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

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Most Highly Cited List Includes 37 from Duke

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Five of the ten Duke women included in the most highly-cited list this year. Their scholarly publications are viewed as important and influential by their peers. (Clockwise from upper left: Costello, Curtis, Dawson, Bernhardt, Moffitt)

Duke’s leading scholars are once again prominently featured on the annual list of “Most Highly Cited Researchers.”

Thirty-seven Duke faculty were named to the list this year, based on the number of highly cited papers they produced over an 11-year period from January 2009 to December 2019.  Citation rate, as tracked by Clarivate’s Web of Science, is an approximate measure of a study’s influence and importance.

Barton Haynes

Two Duke researchers appear in two categories: Human Vaccine Institute Director Barton Haynes, and Michael Pencina, vice dean of data science and information technology in the School of Medicine.

And two of the Duke names listed are new faculty, recruited as part of the Science & Technology initiative: Edward Miao in Immunology and Sheng Yang He in Biology.

Michael Pencina

This year, 6,127 researchers from 60 countries are being recognized by the listing. The United States still dominates, with 41 percent of the names on the list, but China continues to grow its influence, with 12 percent of the names.

Clinical Medicine:

Robert M. Califf, Lesley H. Curtis, Pamela S. Douglas, Christopher Bull Granger, Adrian F. Hernandez, L. Kristen Newby, Erik Magnus Ohman, Manesh R. Patel, Michael J. Pencina, Eric D. Peterson.

Environment and Ecology:

Emily S. Bernhardt, Stuart L. Pimm, Mark R. Weisner.

Geosciences:

Drew T. Shindell

Immunology:

Barton F. Haynes, Edward A. Miao

Microbiology:

Barton F. Haynes

Plant and Animal Science:

Sheng Yang He

Psychiatry and Psychology:

Avshalom Caspi, E. Jane Costello, Renate M. Houts, Terrie E. Moffitt

Social Sciences:

Michael J. Pencina

Cross-Field:

Dan Ariely, Geraldine Dawson, Xinnian Dong, Charles A. Gersbach, Ru-Rong Ji, Robert J. Lefkowitz, Sarah H. Lisanby, Jie Liu, Jason W. Locasale, David B. Mitzi, Christopher B. Newgard, Ram Oren, David R. Smith, Avner Vengosh.

Phase 3 Trials: What We Know About a Covid Vaccine

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As multiple drug companies in the United States speed towards Phase 3 trials for Covid-19 vaccinations, there remain many unanswered questions about these vaccines. 

Moderated by Professor of Law and Philosophy, Nita Farahany (J.D., Ph.D), principal investigators Cynthia Gay (M.D., M.P.H) and Emmanuel (Chip) Walter (M.D.) explored these lingering anxieties in a Science and Society hosted Coronavirus Conversation Thursday, November 6th. Dr. Gay is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolia Chapel Hill (UNC) and Medical Director of the UNC HIV Cure Center. Dr. Walter is a professor of Pediatrics with Duke’s Global Health Institute, as well as a member in the Duke Clinical Research Institute and Duke Human Vaccine Institute. Both Gay and Walter are currently overseeing trials for SARS-COV-2 vaccines. 

Farahany began the conversation by pointing out that though the previous ideal of a vaccine by the US presidential election did not come to fruition, Phizer and Moderna just reached full enrollment for their Phase 3 trials. “[The timeline question] is a million-dollar question,” said Dr. Gay, who is overseeing the Moderna trials at UNC. She said that soon statisticians who have no conflicts of interest with the trials will have a look at the unblinded trial data to see if there are any differences between those who received placebo injections and those who received vaccines. Gay believes this first “peek” may be too early to see a significant signal indicating success of the vaccines. Dr. Walter weighed in, saying that though he hopes “we’ll see something,” he concurs that Dr. Gay’s estimate that no significant signal will be present until January is an accurate one. 

As Gay and Walter explained, probed for clarification from Farahany, drug companies undertaking vaccine development enrolled portions of the population at higher risk for contracting Covid — typically on the basis of their form of employment. For example, someone working in healthcare statistically has a higher likelihood of contracting Covid because of increased exposure to environments where Covid-infected persons may be. Vaccine trial groups were either assigned to a placebo or to a vaccine. The drug companies will be able to test the success of the vaccines by evaluating whether those who received the vaccine contract Covid at some statistically significant lower amount than those who received the placebo. 

But as Farahany pointed out, a drug company could receive an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for their vaccine before trials are complete, prompting the question: Will Phase 3 trial placebo participants receive the vaccine if their company receives an EUA? Dr. Walter offered that this could be problematic because there would be a lack of long-term data on vaccines and Dr. Gay suggested that because blinding is the best sort of study design, there is tension around this question. However, Walter and Gay both agreed that study participants should be honored for the role they stepped into for these trials. Thus, the timing for the EUA may be the biggest determinant on whether or not placebo-receiving Phase 3 participants will receive the vaccines as soon as they are available or not.

Other concerns focus on the overall safety of the vaccines. All of the current Covid vaccines in development are mRNA vaccines, which have never before been approved for use in humans. Dr. Walter offered that before Covid, some companies were actually poised to start an mRNA vaccine in children for other respiratory pathogens and that mRNA vaccines are “pretty well studied.” Dr. Gay reinforced these notions by stating that she doesn’t have concerns about the vaccine safety, but rather whether or not the vaccines will actually work for the particular strand of virus and “produce enough effective antibodies to have an impact.” If Covid vaccines are successful, they may actually change the direction of vaccinology in a promising way.

Walter and Gay also addressed the concerns of side effects and generally conceded that most of the side effects seen, such as low-grade fevers and injection-site tenderness, are merely side effects seen with any sort of vaccine. As Farahany pointed out, these sorts of symptoms are actually often just a signal that the immune system is working and responding to the vaccine. Dr. Gay said that a lot of the concerns over vaccine side-effects can be thought about as cost-benefit analysis. She says we make these sorts of analyses all day, every day — whether we realize it or not. For Gay, one day of muscle soreness and a slight fever is highly preferential to weeks of potential immobilization from contracting Coronavirus. 

The concluding question: How do we ensure trials are met with public trust? “We have to remember we’re in the middle of a pandemic where things really have to move quickly,” Dr. Walter said. He also offered that though this has been the fastest vaccine development he’s ever seen – aside from H1N1 – all of the safety mechanisms in place have provided safety comparable to that we would normally see. 

