Science Stories

Two Women Win Nobel Prize for Chemistry

Have you ever wished you had a magic wand that could cure genetic diseases in children, and could modify plants to resist pests, and animals to resist disease?  We don’t have that yet, but we took a step in that direction with the invention of CRISPR, which is a method of directly editing the genetic code.  It is such an important accomplishment that the creators, Jennifer Doudna from nearby UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier from Max Planck Institute, were awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry last month.  They were only the sixth and seventh women to have won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, of the 186 prizes awarded starting in 1901.

In announcing the prize for chemistry, the Nobel Committee said, “This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.”  CRISPR is an advancement that will rapidly transform our lives and future in deep and fundamental ways, for better or worse.  That was a major theme in a Rae Dorough Speaker Series talk last year by Jamie Metzl, author of “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity”.  Quest Science Center sponsored that talk as part of our mission to demystify the science and technology that affects our everyday lives.

Dr. Charpentier and Dr. Doudna met at a conference in Puerto Rico in 2011, and just a year later published a seminal paper in the journal Science.  In addition, Dr. Doudna was one of the organizers of the first international symposium in 2015 at the National Academy of Sciences that focused on the societal and ethical use of CRISPR technology, and she continues to be at the forefront of discussion.

 

Video clips of Dr. Doudna’s first day after learning she’d won the Nobel Prize, her Nobel press conference, and comments from colleagues can be found in this UC Berkeley article

Read more about the 57 women who have won Nobel Prizes over the years and their inspiring stories in this Newsweek article

Join CRISPR’s co-discoverer Jennifer Doudna, as she explores the perils and the promise of CRISPR-Cas9, a DNA editing tool.

It is not the first time that human ingenuity has created something capable of doing us great good and great harm. Are we up to the challenge of guiding how CRISPR will shape the future?

 

What is CRISPR and What Does it Mean for Humanity?

Quest Original Content:

Climate Change and California Wildfires, Smoke and Health Impacts

By Lee Younker

Sunday, August 23rd was a stressful day for Livermore and Tri-Valley residents. The second largest wildfire in California history (at the time) was burning uncontained roughly 15 miles to the south. Mandatory and voluntary evacuation orders for regions outside the city limits were in place. As the skies darkened, the smoke got thicker and the air quality dipped into the hazardous zone, I nervously asserted that the fire wouldn’t come into the city. My wife showing less than full confidence in my scientific judgment started to gather piles of supplies in case we needed to evacuate. After a couple of hours in which the situation seemed to be getting worse, I decided to research whether the nearby vineyards had ever served as effective fire breaks in these kinds of circumstances. After my research revealed that the vineyards wouldn’t necessarily provide protection, , I decided to think about what I would take if an evacuation was necessary. This was indeed a very stressful and most unusual day. Livermore residents got a glimpse of the challenges facing so many people in Northern California.

By many measures this has been California’s most devastating fire season, and the fire season, based on past history, had barely begun. Over 3 million acres have burned, damaging over 6000 structures with over 25 fatalities. As of September 6, California passed the record for the worst year in history for the amount of damaged land, and the fire season is far from over. Most of the largest fires in California history have occurred this year since August 15th.  In fact, three of the largest fires in history burned simultaneously in a ring around the Bay area. This year’s fire activity is part of a multi-year period of unprecedented wildfire activity.

What is going on? How do scientists and experts explain what is happening? Two recently published articles provide a great deal of insight into why California and the Northwest have experienced this dramatic increase in damaging wildfires.

A peer-reviewed article in Environmental Research Letters pins a large portion of the blame on climate change and the effect it has had on temperatures, moisture levels, droughts, and the length of the fire season. The major conclusion can be simply stated “the observed frequency of autumn days with extreme fire weather … has more than doubled in California since the early 1980’s”.

