Reaching Toward the Frontiers of Neurology

Friday, Oct. 4, 1:30 pm

As the “The Atlantic Meets the Pacific” conference came to a close, the final panel dealt with the topic of “Brain Mapping, Pushing the Frontiers of Neurology.”

What’s the current state of brain-mapping research?

NICOLAS SPITZER

Nicolas Spitzer, UC San Diego professor of neurology

Panelist Kris Famm, head of Bioelectronics R&D with the big-pharma firm GlaxoSmithKline, had this observation: “It’s as if we have all the pieces of an airplane laid out before us, but the plane hasn’t taken off yet. …We are now on the verge of tapping into an ability to speak the electrical language of the brain.”

Nicolas Spitzer, Distinguished Professor of Neurology and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, UC San Diego: “What is going on when I have this thought in my brain? We only have the most rudimentary knowledge into those important questions…One of the lessons we learned from the human genome project is that we shouldn’t promise too much too soon. ..But it’s fair to say, in the next 10 to 20 years, we’re going to see the basis of brain functions…There will be new tools to provide ways we cannot yet predict, much like the stem-cell initiative that’s now moving forward.”

Ralph Greenspan, director for UC San Diego’s Center for Brain Activity Mapping: “It’s something that requires a great deal of technical progress before it can be realized. What we need to see is the quick, high-grained activity in the brain. It’s going to be about new sensors, new ways of being able to put together ultimately billions of streams of information. And then having some kind of a theoretical framework to make sense of it.”

On predicting advances: “The most important things in science are not things you can foresee. You simply don’t know where that great idea was going to come from. The most important break-throughs and most profound ideas can come from what you’re not directly studying.”

On using fruit flies as human substitutes in brain study: “For even an animal as small as a mouse or fruit fly, you can’t see inside the brain. But we will, some day. I’m not about to stick electrodes in my head, if I don’t have to. There are many steps we have to go through before that happens.”

In brain terms, exactly how does basic learning occur?

“One of the major benefits (of brain mapping) is to actually to see what happens when we do learn something, especially something that’s very abstract,” said Greenspan. “That is a question that Descartes would’ve loved to have found out.”

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How Best to Track Technology for Social Change

Friday, Oct. 4, 10:30 am

The mid-morning panel, “Technology for Social Change,” examined how advanced technology will bring social change around the world, especially to developing countries and less-than-democratic regimes.

CLARK GIBSON

Clark Gibson, professor of political science, UC San Diego

Clark Gibson, professor of political science at UC San Diego, spoke of his role as a voter-fraud monitor in such far-flung regions as Ghana, Afghanistan and China: “I believe that governments will have a harder and harder time to pull that switch. But I also know, being a cynic, that the government in many of these countries controls the infra-structure. It does come down to politics in many of these situations.”

In the next panel, under the heading “Living Longer, Living Smarter, Innovations in Longevity Research,” Larry Smarr, director of Calit2, got things underway with this assessment: “As you continue to age, your body’s natural systems are changing. You have to understand that you have 100 trillion cells in your body. The key to aging gracefully is to first to take responsibility for your body, its state of being, and that’s very counter to our current culture.”

He continued: “There are tools that science is developing how we can we take the tools to examine what we now call the ‘well-derly,’ the question of why some people live longer than others.

“It’s a moment of discovery of us, that’s a once-in-a-century moment. I’m 65 in another week or so. As a member of the baby boom generation, we have transformed this generation, from hula-hoops to being the elderly majority of this country. Very soon, you’re going to see everything focus on aging.”

Fellow panelist Deborah Szekely, health guru and founder of the world-famed Rancho La Puerta wellness spa in Tecate, and proud of her advanced age, joined the conversation with verve.

“Here in America, we’ve been lulled into thinking that what is bad for you is actually very good for you,” she said. “When people advertise to you, they are not your friends. Read labels. Think before you eat. Think about just how wrong our culture is.”

On how it feels to be her age: “I’m 91 and that’s no different from being 61, if you do the right thing. And I try to do the right thing….What we’ve doing is teaching the responsibility of taking care of ourselves. We know what to do. We just have to do it.”

On her lifelong advocacy of organic food: “We’ve done organic gardens since the early 1940s, before the war. We were called a cult back then. The concept of not introducing foreign substances into our food sources, that are not organic or natural, isn’t a new idea. I’ve always been anti-all boxes and pre-packaged foods…If we can get food out of the hands of big business, we’d be way ahead.”