“This is a global tragedy we’re dealing with,” Dr. Gay said. “There is a time to step back and think, ‘Isn’t it amazing that all these [amazing, talented, expert] people are working day and night’ …They’re making it happen to try to get us an answer and some effective vaccines.” 

Post by Cydney Livingston

Trust in Gynecology: The Impact of Race & Socioeconomic Status in Women’s Health

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Nikki Mahendru’s mother didn’t go to the gynecologist for 45 years — and when she did, she regretted it. Ms. Mahendru felt “decades of anxieties and hesitancy reduced to five minutes of brisk interaction with her provider,” and left convinced that the “realm of women’s health was just not for her.” According to Nikki, a Duke University undergraduate, her mother’s “trust in the system was lost.” 

Mahendru joined Dr. Megan Huchko, the director of the Duke Center for Global Reproductive Health, and Dr. Chemtai Mungo, a Fogarty Global Health Fellow and OB-GYN doctor, on the Center for Global Women’s Health Technologies’ October 20 panel “Impact of Race and Socioeconomic Status in Women’s Health and Gynecology.” The panel was moderated by Ashley Deans and Alexandria Da Ponte.

Mahendru went on to detail an experience she had in the clinic with Carmen, a patient who spoke only Spanish and was also new to the gynecologist. The medical translator and Mahendru learned her story: she had been in pain for a year but had kept quiet due to money problems, had worked most of her life to send her kids to college, and was learning English via Rosetta Stone. With the details of Carmen’s story and an “equitable working relationship,” Mahendru and the translator could relay Carmen’s previous history to her provider. But Carmen’s provider knew only of her condition. 

Mahendru thinks gynecology done right has the potential to help women love their bodies and take care of their health, but gynecologists must earn the trust of their patients: “Acts of listening help bridge disparities.”

Dr. Huchko stated that throughout history, a male-dominated healthcare landscape saw the depiction of menses as ‘dirty,’ terms like ‘hysteria,’ and an overall lack of female control. The “father of gynecology” James Marion Sims exploited Black women in his development of the field, using unanesthetized slaves as subjects of experimentation. In general, Dr. Huchko sees a trend: “The lessening or decentering of women in women’s health corresponds to more discrimination.” In addition to the decentering of women, Dr. Huchko said that structural and individual factors “produce outcomes that prevent women from getting the care they need.” Like Mahendru, she identified trust as a central issue.

Dr. Megan Huchko, MD, MPH, is the director of the Duke Center for Global Reproductive Health

Dr. Huchko cited an experience in which she bore witness to the unattended consequences of racial bias in medicine. In Niger to repair women’s fistulas, which occur due to lack of postpartum care, Dr. Huchko felt she was attending to the downstream symptom of a much broader issue. She felt uncomfortable when the urogynecologist on her team ignorantly praised Sims without acknowledging his problematic history. Then, she saw this ignorance firsthand. 

Making a false assumption about the nature of the case, Dr. Huchko’s team chose to operate on a woman with a mass in her bladder. During the surgery, they realized the mass was a malignant tumor. With an unbiased eye and a complete exam and workup, this would have been clear. But because the team was looking at these women as “one-dimensional,” a woman with stage 4 cancer was subjected to a very invasive surgery that worsened her quality of life. 

Dr. Huchko experienced a similar lack of structural competency during her residency, where colleagues openly racially profiled people and overtly discussed disparities in pain tolerances among different ethnicities. Since then, “things have changed,” and she embraces this new culture of “being patient centered, exploring our own biases, and [having] zero tolerance for racial profiling.” She stresses the need for personal education and accountability alongside systemic change. Eventually, this will lead to women feeling “respected, seen, and heard.”

Coming to the US from Kenya, Dr. Mungo quickly came to appreciate the “sheer magnitude” of structural racism and its impact on health and healthcare. Dr. Mungo explained that “mutually reinforcing systems of disadvantage” for people of color, such as food deserts, are both the result and cause of healthcare disparities and result in enduring legacies of disadvantage.

Dr. Chemtai Mungo, MD, MPH, is a Fogarty Global Health Fellow and OB-GYN doctor

Dr. Mungo also observed that with healthcare in the US being so economically driven, the best care is often directed at those with racial and socioeconomic privilege. When she worked in a high resourced (read: white, wealthy) hospital, access to uterus-saving equipment such as interventional radiology meant that she only did one hysterectomy in four years. Doctors at the hospital also came in on weekends to get a person with cancer into the OR immediately.

Now, working at a “safety net hospital,” Dr. Mungo sees a stark difference. With non-existent interventional radiology and more part-time, “less invested” employees, Dr. Mungo has done three hysterectomies in three years — a 75% increase — and sees patients with time-sensitive conditions wait much longer before surgery. This “separate and unequal access to resources” is a cause for concern. 

Dr. Mungo also stressed the need to make practices “safe places” for patients of color by increasing minority representation. Dr. Mungo explained that while Black physicians make up only 5% of doctors and 3% of faculty, there is strong evidence that patients who are cared for by someone of their own race or ethnicity have better outcomes. “We live in a racist society,” Dr. Mungo stated, “so we need specific anti-racist policies.” 

Dr. Mungo also acknowledged that healthcare providers work within “templates” like 15 minute appointments, and posed the closing question, how can we make patients feel safe and heard within the constraints of modern medicine? 

Answering questions from the audience, Dr. Mungo and Huchko discussed medical algorithms that are based on race, like the VBAC calculator and GFR. 

Dr. Mungo indicted these algorithms as “an example of how institutionalized some [racial] biases are.” There is “no concrete evidence” on why these corrections for race — which typically act to reduce the probability of success for a procedure or favorability of an outcome — exist. Dr. Mungo would urge providers “not to stop at, ‘well, African Americans have an increased risk of diabetes.’ Ask why. Have them explain food deserts… and structural and environmental racism.”

Dr. Huchko stated that giving aspirin throughout pregnancy reduces preeclampsia, and is thus traditionally offered based on risk factors for preeclampsia, like low socioeconomic status and African American race. Sometimes, healthcare providers may not be able to address these risks without the acknowledgement of race as a risk factor. Dr. Huchko is right, African American women are at a higher risk for preeclampsia, and ignoring this correlation would probably do more harm than good. 

But per Dr. Mungo’s appeal, providers must interrogate these associations more deeply — and be ever anti-racist in their efforts — if they are to create the safe spaces and trusting relationships that Mahendru, Dr. Huchko, and Dr. Mungo each hope to see.

