“Wait … is that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar?” asked one reporter covering last week's White House announcement of the precision medicine initiative.
It was the basketball great, though he was never acknowledged, leaving it purely to speculation why he might be in attendance. (An interest in genomics, one imagines: Abdul-Jabaar, who is a leukemia patient, has said in the past that he takes Gleevec, a personalized medicine that treats the disease.)
But for observers who prefer reading the Washington tea leaves, other Obama guests at the speech might be more interesting. The president invited Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Both legislators have signaled interest in collaborating with the 21st Century Cures initiative from Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.). The initiative intends to speed discovery and marketing of cures and treatment, often by deregulating or granting additional years of drug exclusivity.
The invitation is also interesting given the political climate around the 21st Century Cures initiative. The House Energy and Commerce Committee put on a year's worth of hearings and roundtables, while consulting a number of private-sector entrepreneurs and leaders. During that time, Republicans and Democrats voiced strong rhetorical support for the committee's work.
But when it came time for actually writing the bill, Upton and the Republicans stood alone. At least for the moment, Democrats withdrew their support, with ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) specifically saying he was displeased by the bill's lack of new support for the National Institutes of Health. Pallone also said he was worried that the bill would “create more problems than it solves,” which could mean just about anything.
Given that specific objection to the bill, one could see how some horse-trading could occur. Republicans get 21st Century Cures; Democrats could get their precision medicine initiative, whose money would, predominantly, go to NIH.
Several government officials attended as well, including Dr. Francis Collins, the head of NIH; John Holdren, the president's science adviser; Dr. Karen DeSalvo, the head of the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT; Dr. Jeffrey Shuren, the head of the Center for Devices and Radiological Health at FDA; Jodi Daniel, the director of the Office of Policy at ONC; and Steven Posnack, the director of the Office of Standards and Technology at ONC, among others.
Several private-sector entrepreneurs also attended: Halle Tecco, the founder of digital health seed fund Rock Health; and Dr. David Shaywitz, the chief medical officer of cloud-based genomic analytics startup DNAnexus.
The cross-section of government officials and entrepreneurs probably wasn't an accident. The initiative will require a number of different agencies to contribute work and cooperate. That work will, hopefully, provide a platform for the private sector to build on.
Follow Darius Tahir on Twitter: @dariustahir