Following the people and events that make up the research community at Duke

Author: Jeremy Jacobs

Flu No More: The Search for a Universal Vaccine

Chances are, you’ve had the flu. 

Body aches, chills, congestion, and cough—for millions across the globe, these symptoms are all too familiar.

For some, though, the flu leads to serious complications. Last year, as many as 647,000 Americans were hospitalized due to flu-related illness, with an additional 61,000 deaths.

Countless hours of lost productivity also accompany the illness. Including hospitalization costs, estimates for the flu’s total economic burden range from 10 to 25 billion dollars each year.

Flu prevention efforts have yielded mixed results. For many viruses, vaccines provide protection that lasts a lifetime, building up a network of antibodies primed to neutralize future infections. Influenza viruses, however, mutate quickly, rendering vaccines from years past ineffective. As a result, new vaccines are constantly in development. 

Every year, researchers predict which flu viruses are likely to dominate the upcoming flu season. Based on these predictions, new vaccines target these specific strains. Consequentially, the effectiveness of these vaccines vary with the prediction. When a vaccine is a good match for the dominant flu strain, it can lower rates of infection by 40-50%. When it isn’t, its preventative power is far lower; in 2014, for example, the yearly influenza vaccine was only 19% effective

Peter Palese, Ph. D, might have a better solution. Working at the Icahn School of Medicine, Palese and his team are developing a vaccine that takes a new approach to flu prevention. 

Just before classes ended last month, Palese spoke at the Duke Influenza Symposium, a showcase of Duke’s current research on influenza. The symposium is part of Duke’s larger push to improve the efficacy of flu vaccination.

Palese’s vaccines work by redirecting the immune response to the influenza virus. Traditional vaccines create antibodies that target hemagglutinins, proteins found on the outermost part of influenza viruses. Hemagglutinins are divided into two regions: a head domain and a stalk domain (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Left: General influenza structure. Right: Hemagglutinins are divided into two regions: a head domain and a stalk. The head domain is prone to mutation and undergoes rapid change while the stalk domain is more resistant to mutation.
Source: Frontiers in Immunology

In a traditional vaccination, the head domain is immunodominant—that is, the antibodies produced by vaccines preferentially target and neutralize the head domains. However, the head domain is highly prone to mutation and varies between different strains of influenza. As a result, antibodies for one strain of the virus provide no protection against other strains.

The new vaccines pioneered by Palese and his team instead target the stalk domain, a part of hemagglutinin that mutates far slower than the head domain. The stalk is also conserved across different subtypes of the influenza virus. As a result, these vaccines should theoretically provide long-lasting protection against most strains of influenza.

Testing in ferret, mice, and guinea pigs have produced promising results. And early human trials suggest that this new kind of vaccination grants broad immunity against influenza. But long-term results remain unclear—and more trials are underway. “We would love to say it works,” Palese says. “But give us 10 years.”

In the meantime, the seasonal flu vaccine is our best option.“The recommendation to vaccinate everyone is the right policy,” Palese tells us.

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

Republican to RepublicEn: Climate Change for Conservatives

My mom’s calling—we talk every day. She asks me if I’ve eaten, and I complain about the usual: essays, exams, horrifying clumps of hair on the shower floor. 

Bob Inglis, former Congressman and speaker at the Change My Mind Symposium during Duke Energy Week.

I sit on the steps of the chapel, a warm yellow against a silent sky. Durham is chilly tonight. Cloudy, starless, I feel rain coming. My fingers — naked, against my phone and ear —fare worst, somewhere between cold and numb. They crave my pocket’s warmth, and I tell my mother goodbye.

“Wait, Mom, before I go, did you see the climate change report?”

And with a single sentence, cordial relations are over, and little things like “familial love” fall away. Constructed arguments become a battle of volume. Mom, if we don’t do anything, millions will die. But, Jeremy, she says, climate change is natural — and these summits, they’re PR moves, politicians don’t actually care. In the ring, it’s Me vs. Mother, Ali vs. Frazier, Democrat vs. Republican. An hour in, I’ve forgotten the cold — hell, I’m sweating in self-righteous anger.

