Jun 11, 2020

Axios Science

By Alison Snyder
Alison Snyder

Thanks for reading Axios Science. This week we look at the link between COVID-19 and inflammation, trust in science and more.

Today's newsletter is 1,392 words, a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Searching for coronavirus clues in single cells

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Severe cases of COVID-19 are increasingly being tied to inflammation, a complex immune process researchers are trying to decipher by studying the cells involved.

Why it matters: Pinpointing the cells in the body's immune response would help speed the development of treatments and vaccines. It also offers insights into inflammation, which underlies diseases ranging from cancer to arthritis to heart disease.

How it works: Different molecules (cytokines and antibodies, for example) and cells (white blood cells, T cells, macrophages and others) in different pathways control the inflammation response that kicks in when the body is injured or infected.

  • But inflammation can also persist due to disease and turn the body's immune system against itself, as in the case of autoimmune conditions like lupus and diabetes, causing damage.

"Inflammation is a double-edged sword," says Yuan Tian, a computational immunologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

  • "It's important to study both sides — what cells are good, what cells are bad — and to go as deep as possible to find the [cell] populations that are really causing a disease and providing protection," he says. "Single-cell technologies are well-suited for this task."

With COVID-19, the immune system seems to go awry in some patients who experience an immune storm that initially fights the virus before turning on the patient's own body.

  • Diabetes, a condition characterized by inflammation, is emerging as a risk factor for severe disease.
  • And COVID-19 is linked to a rare but severe condition in children called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in which the heart, lungs and other organs become inflamed.

What's happening: Single-cell science tools that have been developed over the last few years can measure the proteins from a cell, its DNA and RNA, whether genes are being expressed, and a cell's location and relationship to other cells.

  • Now those tools are being used to try to understand how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, affects the body's immune system.
  • Researchers have found cell types in the lungs, nasal passages and intestines that express the receptors for two proteins (ACE2 and TMPRSS2) that help SARS-CoV-2 invade cells. (ACE2 plays a key role in regulating inflammation.)
  • The technologies have also been used to identify a type of macrophage that might be the culprit behind inflammation in patients with severe cases of COVID-19.

One of the biggest questions about COVID-19 is why it seems to spare some (typically the young), but ravage others (mostly the elderly and those with preexisting health conditions). There are hints that this, too, comes back to inflammation.

  • José Ordovas-Montañes of Boston Children's Hospital and his colleague Alex Shalek of MIT and the Broad Institute are using single-cell tools to study that question. They're planning to look at cells directly infected with the virus and those that are bystanders of the infection in the nasal tissue of children with the disease, and compare the immune response to that in older adults with more severe outcomes of the disease.
  • Vineet Menachery, an immunologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and his colleagues are studying cells from mice infected with coronaviruses to determine how the genome is regulating itself (what are known as epigenetic change) and whether that shifts with age in a way that affects the inflammation response.

The big picture: Pinpointing which cells cause inflammation and piecing it together with how genetics and epigenetics affect the immune process could eventually help to tailor treatments — for COVID-19, bacterial infections and other diseases.

Go deeper

2. Concerns grow over damage to trust in science

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A recent spate of problems with some coronavirus studies combined with top-level miscommunication about the virus is raising concern that people's trust in scientific data and scientists may falter, writes Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly.

What's happening: Researchers retracted two recent studies about the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine in treating COVID-19, the World Health Organization has had a pattern of mistakes and miscommunication, and there's a lack of a strong scientific voice from the federal government.

1. The dangers of speed. A majority of registered clinical trials for COVID-19 treatments from early to late March had "many, many shortcomings" of various degrees of seriousness, says Caleb Alexander, co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness.

  • In a study of 201 COVID-19 related clinical trials from that period, one-third lacked the endpoints needed to define success/failure, one-half enrolled fewer than 100 patients, and two-thirds could be subject to bias as the patients and doctors knew who was receiving which therapy.
  • "The reason they are cutting corners is that they have to, or they wouldn't get the studies done" fast enough, says Alexander, a co-author of the study.
  • Yes, but: There are now more than 2,000 trials and some are "quite elegant and nuanced and there are many trials that are adaptive ... where the trial itself changes iteratively based on the scientific information that's learned," he added.

2. Recent events like the two studies that had to be retracted due to questionable patient data "could potentially erode the trust that we have in science in general," Dominique Brossard, professor and chair of the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW Madison, tells Axios.

3. Mixed messages from government and public health officials are eroding trust in science and scientists, several experts said.

  • For example, recent actions taken by the WHO are also causing confusion, Brossard adds. The WHO waffled on whether or not to include hydroxychloroquine in its studies, changed its mind on masks and then miscommunicated the role of asymptomatic people in the pandemic.

Go deeper

3. Scientists pause to study their own racial inequities

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Scientists, students, professors and researchers paused their work Wednesday to highlight the racism faced by black people in academia, Axios' Miriam Kramer reports.

The big picture: Discrimination, racism and a lack of diversity within STEM fields have been documented for years. There has been some progress, but it remains a problem: 76% of college faculty members were white in 2017.

What's happening: The strike, galvanized by the death of George Floyd and others at the hands of police, is resurfacing barriers that have kept black people underrepresented within science for decades.

"Demands for justice have been met with gradualism and tokenism, as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives that — while sometimes well-intentioned — have had little meaningful impact on the lived experiences of black students, staff, researchers, and faculty."
Particles for Justice

Details: Prominent scientific institutions participated in and supported the strike, including the American Astronomical Society, preprint service ArXiv.org, the American Geophysical Union and others.

  • Some researchers are asking university officials to spend time listening to how their students and faculty are affected by racism within academia and focus efforts on breaking down the systemic barriers that perpetuate it within the institution.
  • Organizations have released specific action plans to follow up on the strike. For example, the Ordovas-Montanes lab committed to holding its researchers, students and staff — especially those in leadership roles — "measurably accountable for promoting diversity," as well as other specific actions.
4. Worthy of your time

Scientists caught between pandemic and protests (Bryan Walsh and me — Axios)

  • Our look at the consequences of scientists being seen as changing recommendations based on political and social priorities.

Plastic rain is the new acid rain (Matt Simon — Wired)

  • More than 1,000 metric tons of microplastic particles fall into 11 protected areas in the western U.S. each year — the equivalent of over 120 million plastic water bottles, Simon reports.

A living library filled with killer bacteria (Jennifer Pinkowski —NYT)

  • A fascinating look inside one of the world's largest collections of more than "900 species that can infect, sicken, maim and kill us," she writes.
5. Something wondrous
Credit: Pannequin et al., Sci Robot. 5, eabb2890 (2020)

The elegance and efficiency of flying insects are the envy of roboticists. Researchers have now built a "lab-on-cables" to track the movement of insects flying freely.

Why it matters: Understanding how moths, flies and mosquitoes process sensory information and navigate space could help scientists mimic their flapping in micro-sized robots, researchers at the Université de Lorraine in France write.

How it works: The lab is itself a robot of high-speed cameras mounted on a box frame that moves on cables with the insect as it flies, similar to a SpiderCam in a stadium.

  • The researchers used the setup to track black cutworm moths as they flew up to 3 meters per second, according to the paper published this week in Science Robotics.
  • Using video of the flights, they were able to analyze the kinematics of the moths — including wingbeat frequency, wing-flapping angles, and the angles of the body and wings as they changed with speed of flight.

Problem solved: Studies of insect flight have been limited to their hovering (by setting out an artificial flower with nectar to attract the insect), tethering them, or confining them to a space, all of which could lead to unnatural flight behavior.

Alison Snyder