There was this observation from Kunal Sarkar, co-founder and CEO of Lumos Labs, a San Francisco-based firm that commercially launched the successful learning tool, Lumosity. “This is the beginning of our journey. What we have learned in the last decade is more than what we ever learned before. It’s a very exciting place to be.”

Mining the Mind-Body Connection

CALIT2

Inner workings of Calit2

Friday, Oct. 4, 9 am

The final day’s sessions of “The Atlantic Meets the Pacific” began with a metaphysically-based conversation with Dr. Ramesh Rao, director of UC San Diego’s California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Teachings, UC San Diego.

Known as Calit2, with funding from Qualcomm, the 15-year institute’s mission is “quantifying bliss,” said Dr. Rao.

Some highlights of his remarks:

On those who doubt the existence of mind-body metaphysics: “The things you do, what you eat, who you talk to, what you think, it’s all related to who you are, your being…Even though I ought to be skeptical about it, you can find these things in yourself, if you know where to look….I’m completely convinced that the mind and body are connected, if you know how to pick up the signals.”

On finding bliss: “I have personally felt that good chocolate produces moments of bliss. I must mention that it was rare vegan chocolate, not the messy stuff that’s not good for you.”

On how to eat healthier: “Your body tells you what food is good for you, and what isn’t, so you can be at least as smart as your dog.”

On how he quantifies his own bliss: “Recently, a few months before I turned 50, I thought, what are you waiting for? For me, that for me meant (taking up) running, it also meant yoga meditation. I was a skeptic, though I grew up in India. I was raised in a secular household, (but) our family greeting translates to “Have you caught a glimpse of the divine today?” If you could track and monitor these divine moments, maybe you could experience more of those moments.”

The next session featured Dr. Jacobo Annese, director of The Brain Observatory at UC San Diego. His field of study is computational neuroanatomist; he discussed his ultra-innovative research in brain study, a pursuit he described as “brain slicing.”

Next up was Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health, Council on Foreign Relations, who was among the first scientists to warn of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s.

She was also a consultant on the 2011 theatrical release “Contagion,” themed on global disease outbreak.

On what global outbreaks to fear: “Bird Flu, H1N1 from a few years ago, has a 66 percent mortality in humans. It is the most deadly virus that we’ve seen that can be transmitted to humans.”

On global health: “It’s very clear that global health is being impacted by climate change and food scarcity. …The truth is, climate change is not a big, uniform change, but we need to think about the changes at the micro-bio level; those small, micro-minute changes in ocean temperature, for example, can be devastating. And this is infinitely linked to climate change.”

On the SARS outbreak in China: “The authorities were in cover-up mode, they didn’t want anything to rock the boat. The SARS lesson humiliated China. They basically had to turn the entire country into a massive public-health quarantine. You would be stopped every five miles. If you had a fever, you were immediately put in quarantine.”

Transformative Trends Include Wrist Monitors

Thursday, Oct. 3, 8:15 pm

The final session, “Transformative Trends in Medicine,” featured Dr. Eric Topol, professor of genomics at Scripps Research Institute.

He took the stage wearing a cell-phone sized monitor around his wrist, with an electric cord jutting out, clearly visible. With the push of a button, he easily accesses invaluable, empirical data about his own health.

ERIC TOPOL

Dr. Eric Topol

“It’s all about digitizing us as human beings,” he said. “You can now measure anything. The watch I’m wearing gives me all my vital signs, such as a computer reading of my cardiogram, for example.”

Soon, wearing such devices will be commonplace, he said. These days more patients insist on knowing as much about their health as their doctors.

There should be no secrets when it comes to patient health, he declared.

“It’s deeply seated paternalism, the feeling that only the doctor knows best,” he said. Through such wearable monitoring devices, “this process of information gathering is going to be taken away from doctors and moved toward their patients.”

How Far Away is a Cure for Cancer? Too Far

Thursday, Oct. 3, 7:30 pm

Following a series of mid-day VIP tours of UC San Diego’s health, research and arts-related institutions, acclaimed author/journalist Clifton Leaf took the stage for the evening session, in conversation with The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons.

CLIFTON LEAF

Clifton Leaf

Leaf, a cancer survivor himself when he was a youngster, created something of an uproar in cancer research for his recent best-selling book, “Why We’re Losing the War Against Cancer — And How to Win It.”

Leaf was half-kiddingly introduced by Clemons as “one of the most unliked people in the cancer business. You seem to be a pretty good guy, but you’ve issued a rather strong indictment against the cancer industry.”

Leaf welcomed the charge with a wry smile.

