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A chance to reduce the burden of chronic diseases

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By Dietrich Stephan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010

I don't like it when people get sick and die. The impact disease and death can have on a family has been clear to me since I was a child. Like many, my immediate family has seen loved ones succumb to cancer and Alzheimer's.

It is startling how common these diseases are when one looks at the numbers. Half of us will get cancer, and half of those will die of it. One third of us will have diabetes, and a significant proportion will suffer complications from their disease, such as blindness or amputation. Forty percent of men will have a heart attack in their lifetime, most being debilitating and expensive to treat. Half of us will have Alzheimer's disease by the time we reach our 85th birthday. We have made little progress in reducing these statistics in the past five decades; in fact the prevalence continues to rise. Our country is on track to spend 40 percent of our GDP on health care by 2030 (today we spend 17 percent of GDP).

The time is now to reduce the burden of common chronic disease and reverse these trends. Ignite Institute is a global non-profit with a mission to bring together public and private sector partners to apply the latest medical knowledge and technology to prevent and manage major diseases. The human body is a machine with a finite number of parts, and we finally have the technologies and know-how to sift through that machine and understand deeply what causes disease in a more progressive and integrated fashion. We see the broad-based implementation of personalized medicine in clinical setting as the solution.

Personalized medicine is about understanding an individual at the molecular level. With that knowledge, we can assess susceptibility to disease, identify environmental exposures that should be avoided, screen regularly for specific diseases (early detection generally equals better outcomes). And, if disease is diagnosed, we can more accurately identify the right drug and the right dose for each patient.

Personalized medicine can help us extend the healthy lifespan and achieve greater value in health care by honing in on the right tests and treatments for the right people at the right time. This kind of health care is not a decade away. It is within our reach today. We are developing new ways to diagnose and treat diseases such as autism, heart disease, dementia and cancer, and bringing them into the hands of physicians to help patients live longer and healthier lives. There remains much to be done and it will require hard work, but the payoff is measured in returns such as happiness vs. suffering and life vs. death.

We have made tremendous strides to date, particularly given the economic climate, raising commitments approaching a quarter of a billion dollars to launch Ignite. Recently, two of our D.C.-area partners chose to discontinue their partnership. Both provided valuable startup assistance to Ignite. However, given the scale of our project, and time needed to build capital in this market, they decided not to continue. I'm grateful for all they did to help the Institute to this point, but I don't see this as a setback. I see it as a reality of creating something truly unique and transformative. Some will be there for the entire journey, and others will contribute incrementally along the way.

I'm not discouraged in the least about our ability to move forward, having proven that the concept is timely and relevant to solving our most daunting challenges in health care. True innovation is about seeing a critically needed gap in the world, and creating something that has never been seen before to fill that gap. By definition it includes risk that is outweighed by upside potential.

We need to act swiftly and decisively to change the way we manage health and disease on a global scale, specifically around major chronic diseases. We cannot only reduce suffering and death on a large scale, but by applying medicine strategically we can extend the healthy lifespan and save massive amounts of health-care dollars. The technologies exist, the know-how exists, and demand exists at the consumer, societal and policy-maker levels.

In the months ahead, there will surely be more hurdles, more enduring lessons, and certainly more triumphs as we continue our fight.

Dietrich Stephan is founder, president and chief executive of the Ignite Institute. For more information on Ignite, go to http://www.igniteinstitute.org


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