Collaborative Global Solutions for Ebola, Cancer, Future Health Innovation Discussed at Health Connect South

John Tabellione

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

The second annual Health Connect South conference lived up to its name recently as leading medical and biomedical experts, academic researchers and future health leaders met in Atlanta to seek collaborative solutions to global and endemic diseases such as Ebola and cancer, and to develop innovations in health IT and beyond.

According to Founder and CEO Russ Lipari, the goal of the conference is to “foster and promote regional health collaborations and build common bonds between interested parties to solve real world issues. These types of interactions can often result in companies being formed and products being commercialized."

The keynote speaker, Dr. Ian Crozier, an infectious disease physician and the third Ebola patient successfully treated at Emory University Hospital after contracting the virus, conducted a hybrid – clinical, but personal – presentation to the 500 attendees. 

As he described in explicit medical detail the ravaging effects on his body from the generally fatal disease, some of which he still suffers, he also related the devastating losses of his nurse and staff members as well as the hundreds of local patients treated at his Sierra Leone Ebola Treatment Unit. The Zimbabwe-born doctor then uttered these words of condolence – “mae we hush” – in the native language of Sierra Leone to surviving relatives of his brave medical staff, which dually served as a phrase he himself heard as he was consoled for the shared losses. Dr. Crozier was fortunate to be able to discharge nine survivors, yet still gave witness to too many “child-less parents care for parent-less children.” 

Among Dr. Crozier’s maladies over 40 days and nights with Ebola were loss of hearing, upper respiratory and renal failure, tinnitus, eye pains and pressures, arthritis, and even a change in the color of his eyes. Today he endures, at times, short-term memory loss, fatigue and hair loss. Despite this, Dr. Crozier was in high spirits as he expressed his deep appreciation to the Emory team which saved his life. “I’m glad to be here,” Dr. Crozier said. “In fact, I’m glad to be anywhere.”

He continues to analyze and research both his personal data and comparable information from statistics from last year’s Ebola epidemic and from related virus outbreaks from 40 years ago. This database is now the source for Dr. Crozier’s theory of possible gene characteristics that may help to solve future cases. 

Calls for “collaborations that matter” among agencies, governments and corporations permeated several panel discussions on the conference agenda. One of the immediate needs in today’s world is to build relationships among all parties that might lead to a high level of trust and credibility at the time of the next global crisis.

Dr. Oliver Morton, Incident Manager, Ebola Response, for the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, went on to emphasize that no one entity alone can respond to the next trans-national health crisis, when – not if – one occurs. “The CDC’s Global Response Team has set as its goal a 14-hour reaction time, which represents quite a logistics challenge.” 

Another conversation featured Ambassador Mary Ann Peters, CEO of the Carter Center and Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society (ACS), also headquartered in Atlanta. Reedy described the scope of the volunteer health organization founded 102 years ago to eliminate cancer as soon as possible.

“We do research, fund grants, provide education for prevention and detection of cancer, and offer services directly to victims of cancer, such as driver assistance, call centers for advice and 32 Hope Lodges,” Reedy said. “Extended Stay America gave 50,000 free nights last year and will give over 100,000 over the next two years. Locally, Delta has done a terrific job to promote us and has helped so much.”

Reedy added that the general public can help reduce their chances of contracting cancer by 50-60 percent by not smoking and by exercising. “We need to clear any confusion [about cancer prevention] and get the message out,” Reedy said. “We have the opportunity to make an impact with the help of partners. Corporate partnerships can help. We get 10 percent of our funding from them. Just pick up the phone and call us. We are totally committed to eliminating cancer.” 

While the Carter Center is world-renowned for its peace efforts, Ambassador Peters explained that the Center also has a health-related complementary agenda. “We have no patient care, we do no research, but we may commission research. “ Peters said. “In the U.S. we have no health programs, except in the area of mental health. We, do, however, go after neglected tropical diseases and try to eradicate them.” 

For example, Guinea worm disease is a painful parasitic condition contracted by infected drinking water. Thirty years ago, 3.6 million cases worldwide were reported. In 2014 that number had been reduced to 126, and so far in 2015, only 14 cases have been reported.

In another example of the effectiveness to connect and collaborate, the Carter Center has partnered with pharmaceutical companies, such as Merck – which provided the drug Mectizan, the CDC and various governmental ministries in African countries. Together, they have practically eliminated another disease: river blindness caused by bites from black flies that breed in rivers.

“We wage peace and in doing so we fight disease,” Peters noted. “We need to prepare for the next pandemic. We need to have the trust gap covered and we need networks, not just a to-do list.”

In summation, Ambassador Peters and Mr. Reedy concurred that Atlanta is fast becoming an important health center.

Dr. Otis Brawley, Chief Medical Officer of the American Cancer Society, made a presentation about the history and histology of cancer, beginning with the discovery of “a 1,600-year old papyrus document that described the first recognition of what we call cancer. Dr. Rudolf Virchow, a virologist and epidemiologist in the 1850s, performed autopsies and biopsies on cadavers. His discovery of the 5mm lesion under a microscope is the same image of diseased tissue that doctors see today.” Dr. Brawley continued through the following decades of discovery with the use of X-rays, mammography, tomography and MRIs, and their impact on cancer research. 

There are three key questions to ask about a cancer cell according to Dr. Brawley: Will it grow, will it spread and will it kill? He pointed out that in many cases cancer may not metastasize. For instance, only 10-20 percent of lung cancers will grow worse and 10-50 percent of breast cancers. Similarly, 40-60 percent of thyroid cancer and 60 percent of prostate cancer cases may not become serious. 

The critical factor may often be what genes are present and activated. Genomic tests are predictive and the patient may respond to treatment. The bottom line is that histology and genomics play an integrated role in the treatment of cancer.

Another panel discussion addressed the topic of Big Data and Precision Medicine, or the synergy and intersection of individual and mass research of population levels that lead to prioritizing a handful of drugs. The challenge is how to train doctors, validate their diagnoses and share and aggregate information between silos. 

CancerLinQ’s Clinical User Portal accounts for variables such as patient timelines, physical location and age, but without patient identifiers. The doctors’ decisions then have to be validated before being processed and annotated into the database, much like the use of open source software. At the university level, where department silos are present, the concerns over rewarding academic excellence is addressed by the fact that collaborative work by multiple disciplines might be shared proportionately.

A vital question to address is if doctors and patients are even ready to deliver and accept precision medicine. According to the panelists, yes, they are ready and are asking, but they need to be primed to search, integrate and make informed decisions. The Southeast has the academic environs, the for-profit companies and the non-profits to make precision medicine a reality.

In summation of the overall mission and vision of the conference, Lipari stated, “Health Connect South is designed to serve as a platform for regional health collaboration. There is no higher-level gathering of health elite in the Southeast. It is only because of the broad level of support from our health care community that Health Connect South exists.”

About John Tabellione

John Tabellione is an award-winning, professional business writer, complemented by over twenty-five years of strategic communication responsibilities as a Marketing, New Business Development and National Account Sales Executive in consumer goods and commercial industries. 

Experience with Fortune 500 companies, as well as with smaller firms and non-profits, encompassing a variety of products, including those of Georgia-Pacific, Kimberly-Clark and Stanley Works. 

John has a B.A. in English from Fairfield University and an MBA in Marketing from the University of Hartford. In addition, he has studied Russian at the Defense Language Institute at Syracuse University, and Italian language and culture at Kennesaw State University.