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Can remdesivir treat COVID-19 effectively?

37 min 21 sec ago

In the next week, we should see results from a clinical trial of a drug called remdesivir.

Researchers in the Texas A&M University lab of Wenshe Ray Liu were the first to identify the antiviral drug remdesivir as a viable medicine to treat COVID-19 in research from late January. The drug was originally developed in response to the 2014 Ebola pandemic.

In the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Liu and his research team have focused their lab solely on searching for drugs to treat COVID-19.

As a chemical biologist specializing in medicinal chemistry, Liu’s primary research target is cancer. But the lockdown of Wuhan and the first two diagnosed cases in the US prompted him to refocus his lab on coronavirus.

“The motivation that drove us was the rush against time to find alternative medicines that might be put in use to fight against the virus when it spread to the US,” Liu says.

The researchers are working to develop drugs that can prevent SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—and other coronaviruses from replicating once inside human cells. They’re also exploring how to counteract the effect of the viruses in human plasma.

Liu says his group has made significant progress in a very short time toward their ultimate goal: to push a COVID-19 drug candidate to preclinical trials and clinical testing before the pandemic subsides.

“There is sufficient scientific knowledge for this group of viruses, and we will be able to find cures,” he says.

Remdesivir is being tested in at least five large-scale clinical trials around the world and also has been delivered to some patients, including the first known US case confirmed January 21 in Washington. That patient recovered after compassionate use of remdesivir.

While Liu says he remains convinced it’s the right treatment, he cautions that success shouldn’t be viewed as a one-shot approach, given such a swift-moving target as COVID-19.

“Remdesivir is still the best and probably the only option to target the virus directly in patients,” he says.

With the US clinical trial set to finish this week, Liu is optimistic that the final results released next week will speak for themselves. However, with remdesivir poised to be the only approved drug to treat COVID-19, its large-scale use will occur, and some drug-resistant virus strains will evolve.

“At this stage, the scientific community needs to prepare for the worst and work to bring other treatment options to the forefront,” he says, adding that while there have been positive results from tests of hydroxychloroquinine, additional options are needed.

When it comes to viral mutations and reports that multiple strains of the virus exist, Liu deferrs to clinicians, but acknowledged that it has become more virulent.

“The infectivity of the original strain shown in Wuhan was not as high as what we have observed for the current strain in the US,” he says.

Support for the research comes from the Texas A&M Drug Discovery Laboratory, as well as the National Institutes of Health, the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, and the Welch Foundation funding initially provided for Liu’s group’s underlying cancer-related research.

Source: Texas A&M University

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4 ways to help people going hungry during COVID-19

1 hour 12 min ago

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the economy, more people than ever before could face the prospect of going hungry.

Reasons include a sudden loss of income, a sick caregiver, or an inability to stock up on food. Others might have relied on school lunch programs to help feed their children or live in food deserts or communities with grocery shortages. Still others might be in a high-risk group warned against shopping for themselves.

So, what can we do to help people not comfortable admitting they’re hungry or in need food?

Here, Debbie S. Dougherty, a professor of communication at the University of Missouri, and colleagues, all with expertise in food insecurity and social class, offer four tips for how to talk with those facing food insecurity during a crisis:

1. Consider the digital divide

Remember, not everyone uses social media. The current food security crisis with COVID-19 is directly connected to the digital divide, which has left a large portion of the population isolated.

For example, many older generations do not use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media platforms. In addition, many people in rural areas don’t have access to quality internet connections that would make social media a reliable form of interaction. Encourage these people to reach out to others using older technology, such as telephones and email.

2. Normalize the struggle

Use language that normalizes food insecurity in present times. People tend to compare themselves with others. If people believe that others have enough food, they may feel ashamed of their own food insecurity.

In interactions, make it clear that many people are food insecure right now. Normalizing such experiences and struggles can remove the shame. Hopefully, communicating this way will help people more readily admit when they have need.

3. Destigmatize the need for help

Given the broad scope of the current crisis and the impact on our food distribution system, neighbors, parents, and coworkers could be food insecure right now. Food insecurity is stigmatized in the US, as if not having enough food is shameful and one’s own fault. Due to these stigmas, people tend to hide their hunger.

In their ongoing research on food security in precarious economies, the researchers discovered many people would rather go hungry than admit their hunger to family, friends, and networks.

In the US, people tend to decline offers of help, even when they could accept the offers. Being seen as a “charity case” is stigmatized and can damage a person’s dignity.

Therefore, instead of asking to drop off food, ask if there can be an exchange of some small service. For example, in exchange for bringing over food or dropping off dinner outside someone’s door, ask the person if they can demonstrate how to knit or lend muffin tins once the social distancing is over. This type of exchange can help preserve a person’s dignity and also has the opportunity to create what strong communities are built upon—social capital.

4. Remember everyone’s emotions

This can be a stressful time for many people. People can experience strong emotions, including worry, anxiety and depression. These emotions can put a strain on a person’s mental and social health, as well as many food-related behaviors.

For example, people may turn away offers of food because they are afraid that they will become infected by touching food deliveries.

There is a minor risk that this could happen, but taking some advised steps regarding making or delivering food can ensure health and safety. When making food for a neighbor, make sure kitchen counters and sinks are cleaned and disinfected, and wash hands frequently. Then tell neighbors the steps taken to ensure the food is safe.

Anyone experiencing food insecurity should consider visiting these resources:

Find a local food bank or pantry:



Locate farmers markets and food directories:


Apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP/WIC):


Advocate for those who are food insecure:


Additional researchers from West Chester University, Saint Louis University, and the University of Kansas contributed to the tips.

Source: University of Missouri

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Too many tweets from cities lose citizen attention

1 hour 38 min ago

City governments that tweet less-frequent, but more focused, messages tend to have higher engagement with the citizens who follow their accounts, researchers report.

In a study, researchers found that the more municipalities tweeted messages, the less likely that their followers would react to the message, also referred to as engagement, according to Jeffrey Stone, assistant professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State Lehigh Valley and an affiliate of the Institute for Computational and Data Sciences.

“What this study suggests is that the most active Twitter accounts are not the most engaging,” says Stone.

He adds that engagement for this study meant the popularity and virality of the tweets. Popularity of the tweets looked at how often followers liked the tweets, and virality examined how often the followers retweeted the tweet.

Stone says that municipalities that were most active on Twitter were more likely to tweet health-related messages. In the case of municipalities using Twitter to communicate those health messages, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stone says that social media handlers should resist the urge to over-communicate, but instead rely on a disciplined messaging strategy.

“If you tweet too much, it tends to be— at least in my opinion—’white noise,'” says Stone. “In terms of what we see in this data, you want to alter your messaging strategy so that you have more focused, more credible, and more direct messages.”

The researchers say that health-related tweets typically are meant to draw attention to public concerns, which may increase the relevance to the citizen. Stone says the study results suggest that municipal tweets that appeal to group affiliation and common, personal motivations (e.g. health) were more likely to be engaging.

Several linguistic factors also seemed connected to an increase in engagement, according to the researchers.

They found that tweets that featured emotional elements, such as feelings of anxiety, anger, and faith, tended to increase engagement. However, Stone cautioned, emotional elements in a tweet did not necessarily mean that the sender of the tweet was emotional—rather it suggests that these messages themselves drew attention because they contained provocative wording, or references to addressing violence, or alerting citizens to potentially violent situations.

