Tag Archives: Science

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 That said, this data is preliminary and is not yet peer reviewed.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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How I Fall Asleep Instantly, Night After Night

I was chatting with some friends during the UFC fight on Saturday, and they both mentioned the same problem. Neither could fall asleep for at least an hour, night after night.

Many people I meet seem to have the same issue. They lay down, ready to get a good night’s rest, and wind up tossing and turning endlessly. Entirely too soon, the alarm clock sounds and they’ve lost out on precious time to restore themselves.

This stands out to me because I fall asleep instantly, night after night. Why do I seem to be (almost) immune to this common problem?

It’s because of the system I have around me that promotes sleep. I’m going to break that system down right now, so you can get the same benefits of health and relaxation that I do:

  1. Avoid screens for 30-60 minutes before bed time. The glowing, the clicking, the distraction, the endless stream of largely pointless information…none of this is conducive to winding down for the day. Instead, I like to read a physical book or magazine or chat with my wife. Although occasionally, I find a BBC nature documentary by David Attenborough lulls me right to sleep.
  2. Lower the lights. About 30-60 minutes before bed time, I dim the lights, generally to the lowest setting. This helps the wind down process. That gradual winding down gets me in the mood to sleep.
  3. No screens in the bedroom. Ever. Extra points if you turn your phone completley off a solid 30-60 minutes before bed. It’s so freeing!
  4. Sleep mask. A recent addition to my routine that has cut my middle of the night tossing and turning to almost 0. I didn’t think light affected my sleep much, but turns out it did!
  5. Humidity. In this drier part of the year, dry nasal passages tended to make it harder for me to breathe. Then, I’d wake up. When I got a humidifier, the problem was solved. And sure enough, if I forget to turn it on before bed, my labored breathing comes back!
  6. Physical exhaustion. I work out 5 times a week and also walk 4-8 miles in a typical day. This means that when I lay down, I’m exhausted and grateful to be off my feet! That goes a very long way to helping me sleep. It’s hard to sleep if you’re not really tired.
  7. Meditation/journaling. I usually do these in the morning, not the evening. But, they could easily be used at night if you’re struggling to relax. If thoughts are keeping you awake, you can get up and write them down. Then, they’re preserved and you can pick them all up tomorrow! But more likely you’ll never look at it again. 🙂
  8. Temperature. 60’s is generally best. But, my wife would turn blue if I kept the bedroom that cold. So, I’ll often sleep with just a sheet, even in the New Jersey winter. I find I fall asleep more easily and stay asleep longer.
  9. Bed. Not as important as you might think. But, I’ve taken no chances here either. I bought a Tempurpedic memory foam mattress 11 years ago and it’s still as good as the day I bought it. It wasn’t cheap: $1700. But there are memory foam mattress toppers you can get for far less. I’ve gotten great sleep in much less expensive beds, and as long as you’re comfortable, so can you!
  10. Shower before bedtime. The gradual lowering of your body temperature after you come out of a hot shower promotes sleep. If you want to take another in the morning, you always can and I sometimes do.
  11. Remove stress from your life. Easier said than done, I know! But you can gradually work toward a lower stress existence. I often found my work in tech stressful, so over a period of years I transitioned to running my own investment business instead. And I’m sleeping better than ever.

A lot of this system came out of the superb book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker, PhD. He directs a sleep lab at the University of California-Berkeley and knows as much as anyone about the subject. He helped me enormously. If you want to understand sleep and improve your sleep, get this highly readable volume ASAP.

What I Don’t Do

Ambien. Dangerous and doesn’t provide real sleep. Unconsciousness and sleep aren’t the same thing.

What About Melatonin?

Not helpful for sleep unless you’re jet lagged according to the Walker book, but if you feel like it’s helping you, go for it! I do actually take 5 mg a day at around 8:30 pm generally, but I made that decision based on its possible ability to prevent COVID rather than sleep benefits.

And finally, when you get to lay down after a long day, enjoy it! Avoid anxiety over whether you’ll fall asleep.

