This week on PLOS Translational Global Health, Alexandra Abel continues the round up of her #imaginemed event.
Welcome back to Imagining the Future of Medicine at the Royal Albert Hall.
Straight after the break, The Kaos Signing Choir for Deaf & Hearing Children began their performance, with beautiful renditions of ‘One Earth, One Sky’, ‘True Colours’, and ‘Respect’. The choir is the only integrated deaf and hearing children’s choir in the UK. They quickly got the audience singing and signing along with them, and we were dancing backstage. Their beautiful performance really has to been seen to be appreciated so please do watch their performance when the videos are available.
Time for Medicine Without Borders, a session all about global health and global medical innovation. Session two began with maxillofacial surgeon Leo Cheng, who is quite possibly one the nicest and most inspiring people you could ever hope to meet. Leo told us of his incredible work with Mercy Ships in West Africa where he and other dedicated volunteers offer life-changing and life-transforming surgery as well as medical advice, materials, and training.
Some of the patients who come for surgery are so demoralised because of the way they have been treated by society. Leo said the first thing he does is go up to his patients, look them in the eye, introduce himself and shake their hand – immediately reminding me of Kate Granger’s wonderful #hellomynameis campaign. This basic human contact and understanding is so important in medicine, especially to these patients; and as Leo so beautifully explained, “all healing starts with acceptance”. Mercy Ships’ aim is to ‘bring hope and healing’ to thousands of people who would never have believed it possible, and Leo’s talk reminded me of the lovely proverb, “he who has health has hope, and he who has hope has everything”.
Leo went on to tell us more about Africa Mercy, a 16 and a half thousand ton ship, the biggest non-governmental hospital ship in the world. There is a library, a gym, a doctor and dental clinic, a school for primary and secondary pupils, and even a Starbucks! Leo explained that there really is a part to play for everyone who wants to help. His wife and daughters have joined him volunteering on the ship. And even those with no medical training are able to help out, for example, preparing food for the people on board. Leo’s message was that anyone can use their compassion to help others in some way, and urged us to turn our emotion into compassion and action.
Next up was healthcare entrepreneur Ali Parsa. He began his talk with a story about a frog, which pointed to the conclusion: innovation is never about what you have and what you’ve got to give, it is always about what people need. Ali explained that basic access to a doctor is real problem worldwide, particularly in rural areas of developing countries, before unveiling his new app, Babylon, with an exciting on stage demonstration.
“Nowadays, whether you are in Kenya or Kentucky, you can get your music at the same time… can we do that with healthcare?” – Ali
The aim of Babylon is to make peoples’ day-to-day access to healthcare as simple as possible, and the name of the app comes from the fact that Ali has always been fascinated by the Babylonian people. 2,500 years ago, when the people of Babylon were sick, they were asked to go and stand in a square, and for passers-by, it was their civic duty to ask the sick people what was wrong. If they’d come across that ailment before, they would share their wisdom. As a result, Babylonians had the longest life expectancy in the world.
Having started his talk with a story about a frog, Ali ended with a delightful story about a starfish. In Goa, where the beach runs for miles, hundreds of starfish are washed up on the shore and bake in the sun. The story goes that one day, a child was picking up these starfish one by one and throwing them back into the sea. An old man came along and said, “child, why are you doing that? What difference will it make, you will never be able to throw all of them back”. The child picked up another starfish, threw it back into the sea, and said, “it made a difference to that one”. This beautiful story represents the way Ali feels about his new venture; he said that Babylon may not be the answer to everything, but if it can go some way to advancing this type of accessible healthcare, he will be happy.
In his post-talk Q&A, Ali explained that Babylon aims to do for healthcare what Amazon did for the delivery of books, and what iTunes did for the delivery of music.
At this point in the programme, we were very pleased to welcome on stage our special guest, Jay Walker. Many will know Jay as the curator of TEDMED, but he is also the creator and curator of The Library of the History of Human Imagination, which holds an impressive collection of artistic, scientific, and historical artifacts. Jay’s library, with its floating platforms, glass bridge, and connecting stairways contains some truly remarkable treasures, including an original 1957 Russian Sputnik, and a 1699 atlas containing the first maps to show the sun, not the earth, as the centre of the known universe (a map that divides the age of faith from the age of reason).
I think I can speak for our entire team when I say that Jay, a noted expert on human imagination, is one of the most knowledgeable men we have ever had the pleasure of meeting. He is also extremely passionate about sharing this knowledge, and using his expertise and experience to benefit others – something that we, and our speakers, truly appreciated throughout the day.
Jay took us on a journey from the moment life began on earth, to the point that humans started to create more sophisticated tools, learn ways to communicate – started to have imagination! At this point, man, above all other animals, takes control of the natural order, and ‘Civilisation 1.0’ emerged from this point, 10,000 years ago. More recently, the dawn of The Scientific Method unleashed a torrent of change in the world, and placed man in control of the entire shape of civilisation.
But Jay provided some evidence to prove how little we currently understand about our bodies. Firstly, for 25% of all people who die of heart disease, the very first symptom is death. Secondly, the smallest cancerous tumour we can find is 100 million cells, and if you have a tumour of 100 million cells, you’ve had cancer for 6 years. So the earliest we can detect cancer is 6 years after it initiates! And thirdly, in our bodies, our own cells are outnumbered 9 to 1 by bacteria, but before about 5 or 6 years ago, we couldn’t even sequence the genome of these bacteria – we knew nothing of the microbiome.
Jay explained that we have reached another turning point, and are entering a new era, ‘Civilisation 2.0’! We are on the cusp of being able to understand what is going on in our bodies internally, but we also being able to take control of it. For the first time in the history of the planet, synthetic biology, the name we give to the manipulation of the data of life, is going to compete with natural selection.
Imperial’s Paul Freemont, co-director of the EPSRC Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovations, joined Jay on stage for a fascinating discussion about the age of information and bio-science. Paul talked about his work on the development of synthetic biology platform technologies and biosensors. He explained that they have been doing this kind of work for about 10 or 12 years now, but it is accelerating incredibly rapidly, and the applications of synthetic biology are wide ranging, from healthcare to bio-mining.
That’s all for session 2.
Check back next week for #imaginemed part 3.
Alexandra Abel is a graduate from Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music. She has a keen interest in both Global Health and Performing Arts. From September, she will be a medical student at Hull York Medical School.
Join her on twitter @alexandraabel