Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us Joan. For those of you who were listening last time, there were several hints to suggest what Joan does. She’s in the medical industry working with a slew of diseases and looking at how to affect them, ranging from autism to Parkinson’s. She grew up in New York. If somebody were to play her in a movie, it would be a cross between Melissa McCarthy and Meryl Streep. She’s also sat on the Dalai Lama’s bed but didn’t even tell him about it.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Treating Autism with Dr. Joan Fallon
Joan, what’s your full name? What do you do? Let’s see if the listeners were able to figure out who you are.
My name is Dr. Joan Fallon. I’m the CEO of Curemark. We are currently working on a drug treatment for autism. We are in our final stages of a Phase III and hope to have approval in the very, very near future. We’re looking at other diseases as well, including Schizophrenia, Parkinson’s, addiction, preeclampsia and others.
Traditionally, I would go really quickly into how you accomplish this and so on. Just the discovery and the approach that you have is so distinct that I think we need to give the listeners a real understanding of what’s going on here. When I heard about this, my first response was, “Yeah, that’s BS.” The more I started hearing about it, the more I realized you’re really onto something very unique here. Can you break it down for us a little?
In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the number of children with autism started to increase rapidly. It’s been increasing ever since. While people ascribe it to better diagnosis, which is true, also the numbers are astronomical. I was at the UN on Friday for their World Autism Day. The Head of Neurological Disabilities in China said there are at least two million individuals with autism in China that they could count. The numbers are very high. The ideology is uncertain and what to do with, especially the young children who are diagnosed, is uncertain. Since the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with that increase, I ended up seeing a lot of children in my practice. What was interesting was the approaches that individuals, physicians and other practitioners were taking with the children. Westchester County has one of the best early intervention programs in the country. A child can be identified very early on as having autism or having some delays and immediately gets treatment. Diagnosis happens early in New York, especially in the lower part of New York, as compared to maybe Texas where it’s like seven or eight when children are diagnosed.
What was frustrating to me as a practitioner was watching the lack of a standard of care. Because no one knows what causes it, there are lots of speculations, the question is what do you do with a child when they’re diagnosed? Autism is a spectrum disorder. It manifests differently in each child. The moniker is when you’ve seen one child with autism, you’ve seen one child with autism. If you broke it down to a matrix, you would see that children have core symptoms, such as speech issues or communication issues. But they manifest differently. For example, some children have receptive language issues where they don’t understand what’s being said to them. Others have expressive language issues. Some children who have those expressive language issues don’t speak at all. Some speak intermittently. Some speak in soliloquies. They repeat whole areas of movies and things. All of it is different.
The complexities of this disease are amazingly broad. What I’m really amazed by is the approach that you took and how you came to it.
In looking at these kids, because their symptoms are so diverse, what was more similar in the children was what they ate. It was so similar child-to-child, not every child, but the similarities in their diets were greater than the similarities in their symptoms. I taught physiology in Yeshiva University. I’m a physiology person. I thought that could be my chance. I looked at everything and anything protein. What the diets look like were very high carbohydrates and low proteins. Parents called it white diet, tanned diet, but it was basically a very high carbohydrate diet. I looked at protein issues in the blood, urine and stool, and ultimately found that the first nine children that I tested had low levels of a very specific enzyme that digest protein.
Ultimately, over so many years, I looked at over 1,500 children with autism and found that on the spectrum, about 60% to 70% of them had low levels of this enzyme. That was a new discovery. No one had ever discovered or saw a single pancreatic deficiency. We explored that more and more. Ultimately, did some things to try to replace the enzyme. There wasn’t anything out there that actually really worked well, and so came up with a formulation and actually have taken it through FDA clinical trials.
This enzyme or formulation that you’ve developed to support children with autism, what have the results been?
We’re in the process of publishing that now. While I think that the publications will speak for themselves, we looked at things like irritability and socialization. We achieved statistical significance in those end points. We did make a statistically significant change in the children in those areas.
Essentially, you were able to distinguish that the diet of children with autism, in about 70% or 60-something percent of cases, pointed to a deficiency in enzymes in their body. By developing a formulation, you were able to affect their ability to socialize and connect with others.
That’s where we’re looking at, yes. The enzyme actually is really important and key in cleaving off certain essential amino acids for the protein we eat. They are what they call, proteases, which break down protein. The Chymotrypsin enzyme is the one that’s deficient. It has a very important role in breaking off Tryptophan, which forms the bases of serotonin and Phenylalanine, which forms the bases of Dopamine and Methionine. Every time you replicate a cell, the first amino acid in that sequence is Methionine.
