No, COVID-19 vaccines won’t make you infertile

The World Health Organization has warned that the globe is dealing with two pandemics. One is the spread of the coronavirus, but the other, equally dangerous, is the spread of misinformation and disinformation. False or misleading information has sprung up about the virus, treatments, vaccines, masks and just about every other aspect of the pandemic (SN: 5/6/21).

Some of these lies or half-truths are purposefully used by a few people to help sell vitamin supplements, books, and DVDs, or to boost their own influence. But the vast majority of people may have heard misinformation from a friend or relative, seen it on social media or heard it repeated by celebrities or politicians. In a survey of adults in the United States conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 8 in 10 people believe or aren’t sure about the truthfulness of at least one common falsehood about the pandemic. About 46 percent of people believe or are unsure about one to three falsehoods related to the pandemic, and 32 percent believe or are uncertain whether four or more erroneous statements are true or false. Only 22 percent of adults in the survey didn’t believe any of the false statements.
One particularly pernicious rumor is that coronavirus vaccines cause infertility. In the survey, 8 percent of people said they believe that false statement. Another 23 percent of people surveyed weren’t sure whether studies had shown a link between the vaccines and infertility. And it doesn’t help people tell truth from fiction when celebrities spread incorrect information. Recently, the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he lied about being vaccinated because of concerns that the COVID-19 vaccine may cause infertility, as People magazine reports. That follows rapper Nicki Minaj’s tweeting that her cousin’s friend in Trinidad had suffered swollen testicles after getting the vaccine. That claim was disputed by the health minister of Trinidad and Tobago, according to CNN.

It’s not just athletes and celebrities spreading false rumors about COVID-19 vaccines and infertility, however. That misinformation is everywhere. In Kibera, an informal settlement in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, community health volunteers hear two main concerns about getting the vaccine: “Can I have children after this?” and “Can I have the vaccine if I have diabetes or cancer [or other health problems]?” There’s a split between who is asking those questions, says Eddah Ogogo, the primary healthcare program coordinator for the international nonprofit organization CFK Africa that is helping coordinate vaccine distribution. “The younger population [is] scared about infertility. The older population is scared about comorbidities,” she says.

The easier conversation to have is reassuring people that the vaccine won’t interfere with their medications and may help those with health problems avoid the most serious complications of COVID-19. But, says Ogogo, “when it comes to fertility, there are those who get convinced. They say, ‘Wow! That’s good to know’,” and they get their shot. And then, “there are those who say, ‘I’ll keep asking around and when I get the information I want I will come [get vaccinated].’” Just under 7 percent of adults in Kenya are fully vaccinated, mostly due to lack of access to vaccines, but misinformation plays a role too, Ogogo says (SN: 2/26/21).
Local and global news outlets alike often make the disclaimer that there is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility. But that lackluster response leaves the door open for misinterpretation or rumors of a cover-up. In fact, there is evidence that the vaccines do not cause infertility. One study found that there was no difference in pregnancy rates after embryo transfers in women who had antibodies against the coronavirus from vaccination or infection compared with women who had no antibodies, researchers reported in Fertility and Sterility Reports in September. In clinical trials testing the vaccines, accidental pregnancies happened in both the vaccine group and the unvaccinated control group at similar rates, data posted in the April Nature Reviews Immunology show. Miscarriage rates were also similar, researchers reported in a Lancet study published October 21 look at pregnancies in the AstraZeneca vaccine trial.

Real-world data from Israel of more than 15,000 pregnant women also shows the benefits of the vaccine. About half of the pregnant people were vaccinated with the vaccine from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. Only about 2 percent got infected with the coronavirus — mostly between their first and second shots. But among unvaccinated women, the infection rate continued to climb, reaching about 4 percent by the end of the study, suggesting that vaccination can prevent infection during pregnancy, researchers reported in July in JAMA.

That’s good news because pregnant women who get COVID-19 are more likely to deliver their babies prematurely and may be admitted to the intensive care unit or die at a higher rate than uninfected women, a study of studies published last year in the British Medical Journal found. And men who get COVID-19 may have lower levels of testosterone and low sperm counts after infection, and may be more likely to have erectile dysfunction, three studies show. It’s not clear whether any of those problems continue long-term.

