Using the precision medicine approach would also enable us to prevent the spread of disease much more efficiently. With the recent Ebola and Zika outbreaks, many are wondering how we can stop the spread of similar outbreaks in the future. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease physician and researcher, is pioneering the clinical implementation of a tiny next-generation sequencing device from Oxford Nanopore Technologies that could drastically change the way we respond to the next deadly bug. This device “can detect all pathogens – virus, bacteria, fungus, parasite known or unknown – in a single test,” says Chiu, and can do so in a matter of hours and in remote, low-resource settings. By using this device, we could decrease the time it takes to find diagnoses, which would help curb the spread of outbreaks and enable clinicians to provide timely and effective treatments for their patients.

Thanks to these extraordinary innovations, the future is looking brighter already. From preventing pandemics; to defeating neurodegenerative diseases; to curing and preventing hearing loss; to accelerating drug discovery; and creating a new therapy for cancer, each of these TEDMED Speakers and Hive innovators are working to ensure that the goals laid out in the Precision Medicine Initiative become a reality for generations to come.

With these exciting breakthroughs just around the corner, we are excited to hear more about these inspiring innovations as these Speakers and Hive entrepreneurs take the stage at TEDMED 2016. Register today to join us in Palm Springs, CA, this November 30 – December 2.

Healing Trauma in Unexpected Ways

Many of us have dealt with, or are dealing with, some form of trauma. This year at TEDMED, three Speakers will take the stage to share how they are helping relieve the effects of trauma using what some view as non-traditional healing methods. Whether it’s examining how marijuana can treat neuropathic pain, using guided imagery and drawing to heal psychological trauma, or using spoken word to heal the emotional wounds of war, the TEDMED Speakers described below are passionate about relieving suffering and improving lives.

Image provided by David Casarrett.

Image provided by David Casarett.

One of those speakers is David Casarett, the director of the Duke Center for Palliative Care, whose recent work has focused on medical marijuana – something David originally thought was a joke. But after researching the topic for his book, Stoned: A Doctor’s Case for Medical Marijuana, he realized that for many patients, there’s nothing funny about it. David spoke to people who use marijuana – often obtained from specialized clinics – to treat seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, and neuropathic pain (caused by nerve damage), which is notoriously difficult to treat. David sees potential not only in the use of medical marijuana to treat certain ailments but also in the way medical marijuana dispensaries have figured out how to deliver effective patient-centered care.

James Gordon, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist, has spent much of his life listening to and lessening the suffering of those who have experienced severe trauma – from runaway homeless children, to people living with life-threatening illnesses, to survivors of Civil War. In 1991, he founded the Center for Mind-Body Medicine (CMBM) with the goal of creating a “worldwide healing community where people use practical mind-body skills to move through suffering and confusion toward a more hopeful, healthy, and confident future.” CMBM describes mind-body medicine as the use of meditation; guided imagery; yoga and exercise; self-expression in words, drawing, and movement; and, small group support to deal with the trauma and stress we all experience.

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Photo credit: The Center for Mind-Body Medicine.

Jim and his team started their work in the US teaching mind-body medicine to health professionals so they could integrate it into their practices in hospitals and clinics, schools and community-based programs. Soon Jim turned his attention to some of the darkest and most troubled places on the planet. CMBM began working in Mozambique, South Africa and Bosnia, and in 1998 – when war broke out in Kosovo –  Jim traveled there. Ultimately, CMBM’s faculty trained 600 Kosovar health workers and educators and the CMBM program became a pillar of the nation-wide Community Mental Health system. In the years since, Jim and his CMBM team of 160 have created what is likely the world’s largest, most effective program for population-wide psychological healing. The local teams they have trained have worked successfully with more than 200,000 children and adults in Gaza and Israel and with tens of thousands more in Southern Louisiana after hurricane Katrina, in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, with US veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and long-traumatized American Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Peer-reviewed scientific research has demonstrated that these programs reduce post traumatic stress disorder by 80%. Everywhere they are offered, they enhance resiliency and bring healing and hope. Articles in The New York Times and The Washington Post and a 60 Minutes segment which features Jim’s work with war-traumatized children in Gaza and Israel convey the life-transforming power of his work, and his book, Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression shows how these techniques can be used by all of us who deal with our own forms of trauma and stress.