By Zella Hanson

Emergency Use Authorization for Covid Vaccine: One Hurdle of Many

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Who will be the first company to secure an Emergency Use Authorization for a Covid-19 vaccine, and when? This question has circulated in the popular press for a few months and is at the forefront of many Americans’ minds with the upcoming presidential election on November 3rd.

Arti K. Rai (J.D.) moderated a dialogue between former FDA Commissioner and distinguished Professor of Cardiology, Robert Califf (M.D., M.A.C.C.), and Founder and Director of Scripps Research Translational Institute, Eric Topol (M.D.), in which the pair discussed emergency use authorization, public trust, and vaccines. The discussion was part of the Science & Society Initiative’s ongoing series of “Coronavirus Conversations.”

Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) strengthen American public health protections by speeding the availability and use of medical countermeasures during public health emergencies. Dr. Califf explained that in addition to events like nuclear catastrophes that EUAs were designed to provide protections for, pandemics were also thought about in conceiving the emergency measure. “[The pandemic] is not a surprise,” Califf said, “We knew it was going to happen at some point.”

The panelists examined the possible use of EUAs for a Covid vaccine and monoclonal antibody treatments given the EUAs issued earlier this year for hydroxycholoroquine and convalescent plasma, the former of which was revoked due to proven risks. Both of these experimental treatments lacked sufficient evidence at the time the EUAs were approved.

Dr. Topol said that the EUA case for the antibodies treatment is a good one with growing evidence that suggests their effectiveness as a viable treatment measure. Dr. Califf concurred, saying that with 1,000 people predicted to die every day in the U.S. through the end of December, there’s a strong case for the FDA to exert its judgment. One issue with antibodies, however, is that they cannot be made in large quantities and are very expensive, meaning they would be inaccessible for many.

The question of EUA use for vaccines is less straightforward. Dr. Topol argued that though the protocols released by four drug companies, including Moderna and Pfizer, are pretty far along, “there is a very questionable ethical story here.” He continued, “How can we say it’s good enough to give to essential workers, healthcare works, high-risk individuals, but they won’t even give it to trial participants? They received placebo vaccines.” Across the board, the trials currently underway only include about 150 individuals.

These initial trials are only the first hurdles to the production of a vaccine, according to both Califf and Topol. Dr. Califf pointed out that there will be issues of manufacturing and distributing, lots of concerns with post-market assessments, and how to determine which vaccines will be the best. Dr. Topol reinforced these ideas, suggesting that because no single company will be able to fill the vaccine demands, we need multiple vaccines to be successful. Further, Dr. Topol admitted his concern about the major extrapolations of data we will face, going from trials of 150 individuals to potential distribution numbers of vaccines reaching the hundreds of millions, if not billions of people.

And even once an initial round of vaccines is developed, Dr. Califf inserted the question, “What happens after people get vaccinated?” The simple truth is, the vaccination will probably not completely eradicate the virus, there could be late post-vaccination reactions, and the vaccine could potentially end up creating asymptomatic carriers. Both doctors agreed, masks and social distancing will be needed for at least the next year.

The potential of a Covid-19 vaccination has been popular in the media over the last few months.

Public opinion and politics are also key players in vaccine debates and development. “The point of public trust is essential because if something happens with the first vaccine that gets out,” Dr. Topol said, “it’s going to be a real damaging blow to vaccine rollout.” Like mask-wearing, Topol suggested that vaccines are part of a larger social contract in which these sorts of preventative measures not only help oneself but those around them.

Rai pointed out that as tensions between the FDA and the U.S. department of Health and Human Services grow, as well as between the FDA and the Trump administration, we could face “doomsday” scenarios where the FDA is coerced into certain actions and their powers become limited. However, new FDA guidelines for vaccine development have extended the potential timeline for a Covid vaccine, meaning that the chances of a EUA being issued before the election and being utilized as a political tool for Trump’s reelection are quite unlikely at this point.

Dr. Califf closed by emphasizing the need for solidarity among the biomedical community as influential to the success or failure of potential vaccines and public trust. Dr. Topol offered that we “need education, government that supports science, and need to get [support from] people of all diverse backgrounds to get [the public] to buy in.”

While Dr. Topol maintained a more skeptical and sometimes grim tone, Dr. Califf said that though he’s worried about “everything,” he’s “preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.”

It seems that as many people grow both accustomed to and tired of our new normal, most of us are caught somewhere in the middle of these outlooks.

Post by Cydney Livingston

Scholars Examine Duke’s History of Unequal Medical Care for Black People

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Conversations on and actions toward making American medicine less racist continue to grow. At Duke, that includes looking at our own history as a hospital and medical center serving a diverse community.

In a Sept. 22 virtual conversation, Duke physicians Damon Tweedy M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Jeffrey Baker M.D., Ph.D., Director of the Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine, spoke about the history of Duke’s legacies of race and memory. (Watch the presentation here.)

The career of Dr. Baker, who is a professor of both pediatrics and history, has taken him around the globe, right back to his hometown of Durham –where he said he has found the most interesting story of all.

After becoming Director for the Trent Center in 2016, he was approached with “hunger” by Durham natives to know their hometown’s story. Through oral and archival sources, Dr. Baker has broached Duke hospital’s history with humility in hopes of uncovering and contextualizing the historical roles of race in Duke medicine and Durham.

Dr. Tweedy, author of Black Man in a White Coat, attended Duke for medical school in the 1990s. He was warned that it was a plantation and an institution built on tobacco and slave money.

Though Dr. Baker proposed that in many ways the hospital structure often reflects plantation hierarchies in which there is racialization of who holds what jobs and power, he said Duke’s endowment money actually came from technological progress within tobacco production rather than slavery or plantations directly.

The Duke family’s vision for the hospital was quite different from actual outcomes in practice, Dr. Baker said. The Dukes were considered racial progressives in their time and the endowment they provided to launch the Duke Medical School and Hospital in 1930 was meant to improve health and education in North Carolina and train primary care doctors for the state.

“However,” Dr. Baker said, “there were two realities: Jim Crow and the Great Depression.”

Dr. Tweedy and Dr. Baker via Zoom

During the era of Jim Crow segregation, Duke’s primary care doctors were all white, and nearly all male. Though the hospital cared for both Black and white patients, they were segregated by race. Black patients had separate wards, and waiting areas for pediatric care were separated racially by days of the week. Waiting areas for adult patients functioned without appointments, but only white people were seen before noon. It’s likely that the care granted to white people in the first half of the day was superior to that of Black people receiving care at 4 pm or told to return the next day, he said.

Original floor plans for the Duke Hospital.