These little spats parallel increasingly intense partisanship in the United States. Hot-button topics fuel the divide, with gun control, abortion rights, and impeachment splitting Democrats and Republicans along party lines. Particularly contentious is climate change. While 84% of Democrats “consider climate change a ‘major threat,’” only a fourth of Republicans feel the same. 

Enter Bob Inglis, former US Congressman and 1981 Duke alumnus. Inglis represented South Carolina’s 4th House district, one of the reddest regions in the nation. Initially, he wasn’t so hot on global warming himself. “For years, I was in Congress saying climate change was nonsense,” he says, laughing. “I didn’t know anything about it except that Al Gore was for it.

But what changed his mind?

“Inglis 2.0,” as he calls it, began with his son in 2004, who pushed him to adopt greener policies. Next was the increasing body of evidence that proved climate change undeniable. But it would take a spiritual awakening to transform Inglis’s views. On a snorkeling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, Inglis met oceanographer Scott Heron. The two were kindred spirits, and in Heron’s conservation work, Inglis saw a love for God. For Inglis, “Conservation became loving God and loving people,” he says.        

Inglis addresses free-enterprise solutions to climate change
(Source: Duke University Energy Initiative)

In 2009, he introduced the “Raise Wages, Cut Carbon Act” designed to curb global warming. Central to the bill was a carbon tax, which puts a price on carbon-based fuel use. Voter backlash was swift. “They were having a Tea Party— and I was specifically uninvited,” Inglis chuckles. In the 2010 election, he was soundly defeated in a primary race against Trey Gowdy, largely in response to the carbon tax. 

But Inglis didn’t stop there. In 2012, he founded republicEn, an organization that promotes free enterprise solutions to global warming. republicEn targets a right-wing audience—those most hesitant to accept global warming. 

The core of republicEn is its online community. Thousands of members convene in local events and write letters to Congress advocating a carbon tax solution. Dedicated spokespeople also tour the nation to promote the need for conservative leadership. Both benefit from republicEn’s media wing, which gives conservative voices a platform for climate change.

Inglis firmly believes that conservative solutions are key to fighting climate change. Citing the explosion of smartphones, he poses a question: would the cell phone industry have grown as rapidly had it been intensely regulated? He doubts it. Similarly, he sees free market solutions as the fastest way to slow global warming.

republicEn has no set timeline, no five-year plan. But Inglis is hopeful: “You weren’t there when we marched in Selma, but you can be there when we solve climate change.” 

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

A How-To Guide for Climate-Proof Cities

Roughly 400 miles separate Memphis and New Orleans. Interstate 55 connects the two cities, snaking south parallel to the Mississippi River. The drive is dull. There are few cars. The trees are endless.

South of the Louisiana border, the land turns flat, low, and wet. The air grows warmer, and heavy with moisture. I-55 cuts through the center of Maurepas Swamp, a 100,000-plus acre tract of protected wetlands. Groves of gumball and oak are rare here—instead, thin swamps of bald cypress and tupelo trees surround the highway on either side. At night, only their skeletal silhouettes are visible. They rise from the low water, briefly illuminated by passing headlights. Even in the dark, the trees are unmistakably dead.

*  *  *

A healthy cypress swamp in Lake Martin, Louisiana (Source: U.S. Geological Survey)

Traditionally, Maurepas Swamp serves as a natural barrier against flooding that threatens New Orleans each year. Native flora soaks up the rainfall, spreading it across a network of cypress roots and cattail. But centuries of logging and canal construction have drastically altered the swamp’s ecological composition. The Mississippi levee system compounded the issue, isolating the swamp from vital sources of fresh water and nutrients. Flooded with saltwater, much of the existing cypress withered and died. Young trees, now, are few and scattered. 

Maurepas Swamp highlights the danger of even the most well-intentioned changes to the  environment. This problem is hardly unique to the wetlands. “Many of the issues that we are experiencing today were seen as solutions in the past,” says Nancy Grimm, a professor of ecology at Arizona State University. “What we want to do now is to think about the future, so that the solutions of today don’t become the problems of tomorrow.”

