When you attend a conference as big as BIO—more than 20,000 people have converged on San Diego—the chance of seeing some pretty heavy-hitting speakers is high. Unfortunately, the chance that a heavy-hitting speaker will be a speck in the distance is also high. The line for yesterday’s keynote luncheon, which featured the odd combination of J. Craig Venter (of human genome fame) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (of gubernatorial—or, depending who you ask, “I’ll be back”—fame), was already about a mile long an hour before the doors to the ballroom at the San Diego convention center were scheduled to open. I ended up in the "overflow" room, where I watched their speeches on a gigantic screen (and found myself oddly clapping along with everyone else at the end of Venter’s talk, even though he was several city blocks away). So it felt particularly special when, just a few hours later, I found myself at a media event hosted by Amgen, where I sat just 5 feet away as Elizabeth Edwards gave her perspective on innovation and the drug industry. It’s well known that Edwards is dealing with a recurrence of breast cancer, and she’s been a regular contributor to the national debate about health care. A major theme was that all the participants—from the drug companies to the insurers to patients—need to be collaborating to make health care both affordable and accessible to the wider population. To get anywhere, each participant will need to “redefine what constitutes a win,” she said. In other words, be willing to give up a little in order for the greater whole to gain in the long term. For the drug industry, a “win” would be a buy-in from the public, which is clearly skeptical of its profit motives. Edwards criticized NIH for not taking risks in their recent rounds of grant awards, noting that “hungry young thinkers”—those who could be the true innovators—had been shut out. She also called for reform and better funding for FDA.
Edwards also spoke poignantly about being a patient, not talking just about the frustration that her “disease holds all the cards” but also that it is “not right” that she, as an insured white woman living near a great hospital, should have care when others go without.
In the end, I was glad to be 5 feet away for that talk rather than 5 feet away from Schwarzenegger, who spoke all of 10 minutes at the luncheon. Today’s keynote speaker is Colin Powell. The buzz is that people will start lining up two hours before; I think I’m going to find lunch elsewhere.