Image provided by Emi Mahmoud.

Image provided by Emi Mahmoud.

Another Speaker at TEDMED this year, Emi Mahmoud, uses self expression in words to help herself and others heal the traumatic wounds of war. Born in Sudan, Emi grew up in Philadelphia and graduated from Yale University earlier this year, where she studied Anthropology and Molecular Biology. It was at Yale that she began to excel in Spoken Word Poetry – a form of oral poetry performed live on stage – and in 2015, she won the Individual World Poetry Slam competition. Her poetry and performances are powerful, heartfelt and heart wrenching forms of expression, many of which are focused on Sudan and its people – often members her own family – who have become victims of the Civil War and famine that have plagued the country for decades. Addressing the fears and trauma of life in Sudan, and life as a refugee, is something Emi is passionate about. She has worked with the Yale Refugee Project and the Darfur Alert Coalition to help raise awareness about genocide worldwide, she teaches spoken word poetry to young people around the world as a way to empower and help them deal with the trauma and hardships they face, and she advocates for global education – in September of this year she delivered a powerful spoken word performance at the launch of the UN’s Report by the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity. Her spoken word poetry is most powerfully felt when seen, so watch more of her performances via the links on her TEDMED page, and prepare to be moved.

We are honored to have these three compassionate, impressive, and inspiring speakers at TEDMED this year. Join us in Palm Springs to hear their talks live!

Healing ourselves, and healing our world

Many of us have heard the adage, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” At TEDMED, we embrace this philosophy; every year, we convene extraordinary people and ideas from across different disciplines who are all united in shaping a healthier future for our planet and its 7 billion people. And, at TEDMED 2016, we are honored to feature such committed, passionate citizens in our program.

One such actor is TEDMED Hive Innovator and EpiBiome CEO, Nick Conley. According to Nick, he founded EpiBiome in response to multi-drug-resistant “superbugs” that threaten to reverse the last one-hundred years of surgical advances if new antibiotics are not discovered, due to the risk of post-operative infection that is too high to justify all but the most necessary surgical procedures. In search for a substitute for antibiotic treatment, EpiBiome has taken to the sewer to explore bacteriophages – viruses that infect and destroy specific bacteria ­– as a natural and effective alternative. According to Nick, phages outnumber bacteria 10:1 and kill half the bacteria on the planet every two days. Importantly, some phages have already received “Generally Recognized as Safe” status from the FDA for use on food intended for human consumption.

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Image provided by Kinnos.

Meanwhile, TEDMED Hive Innovator Kevin Tyan, along with his co-founders at Kinnos, has taken a different approach to fighting infection. Recognizing the urgent need to improve decontamination in response to the Ebola epidemic, Kevin and his co-founders realized that regular bleach disinfectant wasn’t enough to protect health workers. Although bleach has been recommended by the World Health Organization as the best and most cost efficient disinfectant for surfaces contaminated by infectious disease, its effectiveness is limited by its transparency and the fact that it’s easy to miss spots and leave gaps in coverage. It also bounces off waterproof surfaces, much like rain bounces off an umbrella.

For Kevin, this was a challenge begging to be tackled head on. He and his co-founders created Highlight ­– a patent-pending powdered additive that colorizes disinfectants. This makes it easier to visualize, ensure full coverage, and adhere to surfaces. The color is only temporary, however, and fades once decontamination is complete.

Another TEDMED speaker who is not only deeply committed to protecting our health, but also that of our planet, is Gunhild Stordalen, Founder and President of the EAT Foundation. Gunhild believes that many of our major global health and environmental challenges are inextricably linked to food: what we eat, how our food is produced, and all that is wasted. With the knowledge that there is no single solution to this problem, the EAT Foundation works toward stimulating interdisciplinary research and catalyzing action across sectors to enable us to feed a growing global population with healthy food, from a healthy planet.

