TEDMED Day 3: Cancer eyes, hidden medical data and the healing power of poop

Graphic by Alphachimp Studio

A third day brought revelations, fascinating science, humor, great art and more than a little emotion at TEDMED 2012.

Evolutionary biologist Jonathan Eisen brought down the house with his talk about decoding the microbial genome, explaining that we humans basically depend upon their existence. He threw small stuffed microbes into the audience to give us a better glance at the tiny freeloaders that colonize our bodies.

We encountered more wiggling creatures during Andrew Read’s talk as he spoke about the evolution of disease in malaria-bearing mosquitoes and among cancer cells. Motto: If we don’t head them off at the path, they’ll evolve faster than we can find cures.

Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the Red Cross, introduced a new term to the

Stephen Petronio's "intravenous lecture" explored censorship, physical and otherwise.

TEDMED audience — cancer eyes — to describe the way friends and colleagues reacted to her first bout with breast disease: An uncomfortableness and sympathy and perhaps fear that they couldn’t disclose.

Consumers — patients — are averse to healthcare, too, particularly basic prevention testing, said Quest Diagnostics CMO Jon Cohen, to the point where many companies are giving employees incentives to get them.  A better answer, he says, may be to move to a desire-driven system where patients understand the value of quality healthcare and prevention.

You could hear a pin drop as legendary biologist E.O. Wilson took the stage and exhorted future doctors and scientists to approach their careers with imagination rather than rite:  “The ideal scientist is one that thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper.” And violinist Robert Gupta continued to pose his TEDMED question, “Does beauty have the power to heal?” by making extraordinarily beautiful music.

Jonathan Glass and Nick Boulis talked about the latest in stem cell therapy for ALS disease and role-played the patient/FDA/biotech merry-go-round that is the process for getting new treatments into trial and production in the U.S. He urged us to better calibrate the risk-reward scale.

Alexandra Drane, founder of the Eliza Corporation, interviewed surfer Laird Hamilton, who appeared with pro-volleyball player and health advocate (and Laird’s wife) Gabby Reece, about what it takes to attain the heights of physical achievement and, as she put it, to “put some sexy into health prevention.” They certainly do that, but they also have a heartening message for the 99 percent of us who will never approach anything near such bodily human perfection.  But, as Reece put it, “You can always be better” — and they sure are inspiring.

Author and MD Ben Goldacre asked – where’s the missing data?  Goldacre was referring to the truth that only roughly half of all research is published thanks to bias — positive results are twice as likely to be published. Asking doctors to prescribe with only a fraction of the info they really need to make decisions is, he says, tantamount to medical malpractice.

Speaking of lunacy, self-described “lunatic farmer” Joel Salatin, of Ominvore’s Dilemma fame, was anything but crazy when he talked about how you can’t have nutritious food without nutrient-rich, microbe-rich soil, and how our mechanized, chemicalized food production has little to add to that. The world isn’t for machines, he says, but for beings; he sees the world as a lover to be massaged, not dominated.

TEDMED’s Top 20 Great Challenges for the coming year were announced: See the results here. You’ll be hearing much more about as their Advocates lead online discussions and other events over the coming year.

Lastly, health advocates and social icons Katie Couric and Billie Jean King sat down to interview each other, kicking off with the history of the women’s movement over time and today, and its effect on women in sports and and healthcare.  Looking back on their own healthy influences, they remembered grueling daily gym classes from certified teachers, and home-cooked family dinners — where they ate whatever mom cooked. Yep, it may be that simple. On what seems to be a running TEDMED theme of personal responsibility in preventive health, King said she doesn’t like working out, but she does it anyway, because she loves the results. Couric also emphasized the importance of creating an environment where people have access to the choices they need to take responsibility — like making sure there are farmer’s markets or other options in “food deserts.”

King asked Couric for a status report on cancer awareness, and Couric credited success to a devoted “dream team” of women helping her get the world out.

“Health hath no fury like some pissed off women,” Couric said.

Blogroll:  Medgadget gives a  thorough roundup; Scott Hensley of NPR’s “Shots” blog recaps the day’s highlights; ABCNEWS.com covers Francis Collins’s talk, Teaching Old Drugs New Tricks for Rare Diseases; WSJ blogs Jon Cohen’s talk; HuffPost’s Liveblog.  David Ewing Duncan of The Atlantic wrote about the need for integration in biomedicine as expressed by TEDMED speakers; the WSJ covers E.O. Wilson’s advice to med students:  Don’t let the math scare you.