I know that the listeners might be a little overwhelmed by all the technical terms, but it’s pretty incredible that Joan and her team were able to isolate this and figure it out because this could have a huge impact on the lives of about two million known cases in China, and who knows how many here in the US, but internationally millions of children and developed adults. Joan, when people hear that you accomplished this, what’s their most common question?
“How did you do it?” Early on it was, “What made you think of that?” Then they move into, “How did you run a company? How did you raise money? How did you do all those other things?”
Are there any quick tips to the insight?
I think that I had a very hard proven deficiency. I had lab tests from independent laboratories that showed me that this was a frank deficiency. Then, I took that finding and my passion to give up my practice and form a company and just do this. It’s where the road led me.
There are so many people that I come across that really want to create an impact on health and wellness. A lot of people promote meditation. I even heard of something called tap healing. You really went down the path of getting a drug approved. For somebody who wants to create health impact and really make a difference, is there a few areas in medicine that you really see an opportunity to explore that people could go down?
What I’m proud of besides the fact that hopefully this enzyme replacement will help a lot of people, it’s the connection of the mind-body piece. The mind-gut connection will open up doors beyond what I think I had ever imagined, because we always think about things as being very siloed. There’s a lot that we don’t know. I also believe that treatment and healing and all those things take on many forms. It’s not a one size fits all, that’s for sure. There’s lots of opportunity to affect change, to make an impact on people. I think that any time you’re trying to be a leader and trying to affect change, it’s always about solving a problem. Leadership is about solving problems. If people see something that needs to be solved, there’s an opportunity. I look at the status quo as not a continuum. I believe it has seams in it. In those seams come the disruption of change.
When we hear the narrative of your story, it sounds like a movie. In all of the complexities and challenges that you’ve faced along the way, as somebody who didn’t come from a traditional medical establishment, you didn’t go down the traditional path of becoming a medical doctor first, doing all the rotations, getting a specialization, then opening up a lab or something like that. You really went full force into trying to impact an issue. I can only imagine there were some major pitfalls and hardships that you faced along the way.
Yes. I think that one of the things that enabled me to get through it was I went and I did some post-graduate work at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard. The Institutes of Mass General have a program for clinical investigation. The first day in the first class I took there in a Master’s program, the doctor said to me, “You’re a deductive scientist.” We get so mired in inductive science where you take all the little pieces, all the little symptoms, and then you make a diagnosis. You come from an area where the body should be well. If it’s not well, what are the areas or what is going on for it that makes it a departure from wellness? It’s a top-down model rather than a bottom-up model. I took a deductive observation and ended up putting it through a very inductive clinical trial. The pitfalls were not having everything, including discovery, especially discovery, coming out of a traditional lab. It’s really patient-centered drug discovery. I think that that is actually now today more the norm as Big Pharma is looking at all this big data, gathering all this information and trying to make assumptions about patients given all that information. That’s a little bit different than the way that drug discovery has been done before. I’ve been in a lot of opposition in the beginning because it’s not just the way it’s done. People say, “That’s just not the way it’s done.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not the right way to do it. It just hasn’t been done that way before.
What are three secrets nobody talks about in your industry?
Clinical trials are really hard to do.
They take a really long time, don’t they?
They take a really long time. Recruitment is very hard. There are very stringent rules that you have to follow. You have to be very careful not to hype what you’re doing, to take a very metered approach to it. Clinical trials are very, very hard. Raising money is very hard. People who are in startups in other places know that. People just think, “Venture capital is just going to back that.” There is no venture capital in autism drug treatment. We had to do everything the hard way. Clinical trials are hard, raising money is hard, and getting a paradigm shift, which is what we’ve done, that’s also hard.
Any time you want to change a complete perspective on an established system or view to the world, it’s going to be an uphill battle. I can only imagine how thankful the families that are going to be impacted by your discovery will be. I’m really curious what’s inspired you? Were there certain books that you read that really impacted you, or certain authors?
I’ve read a lot and I’ve picked up pieces of things along the way. I don’t know that there’s necessarily a book that’s inspired me. There are people who have inspired me in my life. Each time that’s happened, it’s been about how do you affect change or how do you live in your authenticity and not let what the norms are on the outside affect you.
These people who inspired you, is there somebody who’s your hero, who you look up to the most?
Madeleine Albright is someone that I’ve always admired a lot. She did a lot in her life, overcame a lot in her life. I had parents who believed in the fact that we could do anything we wanted to. My brother and I, we could do anything we wanted to, and had a philosophy of facilitation of that that was unique. We both came from that perspective. My parents were my heroes to begin with, whether that’s the fact that I wanted to play baseball with the boys in sixth grade and the nun decided that I was too old to play ball with the six grade boys. My dad took a day off from work and went and spoke to her and said, “You can tell my daughter everything she has to do in the classroom, but you cannot tell her what she can do to recreate.”
