Tag Archives: Research

We Need Science Funding More Than Road Repairs

As the Biden administration pushes for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill, I dug into some numbers on federal research funding today. Most basic scientific research is funded by the federal government, including the critical advances in mRNA technologies that laid the groundwork for COVID vaccines. But this funding has fallen by more than 1/3 since the 1970’s, measured as a percentage of GDP:

In absolute dollar terms, funding has increased, but far below the rate one would predict given our burgeoning economy. Meanwhile, the infrastructure bill contemplates $110 billion in funding for road repair. This despite the US having some of the best roads in the world (slightly better than those of Switzerland) and among the world’s lowest commute times. Even in the New York area, which many single out for having poor road infrastructure, I see mostly smooth pavement wherever I go.

Science funding will never be as visible as road repair. You don’t see men in orange jackets out there with big trucks. But without basic research, we will find ourselves falling behind competitors like China and left without the tools we need to meet future challenges. What if we had faced the COVID pandemic without the scientific groundwork laid by massive research funding in decades past?

For more on science and policy, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Joe Biden” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The Lost Planet of Vulcan

For nearly two hundred years, Newton’s laws of motion worked pretty well. Then, a French scientist named Urbain Le Verrier came along and messed it all up.

He calculated Mercury’s orbit using Newton’s laws and waited until it orbited the sun again in 1848, awaiting confirmation of his calculations. Mercury didn’t behave as expected. Its orbit was off by a fraction of a degree, enough to perturb exacting astronomers. Le Verrier went in search of what could’ve caused his calculations to go awry, and seized upon a dramatic possibility.

What about an unknown planet? If a small planet existed between the sun and Mercury, it would explain the deviation in his calculations. Le Verrier called the unknown planet Vulcan, and set about trying to find it.

Only Le Verrier never could find it, and neither could the many other astronomers who looked.

The mystery was finally solved decades later by Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. It showed that Newton’s laws were wrong, and the mass of objects warped space in a way that brought objects together, rather than an object itself attracting other objects. It also perfectly explained the shape of Mercury’s orbit without needing to postulate a planet no one could find.

Einstein’s theory remains unchallenged to this day, and even NASA telescopes can’t find Vulcan. It seems to have existed only in our imaginations.

I found out about Vulcan today in an excellent class I’m taking. It’s called Puzzles, Problems and Paradoxes and you can sign up here. It’s online every Wednesday at 11:10am Central through UT-Austin.

For more on science, check out these posts:

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Photo: “False Color View of Mercury” by NASA Goddard Photo and Video is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Amazing Drugs Are Going from the University to the Graveyard, While Patients Pay the Price

Was the cure for cancer invented in a university, only to be shelved for a lack of funding?

University labs are creating incredible drugs on a regular basis. Unfortunately, most will never get to the patients that need them so desperately. This is the conclusion of an intriguing book I just read, Preserving the Promise: Improving the Culture of Biotech Investment, by Scott Desain and Scott Fishman.

The problem is that universities don’t have the massive funds it takes to bring a drug candidate through clinical trials to FDA approval. What about Big Pharma? Well, they’ve been cutting their R&D budgets drastically for years.

This leaves early stage biotech investors to fund much of the commercialization of new drugs, and there simply aren’t enough of them to fund all the good candidates. Indeed, the number of investors specializing in this area is shrinking. This doesn’t surprise me given that most early-stage investors focus on software startups and have a software background themselves.

This does leave the few angel investors who specialize in biotech in an enviable position though: more great companies out there than there are angels to fund them means big slices of great companies for less money, and thus higher returns. This is an area that I may be branching out into in the future. Being even a tiny part of creating a new lifesaving drug or medical device would be incredible.

University policies also hinder the effective commercialization of research, the book notes. Technology Transfer Offices own the patent, but sometimes are hesitant to license it unless they can get lots of revenue for it right away, which is hard for a fledgling company to provide. In other cases, they bury the patent, thinking it unpromising. And university conflict of interest policies can often stop the inventor from continuing to work on the research with company funds. This separates the technology from the person who is best positioned to advance it.

In all, this seems like a neglected area with a lot of problems. That we rely on it for virtually all new drugs is scary. But investors like myself should eye the area with interest, especially given rich valuations in software startups.