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Image provided by Caitlin Doughty.

Mortician and TEDMED speaker Caitlin Doughty is also deeply concerned about the health of our planet – particularly, the environmental risks of current burial practices. According to the Funeral Consumers Alliance of Southern California, traditional burials – where an embalmed body in a wooden coffin is sometimes placed in a concrete or metal vault ­– require more than 30 million board feet of hardwood, 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete and over 800,000 gallons of carcinogenic formaldehyde embalming fluid every year. Caitlin’s proposed solution? Eco-friendly death and burial practices, such as water cremation and natural composting. To that end, in 2012, Caitlin founded Undertaking LA, a progressive funeral home that provides alternative, green burial options.

Though they are taking wildly different approaches, these speakers and innovators are committed to a common goal – healing our world. We are inspired by their work, and are excited to see them speak at TEDMED 2016. We hope you’ll join us there.

Emotional Well-Being is the Missing Key to Better Health

This guest blog post is by Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General and TEDMED 2015 speaker. You can watch his TEDMED talk here.


Imagine if there was a force in your life that could reduce your risk of having a heart attack or stroke, that could help you live longer, that could make your children less likely to use drugs and engage in crime, and that could even help you lose weight.

It turns out, it is not a new prescription medication or medical procedure. The force I’m talking about is emotional well-being.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaking at TEDMED 2015.

Emotional well-being is the often overlooked counterpart to physical well-being. Emotional well-being is about much more than the absence of mental illness in the same way that physical well-being is about more than the absence of injury or disease. Commonly thought of as happiness, emotional well-being is a powerful resource within each of us that can reduce our risk of illness, improve our performance, and enable us to be resilient in the face of adversity. Emotional well-being is what can make the difference between surviving and thriving.

It might be tempting to assume that emotional well-being is solely a consequence of our circumstances. We may tell ourselves that we’ll be happy if we get the promotion we want, make more money, or lose some weight. This is not to say that circumstances don’t matter. They do. In particular, external factors such as poverty, violence, and poor access to health care have a real impact on health and well-being – and we must do everything we can to address them. But science tells us that there are also internal factors that influence emotional well-being and that we can in fact proactively cultivate emotional well-being using tools that are surprisingly simple and relatively inexpensive.

We can cultivate emotional well-being with physical exercise, which research shows can improve mood and outlook as well as reduce depression. Contemplative practices like gratitude exercises and meditation have also been shown to improve emotional well-being, as has getting an adequate amount of sleep.

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools for improving emotional well-being is social connection – the presence of genuine, strong, relationships where one feels known and supported. Despite the ubiquity of social media, we are facing an epidemic of loneliness and social isolation. Helping people find and build meaningful relationships is one way to improve emotional well-being. The good news is there are a growing number of communities that have begun to invest in improving emotional well-being and are seeing remarkable results.

sg-visitacion-valley-msOne example is Visitacion Valley Middle School in California.  The school is located in a community where violence is prevalent.  The majority of the students come from economically-challenged families. Many have one or both parents in prison.  Several years ago, suspension rates were high, academic performance was low and anxiety and trauma were commonplace.  Desperate to do something, the school teamed up with the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education to develop a voluntary “Quiet Time” program for students – that included the option to practice 15 minutes of meditation, twice a day. In the first year alone, there was a 45% reduction in suspensions, teacher absenteeism dropped by 30%, grades and test scores went up, and the students reported less anxiety and fewer sleep disturbances. The program has since been expanded to more schools, with promising results.

Emotional well-being is a relatively untapped resource that has the potential to transform our health. It can help us build resilience, enhance productivity, and shift our mindsets away from fear and pessimism toward peace and possibility – a shift that is increasingly necessary and urgent in today’s world.

Imagine if we prioritized emotional well-being as much as test scores in schools. Imagine if cultivating emotional well-being was seen as a priority in our workplaces. Imagine if emotional well-being was understood by all our policymakers to be the fuel that enables us to be healthy, productive, and strong.

