Q & A with Yaniv Erlich

TEDMED: In your TEDMED 2018 talk, you describe “Uncle Bernie,” the family genealogist who corners family members to get more information. Are you the genealogist in your family? When did your interest in genealogy begin?

Yaniv Erlich: [laughing] I liked genealogy quite a lot, especially as a child. Like many Israeli teenagers, I conducted my own genealogy project while I was in seventh grade. It was so enjoyable that I asked my mother to take me to the Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot; it had one of the only sources for genealogical information available at the time. I loved how history intersects with family stories, and the process of finding ancestors felt like detective work. I did such a good job on this project that it won the title of best genealogy project of the year at my middle school. Now, since genealogy is my work, it is no longer a hobby of mine and the family genealogist is my aunt. 

The last time I spent time on the genealogy of my family was after my father passed away 2 years ago. In some way, I felt that tracing my ancestors connected me to my father and his childhood–and reviewing the lifecycles of my family relatives gave me some serenity and comfort that the sorrow that I was experiencing was simply part of the endless rivers of generations.

Photo Credit: Yaniv Erlich

TM:  What was the catalyst for you to begin professional research on genetics and family trees?

YE: I was invited to join a commercial genealogy and social networking website by my third cousin, who was able to trace me and send an invitation email. At that time, I was about to finish my PhD studies and become more interested in human genetics. When I started documenting my family tree on the website, I was shocked to discover that many of my relatives already existed there! This got me thinking — family trees are one of the most valuable assets in human genetics. Yet, large family trees are very hard to collect. 

A few months later, I started my own independent research group at the Whitehead Institute of MIT. I decided to try to collect all the data from that website as one of the first projects of the lab, so I sent a cold email to the CTO of the website at that time, Amos Elliston. He immediately agreed and instructed me on how to collect the data. Eventually we downloaded 86 million public profiles from the website.

But over time it became a very long project. We actually spent 8 years from inception to publication. 

TM: Did you have any hurdles during the project?

YE: First, we had to substantially enhance and validate the dataset. The central question was whether we can trust datasets that were produced by amateur genealogists the same way that we trust family trees built by scientists. So we subjected the data to a massive number of tests, such as measuring the error rates of family trees, whether the individuals in these datasets represented the general population at the time, and the accuracy of the demographic details inserted by the genealogists. Second, we had to find the correct questions. In some ways, this dataset was a blessing and a curse because so many things can be evaluated using such datasets, and we had to think carefully about the focus of our study. Finally, we had to develop the computational infrastructure to answer those questions. Most genetic algorithms were developed to work with family trees with up to several thousand individuals. We had to develop and improve these algorithms to work on a scale of tens of millions of people.

TM: A lot of your research focuses on the role of genetics in longevity. What was the main thing you wanted to understand about longevity when you began your research? 

YE: Longevity is probably the most important trait because the question: “When am I going to die?” is imminent to us as individuals and as a society. Surprisingly, not a lot is known about the genetics of longevity. Some studies in the past suggested that 25% of the variance in longevity is attributed to genetic differences. However, these differences were never spotted by any study! 

In addition, there is a long-lasting debate in human genetics regarding the manner in which genetic variations affect traits. One camp argues that each genetic variant contributes independently to a trait regardless of the status of other variants. Another camp claims that the contribution of each variant is a complex function that is affected by the status of other variants. It is possible to find which camp is right by inspecting the correlation of the trait in various types of relatives, from, say, fourth cousins to full siblings. However, until our study, nobody was able to collect large family trees with enough relatives to robustly differentiate between the two camps.

Using our data, we inspected the longevity readout of millions of pairs of relatives. Our analysis shows that longevity is much less heritable than we thought before and only ~15% of the variance in the population can be attributed to genetic differences. Moreover, we showed that at least in the case of longevity, the first camp is the correct one. The value of each genetic variant is independent of the other variants. This is actually great news for precision medicine, because if each variant works independently, it means that it should be easier to find those longevity variants in the future.

TM: In your TEDMED talk, you spoke about the immense potential of biomedical research and the many insights we can gain from genealogy research. What’s the future of genealogy research?

YE: DNA! We currently see an ongoing revolution in the field. DNA tests enable genealogists to find relatives beyond the information permitted in genealogical records and as a tool to validate these records. In addition, DNA helps to solve cases when records are missing such in the case of adoptees, holocaust survivors, and even child trafficking. Thanks to the genomics revolution DNA tests are now highly affordable, democratizing access by growing segments of the population. A recent Technology Review article estimated that more than 26 million people took such tests and the uptake shows an exponential increase. Some estimate that in a decade most people in Western societies will have access to their DNA information, which means that we may be able to create the world’s family tree based also on DNA matches and not just genealogical information and family stories.

Q & A with Carl June

TEDMED: In your TEDMED 2018 Talkyou mentioned that cancer researchers had essentially given up on using the immune system to fight cancer, with the exception of cancers like cervical cancer and liver cancer.  What motivated you to look at the immune system differently, and even build your own synthetic immune system, to fight cancer cells? Did you receive skepticism from the medical community before your research was proven fruitful? 

Carl June: I have mentioned that I did my initial research while a medical research officer in the United States Navy. I was basically “conscripted” to do research in HIV even though my medical training was as an oncologist with specialization in leukemia. I was simply not permitted to do research in cancer. This turned out to be very fortunate turn of events because I learned how to use the HIV virus to engineer the immune system for people with HIV/AIDS. This gave me a completely different perspective when I moved to the University of Pennsylvania and began working on leukemia and lymphoma. 

