When Good Morning America co-anchor Robin Roberts was diagnosed with cancer in 2007, she took her mother’s advice to “make your mess your message,” and connect with her audience as she was treated for and recovered from her disease. For those without the resources and platform that she had, “I needed to be their voice and show them the journey,” Roberts recalled during the Tuesday morning keynote session at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s international convention.
Roberts, an award-winning broadcast journalist and author, and a survivor of breast cancer and myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), was interviewed in a wide-ranging discussion by BIO president and CEO James Greenwood.
Roberts repeatedly credited her family and her faith for her personal and professional successes. Her father was a Tuskegee Airman – one of the storied group of World War II African-American fighter pilots – and her mother was appointed to the Mississippi state board of education, later becoming its chairwoman. The family focus on education was “less about the ‘three Rs,’” she quipped, and more about the three Ds – “discipline, determination, and d’Lord.”
Roberts also colorfully described her early career – it included a stint as a country music DJ on AM radio and a gig as a weekend sports anchor paying $5.50 per hour – and later highlights including interviewing President Barack Obama on the subject of marriage equality, and her emotional coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, during which she set out for the Gulf Coast when the storm’s great damage became evident. “I couldn’t go on the air until I found my family,” she said (and when she did, her mother ordered her back to her television crew).
— BIO Intl Convention (@BIOConvention) June 5, 2018
Before his conversation with Roberts, Greenwood told the story of Ashanthi De Silva, who was born in 1986 with two broken copies of a gene that makes a protein called ADA. This meant she had severe combined immune deficiency, and “by age four, she was slipping away,” he said. But De Silva’s doctor knew of a team of scientists at the National Institutes of Health who were pioneers in applying genetic engineering to human health. She became first patient in the world to receive a gene therapy. Twenty-eight years later Ashanthi remains on enzyme replacement therapy but leads a full and normal life. “This is the power of biotechnology” says Greenwood.
As he advocated for strong policies to support the continued development of the biotechnology industry Greenwood dotted the line from De Silva’s treatment through to more recent breakthroughs, including the approval in 2017 of the first gene therapies in the US – Novartis’ cell therapy for a kind of pediatric leukemia, Kymriah, Gilead Sciences’ cell therapy for aggressive lymphoma, and Spark Therapeutics gene therapy for inherited retinal diseases, which can prevent children with a particular genetic mutation from going blind.
Taking the stage, De Silva received the morning’s loudest ovation as a living embodiment of biotech innovation. She urged patients and patients’ families to “look at my story and see anything is possible.” With patients now at the forefront, telling their own stories, she said, “please have hope, be your own advocate, and please, never give up.”
They keynote also featured the 2018 International BioGENEius Challenge finalists. “Some day you’re going to be working for these kids,” joked Greenwood. One of those high schoolers was awarded the grand prize. Ontario, Canada eleventh grader Sajeev Kohli’s project “recruiting endogenous proteins for site-specific transport: a novel workflow for gene carrier design” earned him the $7,500 award, as judged by a panel of industry and academic experts.
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