“You have to be careful when you say ‘angry’ because, for example, a town government may tweet about a workshop on domestic violence, which doesn’t mean the government officials are angry,” says Stone. “It could mean, for example, that they’re looking to address domestic violence, or that they are tweeting about a memorial service for victims of violence.”

Likewise, rather than expressing a specific spiritual opinion, municipality tweets on faith were more likely to contain references to a broad range of meetings or services at the community’s places of worship.

To conduct the study, the researchers obtained primary Twitter account names—or handles—from 100 of the largest US cities, based on the United States Census Bureau’s 2017 population estimates. One city did not have a Twitter account and another city failed to tweet in a month, so the researchers omitted those two cites and added the next two most populous cities. Six mayoral accounts were removed, resulting in a final set of 94 cities.

These cities had a total population of 57,392,361, or 17.55% of the US population based on US Census Bureau estimates at the end of 2017.

A software program extracted the tweets from the Twitter application that allows public access, or API. The tweets covered a 91-day period between September 1 to November 30, 2019. A textual software program was used to examine the tweets’ linguistic properties.

According to the researchers, future research might look at examining a larger dataset to make sure these results apply, in general, to other municipalities.

“We would love to get some data and a longer period of data to dig into this a little deeper,” says Stone.

“We would also like to differentiate these tweets by engagement to investigate what types of tweets are more engaging—are they informational tweets, are they tweets about events, are they tweets about health concerns?”

The findings appear in Government Information Quarterly.

Source: Penn State

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‘Noisy’ neurons put a limit on visual perception

2 hours 36 min ago

The ability to make fine visual discriminations between two stimuli runs up against a natural barrier that large groups of “noisy” neurons behaving similarly create, according to research with mice.

The new research helps solve a longstanding mystery about how brains manage to process information so accurately, despite the fact that individual neurons, or nerve cells, act with a surprising degree of randomness.

The findings in Nature offer new insights into the limits of perception and could aid in the design of so-called neuroprosthetics—devices that enable people to regain some lost sensory capabilities.

In the new study, the researchers measured the activity of neurons in mice brains as the rodents visually discriminated between similar, but not identical, imagery. By analyzing data gathered from around 2,000 simultaneously recorded neurons in each mouse, the researchers discovered strong supporting evidence for a theory that “correlated noise” in neural activity causes perceptual limitations.

In essence, because neurons are highly interconnected, when one randomly responds incorrectly and misidentifies an image, it can influence other neurons to make the same mistake.

“You can think of correlated noise like a type of ‘groupthink,’ in which neurons can act like lemmings, with one heedlessly following another into making a mistake,” says co-senior author Surya Ganguli, an associate professor of applied physics at Stanford University.

Remarkably, the visual system is able to cut through about 90% of this neuronal noise, but the remaining 10% places a limit on how finely we can discern between two images that look very similar.

“With this study, we’ve helped resolve a puzzle that’s been around for over 30 years about what limits mammals—and by extension humans—when it comes to sensory perception,” says co-senior author Mark Schnitzer, a professor of biology and of applied physics and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Thousands of neurons

To obtain the huge sample set of a couple thousand neurons per mouse, lead author Oleg Rumyantsev, a graduate student in applied physics at Stanford, spearheaded construction of a special type of apparatus for brain imaging. Within this experimental setup, a mouse could run in place on a treadmill while scientists used optical microscopy to observe neurons in its primary visual cortex. This brain region is responsible for integrating and processing visual information received from the eye.

The mice in the study were genetically engineered to express sensor proteins that fluoresce and report the levels of activity of neurons in the cortex; when the neurons activate, these proteins give off more light, allowing the researchers to infer the cells’ activity patterns.

Sweeping a set of 16 laser beams across the mouse’s visual cortex illuminated the neurons and initiated the fluorescence process, allowing the researchers to watch how the cortical neurons responded to the two different visual stimuli. The presented stimuli were similar-looking images consisting of light and dark bands, known from previous research to really grab murine attention.

Based on how the neurons responded, the researchers could gauge the visual cortex’s ability in distinguishing between the two stimuli. Each stimulus generated a distinct pattern of neuronal response, with many neurons coding for either stimulus 1 or stimulus 2. Fidelity, however, was far from perfect, given neurons’ innate randomness.

On some presentations of the visual stimuli, some neurons miscued and signaled the wrong stimulus. Due to the groupthink of correlated noise, when one neuron got it wrong, other neurons sharing common inputs from the mouse’s retina and subsequent parts of the visual circuitry were also more likely to make the same mistake.

It was only possible to uncover the true impact of this correlated noise because the researchers were able to observe a large set of neurons simultaneously.

“Correlated noise only really manifests when you go up to about a thousand neurons, so before our study, it simply was not possible to see this effect,” Ganguli says.

Our noisy brains and visual perception

With regard to visual discrimination tasks, though, the brain still does awfully well in cutting through the sheer volume of neuronal noise. Overall, around 90% of the noise fluctuations did not impede visual signal coding accuracy in the neurons. Instead, only the remaining 10% of correlated noise negatively affected accuracy, and thus limited the brain’s ability to perceive.

“The correlated noise does place a bound on what the cortex can do,” says Schnitzer.

The findings suggest that once a suitably large set of neurons (or artificial, neuron-like processing elements) are available, throwing more neurons at a sensory discrimination problem might not substantially boost performance. That insight could help developers of brain prosthetics—the best-known of which is a cochlear implant for the hearing-impaired—learn to achieve more with less.

“If you want to build the best possible sensory prosthetic device, you may only need to cue into, say, 1,000, neuron-like elements, because if you try to cue into more, you may not do any better,” says Ganguli.

Future experiments could examine if the correlated noise limitations, revealed in the new study, also limit other senses beyond vision.

Funding for the study came from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the McKnight Foundation, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the Simons Foundations, and the National Institutes of Health.

Source: Adam Hadhazy for Stanford University

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Forest loss makes diseases like COVID-19 more likely

2 hours 53 min ago

Viruses that jump from animals to people, like the one responsible for COVID-19, will likely become more common as people continue to transform natural habitats into agricultural land, according to a new study.

The analysis reveals how the loss of tropical forests in Uganda puts people at greater risk of physical interactions with wild primates and the viruses they carry.

“The combination of major environmental change, like deforestation, and poverty can spark the fire of a global pandemic.”

The findings have implications for the emergence and spread of infectious animal-to-human diseases in other parts of the world, and suggest potential solutions for curbing the trend.

“At a time when COVID-19 is causing an unprecedented level of economic, social, and health devastation, it is essential that we think critically about how human behaviors increase our interactions with disease-infected animals,” says lead author Laura Bloomfield, an MD student in the School of Medicine and a PhD candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources within the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford University.

“The combination of major environmental change, like deforestation, and poverty can spark the fire of a global pandemic.”

Forest loss and the next COVID-19

People have converted nearly half of the world’s land into agriculture. Tropical forests have suffered the most, with some of the highest rates of agricultural conversion over the last few decades.

“We humans go to these animals. We are forcing the interaction through transformation of the land.”

In Africa, this has accounted for about three-quarters of recent forest loss. What remains, outside protected parks and preserves, are small islands of forest in a sea of farmland and areas where farmland intrudes into larger forested areas.

In Uganda, decades of migration and the creation of farmlands outside Kibale National Park have led to a high density of people trying to support their families at the edge of forested habitats. Ordinarily, people avoid wild primates because they are well-known carriers of disease, and many are protected by Uganda’s Wildlife Authority. However, continued loss of forested habitat means wild primates and humans are increasingly sharing the same spaces and vying for the same food.

