Happy Anniversary, Dailies! We launched Brainstorm Health Daily one year ago today. Since then, we’ve grown our subscriber base by leaps and bounds. And thanks to your engagement, we’ve even formed what I will grandiosely call a “community.” Yes, that’s you, folks—nearly 12,000 of you, gathering at the intersection of health, wellness, technology, biology, big data, connectivity, AI, AR, investment, invention, smart policy, innovation, human creativity, ingenious problem solving, and stopping-dumb-stuff’ism. (It’s a busy intersection.)
Please keep writing us and letting us know what you like, what you don’t, what we should cover, what we’ve missed, and where you think this digital health revolution is heading—or ought to head. We’d also love to see you at our third annual FORTUNE Brainstorm Health conference, which is coming up soon, on March 19-20, in Laguna Niguel, California. (I’ll share some news about that extraordinary event very soon.)
In the past year, I’ve learned more about the busy intersection noted above than I can possibly relate. But three anniversary takeaways are these: (1) Complex problems are often even more complex than they seem. (2) Some straightforward things are actually as straightforward as they seem. (3) And, increasingly, observations (1) and (2) hold true for the same issue.
Earlier this week, for instance, members of an international collaboration known as the OncoArray Consortium—a massive effort involving 550 scientists, toiling at some 300 institutions on six continents, as many-a-media-report noted—announced the findings of their years-long research effort simultaneously in the top-tier journals Nature and Nature Genetics. The scientists said they’d found 72 new genetic variants that increase a person’s risk of developing breast cancer—bringing the total known or suspected breast cancer-predisposing genetic mutations to roughly 180. (Rule No. 1: Cancer is even more complex than it complexly seemed a week ago.)
What is oddly straightforward, however, is how often we “discover” this fact.
More than a decade ago, in 2006, in another widely celebrated paper in the journal Science, researchers at Johns Hopkins found 122 so-called “driver” mutations in breast cancer—those that, mechanistically, increase the risk of developing the disease. (They also found more than 550 other mutations that the research team sloughed off as mere passengers along for the ride.) One headline at the time summed it up: “Cancer’s Genetic Code Cracked.”
And so it was—until a year later, when a bigger team, investigating the DNA in a still-greater number of breast cancer specimens, found a different complement of tumor-driving genes. The study authors painted the cancers as though they were a potentially endless series of genomic landscapes: “There are a few ‘mountains’ representing individual [candidate cancer-causing] genes mutated at high frequency. However, the landscapes contain a much larger number of ‘hills’ representing the [candidate] genes that are mutated at relatively low frequency.”
And so it goes, ad infinitum. The gene jockeys keep alighting upon an ever-larger number of genetic actors in the disease; teams at pharma and biotech companies develop an ever-larger number of fabulously expensive targeted medicines to attack said targets; and the global cancer burden continues to increase nonetheless. Sadly straightforward.
But then, also remarkably straightforward, is the power of simple (or simpler) actions we can take to improve our health, our well-being, our lives overall. A slew of research, as we’ve highlighted again and again in this newsletter, points to what many of us would instinctively believe: that excessive sitting isn’t good for us and that walking is; that sleep is transformative and healing; that our smartphones can be intuitive tools for health maintenance and disease management, just as they can be conduits to distraction and addiction. These things really are as straightforward as they seem.
All of which somehow takes us to Albert Einstein. (Impressive, huh?)
Back in 1922, history’s greatest physicist was traveling in Japan. He had just been told he’d been awarded the Nobel Prize, and a bellboy at Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel knocked on Einstein’s door to deliver a message. Einstein, it is said, didn’t have any cash on hand to tip the young man, so instead he offered him a scribbled bit of wisdom on some hotel stationery—adding that he hoped the autographed message would be “worth more than a regular tip.”
That note, along with a second written to the same bellboy, was auctioned off in Israel yesterday. Translated from the German, it reads: “A calm and modest life brings more happiness than the pursuit of success combined with constant restlessness.” (It sold for around $1.3 million.)
The second note reportedly fetched a lot less—just over $250,000—perhaps because the sentiment is less original, or maybe because it wasn’t written on hotel letterhead. Still, I think it better captures the essence of the mission we Dailies share as we try to transform human health and healing: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
Thank you all for your insight and passion in this effort—and for reading Brainstorm Health Daily.
This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.