Nancy Grimm addresses urban sustainability at the 2019 Henry J. Oosting Memorial Lecture in Ecology. (Source: Nicholas School of the Environment)

Grimm is the co-director of the UREx Sustainability Research Network. UREx aims to climate-proof urban municipalities without sacrificing environmental stability. To do so, UREx has partnered with several cities across the United States and Latin America. Each city hosts a workshop geared towards municipal decision makers, such as government officials,  environmental NGOS, and more. Together, these participants design different “futures” addressing their cities’ most pressing concerns. 

Phoenix, Arizona is one of the nine initial cities partnering with UREx. One of the hottest cities in the United States, Phoenix is already plagued with extreme heat and drought. By 2060, Phoenix is projected to have 132 days above 100°F—a 44 percent increase from data collected in 2010.  

UREx doesn’t dwell too much on these statistics.  “We’re bombarded constantly by dystopian narratives of tomorrow,” says Grimm, with a slight smile. “Instead, what we want to think about are ways we can envision a more positive future.”

The Phoenix workshop produced five distinct visions of what the city could look like in sixty years. Some scenarios are more ambitious than others—“The Right Kind of Green,” for example, imagines a vastly transformed city defined by urban gardens and lush vegetation. But each vision of Phoenix contains a common goal: a greener, cooler city that retains its soul. 

A visualization accompanies each scenario. In one, a family walks about a small orchard. The sky is blue, and the sun is out. But no one seems bothered by the heat. The oranges are vibrant; the trees thick, and full. It’s an idyllic future. But it’s one within grasp.  

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

New Blogger Jeremy Jacobs: What’s in a Name?

Surviving my first snow day at Duke

Let’s start with my name: Jeremy Abraham Jacobs. It’s a surprisingly Biblical one,
a name that draws more from the Judeo-Christian tradition than my
Indian roots. Jeremy, derived from the prophet Jeremiah and the depths of my mother’s imagination. Abraham, both the name of my father’s father and the patriarch of Judaism. And Jacobs, the latest Americanization of my family name Yakob, Chacko, then Jacob.

At the heart of my name is language, the offspring of a million-year synthesis of firing neurons, geography, and culture. I too grew up a child of intersection, living a blend of the Indian tradition my parents brought over with them and the rich culture of the Deep South that’s flavored ever moment of my life.

I’m a freshman here at Duke, with all the uncertainties—and possibilities—of an undeclared major. But my passion lies in the crossroads that has defined my life. I want to understand the inseparable intertwining of linguistics and neuroscience. And communication enthralls me, from the individual cells that make up the tongue to the Spanish pluperfect subjunctive.

Who knows if, after four years, organic chemistry will have knocked me off the pre-med track, or if English will still hold my interest as tightly as it does today? But for now, at least, mysteries like the power of a name still keep me invested in the intricate interplay of science and language.

Move-in day featuring an injured arm!

What cascading forces of nature and nurture brought my mother to a small hospital in Tupelo, Mississippi, where I came into the world kickin’ and screaming’ one hot July morning? Was there some memory burned into her hippocampus that caused her to choose the name “Jeremy” in a sea of Chad’s, Luke’s, or Matt’s? And how different would my life have been if my name were not Jeremy Abraham Jacobs but rather Aakash Bola, or Harley Covington Pike III?

It took generations of missteps, chance encounters, and biological improbabilities for this name to fall to me, for this name to be mine. Perhaps one day I’ll understand every aspect of my unlikely existence, every factor that led to the genetically unique organism currently typing up this article. More likely, though, is that I’ll spend my life exploring the unknown, learning more about my own place in the mechanisms of the world.

But I know, at least, that intersection follows me, even here at the Duke Research Blog. I’m thrilled to infuse my own mix of science, writing, and culture into each article I produce, so I can ignite the passions of others students of science who seek their own common ground.

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

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