The Great Depression also generated a diversion from plans in the 1940s. When the Duke Hospital came close to bankruptcy, it chose to open private clinics on the side for revenue – which had an unintended consequence. The clinics brought a lot of money into Duke, Dr. Baker said, but it also reinforced distinctions between those who could pay for treatment and those who couldn’t. Over time, the disparities expanded with shifts towards hospital beds for insured and private patients.

In one terrible example, Maltheus “Sunny” Avery, a North Carolina A & T graduate who got into a car wreck in Burlington, NC in 1950, was diagnosed with an epidermal hematoma — a clot near his brain — and sent to Duke for emergency brain surgery. But he was refused treatment due to inadequate room in the “colored” ward.

Avery was redirected to Lincoln Hospital, Durham’s Black hospital, where he died shortly after admission. Though Dr. Baker said this story quickly faded from white memory, it is something that has retained severe importance in the popular memory of Black Durhamites. This narrative is also often conflated with a similar story about Dr. Charles Drew, the Black inventor of blood banking, who died despite attempts at rescue at a white hospital in Alamance, NC. He is often misremembered as having died from the refusal of care in a racially divided South, even though he was not.

News coverage of Sunny’s death.

Duke’s first Black medical student, Delano “Dale” Meriwether, arrived the same year the hospital began desegregation, 1963, and he was the first Black M.D. in 1967. Meriwether was the only Black medical student for four years before other brave pioneers joined the school.

Dr. Tweedy reflected on his own medical school experiences at Duke during clinical rotations just a little more than 20 years ago.

“I was asked to help suture a deep gash on a Black patient’s forehead,” he said, “The patient asked if we were experimenting on him since I was still a student.” In the private clinics, he once “couldn’t go anywhere near” a white patent with a minor lesion on their arm, let alone suture that patient.

Dr. Baker said there are two narratives surrounding Duke Hospital’s desegregation. One assumes that desegregation was quick and easy and uneventful, while the other proposes that systems of racial segregation were simply transformed rather than eradicated. The latter narrative better applies to the public and private clinics that had become nearly completely racialized over time, Baker said.

Even though segregation was no longer legal,  Black patients received care from less experienced medical residents in the public clinics, while white patients received care from attending physicians in the nicer, private environments.

Dr. Baker said that Duke has a complicated relationship with the community of Durham. He said the merger of Durham Regional Hospital with Duke Health in the late 1990s tapped into some long-term tensions and distrust between Duke and other medical facilities of Durham.

Dr. Tweedy pointed out that Duke researchers always have trouble recruiting Black patients for clinical studies, despite the fact that Durham County is about half Black and Hispanic. There is some distrust to overcome, but a diverse patient population is essential to creating robust study data that ensures that treatments will work for everyone, he said.

Medical professionals “need more than just science,” Baker concluded. He said that being trained as scientists often inclines doctors to think that they are above the larger contexts and histories they exist within, and that they can somehow remain objective.

“We have come out of specific stories and backgrounds,” Dr. Baker said. “[When we treat patients], we have to think about what story we are walking into.”

“We all carry our bags of ‘stuff'” that complicate patient prognosis and care, Dr. Tweedy concurred.

As Ann Brown (M.D., M.H.S), Vice Dean for Faculty, stated at the beginning of the conversation, “In order to move forward, we must understand where we come from.”

This is true of our nation as a whole, and Duke is certainly no exception.

Post by Cydney Livingston

We Are Not All Living The COVID Moment Equally

We are all living within the Covid moment, but we are not living within the Covid moment equally. The pandemic has exposed a recurrent rift in the United States’ healthcare system: Black Americans and other people of color (POC) are both disproportionately impacted by health issues and disproportionately lack access to care.

In a recent study on North Carolina conditions, Duke researchers found that the “odds of testing positive for [Covid] were higher for both Black and Hispanic individuals as well as within neighborhoods with a higher proportion of Black or Hispanic residents – confirming that Black and Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected.”

In a Coronavirus Conversation sponsored last week by the Science & Society Initiative, Thomas Williams J.D. discussed this and related issues with Duke scholars Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, Ph.D. of medicine and Jay A. Pearson, M.P.H., Ph.D of public policy.

Williams opened the panel by emphasizing the relevance of this moment: Current Covid impacts are directly informed by historical inequities and intricately span into the future. This is but one system of plaguing racism.

To speak about the intimate intersection of race and healthcare in America, Pearson offered grounding insight to systemic and structural racism. The United States is a country filled with patterns that produce and reproduce systematic advantages for those who are white while simultaneously disadvantaging people of color, most often Black and indigenous populations. Racism in America greatly transcends personal acts of racialized discrimination and harassment, he said. Racism in America is multiplex, foundational, and rooted within our society’s core.

“The U.S. national identity is tied to structural racism. …This is who we are, this is who we’ve been since the beginning of this country,” Pearson said, “The racialized inequities of Covid are simply the latest [manifestations]. We shouldn’t be surprised.”

A recently circulating figure states that 96% of people with severe outcomes or death from Covid had comorbidities, the presence of health conditions in addition to Covid. But Bentley-Edwards cautioned against misuse of this claim: “Many of these people would be alive if not for Covid.”

Though many who have died from the virus had underlying conditions, it is ultimately the virus that killed them. Communities of color often have disproportionate prevalence of underlying conditions, making them more susceptible to complications from Covid. But even when the prevalence of underlying conditions is the same among white and non-white populations, people of color are more likely to be more negatively affected by them.

For example, cardiovascular disease is similarly distributed between white and Black people, yet Black people are more likely to die of it, and at a younger age, compared to white people. Similarly, Black and other POC populations who contract Covid are more likely to die despite similar rates of contracting the virus in certain regions of the country.

Dr. Bentley-Edwards speaking during Friday’s virtual Coronavirus Conversation

Pearson and Bentley-Edwards also offered their insights on who is seen as essential and who is seen as dispensable in the United States.

Those who have been on the front lines with the most exposure and risks have been laborers who are most often under-valued Black and Brown peoples, Bentley-Edwards said. Though Covid terminology has come to dub them essential, it is undeniable that our society continues to see these types of workers as dispensable or replacable, and thus does not protect the people responsible for protecting us. Because many people of color live in multi-generational households as a culturally protective factor, increased chance of contracting Covid has led to uncertainties on the safety of returning home to young and elderly family members, she said. Further, the disproportionate unemployment rate of 13% for Black Americans compared to the 8.4% national rate is a staggering one. Since insurance is tied to employment, Black and Brown communities often avoid treatments due to the financial burden of unaffordable and inaccessible care.