But those are consequences of COVID-19, not the vaccines. The Pfizer mRNA vaccine did not harm sperm production, researchers reported in June in JAMA, adding to the mounting evidence that vaccines are safe. That fact may eventually percolate down to people who are scared that getting the vaccine will damage their fertility.

In its latest report on managing “the infodemic” — the deluge of information about COVID-19, both true and false, that people encounter every day — the WHO laid out both short- and long-term strategies for making people less vulnerable to misinformation. One thing is clear though, the report states. “Both innocent circulation of misinformation and malicious disinformation campaigns have triggered actions across the globe that put [people] at a higher risk of spreading the coronavirus and making them more liable to harming their health.”

The U.S. Surgeon General’s office put together a handy checklist to help people vet the information they’re seeing or hearing. The checklist is part of a toolkit for teaching people how to combat misinformation in their own communities, including talking — preferably in-person rather than online — to friends and family members who may have bought into conspiracy theories. “We need people in communities all across our country to have these conversations,” Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told ABC news. If the Kaiser survey is any indication, there’s no shortage of folks who could benefit from such discussions.

How missing data makes it harder to measure racial bias in policing

From 2012 to 2015, a team of researchers collected 2.9 million police officer patrol records in Chicago. The team’s analysis of that data, from nearly 7,000 officers, showed that Black police officers were less likely to arrest civilians than white police officers patrolling the same neighborhood (SN: 2/11/21). Officers arrested on average eight people per shift, with Black officers making 24 percent fewer arrests than white officers. But an alternate analysis, one that excluded shifts where no arrests occurred, flipped the results. That made it appear as if Black officers issued 12 percent more arrests than white officers.

Failing to account for events that don’t happen — police allowing a jaywalker to pass, opting not to make an arrest (usually for minor issues like possessing a small amount of drugs) or never firing a drawn gun — is problematic, says policing expert Dean Knox of the University of Pennsylvania. “Instead of drawing the conclusion that minority officers are engaging in less enforcement,” he says of his Chicago study, “you could mistakenly conclude that they are engaging in more enforcement.” The flip occurred because, compared with white officers, Black officers more often went out on patrols without issuing any arrests.

Nonevents of this nature are commonly excluded in policing data. Though a large body of evidence suggests that police in the United States discriminate against Black people, Knox says, many police departments only collect data on a smattering of the interactions between their officers and civilians. Cell phone videos, like those of Eric Garner in a chokehold and George Floyd struggling to breathe, tend to emerge only when encounters have spiraled out of control. That makes it difficult to measure racial bias in policing or come up with targeted solutions to reduce that bias.

How, though, can researchers studying policing account for nonevents? The laborious Chicago data collection by Knox and his team is not always feasible. And even that rigorous study, reported in Science earlier this year, still had gaps: The team had data on when police stopped, arrested or used force on civilians, but not on minor interactions that didn’t meet the department’s recording requirements.

When research teams accept these problematic datasets at face value, writes Knox in a November 4 essay in Science, they often arrive at contradictory conclusions. Disagreements in the literature allow public officials and the media to cherry-pick studies that support their viewpoint, whether arguing for or against implicit bias training to overcome unconscious stereotypes or prioritizing the recruitment of minority officers.
A long chain of events
Knox wrote the essay following the publication of a controversial, and now retracted, study that appeared in 2019 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “White officers are not more likely to shoot minority civilians than non-White officers,” the authors of that study wrote. They concluded that policies aimed at increasing police diversity would do little to stem racial disparities in police killings.

The study gained enormous traction, especially among conservative media outlets and politicians, Knox says. “This was one of the go-to pieces that people use to deny the existence of bias in policing.”

But the authors’ findings were mathematically baseless, says Knox, who along with Jonathan Mummolo, a policing expert at Princeton University, wrote an article debunking the study in Medium. Some 800 academics and researchers signed the piece. The team failed to consider total police encounters and then measure what fraction of those encounters resulted in deadly violence, Knox says.
But that narrow focus on fatal police shootings, a rare occurrence that typically happens at the culmination of a long chain of events, ignores all potential biases earlier in the chain, Knox says. The first potential bias in a chain of events starts with an officer’s decision to approach a civilian or let them pass. Knox acknowledges that a separate layer of research is needed to account for societal level disparities, such as the presence of more officers in Black, often impoverished, neighborhoods and longstanding discriminatory practices that reduce the quality of education and other services in such neighborhoods.