When people venture into forested areas for resources and when animals venture out of their habitats to raid crops, the chances increase for transmission of zoonotic—or animal-to-human—disease. A prime example is HIV, which is caused by a virus that jumped from wild primates to humans via infected bodily fluids.

“We humans go to these animals,” coauthor Eric Lambin, a professor in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences. “We are forcing the interaction through transformation of the land.”

Losing forest boundaries

Unlike previous studies that examined the issue from primarily an ecological standpoint, the new study is the first to integrate landscape-level ecological factors with individual-level behavioral factors and weigh risks to human health.

The researchers began by collecting land use survey data from small-scale farmers living near forest fragments. They combined this information with high-resolution satellite imagery from the same time period to model how landscape patterns and individual behaviors together make certain people more likely to have contact with wild animals.

They found the strongest predictors of human-wild primate contact were the length of the forest boundary around people’s homes and the frequency with which people ventured into these forested areas to collect small trees for construction material. Searching for these pole-like trees entails spending more time deep in primate habitats than other forest-based activities.

The researchers were surprised to find some of their assumptions turned upside down. For example, small fragments of residual forest—not larger expanses of habitat—were most likely to be the site of human-wild primate contacts due to their shared borders with agricultural landscapes.

Similarly, the researchers speculate that increasing intrusion of agriculture into forests and resulting human activities in these areas could lead to more spillover of infections from wild primates to humans worldwide.

Preventing human-primate interaction

The researchers suggest that relatively small buffer zones, such as tree farms or reforestation projects, around biodiversity-rich forests could dramatically lessen the likelihood of human-wild primate interaction.

Using external resources, such as national or international aid, to provide fuel and construction material or monetary supplements could also reduce pressure on people to seek out wood in forested areas.

“At the end of the day, land conservation and the reduction of forest fragmentation is our best bet to reduce human-wild animal interactions,” says coauthor Tyler McIntosh, a former graduate student in the Stanford Earth Systems Program now working at the Center for Western Priorities.

The research appears in Landscape Ecology.

Source: Stanford University

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Even during COVID-19, ‘nature is a necessity’

3 hours 31 min ago

Spending time in nature is crucial for our health, even during the COVID-19 pandemic, one expert says.

As state and local officials plead for residents to stay at home in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many included a caveat: You can still enjoy the outdoors, as long as you can maintain a safe social distance.

In the absence of widespread testing, social distancing remains the most important tool to fight the spread of COVID-19.

But the recent closures of restaurants, bars, and movie theaters did not disperse crowds so much as move them outside. And when people flocked instead to beaches, parks, and hiking trails, officials began to shut those places down, too.

Those measures underscore a widespread urban problem, says Marc Berman, an associate professor at the University of Chicago and an expert on how environmental factors can affect our brain and our behavior.

“If a city doesn’t have enough green space for the amount of people who live there, that’s a public health issue. Our research has found that nature is not an amenity—it’s a necessity. We need to take it seriously.”

The Chicago lakefront is now closed, as are Los Angeles County beaches and New York City playgrounds. Even popular national parks, such as Yellowstone and Great Smoky Mountains, have shut their gates.

Berman understands that such measures are necessary to limit COVID-19 outbreaks, especially as confirmed cases in the United States have surpassed those of every other country in the world.

Social distancing is the major effective tool that we have right now to fight this disease, and it takes top priority,” he says.

Still, he stresses that the ongoing crisis only underscores the psychological benefits of nature—as well as the need for urban infrastructure and policies that maximize those benefits.

“People are so cooped up inside, getting the mental break outside is going to be important,” Berman says. “But we have to maintain distancing. Are there organized ways we could do that?

“You could probably figure out a way to map out the population, to say certain neighborhoods can go here at this time, or other places at another time. Try to spread it out, to keep people exposed to these environments that we know are good for them.

“The question is, does a city or municipality have enough green space to safely do this? For many places, that answer may be no.”

As director of the University of Chicago’s Environmental Neuroscience Lab, Berman has explored how interactions with nature can impact cognitive performance—and how even videos and sounds of nature can provide some gains, especially when actual outdoor exposure isn’t possible.

Last year, he was part of an international collaboration that produced a framework through which cities could measure those benefits. The long-term goal for that work was to help city planners and other policymakers better design green infrastructure to improve mental health.

That research also highlighted nature access as an issue of environmental justice, and the need for cities to increase access to nature in low-income neighborhoods.

A study that Berman led in 2015 found that having 10 more trees on a city block increases how healthy nearby residents feel—the same improvement achieved through a $10,000 increase in income, or a seven-year decrease in age.

“Cities have a limited amount of space, so we need to be creative about how we’re going to get the green space in,” Berman says. “Maybe that means designing buildings a little bit differently. Or changing the exterior of a building to add green walls.

“Having more trees—simple changes like that can preserve the good social connectivity of cities, while providing enough green spaces for mental and physical health. If we can get people interacting with nature more in larger cities, then you’d have a more mentally healthy city population as well.”

Caption: “If a city doesn’t have enough green space for the amount of people who live there, that’s a public health issue,” says Marc Berman.

Source: University of Chicago

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Ethicist: Hydroxychloroquine hype could bungle the science

3 hours 33 min ago

Elements of the response to COVID-19 remind ethicist Alex John London of errors in the response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014-15. For example, hydroxychloroquine.

Researchers and doctors around the world are in a race to save lives, not only through caring for patients sick with COVID-19, but also in the hunt to discover an effective treatment or vaccine. In the rush to do science quickly, London says it is easy to make mistakes.

“The point of research is to reduce uncertainty—to sort out dead ends from fruitful treatment strategies,” says London, professor of ethics and philosophy and director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “But if you don’t do rigorous science, you can wind up increasing uncertainty, which can actually make things worse.”

London’s research focuses on ethical and policy issues surrounding the development and deployment of novel technologies in medicine. He was part of the National Academy of Medicine committee that reviewed the science and the ethics of the clinical trials that were launched in response to the 2014-2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

One of the conclusions of that report is that clinical trials need to start early on in an outbreak. London says some of the studies on Ebola started too late and lacked rigorous design features—such as randomization and a concurrent control arm—that made their findings less reliable. He sees echoes of past mistakes in the COVID-19 response.

Hydroxychloroquine approval

“Early reports of hydroxychloroquine have been based on small studies, some of which have methodological shortcomings,” London says. “These are missed opportunities. Before we encourage widespread use of a drug, we need better evidence that it’s worth it.”

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration authorized hydroxychloroquine for emergency use. The drug is typically used to treat malaria, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis. London says patients who need it for actual treatments are now finding it difficult to obtain.

He also stresses that the approval of a drug as a treatment for one medical condition doesn’t mean that it will be safe for another. “Drugs have side effects that can be reasonable when they are offset by the relief of suffering or restoration of functioning. If the benefits in the new treatments don’t pan out, then very sick people are exposed to the side effects of a drug without compensating benefit.”

London emphasizes that the evaluation of risks from medical interventions is different for treatments and vaccines. “There can be a high tolerance for side effects in drug treatments because the drug is given to a relatively low number of people, and only to those who are sick,” says London, who has helped to revise several ethical guidelines for international research.

“Vaccines are different. Hundreds of millions of healthy people will need to get a COVID-19 vaccine to develop herd immunity. If a side-effect impacts just a minuscule percentage, it might still affect hundreds of thousands of healthy people. So, the bar for tolerability and safety is higher in vaccines.”

