TEDMED Day 1: Breathing lungs and the value of the printed page

by Nurjana Bachman on October 27, 2010

Yes, it’s true. If you were following on Twitter, you would have seen the tweets about Martha Stewart at the TEDMED conference touching a pair of breathing pig lungs on stage. The setup was a miraculous opening aria by opera singer Charity Tilleman-Dick, who then revealed the real miracle: a year ago she had a double-lung transplant. Shaf Keshavjee followed, wheeling out his ex vivo lung machine, which can maintain a healthy lung out of the body for 24 hours, enabling doctors to treat the lung with medications and even gene therapy before transplanting it to enhance the chances of success. Keshavjee invited audience members to come and touch the lungs, which is how Martha ended up there, iPhone in hand, preparing to tweet about her experience.

We were introduced to Nathan Wolfe, a “virus hunter” who is discovering new viruses and tracking viral outbreaks collaboratively, using tools including our own Healthmap. He showed how humans’ technological developments and relationship with animals have driven the history of viral transmission, and how our unprecedented advances continue to drive changes public health. He interestingly talked about Big Data (a popular term here) and how large datasets can be the basis for a “Global Immune System,” to track and stop the damaging spread of diseases.

Nathan Myhrvold, formerly of Microsoft and currently of Intellectual Ventures, introduced us to his crowdsourcing approach for solving problems — some solutions include using self-disinfecting materials to decrease hospital-acquired infections, which kill 99,000 annually, and ways to harness reflected beams from x-rays that are already performed to provide valuable imaging information.

Interestingly for this tech-savvy group, there have been a number of gushing descriptions of the value of the printed book — yes, ink and paper — particularly for looking at rich colorful images. Jay Walker, of Walker Digital and now Priceline.com, has collected a library evidently so vast and expansive that it has, on more than one occasion, brought people to tears. Over the course of the conference he will be sharing illustrations and plates from this “history of human imagination.”

Phot0grapher Rick Smolan is also giving us a preview of his upcoming book, a collection of 150 years of medical photography collected from hospital archives around the country. I anticipate that some of the images are from Children’s — a photo of kids with polio in an iron lung machine looked familiar.

Entertaining talks and celebrities aside, the real value of the conference is in the attendees. I have been amazed, even stunned, at the caliber and thoughtfulness of every person I have spoken with thus far. Like our contingent, they are thinking about the Big Questions — trying to solve the problems that represent the bottlenecks in medicine, from technology to policy.

I am also tweeting from TEDMED in real time at science4care. First talk started at 8 am Pacific time. Stay tuned!

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