Walker recommends an 8 hour “sleep opportunity.” I love that phrase because it focuses on what you can control (laying down), rather than what you cannot (falling asleep). If you’re there ready to rest, you’re doing what you can do.

Don’t worry too much if you can’t fall asleep sometimes, because that’s normal. Just keep giving yourself that opportunity to rest!

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Photo: “Baby sleeping POV” by robscomputer is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Man Who Wrote the Book on CRISPR and What He Taught Me

Kevin Davies literally wrote the book on CRISPR, the revolutionary new gene editing technology that earned Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier a Nobel Prize a few months ago. Today, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a talk he gave on that superb book, Editing Humanity.

If you’re not familiar, CRISPR is a technology based on the immune systems of bacteria. Bacteria find a particular genetic sequence they recognize from past infections and cut the genes in order to protect themselves. Scientists have harnessed this primordial system to cut and splice genes.

In today’s talk, Davies highlighted how accessible this revolutionary new technology really is. The equipment is not expensive and many labs could potentially use it. This presents great opportunities but also very real risks of misapplication.

CRISPR has been used successfully to treat sickle cell anemia in early trials. Davies noted that it has also been used to treat progeria in mice, which might some day bring an end to this deadly disease that ages children before their time.

I even got the opportunity to ask Davies a question, and inquired which other applications of CRISPR excite him most. He mentioned possible applications for cystic fibrosis and cancer therapy. He also said that as a graduate student in genetics, the idea of precisely editing genes seemed like science fiction, but today is a reality. It amazed me to think of how much the field has evolved.

Another interesting tidbit from the talk: due to COVID, Doudna accepted her Nobel Prize in the backyard of her home in Berkeley! I found that image to be quite a beautiful one.

One great silver lining of COVID has been how much easier it’s become to attend talks like this! In the past, one might have had to be in Cambridge, MA to attend, but now it’s open to everyone. I hope we continue to offer a remote option for these discussions even once in person events are possible again.

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Photo: “File:Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna.jpg” by For Emmanuelle Charpentier portrait, credit Bianca Fioretti of Hallbauer & Fioretti. For Jennifer Doudna portrait, credit User:Duncan.Hull and The Royal Society. is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

What is Quercetin and Can It Protect You Against COVID?

At first, I couldn’t even spell it! I first heard about quercetin in this interview with Dr. Mark Gordon, and was intrigued that an over-the-counter supplement might help protect against COVID and even colds and flus. But I was a little skeptical, so I decided to do some digging.

I found this widely cited study which concluded that although we can’t say to a certainty that quercetin can protect us from COVID, there is some good evidence for it, especially if taken with vitamin C. What’s more, the risks seem quite low:

Quercetin displays a broad range of antiviral properties which can interfere at multiple steps of pathogen virulence -virus entry, virus replication, protein assembly- and that these therapeutic effects can be augmented by the co-administration of vitamin C. Furthermore, due to their lack of severe side effects and low-costs, we strongly suggest the combined administration of these two compounds for both the prophylaxis and the early treatment of respiratory tract infections, especially including COVID-19 patients.

The study authors are careful to note that this is an “experimental strategy,” and I found another study that questioned whether using quercetin to protect against COVID is well-founded.

That said, given the reasonable cost, low risk, and emerging evidence of efficacy, I decided to order some here. I’ll take it in conjunction with the vitamin C and vitamin D I already take and hope for the best!

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Is There Real Science Behind Taking Vitamin D to Prevent COVID?

Many of us have heard that vitamin D might protect us from COVID, but is there real science behind these claims? Yesterday, I received a very thoughtful message from Dr. Peter Attia on the subject. Dr. Attia cites a randomized controlled trial from Spain that found the following:

patients not treated with vitamin D had 33.3 times the risk of ICU admission compared to patients treated with vitamin D

Vitamin D seems to help with disease severity even if it doesn’t prevent you from catching COVID in the first place. Dr. Attia also provides some good perspective on dosing.

there is virtually no risk to supplementing, say, 5,000 IU/day

I had heard that too much vitamin D could cause kidney stones, but Dr. Attia put those concerns to rest as well:

Too much vitamin D results in hypercalcemia, most commonly due to an overproduction of calcium that can result in kidney stones. However, vitamin D toxicity is not easy to come by: a review article noted that all published cases involved an intake of at least 40,000 IU/day. Even though the Food and Nutrition Board established a conservative dose threshold of 2,000 IU/day, some studies suggest that doses of up to 10,000 IU/day is safe for most adults.