For more posts on biotech, check these out:

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Photo: The co-founders of BioNTech, a biotech success story. “Forschungszentrum der Biotech-Unternehmen BioNTech AG und Ganymed Pharmaceuticals AG” by MWKEL-RLP is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

What if Your Mask Could Test You for COVID?

Harvard researchers have invented a mask that can test the wearer for COVID:

Researchers at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have figured out how to integrate a freeze-dried diagnostic Covid-19 test into a face mask. The test reacts with exhaled particles and gives a diagnosis in 90 minutes or less.

The tests and a tiny blister pack of water can be mounted on any mask. After the mask has been worn for at least 30 minutes, a person punctures the blister pack to release the water needed to rehydrate and run the reactions. The test result is indicated by one or two lines, similar to a pregnancy test

The masks will be affordable and could be useful for a lot more than COVID:

The Wyss team…expects the product to cost about $5. The technology can be targeted to identify other viruses and variants as well.

Any such masks would be subject to FDA approval. Another team at University of California, San Diego is working on a sticker that could be stuck to any mask to test the wearer. Those stickers could cost mere cents.

Incredible ingenuity!

For more on COVID, check out these posts:

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Photo: “Fit testing the N95 Mask” by AlamosaCountyPublicHealth is licensed under CC BY 2.0

For the Vaccinated, Masks May Be Over

If you’ve been vaccinated for COVID, can you finally take off the mask? Early data from Israel says yes:

Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE said on Wednesday that real-world data from Israel suggests that their COVID-19 vaccine is 94% effective in preventing asymptomatic infections, meaning the vaccine could significantly reduce transmission.

If you don’t even have an asymptomatic infection, you shouldn’t be able to transmit the disease to others. That said, this data is preliminary and is not yet peer reviewed.

The problem with real world application of this knowledge is that anyone can say they’re vaccinated. At a grocery store, for example, it would be hard to check everyone given constraints on time and manpower. So, I expect to see masks continue in public places until case rates are very low and everyone who wants a vaccine has had a chance.

That said, this data can inform our actions in private settings. I look forward to being able to wear one less frequently!

For more posts on COVID, check these out:

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Photo:

Has Merck Found the Cure for COVID?

Merck has come out with great results from a new drug for COVID:

Over the weekend, the Big Pharma and its biotech partner Ridgeback announced their drug, molnupiravir, hit one of its secondary objectives from a new trial, namely to reduce time to negativity of infectious SARS-CoV-2 virus isolation from swabs in patients with symptomatic COVID-19.

The data show that, at Day 5, there was a reduction in positive viral culture in subjects who received molnupiravir (all doses) compared to placebo: 0% (0/47) for molnupiravir and 24% (6/25) for placebo.

These findings are preliminary, and more data will come out soon:

This is just a peek, with primary endpoints and more secondaries “to be presented at an upcoming medical meeting,” which will show a much clearer picture of how well this drug may be working.

We should know a lot more within the next few weeks:

Data from the phase 2/3 pivotal studies of the med are expected this quarter.

This drug could be great for people who are hesitant to get a vaccine, who haven’t been able to get one yet, or for whom the vaccine did not prevent infection (rare but possible). Good news!

For more on COVID drugs and vaccines, check out these posts:

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Photo: Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, “File:Kenneth C. Frazier.jpg” by Merck (www. Merck.com) is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Why Someone Dying After Getting Vaccinated Doesn’t Mean Anything

We keep hearing scary stories about people getting sick or dying shortly after getting a COVID vaccine. But we shouldn’t confuse correlation with causation. From the mathematician Gary Cornell’s excellent blog:

For example, within one week after vaccinating 10,000,000 people, you will likely have around 98 people keel over and die for no apparent reason and if all of them were pregnant women, almost 27,800 miscarriages.

In this post, he has a table with the expected rate of many diseases we often hear are associated with vaccines, such as Guillain-Barre syndrome. It turns out, a substantial number of people are going to get those illnesses anyway, with or without a vaccine.

My wife made an excellent analogy on this subject recently. “Someone might have drank tea and had a stroke in the same day. But it probably wasn’t the tea.”

Same idea here. And with the US having given out over 90 million shots, mostly to the elderly and frail, the fact is some people are going to die shortly thereafter. But it doesn’t say anything about the vaccine.