Imagine you get a random message from a stranger, and it’s not me inviting you to dinner, it’s a complete stranger who managed to find your contact info and sent you an email. What would they say that would have you accept an invitation to meet them? What would be in that email? What would they offer you?
It wouldn’t really matter what the purpose was. It was a matter of their level of authenticity. If what they were asking for an invitation had to do with their authenticity, then I’m likely to accept that invitation. If what they’re doing is inviting me to something or to dinner because they needed to have me at their dinner for them, then I probably would not accept it.
There are certain questions that I always like to ask. This next section is more about the human touch, not that everything that we’ve talked about actually in this case isn’t incredibly human and inspiring. I know that you obviously have a commitment to impacting autism. Is there any other organization or non-profit that you really look to support?
As a company, we are involved with all of the advocacy groups for autism: Autism Speaks, Autism Society. We try to do as much as we can in that field, whether that’s my speaking at their walks or things like that, we’re very involved. I have three loves: they are medicine, children and baseball, also education. I’ve just agreed to be on a not for profit board which was until yesterday actually called Harlem RBI but now it’s called Dream. They have a charter school in New York City in Harlem, which is a fabulous, fabulous school. They’re really interested in the whole well-being of the child, whether that’s their healthcare or their education, their ability to be exposed to sports, all those different things. They have a great mission. I said just recently that I don’t really have time to be on a not for profit board at this moment. I expect to do a ton of philanthropy in the future, but I am just so busy. They sent Mark Teixeira to my office, then, I sat with Jenny Steinbrenner. These are board members who just really, really wanted my presence on there. I agreed to do that. It covers all the bases of the things that I love. I’m excited to do some work with them. Their charter school is just fabulous, not to mention all their baseball programs in Harlem, and now they’re going to be in Newark, and hopefully scale it around the country.
What’s a very human secret you’d feel comfortable sharing on the podcast? For some people, they’ve shared that they’re introverted, that they get anxious. People often see these high achievers and they feel like they’re so different than everybody else. I like to give people an opportunity to share something very human.
I love children. I absolutely adore children. They’re just a passion. In fact, our tagline here at the company is #It’sAllAboutTheKids. We say that all the time in our team meetings, this is all about the kids. There was a time in my life where I decided whether I was going to have my own or not, and decided that I would not have my own. I came close to adopting a child from Romania. Each time, I knew there was something else that I was supposed to do. I didn’t know at the time what that was. Every time I was presented with an opportunity, I didn’t do that. Now, of course, I know what that thing was that I had to do. It’s what I’m doing now. It was a very, very hard decision not to do that. Yet, I knew that I had to be a mom to millions of kids rather than just to one or two or three.
Thank you for sharing that. My geeky side comes out occasionally. I always ask guests if you could be any comic book hero or heroine, who would it be?
Since I wasn’t much into comic books, I don’t know, maybe Archie? I feel like I’ve spent my life being Wonder Woman. It might be nice to be Archie.
Last question, if you could meet anyone living, you can pick up three people, who would it be? Imagine you’re theoretically at a dinner with them.
I think Madeleine Albright would be one, the Dalai Lama would be another, and maybe Angela Merkel.
Great answers, especially after you sat on the Dalai Lama’s bed. He deserves an explanation.
What was amazing about that moment was I kept thinking, “What’s wrong with this picture? I can be here and sit down his bed and he can’t come back.”
If the listeners want to discover more about your work and what you’re up to, where can they find out more? What’s your website? What’s Twitter, Instagram?
Listeners, feel free to reach out. It’s probably too late to invest now, but I’m sure that there are plenty of you who know people who are going to be potentially really impacted by this discovery and this treatment. I couldn’t encourage you more to support the causes that we discussed today. When it comes to influence, Joan, we’ve had a lot of guests who’ve had impact on tens of thousands, even millions. I don’t know if any of them have had the influence and impact that your medication has the potential to do. I really have to thank you for dedicating your time and your life to that level of impact. Thank you for joining us today.
Thank you for having me. I’m honored to be here.
About Dr. Joan Fallon
Dr. Joan Fallon, Found and CEO of Curemark, is considered a visionary scientist who has dedicated her life’s work to championing the health and wellbeing of children. Joan holds 120+ patents worldwide. She is a Senior Advisor to the Henry Crown Fellows at The Aspen Institute, as well as a Distinguished Fellow at the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. She is also a member of the Board of Trustees of Franklin & Marshall College.
Anonymous Guest Interview
As you know, this is my favorite part of the entire podcast. We have our anonymous guest. Today, we have an absolute legend that I am so not only excited to have on the show but you are in for a treat because you will never forget this conversation. Cindy, thank you so much for coming on.
I’m thrilled to be here, Jon.