Within the pandemic, we have seen the ever-present epidemiological impacts of police brutality and murder in the U.S with fresh eyes, the panelists said. In many ways, Black peoples’ experiences with healthcare mirrors that of their experiences with police – likely because both systems are anchored by an unjust nucleus.

“[Covid and police brutality] are slightly different manifestations of the same phenomenon,” Pearson said. We are able to easily identify the murders of individuals such as Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery as stolen lives due to racist actions, however the slow burn of a racist health care system is less easily conceptualized or reconciled with, he said. Either way, the cause is one and the same.

Racism within systems that are meant to protect have generated a deep mistrust from Black and Brown people. Williams brought up the issue of a potential Covid vaccination amongst communities of color. “You have to know the history and why they would hesitate,” Bentley-Edwards said, bringing up the Tuskegee experiments and the work of J. Marion Sims. These accounts offer grim revelation of a heinous, racist history of exploiting vulnerable people for scientific and medical explorations.

Bentley-Edwards said that governments and healthcare institutions must address the rightful apprehensions of Black and Brown people in order to decrease vaccine hesitancy and serve at-risk communities. “What are they going to do differently?”

Williams also proposed the notion of data collection as a source of bias: In what ways are the data informatics that are collected reflections of an inequitable system? Bentley-Edwards and Pearson both suggest that to understand the current moment, as well as the healthcare system more largely, there needs to be collection and analysis of racial data. Additionally, there simply needs to be measurements for indicators beyond conventional ones which do not properly account for impacts on communities of color.

The push for new and different kind of data is supported by a growing evidence for the manifestations of inequality within biological bodies. For example, Pearson spoke about his own research on telomeres, a protective structure on the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA from degradation. Telomeres are telling both of stress and aging. Pearson’s work found that the average Black American woman is six to seven biological years older than a white American woman of the same age by evaluating telomere lengths, controlling for income, education, and other important socioeconomic factors. This indicates physiological affects linked to the stresses and disproportionalities of race down to the cellular level. Through genetics, mental health, and other physical degradations, the impacts of racism and racist healthcare quite literally last a lifetime and are even intergenerational.

Diagram of telomere from a study conducted by Dr. Pearson

Pearson closed the panel by urging attendees to take action where they find themselves. Though the need for animated policy which reflects recent discussions and protests is dire, the local spaces we find ourselves in need to be reshaped as well – including our universities.

In this moment, our responsibilities to one another have become more obvious than ever before. We must become more adept in thinking about and taking action for the communities in which we live and are connected to, whether they are comprised of people who look like us or not.

Post by Cydney Livingston

“Do No Harm to Whom?” Challenge Trials & COVID-19

DAVIDE BONAZZI / SALZMANART

Imagine: you wake on a chilly November morning, alarm blaring, for your 8:30 am class. You toss aside the blankets and grab your phone. Shutting the alarm off reveals a Washington Post notification. But this isn’t your standard election headline. You almost drop your phone in shock. It can’t be, you think. This is too good to be true. It’s not — a second later, you get a text from the SymMon app, notifying you of your upcoming appointment in the Bryan Center.

A vaccine for COVID-19 is finally available, and you’re getting one.

This scenario could be less far-fetched than one might think: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told officials to prepare for a vaccine as soon as November 1st. To a country foundering due to the economic and social effects of COVID-19, this comes as incredible news — a bright spot on a bleak horizon. But to make a vaccine a reality, traditional phase 3 clinical trials may not be enough. What are challenge trials? Should they be used? What’s at stake, and what are the ethical implications of the path we choose?

At Duke Science and Society’s “Coronavirus Conversations: The Science and Ethics of Human Challenge Trials for COVID-19” on Aug. 24, Kim Krawiec of the Duke School of Law posed these and other questions to three experts in health.

Dr. Marc Lipsitch, Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard School of Public Health, began by comparing traditional phase 3 trials and challenge trials. 

In both kinds of trials, vaccines are tested for their “safety and ability to provoke an immune response” in phases 1 and 2. In phase 3 trials, large numbers (typically thousands or tens of thousands) of individuals are randomly assigned either the vaccine being tested or a placebo. Scientists observe how many vaccinated individuals become infected compared to participants who received a placebo. This information enables scientists to assess the efficacy — as well as rarer side effects — of the vaccine. 

Marc Lipsitch

In challenge trials, instead of random assignment, small numbers of low-risk individuals are deliberately infected in order to more directly study the efficacy of vaccine and treatment candidates. Though none are underway yet, the advocacy group 1Day Sooner has built a list of more than 35,000 volunteers willing to participate.

Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an Infectious Disease Specialist, Associate Professor of Medicine, and Clinical Expert In Respiratory and Infectious Disease at the Duke Medical School, provided an overview of the current vaccine landscape.

Cameron Wolfe

There are currently at least 150 potential vaccine candidates, from preclinical to approved stages of development. Two vaccines, developed by Russia’s Gamelaya Research Institute and China’s CanSinoBIO, have skipped phase 3, but are little more than an idiosyncrasy to Dr. Wolfe, as there is “minimal clarity about their safety and efficacy.” Three more vaccines of interest — Moderna’s mRNA vaccine, Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine, and Oxford and AstraZeneca’s adenovirus vaccine — are all in phase 3 trials with around 30,000 enrollees. Scientists will be watching for a “meaningful infection and a durable immune response.”

Dr. Nir Eyal, the Henry Rutgers Professor of Bioethics and Director of The Center for Population-Level Bioethics at Rutgers University, explained how challenge trials could fit into the vaccine roadmap.

According to Dr. Eyal, challenge trials would most likely be combined with phase 3 trials. One way this could look is the use of challenge trials to weed out vaccine candidates before undergoing more expensive phase 3 trials. Additionally, if phase 3 trials fail to produce meaningful results about efficacy, a challenge trial could be used to obtain information while still collecting safety data from the more comprehensive phase 3 trial.

Nir Eyal

Dr. Eyal emphasized the importance of challenge trials for expediting the arrival of the vaccine. According to his own calculations, getting a vaccine — and making it widely available — just one month sooner would avert the loss of 720,000 years of life and 40 million years of poverty, mostly concentrated in the developing world. (Dr. Eyal stressed that his estimate is extremely conservative as it neglects many factors, including loss of life from avoidance of child vaccines, cancer care, malaria treatment, etc.) Therefore, speed is of “great humanitarian value.”