The clinical trials carefully compared the vaccinated and unvaccinated groups in the trial and found no higher rate of complications amongst the vaccinated. And that’s the data to act on.

Photo: Me getting the Moderna vaccine on February 22. I am alive and well as of this writing.

For more on COVID and vaccines, check out these posts:

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The Miracle Particles Behind COVID Vaccines

The particles that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines rely on are 1/1000th the width of a human hair. They’re called lipid nanoparticles, and they’re revolutionizing medicine as we speak.

The Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines work by sending mRNA to your cells. The mRNA tells the cells how to make proteins that block the virus. But you can’t send the mRNA on its own, because it would be repelled and flushed out through the kidneys.

The mRNA needs a wrapper, and that’s where the lipid nanoparticle comes in. The mRNA molecules are negatively charged and so are our cells. These two negatives push each other away. But, the nanoparticle can make it inside the cell.

Once inside the cell, the particle faces another barrier. The cell wraps it in a container called an endosome, because the cell doesn’t want to be contaminated. So, the lipid nanoparticle has to be specially designed to escape that endosomal prison.

Decades of research has gone into these particles, and they can now escape and spread the necessary information into the watery substance inside the cell (called the cytoplasm). Our commitment to funding basic science decades ago is paying off today in ways we could never have anticipated.

I learned a great deal about these incredible particles today at an online seminar hosted by the journal Nature with Kathryn Whitehead of Carnegie Mellon University and Yizhou Dong of Ohio State University. They gave some great perspective on the development of this amazing technology.

One thing Professor Whitehead mentioned was that despite concerns that the mRNA vaccines are too new and unproven to be safe, the lipid nanoparticles they use have existed for decades. In fact, she said she’s had research rejected for publication because these particles are considered too old hat!

I also finally learned why the vaccines have to be stored at such cold temperatures: molecules will start moving around too much once the temperature rises, so the lipid nanoparticles could come apart. Perhaps one reason Moderna’s vaccine doesn’t need quite as cold of storage is that they’ve been researching these particles for much longer than Pfizer/BioNTech, so their particles may be a bit more stable.

Beyond COVID, lipid nanoparticles and the mRNA therapies they’re a part of could be used for other viruses like the flu, Zika and Ebola. They may also be used as cancer immunotherapies. (This echoes what the co-founders of BioNTech said recently.)

These particles seem likely to underlie an entire new generation of medicines. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them, microscopic as they are!

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Photo: “2020_06_020100 – a human cell attacked by Covid-19” by Gwydion M. Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Killer Kittens Can Be Placated With Meat and Playtime, New Study Finds

It would be wise not to anger him.

Cats kill billions of animals yearly, but feeding them a meaty diet and providing lots of playtime can redirect them to less violent pursuits, a new study finds.

The mother of one cat in the study had seen her furry friend wreak havoc:

“We’ve had birds in the bedroom, rats in the paper bin, rabbits in the utility room, and several vermin that have died of fright,” says her owner, Lisa George from Cornwall, U.K.

But redirecting their prey drive to play, plus keeping them sated with meat, greatly reduced the body count:

the high-meat diet and playtime approaches had the most sweeping impacts, slashing all types of animals on the doorstep by 36% and 25%, respectively.

See the full study out today in Current Biology here.

A surprisingly large number of species have a prey drive. Our gerbil stalked, attacked and ate caterpillars, leaving only the legs. He also ripped the head off a cockroach and wisely left the remains for my wife to clean up rather than eating them.

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Photo: “killer kitty” by Ayeshah Ijaz is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Did You Know Dragonflies Can Do Backflips?

I came across this interesting new study today showing dragonflies can do backflips, even unconscious!

They found that conscious dragonflies, when dropped from the upside-down position, somersaulted backwards to regain the rightside-up position. Dragonflies that were unconscious also completed the somersault, but more slowly.

Check out the video below!

I happened to be watching a wonderful David Attenborough documentary on insects, including dragonflies, last night with my wife, so this interesting tidbit caught my eye! Nature continues to amaze me, day after day.

See the full study here.

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Photo: “White-faced meadowhawk dragonfly” by Tibor Nagy is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0