Wednesday, July 1, 2020

World Zoonoses Day: 'We have to act now to avoid even bigger catastrophes'

"The primary risks for future spillover of zoonotic diseases are deforestation of tropical environments and large-scale industrial farming of animals, specifically pigs and chickens at high density," says Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

On July 6 in 1885, Louis Pasteur successfully administered the first vaccine against rabies, one of the most feared diseases of that time. The bite of an infected animal transmits the rabies virus to humans, leading to an agonizing death without the vaccine.

World Zoonoses Day, held July 6 every year, marks this major breakthrough in the fight against zoonoses — diseases caused by germs that spread between animals and people. And yet, 135 years later, despite tremendous advances in science and medicine, the world is struggling to respond to the novel coronavirus — the latest devastating pathogen to spill over from animals.

“We are at a crisis point,” says Thomas Gillespie, associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Rollins School of Public Health. “We have to act now. We cannot forsake this moment. If we don’t radically change our attitudes toward the natural world, things are going to get much, much worse. Pandemics will become increasingly common. What we are experiencing now will seem mild by comparison.”

Gillespie served as an expert reviewer for a report by the United Nations Environmental Program and partners, “Preventing future zoonotic disease outbreaks: Protecting the environment, animals and people in a post-COVID-19 world,” to be released July 6.

“The primary risks for future spillover of zoonotic diseases are deforestation of tropical environments and large-scale industrial farming of animals, specifically pigs and chickens at high density,” Gillespie says.

A disease ecologist, Gillespie studies how germs jump between wildlife, domesticated animals and people. Through this “One Health” approach, he aims to protect humans, ecosystems and biodiversity.

"We're all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic," Gillespie says. "That's created a sense of urgency that we haven't seen with past discussions of climate change and land-use change."

While vaccine development is important, pathogens can leap from animals to humans much faster than scientists can develop vaccines and treatments. “We also need complementary approaches that focus on the environment,” Gillespie notes. “It’s far cheaper to invest in the prevention of infectious disease outbreaks than to deal with the consequences of a pandemic.”

Gillespie is contributing his “One Health” expertise to an upcoming United Nations forum on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.

“The silos have broken down,” Gillespie says. “There is growing awareness that we don’t need a separate forum on climate change and another one for pandemics. Discussions about the environment and health should be integrated and not considered separately so that we can gain momentum. We really need to be sprinting right now. Climate change and the increase in pandemics are both signals that we have reached a tipping point.”

Genetic sequencing links the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 to horseshoe bats in China. The first detected outbreak sprang from a live animal market in Wuhan. Gillespie points out, however, that the coronavirus may have been circulating in remote, rural areas before it was detected in Wuhan, a city of 10 million where population density fueled rapid transmission.

He notes that no one has studied the ecological impacts of China’s Three Gorges Dam project. The world’s largest hydroelectric power station, it was built on the Yangtze River on what was previously a mix of secondary forest and agricultural land.

“Live animal markets are definitely dangerous places when it comes to spillover events,” Gillespie says, “but shutting all of them down won’t solve the bigger issue. The markets are just a small piece of a much bigger problem.”

Deforestation to make way for palm oil plantations, which changed the roosting habits of bats, was linked to a major Nipah virus outbreak in Malaysia. Evidence suggests that similar deforestation in West Africa for palm oil production may have played a role in outbreaks of Lassa fever and Ebola.

A meta-analysis by Gillespie and colleagues quantified how fragmentation of forests by agriculture facilitates the spread of pathogens from wildlife. Optimal rates of spillover occur once 40 percent of the forest cover disappears. “That opens a window where you’re going to see more germs jumping species,” Gillespie says. “And tropical environments are at primary risk for pathogen spillover due to simple mathematics — there is a much richer diversity of species living in the tropics than in other environments.”

In the developed world, and rapidly developing parts of the world, people are eating more animal protein and fried food than is recommended for human health. To meet the demand, corporations are clearing natural habitats for cattle ranches, for soybean fields to feed the cattle, and oil palm plantations for cooking oil.

Many species are endangered by these actions. Habitat loss, poaching and disease are the primary threats to the remaining great apes, Gillespie says. COVOID-19 poses a particularly dire situation for apes in danger of extinction, he adds, including bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans. Due to genetic similarities, they are highly susceptible to human respiratory diseases. Gillespie serves as an adviser on great apes to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), and has worked to develop IUCN guidelines during the pandemic to limit human contact with the animals while also protecting them from poachers. Gillespie and colleagues created the “Non-human Primate COVID-19 Information Hub” to serve as a real-time resource on the issue.

Current policies fail to factor in the costs of wholesale extraction of resources and the destruction of natural habitats, Gillespie warns. Nature will persist, he adds, even as biodiversity diminishes.

“Nature will push forward, evolution will happen, without regard to human suffering,” Gillespie says. “Meanwhile, we’re ignoring how dependent we are on nature and how fragile we are in the grand scheme of things.”

Gillespie starts off his undergraduate Conservation Biology class with a quiz. Among the questions: How many people are there on the planet? Has the world reached its human carrying capacity?

The last item on the quiz asks students to list 10 species that occur in Atlanta. “None of the students ever writes Homo Sapiens,” Gillespie says. “Many people don’t think of themselves as part of nature anymore. They have this artificial sense that we’re apart from it.”

The pandemic is shifting perspectives. “We’re all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Gillespie says. “That’s created a sense of urgency that we haven’t seen with past discussions on climate change and land-use change. People are recognizing the linkages between our financial and agricultural systems, the environment and our health. It’s critical right now to make the message as understandable as possible to as many people as possible.”

Follow Thomas Gillespie on Twitter: @BiodiversHealth.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Emory-led consortium explores brain and behavior, across the tree of life

“Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” says Emory biologist Samuel Sober, co-director of the new consortium, funded by the Simons Foundation.

By Carol Clark

The Simons Foundation awarded scientists from Emory University and their collaborators $2.5 million to develop new tools to study how the brain controls behavior in vertebrates. Named the Simons-Emory International Consortium on Motor Control, the project brings together eight research groups from three countries that use cutting-edge techniques to explore connections between the firing of neurons and the movement of muscles. Their work spans a range of behaviors in an array of species, from songbirds and monkeys to rats and mice.

The consortium will kick off with a virtual symposium on Friday, June 26, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. EDT. Eight neuroscientists will each give a 10-minute talk about a not-yet-invented tool they wish they had today to transform the field. The speakers will include Chethan Pandarinath and Lena Ting (both from Emory and Georgia Tech), Amy Bastian (Kennedy Krieger Institute), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Amy Orsborn (University of Washington), Andrew Pruszynski (Western University) and Philip Sabes (from the University of California San Francisco and Neuralink). The talks will stream live on YouTube, and registrants from around the world can ask questions in real-time via an online chat feature.