Can artificial intelligence help?

One strategy to expedite the vaccine process for COVID-19 is turning to the power of artificial intelligence (AI). London’s colleague, Carnegie Mellon professor David Danks, looks at the intersection of ethics and machine learning. He’s seeing no shortage of worldwide suggestions of how AI may play a role in helping to find quick treatments and a vaccine. The challenge in drug discovery, Danks says, is that there are always too many things we think might work.

AI is supposed to be a great tool for sifting through the many possibilities to find those that are likely to work,” says Danks, department head and professor of philosophy and psychology. “The challenge right now with COVID-19 is that we don’t yet have real-world success stories to have any idea of how helpful AI will be. And even if it is helpful, it doesn’t eliminate the time it takes to run studies to see if they work.

“AI is a tool to help us focus our science,” Danks says. “But it doesn’t eliminate the need to do the actual science.”

Together, the CMU ethicists stress that it’s vitally important to get trials done early in order to gather evidence as quickly as possible. But the trials must be conducted carefully and not over-promise success.

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

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UN treaty could turn high seas ‘hotspots’ into parks

4 hours 4 min ago

Researchers are using big data to identify biodiversity hotspots that could become the first generation of high seas marine protected areas.

Often considered desolate, remote, unalterable places, the high seas are actually hotbeds of activity for both people and wildlife. Technology has enabled more human activity in areas once difficult to reach, and that in turn has brought a growing presence of industries such as fishing, mining, and transportation in international waters—the ocean beyond 200 nautical miles from any coast.

“The high seas are the planet’s last global commons.”

This increase is cause for concern to people like University of California, Santa Barbara researchers Douglas McCauley, Morgan Visalli, and Benjamin Best, who are interested in the health and biodiversity of the oceans. That no nation has jurisdiction over international waters has, at least historically, made regulation very difficult and puts sensitive and essential ocean habitats and resources at risk.

“The high seas are the planet’s last global commons,” says Visalli, a marine scientist at the Benioff Ocean Initiative at UC Santa Barbara. “Yet marine life and resources on the high seas are at risk of being overexploited and degraded under the current fragmented framework of management. The world needs and deserves a comprehensive legal mechanism to protect high seas biodiversity now and into the future.”

So when the United Nations turned its efforts toward negotiating the first global high seas treaty for “the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction,” the scientists leapt at the chance to put their expertise to work. To kickstart this research, ocean scientists and high seas experts from 13 universities and institutions gathered in a series of workshops. Together the team developed a standardized, data-driven strategy to identify hotspots of biodiversity potentially deserving of protection in the high seas.

“One of the goals of these United Nations negotiations is to develop a pathway for the establishment of marine protected areas in the high seas,” says Visalli. “This creates an incredible opportunity to leverage new global data assets and data-driven planning tools to identify areas of the high seas that have outstanding conservation value and could be considered high priority areas for spatial protection.”

The researchers’ results appear in the journal Marine Policy.

Find the right spot

Marine protected areas—designated parks in the sea where special measures are taken to protect biodiversity—are among the most powerful and effective tools marine scientists and managers have at their disposal to look after marine biodiversity, maintain ocean resiliency, and enhance the productivity of fishery resources that operate just outside of these parks.

“This is important because climate change is rapidly altering our oceans.”

But to get the most out of marine protected areas, they need to be in the right places. Researchers in this collaboration used big data and an optimization algorithm to try to balance the benefits of protecting certain locations with high biodiversity against costs, such as the loss of fishing in that area. Their aim was to find win-win solutions for the possible placement of these high seas protected areas.

“It is a historic moment for our ocean,” says McCauley, a professor of ecology and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative. “Places like New York City, that famously included parks for nature and people in their zoning plans before things got busy, have benefited immensely from that foresight. This is our Central Park moment for the high seas.”

The researchers took more than 22 billion data points organized into 55 layers that included information on conservation-related factors such as species diversity, ocean productivity, threatened species, and fishing in locations across the high seas, which cover about two-thirds of the global ocean. They also future-proofed their analysis by including data layers describing the predicted diversity of species in a future ocean altered by climate change.

“This is important because climate change is rapidly altering our oceans,” McCauley says. “Our approach illustrates one way to protect the biodiversity oases of both today and tomorrow.”

Each hotspot identified in this analysis is special for its own reasons. The research highlights, for example:

  • the Costa Rica Dome, a dynamic nutrient rich region that attracts endangered blue whales and leatherback sea turtles;
  • the Emperor Seamount Chain, a string of extinct underwater volcanoes that are home to some of the oldest living corals;
  • and the Mascarene Plateau, an area in the Indian Ocean that has the largest contiguous seagrass meadow in the world and provides habitat for many globally unique species.

These and other notable biodiversity hotspots across the globe could constitute the critical mass needed to achieve long-term marine sustainability goals, according to the study, and are worthy of consideration as the first generation of high seas marine protected areas.

Toward a treaty

Decades in the making and nearly close to completion, the high seas treaty negotiations were set to embark on their fourth round this month, but have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. UC Santa Barbara scientists presented preliminary results from this exercise at the United Nations during the third negotiation session for the treaty last August.

This analysis, the researchers say, disproves the misconception that there is not enough good data about biodiversity in the high seas to strategically plan for high seas protected areas.

“We have high hopes,” McCauley says. “We hope that the United Nations will indeed deliver a strong treaty later this year that includes measures to set up these new international ocean parks. And that science-based analyses, such as these, give them confidence that researchers and experts stand ready to help them strategically put these parks in smart places that will maximize the benefits that these parks will yield for people and nature.”

Source: UC Santa Barbara

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Amyloid build-up isn’t the only Alzheimer’s risk factor

Wed, 2020-04-08 19:56

Amyloid is a key feature of Alzheimer’s disease, but the accumulation of these sticky proteins may not be the only risk factor for developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Other, modifiable risk factors, such as the amount of fats in our blood and how efficiently our bodies generate energy could also play important roles, new research suggests.

One of the largest studies of Alzheimer’s disease in people with Down syndrome (DS-AD) reveals metabolic alterations in DS-AD are similar to those seen in late-onset Alzheimer’s disease (LOAD) among the general population.

“We found that people with Down syndrome, who also have Alzheimer’s disease, show a deficit in energy metabolism that is similar to people with Alzheimer’s disease in the general population,” says first author Mark Mapstone of the neurology department at the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine and member of the Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders (UCI MIND).

“These findings suggest that the amyloid accumulation, which occurs from birth in Down syndrome, may not be the only factor determining Alzheimer’s risk.”

The study is one of the first large-scale blood-based investigation of metabolic factors associated with aging and cognitive status in adults with Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease. It was based on a large cohort of adults with Down syndrome who were enrolled in the Alzheimer’s Biomarker Consortium-Down Syndrome (ABC-DS), a multi-site, longitudinal cohort study of adults with Down syndrome over age 25.

“Disruption of metabolic function is a recognized feature of late onset Alzheimer’s disease,” says Mapstone. “Our discovery could open new avenues for preventing this metabolic deficit in all people at risk for the disease.

Down syndrome is the most common neurodevelopmental disorder affecting over 250,000 individuals in United States. People with Down syndrome have a very high risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and nearly all have the brain pathology (amyloid plaques) of Alzheimer’s at death.

“Their risk is thought to come from the fact that they have three copies of chromosome 21, where a key gene that produces amyloid is found. Because they have three copies of the gene, instead of two, they overproduce amyloid which is the key pathology of Alzheimer’s disease,” says Mapstone.