And yes, there was skepticism. You better believe it! And it was well-deserved because for more than a hundred years people had tried to use the immune system to fight cancer with very disappointing results. In fact 10 years ago, there were less than five scientists working actively to make CAR T cells for cancer,  and now there are hundreds of laboratories around the world working on this problem. It is rare in science and medicine to see a shift of that magnitude in that time scale.

TM: CAR T cell infusions are the “first living drug in medicine,” as they stay alive and on patrol in the body for decades. Have other drugs followed this path?

CJ: As it happens, last week I got an email from the very first patient that we treated with CAR T cells for leukemia. The occasion of his email was that it was the nine-year anniversary since he had had his CAR T cell infusion and he wrote me to say how grateful he is for the remission. At this time I think we are safe to conclude that he is in fact cured. So that’s a very rewarding email to get! Scientifically we know from lab tests that his CAR T cells are still on patrol and in fact they are the first “living drugs”. I am confident that with the technologies we have today, including genome-editing, that there will be many more examples of living drugs created over the coming years. 

TM: At TEDMED, we like to think about each talk as sharing a “gift” with the community— a single idea that the audience takes away with them, that can change the way they think about a key issue or an “idea worth spreading”. What is the gift you’d like people to receive when watching your TEDMED Talk?

CJ: I have mentioned that I had many unplanned detours in my career. The gift I would like to leave with the community is that these twists and turns can be huge opportunities, and in my case, they led to the discovery of a cure for leukemia.  Sometimes creativity can emerge when you are forced to change your mindset.

Call for TEDMED 2020 Artist

At the heart of TEDMED’s mission is the quest for a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us. As tools for discovery, we recognize the essential roles that both science and art play in this pursuit. And yet, while science is rarely underappreciated in this search, art can often be overlooked. We believe that art serves an important role as a catalyst for innovation and creativity and provides the inspiration needed to birth new questions and new paths for scientific research. Art and science are inevitably intertwined, serving as inspiration for one another and constantly propelling us toward progress.

The roles that both science and art play in our health has been beautifully illustrated time and time again from our stage. At TEDMED 2018, Sound Alchemist, Yoko K. Sen, shared how dissonant sounds from hospital environments can become overwhelming to patients and can even run antithetical to the healing process. Yoko has dedicated her musical talents toward a better understanding of how sound impacts our emotions and she works to transform the auditory environment of hospitals with soothing melodies and tones. She’s the founder of Sen Sound, a social enterprise that aims to change the soundscape of medical spaces.

Similarly, award-winning architect Amanda Sturgeon discussed how we can rethink the design of spaces so that they emulate the surrounding environment, which has a positive impact on the occupants. Amanda and her team found that “biophilic buildings” – structures that embrace and borrow features found in the natural world – create spaces in which people are happier, healthier and more productive.

In 2018, the direct link between science and art was perhaps most strongly depicted in Marlène Oliver’s talk and art installation. Using imaging from MRIs and CT scans, she creates art that allows us to see how our digital selves exist in an abstract world of data. Every year, artists from across the artistic spectrum, contribute their talent and perspective to our program,  such as pianist Richard Kogan, painter Ted Meyer, art curator Christine McNabb, documentarian Holly Morris, improv performers Karen Stobbe and Mondy Carter, chef John La Puma, photographer Kitra Cahana, musician Gerardo Contino, and many more.  The talks themselves are also works of art. Each speaker carefully crafts their talk to share a unique gift with the TEDMED community. Even our speakers themselves become art, because an important part of our event design each year is to work with artists who create portraits of our speakers.

To come full circle, our 2018 portrait artist Marlene Morales Tollet is a perfect example of the art and science intersecting. Marlene is both a practicing ophthalmologist, specializing in comprehensive ophthalmology and oculoplastic surgery and an artist. We’ve been lucky to work with amazing artistic talent throughout the years, from widely acclaimed figures like Hanoch Piven and Victor Juhasz, to a collaborative project created by several RISD art students, to the fantastic work of Gabriel Gutierrez and Lauren Hess who were chosen from our community. These artists are invited to TEDMED and become an important part of our Delegation. Find out more about their beautiful work here.

Again this year, we’re excited to begin a search for the artist or artists who will help us bring this year’s speaker portraits to life. As part of our search, we’re officially accepting artist nominations and applications for TEDMED 2020.

Just as every year, our chosen artist or artists will join our community for 3 days in Boston, MA at The Westin Boston Waterfront Hotel, March 2-4 for TEDMED 2020 (travel and accommodations covered by TEDMED).  If you are interested, or know someone who might be, read on!

This call is open to amateur and professional artists, and all art mediums will be considered. While not required, the artist would ideally have a close tie to health and medicine. This could take form in the following ways:

  • Experience in the medical community
  • Experience working with patients
  • A personal story connecting the artist to health and medicine

The artist will need to produce roughly 50 portraits over the course of the next few months. Illustrations will be based on reference photos that will be provided. Final portraits will need to be delivered as high res digital files based on our specifications.

The work will take place between November 2019 – January 2020.

To apply (or nominate an artist), please send an email to art@tedmed.com. Be sure to include a work sample, a brief bio, any relevant links and details about the best way to get in touch (email, cell, etc.). If the artist is a good fit, someone from our team will reach out.

Application deadline: Midnight, October 4, 2019.