Dr. Wolfe added that because phase 3 trials rely on a lot of transmission, if the US gets better at mitigating the virus, “the distinction between protective efficacy and simple placebo will take longer to see.” A challenge study, however, is “always a well defined time period… you can anticipate when you’ll get results.” 

The panelists then discussed the ethics of challenge trials in the absence of effective treatment — as Krawiec put it, “making people sick without knowing if we can make them better.”

Dr. Wolfe pointed to the flu, citing challenge trials that have been conducted even though current treatments are not uniformly effective (“tamiflu is no panacea”). He then conceded that the biggest challenge is not a lack of effective therapies, but the current inability to “say to a patient, ‘you will not have a severe outcome.’ It varies so much from person to person, I guess.” (See one troubling example of that variance.)

Dr. Eyal acknowledged the trouble of informed consent when the implications are scarcely known, but argued that “in extraordinary times, business as usual is no longer the standard.” He asserted that if people volunteer with full understanding of what they are committing to, there is no reason to assume they are less informed than when making other decisions where the outcome is as yet unknown. 

Dr. Lipsitch compared this to the military: “we are not cheating if we cannot provide a roadmap of future wars because they are not yet known to us.” Rather, we commend brave soldiers (and hope they come home safe). 

Furthermore, Dr. Eyal asserted that “informed consent is not a comprehensive understanding of the disease,” lest much of the epidemiological research from the 1970s be called into question too. Instead, volunteers should be considered informed as long as they comprehend questions like, “‘we can’t give you an exact figure yet; do you understand?’”

Agreeing, Dr. Wolfe stated that when critics of challenge trials ask, isn’t your mission to do no harm?, he asks, “Do no harm in regards to whom?” “Who is in front of you matters,” Dr. Wolfe confirmed, “that’s why we put up safeguards. But as clinicians it can be problematic [to stop there]. It’s not just about the patient, but to do no harm in regards to the broader community.”

The experts then discussed what they’d like to see in challenge trials.

Dr. Wolfe said he’d like to see challenge trials carried out with a focus on immunology components, side effect profiles, and a “barrage” of biological safety and health standards for hospitals and facilities. 

Dr. Eyal stated the need for exclusion criteria (young adults, perhaps age 20-25, with no risk factors), a “high high high” quality of informed consent ideally involving a third party, and access to therapies and critical care for all volunteers, even those without insurance. 

Dr. Lipsitch stressed the scientific importance of assessing participants from a “virological, not symptom bent.” He mused that the issue of viral inoculum was a thorny one — should scientists “titrate down” to where many participants won’t get infected and more volunteers will be needed overall? Or should scientists keep it concentrated, and contend with the increased risk? 

Like many questions pondered during the hour — from the ideal viral strain to use to the safest way to collect information about high risk patients — this one remained unanswered. 

So don’t mark November 1st on your calendar just yet. But if you do get that life-changing notification, there’s a chance you’ll have human challenge trials to thank.

Post By Zella Hanson

COVID-19, and the Costs of Big Data

TikTok’s illicit collection of user data recently drew fire from US officials. But TikTok’s base—largely young adults under 25—was unfazed. In viral videos posted in July and August, users expressed little concern about their digital privacy. 

“If china wants to know how obsessed i am with hockey,” wrote one user, “then just let them its not a secret.” “#Takemydata,” captioned another, in a video racking up 6,000 likes and over 42,000 views. 

As digital technologies become ever more pervasive – or even invasive – concerns for privacy should be a concern, a pair of experts said in a Duke Science & Society webinar earlier this month. 

TikTok and digital marketing aside, data collection can have real, tangible benefits. Case in point: COVID-19. Researchers at Duke and elsewhere are using peoples’ fitness trackers and smart watches to try to understand and predict the pandemic’s spread by monitoring a variety of health metrics, producing real-time snapshots of heart rate, blood pressure, sleep quality, and more. Webinar speaker Jessilyn Dunn of Duke biomedical engineering and her team have tapped into this data for CovIdentify, a Duke-funded effort to predict COVID infections using data collected by smartphones and wearable devices. 

Health data from smartphones and fitness trackers may help predict and identify disease.

For several years, Dunn’s lab has researched digital biomarkers of disease—that is, how health data collected by tech we carry every day can predict anything from heart disease to cognitive decline. 

It’s a potential goldmine: One recent poll suggests that 40 million Americans own some kind of smartwatch or fitness tracker. And the wearables market is rapidly expanding—by 2022, it may be worth upwards of 25 billion dollars.

As coronavirus cases began to rise in the US, Dunn’s lab quickly pivoted to develop COVID-specific biomarkers. “We have these devices … that perform physiologic monitoring,” Dunn said, “This is a method of taking vitals continuously to try to monitor what’s going on with people.” 

Say you’re a participant in Dr. Dunn’s study. You download the CovIdentify app, which analyzes health data collected by your phone or smartwatch. Short daily surveys then assess your exposure to COVID-19 and whether you’ve developed any symptoms. Dunn and her team hope to find a link, some specific change in vitals that corresponds to COVID-19 infection.   

There are some challenges. CovIdentify must account for variability between devices—data collected from a Fitbit, for example, might differ dramatically from an Apple Watch. And because COVID-19 manifests in unique ways across populations, a truly universal biomarker may not exist. 

However, panelist Marielle Gross—a bioethicist at the University of Pittsburgh—said projects like Dunn’s raise questions of digital privacy. Gross emphasized how easily our health data can be abused. 

Left: Jessilyn Dunn, PhD, a professor at Duke University and CovIdentify Researcher
Right: Marielle Gross, MD, MBE, a bioethicist and professor at the University of Pittsburgh

“Digital specimen is the digital representation of the human body,” she said. “Disrespecting it disrespects the body it represents.”

Dr. Gross cited South Korea’s efforts to curb COVID-19 as a cautionary tale. As part of the government’s  response, which quickly minimized cases early in the pandemic, exposed or infected South Koreans were expected to stay home and isolate, tracked using GPS-enabled devices.

But many South Koreans chose to leave their devices at home, rather than be tracked by their government. In response, the government required its citizens to carry their devices, 24/7. In a pandemic, desperate measures may be called for. But, Gross suggests, it isn’t hard to imagine a grimmer future—where the government requires all citizens to share their location, all the time.

Gross argues that we must fundamentally shift how we think about our personal data. “There’s this broad assumption that we have to give up privacy to reap the benefits of collective data.” Gross noted. “And that’s false.”

