Making Whoopi. And Why Bioscience Matters for Our Kids.

Posted September 10, 2012 by jimhigley

 

I attended a rather amazing event this past Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center in our nation’s capital. The event, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg and actor John O’Hurley, included some fantastic performances by Melissa Manchester, Stevie Nicks and Babyface Edmonds (a name I wasn’t familiar with but someone I am now a fanatical fan of!). And then there were a number of other big name folks who entertained, inspired and delighted us, as well. Like House Marjoity Leader Eric Cantor and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi (who looked exactly like Saturday Night Live’s Kristen Wiig impersonating Nancy Pelosi!). There was a very healthy and trim Joe Torre. And of course there was Nobel prize winner Harold Varmus, who today heads the National Cancer Institute. Yes, yes, I almost forgot Nobel Laureate James Watson – who co-discovered the structure of DNA in the fifties. He didn’t sing. But being in his presence left me speechless. But I’d have to say that my favorite of all was Francis Collins–the esteemed director of the National Institutes of Health, leading a mean team of docs who performed a medley of hits.

Quite an incredible-and diverse (understatement!) group of folks. Yes?

Yes!

You see, all those attending were there to celebrate science and repledge ourselves, and our country, to bioscience. Effectively, it was the pep rally capping off a few days of a gathering of 1,200 leaders in the areas of research, health, sciences, philanthropy, academia, advocacy and government. The brainchild of  Michael Milken of the Milken Institute, and titled “A Celebration of Science,” this was all about honoring our country’s past accomplishments and imagining what is possible in the future.

I don’t know about you, but science was never my thing as a kid. It’s still something I grapple with. I’m much more comfortable on the arts-side of life. I like to be moved. Touched. Inspired.

But a funny thing happened Saturday evening-and in the days leading up to my Kennedy Center Experience: 

I was moved, touched and inspired in ways that touched the deepest part of my being. And I had my eyes opened to something that–at least for me–is not only vitally important for our country, but for our children. And that’s the importance of a renewed commitment to the biosciences.

You’re probably wondering why someone like me was there. Well, I was the guest of the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the world’s leading research non-profit in the field. I joined a dozen men with prostate cancer who were graciously allowed the opportunity to get a behind-the-plate seat at the table with the world’s leading researchers as they discussed the future. We also filmed a documentary on our journey and our experiences (which also gave each of us the opportunity to understand what it must be like to be a Kardashian with nearly 24/7 camera crews following you!). More on all of that in future posts!

Mike Milken authored an op-ed piece for the Wall Street Journal last week which eloquently explains the events of the weekend and, more importantly, presents the call to action. (I’ll include that at the end of this post. And, speaking of Mr. Milken, I’d be remiss to not mention the incredible respect I gained for his philanthropic endeavors in the past twenty years since he was known for other, less flattering activities. It was evident- after listening to the scores of voices who hold him in the highest esteem, that he is a man who has chosen a path in life which will leave the world a far better place.)

My favorite comment of the Kennedy Center evening, however, came from Peter Diamandis, author of the New York Times best-seller, “Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think.” who shared:

“The future of our country is dependent on bioscience research. The last thirty years have been info and innovation. The next thirty years will be all about bio and innovation.”

I left my weekend in D.C. thinking that Mr. Diamandis was spot on. And I realized that you’re never too old to fall in love with the sciences.

What do you think?

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Below is Mike Milken’s WJS op-ed:

Investing in Science, Reaping Rewards 

Wall Street Journal  (September 7, 2012)

Not many years ago, the parents of a child diagnosed with leukemia would likely be told to make the most of their short time together. The interval from playground to cemetery was as little as 90 days. Today, thanks to advanced therapies, those parents might be told to start saving for college.

Put aside for a moment the priceless gift that survival is to the family. Consider only the cold economic fact that the child will grow up and contribute to the national economy in myriad ways through decades of employment. Not a bad return on the investment in basic science that made lifesaving drugs for leukemia and many other diseases possible.

Friday morning in Washington, a town not known these days for widespread consensus, a remarkable gathering of leaders begins a weekend of events devoted to a single proposition: Science matters. The senior leadership of the U.S. Senate and House (from both parties) is joining more than 1,000 scientists, medical researchers, university presidents, Nobel laureates, corporate CEOs, cabinet secretaries, philanthropists, presidential advisers and patient advocates. “A Celebration of Science” will do more than honor the past. Participants will be developing specific nonpartisan proposals designed to help strengthen future American science.

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t always see the full benefit in funding science. No matter how wondrous the drug, no matter how many lives it saves, enhances, lengthens or makes more productive, the development costs supported by federal grants fall only into the expense column when scored by the Office of Management and Budget or the Congressional Budget Office.