The symposium’s theme reflects the ambitious goals of the consortium. “Often in neuroscience, labs are working on one species in relative isolation,” says Samuel Sober, director of the new consortium and an Emory associate professor of biology. “Our consortium is unique because our members are investigating not just different species but different motor skills, from how songbirds vocalize to how monkeys move their arms. And we’re working together to develop new methods and apply them to a really wide range of problems.”

Sober’s lab, for instance, developed technology for recording and analyzing how the precise timing of neurons firing controls vocal behavior in songbirds. “Our consortium will create tools to study motor control in any species or behavior,” Sober says. “We will provide a framework to allow researchers to reveal the mechanisms of motor agility across the tree of life.”

The Simons Foundation is a leading, private philanthropical organization dedicated to advancing research in basic science and mathematics.

Solving mysteries about how the brain and muscles of different animals work together may one day benefit humans dealing with neural system injuries, says Gordon Berman, co-director of the consortium and an Emory assistant professor of biology.

“Motion and movement are the basic building blocks of behavior,” he says. “I view the consortium’s work as a critical, early component to ultimately map what you’re thinking in your head to actually producing a movement. Such insights could help in the design of prosthetic limbs that move in response to a person’s thoughts or computer interfaces that assist people with spinal cord injuries.”

Berman’s research group uses tools from theoretical and computational biophysics to understand how changes in neural activity affect how animals move and vice versa.

“One thing I’m particularly interested in is how those patterns change over the course of learning a skill,” Berman says. “I play the piano. As I learn a new piece of music how does the code between my brain and my fingers change?”

Other members of the consortium include Chethan Pandarinath, assistant professor in Emory’s Department of Neurosurgery and in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. His group is using sophisticated methods of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better understand how large networks of neurons in the brain encode information and control behavior.

A fourth consortium member from Emory is Ilya Nemenman, professor of physics, and a pioneer in developing algorithms for analyzing the information content of biological signals.

Additional members include Megan Carey (Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Portugal), Rui Costa (Columbia University), Abigail Person (University of Colorado, Denver) and Andrew Pruszynski (Western University in Canada).

“By sharing new tools, algorithms and ideas through research collaborations, group meetings and a joint post-doctoral training program, we will transform how neuroscientists explore motor behavior,” Sober says.

In addition to streaming live, the June 26 symposium, “The Inaugural Simons-Emory Workshop on Motor Control,” will be recorded and remain on YouTube for future reference. The symposium will be the third in a series of virtual events sponsored by the Emory College of Arts and Sciences’ Theory and Modeling in Living Systems initiative.

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Monday, June 15, 2020

Cleaning tips from a chemist who researches disinfectants

“I doubt that many people read the directions carefully on the cleaning products they use, but it’s important to do so,” says Emory chemist Bill Wuest, an expert in disinfectants.

By Carol Clark

Many household cleaners, once ubiquitous and taken for granted, are flying off store shelves faster than they are restocked, as people strive to keep surfaces free of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released a survey on consumer knowledge and practices for disinfecting coronavirus and found that 39 percent of the respondents had misused cleaning products.

“This pandemic has caused me to think more about the knowledge of cleaning protocols of the everyday person,” says Bill Wuest, an associate professor of chemistry at Emory University who studies disinfectants. “It’s important to communicate our research to the general public to generate clear messages.”

An active ingredient commonly seen in household cleaners, including some disinfectant sprays and liquids, and anti-bacterial sanitizing wipes and soaps, are quaternary ammonium compounds, or QACs.

One of the first QACs to enter the marketplace as a cleaning agent was benzalkonium chloride. Known as BAC for short, it was introduced in Lysol around the beginning of the 20th century, became widely adopted by the manufacturers of a range of cleaning products, and has remained a staple ever since.

In fact, if you read the labels of the cleaning supplies in your household, you will likely see benzalkonium chloride listed among the active ingredients on at least one of them, if not more. “There are basically four or five QACs, including BAC, that have been the workhouse disinfectants for around 100 years, on the frontline of most homes and hospitals,” Wuest says. “Very little has been done to change them around, because they work so well against many common bacteria, viruses, molds and fungi and they’re so simple and cheap to make.”

QACs are surfactants, or surface-acting agents, he explains. Their molecules have an ammonia atom at the center of two methyl stubs and two long carbon chains. In the simplest terms, the positively charged heads of the carbon chains are drawn to the negatively charged fatty membranes encasing many bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses. The heads of the carbon chains act like spearpoints, breaking apart the fatty membranes and causing the pathogens to disintegrate.

The Wuest lab is a leader in studies of QACs. One issue Wuest and his colleagues have identified is the fact that a few bacteria strains are slowly developing some resistance to BAC. If that trend continues, it could cause serious problems years down the road for sanitation in hospitals. In the U.S. alone, at least 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, leading to more than 35,000 deaths.

Research has frequently confirmed that QACs work against influenza viruses as well as bacterial strains and coronaviruses that have similar outer membranes as SARS-CoV-2.

Wuest offers the following tips for consumers.

Avoid “antibacterial” sanitizers and soaps 

BAC is the active ingredient in most “antibacterial” wipes, hand sanitizers and soaps. Wuest recommends choosing plain soap or plain alcohol-based sanitizers whenever possible, to avoid potentially contributing to the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. While products containing BAC are convenient and practical, especially for cleaning large surfaces, plain soap and water also work well against coronaviruses and other common pathogens.

Follow instructions closely 

“I doubt that many people read the directions carefully on the cleaning products they use, but it’s important to do so,” Wuest says. He notes that some products state that, after application, the cleaning agent needs to stay on the surface being sanitized for several minutes before being wiped off.

Never mix cleaning agents 

Consumers should never try to mix cleaning agents to try to “improve” them, Wuest stresses. Bleach combined with ammonia, for example, generates toxic chloramine vapor, which will cause chemical burns to the eyes and lungs and can permanently damage the respiratory system. Even mixing bleach with the seemingly innocuous ingredient of household vinegar is dangerous, as that combination creates deadly chlorine gas.

“Never mix any cleaning product with another cleaning product,” he says. “It’s an extremely dangerous thing to do, as many of the ingredients are hazardous if not used as directed.”

Check latest CDC recommendations

For more guidance on cleaning in the era of COVID-19, Wuest points to a web page, Cleaning and Disinfection for Households, outlining current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Monday, June 1, 2020

First-year students' stories of a pandemic: Study seeks data to help them flourish

The data gathered from student stories "may help us to create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events," says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush.

