Bending DNA to Our Will? TEDMED Speakers at Work on Rearranging Nature’s Building Blocks

We have arrived in the era where humans can now evolve their DNA. What not so long ago seemed the stuff of sci-fi fantasy is really happening and is changing the trajectory of medicine. Among the scientists rearranging nature’s building blocks are two of our TEDMED 2015 speakers, who will share their experiences, aspirations and concerns about what this phenomenon may mean to the future of humankind.

Scripps Chemistry Professor Floyd Romesberg is focused on breaking through the natural genetic code by using synthetic biology to increase the diversity of life. His lab has made artificial DNA base pairs that have replicated in nature, with the longer-term vision of creating novel protein therapeutics. Because they are made by cells and can be directed to perform particular tasks, Floyd says that this class of drugs has already revolutionized medicine – but his vision goes further. “The functions that a protein can have are currently limited by the natural 20 amino acids from which they are made.” Being able to create new ones will dramatically increase their usefulness.

To describe how this will benefit us, Floyd makes an analogy to the alphabet. “If you read a book that was written with four letters, you’re not going to be able to tell many interesting stories. If you’re given more letters, you can invent new words, you can find new ways to use those words and tell more interesting stories.”

Sam Sternberg's Bench, UC Berkeley
Sam Sternberg’s Lab Bench at Doudna Lab, UC Berkeley

But might some of those stories have terrible endings?

It’s a possibility that Berkeley biochemist Sam Sternberg, whose work has been published in Nature and Science magazines, believes we must examine carefully. As a doctoral researcher in the Doudna Lab at UC Berkeley, Sam was on the team that developed the revolutionary genome-editing tool called CRISPR. Though he is incredibly excited about having a tool that can edit human DNA, he also has anxieties about what this may mean. So now Sam is generating and participating in public discussions on the potential harm that CRISPR could unleash. He recently co-authored an article proposing a moratorium on editing the human germ line until safety and societal implications are broadly discussed.

“Genome engineering technology offers unparalleled potential for modifying human and nonhuman genomes,” Sam says. “In humans, it holds the promise of curing genetic disease … however, with such enormous opportunities come unknown risks to human health and well-being.”

We’re excited to participate in such meaningful conversations! Join us.

How Doctors Mend Their Own Broken Hearts

TEDMED 2015: Daria Mochly-Rosen, Pamela Wible, Suzie Brown

Broken hearts are a longstanding theme in art, literature and music – and, perhaps surprisingly, in medicine. Doctors are no strangers to sadness, or to the fear and anxiety that accompany hectic lifestyles, failure and loss – a strain on their personal health and wellbeing. This is a thread that runs through the careers of three of our TEDMED 2015 speakers, for whom taking action motivated by their hearts proved transformative.

Drug Development Shepherd Daria Mochly-Rosen once thought the most difficult part of science was making important discoveries, such as her groundbreaking and potentially life-saving research on protein kinase C for heart disease. She learned, however, that the greater challenge was bringing her newly proven treatment to the real-world patients who needed it. “I was shocked to learn that there are more ways to fail than succeed and that it isn’t just a logical path,” she says. The SPARK program she created at Stanford to help others navigate the “valley of death” between drug discovery and development is now being implemented around the world.

Though her physician-parents warned her against pursuing a medical career, Pamela Wible paid no attention and followed her heart’s dream to become a doctor, which led to loss and heartache. Two doctors she dated while in medical school killed themselves. She also struggled with suicidal thoughts – becoming, in her own words, “obsessed with physician suicide.” “I know the wounds we carry – the wounds that were inflicted on us during our training by bullying, hazing and institutionalized abuse,” Pamela says, sharing a fantasy that, if she could clone herself, “that other me would be standing on hospital rooftops with suicidal doctors—coaxing them back inside. I’d be flying through windows at midnight to remove guns, scalpels, and pill bottles (kind of like the tooth fairy) from suicidal doctors while giving them each a hug, a kiss, and a prescription for reclaiming their lives.”

Suzie Brown, a singer-songwriter and cardiologist specializing in congestive heart failure/cardiac transplants at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, uses music as an antidote to the stoicism she maintains at work. A cardiology fellow at UPenn when she wrote her first song, expressing the heartbreak she felt when a relationship ended, she said “I just figured, ‘If I can’t write a song when I’m feeling like this, I never will.’” It was a profound experience. She’d always believed that as a cardiologist, “I had to be tough, I had to not show my emotions. This song was like the polar opposite. I’m telling people I’m lonely and that was, like, this amazing thing.” Suzie will soon release her third album, her first with husband Scot Sax. In Palm Springs in November, the two will give a vulnerable, evocative performance that’s expected to tug at our heartstrings.