“By studying Alzheimer’s risk in people with Down syndrome, we can understand how important amyloid is to the development of the disease.”

Funding for this study came, in part, from the National Institute on Aging and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Source: UC Irvine

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Gene variant makes head and neck cancer more aggressive

Wed, 2020-04-08 19:47

A genetic variant in a gene called MET is responsible for more aggressive growth of head and neck cancer, and lung cancer, according to a new study.

A further probe into the finding reveals therapeutic strategies that could potentially target this genetic alteration and pave the way for better and more effective treatments.

The MET gene encodes for a cancer promoting protein that relays growth, survival, and transmission of signals in cancer cells, researchers say.

As reported in Nature Communications, researchers also identified a form of MET protein which showed ethnic preference with higher incidence among Asians, and associated with poorer prognosis in patients diagnosed with head and neck squamous cell carcinoma or lung squamous cell carcinoma.

Even though the MET variant does not seem to predispose someone to head and neck cancer or lung cancer, it leads to more aggressive growth of cancers that have already developed.

Unlike other MET mutants, existing MET-blocking drugs do not seem to inhibit this genetic variant, prompting researchers to conduct further investigation on the mechanism behind the genetic alteration.

The team found that the single amino-acid change in the MET receptor from the genetic alteration leads to preferential strong binding to another cancer promoting protein, HER2. Both proteins then work together to drive cancer aggression and allow the cancer cells to survive therapies that involve MET-blocking drugs.

“The mechanism of this MET variant is novel and unreported. This finding contributes to the growing evidence of the role of genetic variants in affecting clinical outcome, and underscores the importance of diving deep into our genetic inheritance in cancer research,” says Kong Li Ren of the Cancer Science Institute (CSI) Singapore at NUS, who initiated the study.

Knowledge of this unique mechanism also allowed researchers to identify several HER2 inhibitors capable of blocking cancer progression the genetic alteration caused.

“Our study represents a conceptual advancement to cancer research, as we have shown that it is possible to block the activity of a cancer-driving gene by administrating a targeted therapy directed not against the mutant protein in question, but rather, a corresponding protein with which it binds to,” says Goh Boon Cher, deputy director and senior principal investigator at CSI Singapore.

“The remarkable anti-tumor responses observed in our experimental models, coupled with the availability of FDA-approved HER2 inhibitors, also presents a huge opportunity for clinicians to improve disease outcome of this genetic alteration via precision medicine.”

The research team is now translating the findings to a clinical trial where patients tested positive for this MET variant gene are treated with suitable medications that have shown effectiveness in the laboratory.

Additional coauthors are from the National University Cancer Institute, the National Cancer Centre Singapore, and the Bioinformatics Institute at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research, Singapore.

Source: National University of Singapore

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140 million tweets capture COVID-19’s spread

Wed, 2020-04-08 19:39

A dataset of more than 140 million COVID-19 tweets could help represent the spread and effects of the global coronavirus pandemic.

It’s publicly available as a resource for the global research community.

“We are all on the same planet together, and any additional data that could be easily available for other researchers to analyze can make the difference.”

The work is part of research that collects and tracks social media chatter to clarify mobility patterns during natural disasters. This rare step of making the work public before the results are finalized highlights the unprecedented threat posed during the global pandemic.

Juan Banda, assistant professor of computer science at Georgia State University, is heading up the project and working with epidemiologists and data scientists. The researchers will update the dataset every two days and could have wide-reaching implications.

This graphic shows the most common bigrams (two words that appear together) in the tweets. (Credit: Georgia State U.)

“It was a big decision to make to release the data before having a few papers prepared on it, but it is for the common good,” says Banda.

“We are all on the same planet together, and any additional data that could be easily available for other researchers to analyze can make the difference. I am a big believer in open science, and this is definitely a time where it’s important to have the greatest number of eyes on the research.”

The work provides unique insight into the outbreak, including information on travel, displacement, diagnoses, treatment, and a historical record of the timing. Banda is collaborating with Gerardo Chowell, a professor of mathematical epidemiology and chair of the department of population health sciences in the School of Public Health. Chowell says the work can identify how people are getting and using information on social media.

“This dataset,” Chowell says, “will allow researchers to investigate the spread of misinformation relating to COVID-19, study the change in population behaviors and sentiments as the virus spreads in different geographic areas, and quantify the effects of social distancing efforts and changes in human mobility patterns over course of the pandemic.”

The research team began collecting tweets dedicated to coronavirus on March 10. They have collected millions of impressions that could help scientists identify clues they might otherwise overlook. Chowell and Banda used similar research to identify patterns during the recent global Zika outbreak.

“These data provide another view of the pandemic’s impact,” says Banda. “While most efforts are focused on infection rates, hospitalizations and death toll for epidemiological use, our dataset can be used to measure from where people are getting their information (or disinformation) and gauge the sentiment of people with respect to the measures our government is taking, and more.”

So far, researchers have been collecting close to 4.5 million tweets every day. This is part of a revolution in data collection and computer science that offers new ways to track people living through a pandemic in real-time, something that wasn’t possible even 10 years ago.

As scientists around the world work to reduce the toll from the outbreak, Banda and his team hope the work can improve future outcomes and even encourage the public to change behavior.

“Indirectly, by being able to tackle sources of disinformation and highlight instances of people not following rules, I believe we can get everybody to do their part in flattening the curve,” says Banda.

“In a future scenario, having this data will allow researchers to be better prepared and build systems to detect community transmission, and devise interventions to not be in the current position we are now.”

Additional data came from researchers at the University of Missouri, the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Carl von Ossietzky Universität Oldenburg, and the Universität Duisburg-Essen.

Source: Georgia State University

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Your risk of getting COVID-19 from food appears super low

Wed, 2020-04-08 15:26

Food has a low chance of transmitting the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, experts say.

As the world grapples with COVID-19, people have a lot of questions about how to best protect themselves. Many of those questions have to do with food.

“I believe putting our attention on foods takes attention away from what we already know works, which is social distancing and isolation.”

There are quite a few resources available online that can help people better understand what we do know about COVID-19, such as this Q&A page from the World Health Organization.

Here, Lee-Ann Jaykus and Ben Chapman, both microbiologists at North Carolina State University, share the best available information on food safety, and what risks are associated with eating takeout and going to the grocery store during the COVID-19 pandemic:

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Many DIY cleaners don’t kill coronavirus

Wed, 2020-04-08 15:10

When making homemade cleaning products, mixing chemicals the wrong way can create an ineffective product, or even lead to poisoning, an expert warns.

“It is essential to make a distinction between cleaning and disinfecting products.”

With cleaner and disinfecting products running out of stock due to the coronavirus outbreak, many people have gone the DIY route to make their own.

Here, Robert Laumbach, associate professor at the Rutgers University School of Public Health’s Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences and an environmental medicine expert, talks about the dangers of do-it-yourself cleaning products and how the public can safely make their own:

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Coquí frog has hung around Caribbean for 29M years

Wed, 2020-04-08 13:10

The bright chirp of the coquí frog, the national symbol of Puerto Rico, has likely resounded through Caribbean forests for at least 29 million years, researchers report.

In a new study in Biology Letters, researchers describe a fragmented arm bone from a frog in the genus Eleutherodactylus, also known as rain frogs or coquís. They discovered the fossil, the oldest record of frogs in the Caribbean, on the island where coquís are most beloved.