A second summary article entitled “How California Became Ground Zero for Climate Disasters” convincingly argues that the problem goes far beyond the impact of climate change. The central conclusion of that article is that “The engineering and land management that enabled the state’s tremendous growth have left it more vulnerable to climate shocks.” Put another way, “Climate change is exposing the vulnerabilities in the systems that we have engineered”. Taken together these two articles provide a balanced, if disturbing, look at why the state is experiencing so many devastating wildfires.

The three big Bay area fires ignited by an unusual dry lightning storm in mid-August are now contained and yet we in Livermore and the Tri-Valley are still dealing with lifestyle disruptions caused by other fires in the state. The problem is, of course, smoke and air quality. In our household, we have now learned to double-check airnow.gov before we go out to work in the yard, take the dog for a walk or open a window. That site provides an updated measurement of air quality in our community indicating various levels from good to hazardous. Air quality in Livermore has ranged across all these levels in the past several weeks and our new portable HEPA filter has been working to keep a room clean for sleeping and reading. What do these AirNow values mean for our health? A National Geographic article eThe final article highlighted this month entitled “How breathing in wildfire smoke affects the body “ provides an updated view of the health effects.

The central conclusion “chronic impact of smoke from longer-lasting, more frequent wildfires could have serious health impacts” is quite sobering. Check Air Now before going for your morning run.

Dealing with California’s Fiery Future: A Virtual Panel Discussion

Hear presentations that touch on why California is susceptible to wildfires and what makes the Bay Area vulnerable, how public policy and Land Management requirements make firefighting complicated and what you can do to stay safe and protect your home during fire season. You’ll also hear about resources to help get your questions answered and how you can get involved in helping your community to be better prepared for fire season.

Quest Original Content:

COVID-19

COVID-19: Know the risks and make good decisions

By Lee Younker and Gina Bonanno, October 21, 2020

COVID-19 risks and decision-making

Over the past eight months individuals and families have had to make decisions related to how they should behave during the COVID-19 pandemic. The decisions have covered all aspects of life including getting haircuts, visiting salons, dining out, gathering with friends and family, dentist and doctor appointments, shopping, using public transit, getting on an airplane, arranging for home repairs, house cleaning, and so on. These decisions are all related to how much risk is involved if we do these things, and what steps we can take to keep ourselves safe and to avoid putting others at risk. While county and state guidelines have sometimes helped, they have also at times been contradictory and confusing. The specific decisions we make on a daily basis have been difficult, and complicated by many uncertainties. Guidance from county and state health officials has sometimes been confusing and contradictory as experts have learned more about the virus and how it is transmitted.

In this edition of Quest’s feature Science in the News we look ahead at the projections of the pandemic over the next six months and have assembled a set of articles and studies that can provide context, background and an underlying framework to help inform decision-making in the time of COVID-19.

The Pandemic in the Fall and Winter: What to expect and prepare for

Since March, over eight million Americans have tested positive and over 221,000 people have died1. Many experts believe these numbers are undercounted due to inadequate testing and the cause of death not always being appropriately assigned to COVID-19.  Clearly, the recent acceleration in the rise of cases in the US and worldwide indicates that we are certainly not near the end, and many in the public health arena believe we are entering a very critical and challenging period. Although it varies widely across the US, cases are rising in the majority of states and a number of states are setting ominous seven-day records for infections and hospitalizations. Several recent studies have concluded that 85 to 90% of Americans are still vulnerable to the virus. The virus is out there in large quantities and most of the population is still under threat of infection.

Adding to the concerns posed by the numbers, there are several aspects of the fall and winter seasons that are likely to exacerbate the unease. These include the colder weather driving more people inside where the threat of spread is greater, a seasonal flu and COVID-19 double whammy potentially overwhelming medical facilities, outbreaks occurring in schools and colleges and spreading to the broader community, fall and winter holidays encouraging large gatherings, and the distinct possibility that pandemic fatigue could cause people to lower their guard. Given the current alarming numbers and the fall and winter factors, some models suggest over 360,000 deaths by the end of the year.