“Even if you can’t see all the things that happened before, just acknowledging they exist is imperative,” Knox says.

Consider this real-life example. On July 10, 2015, Texas state trooper Brian Encinia pulled over Sandra Bland, a Black woman, for failing to signal a lane change. The exchange grew heated and culminated with Encinia arresting Bland for failing to follow orders. Bland’s subsequent death in a county jail caused public outcry.

Focusing solely on Bland’s arrest, and not all that happened before, would provide little information on how Bland wound up in jail for such a minor offense, or how to prevent such an outcome in the future. But because Encinia’s body camera recorded the entire exchange, policing researchers, in this case interested in tone and language, could identify key steps leading up to her arrest. For instance, the researchers reported in Law and Society Review in 2017, Encinia’s language starts off polite but becomes increasingly agitated as Bland refuses to comply with his orders. His once formal commands, such as “step out of the car” become informal and unprofessional: “I’m going to yank you out of here.”

That word “yank” indicates that Encinia is losing control of the situation, says Belén Lowrey-Kinberg, a criminologist at St. Francis College in New York City. Previous research has shown that when officers pivot from formal to informal language, violence can follow.

While this is a case study of a single event, the study provides “a great example of how situations can escalate,” says criminologist Justin Nix of the University of Nebraska Omaha.

Fixing flawed data
Flawed police data does not need to be thrown out, Knox says. His team has developed an algorithm to account for gaps in the data at all points in a police-civilian interaction. The algorithm weights the various possible degrees of discrimination at each point in a chain of events — perhaps race did not factor into Encinia’s decision to pull Bland over because he could not see her face, for example, or maybe race played a large role because most drivers in that area are white. The range of values resulting from the summation of those events suggests the possible amounts of discrimination in any given scenario, Knox says.

The program operates on a very general principle, Knox says. “What are the data that you see?” and “What are the data that you don’t see?”

Thinking about the whole chain of events also points to how to collect better statistics.

Consider a study of police shootings by Nix and policing expert John Shjarback of Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., that appeared November 10 in PLOS One. The researchers were interested in racial disparities in officers’ use of force against Black and white civilians. National databases include only shootings that result in a civilian’s death. But whether someone lives or dies after being shot hinges on several factors, such as proximity to a trauma center, location of the gunshot wound and access to first aid. So researchers sought to examine all police shootings, including those that resulted in injury but not death. To do so, they relied on records from four states — California, Colorado, Florida and Texas — that have collected this information for years.
The data revealed that some 45 percent of victims suffer nonfatal injuries. Factoring in the relative populations of Black and white civilians showed that for all four states, racial disparities in injuries were higher than racial disparities in fatalities. For example, from 2009 to 2014 in Florida, Black people were roughly three times more likely than whites to be shot and killed by police, but over five times more likely to be injured. Across all four states, and for reasons that are not entirely clear, Black victims are 7 percent less likely to die of their injuries than white victims.

National databases that only include records of civilians who die at the hands of the police underestimate officers’ use of deadly force against Black civilians, Nix says. Death “is the end of a very long sequence of events. In our paper we backed up one link in the chain.” That is, the researchers looked at all instances where officers used deadly force and not just those that resulted in death.

Knox is now working with two police departments to break down police-civilian encounters in more detail. Those departments require officers to turn on their body cameras when they believe an interaction with a civilian will rise to the level of an official interaction. (Officers have discretion at this point in the process, Knox acknowledges, so as with the Chicago study, that first link in the chain remains elusive.) Knox and his team will analyze scripts from each encounter for language and tone, such as normal voice or shouting — a quantitative version of the approach Lowrey-Kinberg used to unpack the encounter between Encinia and Bland. Computer vision techniques will parse out gestures, such as “weapon drawn.” Knox says he hopes the data will help his team get closer to reconstructing entire interactions, including identifying nonevents in any given chain.