By Carol Clark

The Silent Generation grew up dealing with the Great Depression and World War II. Now the first-year college students of Generation Z are coming of age amid climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The whole world was opening up to students that started college last fall,” says Robyn Fivush, an Emory professor of psychology and director of the Institute for the Liberal Arts. “They reached the threshold of adulthood. And then the pandemic hit, pulling the rug out from under them. What does it mean for their dreams of research, of travel, of what they want to do with their lives? It creates an even more uncertain future at a point when they were just starting to home in on their passions and form their adult identities.”

Emory University is one of five universities across the country collaborating on a study focused on narratives written by first-year college students from last fall about their experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The longitudinal study will follow the students for a year or more to track their psychological well-being and academic performance. The goal of the study is to determine whether the self-narratives can predict better outcomes for the students, and to gather data for any interventions that may be needed to help students to have more rewarding and successful academic experiences.

Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology, is a leader in the field of narrative identity — how we use stories to understand ourselves and to make sense of the world and our place within it. She launched the student narratives study in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Kansas, the University of Missouri, the University of Utah and Western Washington University.

“I’ve become particularly interested in college-age individuals because it’s such an important time in the formation of identity,” Fivush says. “Even though the majority of Americans do not go away to college, the ones that do are living away from home for the first time, learning time management, how to feed themselves, how to interact with peers and how to make their own decisions.”

The researchers are recruiting students from all five of the universities now for the study. They hope to enroll between 600 and 1,000 participants to write two detailed narratives. The first narrative asks them to describe an event that best captures the challenges they have faced as a result of COVID-19. The second narrative focuses on an event that best captures what they have learned about themselves as a result of COVID-19.

Participants will also fill out questionnaires at the start of the study, and at periodic intervals during the course of it. The questions cover the participants’ living situations and their physical health. They also aim at assessing the participants’ levels of anxiety, stress and depression, whether they are flourishing, and whether they are experiencing positive personal growth and making academic progress.

The hypothesis is that more coherent, positive narratives will be predictive of better mental health, more effective identity processing and better academic progress. “The data may help us create interventions to support students who may be struggling as they navigate disruptive and stressful events,” Fivush says.

Students from lower-income families and first-generation college attendees were already more at risk for not making it to graduation so the fallout from the pandemic may be especially difficult for them to navigate, Fivush says. “If we don’t get some really deep data about what they are experiencing and how they are making decisions we are not going to be able to help them to stay the course and graduate,” she says. “It’s vital to understand and support them. Education remains the single most important path to upward mobility and for resolving inequalities.”

The researchers launched the study with available funds as a year-long project, and they will release useful data as it becomes available. They are currently writing grants to secure funding to extend the study for longer.

Fivush has served in administrative roles at Emory designed to create more integrated and reflective experiences for undergraduates. “I really enjoy administrative work because it’s a chance to think strategically about education and what it is that we’re trying to accomplish,” she says. “Emory is well-situated in terms of its resources and its commitment to the undergraduate experience. We are teaching the change agents and the leaders of tomorrow. The role we play as educators is critical for the future of the world.”

Generation Z, or those born from around the mid-1990s to early 2010s, now make up the largest segment of the population and are the first true “digital natives” — those who have never known the world without the Internet.

“Every college student has a smart phone and is continuously flooded with information,” Fivush says. “That has broken down and fractured shared social narratives. It may give you more leeway to create your own story. On the other hand, it makes the world more complicated, more ambiguous and uncertain. And all of those things can make the identity journey more challenging.”

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Behavioral studies in era of COVID-19 raise new concerns about diversity

"The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic," says Emory psychologist Stella Lourenco. "This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research."

By Carol Clark

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating an ongoing trend in cognitive psychology to conduct human behavioral experiments online.

“The world has been growing increasingly digital for a while,” says Stella Lourenco, a developmental psychologist at Emory University. “The global pandemic has turbo charged the move towards virtual connection in most areas of life, including psychology research.”

While the Internet offers a powerful tool for collecting data during a time of social distancing, it also raises new concerns regarding the diversity of study participants. Trends in Cognitive Sciences published an opinion piece outlining these concerns, authored by Lourenco and Arber Tasimi, a developmental psychologist at Stanford University who will be joining the Emory faculty in August.

The authors warn that as more research moves online, a growing lack of Internet access among low-income and minority communities may reduce the diversity of study samples, which would limit the ability to generalize scientific findings. As unemployment soars, more people may be forced to choose between paying their rent and buying food or paying for Internet service.

“The digital divide is undoubtedly going to get worse during this pandemic,” Lourenco says. “This is a huge problem for ensuring equal access to education and to work, not just for ensuring diversity in scientific research.”

In their opinion piece, Lourenco and Tasimi urge scientists and grant-funding agencies to join lobbying efforts for government subsidies for Internet service, and “perhaps even advocate for universal availability of Internet access, which is essential for living and operating in contemporary times.”

In some ways, the challenges to diversity presented by the pandemic are a new twist on an old problem, Lourenco says. In recent years, concerns were raised that participants in some in-person psychology studies were mainly college students who are younger than the general population and also tend to be better educated and from higher-income backgrounds and industrialized countries.

A move towards online experiments of human subjects, using crowdsourcing tools such as Amazon Mechanical Turk, was helping alleviate this problem. Online experiments can allow researchers to tap large numbers of participants in an efficient and cost-effective way. “With crowdsourcing tools, you can potentially reach adults from all over the United States, and in other countries, as long as they have Internet access,” Lourenco says.

Children present unique research challenges, Lourenco says, so studies involving them have remained largely in-person. For instance, children tend to grow restless more quickly than adults when they are asked to sit in front of a computer to perform tasks for experiments.

The pandemic, however, is driving more child development laboratories to go online for the first time, Lourenco notes. Platforms such as the Parent and Researcher Collaborative, an online crowdsourcing tool where labs can post studies for families to participate in, are providing infrastructure to support this trend.

As more studies go online, the pandemic is likely impacting Internet access among some groups. In the pre-pandemic era, even low-income people without home Internet might be able to visit a library, a coffee shop or even the parking lot of a restaurant with free wireless service to connect to high-speed Internet. The current situation makes those scenarios less likely to occur.

And the current situation may represent the start of “a new normal,” Lourenco and Tasimi write, “in which threats of disease may require long-term social distancing practices and may differentially impact those in low-income and minority communities.”

