WASHINGTON — Eric Dishman is a guy who doesn’t mind pulling up his shirt, loosening his pants, and giving himself an ultrasound in front of hundreds of people.
He did it for a 2013 TED talk to demonstrate the usefulness of modern health technology — by showing that his new kidney was doing okay.
It isn’t what you’d expect from a guy who’s about to take on a big role for the Obama administration. But for Dishman, the INTEL health advocate named Monday to lead a key part of the president’s Precision Medicine Initiative, it’s all part of his mission: using his first-hand experience with doctors and hospitals to convince people that the future of medicine can be very different from what it has been.
The TED talk gives a clue to why Dishman was chosen. The 48-year-old Oregonian, who is not a physician, not a PhD, and not a geneticist, has a hard-won qualification: he used precision medicine to rid himself of the kidney cancer that plagued him since college. And he is determined that others can benefit the same way.
“I think I’m alive on this earth to do this,” he said in an interview today with STAT.
In a video of the TED talk, Dishman rolls the top of his pants down and squeezes goop onto a small device. Then, he holds it over his new kidney, giving himself an ultrasound while the audience — and his nephrologist Thomas Batuik, many miles away — view the results.
“I’m just taking my clothes off in front of hundreds of people,” he tells Batuik, drawing laughs from the audience as he moves the scanner around his belly. The doctor replies that he can see the new kidney, and all is well. No problems from the transplant six months earlier.
“What you’re seeing here is an example of disruptive technologies,” he tells the crowd. “Of mobile, social, and analytic technologies. These are the foundations of what’s going to make personal health possible.”
The Precision Medicine Initiative, which President Obama announced in January 2015, is designed to help tailor disease prevention and treatment to individuals’ lifestyles, genes, environments, and preferences.
Under the “cohort program” — the part of the initiative that Dishman will lead — the National Institutes of Health plans to build a group of 1 million participants, who will be followed over time and analyzed for their genetic makeup, any diseases they experience, response to various treatments, and other data.
The project also includes ongoing efforts with the US Department of Veterans Affairs, which has enrolled more than 450,000 veterans in a similar effort. A key point of the program is that the participants will be recruited to reflect the nation’s diversity, and also to include women, who are often excluded from trials.
Public health advocates were quick to praise the selection of Dishman.
“The leader of the PMI will need to understand the needs of the patients who participate in the study and the researchers who conduct it,” said Edward Abrahams, president of the Personalized Medicine Coalition, who met Dishman several years ago. “Eric Dishman has been both, so he is the perfect person to head the project.”
In making the announcement, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins noted that Dishman’s personal story was as important in his selection as his history of health innovation.
“For more than 15 years, he has led Intel’s health care strategy and research, “ Collins said, “including the creation and distribution of Intel’s open platforms and open-source tools to help researchers accelerate scientific discovery, ranging from wearable and in-home technologies for movement disorders to big data platforms for cancer genomics.”
More importantly, Collins added, Dishman had early access to precision medicine, which pinpointed a treatment that succeeded where others had failed. Diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer while studying at the University of North Carolina, Dishman was told — year after year — that he didn’t have long to live. Finally, he had his genome sequenced.
“It took them seven months to analyze my whole genome,” Dishman said. “What they discovered was that it looked and acted like a pancreatic cancer.”
Using a new pancreatic cancer drug, Dishman said, the doctors were able to clear his kidneys of cancer. He then qualified for a kidney transplant — something he was previously told was out of the question.
“I woke up on the operating table after my kidney transplant, and I already felt better,” he said. “I said to my wife, ‘I’m going to figure out how to get precision medicine to everybody.’ And I went back to Intel and wanted them to do this.”
One of his biggest projects at Intel has been creation of the Collaborative Cancer Cloud, a joint project with Oregon Health & Science University. The Cloud is an open source tool, which researchers can use to share patient data, without giving up control.
“Imagine 25 cancer centers or Alzheimer’s’ centers sharing data,’’ he said, noting that the Cloud, like the Precision Medicine Initiative, is a way to turn up the crank on science.
“My doctor can say, ‘I am looking for someone who looks genetically similar to Eric, someone who has a similar cancer and find out what worked or didn’t work for them,’’’ Dishman said.
Once the Precision Medicine Initiative is in full swing, with 1 million participants, Dishman said, ‘that approach will drive innovation.”
Dishman said he has been visiting with members of Congress, talking about the program. As someone joining the administration in its last year, he was especially concerned about how much support he could get with so little time left.
“You can imagine I might have asked that question from moving from my Oregon farm to urban D.C.,” he said, adding that he’s confident lawmakers from both parties will continue to support it after Obama leaves office. “With my Intel hat on, I see efforts in China and Europe. We need to make sure this country is in the forefront of this effort. I feel quite confident that this will go for a long time.”
The biggest challenge he sees is getting patient advocacy groups, and researchers from different diseases, to agree that for now, no one disease gets priority treatment.
“If we get pulled back into this disease versus that disease funding, we will have not done our service,” he said.