“You don’t want just the side of the story as written by an officer,” Knox says. “You want the whole interaction.”

New high-speed video reveals the physics of a finger snap

It all happens in a snap. New high-speed video exposes the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it physics behind snapping your fingers.

The footage reveals the extreme speed at which the gesture occurs, and shows that friction plus the compressibility of the finger pads are key to humans’ ability to snap properly, researchers report November 17 in Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

Finger snaps last only about seven milliseconds — that’s roughly 20 times as fast as the blink of an eye, says biophysicist Saad Bhamla of Georgia Tech in Atlanta. After slipping off the thumb, the middle finger rotates at a rate up to 7.8 degrees per millisecond, nearly what a professional baseball pitcher’s arm can achieve, the team found. And a snapping finger accelerates almost three times as fast as pitchers’ arms.

When covered with high-friction rubber or low-friction lubricant, fingers made snaps that fell flat, the team found, indicating that bare fingers have a level of friction ideal for a speedy snap (SN: 8/1/19). That friction between thumb and middle finger allows energy to be stored before it’s suddenly unleashed. Too little friction means less pent-up energy and a slower snap. But too much friction impedes the finger’s release, also slowing the snap.

Bhamla and colleagues were inspired by a scene in the 2018 movie Avengers: Infinity War. The supervillain Thanos snaps his fingers while wearing a supernatural metal glove, obliterating half of the universe’s life. The team wondered if it would be possible to snap while wearing a rigid glove. Typically, when the fingers press together in a snap, they compress, increasing the contact area and friction between them. So the researchers tested snapping with fingers covered by hard thimbles. Sure enough, the snaps were sluggish.

So Thanos’ snap would have been a dud. No superheroes needed: Physics saves the day.

Earth will warm 2.7 degrees Celsius based on current pledges to cut emissions

This year was supposed to be a turning point in addressing climate change. But the world’s nations are failing to meet the moment, states a new report by the United Nations Environment Programme.

The Emissions Gap Report 2021: The Heat Is On, released October 26, reveals that current pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and rein in global warming still put the world on track to warm by 2.7 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

Aiming for “net-zero emissions” by midcentury — a goal recently announced by China, the United States and other countries, but without clear plans on how to do so — could reduce that warming to 2.2 degrees C. But that still falls short of the mark, U.N. officials stated at a news event for the report’s release.

At a landmark meeting in Paris in 2015, 195 nations pledged to eventually reduce their emissions enough to hold global warming to well below 2 degrees C by 2100 (SN: 12/12/15). Restricting global warming further, to just 1.5 degrees C, would forestall many more devastating consequences of climate change, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, reported in 2018 (SN: 12/17/18). In its latest report, released in August, the IPCC noted that extreme weather events, exacerbated by human-caused climate change, now occur in every part of the planet — and warned that the window to reverse some of these effects is closing (SN: 8/9/21).
Despite these dire warnings, “the parties to the Paris Agreement are utterly failing to keep [its] target in reach,” said U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. “The era of half measures and hollow promises must end.”

The new U.N. report comes at a crucial time, just days before world leaders meet for the 2021 U.N. Climate Change Conference, or COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. The COP26 meeting — postponed from 2020 to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — holds particular significance because it is the first COP meeting since the 2015 agreement in which signatories are expected to significantly ramp up their emissions reductions pledges.

The U.N. Environment Programme has kept annual tabs on the still-yawning gap between existing national pledges to reduce emissions and the Paris Agreement target (SN: 11/26/19). Ahead of the COP26 meeting, 120 countries, responsible for emitting just over half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, announced their new commitments to address climate change by 2030.

The 2021 report finds that new commitments bring the world only slightly closer to where emissions need to be by 2030 to reach warming targets. With the new pledges, total annual emissions in 2030 would be 7.5 percent lower (about 55 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent) than they would have been with pledges as of last year (about 59 gigatons). But to stay on track for 2 degrees C of warming, emissions would have to be about 30 percent lower than the new pledges, or about 39 gigatons each year. To hold warming to 1.5 degrees C requires a roughly 55 percent drop in emissions compared with the latest pledges, to about 25 gigatons a year.