They recommend that researchers strive to provide temporary Internet connection to low-income participants, by purchasing mobile hotspots that could be mailed to them or dropped off at their homes. They also recommend that more scientific journals require authors to report detailed demographic information of study participants, whether the studies are conducted online or in person.

They further recommend considering the development of more mobile laboratories, equipped with personal protective equipment and disinfection protocols. Portable labs would allow off-site testing to reach participants in low-income and minority communities.

“I hope that the pressure that the pandemic puts on behavioral research will ultimately create positive changes in the field,” Lourenco says. “Ultimately, it highlights the need to become more sensitive about the demographics of participants involved in psychological studies and about any claims that are made about the generalization of data.”

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Scientists identify chemicals in noxious weed that 'disarm' deadly bacteria

"Nature is the best chemist, hands down," says Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, shown with berries from the Brazilian peppertree. The plant is native to South America where traditional healers in the Amazon have used it as a treatment for skin infections. 

By Carol Clark

Scientists have identified specific compounds from the Brazilian peppertree — a weedy, invasive shrub in Florida — that reduce the virulence of antibiotic-resistant staph bacteria. Scientific Reports published the research, demonstrating that triterpenoid acids in the red berries of the plant “disarm” dangerous staph bacteria by blocking its ability to produce toxins.

The work was led by the lab of Cassandra Quave, an assistant professor in Emory University’s Center for the Study of Human Health and the Emory School of Medicine’s Department of Dermatology. The researchers’ laboratory experiments provide the first evidence that triterpenoid acids pack a punch against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA.

The Brazilian peppertree (Schinus terebinthifolia), native to South America, is also abundant in Florida, where it forms dense thickets that crowd out native species. “It is a noxious weed that many people in Florida hate, for good reason,” Quave says. “But, at the same time, there is this rich lore about the Brazilian Peppertree in the Amazon, where traditional healers have used the plant for centuries to treat skin and soft tissue infections.”

Brazilian peppertree
Quave, a leader in the field of medical ethnobotany and a member of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center, studies how indigenous people incorporate plants in healing practices to uncover promising candidates for new drugs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls antibiotic resistance “one of the biggest public health challenges of our time.” Each year in the U.S., at least 2.8 million people get antibiotic-resistant infections, leading to more than 35,000 deaths.

“Even in the midst of the current viral pandemic of COVID-19, we can’t forget about the issue of antibiotic resistance,” Quave says. She notes that many COVID-19 patients are receiving antibiotics to deal with secondary infections brought on by their weakened conditions, raising concerns about a later surge in antibiotic-resistant infections.

In 2017, the Quave lab published the finding that a refined, flavone-rich mix of 27 compounds extracted from the berries of the Brazilian peppertree inhibits formation of skin lesions in mice infected with MRSA. The extract works not by killing the MRSA bacteria, but by repressing a gene that allows the bacteria cells to communicate with one another. Blocking that communication prevents the cells from taking collective action, which essentially disarms the bacteria by preventing it from excreting the toxins it uses to damage tissues. The body’s immune system then stands a better chance of healing a wound.

That approach is different from the typical treatment of blasting deadly bacteria with drugs designed to kill them, which can help fuel the problem of antibiotic resistance. Some of the stronger bacteria may survive these drug onslaughts and proliferate, passing on their genes to offspring and leading to the evolution of deadly “super bugs.”

For the current paper, the researchers wanted to narrow down the scope of 27 major compounds from the berries to isolate the specific chemicals involved in disarming MRSA. They painstakingly refined the original compounds, testing each new iteration for its potency on the bacteria. They also used a series of analytical chemistry techniques, including mass spectrometry, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy and X-ray crystallography to gain a clear picture of the chemicals involved in the anti-virulence mechanism.

The results showed that three triterpenoid acids worked equally well at inhibiting MRSA from forming toxins in a petri dish, without harming human skin cells. And one of the triterpenoid acids worked particularly well at inhibiting the ability of MRSA to form lesions on the skin of mice. The researchers also demonstrated that the triterpenoid acids repressed not just one gene that MRSA uses to excrete toxins, but two genes involved in that process.

“Nature is the best chemist, hands down,” Quave says. She adds that weeds, in particular, tend to have interesting chemical arsenals that they may use to protect them from diseases so they can more easily spread in new environments.

The research team plans to do further studies to test the triterpenoid acids as treatments for MRSA infections in animal models. If those studies are promising, the next step would be to work with medicinal chemists to optimize the compounds for efficacy, delivery and safety before testing on humans.

“Plants are so incredibly complex chemically that identifying and isolating particular extracts is like picking needles out of haystacks,” Quave says. “When you’re able to pluck out molecules with medicinal properties from these complex natural mixtures, that’s a big step forward to understanding how some traditional medicines may work, and for advancing science towards a potential drug development pathway.”

First authors of the current paper are Huaqiao Tang — a former visiting scholar at Emory and a veterinarian at Sichuan Agricultural University in China — and Gina Porras, an Emory post-doctoral fellow. In addition to senior author Quave, co-authors include Francois Chassagne and James Lyles, who are both members of the Quave lab; John Basca, director of Emory’s X-ray Crystallography Center; and Alexander Horswill and Morgan Brown from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Global experts call for mental health science to combat pandemic's impacts

Emory anthropologist Carol Worthman is among 25 mental health experts who issued a call for global action on mental health science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Carol Clark

The outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 infected about 8,000 people and killed hundreds. Although SARS was stamped out relatively quickly, and before it could spread globally, it left a lingering impact. One study found that most SARS survivors in two major hospitals had high levels of psychological distress a year after the outbreak.

“Just surviving the pandemic was not the end of the story,” says Carol Worthman, professor of anthropology at Emory University. “And the COVID-19 pandemic is much more pervasive than SARS. It affects everybody, worldwide. Even those who do not get COVID-19 will have to live with the fallout.”

Worthman is among 25 mental health experts who issued a call for global action on mental health science surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, recently published by The Lancet Psychiatry. In a position paper, they stress the immediate need for creating neuro-psychological databases concerning the pandemic’s impacts on brain health, mental health and overall well-being. These databases are needed to support evidence-based responses to the pandemic and to develop longer-term strategies to promote mental health and well-being.

Even as nations mobilize to treat patients, develop drugs and vaccines, and salvage economies, coordinated efforts on a similar scale are needed for mental health, Worthman says. Her research focuses on how cultural and social factors interact with human health, for better or for worse.

“We’re used to thinking about physical diseases and mental illnesses as two separate things,” Worthman says, “but the two actually go hand-in-hand. Mental illness doesn’t just affect the lives of individuals, but of those around them. And like a virus, mental illness is invisible, in a way, and can be even harder to test and screen for.” Before the pandemic, depression already ranked in the top 10 causes of poor health worldwide and had climbed to the top four health problems related to healthy years of life lost.