Most ‘digital natives’ aren’t naive. They’re well aware that internet companies collect, analyze, and sell their data, sometimes to malicious effect.  But many view data collection as a necessary tradeoff for an intuitive and tailored web experience.

So where do we go from here? Dr. Gross points to new developments like zero knowledge proofs, which use complex algorithms to verify data without actually seeing it. This technique promises anonymity without compromising the value of collective data. And as computing power increases, it may also be possible to perform real-time analysis without ever transmitting or storing collected health data.

And for future tech? In Dr. Gross’s opinion, ethical implications must be considered from day one. “Those sorts of considerations are not the kind of thing that you can tack on later. They have to be built into devices…at the ground floor.”

Post by Jeremy Jacobs

Duke Scientists Studying the Shape of COVID Things to Come

The novel coronavirus pandemic has now resulted in more than 3 million confirmed cases globally and is pushing scientists to share ideas quickly and figure out the best ways to collaborate and contribute to solutions.

SARS-CoV-2 surface proteins illustrated by We Are Covert, via Wikimedia Commons

Recently, Duke researchers across the School of Medicine came together for an online symposium consisting of several short presentations to summarize the latest of what is known about the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.

This daylong event was organized by faculty in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology and researchers from different fields to share what they know about the virus and immunity to guide vaccine design. This conference highlighted the myriad new research pathways that Duke researchers are launching to better understand this pandemic virus.

One neat area of research is understanding viral processes within cells to identify steps at which antivirals may block the virus. Stacy Horner’s Laboratory studies how RNA viruses replicate inside human cells. By figuring out how viruses and cells interact at the molecular level, Horner can inform development of antivirals and strategies to block viral replication. Antivirals stop infections by preventing the virus from generating more of copies of itself and spreading to other cells. This controls damage to our cells and allows the immune system to catch up and clear the infection.

At the symposium, Horner explained how the SARS-CoV viral genome consists of 29,891 ribonucleotides, which are the building blocks of the RNA strand. The viral genome contains 14 areas where the RNA code can be transcribed into shorter RNA sequences for viral protein production. Though each RNA transcript generally contains the code for a single protein, this virus is intriguing in that it uses RNA tricks to code for up to 27 proteins. Horner highlighted two interesting ways that SARS-CoV packs in additional proteins to produce all the necessary components for its replication and assembly into new viral progeny.

The first way is through slippery sequences on the RNA genome of the virus. A ribosome is a machine inside the cell that runs along a string of RNA to translate its code into proteins that have various functions. Each set of 3 ribonucleotides forms one amino acid, a building block of proteins. In turn, a string of amino acids assembles into a distinct structure that gives rise to a functional protein.

One way that SARS-CoV-2 packs in additional proteins is with regions of its RNA genome that make the ribosome machinery slip back by one ribonucleotide. Once the ribosome gets offset it reads a new grouping of 3 ribonucleotides and creates a different amino acid for the same RNA sequence. In this way, SARS-CoV-2 makes multiple proteins from the same piece of RNA and maximizes space on its genome for additional viral proteins.

An example of an RNA ‘hairpin’ structure, which might fool a ribosome to jump across the sequence rather than reading around the little cul de sac. (Ben Moore, via Wikimedia Commons)

Secondly, the RNA genome of SARS-CoV-2 has regions where the single strand of RNA twists over itself and connects with another segment of RNA farther along the code to form a new protein. These folds create structures that look like diverse trees made of repetitive hairpin-like shapes. If the ribosome runs into a fold, it can hop from one spot in the RNA to another disjoint piece and attach a new string of amino acids instead of the ones directly ahead of it on the linear RNA sequence. This is another way the SARS-CoV-2 packs in extra proteins with the same piece of RNA.

Horner said a step-by-step understanding of what the virus needs to survive at each step of its replication cycle will allow us to design molecules that are able to block these crucial steps.

Indeed, shapes of molecules can determine their function inside the cell. Three Duke teams are pursuing detailed investigation of SARS-CoV-2 protein structures that might guide development of complementarily shaped molecules that can serve as drugs by interfering with viral processes inside cells.

Some Duke faculty who participated in the virtual viral conference. (L-R from, top) Stacy Horner, Nick Heaton, Micah Luftig, Sallie Permar, Ed Miao and Georgia Tomaras. (image: Tulika Singh)

For example the laboratory of Hashim Al-Hashimi, develops computational models to predict the diversity of structures produced by these tree-like RNA folds to identify possible targets for new therapeutics. Currently, the Laboratories of Nicholas Heaton and Claire Smith are teaming up to identify novel restriction factors inside cells that can stop SARS-CoV-2.

However, it is not just the structures of viral components expressed inside the cells that matter, but also those on the outside of a virus particle. In Latin, corona means a crown or garland, and coronaviruses have been named for their distinctive crown-like spikes that envelop each virus particle. The viral protein that forms this corona is aptly named the “Spike” protein.

This Spike protein on the viral surface connects with a human cell surface protein (Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, abbreviated as ACE2) to allow the virus to enter our cells and cause an infection. Heaton proposed that molecules designed to block this contact, by blocking either the human cell surface protein or the viral Spike protein, should also be tested as possible therapies.

One promising type of molecule to block this interaction is an antibody. Antibodies are “Y” shaped molecules that are developed as part of the immune response in the body by the second week of coronavirus infection. These molecules can detect viral proteins, bind with them, and prevent viruses from entering cells. Unlike several other components on our immune defense, antibodies are shaped to specifically latch on to one type of virus. Teams of scientists at Duke led by Dr. Sallie Permar, Dr. Georgia Tomaras, and Dr. Genevieve Fouda are working to characterize this antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 infection and identify the types of antibodies that confer protection.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Chris Woods is leading an effort to test whether plasma with antibodies from people who have recovered can prevent severe coronavirus disease in acutely infected patients.

Indeed, there are several intriguing research questions to resolve in the months ahead. Duke scientists are forging new plans for research and actively launching new projects to unravel the mysteries of SARS-CoV-2. With Duke laboratory scientists rolling up their sleeves and gowning up to conduct research on the novel coronavirus, there will be soon be many more vaccine and therapeutic interventions to test.

Guest post by Tulika Singh, MPH, PhD Candidate in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology (T: @Singh_Tulika)

Duke’s Fundamental Research Can Turn Viruses Into Marvels

The COVID-19 epidemic has impacted the Duke research enterprise in profound ways. Nearly all laboratory-based research has been temporarily halted, except for research directly connected to the fight against COVID-19. It will take much time to return to normal, and that process of renewal will be gradual and will be implemented carefully.

