Life-saving innovations on display at JP Morgan Healthcare conference

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Some potentially life-saving innovations are on display this week at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, where Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave a keynote Monday afternoon. (KGO-TV)

Some potentially life-saving innovations are on display this week at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, where Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave a keynote Monday afternoon.

"What we need is more innovation. And of course that's why I'm here today," Gates told the crowd.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funds life-saving research, much of which focuses on solving healthcare problems in developing countries.

"We've really accelerated the introduction of vaccines," Gates said.

One vaccine whose development is receiving funding from the Gates foundation aims to protect young children against a respiratory illness that can be deadly.

"RSV, which is the biggest cause of hospitalization of infants in the United States," said Stanley Erck, CEO of Novavax, which makes the vaccine.

It's given to pregnant mothers, who pass the antibodies on to their newborns. And it's made in a new way. "We grow it in insect cells," Erck explained.

Compared to conventional egg-based vaccines, the new process could lead to more effective flu shots than what we've seen in the current flu season.

"If a strain mutates, our vaccine can protect against that strain," Erck said.

Another vaccine in the works could be the first of its kind:

"Imagine if you could get prophylactically vaccinated for Alzheimer's," said Mei Mei Hu, CEO of United Neuroscience.

Alzheimer's, the memory-robbing disease that affects millions of seniors, is linked to the appearance of specific toxic proteins in the brain. The latest drug to treat Alzheimer's attacks those proteins -- but the United Neuroscience vaccine goes a step further.

"When we vaccinate, we train your body's immune system to fight these toxic proteins," Hu said.

Alzheimer's Disease and other ailments of the brain are getting a lot of attention at this year's conference, in part because pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has said it plans to stop developing new neuroscience treatments. The company has said it wants to leave that early-stage development to startups -- and use the money it saves to invest in the startups that show promise.

"Neuroscience presents society with some of our biggest challenges right now," said Seth Lederman, CEO of Tonix Pharmaceuticals.

In his hand, he held a few tiny yellow pills that could help solve one of them.

"We have an appalling rate of suicide in our veterans," he said, explaining that post-traumatic stress distorder, or PTSD, is most often to blame for the depression of those who've served in combat. "These painful memories just can't be digested by the brain."

Memory processing happens during sleep, Lederman said. The company's new drug, called Tonmya, is not a sleeping pill. It does, however, target three receptors in the brain that the company says can improve sleep quality. In a study of veterans, Lederman said PTSD symptoms improved, 21 percent experienced remission, he said.

And then there's physical trauma -- of the type that comes from a sports injury. Vericel chief operating officer Daniel Orlando demonstrated by sharply twisting a model of a human knee.

"That causes a defect in the cartilage of the knee," he said.

The company's new surgical product called MACI (pronounced "Macy," like the department store) is a way to grow the patient's own cartilage cells outside the body, in a lab. A surgeon removes only the cartilage that's damaged, and implants a perfectly-fitted slice of the MACI material with the patient's cells already on it.

"It cuts the surgery time basically in half," Orlando said.

And though it's still a long process, he said, recovery times can be up to a month shorter.

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