The impacts of the lockdowns and social isolation on the mental health of vulnerable people are among the key questions that need to be tackled in an international response to COVID-19, the experts write. Their paper also stresses the need to research the best ways to move people to follow the advice of public health messages without unduly increasing stress and anxiety.

“People are especially hurting right now, they’re suffering, and they’re looking for ways to feel better,” Worthman says. “If we don’t develop pro-social ways to help people cope now and, in the future, we’re going to be living with the consequences for a long time.”

She points out that the 1918 flu pandemic, following on top of the first world war, helped set the stage for the social disruption and sense of hopelessness that fueled political movements and nationalism leading to the second world war.

One critical need is to gather data and develop strategies to support people currently working in high-intensity, high-risk settings during the pandemic, such as healthcare workers. “Burnout and higher suicide rates among healthcare providers had already been a growing problem for years,” Worthman says.

She cites the mental health effects of massive unemployment as another critical area. “Work is a huge part of peoples’ identities, not to mention their livelihoods,” she says. “Depression, anxiety, stress and lack of control are all things that undermine resilience. What can we do to help people stay resilient when they’re losing their sense of dignity and self-worth and predictability for their futures?”

Youth and adolescent mental health is another vital area to consider, Worthman says. “Young people are having to watch a remapping of the social-economic political world and try to find their way through it. Their future is our future and they need to be part of the solution. How do we mobilize youth to help them make their future as great as possible? Do we make supporting youth as important as saving airlines and other industries?”

COVID-19 is revealing and widening existing fault lines in social, economic and political systems. “We now have the challenge and opportunity to heal those ruptures even as we seek to heal ourselves of COVID-19,” Worthman says.

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

How family stories help children weather hard times

Stories of family members — who persevered by simply putting one foot in front of the other and by maintaining loving bonds — reassure children that their family will also find a way to get through a situation, says Emory psychologist Robyn Fivush. (Getty Images)

By Carol Clark

In times of great stress, stories sustain us, says Robyn Fivush, director of the Family Narratives Lab in Emory’s Department of Psychology.

Family reminiscing is especially important, says Fivush, who is also director of Emory’s Institute for the Liberal Arts. When children learn family stories it creates a shared history, strengthens emotional bonds and helps them make sense of their experiences when something senseless happens — like the current global pandemic.

“When we don’t know what to do, we look for stories about how people have coped in the past,” Fivush says. “You can see that happening in the media now, in articles comparing today to historical events, like the 1918 flu pandemic and 9/11.”

She sums up the 9/11 narrative in the United States: “A horrific event happened; we were attacked. But we came together as a nation, persevered and rose back up together.”

Such narratives help build a shared capacity for resilience. “That’s true for nations and it’s true for families,” Fivush says.

Over decades of research, Fivush and Emory psychologist Marshall Duke developed a scale to measure how much children know about their family histories. Using this scale, they conducted a study that began just before 9/11 and continued for two years. “We found that in families that talked in more coherent and emotionally open ways about challenging family events with 10- to 12-year-olds, the children coped better over the two-year period than in families telling less emotionally expressive and coherent stories about their challenges,” Fivush says.

The families in the study were all comparable, middle-class, two-parent households.

Standardized measures showed that children in the families that told the more coherent family narratives had better self-esteem, higher levels of social competence, higher quality friendships, and less anxiety and stress. They also had fewer behavioral problems, as reported by parents.

Tips for telling family stories 

For families under quarantine together, opportunities abound to weave family stories into conversation, Fivush says. The stories need to be tailored to different ages, she adds, so that children are emotionally and cognitively able to understand them.

Elementary school children, for example, are not ready to digest complex family stories. “With younger kids, it’s really more about helping them structure their own experiences into stories that help them process their feelings,” Fivush says. “You want to start by asking them non-judgmental, open-ended questions like: ‘Why do you think you were upset yesterday? What could you have done to make yourself feel better? What can we do about this?'"

She uses an example of a little girl who left her favorite storybook at her school and was worried that it wasn’t going to be there when she went back. A mother could tell a story about how she left a favorite toy somewhere when she was little but later her father took her back and they found it.

“Tell them a story from your own life that provides a model for how everybody forgets things, but you can get them back,” Fivush says. “Or, ‘My brother used to tease me a lot, too. But now he’s your Uncle Bill and we love each other.’ Parents are identity figures. Little kids are fascinated by stories about their parents when they were little.”

Ultimately, the goal is to help children construct a coherent story that validates their feelings while helping them think of resolutions.

“Particularly with very young kids, don’t make assumptions about what they may be upset or sad about,” Fivush says. “You may be surprised. Stay open to what your children of all ages may be experiencing.”

Middle school children are starting to have more of an ability to understand the bigger picture. “By the age of 10, children are thinking in the abstract and because of that, they are likely to be anxious about the future,” Fivush says.

By this stage, children begin to understand stories on a deeper level. It’s not that every story needs a happy ending or a silver lining, Fivush stresses. “You can explain to your child, ‘We don’t know yet how this story is going to end but let me tell you about some challenging times I got through, or your grandparents got through.’”

Examples of family members — who persevered by simply putting one foot in front of the other and by maintaining loving bonds — reassure children that their family will also find a way to get through a situation.

When they reach adolescence, children are especially vulnerable. “High school is a time when children start to really think about themselves as a person and what their life is going to be like,” Fivush says. “They are mulling big questions, like ‘Who am I? What are my passions?’ And now the pandemic has pulled the rug out from under them.”

By the age of 16, parents can start talking to a teen-ager about their own vulnerabilities as people and as parents. “Emphasize how you can build strength together, as a family,” Fivush says. She suggests finding ways of giving teen-agers a role in supporting younger children in positive ways.

“Human beings are really altruistic and empathetic. We feel good when we help other people, particularly people that we love,” Fivush says. “That’s going to make every family member feel better about themselves and about each other.”

Silly, funny family stories are also valuable, along with small touchpoints about the past that emerge spontaneously, Fivush says. “When you’re cooking together with your children it’s a perfect time to say, ‘When I was a little girl, my mother taught me how to cook this dish. We used to have pot roast every Friday and I would peel the carrots.’”

Adolescents are especially hungry for these kinds of stories, she adds. “If they roll their eyes, so be it, they’re still listening,” Fivush says. “It’s the really mundane, everyday stories that reassure them that life is stable. It provides a sense of continuity, of enduring relationships and values. They need to know that they come from a long line of people who are strong, who are resilient, who are brave. And who can cook. The definition of who they are is not just something independent and autonomous, spun from nowhere. It’s embedded in a long, intergenerational family story.”

