If anyone you know has benefited from Alzheimer’s medication, you can thank Mount Sinai CEO Dr. Ken Davis. “From an accidental discovery that happened in the late 70s, until nearly 50 years later, the only class of compounds are the ones that I developed,” he said with pride in a recent interview with Our Town.
Davis always wanted to be a scientist. In college he took an interest in brain science and psychiatry. His professors and other scientists of the time were calling into question Freud’s theory that personality was shaped by the age of five. “My desire to be a scientist and to study the brain was fulfilled when I found this fellow assistant professor at Mount Sinai,” says Davis. “We worked together every afternoon, in elective time, and the summers, and that became my passion for forever.”
In his early career Davis conducted studies on cholinesterase inhibitors, which block the breakdown on neurotransmitters. His research led to the first four out of five FDA approved compounds used for treating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s: tacrine, memantine, revastigmine, donepezel, and galantamine. “His work in schizophrenia has led to a new understanding of the role of myelination, white matter, and oligodendrocytes in the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, opening up an entirely new way of viewing and studying this disease,” says Lucia Lee, a representative from Mount Sinai.
The hospital, which was founded in 1852, originally as the Jewish Hospital, today has over 43,000 employees including more than 7,400 physicians, 3,919 beds and 144 operating rooms spread over eight campuses across the city and Long Island. Last year it has 133,283 inpatient admissions 3.7 million outpatient visits to offices and non-emergency clinics and delivered 14,570 babies. It was ranked No. 16 on the prestigious US News & World Report’s Best Hospitals Honor Roll and is nationally ranked in 11 adult and 3 pediatric specialties. The institution received a Health Care Innovation Award from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services for opening the first geriatric emergency department in New York City. And perhaps most gratifying to Dr. Davis–given his early work in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease–in its most recent survey, USN&WR ranked Mount Sinai number one nationally in geriatric care.
When he’s not developing life changing medications or managing one of the world’s top medical centers, Davis, a self described audiophile spends his time in one of his two media rooms. “As my wife would say, the first thing we did after we got married is I got new speakers,” he says. The two rooms include 11 speakers, three subwoofers, and a screen that has a diagonal of 15 ft. Being in there is similar to having “a concert hall-like experience, Bruce Springsteen, or Elton John or Rod Stewart, or The Who.” Classic rock is his favorite genre, clearly.
Davis’ start as an audiophile came when his uncle made him listen to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture on headphones. “I heard a cannon fire that went from this ear to that ear,” says Davis. “It was like it went across my head. I was just amazed.”
This year Davis will be celebrating his 20th year as CEO: “I didn’t even want the job–that happened by accident,” he jokes. When he started, he recalled, Mount Sinai only had enough budget to get by for the next two weeks, and he worried his hospital would turn out like others–he mentions St. Vincent’s Hospital, the Greenwich Village-based hospital that was forced to close in 2010 after 161 years–that were the cutting edge of scientific development but went under. “The most unexpected thing would be how we turned around Mount Sinai,” says Davis. “How we went from near bankruptcy to now having $3 billion dollars of cash despite taking care of the same population in Medicaid and Medicare [patients] that underpay you.”
Treating lower income individuals, those often with the most need and least access to health care, was one of Davis’ biggest obstacles to funding new research. “The greatest obstacle to the aspiration to be a world’s greatest medical center, which we are, is the finances of healthcare.”
The financials also pose a risk for the future of Alzheimer’s medication and its evolution. After Mount Sinai’s team of researchers make new discoveries, it is the role of pharmaceutical companies to create new medications. “The drug companies may think this isn’t a profitable area to be in, so they’ll look to other diseases,” say Davis.
Despite years of research, Davis has yet to find the basic biology behind things like schizophrenia, autism or depression. But he’s hopeful in the next decade or two there will be new major developments, especially in the study of Alzheimer’s disease. But he says his biggest accomplishment is taking Mount Sinai “from a struggling regional hospital to a nationally recognized, great academic medical center.” Today the hospital, which recently inked new nurses contracts at four of its campuses, has revenue of over $11.3 billion a year and is still growing.
“The greatest obstacle to the aspiration to be a world’s greatest medical center, which we are, is the finances of healthcare.” Dr. Ken Davis, CEO Mount Sinai