“It’s a national treasure,” says lead author David Blackburn, curator of herpetology at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

“Not only is this the oldest evidence for a frog in the Caribbean, it also happens to be one of the frogs that are the pride of Puerto Rico and related to the large family Eleutherodactylidae, which includes Florida’s invasive greenhouse frogs.”

Coquís are direct developers, meaning that eggs hatch into small frogs, foregoing a tadpole phase. Here, a male common coquí guards his clutch of eggs. (Credit: Jorge Velez-Juarbe/Natural History Museum of LA County) Coqui: Tiny bone, oldest frog

Jorge Velez-Juarbe, associate curator of marine mammals at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, found the fossil on a river outcrop in the municipality of San Sebastian in northwestern Puerto Rico.

Velez-Juarbe and his collaborators’ previous collecting efforts at the site uncovered fossil seeds, sea cows, side-necked turtles, and the oldest remains of gharials and rodents in the Caribbean, dating to the early Oligocene Epoch, about 29 million years ago.

Still, “there have been many visits from which I have come out empty-handed over the last 14 years,” he says. “I’ve always kept my expectations not too high for this series of outcrops.”

On this trip in 2012, he combed the deposits for half a day without much luck when a small bone, partially exposed in the sediment, caught his eye. He examined it with his hand lens.

Paleontologist Jorge Velez-Juarbe discovered this fragment of a frog arm bone at a fossil site that represents marine and coastal environments, “similar to what you would find in an area where a river meets the ocean,” he says. (Credit: Jorge Velez-Jaurbe/Natural History Museum of LA County)

“At the moment, I couldn’t wrap my mind as to what it was,” Velez-Juarbe says. “Then once I got back home, cleaned around it with a needle to see it better and checked some references, I knew I had found the oldest frog in the Caribbean.”

The ancient coquí displaces an amber frog fossil discovered in the Dominican Republic in 1987 for the title of oldest Caribbean frog.

Researchers originally estimated the amber fossil was 40 million years old, but now scientists date Dominican amber to about 20 million to 15 million years ago, Blackburn says.

Based on genetic data and family trees, scientists had hypothesized rain frogs lived in the Caribbean during the Oligocene, but lacked any fossil evidence. The small, lightweight bones of frogs often do not preserve well, especially when combined with the hot, humid climate of the tropics.

The Puerto Rican cave-dwelling frog, Eleutherodactylus cooki, lives in crevices and grottos. Limited in distribution, this frog’s habitat is threatened by deforestation and development. (Credit: Alberto Lopez Torres/U. Florida)

Matching a single bone fragment to a genus or species “is not always an easy process,” Velez-Juarbe says. It can also depend on finding the right expert. His quest for help identifying the fossil turned up empty until a 2017 visit to the Florida Museum where he was once a postdoctoral researcher.

“I got to talk with Dave about projects, and the rest is now history,” he says.

Raft arrival

Possibly first arriving in the Caribbean by rafting from South America, frogs in the genus Eleutherodactylus, which encompasses some 200 species, dominate the region today.

“This is the most diverse group by two orders of magnitude in the Caribbean,” Blackburn says. “They’ve diversified into all these different specialists with various forms and body sizes. Several invasive species also happen to be from this genus. All this raises the question of how they got to be this way.”

One partial arm bone may not tell the whole story of coquí evolution—but it’s a start.

“I am thrilled that, little by little, we are learning about the wildlife that lived in Puerto Rico 29-27 million years ago,” Velez-Juarbe says. “Finds like this help us unravel the origins of the animals we see in the Caribbean today.”

Additional coauthors are from the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Source: University of Florida

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People think ‘fake news’ works more on others

Wed, 2020-04-08 13:01

“Fake news” inspires consumers to demand corrective action from companies, even if the company is a victim of the fake news story, researchers report.

The new study also supports the idea that most people feel they are better at detecting fake news than other people are—and found that fake news increases calls for improved digital media literacy.

“The idea that I am less influenced by fake news than you are is an example of something called the third-person effect,” says first author Yang Cheng, an assistant professor of communication at North Carolina State University.

“The third-person effect predicts that people tend to perceive that mass media messages have a greater effect on others than on themselves, and we found that this effect is pronounced among consumers who use social media. We also found that the third-person effect plays a significant role in how people respond to fake news online.”

For this study, the researchers enlisted 661 study participants from across the United States who identified as being Coca-Cola consumers. The researchers first gave the participants an example of a fake news story that circulated in Facebook in 2016, which (falsely) claimed that Coca-Cola had recalled bottles of its Dasani-brand water due to the presence of aquatic parasites.

The researchers then asked study participants a range of questions designed to ascertain how the participants felt about fake news and what they felt should be done to address it.

“The strongest finding was that consumers expect corporations to take responsibility for combating fake news, even if the company in question was a victim of the fake news story,” Cheng says.

“This is news that public relations professionals can use. It highlights the need for communication professionals to step up and take an active role in responding to fake news items. That could mean collaborating with reporters to provide them with accurate information, or making correct information directly available to the public, or both. But it suggests that simply being quiet and waiting for the crisis to blow over may be unwise.

“Anyone can spread fake news on social media, and the expectation from consumers is that affected companies should play an active role in addressing it.”

The study also shows that consumers wanted more to be done to improve media literacy, and that media users should be taught how to evaluate media critically.

The researchers also found that the most powerful factor in triggering these responses from consumers appeared to be the third-party effect. In other words, the people who were most confident in their ability to detect fake news felt most strongly that fake news would influence other people. And highly-confident consumers were the most likely to call for corrective action from corporations and improved media literacy efforts.

“This is an observational study, not an experimental one, so we cannot establish causal relationships,” Cheng says. “But the demand for corporate action is clear—and it is most strongly correlated with the third-person effect.”

The paper appears in Mass Communication and Society. Additional coauthors are from NC State and the University of San Francisco. Support for the work came from from the Junior Faculty Development Program at NC State.

Source: NC State

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Climate change may spark more Pacific Northwest wildfires

Wed, 2020-04-08 11:03

A new study takes a big-picture look at what climate change could mean for wildfires in the Northwest.

Many have questioned what the fires—including the Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, the largest in Washington’s history; the 2017 fire season in Oregon; and the 2018 Maple Fire on the Olympic Peninsula—will mean for the region’s future.

For the study in Fire Ecology, researchers considered wildfires in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and western Montana.

“We can’t predict the exact location of wildfires, because we don’t know where ignitions will occur,” says lead author Jessica Halofsky, a research scientist at the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and with the US Forest Service.

“But based on historical and contemporary fire records, we know some forests are much more likely to burn frequently, and models can help us determine where climate change will likely increase the frequency of fire.”

This satellite image captured Aug. 25, 2015, shows fires burning across the Pacific Northwest. Actively burning areas are outlined in red. (Credit: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team/NASA) Big changes for wildfires

Researchers did their review in response to a survey of stakeholder needs from the Northwest Climate Adaptation Science Center, a federal-university partnership. State, federal, and tribal resource managers wanted more information on the available science about fire and climate change.

“We’re on the cusp of some big changes. We expect that droughts will become more common, and the interaction of climate and fire could look very different by the mid-21st century,” says David Peterson, professor at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. “Starting the process of adapting to those changes now will give us a better chance of protecting forest resources in the future.”

The greatest increased risk was found for low-elevation ponderosa pine forests, of the type found at lower elevations on the east side of the Cascade Range in Washington, Oregon, Montana, and Idaho.