Stories your parents should have told you
Psychologists document the age our earliest memories fade

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Bat ecology in the era of pandemics

The International Union for Conservation of Nature recently appointed Emory graduate student Amanda Vicente to its Bat Specialist Group — global recognition for her expertise. (Photo by Neto Villalobos)

Bats are primarily creatures of the night. Their cape-like wings, alien faces and strange behaviors drive human fascination and fear.

“People have so many misconceptions,” says Amanda Vicente, who studies the disease ecology of bats as an Emory University doctoral candidate. “Bats are associated with dark things, like Dracula. They have never had a good reputation.”

Evidence linking viruses carried by bats to disease outbreaks, from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic to SARS, Marburg, MERS, Nipah, Hendra and Ebola, is not helping their image.

“It’s important for people to know that our enemies are not the bats, but the pathogens,” Vicente says. “And in order to better fight these pathogens, we need to understand their evolutionary relationship with bats, and how that relationship is being altered by human behaviors.”

Read more about the work of Vicente, who is leading a team of Emory students to study cave bats in her native Costa Rica.

Spillover: Why germs jump from animals to people
Experts raise alarm for COVID-19 risk to endangered great apes

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Mathematicians unite faculty, students and countries to fight COVID-19

Emory math professor Alessandro Veneziani, left, visited his hometown of Bergamo, Italy, last year with his former student Alexander Viguerie, who received his PhD in math in 2018. Bergamo became ground zero in Italy for COVID-19.

By Carol Clark

Alessandro Veneziani loves numbers and he loves people. A professor in Emory’s Department of Mathematics and Department of Computer Science, he uses numerical analysis and computing for real-world applications — such as modeling blood flow through the vascular system to determine risks for an aneurysm or a stroke.

The pandemic shifted the focus of Veneziani — a native of Italy, one of the hardest hit countries — onto the rising number of new COVID-19 cases and the people affected by them. After the campus closed, Veneziani and colleagues launched an Emory student contest to create mathematical models that might yield useful data for controlling the pandemic. More than 90 students jumped in to form teams and take on the challenge.

“The students want to help, and this is a way they can use what they’re learning,” Veneziani says. “They are part of the Emory community and when you work as a community you have more power to make bigger contributions to the world.”

On February 19, only two cases had been detected in Italy, and COVID-19 still seemed a distant problem in the country. On that day, about 45,000 soccer fans from the region of Veneziani’s hometown, Bergamo, traveled to Milan to watch their elite team, Atalanta, beat the Spanish challenger in a Champions League match. They returned home to celebrate.

On February 20, in his adopted hometown of Atlanta, Veneziani celebrated the birth of a daughter, Eleonora, with his wife, Manuela Manetta. Manetta is also Italian, from Abruzzo near Rome, and is a lecturer in Emory’s Department of Mathematics.

On March 19, which is Father's Day in Italy, Veneziani celebrated at his home in Atlanta with his newborn daughter, Eleonora.

By March 19, Italy had become the country with the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the world. And ground zero was Bergamo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Members of Veneziani’s family still live in the town. They are quarantined in separate homes where he stays in touch with them through Skype. His brother takes his mother meals and leaves them outside her door. “I’m mostly worried about my mom,” Veneziani says, “because she’s 78 and the most vulnerable.”

Veneziani felt frustrated being so far away as Bergamo struggled. “I was awake late at night, my wife was feeding our baby, and I was thinking and thinking,” he recalls. That’s when he got the idea for the math modeling contest.

“The spirit of the initiative is that it is less a competition than a collaboration,” Veneziani says. “We are coming together to fight a common enemy, a virus. And our weapons are differential equations.”

Jim Nagy, chair of the Department of Mathematics, supported the idea and three faculty immediately volunteered to help manage the initiative: Manetta, Longmei Shu, a visiting faculty member, and Maja Taskovic, an assistant professor. They are pulling together other faculty from related disciplines across campus to select the top three student groups in May. Veneziani also enlisted entrepreneur Russell Medford as a judge. A former physician at Emory, Medford is now chair of the board of the Center for Global Health Innovation in Atlanta and is always on the lookout for a fresh perspective.

Students from all majors were welcomed into the initiative, from first years on up.

The sun rises over the ancient, fortified city of Bergamo, in the Lombardy region of northern Italy. (Photo by Sven Manguard)

Veneziani tells stories of hope and resilience from Bergamo to inspire the students, who are all dealing with their own concerns surrounding the pandemic. Bergarmo is situated on a hill and surrounded by stone fortress walls dating to 1500. “Bergarmo is very beautiful and very old,” Veneziani says. “Its people are tough. And they are also generous.”

Bergarmo is known for skilled builders from a range of construction trades. As the existing medical facilities reached peak capacity, people from the region adopted the slogan “Bergarmo, don’t give up” and came together to build a new hospital. “Bergamo was under a storm and people volunteered to help. They built a hospital in just six days,” Veneziani says. “That’s incredible. That’s what a community can do when it comes together.”

Now the pandemic curve is showing signs of flattening in Bergamo and across Italy. On April 11, the United States surpassed Italy as the country with the most deaths from COVID-19.

The Emory student teams are finishing up their projects, including 20-page papers. Students were given free rein to pursue any kind of mathematical modeling project to help understand the spread of the pandemic and make useful predictions.

“The main aim of this initiative is educational,” Veneziani says. “I want students to understand that developing a mathematical model is a creative process. You come up with an idea, introduce some assumptions and then check them with reality to see if you’re on the right track. You have to keep refining your model, keeping it as simple as possible but complex enough to learn something useful.”

Veneziani celebrates with Alexander Viguerie as Viguerie receives his PhD at Emory Commencement in 2018.

“I’ve loved math since I was very young,” says Sanne Glastra, a sophomore majoring in qualitative theories and methods who is involved in the contest. “This is a chance to apply data science to a real problem that everyone is facing right now.”

Her team is modeling COVID-19 through the lens of nursing homes. “I’m learning a lot about how to collect data on health and demographics and work with a team to figure out what’s relevant,” says Glastra, who is quarantining with her family in Boston.

“The students have fresh energy and fresh minds,” Veneziani says. “They may come up with new ideas that deserve further exploration after the competition ends.”

Veneziani also has a math modeling project for COVID-19 underway with one of his former students, Alexander Viguerie, who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Pavia, near Milan. Viguerie, a native of Atlanta, began his academic career at Oxford College before coming to the Emory campus for his undergraduate degree and his PhD in math, which he received in 2018.