“I’m hoping that the collision of the science and the statistics in the gap analysis, and the voices of the people will promote a greater sense of urgency,” says Gabriel Filippelli, a geochemist at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

On October 26, Filippelli, the editor of the American Geophysical Union journal GeoHealth, and editors in chief of other journals published by the organization coauthored a statement in Geophysical Research Letters. Theyurged world leaders at COP26 to keep the “devastating impacts” of climate change in check by immediately reducing global carbon emissions and shifting to a green economy. “We are scientists, but we also have families and loved ones alongside our fellow citizens on this planet,” the letter states. “The time to bridge the divide between scientist and citizen, head and heart, is now.”

Publishing that plea was a departure for some of the scientists, Filippelli says. “We have been publishing papers for the last 20 to 30 years, documenting the train wreck of climate change,” he says. “As you can imagine, behind the scenes there were some people who were a little uncomfortable because it veered away from the true science. But ultimately, we felt it was more powerful to write a true statement that showed our hearts.”

‘Life as We Made It’ charts the past and future of genetic tinkering

With genetic engineering, humans have recently unleashed a surreal fantasia: pigs that excrete less environment-polluting phosphorus, ducklings hatched from chicken eggs, beagles that glow ruby red under ultraviolet light. Biotechnology poses unprecedented power and potential — but also follows a course thousands of years in the making.

In Life as We Made It, evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro pieces together a palimpsest of human tinkering. From domesticating dogs to hybridizing endangered Florida panthers, people have been bending evolutionary trajectories for millennia. Modern-day technologies capable of swapping, altering and switching genes on and off inspire understandable unease, Shapiro writes. But they also offer opportunities to accelerate adaptation for the better — creating plague-resistant ferrets, for instance, or rendering disease-carrying mosquitoes sterile to reduce their numbers (SN: 5/14/21).

For anyone curious about the past, present and future of human interference in nature, Life as We Made It offers a compelling survey of the possibilities and pitfalls. Shapiro is an engaging, clear-eyed guide, leading readers through the technical tangles and ethical thickets of this not-so-new frontier. Along the way, the book glitters with lively, humorous vignettes from Shapiro’s career in ancient DNA research. Her tales are often rife with awe (and ripe with the stench of thawing mammoths and other Ice Age matter).
The book’s first half punctures the misconception that we “have only just begun to meddle with nature.” Humans have meddled for 50,000 years: hunting, domesticating and conserving. The second half chronicles the advent of recent biotechnologies and their often bumpy rollouts, leading to squeamishness about genetically modified food and a blunder that resulted in accidentally transgenic cattle.

As we teeter on a technological precipice, Shapiro contends we have a choice to make. We can learn to meddle with greater precision, wielding the sharpest tools at our disposal. Or, she writes, “we can reject our new biotechnologies” and continue directing evolutionary fates anyway, “just more slowly and with less success.” Shapiro speculates about what the future may hold if we embrace our role as tinkerers: plastic-gobbling microbes, saber-toothed house cats, agricultural crops optimized for sequestering carbon. Whether these visions will come true is anyone’s guess. But one thing is clear. No matter which route we choose, humans will continue to stir the evolutionary soup. There’s no backing out now.

Ancient human visitors complicate the Falkland Islands wolf’s origin story

The enigmatic, now-extinct Falkland Islands wolf had human visitors on the remote archipelago up to 1,070 years ago. The find suggests that Indigenous people could have originally brought the foxlike creatures, also known as the warrah, to the islands.

Scientists have debated how the islands’ only land mammal journeyed to the region: by a long-ago land bridge or with people. But little evidence of a human presence before Europeans arrived in 1690 had been found. Now, traces of ancient fires and hunting show that Indigenous people arrived on the Falkland Islands centuries prior to Europeans, researchers report October 27 in Science Advances. The Yaghan people — historically fire-wielding seafarers who kept foxes as companions — may have been the visitors.

Abrupt spikes in charcoal levels in sediments offer “telltale signs of human arrival” from 1,070 to 620 years ago on New Island, says Kit Hamley, a paleoecologist and archaeologist at the University of Maine in Orono. Those spikes mirror later traces of Europeans’ fires around 250 years ago.