We’re going to give the listeners a few hints. Listeners by the way, if you can’t figure this one out by the end, there is something going on in my interviewing. First of all, where did you grow up?
I grew up in Brunei in Borneo.
How did you end up there?
My parents are teachers. My father got a job there. We all moved there back when I was six years old and that’s where I grew up.
Was there a certain incident or a teacher or something that inspired you to go into the career that you’re in?
In terms of what I’m doing right now, it was entirely accidental and it was inspired by the fact that I date younger men.
Before that, you spent years in the marketing world. Isn’t that correct?
Yes, that’s right.
Was there something that really drew you about the industry? If memory serves, you were kick-ass exec?
Actually, I began my career working in theater. I went to Oxford University where there was a very thriving and there is a very thriving student drama scene. I fell madly in love with theater and decided that was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I became a theater marketing and publicity officer. I worked at several theaters in the UK. Until a few years in, I got completely fed up with working 24/7 and earning chicken feed, which is for theater. At the time, I was the Marketing Officer at the Everyman Theater in Liverpool. Part of my job of promoting the theater was to give talks about it to groups. I gave a talk to a group of women. Afterwards, one of the women came up to me and she said, “Young lady, you could sell a fridge to an Eskimo.” I thought, “That is the universe telling me something, it’s time to set out this establishment going to advertising.” So I did.
You had an illustrious career and then you made a jump, but we’re not going to talk about the specifics of that right now. If there was a movie about your life, who would play you?
In my total wishful film scenario, having just seen Wonder Woman last night, Gal Gadot. Not with physical resemblance but the ability to take on endless obstacles and make her way past them is something that I feel would equip her very well to play me. She would be my dream person to play me.
I had this image of Hollywood whitewashing once again and doing Scarlett Johansson or something like that like they did in Ghost in the Shell.
You’re absolutely right, Jon. To play me, Hollywood would have to find a half-Chinese actress, Eurasian, and very depressingly there aren’t nearly enough of those around. Maybe out there somewhere is an aspiring actress who has the same ethnic makeup as me who would be brilliant.
Was there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
I really can’t think of anything too specific other than I consider it a huge accomplishment that my startup that I’m currently working on is still alive. I am a tech entrepreneur in the single most challenging sector of tech yet ironically the one guaranteed to deliver the most substantial financial returns if investors could ever be persuaded to fund it. It is a real point of pride to me that the incarnation of my business that I launched nearly five years ago now is still here given the enormous challenges that my team and I battle on a daily basis.
I have to say there’s one thing that when I think about your career stands out in my mind, which is actually how I heard about you initially. You’re one of the few people who’s ever gotten on probably what’s considered the most prestigious speaking stage in the world and talked about sex.
That’s absolutely true. It’s safe to say that I talked about sex on the TED stage like nobody else has ever done before me.
That’s a really safe bet. It would take an exceptional human being to pull off another conversation like that in front of that audience. They probably had no idea what was coming, no pun intended. I take that back, every pun intended.
In fact it’s funny because when you watch my TED Talk, at the key moment when the penny drops on the audience about what I’m talking about, you can hear a deathly silence from the audience as in, “Did she really just say that?” Then there’s a ripple of reaction that gets louder and louder through the audience as they realize, “Yes, she did.”
You’ve always known how to make an entrance. What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done on a dare or bet or stunt or something that’s caused your success?
I have a couple of responses to that, Jon. Probably the most immediate response is precisely walking out on that TED stage and saying what I did. Then the important point to make is that to me, that wasn’t a crazy thing or a dare, it was just me saying what I think very straightforwardly. I had this conversation the other day actually when I was being interviewed by somebody who said to me, “You’re so outspoken, Cindy. You have a reputation for it.” I said, “I would never describe myself as outspoken because I am just being me and I’m just saying what I think.” It’s precisely because the rest of the world doesn’t that people call me outspoken. I always make a point to people that if there is one thing, one micro action as I like to put it, because micro actions are the atomic unit of my other startup, there is one micro action that everybody can take that will most dramatically transform their career and their life going forward, it’s very simply that: say what you think. Say what you really think because nobody ever does. Honesty is enormously powerful in business and in life because so few people are. Telling the truth is very endearing because so few people do. All I’m doing is saying what I think and that’s what I did on the stage at TED. That’s what I always do. I don’t consider anything of what I do crazy or taking it down or whatever. It’s just what I feel strongly about on what I want to do and I go ahead and do it anyway.
Last question, what hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are?
I’m not used to thinking about myself in this context. I would say, if you watch porn, and I’m guessing that 99.9% of your listenership does, Jon, then you should know who I am and you certainly need to know who I am. No, I’m not a porn star.
Cindy, thank you so much for coming on. Listeners, if you can figure out who Cindy is, you can win an invitation to The Salon.