I’ve taken 5,000 IU of Vitamin D for nearly 3 years with no ill effects that I can discern. I based that decision on information from this book that it may boost testosterone levels. I was also informed by this book, which noted that those who live in the north struggle to get sufficient vitamin D in the winter, regardless of the amount of sun exposure. The next step I need to take is to get blood levels of vitamin D taken to confirm the supplementation is getting me into the healthy range.

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A COVID Vaccine is Being Manufactured in Baltimore Now. But the Government Won’t Let You Have It.

The AstraZeneca COVID vaccine is being manufactured today at a plant in Baltimore. This vaccine has been show to be between 62% and 90% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID.

But despite those excellent results in trials in the UK, Brazil, India and South Africa, the US government plans to wait until an American trial is finished in April. This as 4,000 of our fellow citizens die daily.

We should do what the UK and other nations have done, rely on the data we have, and get this vaccine approved immediately. I propose we follow the counsel of economist Alex Tabarrok:

“The AZ vaccine should be given an EUA immediately and made available in pharmacies for anyone who wants it while continuing to prioritize Moderna and Pfizer for the elderly and essential workers.”

Alex Tabarrok, Marginal Revolution

I just wrote my Congressman and Senators to urge them to push for immediate FDA approval of this life saving medication, and I humbly request you do the same! Frankly, I am very frustrated with this situation. Maybe you are too!

If you like, you can use the text I used, below. You can find your Congressman’s contact info here and your Senator’s contact info here.

Dear X,

The AstraZeneca COVID vaccine is approved in the UK and other countries and has shown efficacy of 62-90%. With over 4,000 of our fellow Americans dying daily, I urge you in the strongest possible terms to push the FDA to authorize this lifesaving medication immediately.

Thank you for all the good work you do!

Sincerely,

X

I Just Went to a Lecture at the World’s Premier Genomics Institute. Here’s What I Learned.

This little guy has superpowers.

I just attended a fascinating talk from the Broad Institute at MIT on how the genomes of other species relate to our DNA as humans. Drs. Elinor Karlsson and Diane Genereux of the Broad Institute are intensively studying other mammals, working to uncover the genetic basis of their superpowers.

For example, the thirteen lined ground squirrel can hibernate, the teeth of the North American beaver include iron and are thus nearly indestructible, and the Jamaican fruit bat can eat all the sweets it wants without diabetes. What if we humans could do those things?

Any such applications are a long ways away, if ever, but learning about these incredible animals was definitely interesting.

Karlsson and her colleagues have sequenced the genomes of 240 species. Some spots on those genomes change little if at all, indicating they probably have a crucial function that can’t be changed. Others change faster than the normal rate of mutations, indicating a survival advantage to mutations in that area.

The researchers also noted that in the 100 million years since all mammals shared a common ancestor, every possible genetic mutation has been tried, given the base rate of random mutations. So, if we don’t see a mutation in living mammals, it probably was tried and failed. Dr. Karlsson likened this to nature’s clinical trial, an excellent analogy.

This genomic research is likely to have more and more applications because the cost of sequencing a human genome has dropped from $2.7 billion for the first one to under $1,000 now. The Broad Institute sequences one every 10 minutes.

This is an explosion of data similar to the development of the internet. It took years, but companies like Google came along and harnessed that data, with profound effects on society. I anticipate enormous advances will come from this research in the future.

If you want to watch the lecture in its entirety, it should be up on the Broad’s YouTube channel soon. And to register for future lectures like this, check out the Science for All Seasons website here.

Thanks to Drs. Karlsson and Genereux, moderator Tom Ulrich, and the Broad Institute for this awesome talk!