Thursday, April 23, 2009

Iacocca's Dream: Organizing the Automobile Community

Team Obama has concluded that Chrysler and Fiat are worthy of marriage, albeit one of those double-barreled shotgun marriages.

Lee Iacocca came out of retirement recently to champion the Detroit-Turin merger. You'll recall that Mr. Iacocca had great success in managing Chrysler's previous federal bailout. And he was the head cheerleader during Chrysler's merger talks with Daimler Benz.

I contacted Mr. Iacocca ("Call me Lee, please") at his Gross Pointe residence, and I asked him if Fiat and Chrysler could achieve synergy given their different automobile markets. Well, of course they could -- Lee Iacocca sees synergy everywhere.

Lee told me, "We've already made plans to import the boxy, three-door Fiat 500. Papa John's and Little Caesars have said they will make the 500 their standard pizza delivery car. Domino's will fall in line as soon as we do some minor retooling. And it won't be long after that before Pizza Hut offers free delivery."

"Heck," he continued "we're even going to rename the 500 'Topo Gigio' to bring back that 1960s nostalgia when the Big Three ruled the car business. Isn't this clever? Topo Gigio means 'Louie Mouse' in English! Can you imagine how much fun the boys in advertising will have with Louie Mouse delivering cheesy pies?"

Lee paused a long pause. And then he dropped a bombshell.

"Warren Buffett is buying our stock. He's pushing his gecko for our new mascot. I don't see it -- geckos send the wrong image when you're selling Italian cars!"

Lee's exuberance reminded me so much of the time when I interviewed him in Munich after the Benz merger was announced. Fresh from his tour of Hitler's bunker at Berchtesgaden, Lee told me that Chrysler would help Mercedes reclaim the "Joe Hofbrauhaus" market with the introduction of Europe's first dualie, the HummDee. The HummDee would be the first armor-plated, all-wheel-drive pickup truck sold to German civilians since World War I.

Lee proclaimed, "Germans will love the way our HummDee can maneuver through the Maginot Line."

But he missed the market. Germans were looking for softer, refined cars, and the HummDee didn't sell well. I was surprised that Lee didn't see that coming. After all, the cover story on that month's issue of European Road & Track was about the newly redesigned Volkswagen Beetle titled "Herbie Goes Gay!" in screaming pink letters.

But Lee was positively effervescent about Fiat's product line.

He continued, "You know, David, Fiat has pioneered 'hands-free' communication for motorists. We're bringing Fiat's patented KneeSteer(TM) technology to Auburn Hills. The whole Chrysler family will soon offer integral cell phones that will be compliant with all these new 'hands-free' laws."

With KneeSteer(TM) in every car from the Charger to the Caravan, Lee foresaw a sales edge that would carry Chrysler for the next decade.

"KneeSteer(TM) also lets us add two more cupholders to the dashboard," he said with his characteristic panache.

Lee had already met with President Obama to talk about the Asti Carbone, a hybrid version of Chrysler's PT Cruiser.

He told me, "We feel certain we can run this baby on Asti Spumanti sparkling wine if we can develop the right catalytic converter to pull more carbon dioxide out of the air. We just need a few more bubbles to make the Carbone purr! I told the president that the Carbone could make a real dent in global warming."

Lee and I talked for some time after that as he was wont to reminisce about his career. I thought that he might consider the Mustang, his signature car while at Ford, as his biggest achievement. However, he believed the K-car was his swan song.

"Yeah, sure, the Ford Mustang was 'can't miss' and a lot of fun to design and sell. But the K-car had to sell or Chrysler was dead in the water. The K-car is what paid that government loan off."

I asked Lee, "If you had it to live over, what would you change about your life?"

He didn't hesitate at all and said, "I would never have gone to engineering school. I would have become a community organizer."

"You're kidding me," I pressed.

"No! I've seen this Obama fellow in action and his breadth of knowledge is so great. He can run the Fed. He knows where we need troops. He can get tax cheats to pay up and perform government service. He knows which CEOs to fire and which CEOs deserve bonuses.