Understanding the risks

The key to making good decisions about activities and behaviors is to fully understand all the elements that underlie COVID-19 risk. Because the virus is new and the situation has been dynamic and evolving, it has been difficult to get full agreement on the best way to think about and characterize the risk. There is an emerging view on the three key elements defining risk in any setting: prevalence in the community, exposure and individual factors.  

  • Prevalence: The first element defining risk is the extent to which the virus is present and circulating in a community or county. A group led by the Harvard Global Health Institute has provided an interactive map and dashboard showing COVID-19 risk in counties across the country. The approach is based upon the number of new daily cases per 100,000 people. They use this metric to show the severity of your county’s outbreak.
  • Exposure: Once you know the level of virus spread in your community you need to understand how the virus is actually transmitted from person to person. There has been much discussion and debate on transmission over the past months with respect to contaminated surfaces, droplets and aerosols with most experts concluding that aerosols are the most effective transmission mechanism. Erin Bromage, an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth has synthesized the information and provided a very concise and easily understood summary of where and how the virus can get passed from person to person. Hint: it is not opening the mail or passing a jogger on the bike trail, it is close interactions in a poorly ventilated indoor setting for a significant period of time.  If you understand the transmission mechanisms, you are better equipped to assess risk levels associated with various activities from opening the mail to going to a bar. The Texas Medical Association has developed a one-page guide  defining how risky an activity is on a scale of 1 to 10.  For anyone wanting more detailed information on the science of aerosol transmission of COVID-19, an extensive set of FAQs entitled, FAQs on Protecting Yourself from COVID-19 Aerosol Transmission , has been compiled based on the collective research of scientists and engineers from around the world.
  • Individual factors: The final element that is essential to the overall risk assessment is related to the individual. There are very consistent trends in the data related to how individuals are impacted by the virus, including more deaths among men, deaths that skew heavily toward the elderly and minorities and higher death rates in individuals with underlying health problems. The Mayo Clinic in an article entitled COVID-19: Who’s at higher risk of serious symptoms? provides an excellent summary of this data. Medical conditions and demographics are not the only factors that play into an individual’s risk and decision-making.  Behavioral scientists at the University of Pennsylvania , are finding that when presented with the same risk assessment data individuals can make very different decisions based on their personal biases, anxieties and stress responses.

Life must go on; balancing risks and benefits

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, successfully developing and implementing a vaccination program that reaches the necessary number of Americans along with good public health practices, could result in something approaching normal by the end of 2021. At that point we would have endured nearly two years of disruption.

Clearly, we have to do more than understand and minimize risk. We need to find ways to safely do what we need to do and what we want to do. We need to find a way to balance risk and the benefits. Benefits in this case can be whether or not to proceed with an elective medical procedure or, for seniors, to visit children or grandchildren they haven’t seen since before the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Assessing risk versus quality of life is something we’ve all been doing since the beginning of the pandemic, doing so based on data and science-based guidance can help minimize risk while allowing us to continue some aspects of our pre-pandemic lives. A new model by a group at University of Colorado and reported on by National Geographic  provides an interactive tool that estimates the risk of aerosol-based transmission for a different activities based on the infection rate in your area and other parameters you can adjust to help understand what has the biggest effect on transmission risk. A group from MIT in a paper entitled “Rationing Social Contact During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Transmission Risk and Social Benefits of US Locations”   addresses the question of what types of stores and activities should be open and what types should be shut down during surges of the pandemic by analyzing both the benefits and risk of the operations.

Looking to the future what are the main takeaway points?

1) Assess your situational risks: Who you are, where you live, and what you do all matter when you assess your level of risk or the level of risk to family members.

2) Follow the “Fauci Five” public health guidelines in all that you do: Wear masks, avoid crowds, keep a safe distance, do things outside as much as possible, and wash hands frequently. Most public health experts assert that wearing a mask is “…one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus…”2. It is quite amazing that these simple public health guidelines are the same tools we had at the time of the Great Influenza 100 years ago. Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has asserted that if we followed these guidelines we could have the virus under control in 4-8 weeks2.