Viguerie still has collaborations with Veneziani. He flew into Atlanta on February 20 so the two could work on a project, unrelated to COVID-19, that was expected to last a few weeks. It was the day Veneziani’s daughter was born and the news reported a confirmed COVID-19 case in Italy not related to travel, meaning the virus was on the loose in the country.

“It was surreal, the timing of everything,” Viguerie says.

A simulated outbreak in Georgia using artificial data. Viguerie is leading a team that's attempting to model COVID-19 transmission using Georgia as a framework. The work is still in the preliminary stages.

He and Veneziani soon scrapped their planned collaboration and began to work on modeling COVID-19 transmission. From his parents’ home in Georgia, where he is spending quarantine, Viguerie pulled together an international team for the project. Members include an expert in supercomputing in Germany; an expert in disease modeling from the University of Texas; students from the University of Pavia; and three undergraduates from Emory: Glastra, Kasey Cervantes and Shreya Rana.

“Everyone jumped right in to help,” Viguerie says.

“We’re really pumped about this project,” says Cervantes, a junior majoring in biology and minoring in computer science who is quarantined with his family in Chicago. Cervantes previously worked on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention project to model malaria transmission and plans a career in computational biology or epidemiology.

Rena is a sophomore, majoring in neuroscience and behavioral biology and minoring in computer informatics. She is quarantined with her family in the San Francisco Bay area. “The more information we have on how a virus spreads through a community, the more prepared we can be in the future,” she says.

The researchers are modeling the spatial-temporal spread of COVID-19. The team chose the state of Georgia as the framework for their model, which they hope could eventually be applied elsewhere.

Health data is collected at the county level, Viguerie explains. Georgia happens to have a high number of counties that are relatively small compared to other states, or to Italian provinces, which yields a greater level of spatial precision for the modelers.

“This is a long-term project, not intended for decision-making today,” Viguerie stresses. “We want to create a tool for down the road. We might learn something useful, for instance, that could help in the case of later waves of the outbreak.”

Georgia happens to have a high number of counties that are relatively small, making it easier for the researchers to generate rich special resolution as the basis for their model.

The researchers created a digital map of Georgia and broke it into a mosaic of 100,000 individual points in space. They wrote differential equations for variables related to COVID-19 transmission and created a computer program including all the equations. They are now running preliminary simulations to test various scenarios and see if the model works.

“You start with a simple model and progressively make it more and more complex,” Viguerie explains. “Our model seeks to describe the spread of COVID-19 across time and space. And from there, we can hopefully use the model to learn some mechanistic natures of the spread.”

By comparing the data on symptomatic spread to actual new cases, they can make assumptions to test. “Certain things, like asymptomatic cases, are difficult to measure but possible to simulate using a model,” Viguerie says. “Good models and simulations are crucial with a disease like COVID-19.”

For Veneziani, who officially became a U.S. citizen in February, the Emory student competition and the international project with his former student are both “emergency” measures and business as usual. He has long used math to tackle healthcare problems and to forge bonds between people and countries.

Emory has many specialists working on various aspects of COVID-19, from nurses and medical doctors to researchers specialized in biology, chemistry, epidemiology, virology, infectious diseases and vaccine development, as well as experts in social, historical, cultural, mental well-being, legal and ethical aspects of disease.

“Math is a common language that joins all these forces so we can all communicate,” Veneziani says. “The enormous problem of this pandemic is truly interdisciplinary. Emory is working together, and the whole world needs to come together. We will fight this virus together and we will win. Like in Bergarmo, at Emory we don’t give up.”

Modeling the math of shark skin
The math of your heart

Monday, April 6, 2020

Pandemic lockdowns set up 'natural experiment' on air pollution

Graphic shows the change from January to February in China's levels of nitrogen dioxide, which primarily gets into the air from the burning of fuel by motor vehicles and power plants. (European Space Agency)

By Carol Clark

For years, Eri Saikawa has tracked growing levels of dangerous greenhouse gases and researched ways to reduce them. As an associate professor in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences, she trains students to do the same. Together, they’ve held conferences, published papers and served as delegates at the annual U.N. global climate talks.

Now the COVID-19 lockdowns have slashed air pollution levels faster than Saikawa or her students could have imagined. First in China, where COVID-19 was reported in December, then across Europe, and now in the United States.

“It’s an interesting natural experiment, for sure,” says Saikawa, an expert in public policy and the science of emissions linked to global warming. “Since not every industry has shut down, it may help us to better understand what emissions are coming from what sources. That could help guide the best strategies to improve air quality when the pandemic is over.”

This natural experiment has now become the focal point for Saikawa’s class “Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry.” Previously, the students were set to do outreach projects for the Atlanta Science Festival, at K-12 schools and in Atlanta neighborhoods. COVID-19 changed those plans as the festival and other events were cancelled and schools and universities shifted to remote learning. 

Saikawa is now asking her students to track current greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants and compare them with levels for the same period in previous years, based on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NASA and global sources.

“The students will be among the first to study this,” Saikawa says. “That’s so much different than answering questions from a textbook. When you’re doing actual science, unexpected things happen that open up new questions. The students will be taking on real questions as they come up in real time.”

At the end of the class, in early May, plans call for the students to hold a webinar so that anyone interested in learning how the novel coronavirus impacted air quality and climate change can tune in and learn from it.

The pandemic also affected projects of Saikawa’s graduate students in Asia. Her lab has collaborations with universities in Nanjing, China, Tokyo, Japan and Yongsei, South Korea. “Our focus was looking at air emissions in East Asia in relation to climate change,” Saikawa says. “Now we are broadening that to also look at how a pandemic affects air quality, climate and economies.” 

The researchers may be better able to pinpoint the impact of emissions from different sectors, including industries that are major users of fossil fuels, such as steel-making, oil, natural gas and mining; electricity and other sources of power; and transportation in the form of motor vehicles, shipping and tractors.

“China is the largest emitter in the world of carbon dioxide and most other air pollutants,” Saikawa says. Even with the dramatic drop in pollution, as China ground nearly to a halt following the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the country had dangerously high levels of air pollution on some days. “That shows that the background level of pollution is really high, and how far China needs to go to clean its air,” Saikawa says.

She worries that all the gains made around the world could boomerang into even worse conditions than previous norms if economies go into overdrive to recover. The 2020 U.N. climate talks, set for Scotland in November, have been postponed until 2021. The conference venue in Glasgow where the conference was to be held is now a field hospital for people with COVID-19.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently announced a sweeping waiver of its enforcement of regulations, due to the pandemic.

