Thanks for subscribing to Axios Science. If you enjoy what you're reading, consider telling your friends and colleagues to sign up here. As always, you can send me your feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or just reply to this email.
One new thing: Codebook, Axios' cybersecurity newsletter, launches Tuesday. Sign up here to get cybersecurity policy and defense news from Joe Uchill twice each week.
One spring thing: We're taking next week off. See you back here in two weeks.
1. What's next for cancer immunotherapy
Cancer immunotherapies that trigger a person's own immune system to recognize and attack cancer cells have logged some success in certain patients and with certain types of cancers. "But overall that is a minority of cancer patients," says Antoni Ribas from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Now, researchers are looking to leverage their understanding of what's working and what's not in patients receiving this class of drugs. (Science published a special section about cancer immunotherapy Thursday.)
The challenge: These are new avenues for research but they also spur serious concerns that must be addressed: unwanted and sometimes deadly side effects, unexplained lack of response by some cancers, and questions arising from combining multiple therapies and finding the optimal timing — which can make or break treatment.
How it works: Cancer metastasizes when it successfully evades or tricks a person's immune system into allowing it to spread. Two of the main types of immunotherapies are "checkpoint inhibitors" that work by taking the brakes off the immune system so it can recognize and attack cancer cells, and CAR-T cell therapy that works by engineering a patient's immune cells to attack cancer.
What they're looking at: Different checkpoint inhibitors, personalized vaccines, and new ways to modulate the immune system.
2. The worst flu season in eight years
From Axios' Chris Canipe and Eileen Drage O'Reilly: This year's flu season caught many experts off guard with both its sustained prevalence and its virulence. At its peak, there was a higher level of flu-like illnesses reported than any other year during the past eight years. Watch in the visual as it hits its peak around Week 18.
Why it matters: Public health officials try to capture this data when developing the next year's vaccines. And, of course, they want to find better ways to prevent severe flu seasons. There's a "Strategic Plan" to develop a universal vaccine to protect against a wider range of influenza viruses, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tells Axios.
3. Axios stories
- Racial inequality: A new study found that, despite growing up in similar households, black boys were more likely to become poor than white boys, Michael Sykes writes..
- AI: Steve LeVine on the ramifications of the global AI race and concerns about how nations under different political systems — democratic vs. authoritarian — may use the technology.
- Flight risk: The chance of catching a respiratory illness on an airplane may be just 3% — so long as you are more than a meter from an infected person, Eileen reports. The best seat? The window, but you knew that.
4. What we're reading elsewhere
- Appointed: The Atlantic's Ed Yong reports on the controversies surrounding new CDC director Robert Redfield, a leading virologist who studies HIV.
- AI and Alzheimer's: Researchers are using machine learning for the development of drugs to treat Alzheimer's disease and to detect symptoms that sometimes go unnoticed by caregivers, doctors and family members, Emily Mullin reports for MIT Technology Review.
- Local news: STAT's Helen Branswell on how a decline in local newspapers could create gaps in public health surveillance across the U.S.
- Gun research: In the new Congressional spending bill, lawmakers indicate that the 20-plus-year-old Dickey Amendment that says the CDC can't use funds to "promote gun control" doesn't mean the agency can't research gun use, opening the door to studying patterns of gun violence, per ABC News' Erin Dooley.
5. Something wondrous
Vast swaths of Earth's oceans are unexplored and the details of their inhabitants' personal lives are unknown. Nowadays, researchers peer into this world with remote operated vehicles that can surprise fish and are expensive to build. MIT graduate student Robert Katzschmann sees a future filled with swarming robotic fish that can more discreetly "find out the secrets of the ocean."
On Wednesday in Science Robotics, he and his colleagues reported building a soft robotic fish — dubbed SoFi — that can swim at depths of up to 60 feet alongside divers who occasionally ping it directions to dive or speed up.
The specs: SoFi's key feature is a soft tail made of rubbery silicone that starts off with a beeswax skeleton inside. The beeswax is then melted away, similar to how sculptors use lost-wax casting to create intricacies in their work. One way to then normally move the robot would be to pump air between the remaining hollow spaces. But, since that would raise the problem of buoyancy with this underwater robot, the researchers instead pushed seawater back and forth between the chambers in order to move the tail.
The foot-and-a-half-long SoFi has a camera, battery (it can currently swim for 45 minutes), visual sensors and a microphone on its back to catch the ultrasonic swimming commands.
Where it will go: So far, the robotic fish has navigated Fiji's Somosomo Strait but Katzschmann imagines it one day inspecting oil rigs, collecting data about the behavior of marine animals in their environment, or spotting rarely witnessed underwater events, like the birth of a southern right whale. "Imagine using the fish to observe the mysteries of the whale," MIT professor Daniela Rus says.