And massive piles of sea lion and penguin bones imply hunting by humans from 745 to 600 years ago, Hamley says. Before being hunted to extinction by Europeans in 1875, the Falkland Islands wolf (Dusicyon australis) also consumed marine predators such as sea lions and penguins, nitrogen levels in two warrah bones and one tooth show.
The researchers newly dated that tooth and found it to be from 3,860 years ago. That vastly predates the fire-and-bone-pile evidence, leaving a gap “between when the warrah arrives, and when we can definitively say people were there,” Hamley says.

But Indigenous people’s presence up to 1,070 years ago raises new questions about whether the warrah hitchhiked there with earlier human visitors, Hamley says.

Next, Hamley and colleagues plan to partner with the few remaining Yaghan communities in Tierra del Fuego in Argentina to piece together “parts of the story that have been lost or taken away.”

Pig organs for people move closer to reality

Luhan Yang
Biologist
Qihan Biotech

When featured in 2017, Luhan Yang had cofounded and was chief scientific officer of eGenesis, a biotech start-up. She is now cofounder and CEO of Qihan Biotech, based in Hangzhou, China, which aims to develop animal organs that are safe for human transplant and to make cell therapies that can treat conditions such as cancer and autoimmune diseases more widely accessible.

What is some of the most notable progress in your work since 2017?
The concept of xenotransplantation is to use animal organs as an alternative resource for human transplantation, since there is a huge unmet need for organs. There are two fundamental issues to be addressed. One is [that] there are endogenous retroviruses in the pig genome — some virus sequences — and they can jump around within the pig genome. The viruses can also jump from the pig cell to the human cell. So there is a potential cross-species transmission, which is a huge safety and regulatory concern.… The second hurdle of using pig organs for human transplant, as you can imagine, is rejection, and it is tremendous.

Those are the two fundamental problems … and that’s where we think gene editing can come into play. By 2017, our team had knocked out 62 [retrovirus copies]. Since then, there are three notable milestones: First, we have created our Pig 2.0, with 15 modifications for immunology…. Last year in Nature Biomedical Engineering, we showed that those modifications are properly expressed in the pig cell, and the resulting pig is healthy, as well as fertile, and the genetic modification can be passed to the offspring. The second part is we combined the [retrovirus] knockout and the immune rejection–related modification in a single pig. We call it Pig 3.0. So that is a prototype close to clinical trial.

The third part is the most exciting part for us: We need to test the function. [In a recent study published in the American Journal of Transplantation,] we put the pig kidney into a monkey. If it’s a normal pig kidney, it will be rejected in a few minutes. And right now the longest survival of our monkey is about one year.… The monkey experiment demonstrates the possibility of achieving long-term xenotransplantation.

What was it like to move from the lab to leading a company?
Being a leader in biotech is not all business. There are three components that are needed. The first part is to set the vision and strategy of the company. In such an innovative area, I think the scientific knowledge, the breadth of the exposure, I think that’s my strength.… The second part is to recruit, retain and train people. And the last part is some business judgment, like how to do fund-raising, how to organize a project, the accounting. I have to admit, I’m not the expert. But I think at my position, the key is to recruit the best people to do the job.… And I started to embrace that every leader has different strengths and weaknesses.

How has the pandemic influenced your company’s international collaborations?
I was hoping we could have more in-person meetings or travels, but right now, China still has the quarantine policy that makes it super inconvenient for international travel. Hopefully with the vaccine, the world will become what it was.

I feel the world is more divided compared with 10 years before. And I hope at least for medicine, we can see that our enemy is not a different country, but our enemy is cancer, is organ failure, is COVID, that we can keep and strengthen the collaboration across borders.

— Interview by Aina Abell

Breaking the one test for one cancer paradigm

Isaac Kinde
Molecular biologist
Thrive Early Detection

Isaac Kinde, featured in 2015, is developing tests to detect cancer early, when treatment is more likely to be successful. In 2019, PapGene, a small biotech start-up where he was chief scientific officer, was acquired by Thrive, cofounded by Kinde. Just this year, it got the backing of the much larger cancer diagnostics firm Exact Sciences.

