Mike Milken often speaks about his earliest awareness of public health issues. As a child growing up in 1950s Southern California, he heard warnings about the polio epidemic. Concerned that the polio virus could be spread in water, parents hesitated to let their children swim in neighbors' pools. The later success of the Salk vaccine virtually eliminated polio - just one of many public health triumphs that more than doubled worldwide life expectancy during the 20th century.
That increase in longevity may be the greatest achievement in the history of civilization. It is believed to account for as much as half of all economic growth worldwide. Although medical research produced new drugs, devices and treatments that underlie much of this advance, the contributions of public health programs have been at least as important to life extension. These include sanitation, control of infectious and chronic diseases, workplace safety, nutrition and healthier lifestyles.
When the coronavirus pandemic swept the world in 2020, Mike drew on his five decades of working with leaders in public health and medical research to redirect the efforts of his foundations and the Milken Institute in several areas. These included connecting industry, public health schools, philanthropic foundations and government agencies to expedite treatments and cures and to address diagnostic, staffing and device shortages; provide policy recommendations, especially to care for affected workers and their families; and to disseminate accurate information. He began a daily podcast interviewing health leaders in government, academic medical centers and industry.
University of Chicago professors Kevin Murphy and Robert Topel, who are Milken Institute senior fellows, calculated that improvements in health since 1970 have added $3.2 trillion per year to national wealth in the United States alone. Beyond America, the comparable benefits are undoubtedly in the tens of trillions of dollars annually. These are among the reasons that improving lives around the world by enhancing health has long been a key part of the Milken Institute mission.
Long before the founding of the Milken Institute, Michael Milken's philanthropic initiatives in the field of health emerged from his early studies of human capital in the 1960s. Because human capital is the most important factor in creating prosperity, and because health – along with education – underlies the development of human capital, Milken has always said that a strong economy depends on a healthy society. In other words, wealth follows health. This concept informed Milken's charitable work during the 1970s in areas such as breast cancer, pediatric neurological disorders and melanoma. These efforts were formalized with the establishment of the Milken Family Foundation in 1982.
Although he is most often associated with medical research efforts, Milken notes that preventing a disease is even better than a cure. This explains his lifelong focus on public health including his two cookbooks stressing good nutrition.
Throughout the 1980s, programs and contributions by the Milken Family Foundation made a difference in programs to prevent and find improved treatments for several grave diseases. In the mid-1980s, Milken endowed a chair at the Harvard Medical School/Dana Farber Cancer Center, was the primary benefactor of the Venice (Calif.) Family Clinic and gave his time and resources to a wide range of medical and public health causes. The Milken Family Foundation provided grants to keep many MPH, M.D. and Ph.D. researchers in their labs when they were tempted to pursue more-lucrative clinical or administrative practices. Milken has said, "Of all the programs we've supported over the last generation, the biggest payoff in terms of social benefit has come from the awards to young doctors, scientists and public health experts."
Among those who received awards in the 1980s were Dr. Dennis Slamon, who later discovered Herceptin, a revolutionary breakthrough in the treatment of one type of breast cancer; Dr. Steven Rosenberg, who reported a major breakthrough in the development of successful gene therapy that for the first time in history harnessed the body's own immune system to shrink tumors; Dr. Bert Vogelstein, who did pioneering work on the incalculably important p53 gene whose mutant form is believed to be involved in more than half of human cancers; Dr. Owen Witte, whose subsequent work provided the basis for the development of the breakthrough drug Gleevec, now used as a frontline therapy for patients with chronic myelogenous leukemia; Dr. Lawrence Einhorn, who developed the highly successful chemotherapy regimen for testicular cancer; Dr. Philip Leder, a pioneer in molecular biology who contributed to the deciphering of the genetic code; Dr. Charles Myers, who went on to become Chief of the Clinical Pharmacology branch of the National Cancer Institute; and many more.
When the Milken Institute was founded in 1991 with initial funding from the Milken Family Foundation, it was able to build on a solid base of work in public health. Over more than two decades since, the Institute has advanced the field in hundreds of research reports, op-ed articles, books, Global Conference panels, Capitol Hill briefings, the Lake Tahoe Retreat on Bioscience Innovation (2011), the Celebration of Science in Washington, DC (2012), the Public Health Conference at CDC headquarters (2014), its annual Public Health Summits and other events in North America, Europe and Asia. And over several years of increasing collaboration with what is now the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, this message has been spread worldwide.
Beginning with the first Milken Institute Global Conference in 1998, panels on issues in public health have convened prominent scientists, policy makers, leaders of charitable foundations, Nobel laureates, Members of Congress, cabinet secretaries, journalists, corporate executives and major philanthropists to focus on solutions. They have addressed such areas as the elimination of malaria, polio and AIDS from the developing world, meeting the challenges of an aging society, fighting the global obesity epidemic, preventing flu pandemics, corporate wellness programs, the role of nutrition in a healthy society and strategies to overcome antibiotic resistance.
Milken Institute research reports and publications have focused the nation and the world on the importance of public health. The transformative 2007 publication, An Unhealthy America: The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease, is still widely cited for its shocking conclusions including the fact that obesity alone costs the United States more than $1 trillion a year; see the 2014 update. Another report, Waistlines of the World, showed the effects of information and communications technologies on obesity. Other Institute reports have explored innovative financing for global health R&D, feeding the world's hungry, the economic return from bioscience funding, accelerating innovation in biosciences and the value of U.S. life sciences.
Based in Washington, DC, the Milken Institute Center for Public Health is a global clearinghouse for best practices among more than 100 schools and programs in public health; a driver of actionable public health information; a center for rigorous research; and a convener of individuals and institutions that can save untold lives. The center hosts the Institute’s annual Public Health Summit in Washington, DC.