“Well, let’s start with a story where there are no villains. It’s hard to imagine a failure this grand, where there are no villains. If the goal is to collaborate, share data, create open data, the truth is the day-to-day incentives are about keeping secrets.”

“What we have is really a cultural systematic failure,” he said. “We’re a great people, who want to do great people, but we’re stuck with a system that doesn’t work.”

Noting that an estimated 1.7 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer every year, Leaf warned of “a demographic time bomb, more needing cancer care and not having the resources to do enough about it.”

Clemons told Leaf that he couldn’t find anything to be encouraged about in the book, that there wasn’t much about “how to win” the cancer war.

Leaf’s response: “You can’t write a book like this without putting the ‘how to win it’ in the title, but I couldn’t find a way to win it. Basically, my answer is, and it’s totally cowardly, I own up to it.”

What to do differently? “We’ve got to stop doing the things that are dumb and we know they’re dumb. That’s the answer.”

Accelerating Innovation in Cancer Care

Thursday, Oct. 3, 11 am

Moderated by The Atlantic’s James Fallows, the next panel discussion centered on innovations in cancer care.

SCOTT LIPPMAN

Scott Lippman

Scott Lippman, director of the John Moores Cancer Center, UC San Diego, on the growing importance of genome sequencing knowledge:

“As doctors, we’re not trained in this kind of biology. Now, I recommend that all doctors spend time in a laboratory because you have to understand the biology yourself and then be better able to treat  patients with that knowledge.”

Lippman, on alternative cures: “I’m a believer in different types of alternative medicine for cancer and I didn’t used to be. For example, there’s a study that says if you can reduce stress in your life, that it can be helpful. There are a lot of examples of those kind of alternatives that deserve to be considered.”

Greg Sorensen, CEO, Siemens Healthcare North America, on the costs of cancer care: “It’s very true that we spend a lot of money on cancer therapies that don’t work. I’ve had patients say, even though it costs me $10,000 a month, I’ve got to do it. That’s a mythical world. The issue is, how do we start having hard, ethical conversations with ourselves and our patients on the effectiveness of treatments we’re now able to offer.”

Kristina Vuouri, president & interim CEO, Sanford-Burnham Research Institute, on the often-futile search for cures: “The key is still prevention and early detection. The major cost is, we are treating patients with major drugs and we know that most of these drugs do not work. And the cost is a very big burden. We need to find out the likelihood of patients who can’t be cured by these high-cost drugs that don’t have a good outcome, as well as those who can be cured.”

Mukherjee: How to Tame the “Emperor” of All Maladies

Thursday, Oct. 3, 11:30 am

Siddhartha Mukherjee, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” spoke to the audience via Skype, but his words had such compelling edge and urgency that it was as if he was on stage.

Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee

On why he wrote the book, which has been described as a “biography” of cancer: “I thought, here we are running this massive campaign, yet we lacked a story telling us, what was this all about? Where are we? Are we in the beginning, the middle, the end? I wrote it for myself, to give us a public roadmap.”

After interviewer Steve Clemons noted that Richard Nixon was the first president to launch a “war on cancer,” the author responded tartly: “As you know, Nixon declared war on many things.”

On the concept of treating cancer as war: “It’s like declaring war on a puzzle. You don’t declare war on a puzzle, you try to solve it….We have learned an enormous amount. We now realize that cancer is not just one disease, but many diseases under the genetic microscope. We now know what the territory looks like. How do we use this information with the somewhat effective therapies that we now have?

More: “Puzzles don’t get solved without going through the middle. We’re now in the middle. We need the scientific energy to solve the next set of questions about this puzzle.”

On value of “big data” research: “I’m not so interested in big data. Small experiments can generate huge results. An apple falling from a tree can be much more valuable than millions of pixels on a computer screen….It’s how to take that data, which is very complex and convert it into something usable.”

Also: “It is not clear to me that the data revolution is the only solution to the problem. You don’t need big data to prove that smoking is a big problem around the world today. That’s not a data problem, it’s a behavioral issue…Let’s not confuse big with smart.”

Mukherlee, on working with noted filmmaker Ken Burns for an upcoming PBS documentary based on his book: “The object is to start a national conversation about cancer and the relationship between society, research and science….We’re trying to tell stories. I like to think of scientists as story-tellers in this process. It is our story, one effects each of our lives. It’s really a fundamentally American story.”

He ended with this admonition: “My last message is, don’t let anyone tell you that this is someone else’s problem. It’s our problem.”