Could you tell us about Thrive and what spurred this transition?
Thrive basically acquired the predecessor company [PapGene]…. There was a lot more money, there’s a lot more expertise, but the core mission didn’t change, which is to develop cancer diagnostic products that we think will have an impact on the lives of people with cancer. We have essentially turbocharged and focused our efforts, leading with the most promising product, which is CancerSEEK.

The premise is we can reduce cancer morbidity and mortality through earlier detection. CancerSEEK is a blood test, and it is a multi-cancer test. That contrasts with the current paradigm, which is one test, one cancer.… Right now, all of our efforts are on making it commercially available.

CancerSEEK, which is still in testing, picks up on DNA mutations and proteins associated with cancer. How many cancers can it detect at this time?
There’s good evidence for detecting over 60 to 70 percent of the cancers that cause the most deaths per year. That boils down to … colon, breast, lung…. But the [full] range is bigger than those three. There’s esophageal, gastric, kidney, pancreatic. There’s data that support maybe 12 to 13 different cancers.

You published what you’ve referred to as a “landmark study” in Science last year. What did it find?
We call it a landmark study because it was the first demonstration in a prospective setting of how a multicancer blood test could be used in real time to report results to patients with cancer.

We looked at 10,000 women in the Geisinger Health system. It’s primarily women who are in Pennsylvania…. In the study, 24 [women had cancers] detected with standard-of-care screening: colonoscopy, mammography or low-dose CT scan for lung. Then there were 26 cancers in which the CancerSEEK test detected the cancer first…. Sixty-five percent of the cancers we detected were at a stage prior to stage 4. So [the addition of CancerSEEK] doubled the number of cases that were [found before symptoms were reported] — in many, many cases early enough where some effective therapies could be implemented.

And then it was also safe…. There were very few false positives, and we could very quickly resolve the false positives with whole-body PET-CT imaging. At least two patients [who first had detections from CancerSEEK] had their cancers successfully removed and are thriving as of the last time we checked.

Routine cancer screenings fell during the pandemic. Has this affected your work?
It fans the flame, right? The reason why cancer screening went down is not because there was less cancer. It was [just] more difficult for whatever reason to get the appropriate standard-of-care test.… All this did was just strengthen the case that more tools, easier tools are needed for cancer screening. And I think maybe the other feeling is just wishing we could go even faster, but balancing a commercial launch with having all the right pieces in place that will set us up for success.

— Interview by Ashley Braun

How social stressors mark our genes

Jenny Tung
Evolutionary anthropologist
Duke University

Jenny Tung, featured in 2018, studies how social environments — including social status, relationships and isolation — influence primates’ genes and health. Her study subjects have included captive rhesus macaques and wild baboons.

What has been the most notable progress in your work since 2018?
We have built layers of complexity onto [our] initial story. A few years ago we were showing that it’s possible for social interactions to have profound effects on the function of our genome. And now we’re trying to derive a much better understanding of how and why and when, and what are the exceptions.

The other thing I’m really excited about is our ability to move away from this very powerful but very artificial system using captive primates and to ask about what’s going on in the field with wild monkeys. I’ve studied wild baboons in Kenya for many, many years. We know a lot about the social environments, the social experiences. And now with the ability to collect some simple blood samples, we’re also seeing strong signatures of things like social status and social integration, social bonds, social connectedness in the function of these animals’ genomes. That’s pretty exciting because lab studies are powerful and wonderful, but there’s always this question of, “Well, is this real in the real world?”

You were named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019. What have you been pursuing since?
It was a real honor. It has encouraged us to continue down some of these paths … and to also do some more comparative work and think about species beyond the ones that I have traditionally studied. So in the past few years, I’ve picked up work in other social mammals — wild meerkats and these very social rodents called mole rats — that have their own advantages in giving us insight into how our social world has shaped both how we came to be, our evolutionary past, and how we do day to day in our present.

I’ve been doing more work on something that’s an old love of mine: trying to understand the evolutionary consequences of intermixing between different primates. The population of baboons that I study in Kenya actually sits right at the edge of where the ranges of two different species of baboons meet. And so this population is intermixed between one species, the Anubis baboon, and this other species, the yellow baboon.… We think those patterns of intermixture influence some things about what [the animals] look like, how they behave and so on.…

We know that [humans] have also intermixed a lot with some groups that don’t even exist today, like Neandertals and Denisovans. That process of admixture that we observe right now in living primates [is] potentially relevant to understanding our species’s history.

