The Incredible Polymath of Polymaths | Dr. Martine Rothblatt on The Tim Ferris Show

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Key Takeaways

  • To find your purpose is the best feeling ever, Martine describes it as “a lightning bolt to your soul”
  • Science is about critical thinking and asking ‘Why’
    • To cultivate more science in society, we have to relate it to people’s everyday lives
  • Pharmaceutical companies should get consent before mining genome data from remote isolated communities for the purpose of medicine development
  • “I would say that one of the greatest unmet medical needs today is an adequate supply of transplantable organs”
    • “I am absolutely convinced that in this decade, the 2020s, we will be delivering manufactured organs by electric helicopter” – Martine Rothblatt
  • In the future, people will be able to wear headsets that stimulate the vagus nerve to target particular ailments, with no pills or medical expenses
    • “I believe this kind of bridging of electronics and the mind is really right around the corner” – Martine Rothblatt
  • The ability to create a technology doesn’t necessarily grant the right to make it, that right is coupled with the obligation to have the consent of whoever may be adversely affected by it
    • In a future full of innovation, techno-ethics is a field with rich possibilities
  • Humans spewing greenhouse gases into an undeniably thin atmosphere, yet fearing nuclear energy, will seem barbaric to future generations
  • “Identify the corridors of indifference and run like hell down them” – Martine Rothblatt

Books Mentioned

Intro

Martine’s Role Models and Inspirations

  • Martine is a fan of Alan Watts unique ability to see the dialectic aspect, the yin and yang, of everything in nature
    • This helped Martine to help see the positive side of negative events
  • Growing up, Martine was influenced by and looked up to Robert A. Heinlein and Robert Kennedy
  • Martine watched the Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series and was inspired by how Carl simplifies and explains scientific concepts effectively

Founding United Therapeutics

  • When her daughter was diagnosed with an untreatable rare disease called pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), Martine spent nights in the library educating herself and often had to resort to high school textbooks
    • By shepardizing medical articles, she tracked down a molecule that reduced the pulmonary artery pressure without affecting the other pressures in the body, essentially solving the problem of PAH
      • Shepardizing is a law school skill that involved following the trail of citations in cases until the references start circling around on themselves
    • Martine founded a biotechnology company and jumped through bureaucratic hoops before Glaxo Wellcome finally licensed the molecule for $25K and a 10% of potential profit
      • The developed drug saved thousands of lives and generated billions in revenue
      • Worth noting, there are now 50,000 patients in the US alone living with the illness

The Challenges of Developing a New Drug

  • The chance of a molecule working as intended in a human body is less than 1 in 100
    • Think of the human body as a massive set of locks with every molecule as a random key with a minuscule chance of opening only the intended lock
  • At the time, there were only 2000 people in the country with the disease and thus revenues didn’t justify the development
    • However, Glaxo Wellcome didn’t account for the number of recurring patients should the drug be successful
    • Additionally, Glaxo Wellcome was clueless to the fact that the healthcare system pays huge sums for treating rare diseases

The Pleasure of Finding Your Purpose in Life

  • To find your purpose is the best feeling ever, regardless of your age
    • “I think the best way to describe it would be like a lightning bolt to your soul” – Martine Rothblatt
  • At the age of 19, Martine was intoxicated by satellite communications, so she changed her college major to communication studies and later co-founded Sirius Satellite Radio
  • A similar moment was when she realized that a Tesla car outputs enough power to lift a helicopter. She went on to design the world’s first electric helicopter and pilot it to a Guinness world record for speed, altitude, and flight duration

How to Cultivate more Scientific Literacy in Our Society

  • First and foremost, you have to relate science to people’s everyday lives
    • Pleasure centers light up in your brain when you make a new discovery or have a realization about something
  • Science is about critical thinking and asking ‘Why’
    • In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn and teaches the reader critical thinking by exploring scientific revolutions
  • The Scientific American and National Geographic are among the good resources that explain science in layman’s terms

Autonomy Rights, Genetic Information Protection, and Organ Manufacturing

  • In essence, autonomy rights mean people have authority and freedom to decide what to do with their body, including genetic information
    • The human genome is diverse among humans, with important implications
      • For instance, some people are unlikely to get certain cancers and others have a high pain tolerance
    • Pharmaceutical companies should get consent before mining genome data from remote isolated communities for the purpose of medicine development
  • A related case study is for an isolated community is located in Ecuador and Peru that has dwarfism, their body has a gene that makes them unreceptive to growth hormone
    • Harvesting and genetically modifying pig organs is one way to create an unlimited supply of transplantable organs
      • However, pigs can grow large, this can be corrected by using the genome to stop pig organs from growing oversize
  • “I would say that one of the greatest unmet medical needs today is an adequate supply of transplantable organs” – Martine Rothblatt
    • Thomas Starzl once defied popular belief and performed the first human liver transplant, this will be the case with a pig organ transplant