Reframing the Causes and Solutions to Obesity

Alongside smoking and alcohol use, obesity is not only a leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States – it also puts a heavy financial burden on the country’s healthcare system. Despite commonly held assumptions that obesity is the direct result of inactivity, laziness, or poor food choices, there is no simple solution to this complex public health threat. This November, four speakers will share their insights into the root causes of obesity, the surprising ways it can impact health, and steps we can take to combat it.

TEDMED 2015 Breaking Through, Food FixSugar scientist Laura Schmidt says that for many Americans, eating less sugar isn’t a realistic option because – slyly operating under 60 different “aliases,” it is hidden in 74% of processed foods and drinks. This leaves the average American unaware of eating three times more sugar each day than is considered safe. “Sugar isn’t just making us fat. It’s making us sick,” Laura contends.

Louise Greenspan TEDMED 2015 Breaking ThroughPediatric endocrinologist Louise Greenspan has done extensive research into what she calls “the new puberty” – the modern phenomenon of early puberty, an increasingly prevalent trend doctors are seeing in young girls. What is the underlying cause? Louise shares that, “unfortunately, few people in the general public are receiving the right information or targeting the real culprit: obesity.” According to Louise, scientific data clearly shows that girls who are overweight often experience early puberty – a fact that is not well known, even amongst health care professionals.

What are some solutions?

TEDMED 2015 Breaking Through, Food FixChef Bryant Terry is a proponent of returning to our roots and “putting the culture back into agriculture.” A food activist, Bryant is passionate about looking at the real root of the obesity health crisis – lack of accessibility to healthful foods. Bryant attributes obesity to “the industrialized food system over the past 50-60 years that has made it easier for people to eat cheap meat, to over-consume fast food, and processed food and sugary beverages.” Also, he shares that “there are people who have lots of disposable income and who grew up with these traditions, who know what farm-fresh food is, but think that – if you have money and are modern – you shop in the supermarket. Growing food? They’ll say, ‘That’s what country folk do.’”


TEDMED 2015 Breaking Through, Mind MattersMerely telling people to exercise more and pay closer attention to food labels won’t go far in solving the obesity epidemic, says Judson Brewer; in fact, this approach can backfire. Judson will share his breakthrough research on how mindfulness can quell cravings. He’ll explain how it’s being used as a novel treatment for addictions, including eating disorders.

Wonder what “Breaking Through” looks like? Find out at TEDMED 2015!

With less than six months to go until TEDMED 2015, we’re thrilled to announce the eight sessions that will take center stage this November 18-20 in Palm Springs, California. If you are planning on joining us, secure your spot today!

RegisterButton copyAt TEDMED 2015, we will focus on breaking through the status quo and celebrating the typical, the atypical and the spaces in between as we come together to shape a healthier world.

The mythology of a “breakthrough” tells the story of a lone genius and one magical, “aha” moment. But, let’s not mistake a good story for the truth. In reality, we all have breakthrough potential and the least likely way to unlock that potential is to toil away in social or intellectual solitude. Instead, we break through in new combinations and we collect the building blocks of our future breakthroughs every day, in every new interaction, in every new insight, one improvement at a time.

The year’s program is not about once-in-a-generation breakthroughs or cures. Instead, it’s about the steady, daily process of “breaking through” and driving continuous progress toward a healthier future – “breaking through” our established routines, “breaking through” our usual habits of mind, and “breaking through” our perceived environmental limits.

It has been said that the greatest form of courage is the long-haul, persistent determination to do a little better each day, and that the best way to make quantum leaps is to prepare the ground with steady, ongoing progress.

In this spirit we share the eight sessions that will make up the TEDMED 2015 stage program:

Human Explorations
Delve into intensely human experiences, including sexual myths and realities; the indomitable human spirit; how we identify with our genomic data; emerging technologies that edit our DNA; the tortured psyche; maximizing human potential; and a musical celebration of heart and soul.
Learn more…

Mind Matters
Explore the secrets and wonders of the brain, from the amazing wisdom of the cerebral cortex, to the mind’s invisible wounds and dysfunctions; from the latest neuroscience, to the vast remaining mysteries of our most inscrutable organ.
Learn more…

Catalyzing Great Science
Risk-taking researchers reveal new ways to disrupt the scientific paradigm, break through barriers between academia and industry, link seemingly unrelated fields, and meet demand from patient activists.
Learn more…

Back to Basics
Creating a culture of health often depends on factors that reach far beyond health care. Explore solutions with wise and determined change-makers who stand – and fight – at the front lines of innovation.
Learn more…

Food Fix
Craving a forbidden intellectual sweet, or desiring insights into the impact of food on health? Check out this tempting menu. “Chefs” include a conscientious food capitalist; an urban food anthropologist; a geneticist who is re-engineering meat and dairy; a global food rights activist; and other multi-disciplinary thinkers who are reshaping what and how we eat.
Learn more…

