On National Stage, Weill Cornell Researchers Spark Dialogue on Future of Health and Medicine
On the nation's largest stage for health and medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College researcher Dr. Gregory Petsko sounded the alarm about a disease that "robs people of their personalities and souls."
It's also a disease that, if nothing is done today, will explode into an epidemic by the middle of this century.
|Dr. Gregory Petsko, a professor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell, at the annual TEDMED conference last month.
Courtesy of CENtral Science
Standing before leaders entrenched in health, science and medicine at the annual TEDMED conference hosted at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. last month and simulcast via live streaming to medical schools — including Weill Cornell — and universities across the nation, Dr. Petsko, a professor of neuroscience at Weill Cornell, warned of the coming onslaught of Alzheimer's disease if nothing is done to stem the tide.
"We know this is coming, we know when it's coming and we don't have a lot of time to deal with it," he said. "And it won't just affect the United States. It will affect the entire world."
The projections are clear, he said. Alzheimer's disease, one of today's most devastating afflictions, affects five million Americans, with three caregivers for every patient. But by mid-century, as the baby boomer generation ages, there is expected to be more Alzheimer's patients than the current populations of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston combined. And by the end of the country, researchers expect 300 million people worldwide succumbing to the disease, with 10 percent of the world's population caring for them.
"Clearly the world can't survive that," Dr. Petsko said. "That's an unsustainable future. But I don't feel this sense of urgency, this sense of looming catastrophe from the biomedical community. More importantly, I don't feel that sense of urgency from the government that provides money for biomedical research.
"I thought the TEDMED stage was a tremendous opportunity for me to sound a wake up call about this problem," he added.
TEDMED, comprised of a community of people passionate about imagining the future of health and medicine, is a licensed but independent offshoot of the TED conference, which for 28 years has assembled luminaries at the intersection of technology, entertainment and design to share ideas, inspire and spark national dialogue. TEDMED likewise serves as a stage to spur conversation about the future of health and medicine.
"It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to participate in TEDMED," said Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, an associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics and associate professor of computational neuroscience in the Institute for Computational Biomedicine at Weill Cornell, who spoke about her research into prosthetic retinas at last year's TEDMED conference. "It's an opportunity to connect with patients and health care professionals all over the world as well as venture capitalists and engineers who can help move the research from the lab to the clinic."
Dr. Nirenberg is currently developing a next-generation artificial retina that produces images almost as clear and crisp as the natural retina. While prosthetic retinas are currently on the market for the millions of Americans affected by degenerative retinal disease — of who 1.9 million face advanced-stage blindness — they hardly approximate normal vision.
Unlike traditional artificial retinas, Dr. Nirenberg's treatment would not involve surgical implants. Instead, a patient would receive gene therapy via an injection in the eye, producing a light-sensitive protein that reacts to image-specific light pulses generated by a special set of eyeglasses containing a camera and a computer chip. The pulses, which are in the retina's neural code, are then sent to the brain, allowing the patient to see. Testing has begun in monkeys, and the artificial retinas could be on the market within five years.Hundreds of people approached Dr. Nirenberg at TEDMED after she gave her talk, and more than a million tweets were sent, as the possibility of a highly effective retinal prosthetic became clear. Family members of patients from all over the world sent e-mails after viewing the talk on the TED site, writing stories of loved ones who are affected by degenerative retinal disease and would benefit from her research.
"It's humbling to meet and to talk to all these people whose lives have been made so difficult by this disease," she said. "It drives me to work that much harder."
As Dr. Petsko was ushered to the TEDMED stage, Jay S. Walker, TEDMED chair and Priceline.com founder, introduced the researcher is a "man who hears a bomb ticking."
To Dr. Petsko, there's nothing closer to the truth. "What I hear ticking is a demographics bomb," he said. "It's a time bomb."
New Alzheimer's research is having encouraging results, fostering a sense of optimism that scientists can devise some treatments for the disease. But the reach of translational research is limited by a shortfall in federal funding, one that is at least a factor of four too small, he said.
"If Congress and the government listen to people like me, there will be changes in the way we tackle this problem," he said. "But my voice isn't enough."
His TEDMED talk was a call to arms intended to galvanize government officials and health care leaders to boost funding and spark innovation. It also meant to alert the younger generations who may one day have to care for Alzheimer's patients if little progress is made.
"I'm hoping that people, maybe through social media, will begin to take up this cause and raise their voices," Dr. Petsko said. "This is a crisis we will face in our future, and we need to do something about that now."