Trying to put this situation into a broader perspective, I thought of the 1939 essay by Abraham Flexner published in Harper’s magazine, entitled “The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge.” Flexner was the founding Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and in that essay, he ruminated on much of the type of knowledge acquired at research universities —  knowledge motivated by no objective other than the basic human desire to understand. As Flexner said, the pursuit of this type of knowledge sometimes leads to surprises that transform the way we see that which was previously taken for granted, or for which we had previously given up hope. Such knowledge is sometimes very useful, in highly unintended ways.

Gregory Gray, MD MPH
Gregory Gray, MD MPH

The 1918 influenza pandemic led to 500 million confirmed cases, and 50 million deaths. In the Century since, consider how far we have come in our understanding of epidemics, and how that knowledge has impacted our ability to respond. People like Greg Gray, a professor of medicine and member of the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI), have been quietly studying viruses for many years, including how viruses at domestic animal farms and food markets can leap from animals to humans. Many believe the COVID-19 virus started from a bat and was transferred to a human. Dr. Gray has been a global leader in studying this mechanism of a potential viral pandemic, doing much of his work in Asia, and that experience makes him uniquely positioned to provide understanding of our current predicament.

From the health-policy perspective, Mark McClellan, Director of the Duke Margolis Center for Health Policy, has been a leading voice in understanding viruses and the best policy responses to an epidemic. As a former FDA director, he has experience bringing policy to life, and his voice carries weight in the halls of Washington. Drawing on faculty from across Duke and its extensive applied policy research capacity, the Margolis Center has been at the forefront in guiding policymakers in responding to COVID-19.

Through knowledge accrued by academic leaders like Drs. Gray and McClellan, one notes with awe the difference in how the world has responded to a viral threat today, relative to 100 years ago. While there has been significant turmoil in many people’s lives today, as well as significant hardship, the number of global deaths caused by COVID-19 has been reduced substantially relative to 1918.

One of the seemingly unusual aspects of COVID-19 is that a substantial fraction of the population infected by the virus has no symptoms. However, those asymptomatic individuals shed the virus and infect others. While most people have no or mild symptoms, other people have very adverse effects to COVID-19, some dying quickly.

This heterogeneous response to COVID-19 is a characteristic of viruses studied by Chris Woods, a professor medicine in infectious diseases. Dr. Woods, and his colleagues in the Schools of Medicine and Engineering, have investigated this phenomenon for years, long before the current crisis, focusing their studies on the genomic response of the human host to a virus. This knowledge of viruses has made Dr. Woods and his colleagues leading voices in understanding COVID-19, and guiding the clinical response.

A team led by Greg Sempowski, a professor of pathology in the Human Vaccine Institute is working to isolate protective antibodies from SARS-CoV-2-infected individuals to see if they may be used as drugs to prevent or treat COVID-19. They’re seeking antibodies that can neutralize or kill the virus, which are called neutralizing antibodies.

Barton Haynes,MD
Barton Haynes, MD

Many believe that only a vaccine for COVID-19 can truly return life to normal. Human Vaccine Institute Director Barton Haynes, and his colleagues are at the forefront of developing that vaccine to provide human resistance to COVID-19. Dr. Haynes has been focusing on vaccine research for numerous years, and now that work is at the forefront in the fight against COVID-19.

Engineering and materials science have also advanced significantly since 1918. Ken Gall, a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science has led Duke’s novel application of 3D printing to develop methods for creatively designing personal protective equipment (PPE). These PPE are being used in the Duke hospital, and throughout the world to protect healthcare providers in the fight against COVID-19.

Much of the work discussed above, in addition to being motivated by the desire to understand and adapt to viruses, is motivated from the perspective that viruses must be fought to extend human life.

In contrast, several years ago Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, academics at Berkeley and the Max Planck Institute, respectively, asked a seemingly useless question. They wanted to understand how bacteria defended themselves against a virus. What may have made this work seem even more useless is that the specific class of viruses (called phage) that infect bacteria do not cause human disease. Useless stuff! The kind of work that can only take place at a university. That basic research led to the discovery of clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR), a bacterial defense system against viruses, as a tool for manipulating genome sequences. Unexpectedly, CRISPR manifested an almost unbelievable ability to edit the genome, with the potential to cure previously incurable genetic diseases.

Charles Gersbach, a professor of Biomedical Engineering, and his colleagues at Duke are at the forefront of CRISPR research for gene and cell therapy. In fact, he is working with Duke surgery professor and gene therapy expert Aravind Asokan to engineer another class of viruses, recently approved by the FDA for other gene therapies, to deliver CRISPR to diseased tissues. Far from a killer, the modified virus is essential to getting CRISPR to the right tissues to perform gene editing in a manner that was previously thought impossible. There is hope that CRISPR technology can lead to cures for sickle cell and other genetic blood disorders. It is also being used to fight cancer and muscular dystrophy, among many other diseases and it is being used at Duke by Dr. Gersbach in the fight against COVID-19. 

David Ashley, Ph.D.
David Ashley, Ph.D.

In another seemingly bizarre use of a virus, a modified form of the polio virus is being used at Duke to fight glioblastoma, a brain tumor. That work is being pursued within the Preston Robert Tisch Brain Tumor Center, for which David Ashley is the Director. The use of modified polio virus excites the innate human immune system to fight glioblastoma, and extends life in ways that were previously unimaginable. But there are still many basic-science questions that must be overcome. The remarkable extension of life with polio-based immunotherapy occurs for only 20% of glioblastoma patients. Why? Recall from the work of Dr. Woods discussed above, and from our own observation of COVID-19, not all people respond to viruses in the same way. Could this explain the mixed effectiveness of immunotherapy for glioblastoma? It is not known at this time, although Dr. Ashley feels it is likely to be a key factor. Much research is required, to better understand the diversity in the host response to viruses, and to further improve immunotherapy.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge that is disrupting all aspects of life. Through fundamental research being done at Duke, our understanding of such a pandemic has advanced markedly, speeding and improving our capacity to respond. By innovative partnerships between Duke engineers and clinicians, novel methods are being developed to protect frontline medical professionals. Further, via innovative technologies like CRISPR and immunotherapy — that could only seem like science fiction in 1918 (and as recently as 2010!) — viruses are being used to save lives for previously intractable diseases.

Viruses can be killers, but they are also scientific marvels. This is the promise of fundamental research; this is the impact of Duke research.

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Post by Lawrence Carin, Vice President for Research

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