from the world's big
What do you do and why?
Rhodes scholar Pardis Sabeti graduated with her medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 2006, earning the school's highest honor - the third woman ever to do so. She's also the lead singer and songwriter of the band, Thousand Days, who uses her music to make science appealing to children, especially, girls. As a graduate student at Oxford University in England, Sabeti developed a way to detect natural selection at the level of individual genes. In Eric Lander's lab at the Broad Institute, she scanned the entire human genome to figure out which genes have changed within the last 10,000 years and which have spread rapidly in the human gene pool due to natural selection. With these tools, geneticists can study how cultural and environmental changes have affected the evolution of the human genome. Now Sabeti is applying this technique to her true passion: understanding the interplay between humans and the pathogens that cause diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, and leprosy. Her work - published in December 2007 - revealed genes involved in drug resistance and in evading the immune system, giving researchers potential targets for new therapies and vaccines.
Pardis Sabeti: I was trying to get people in to the lab; I think first and foremost the work that we do is just really fun and engaging and I love what I do. Like I said before, that I get to apply mathematics and problem solving in mathematics to make observations of the natural world, to understand the natural world and how we are connected to nature, how we adapt to our environment, how pathogens and humans have this arms race that we are exploring.
So to me that’s really fun. Especially working in infectious disease it’s very interesting because these infectious diseases, these agents, they evolve over time. So it’s very much an arms race and understanding how each changes to protect itself and to continue.
And so it’s very much this puzzle solving but with this great urgency and importance in what you find. And the kinds of discoveries we make have great implications to human health, and so for me I enjoy it very much.
Question: What are the implications for human health?
Pardis Sabeti: There is the day-to-day implications. So in order to do the work that I do in Lassa fever, as I said before. That’s an area that’s there is-- it’s been so neglected. In a way it’s actually because I think enough West Africans are immune to it because, probably natural selection, it actually almost clouds over how deadly this disease is and that if it actually spread how actually catastrophic it could be. So that’s a disease that’s been very well neglected so there aren’t really good diagnostics. There’s only one treatment, ribavirin, and it’s not known exactly its efficacy right now. And so a lot of what we need to do is build infrastructure just to study that.
So on a day-to-day basis the work that I do also involves infrastructure building in Africa and infrastructure building in the States towards application to Africa. So we are building diagnostics based on recombinant DNA in order to test people very quickly to see whether or not they’ve been exposed to the disease.
And so on a day-to-day basis what’s nice about the work that we do is that in order to do research we actually have to build capacity, and that capacity has direct implications.
We also have to do a lot of training of African scientists; and it’s tremendous. African scientists and doctors are some of the most hardworking people that I’ve ever met. They wake up in the morning. They work into the night. They’re very, very focused and are very, very committed because they see the day-to-day implications of the diseases.
Right now we’re working with the University of Ibadan in Nigeria with Christian Happi and it’s amazing. So for me it’s just wonderful to see him and the commitment he’s had to building the site and training a lot of the doctors at this hospital called Erua [ph?]- in Erua that has many, many patients with Lassa and so direct implications there, but then once we actually are able to investigate the disease we can understand the virus and how it’s- what might be the pathogenic traits of the virus that might be causing disease, if there is different variants in the virus community, some that are more dilute than others, understanding what it is that causes that kind of virility and strong outcome.
We can understand those individuals that have immunity, how they’ve maintained immunity, and hopefully use that towards understanding the disease and the pathogenesis of the disease, and then maybe the therapeutic implications.
So what’s great about this kind of work is that at every step you get this gratification about training scientists throughout the world, building diagnostics that could help on a day-to-day basis and then doing the kind of research that will allow us to understand these diseases in the long term.
Question: When did you become interested in science?
Pardis Sabeti: I liked solving puzzles and I think probably societally I liked science. I liked people and so I kind of began to think I should be a doctor but it was- I don’t know if that was necessarily just-- I enjoy-- I like biology a lot and I definitely love medicine but I think the one thing that was always true is that I always loved math a lot.
I adored the puzzles. It was-- I just-- Yeah. I’ve always liked problem solving and so I’m never- I’m not really much- I wasn’t much in to geometry or a lot of the sort of spatial calculus or anything like that. I just really liked number crunching in different ways. I like-- I love calculus. I love linear algebra, probability and statistics, that kind of stuff. I just really like that.
Question: What teachers inspired you?
Pardis Sabeti: I had a long list of really great math teachers, too many to name. I think all along I had great math instruction. Actually, probably my best teacher, the one that got me excited about it from the earliest age, was my sister who used to teach me-- She was two years ahead of me so she used to teach me what she learned in school in the summers before, so I’d learn it a year and a half ahead- in advance.
She probably was the earliest person that got me really excited about math. So she always taught me addition, subtraction, multiplication, algebra two years before schools were teaching it. And I think that got me really excited about it. So when I would go in to school, it was weird because I already knew everything that I was being taught that year so I just got really obsessive about it. I’d have to do my multiplication tables faster, in half time. because I was learning it so early that I just got really in to excellence in it of-- Yeah, just doing the same stuff everyone was doing but just doing it faster and better, really enjoying that, and so that was probably the spark that I got really excited about that kind of thing, and then, yeah, lots of teachers.