The Vagus Nerve

  • The vagus nerve is the largest nerve in the body, it starts from the mind and wraps around multiple organs. It also comes out to the skin around the ears and can be stimulated to achieve positive therapeutic effects
    • For instance, to treat Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and rheumatoid arthritis
    • Martine believes Chinese acupuncture works by stimulating the vagus nerve
  • Humans have 2 balanced nervous systems: the fight or flight (sympathetic), and the rest and digest (parasympathetic).
    • Diseases occur when the sympathetic system takes a dominant position and causes inflammation and overactivation; this can be countered by stimulating the vagus nerve to energize the parasympathetic system
  • Understanding the unique pattern of signal length, amplitudes, and voltages that stimulate different parts of the vagus nerve is key to ‘crack the human neurome
    • In the future, people will be able to wear headsets that stimulate the vagus nerve to target particular ailments, with no pills or medical expenses
    • Keep in mind, “The nervous system touches every single cell in your body”

Alzheimer’s, Computers, and Music

  • Martine received a patent for an ‘Alzheimer’s cognitive enabler’. It senses brain nerve impulses and allows a computer to talk on behalf of a patient who can’t adequately communicate
    • The device reduces patient’s stress levels and leads to more patient visits
    • “I believe this kind of bridging of electronics and the mind is really right around the corner” – Martine Rothblatt
  • The documentary Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory shows how music can act as therapy for people suffering from dementia and advanced Alzheimer’s, this is an area with endless future possibilities

The Rise of Digital Sentient Beings

  • Bina 48 was born when Martine and her partner Bina undertook a joint project to create a digital copy of Bina’s basic personality with memories and thoughts
    • As software improves at copying human personality, we will have a digital double ganger claiming to be the original person
  • Similar to our ability to create prosthetics, organs, and soon Neuralinks, we will someday replicate a human mind. That said, society’s acceptance of an artificial human mind is a different story
    • Ray Kurzweil argues that a digital human consciousness is still human, “It isn’t us vs them, it’s one” – Martine Rothblatt
    • “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” – Arthur C Clarke
  • In The Emotion Machine, author Marvin Minsky describes how to go about creating a machine with suitable software to have feelings
    • Keep in mind, “Futurists usually over-promise in the near term and under-promise in the long term” – Martine Rothblatt

The Ethics of Creating Technology

  • The ability to create a technology doesn’t necessarily grant the right to make it, that right is coupled with the obligation to have the consent of whoever may be adversely affected by it
    • A right is meaningful only in the context of its obligation
    • For instance, the right to build a nuclear power plant comes with the obligation to have the consent of surrounding communities of people
    • Similarly, transplanting genetically modified pig organs into humans is requires the consent of the larger community (that is, demonstrate to the FDA that this activity carries no risks)
  • In a future full of innovation, techno-ethics is a field with rich possibilities

Contemporary Practices That Will Seem Barbaric in The Near Future

  • The father of surgery Samuel D. Gross didn’t believe in antisepsis. Luckily, his student Dr. Agnew didn’t agree. It only took a few years for surgery to transition from The Gross Clinic to The Agnew Clinic
  • In a similar sense, humans spewing greenhouse gases into an undeniably thin atmosphere, yet fearing nuclear energy, will seem barbaric to future generations
    • Keep in mind, Earth receives 10 thousand times the solar energy it uses, not to mention other clean sources of energy
  • Ponder this, “50% of what we know is wrong, we just don’t know which 50%”

United Therapeutics Unisphere

  • Martine views creating an infrastructure with a zero-carbon footprint as an intellectual challenge
    • To this end, United Therapeutics built a new HQ that produces more energy than it consumes, despite standing in the middle of the city and housing energy-intensive activities
    • Here are some ways this was achieved
      • The building has 50 deep wells for temperature regulation during winter and summer
      • The sides of the building are embedded with solar panels
      • A digital brain controls windows to allow natural ventilation
  • United Therapeutics also refurbishes donated organs that doctors would traditionally throw away, this process has saved over 150 lives to date
    • “I am absolutely convinced that in this decade, the 2020s, we will be delivering manufactured organs by electric helicopter” – Martine Rothblatt

Thinking About Gender

  • Martine identifies as Trans-binary, “meaning that I embrace both the masculine and feminine aspects of myself completely”
    •  “Around my teenage years, I had a constant vision of myself not as a male, but as a female”
      • “I was stuck was this visualization of myself as a woman, when I was very much trapped in a male body”
    • While the prevailing authority accepted only male and female, “I learned through books that humanity wasn’t either strictly male or strictly female”

Closing Thoughts

  • “Identify the corridors of indifference and run like hell down them” – Martine Rothblatt
    • Creating a covid vaccine wasn’t a corridor of indifference. Instead, United Therapeutics opted to develop therapies for people suffering from the long-term effects of the virus.
  • It’s better to be a big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond. That is, if you can’t be number one or number two in a market, don’t even try
  • If Martine had a billboard, it would say what Steve Jobs said, “Think Different”
  • The vast majority of people are doing better than people have ever done before in history. One owes their grandparents to make the absolute most possible out of one’s life
    • “and that’s what I am going to do” – Martine Rothblatt
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Notes By Mostafa Khaled

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