The question is: can we make the cultivation of emotional well-being a priority that is reflected in our culture, our policies, and each of our lives? For the sake of our health and the health of future generations, we must ensure the answer is “yes.”

Living Healthier, Longer

As Benjamin Franklin once said, “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Thankfully, we won’t delve into a conversation about taxes at TEDMED 2016, but we will be examining death by exploring how we age and how we plan for the end of our lives. Aging is, afterall, a process many of us will have the good fortune to experience – in 2014, 14.5% of the US population was aged 65 or older; by 2040, that age group will make up 21.7% of the population. And by 2050, the number of people around the world over 80 years of age is predicted to triple to 434 million. At TEDMED this year, we will hear from innovative scientists testing and developing drugs to help us live longer and entrepreneurs designing ways to help us plan for the culmination of what we all hope will be long, healthy lives.

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Image courtesy of Nir Barzilai.

One of these innovators is Nir Barzilai, a longevity scientist who is part of a team exploring the potential of metformin – which has shown protective effects against age-related diseases – to increase lifespan. Born in Israel, Nir says that his experience in military service, including as a medical officer in the special forces raid on Entebbe, Uganda that freed 102 hostages in 1976, shaped his scientific temperament. One of his more fascinating scientific endeavors is the Longevity Genes Project which is run out of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. The Project has studied hundreds of healthy people ranging from age 95 to 112, and their children. Through this research, Nir and his colleagues are trying to understand the biology and genetics associated with extreme longevity of life. Not only is the science fascinating, so too are the video profiles of the the 96 – 104 year old participants in the Project. The videos provide unique insights into the lives of healthy, elderly individuals.

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Image courtesy of UNITY Biotechnology.

Like Nir, the innovators at UNITY Biotechnology are interested in how to live healthier, longer. The team at UNITY envisions a world where you can grow old without getting the common diseases and ailments associated with older age. They have shown in animal models that removing senescent cells can reverse or prevent diseases associated with aging, such as osteoarthritis, eye diseases, and kidney diseases.  UNITY is creating “senolytic medicines” that clear senescent cells selectively from the body, while leaving normal cells unaffected.  The potential here is huge, and the innovators at UNITY know that they are on an uphill climb towards making history, but as their CEO and 2016 Hive Entrepreneur, Nathaniel David puts it, “if we succeed, we can change the lives of every person we know—and billions of people we don’t.”

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Image courtesy of Cake.

As scientists like Nir and those at UNITY explore how we can live longer, healthier lives, the entrepreneurs at Cake, like co-founder Mark Zhang, are designing ways for us to plan for our (hopefully) longer lives and, yes, their inevitable end. At Cake they believe that the end of life is still a part of life, and the way we do end-of-life is completely broken. To address this, they are helping users to think through, share and store their end-of-life preferences which can remove a lot of the stress and uncertainty associated with end-of-life planning. Their “Cake Cards” ask questions ranging from whether or not you want your Facebook account deleted when you die, to how you envision your memorial service. At Cake, they believe that planning for the end of your life can actually provide you with insight into what is most important to you, therefore encouraging you and your loved ones to live better, fuller lives. For a topic that can be difficult to confront, Cake is working to make it more accessible.
So here’s to a celebration of long, healthy lives and a well planned-for end-of-life! We’re looking forward to learning more from these three change-makers when they take the stage at TEDMED 2016. Register to join us and hear their sure to be inspiring talks, live.

Advancing Synthetic Biology: Q&A with Floyd Romesberg

Floyd Romesberg, synthetic biology expert

Floyd Romesberg

In his TEDMED 2015 talk, Scripps Chemistry Professor Floyd Romesberg shares his enthusiasm for developing artificial DNA and its implications for novel protein therapeutics. We caught up with Floyd to learn more about the exciting work of his lab.

TEDMED: What has your lab been up to since you spoke at TEDMED?