This ecosystem has the highest fire risk today and also has the highest increase in risk due to climate change. The authors predict with high confidence that wildfires in this region will become larger and more frequent.

“We can’t attribute single fire events to climate change. But the trends in large fire events that have been occurring in the region are consistent with expected trends in a warming climate,” says coauthor Brian Harvey, assistant professor at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences. His research group studies forests and fires in the Pacific Northwest and Northern Rockies.

Drought, heat, and insects

The authors also summarize how other Northwest ecosystems might experience the combined threats of drought, warmer temperatures, and insect outbreaks. Moist, coniferous forests—found on the Olympic Peninsula, in Western Washington, and in Northern Idaho—will likely burn more often, but fires won’t be significantly larger than they were historically.

Fires in subalpine, high-elevation forests, found in mountainous terrain, will similarly become more frequent but only slightly larger or more severe.

After describing the threats, the authors evaluate potential strategies to prepare. Land managers could remove dry organic material, or fuels, and maintain forest densities at lower levels to reduce the severity of fires, since the severity of wildfire is more controllable than the frequency or total area burned.

Thinning would also help the remaining trees to withstand drought. Planting genetically diverse seedlings could also help with regeneration after fires—an important step for long-term survival of forests.

Rural landowners can also play a role, the authors write.

“Individual landowners can reduce hazardous fuels, promote species that can survive fire and drought, and increase diversity of species and structures across the landscape,” Peterson says.

Historically the Northwest has had lower risk of wildfire than other states, such as California, but that may change.

“In general, the climate in the Northwest is cooler and wetter than in most low-elevation areas of California,” Halofsky says. But the Northwest summers are dry and warm. Climate change will accentuate dry summers, and Northwest climate will become more similar to current-day California climate, leading to more and bigger fires.”

The US Department of the Interior and the US Forest Service funded the work.

Source: University of Washington

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Republican governors stalled on social distancing for COVID-19

Wed, 2020-04-08 10:49

States led by Republican governors and with a significant share of Trump supporters were an average of nearly three days later than other states to enact social distancing measures, a paper finds.

The finding is part of new research examining factors that contributed to decision-making by governors in all 50 states to combat the novel coronavirus.

The research explores whether the adoption of state-level social distancing measures depends on the number of coronavirus cases in the state, the affluence of the state, and the partisanship of the state’s governor and voters.

The paper is available on medRxiv.

Pandemic politics

The rapid spread of the novel coronavirus, which as of April 8 has killed more than 12,000 people in the United States and, by many estimates, is projected to cause anywhere from about 84,000 to more than 200,000 deaths domestically, has prompted public health officials to push social distancing as the key, proactive way of limiting the rise of infection. The World Health Organization reports more than 750,000 confirmed cases worldwide, and more than 36,000 deaths.

But the response to and attitude toward the virus have been mixed among political leaders. For several weeks at the beginning of the outbreak, President Trump and some right-leaning media outlets did not characterize the virus as a threat or dismissed it outright as a hoax.

In the month since the first COVID-19 diagnosis—in Washington state—most states have enacted some social distancing restrictions, such as closing schools and businesses, limiting or banning gatherings of people, and advising or ordering residents to shelter in place. Mandates to stay at home are now in effect in 28 states.

The varying restrictions, and the timing of those restrictions, prompted researchers to take a closer look.

“We wanted to understand why some American states have been slow to introduce social distancing measures,” says lead author Christopher Adolph, an associate professor of political science at the University of Washington.

“You might expect states to delay if they have fewer confirmed cases—though even that would arguably be a mistake—but we were worried by the appearance of a partisan pattern in responses, both at the state level and in public opinion.”

So Adolph and his team analyzed the measures that states enacted with other data, such as the number of COVID-19 cases in each state, how neighboring states were responding, each governor’s political party and each state’s voter turnout for Trump in 2016.

Republican governors and COVID-19 responses

The team found that partisanship—especially when a state has a Republican governor, as well as the share of the statewide vote for Trump—led to delays in enacting social distancing. That “combined partisan effect” coincided with a delay of 2.7 days, the team found. Partisanship had a greater effect than other variables, including the number of confirmed cases in each state, researchers says. The number of confirmed cases, for example, influenced state action by less than half a day.

“Surveys now document that Republican voters in March showed less concern on average about the coronavirus, and were less likely to adopt prudent behavior to reduce their risk of becoming infected,” Adolph says. “If Republican leaders were also systematically slower to act, their reluctance would end up hurting all Americans, but especially their own constituents.”

Under normal political circumstances, governors often make decisions to appease their party and voters, Adolph says. The research team wanted to explore how governors adapted to what was essentially an unprecedented threat that emerged at once, nationwide.

The paper is not trying to assign blame, Adolph adds. Enacting social distancing measures is difficult for any elected official, because closing schools and businesses has significant economic and personal consequences for a population. But based on public health guidance, until a vaccine is available for widespread use, aggressive social distancing can stem the exponential spread of disease and limit the total number of deaths.

“Fighting COVID-19 shouldn’t be a partisan issue: The virus doesn’t care what party you belong to, and everyone is at risk. There’s still a chance to change this and save lives,” Adolph says.

“The sooner all governors mandate and enforce strict social distancing, and the more they listen to public health experts instead of partisan cues, the more lives we will save, and the sooner we can all recover from this crisis. Every day matters.”

Source: University of Washington

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Method makes it easier to build carbs in the lab

Wed, 2020-04-08 10:43

A simple method of synthesizing carbohydrates widens the range of labs that can use synthetic chemistry to generate and study novel carbohydrate structures.

Carbohydrates are complex molecules, difficult to synthesize in the lab, but doing so is useful in studying beneficial sugars such as those found in human breast milk, or enabling researchers to tailor the chemical structure of drug candidates, vaccines, and natural products.

The work appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Nucleic acids, proteins, and carbohydrates are three of the basic building blocks you learn about in your biology classes,” says lead author John Montgomery, professor of chemistry and medicinal chemistry at the University of Michigan. “Chemistry has been able to automate the preparation of nucleic acids and proteins to where accessing these structures is routine, but carbohydrates are orders of magnitude more difficult to prepare. There are some incredible advances being made in the automation of carbohydrate synthesis, but the fact remains that this is tough chemistry that is holding back advances in glycobiology.”

Carbohydrates are complex

Carbohydrates have great structural diversity, complex branching patterns, and 3D architecture that hinder scientists’ ability to synthesize the compounds, says Montgomery. By using a silicon group to pre-engineer how carbohydrates will react with each other, the team’s method is able to control the carbohydrate’s branching pattern and reduce the steps required to access more complex structures.

For example, carbohydrate molecules typically consist of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and sometimes nitrogen atoms and range in length, with five- and six-carbon sugars being most prevalent. Most of the carbon atoms have an alcohol group, which can be connected to the next carbohydrate in a myriad of possible patterns.

“This branching feature is what makes synthetic chemistry very tedious because you have to control the selectivity between what part of the molecule is going to react with the next,” Montgomery says.

To control how those alcohol groups click carbohydrates together, Montgomery and his team put silicon “protecting groups” on select alcohols within a carbohydrate.

“Normally protecting groups need to be taken on and off during the synthesis, adding time and cost to the procedure. Our strategy is designed so that the protecting group naturally falls off during the coupling reaction and times the sequence of which alcohol group reacts when desired,” Montgomery says. “By this approach, we can reverse the reactivity of two alcohols, or we can take two alcohols that would normally have similar reactivity and make one react selectively over the other without additional steps.”

