Sep 17, 2020

Axios Science

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week we look at racial disparities in cancer, life on Venus, a road map for quantum computing and more.

Today's newsletter is 1,566 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Pandemic may drive up cancer cases, increase disparities

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Doctors are concerned the coronavirus pandemic is going to lead to an uptick in cancer incidence and deaths — and exacerbate racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities seen with the disease, Eileen Drage O'Reilly reports.

Why it matters: The U.S. has made recent advances in lowering cancer deaths — including narrowing the gap between different race and ethnicities in both incidence and death rates. But the pandemic could render some of these advances moot.

Driving the news: The American Association for Cancer Research on Wednesday released its first annual cancer disparities progress report, which also looks at the similarities between COVID-19 and cancer disparities. They found:

  • The burden of COVID-19 falls disproportionately on racial and ethnic minority groups. For example, Hispanics, who are about 18% of the U.S. population, account for 34% of COVID-19 cases.
  • Social determinants of health — such as where a person lives, works, and obtains food and the ability to get health care access — and underlying health conditions affect a person's risk factor. For example, the rate of hospitalization for COVID-19 is three times higher for urban Medicare recipients than rural recipients.
  • Researchers are investigating the role that biological or genetic factors may play in the severity of complications in COVID-19 patients. One question is whether there's a higher risk in African Americans with asthma who have higher levels of two proteins (ACE2 and TMPRSS2) needed for SARS-CoV-2 infection of cells.
  • The report also found various barriers to timely COVID-19 testing in underserved communities.

Threat level: National Cancer Institute Director Ned Sharpless told scientists at a July roundtable that just looking at two cancers (breast and colorectal), there will likely be 10,000 additional deaths over the next decade due to the drop in screening and treatments during the pandemic.

  • "One thing we're very worried about in particular is the impact of hospital closures and reduced clinical capacity on patients with cancer — the reductions in screenings, the reductions in patient care," Sharpless said.
  • John Carpten, chair of the report's steering committee and of the AACR Minorities in Cancer Research Council, agrees. "If you had to put off your diagnosis by even six months, that cancer could grow and progress and maybe even metastasize in that timeframe."

Go deeper.

Bonus chart: Cancer deaths drop but Black Americans still face highest risk
Adapted from the National Cancer Institute; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios 

There's some good news in 2020: Cancer death rates have been falling overall and the gap between racial and ethnic groups has been narrowing, Eileen writes.

Yes, but: Decades of systemic racism and the structures developed under it continue to limit the ability of Americans to benefit equally from cancer advances, some medical experts tell Axios, as seen by Black Americans who've had the highest death rate from cancer for 40 years.

  • "Socioeconomic issues, financial toxicities and health care inequities in general are definitely the foundation of many of the disparities that we know exist," Carpten tells Axios.
  • "And, without dealing with and addressing and mitigating those issues, no matter what we do to improve our understanding of cancer, all of that will be moot."

The good news: Overall cancer death rates dropped for all groups from 2000 to 2017...

  • 30% for African Americans.
  • 20% for white people, Hispanics and Asians/Pacific Islanders.
  • 11% for American Indians/Alaska Natives.

The bad news: The report says cancer burden disparities are evident in many areas, like...

  • African American men and women face a greater risk of dying from prostate cancer (111%) and breast cancer (39%), respectively, compared to their white counterparts.
  • Hispanic youths are more likely to develop leukemia than white youths, with a 20% higher risk for Hispanic children and a 38% higher risk for Hispanic adolescents.
  • Asian/Pacific Islander adults are twice as likely to die from stomach cancer than white adults.
  • Poor men have a 35% higher death rate for colorectal cancer than wealthy men.
  • Bisexual women are 70% more likely to be diagnosed with cancer than heterosexual women.

Go deeper.

2. Catch up quick on COVID-19
Expand chart
Data: The COVID Tracking Project, state health departments; Map: Andrew Witherspoon, Sara Wise/Axios

Coronavirus infections in the U.S. ticked up slightly over the past week due to scattered outbreaks in every region of the country, Axios' Sam Baker and Andrew Witherspoon write.

Weekly cases in Europe are now exceeding those at the pandemic's peak there in the spring, per World Health Organization regional director Hans Kluge. Today the WHO warned a "very serious situation" is unfolding, report CNN's Laura Smith-Spark and Vasco Cotovio.

Federal officials laid out their plan for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available, including aiming to provide the vaccine at no out-of-pocket cost and to begin administering it within 24 hours of receiving approval or emergency use authorization, Katie Thomas reports for the NYT.