FLOYD: Since I spoke at TEDMED, my lab has continued to nurture and optimize our semi-synthetic organism. The nascent organism I described in my talk was the first to replicate DNA containing a third base pair, but only a single pair, and the poorly growing organism rapidly lost the unnatural base pair under all but the most controlled conditions. It was an incredible proof of principle, but lacked the fortitude of real life. The newly improved organism still relies on the same protein to take up the unnatural nucleotide precursors of our unnatural base pair, but we have engineered the protein to be less toxic and are now utilizing a newer, chemically optimized unnatural base pair. In addition, we have optimized the host cell. The result is a semi-synthetic bacterial organism that can be grown like any other laboratory strain and that retains multiple unnatural base pairs in virtually any sequence context – the first semi-synthetic form of life that stores genetic information using a six-letter, three base pair alphabet.

TEDMED: What’s next for you?

FLOYD: We’re continuing to push forward with the semi-synthetic organism. Since we reached the milestone of unrestricted storage of increased genetic information, the next step has been to focus on information retrieval in the form of messenger and transfer RNA transcribed from the six-letter DNA. The unnatural base pair will be one third of a new amino acid codon, and we’re also working on engineering the components to decode the new codon into a novel amino acid during protein synthesis. There are a lot of moving parts to coordinate, and we have to get each part to work but we also have to make sure the parts all work together. It might sound like an insurmountable problem, but that’s what people thought about our efforts to expand the genetic alphabet. It may take some time, but getting bacteria to produce unnatural proteins should be possible. When we accomplish this, we will have created the first form of synthetic life that stores and retrieves increased information and which can access forms and functions not otherwise possible in the fully natural world.

TEDMED: What does the future of medicine look like with protein therapeutics?

FLOYD: Protein therapeutics have revolutionized medicine, but their potential activities and uses are limited by their being composed of only the natural twenty amino acids and in the challenges of their specific modification. The future of protein therapeutics lies in methodologies to include any chemical functionality into their composition, thereby imparting novel or optimized activities and properties. With development of our semi-synthetic organism, we will be able to produce the unnatural proteins directly during their synthesis within the cell. In this manner we should be able to extend the potential application of protein therapeutics to diseases that have been difficult to target, such as infectious diseases and cancer. The possibilities are essentially endless.

TEDMED: What kind of impact do you want your research to have?

FLOYD: I would like our research to impact our conceptual understanding of life– what it can be and how it might have evolved– and also influence our practical uses of it, by producing modified proteins to treat disease.

Dispatches of solace and hope: Q&A with Sarah Gray

On Hope and Solace: Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray

In her TEDMED talk, Sarah Gray, director of communications for the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB), shared her journey to find meaning in her most tragic loss by learning how to donate the organs of her newborn son to advance scientific research. We asked Sarah to tell us more about her outreach work.

TEDMED: Could you share any exciting stories you’ve encountered in your work?

SARAH: On the research front, I’m pleased to share that Eversight, one of the largest consortiums of eye banks in the USA, recently launched a new program called Hope and Healing that is designed to help eye donor families meet the researchers who received their loved one’s tissue.

In a story similar to my own, an especially touching family tale is about Amalya, a baby who died of anencephaly who donated to a variety of studies around the USA. His parents were able to meet some of the researchers who received his donations and learn about the impact of his donation.

TEDMED: In your TEDMED talk, you encouraged the audience to contact you with any stories of their own about tissue donation. With over a million views of your talk, have you connected with any viewers with powerful stories of tissue, organ or marrow donation?

SARAH: Absolutely! I have received emails from amazing people from all over the world, from New Zealand and South Africa to Scotland, Spain and France. Some just wanted to say that they liked the talk, some shared stories of loss, some told me that I helped them see a new perspective, and some asked for practical advice about donation and obtaining research samples. One researcher contacted me to find out where he might be able to access different types of tissue for a study on the genetic causes of certain diseases and I am glad I was able to help him.

I was really touched by every person who reached out, and a few of the emails in particular. Two different people from two different countries told me they had terminal cancer and wanted to know where they might be able to donate their tissue when they pass away so that the study of their tissue might help others. Reading these emails was so moving and I am honored I was able to help them.


Learn more about Sarah’s journey in her powerful memoir, A Life Everlasting: The Extraordinary Story of One Boy’s Gift to Medical Science.