Then, the researchers can control the carbohydrate’s stereochemistry—the three-dimensional arrangement of the carbohydrate molecule—by making reactions between carbohydrates either intermolecular or intramolecular. If the reaction is intermolecular, that means the reaction occurs between two different molecules. If the reaction is intramolecular, that means a single molecule is assembled in which the two sugars are connected through silicon before the reaction.

Both the branching pattern and stereochemistry of the carbohydrate impact the sugar’s overall three-dimensional architecture, but this structural aspect also presents difficulty for synthesizing the sugars.

Because sugar molecules are so complex, there’s an “enormous number of statistically possible combinations if you had five sugars, for example,” Montgomery says. “The number can be in the billions of combinations even for these relatively short carbohydrate chains. That diversity is what makes carbohydrates so special for molecular recognition in nature, but it also makes the synthesis extremely tough.”

Fewer steps for synthesizing carbohydrates

The team’s method is particularly useful because using the silicon control feature allows the researchers to reduce the number of separate reactions to make a chain of carbohydrates in a single step. In this approach, the silicon control element allows the reactions to occur with three different sugars in the proper sequence so that a trisaccharide can be synthesized in one synthetic step. Those small groupings can then be further connected to access more complex chains in a very rapid fashion.

“You can set up multiple reactive possibilities and make them cascade in the proper sequence,” Montgomery says. “Things that you would normally run in a series of separated reactions—we can use that silicon control element to basically make it all happen in the reaction flask at once. We are still improving this aspect with new catalyst structures, but I think the strategy has the potential to be very powerful.”

Computational collaborator Paul Zimmerman, a coauthor of the study and professor of chemistry, is providing insights into how the process works and how to improve it.

Finally, traditional methods of linking carbohydrates together are very water sensitive and temperature sensitive. The team’s method uses commercial reagents that can be used without purification or drying to induce chemical reactions, and performed all of its procedures at room temperature.

Montgomery’s research had support from the National Institutes of Health Common Fund’s Glycoscience program. Montgomery and the university have submitted a provisional patent application on this work.

Source: University of Michigan

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Wi-Fi peeks into buildings to check social distancing

Wed, 2020-04-08 10:13

A new tool lets college administrators estimate how many people are in campus buildings to make sure people are social distancing to fight COVID-19, researchers report.

The tool, which went live on April 3, lets decision makers identify places on campus where concentrations of people are high. Like an eye in the sky, it allows leaders to make principled choices about what actions to take to reduce the likelihood of person-to-person COVID-19 transmission.

It also can offer information about the effectiveness of policies. For example, when lecture halls effectively shut as a result of the shift to online learning, did students gather at some other location?

“The beauty of this system lies in its ability to accumulate useful information and to share it without further disrupting life on campus,” says Michael Chee, a professor at National University of Singapore who led the initiative.

The map shows campus buildings that have lots of people in them as assessed by WiFi devices. The map shows a downward trend in occupancy in late March and the first days of April. (Credit: NUS)

“By using Wi-Fi signal strength received from thousands of mobile devices across campus, location information can be aggregated and mapped over time to inform about where and when people aggregate,” adds Rajesh Balan, an associate professor from Singapore Management University who provided the key techniques to map devices to locations.

The next step in the Spacer project is to work with the Nanyang Technological University to put up the same system and concurrently plan to upscale the effort to all of Singapore.

For this, a different method of data collection will be necessary. One can think of the wider effort as Google Maps or Waze for planning a trip, but for managing human rather than vehicular traffic. People use Google Maps or Waze every day to avoid crowded roads. Everyone contributes some anonymized personal information to benefit the whole community. The researchers are seeking cooperation of telecom operators to obtain cellular data as in Germany, Italy, and Austria.

Several countries have practiced locking down the whole nation. However, that isn’t sustainable for long periods without significant damage to the economy and to people’s psyches. By having intelligent management of people concentrations and flows, the Spacer project seeks to provide a calibrated solution for limiting the spread of disease.

Statistical modeling shows that a combination of measures is necessary to clamp down the spread of COVID-19. Alex Cook, a statistical epidemiologist, reinforces the point that “there is room for multiple approaches.”

Aviation Virtual and ESRI provided mapping support.

Source: National University of Singapore

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Antiviral drug for COVID-19 heads to clinical trial

Wed, 2020-04-08 09:14

Researchers are hopeful that a new drug could change the way doctors treat COVID-19.

The drug, called EIDD-2801, shows promise in reducing lung damage and has finished testing in mice. It will soon move to human clinical trials.

As of today, the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 has infected more than 1.3 million people with COVID-19 and caused nearly 74,000 deaths in a worldwide pandemic. Currently, no antiviral drugs have been approved to treat SARS-CoV-2 or any of the other coronaviruses that cause human disease.

The new paper, which will appear in Science Translational Medicine, includes data from cultured human lung cells infected with SARS-CoV-2, as well as mice infected with the related coronaviruses SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV.

The study shows that, when used as a prophylactic, EIDD-2801 can prevent severe lung injury in infected mice. EIDD-2801 is an orally available form of the antiviral compound EIDD-1931; it can be taken as a pill and can be properly absorbed to travel to the lungs.

When given as a treatment 12 or 24 hours after infection has begun, EIDD-2801 can reduce the degree of lung damage and weight loss in mice. This window of opportunity is expected to be longer in humans, because the period between coronavirus disease onset and death is generally extended in humans compared to mice.

“This new drug not only has high potential for treating COVID-19 patients, but also appears effective for the treatment of other serious coronavirus infections,” says senior author Ralph Baric, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Compared with other potential COVID-19 treatments that must be administered intravenously, EIDD-2801 can be delivered by mouth as a pill. In addition to ease of treatment, this offers a potential advantage for treating less-ill patients or for prophylaxis—for example, in a nursing home where many people have been exposed but are not yet sick.

“We are amazed at the ability of EIDD-1931 and -2801 to inhibit all tested coronaviruses and the potential for oral treatment of COVID-19,” says Andrea Pruijssers, the lead antiviral scientist in the lab of Mark Denison, professor of pediatrics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Denison was senior author of a December 2019 study that first reported that EIDD-1931 blocked the replication of a broad spectrum of coronaviruses.

The researchers also performed the preclinical development of remdesivir, another antiviral drug currently in clinical trials of patients with COVID-19. In the new paper, Maria Agostini, a postdoctoral fellow in the Denison lab, demonstrates that viruses that show resistance to remdesivir experience higher inhibition from EIDD-1931.

“Viruses that carry remdesivir resistance mutations are actually more susceptible to EIDD-1931 and vice versa, suggesting that the two drugs could be combined for greater efficacy and to prevent the emergence of resistance,” says George Painter, director of the EIDD and chief executive officer of the nonprofit Drug Innovation Ventures at Emory (DRIVE).

Clinical studies of EIDD-2801 in humans are expected to begin later this spring. If they are successful, the drug could not only be used to limit the spread of SARS-CoV-2, but also could control future outbreaks of other emerging coronaviruses.

“With three novel human coronaviruses emerging in the past 20 years, it is likely that we will continue to see more,” says first author Timothy Sheahan, an assistant professor of epidemiology and a collaborator in the Baric Lab.

“EIDD-2801 holds promise to not only treat COVID-19 patients today, but to treat new coronaviruses that may emerge in the future.”

Funding for the work came from an NIH grant through the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Source: Emory University

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