121 people under age 21 died from COVID-19 in the U.S. between Feb.12 and July 31, per a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. 75% had at least one underlying health condition and roughly 3 in 4 were Hispanic, Black, American Indian or Alaska Natives, Axios' Jacob Knutson writes.

The rate of stillbirths has increased during the pandemic as some women receive less antenatal care, according to studies in Nepal, India, and the U.K., writes Clare Watson at Nature News.

3. A road map for quantum computing

IBM's new cryostat refrigerator for cooling quantum computers. Photo: Chris Nay/IBM

IBM thinks it can deliver a quantum computer that would marry enormous computing power with a tough-to-achieve low rate of errors by 2023, per a technical timeline the company published this week.

Why it matters: Companies, most notably IBM and Google, are investing heavily in a race to commercialize quantum computers that ultimately may be able to solve some problems much faster than a classical computer.

  • IBM's stake in the ground represents what the firm says is an "inflection point" after which the rate of progress in the field will rapidly increase.
  • Dario Gil, director of IBM Research, says the road map lays out the parallel progress required in software, cryogenics and other technologies to support quantum computing, and is "part of the equation of how the industry evolves" in terms of workforce development, investments and infrastructure.

How it works: Unlike the bits in classical computers that can represent two states of information — represented as "0" or "1" in binary code — quantum bits, or qubits, can hold multiple states of information at once, a feature known as superposition.

  • That gives quantum computers the ability to simultaneously compute many potential solutions to a problem before delivering just one.
  • Qubits can be entangled — if the state of one qubit is changed, the state of its pair will also change, no matter how far apart they are.
  • Entanglement and superposition are exploited by quantum computers and give them their processing power, which increases exponentially with the number of qubits in the machine.

Yes, but: As the number of qubits increases in a system, so does the rate at which the computer makes errors.

  • Those errors could be caught and corrected by distributing the information a qubit encodes across many qubits.
  • IBM believes a quantum computer with 1,000 qubits or more will be able to perform a calculation a classical computer cannot but with a low enough error rate that it is reliably accurate.

What they're saying: "If [researchers] can reach 1,000 qubits with an order of magnitude smaller error rates than today, then I think it could be a real inflection point," Arne Grimsmo who studies quantum error correction at the University of Sydney, tells me in an email. 

  • "There are a whole host of challenges that need to be solved to get there, but if we can build a chip with 1,000 really high quality qubits, then it becomes believable that we could build a much larger chip with millions of qubits."

What's next: IBM aims to build a 1,121-qubit system by the end of 2023. In the meantime, it believes it can achieve a 127-qubit machine by the end of 2021 and hit 433 qubits a year later.

  • "Innovations need to occur at all of these levels," says Gil, citing required advances in configuring and packaging qubits, controlling them, and hardest of all, reducing the error rate.

Read the entire story.

4. Worthy of your time

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

What it would mean to find life on Venus (Miriam Kramer — Axios)

Two major Antarctic glaciers are tearing loose (Chris Mooney — Washington Post)

Fighting fire with fire (Bryan Walsh — Axios)

Reimagining dinosaurs (Michael Greshko — National Geographic)

5. Something wondrous

Photo: Boris Roessler/picture alliance via Getty Images

Honeybees can be trained with a synthetic sunflower scent whose memory then guides them to the plant. A new study found the strategy can give sunflower seed production a bump.

Why it matters: Honeybees and other pollinators are crucial for many crops, but their number and diversity are declining. To support pollination, beehives are moved between farms, but when the bees arrive, there can be a delay before they start pollinating.

  • The "precision pollination strategy" — which reduces that delay — may improve pollination services, one of the study's authors, Walter Farina of the Universidad de Buenos Aires, said in a press release.

What they did: Farina and his colleagues synthesized an odor with three of the 200 compounds found in the fragrance of sunflowers.

  • When the odor was added to a sugar solution and fed to the beehives, they found the bees later recruited their mates to the sunflowers with their signature waggle dance.
  • And, the time before the bees started the waggle dance that advertises the sunflowers, was reduced.
  • With the training, the number of bees visiting and foraging on the crops increased, and seed production from the sunflowers jumped by 29% to 57%, the authors report today in the journal Current Biology.

By providing bees the scent in advance of arriving at a new farm, the researchers think they can reduce "the delay of the foraging onset. ... Such outcomes may have a significant impact, especially for crops that are in bloom only for a few days," they write.

What's next: The researchers plan to look at whether they can create odors that mimic the fragrance of other crops — apples and pears, for example — to boost crop production.