Brimming with shiny techno-optimism, this session features novel ways we are creating technologies with wide applications to health and medicine. Behold a sensor innovator’s quest to make medical care less invasive; a geneticist’s journey to make artificial DNA base pairs replicate in nature; and a daring pursuit to discover new uses for old drugs with machine learning.
Learn more…

Who Cares for Health Care?
Physician, heal thyself … and while you’re at it, how about healing your field? Every cure starts with accurate diagnosis, so this series of cautionary tales reveals surprising perspectives and under-appreciated challenges facing our health care system.
Learn more…

Out There
This session lives “in the wild” and on edges so newly discovered they feel eerily sci-fi. Explore our changing environment and so-called fringe science that is going mainstream. Speakers highlight some exciting, promising and even heart-wrenching ways to engage with the unexpected and seemingly foreign.
Learn more…

Ready to meet the speakers who will be featured in these sessions? With 60+ speakers and performers confirmed and the 2015 program finalized, we’re excited to start sharing our speaker line-up, beginning next week. Then, each week from now through early August we will unveil the speakers – stay tuned!

Special thanks again to both our Editorial Advisory Board and our Research Scholars for sharing their knowledge and experience with the TEDMED team as we designed this year’s program. We could not have created such a powerful program without their contributions!

We hope to see you in Palm Springs in November. If you have any questions, please reach out to Melanie at


A better organ-ized kidney solution: Q&A with Sigrid Fry-Revere

Sigrid Fry-Revere, Founder and President of the Center for Ethical Solutions, discusses issues around organ transplantation policy and provides an inspiring and cost-effective living organ donation solution from Iran. We learned more about her work and vision.

Sigrid Fry-Revere discusses living kidney donation solutions at TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED]
Sigrid Fry-Revere discusses living kidney donation solutions at TEDMED 2014 [Photo: Sandy Huffaker for TEDMED]

What motivated you to speak at TEDMED?

I was terrified of the thought of speaking before so many people, but I knew my research in Iran and experience as a rejected living organ donor could save lives.

What impact do you hope the talk will have?

We need to rethink conventional paradigms used for donor kidney shortage. Increasing the proportion of cadaveric kidney donation, while helpful, will never be enough. And, as it relates to living donation, it is not simply a question of whether we allow only altruistic (non-compensated) donations or whether we allow a market. Neither a market system nor pure altruism are necessarily the answer, however compensating living organ donors so that they don’t suffer financial consequences for their altruism is certainly a start. Assisting donors with meeting their expenses, or expressing gratitude with gifts or benefits does not diminish their altruism. Unfortunately, policies that limit efforts to to ensure fiscal health of donors makes taking part in the act of helping friends and family who need transplants a privilege only the wealthy can afford.

What’s next for you?

I want to to spur discussion and change, and to this end, I founded two organizations. Stop Organ Trafficking Now! is lobbying Congress to pay more attention to living organ donation and the rights and needs of those living organ donors. Making living organ donation easier means fewer Americans will brave black market organ trafficking channels to try to save themselves or their loved ones. I also co-founded a charity based on my experiences in Iran. The American Living Organ Donor Fund (ALODF) is a living organ donor support organization that provides information, an online donor support group, and financial assistance with non-medical donation related expenses. ALODF exists to support all kinds of living organ donors – kidney, liver, bone marrow and others – but to date only kidney donors have applied. My research has given me a good idea of what needs are alleviated for Iranian living donors in order to to ease the burden of donation. We lack such data for other countries, including our own, so I intend for the ALODF’s efforts to include learning more about the needs of American living organ donors. The American Living Organ Donor Fund has already made more transplants possible for U.S. citizens in its two and a half month existence than some government funded Organ Procurement Organizations (OPOs) average per month. How is this possible? For one, OPOs focus almost entirely on retrieving organs from deceased donors. Cadaveric organ retrieval is expensive and far less productive than live organ transplants. OPOs receive on average $50,000 per kidney retrieval, and as many as 20% of those organs are not viable for transplant. In the last two and a half months, the ALODF has helped 30 Americans receive transplants by helping their living organ donors with out-of-pocket expenses, spending on average $2,500 per donor. If you do the math, that is twenty times less per transplant than what an OPO receives per transplant.

Any corrections to your talk since you gave it?

In both my book and my TEDMED talk I mention that the Fars Province in Iran (an area surrounding the city of Shiraz) doesn’t allow compensating donors beyond the federal government contribution given to all living donors to help cover expenses. Dr. Malek-Hosseini, the head of the transplant program in Shiraz, Iran, notified me in November 2014 that his province no longer allows any unrelated donors. He believes this will  help prevent the illegal payments or black market sales or kidneys that were occurring in his province. Note, no other region in Iran that I know of has banned paying donors or placed such restrictions on relatedness of donors by blood, adoption, or marriage. However it is important to note that throughout Iran, it is illegal for foreigners to either buy organs or sell organs to Iranian citizens.