"David, if I had been a community organizer instead of a methodical engineer, I could have brought the Edsel back to life and made Ford the biggest company in the world." Such were the words of Lee Iacocca.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Cancer Center Contributes To War On Disease

The Mary Babb Randolph Cancer Center at West Virginia University is two decades old.  It seems as though the facility has been around for a much longer time.

We have learned a great deal about cancer in the past thirty years.  So much so, that the timeline of the historical record of mankind’s suffering from this disease has been drastically skewed.  In 1980, actor Steve McQueen traveled to Mexico where he took laetrile treatments to try and cure his mesothelioma.  Just last week, cancer survivor Lance Armstrong was back in the hospital, this time for a broken collarbone suffered while riding his bicycle.

Steve McQueen, the daredevil biker who did everything but sing “Edelweiss” as he toured the German countryside when filming “The Great Escape”, was hopelessly condemned by cancer.  Lance Armstrong, on the other hand, not only survived testicular cancer but went on to become France’s most famous two-wheeling tourist.  He didn’t sing “Edelweiss” either, but he did date Sheryl Crowe for awhile.

We have gone from cancer being a certain death sentence to being “doable” in a moment of time. 

The first designed chemotherapy drug, methotrexate, appeared exactly sixty years ago.  The drug proved effective against childhood leukemia, but medical science as a whole was skeptical that childhood leukemia was even curable.

It’s not that humans haven’t known about cancer for a long time.  The Greeks and Romans used their respective words for “crab” to also define cancer.  Cancerous tumors resemble the appearance of a crab.

The Greek physician Hippocrates described cancer about 400 B. C.  From this point, you can fast-forward to the start of the twentieth century because not much happened to expand man’s knowledge of cancer during that epoch.  The year 1902 stands out, however, with Madame Curie’s discovery of radium and Thomas Edison’s growing manufacture of X-ray machines.  It wasn’t long after until people learned about radiation and its consequences from overexposure.

Many of you remember wearing a lead apron while your dentist hid in a concrete bunker and pushed a button to X-ray your teeth.  The apron protected your torso (and little else) from inadvertent overexposure.  Unless you wore a tin foil hat, you can probably assume that some of your brain cells were fried.  Today, however, radiation oncologists can aim pinpoint beams of radiation at the actual tumor site.

The gains that we have made in curing cancer during the last thirty years are due in large part to a greatly expanded National Cancer Institute and the advent of regional cancer centers such as MBRCC.  As patients, we tend to focus on individual cancer treatment.  While the cancer center provides state-of-the-art patient treatment, its role goes far beyond that.

The research laboratories at MBRCC and the Health Science Center have had notable success in making critical discoveries.  For example, Dr. Laura Gibson’s team discovered that cancer cells can hide in the bone marrow where they cannot be reached by chemotherapy drugs.  And Dr. Wei-Shau Hu discovered that two retroviruses can infect the same cell and swap DNA.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then kudos to Dr. Kimberly Horn and Dr. Geri Dino of WVU’s Health Science Center.  In partnership with MBRCC, Drs. Horn and Dino developed the “Not On Tobacco” program which has been the model for teenage tobacco cessation programs across the nation.  The Centers for Disease Control recently launched a website to promote the N-O-T program.

As part of its outreach mission, the MBRCC will be sending Bonnie’s Bus, a mobile mammogram unit, around the state.  Women in rural areas will soon find much easier access to digital mammography.

The MBRCC opened its Blood and Marrow Transplantation program in 1992 and it remains the only accredited such program in West Virginia.

The MBRCC is a matrix cancer center and was designed to take advantage of not only the HSC’s elements but the WVU campus as a whole.  It has been a success.  This month, the MBRCC will double in size when it dedicates its expanded facility. 

I do hope, however, that cancer is cured before the MBRCC celebrates forty years.

There is a good benchmark to show how far we have come in treating cancer.  One of the drugs that cured Lance Armstrong was discovered in 1845 and named Peyrone’s salt after its discoverer.  Now called cisplatin, its anticancer properties were discovered quite by accident in 1970.  Cisplatin began clinical trials in 1978, just in time to save Lance Armstrong.