What are some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced since 2018?
In many ways, I felt very fortunate during the pandemic; as an academic with tenure, I have a secure job. But we were also home with a 3-year-old for a long stretch. I spend usually at least a month a year in Kenya, and I have since 2006. But not in 2020. We had to figure out some way of keeping [the research] continuous without any ability to travel there. We have a permanent staff in Kenya — they are Kenyan — who are very important to us and have been working with our project in some cases for many decades, and they were having their own issues, and isolation, and risks in the face of a lot of uncertainty.

I spend a lot of time in my research life thinking about social interactions. And every species that I study … they live in groups. And humans, to a large extent, we live together. We didn’t evolve to be on our own for a long period of time. And so I spent a lot of time reading and thinking and working on, “Why when you don’t have the right sort of social connections, why does your risk of death just shoot up? What’s the consequence of chronic social stress?” One of the things that I really appreciate in a more visceral manner [now] is how important my social network is to me. I think that we’re all looking for ways to connect during the pandemic. And that’s when your personal experience and the things that you’re writing papers about and thinking about really collide.

— Interview by Aina Abell

From fair schools to vaccine distribution

Parag Pathak
Economist
MIT

Parag Pathak, featured in 2019, strives to make public education more equitable. He has used data and algorithms to overhaul school choice systems in Boston, New York and other U.S. cities. Now he’s applying his research to the question of how to equitably distribute vaccines and other medical resources.

What’s the most notable progress in your work since 2019?
Since we last talked, I released a paper on the effects of universal preschool. A lot of people are interested right now because [universal preschool, which is open to everyone with no income rule,] is part of the White House’s agenda. Because of the work we had done with Boston with their school choice algorithm over the years, we had some files on school admissions going back to the late 1990s. Boston was a leader nationwide in expanding slots for children in preschool. But, like many cities, there weren’t enough slots for demand, so they had to ration. And that’s where the lotteries come in.

Fast forward to now. We linked these applicant cohorts to standardized test scores and educational outcomes all the way into college. And what we found was pretty exciting: Those who won the [preschool] lottery are more likely to graduate high school, they score higher on SATs and they’re more likely to enroll in college. Boston has continued to refine and try to improve [the lottery system]. It’s a model for other cities that are expanding public preschool.

Are you pursuing any new questions or projects?
COVID-19 was this huge shock. We all were looking around for how we could be useful, using our respective toolboxes. Tayfun Sönmez, M. Utku Ünver and M. Bumin Yenmez, all of Boston College — the four of us — started to study how scarce medical resources are rationed. And it turns out, there are some parallels with the way school seats are rationed.

One of the ideas that we’ve explored is the idea of a reserve system. In cases where people can’t agree on what’s fair, who should get a vaccine first? It’s very similar to who should get into a school. And the way that [schools] have handled that is they set up more elaborate versions of priority systems. With a vaccine reserve system, you basically have a [supply] that’s reserved for cardiac communities, and one that’s reserved for frontline medical personnel, so on and so forth…. States like California and Massachusetts have used some of our ideas [for their reserve systems].

My wife [Ruma Rajbhandari] is a medical doctor, and my sister [Sapana Adhikari] is an emergency room physician. A big part of my interest in medical rationing guidelines was their having to go to the hospital in March 2020 not knowing what the risks were and not having personal protective equipment. That was something that got me really keen on this debate about frontline health care workers, do they get first priority or not?

How has the pandemic shifted how you view your work in the area of education?
I have a kindergartner who was virtual this past year. And he did an amazing job with it. I think what the pandemic has done is rip the Band-Aid off on these lingering problems in society — inequitable access to health care, inequitable access to education, inefficiencies in both of the systems — and has made them much more pronounced. That’s been the theme of our research throughout. We hope more people take these issues on, because the way COVID-19 played out was really a scarring event in terms of haves and the have-nots.

— Interview by Cassie Martin