Yet scientific breakthroughs, combined with public-health advances, underlie what is arguably the greatest accomplishment in human history: World-wide average life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900. This has fostered major social benefits and economic growth in this country and many others. Consider East Asia, where life expectancy went to about 70 from 39 over the past half century. As Eli Lilly CEO John Lechleiter told this newspaper last year, that might go a long way toward explaining the Asian economic boom.

The United States science ecosystem—defined by collaborations among public agencies, for-profit companies, nonprofit organizations and academic research centers—still leads the world and provides benefits to every nation. But there’s no guarantee that will always be the case. Science magazine reported earlier this year that China already surpasses us in gene-sequencing capacity. Meanwhile, a 2012 National Research Council report said that American research universities “face critical threats and challenges that may seriously erode their quality.” These include financial pressures and increased international competition—two of many concerns behind this weekend’s science initiative.

Much of the work over the next three days will focus on the biological sciences and their capacity to deal with major global issues. In addition to addressing the enormous human and economic toll of disease, the biological sciences also promise to help solve many seemingly intractable global issues—lack of access to abundant food and clean water, the defense against pandemics and bioterrorism, reliable energy supplies and environmental sustainability. Each of these issues profoundly affects economic growth.

Can we afford to invest in bioscience? Don’t we have a budget crisis that’s about to drive us off a fiscal cliff? We do, and we must deal with that through the political process. But there is an important role for government in fostering basic science, which not only saves lives but also improves quality of life. Bioscience in particular provides sustained long-term benefits through job creation, increased productivity, lower health-care costs, longer working lives, process efficiencies and cheaper energy.

When government budget officials view the National Institutes of Health as a $31 billion cost, they don’t count the net benefit. Others do. Research by University of Chicago economists Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel, for instance, indicates that improvements in health from 1970 to 2000—many of them driven by NIH grants—add a whopping $3.2 trillion a year to U.S. national wealth.

Here’s one example: If the incidence of AIDS had continued to grow at the rate of 1980s cases, the majority of hospital beds would have been filled with HIV-positive patients within a decade. According to former NIH Director Elias Zerhouni, the cumulative cost would have exceeded $1.4 trillion. Instead, $10 billion of federally funded research helped turn a certain death sentence into a manageable disease.

Here’s another: From 1950 to 2004, the cumulative budget of the National Cancer Institute (in 2004 dollars) was about $116 billion. In 2004, cancer mortality fell by 2%. Messrs. Murphy and Topel had earlier estimated that a 2% reduction in cancer deaths is worth nearly $1 trillion to the national economy in productive lives saved, which is more than eight times the entire NCI budget for 55 years.

Having made this substantial investment in bioscience, the American people should reap its benefits. Let’s not put the brakes on this engine of job creation and progress.

Just in my lifetime, federally supported research has helped eradicate polio and smallpox, nearly eliminated death from some cancers, and greatly reduced the burden of, and early death from, heart disease. The next decade promises even greater breakthroughs. Now that we’ve begun unlocking the secrets of the human genome, medical researchers have led us to the era of precision medicine—therapies customized to treat you, not your disease.

It may be easier to comprehend these benefits in terms of a single family. You’ve probably never heard of the Beery twins—Alexis and Noah—who were mistakenly diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age two and during the next 12 years suffered a range of almost-fatal symptoms that often left them unable to engage in childhood activities. The remarkable story since then of these now-athletic California teenagers shows how rapidly medical technology has developed with help from federal grants.

Although the original sequencing of the human genome took 13 years and cost $3 billion, genome mapping now takes only a few hours and the cost is rapidly heading toward $1,000. Last year, a team at the Baylor College of Medicine sequenced the Beery family genome and found a rare-but-treatable genetic defect. The twins, now diagnosed with a disorder called dopa-responsive dystonia, aren’t yet cured, but with treatment they no longer face imminent death and live near-normal lives.

Those breakthroughs are part of America’s No. 1 source of growth—basic, translational and clinical science. And the benefits don’t stop at the border. The advances emerging from American laboratories are some of our best ambassadors throughout the world. Their impact is greater than all the foreign aid we’ve ever dispensed.

This is our choice: Invest now to extend the nation’s past achievements, or pass the economic and social burdens of disease to the next generation. It’s time to reaffirm our commitment.

Mr. Milken is chairman of FasterCures, the Milken Institute center for accelerating medical solutions, and a host of this weekend’s conference.

  • Bill Moore

    It was an honor to meet you and share our medical travels last weekend. This pretty much sums it all up wonderfully and well written. I also look forward to see how PCF plans to do with last weekend’s events.

  • Thomas

    Hey, Jim. I echo Bill’s comment. It was a splendid weekend spent with splendid people.