If there was a teacher that kind of really inspired me it was Mr. Bludish,[ph?] my biology teacher and AP biology teacher in high school. He got me really excited about biology and Mrs. Peoples; I took an anatomy and physiology course and those courses in my high school were incredibly good
So when I left by my senior year I just really thought I was going to be a biologist and genetics I was really excited about. So that’s what I went in to. Had I to do it again, I would have been a math major, probably a double major, and did take a lot of math classes but I would have taken a lot more.
Recorded on: June 29, 2008
Solving puzzles is fun, and that's what I do, says Pardis.
An article in Journal of Bioethical Inquiry raises questions about the goal of these advocacy groups.
- Two-thirds of American consumer advocacy groups are funded by pharmaceutical companies.
- The authors of an article in Journal of Bioethical Inquiry say this compromises their advocacy.
- Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness act more like lobbyists than patient advocates.
The Corruption That Brought Prozac to Market — Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bea9cff2b25efc18b663a011a679ba16"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyaJExxFPAE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Consumer-oriented groups gained steam over the ensuing decades. Their efforts helped inspire the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act after over 100 people (mostly children) died from a sanctioned drug, Sulfanilamide. If not for the hard work of these advocates, this case might have been overlooked.</p><p>Early efforts also focused on the food industry, which was increasingly using chemical preservatives. The origin of Consumer Reports can be found in the consumer advocacy movement. Both the food and drug industries were getting a free pass to experiment on citizens with few repercussions.</p><p>These movements provided a social foundation for important advocacy work in the second half of the century. Female-led groups evolved to focus on women's reproductive rights, AIDS, and mental health. As the authors write, these groups struck a balance between working <em>with</em> and <em>against</em> current trends. Sometimes you need to craft legislation with officials; at other times, you have to rage against the machine with everything you've got. </p><p>Advocacy marked an important turning point in public health (and culture in general). These groups were tired of placating to a medical model that treated the male body as the standard. This wasn't limited to anatomy. As I <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/pandemic-warnings-rp-eddy" target="_self">wrote about last week</a>, a high-profile 1970s-era conference about the role of women on Wall St featured no women on stage. You can imagine what reproductive health looked like during that time. </p><p>Advocacy groups made real impact in public health. Then the money began pouring in. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"These groups were funded largely by individual donations with some foundation support, but in the late 1980s, newer women's health groups moved to professionalize, effectively splitting the women's health movement."</p><p>A number of groups resist corporate ties to this day, such as the National Women's Heath Network and Breast Cancer Action. Too often, however, groups argue that their existence depends on corporate funding. This can lead to uncomfortable compromises. </p><p>An estimated two-thirds of patient advocacy groups in America accept funds from the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma companies gave <a href="https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11673-019-09956-8.pdf" target="_blank">at least $116 million</a> to such groups in 2015 alone.</p><p>For example, over a three-year period, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which was founded by two mothers whose sons suffered from schizophrenia, received nearly $12 million from 18 pharmaceutical companies. The largest donor was Prozac manufacturer, Eli Lilly. By 2008, three-quarters of NAMI's budget was funded by the pharmaceutical industry. It gets worse:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"An Eli Lilly executive was even 'on loan' to NAMI, paid by Eli Lilly, while he worked out of the NAMI office on 'strategic planning.'"</p>
A customer waiting for his medication at the Headache Bar in a pharmacy in Sydney, Australia. Among the items on sale are 'Paigees with Chlorophyll' and Alka Seltzer on tap.
Photo by Dennis Rowe/BIPs/Getty Images<p>This influx of cash skews public understanding of drugs. It also influences advocates to overlook real problems caused by pharmaceutical interventions, especially when it comes to mental health.<br></p><p>For a real-world example, consider how Xanax came to market. As journalist Robert Whitaker <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2e829xdb4AA" target="_blank">explains</a>, an <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1463502/?page=1" target="_blank">initial study</a> was conducted to determine efficacy in treating panic attacks. After four weeks, Xanax was outperforming placebo, which is common with benzodiazepines over short-term usage. But it wasn't a four-week study; it was a 14-week study.</p><p>At the end of eight weeks, there was no difference in efficacy between Xanax and placebo.</p><p>At the conclusion of the study after 14 weeks, the placebo outperformed Xanax. By a lot.</p><p>Why is Xanax still prescribed for panic attacks? Because the pharmaceutical company, Upjohn, only published the four-week data. The 14-week data was not in its favor. Nearly forty years later, over <a href="https://www.statista.com/statistics/781816/alprazolam-sodium-prescriptions-number-in-the-us/" target="_blank">25 million</a> Americans receive a prescription despite its <a href="https://drugabuse.com/xanax/effects-use/" target="_blank">long list</a> of side effects and addictive profile. </p><p>As the authors note, many consumers are not aware of how advocacy groups are funded.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"An international study of groups in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and South Africa found that the extent of relationships with industry was inadequately disclosed in websites that addressed ten health conditions: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, depression, Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis."</p><p>That's a tangled web of relationships. Pharmaceutical industry funding negatively impacts the work advocacy groups should be focused on: protecting us. NAMI, for example, claims that as a "natural ally" to the pharmaceutical industry, it helps consumers access "all scientifically proven treatments." When the industry ignores evidence of long-term damage caused by its treatments, you have to wonder what's being advocated. </p><p>Although, as the authors conclude, that question is easy to answer. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Instead of drawing insights from patient experience to set organizational agendas and challenge industry agendas, today's groups are silent on high prices and drug harms, oppose efforts to regulate these basic rights, and demand access to drugs that challenge the safety and effectiveness."</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.