Elias Zerhouni Talks Public Health Challenges, Culture Wars at WBBA Annual Meeting
Just came back from the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association’s annual meeting in downtown Seattle, where 500-plus biotechies and distinguished guests (including more than a few local politicians) gathered for a quiche-and-berries breakfast and some keen networking.
The keynote speaker was Elias Zerhouni, the former director of the National Institutes of Health and now a senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Just a few highlights from his talk here:
Zerhouni laid out the top five challenges in public health, as he sees it. Nothing too surprising, but a good way to frame the whole healthcare discussion:
1. The shift from acute to chronic conditions. (“This is a worldwide issue,” he emphasized. “This is the new global health horizon.”)
2. Aging population.
3. Health disparities.
4. Emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases. (Pandemics, for example.)
5. Emerging non-communicable diseases. (Things like obesity and depression, the latter of which the World Health Organization predicts will be the No. 1 cause of disability and dysfunction for people aged 25-44.)
As a world-class radiology researcher, Zerhouni also spoke to the scientific challenges the industry faces. He said the fundamental scientific barrier to doing “translational” research—that which leads to new products like drugs or devices—is the complexity of biological systems involved in diseases. “The explosion of data does not equate to explosion of knowledge,” he said. (This is a common theme across all fields of science and technology.)
On this front, Zerhouni stressed the importance of both external and internal sources of innovation. Meaning, the state of Washington should “find ways of bringing in collaboration on the translation or creation of knowledge.” He pointed out that “building relationships with the Asian Rim is probably your strategic advantage.”
For the politicians in the audience, Zerhouni noted, “Today when you get elected or not elected, the main driver is jobs, jobs, jobs.” He said his dream is that in a few years, biomarkers and healthcare stats will impact political campaigns, to the tune of, “In my district, Body Mass Index has dropped from X to Y.” (Luke previously reported on the issue of jobs being the driver of public support for biotech.)
The last issue Zerhouni addressed was a particularly interesting one: culture wars around science and technology. “Don’t be oblivious to the political, cultural, and moral aspects” of biotech and biomedical work, he said. “Be careful to not assume that everyone in the world believes what you do is holy and good.” Having dealt with the profound issues of evolution vs. creation in Washington DC—most notably in the context of stem cell policy—Zerhouni was sharing some hard-earned wisdom that everyone in the room could take home with them.