On July 25th, 2012, I spent the evening over at the Directors Guild of America at “Medical Miracles: Cutting Edge Health Technology,” an event hosted by the Science & Entertainment Exchange. The Exchange is a program of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) intended to foster creative collaborations between scientists and entertainment industry professionals. As the organization’s website describes itself: “Think of us as 1-800-FIND-A-SCIENTIST. When Hollywood needs a scientist, a quick call to us is all they need.”
The Exchange’s scientists advise on anything from physics to robotics to climate change to what explosions in zero gravity might actually look like. The goal of the Exchange is to inspire creators to write, direct and produce stories that will, in turn, inspire audiences by the amazing possibilities of science, either real or imagined. It makes a lot of sense – after all, there are a LOT of scientific careers that got started because someone wanted to know how warp speed actually worked or whether A Long Time Ago there was really A Galaxy Far, Far Away...
In addition to consultations, the Exchange also occasionally puts on panel conversations, which they have been nice enough to invite me to. Last Wednesday’s program focused on medical breakthroughs that extend or enhance human health in significant or surprising ways. Stuff that sounds like it’s out of the latest sci fi movie, but is actually being explored or put to use right now. Panelists included regenerative surgeon/researcher Anthony Atala, M.D.; microsurgeon/extreme medical practitioner Ken Kamler, M.D.; Leslie Saxon, M.D., executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing and chief of cardiovascular medicine at USC; and nanoscientist, chemist, physicist and engineer Paul S. Weiss, Ph.D.
Dr. Kamler kicked off the evening regaling us with his adventures of performing medicine and exploring experimental techniques in some absolutely cah-razy situations...like when he went to Mt. Everest as the Chief High Altitude Physician for NASA-sponsored research. Part of the trip involved monitoring remote body sensors worn by climbers to provide real-time medical data as they headed up the mountain. The data was sent back to the USA, where remote grand rounds with doctors at Yale were held. And just why were they doing this? NASA needs to answer the question: “How do you fix a broken astronaut?” and figure out how to take care of astronauts’ medical issues, no matter where in the Galaxy they may occur.
Dr. Kamler has also ridden the Vomit Comet to see how to best deal with medical situations in 0-G. While in flight, astronauts, robots, and doctors all attempted the same work, and then they compared the results to see what might be the best way to get the job done. They found that the astronauts were every bit as good as the doctors were at the suturing, but both the doctors and the astronauts were better than robots. Good to know human jobs are still safe for the moment...
Here’s a TEDMED Talk Dr. Kamler gave about his experience on Mt. Everest as the only doctor on the mountain during the 1996 storm that claimed 12 lives, the worst disaster in the history of Mt. Everest climbs. If you think his talk sounds like a movie plot, you’re not too far off – his treatment of the survivors was portrayed in the IMAX film EVEREST.
Next up was Leslie A. Saxon, who caught my attention with her ideas about how technology can potentially allow the patient to re-emerge at a time when most doctors are “owned by large corporations,” including hospitals and Kaiser. Her background involves designing and innovating devices to help prevent heart failure. She described how as she progressed through her career and became increasingly busy doing procedures, she became less available to her patients. She came to the realization that it wasn’t enough to give someone a device – you had to actually work with the patients for them to get the most use out of them.
In 2006, when devices became programmable, she started thinking about how mobile could become the dominant technology for medical care. The combination of wireless networks all over the world, the ability to deliver high quality video for the purposes of diagnostics, cheap cloud storage and mobile phone penetration has a lot of potential. She did a national study of how patients with devices in their hearts that are connected to a network fare, compared to how those who have devices that are not connected. The results were clear: those who have connected devices live longer. The patients feel more engaged, become more educated about their condition, and feel like a partner in their own care. Doctors get continuous data, which they can review on a daily basis, enabling them to act in minutes rather than seeing someone at an arbitrary time every couple of months.
This all led to the founding of the USC Center for Body Computing, where they are working on all sorts o' fascinating projects. My favorite that she mentioned was a vampire-themed game they created built around a glocometer that allows kids to check their blood, stick it into an iPhone and then send data back to their parents. In addition to the raw data, the project is also allowing them to explore how social networks affect care.
She also talked a bit about everyheartbeat.org, an endeavour to collect the heartbeat of every person in the world. Here's her TEDMED talk about it. I really dig the way she talks about the stories that data can tell.
I'll be doing a future post about highlights from Dr. Atala and Paul S. Weiss's presentations, as well as some of the post-panel discussion prompted by the audience's questions.
Later this week, I head to the Jet Propulsion Lab as part of the NASASocial program for the landing of the Curiosity rover. Stay tuned to my tweets @tamarakrinsky for live updates.