Medical student William Elder Jr. featured in President Obama’s speech at White House press conference

Vital Signs » Winter 2015
William Elder and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy

President Barack Obama referred to William Elder Jr., a fourth-year medical student, as an inspiration and an example of how precision medicine can help deliver the right treatment to the right patient at the right time during a press conference at the White House last January 2015.

This was Elder’s second visit to Washington, D.C., in less than two weeks. Elder attended the January 20, 2015 State of the Union Address as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama.

During his State of the Union Address, the president announced that he is launching the Precision Medicine Initiative, an emerging approach to promoting health and treating disease that takes into account individual differences in people’s genes, environments and lifestyles.

At the press conference, Obama unveiled details about the initiative, which will be launched with a $215 million investment in his 2016 budget. The proposed initiative will pioneer a new model of patient-powered research that promises to accelerate biomedical discoveries and provide clinicians with new tools, knowledge, and therapies to select which treatments will work best for which patients.

Diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at the age of 8, Elder’s life expectancy was low.

Now at 27, Elder is alive and thriving thanks to Kalydeco, the first oral drug that treats the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis in 4 percent of the people with the genetic disorder. When Elder first took the drug in February 2012, he was finally able to breathe out of his nose. Over the next few days, his sense of smell improved along with his sleeping habits and lung function. He had more energy and began to believe that he would live long enough to be a grandfather.

Elder was surprised that he was invited to the president’s press conference. He was contacted before the event with a brief email. The Office of Science and Technology followed up with a phone call and urged him to attend the event.

“The Office of Science and Technology said I really needed to try to make it if I could,” he said.

On the Thursday before, Elder booked a flight to Washington, D.C., but he couldn’t tell anyone because the event was embargoed until 6 a.m. on Friday.

“I knew I had to book a flight and a hotel, and I had to do it quickly because it was very important,” said Elder, who chose the Boonshoft School of Medicine because he wanted a small school with a collaborative environment and a focus on family medicine.

He and several others, who have benefited from precision medicine, including six-time NBA Most Valuable Player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, met with President Obama.

“I have to admit I was shocked that I was shaking the president’s hand for the second time in my life,” he said. I’m still stunned.”

Elder also met Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., and Francis Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health.

“There was a sense of hope in the room. This is something profound,” said Elder, who was surprised when the president called him out by name during the press conference. “We’ll be able to understand a lot more about diseases that are currently untreatable. This has a potential to change patients’ lives.”

Editor's note: Shown in the photo above (from left) are U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and William Elder Jr. at the White House press conference.

Last edited on 02/17/2016.