3) Beware of pandemic fatigue. Don’t get lax and don’t underestimate the threat of a fall surge. The holiday season will be difficult. The things we all like to do–large indoor gatherings often with family and friends that have traveled from afar pose real threats as spreader events. When you visit with friends and family over the holidays do it wisely.

4) Recognize that this will not last forever.  The international scientific assault on this virus has been relentless and nothing short of phenomenal. Sure, mistakes have been made and conclusions altered but the progress in understanding this virus, how it gets transmitted, what impact it has, how it might be treated, and how vaccines can be developed has been remarkable. We have every reason to believe that this scientific knowledge and experience when coupled with basic public health practices can in fact lead us back to a more normal life in 2021 as predicted by Dr. Fauci.   

 

At Quest we hope this article and associated links will be helpful as you and your family navigate the next challenging phase of the pandemic. Working together with our families, our friends, our co-workers and our communities we can have a positive impact on the outcome.

 

  1. As of October 21
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p0714-americans-to-wear-masks.html
  3. https://www.axios.com/cdc-director-masking-coronavirus-dba00f19-4167-43a0-b021-9a9e66974517.html

September

ReQuestEd: Interview with Dr. David Svec – Quest’s Gina Bonanno explores COVID-19 through the eyes of Dr. David Svec, Chief Medical Officer at Stanford Health Care – Valley Care in Pleasanton, a health care provider on the front lines of the pandemic here in the Tri-Valley. Listen to the Podcast. Read the Transcript.

May

ReQuestEd: Interview with Dr. David Rakestraw – Quest’s Caleb Cheung interviews Dr. David Rakestraw about his work responding to the COVID -19 pandemic at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL) and his development of a high school physics course using cell phone sensors

Interview with FormFactor CEO Mike Slessor about his company’s response to COVID-19:  DOWNLOAD PDF

The Coronavirus Pandemic: How is Alameda County Doing? – Tracking data for Alameda County and the surrounding area to provide our region with a local analysis of the progression of the pandemic, by Rick Stulen, Quest Director

April

Local Makers Helping Frontline COVID-19 Workers – Learn how Quest Advisory Board Member June Yu and her husband Brian McGinnis designed a DIY 3D printed face mask for health workers

Understanding the Math behind the COVID-19 Challenge – A deep dive into the mathematics behind the pandemic and analysis to make the data more meaningful, by Alan Burnham, Quest’s Founder and CFO

A Q&A with David Galas – Learn about the origins of the quick-turnaround test that is now in production for COVID-19

Stanford Doctor Fatima Rodriguez Studies Connection Between COVID-19 and Cardiovascular Disease

Dr. Fatima Rodriguez, MD, MPH, has been an assistant professor in cardiovascular medicine at the Stanford University Medical Center since 2014. In addition to being a practicing general and preventive cardiologist, she researches a range of issues relating to racial and ethnic disparities in guideline adherence, cardiovascular disease prevention, health promotion, and leveraging technology to improve the care of diverse patients.

She’s also Research Director for an innovative telemedicine program in cardiology, CardioClick, and is a volunteer working on the new American Heart Association (AHA) patient data registry to learn more about the COVID-19 virus and its associations with cardiovascular disease.

In a May Cardiovascular Business interview, Dr. Rodriguez notes that “COVID-19 is the health crisis of our lifetime and has impacted almost every aspect of cardiovascular care for patients and physicians. Because of the lack of high-quality data across diverse populations, physicians are often making management decisions with uncertainty.”

As such, the AHA has recognized the pressing need to rapidly collect, analyze, and disseminate high-quality data about the cardiovascular effects of COVID-19. Early research suggests that the SARS-COV2 virus may affect every aspect of the cardiovascular system – the coronary arteries, the myocardium, and the electrical system.

The goal of this registry is to capture high-quality and comprehensive data across U.S. hospitals for patients hospitalized with COVID-19. “We are collecting detailed demographic data, serial laboratory and testing data, treatments, and cardiovascular outcomes in patients,” said Rodriguez. “We need to work together to make sure the data we collect are truly representative of the diversity of the U.S. patient population”.