“Those that are hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic are those who are the most vulnerable in society,” Saikawa says. “The suspension of environmental laws makes them even more vulnerable.”

Follow Eri Saikawa on Twitter: @esaikawa.

Mandatory policies work best to curb power plant emissions, study finds
Peachtree to Paris: Emory delegation headed to U.N. climate talks
The growing role of faming and nitrous oxide in climate change

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Beware false 'cures' for COVID-19

Cinchona is toxic and self-medication with it or any other unproven "cures" should be avoided.

Following is an excerpt from an article in The Conversation, co-written by Cassandra Quave, an ethnobotanist at Emory University; Kim Walker, from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and Nataly Olivia A. Canales, from the Natural History Museum of Denmark. 

Chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are [antimalaria drugs that are] currently being researched as potential treatments for COVID-19. …

False links are now being made [on social media networks] between another source of antimalarial compounds, cinchona bark, as a natural or alternative source of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine. As quinine from cinchona bark is an ingredient in tonic water (in very low amounts), there have been rumors that it could also protect against SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19.

Since its discovery in the 17th century, the bark of the Andean cinchona tree and its chemical constituents, known as quinoline alkaloids (quinine, quinidine, cinchonine and cinchonidine), provided the only treatment for malaria for over 300 years. In 1934, scientists developed the first synthetic antimalarial, later known as chloroquine. Although chloroquine was inspired by the antimalarial activity of quinine, its chemical structure (and pharmacological properties) are quite different from the natural compounds found in cinchona bark.

To date, there is no laboratory or clinical evidence that quinine or any other cinchona bark compounds exhibit activity against COVID-19. Also, not everything that is natural is safe. Cinchona and quinine are toxic and can cause serious side-effects known as “cinchonism” which can include hearing and vision loss, breathing issues, and heart and kidney issues. It can also lead to a coma.

While quinine pills were once sold over the counter in the US to treat night leg cramps, they were pulled from the market by the Food and Drug Administration in 2006 after serious side effects and death were reported.

History is full of examples of people profiting from the public’s panic and fear during unstable times. The European Union law enforcement agency has already seized 48,000 packages of potentially dangerous pharmaceuticals, including unauthorized chloroquine, as well as fake masks and bogus coronavirus cures.

The benefits, if any, of chloroquine or hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19 are still not fully understood. Cinchona bark does not contain either of these compounds, and the alkaloids in the bark bear no relation to them. Likewise, there is no evidence of cinchona being able to prevent or treat COVID-19.

Cinchona is highly toxic and self-medication with it or any other unproven cures should be avoided. Protect your health and don’t waste money funding unethical people and companies profiteering off fear in these uncertain times.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Great apes and COVID-19: Experts raise the alarm for endangered species

A mountain gorilla in the wild. Endangered great apes are susceptible to human respiratory diseases, warns Emory disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie.

By Carol Clark

Primate experts warn that the global human health emergency of COVID-19 also threatens our closest living relatives — endangered great apes.

Nature published their commentary raising the alarm that non-human great apes are susceptible to human respiratory diseases. The 25 authors call for urgent discussions on the need to severely limit human interaction with great apes in the wild, and in sanctuaries and zoos, until the risk of COVID-19 subsides.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a critical situation for humans, our health and our economies,” says Thomas Gillespie, a disease ecologist at Emory University, and a lead author of the commentary. “It’s also a potentially dire situation for great apes. There is a lot at stake for those in danger of extinction.”

Some countries have already suspended great ape tourism, and others with ape tourism and field research need to seriously consider following suit, the authors write. They add that the same applies to sanctuaries and zoos where great apes and humans are in closer contact.

While great ape tourism will inevitably plummet due to the pandemic, all it takes is one infected visitor to spark catastrophe, the experts warn.

The non-human great apes include chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, which live in parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, and orangutans, which are native to the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists chimpanzees and bonobos as endangered species, while gorillas and orangutans are critically endangered.

Habitat loss, poaching and disease are the primary threats to the remaining great apes.

Even exposure to viruses that have mild effects in people, such as those causing the common cold, have been associated with mortality events in wild primates. Because the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is fatal for some humans, experts fear it could potentially prove devastating to great apes. Evidence suggests COVID-19 may be transmitted by people who have only mild symptoms, and perhaps even those who are asymptomatic.

“People who are younger, who may be less at risk for severe illness from COVID-19, are the ones who are more apt to be hiking into the national parks of Africa and Asia to see great apes in the wild,” Gillespie says. “It would be extremely difficult to monitor whether they were infected with COVID-19 since they may not have obvious symptoms.”

Great ape tourism has contributed to conservation in many positive ways, providing an economic incentive for governments and individuals to support their protection. Donors are needed to help shore up marginal economies facing the loss of tourism dollars and to continue to protect the health of people and the great apes in the wild, Gillespie says.

Tourism has habituated wild great apes to not fear humans, he adds. Without staff to patrol and protect them, the animals would become even more vulnerable to poachers.

“Essential staff needs to remain in place,” Gillespie says. “But we need to make sure that staff numbers are low and that they are engaged in proper processes to protect themselves, and the apes, from exposure to COVID-19.”

Gillespie studies how germs jump between wild animals, domesticated animals and people. Through this “One Health” approach, he aims to protect humans, ecosystems and biodiversity. As a member of the IUCN, Gillespie helped develop the organization’s “Best Practice Guidelines for Health Monitoring and Disease Control in Great Ape Populations.” In 2017, Gillespie co-authored a landmark report detailing that 60 percent of the more than 500 primate species worldwide are threatened with extinction, while 75 percent have declining populations.

Fabian Leendertz, from the Robert Koch-Institute, Germany, is co-lead author of the Nature commentary. Additional authors include experts involved in primate research, conservation and policymaking from around the world.

“As professionals working with great apes,” the authors conclude, “we bear a responsibility to protect them from our pathogens. We hope for the best but should prepare for the worst and critically consider the impact of our activities on these endangered species.”

Follow Thomas Gillespie on Twitter: @BiodiversHealth

Spillover: Why germs jump species from animals to humans
Experts warn of impending extinction of many of the world's primates

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dealing with disruption: Tips from an academic scientist

Emory chemist Jennifer Heemstra (@JenHeemstra) will moderate a Twitter chat, #COVIDisruption, on Wednesday, March 25  from 3 to 4 pm. The chat is one of a series organized by Chemical and Engineering News Magazine on topics of interest involving academia and the pandemic. (Photo by Kay Hinton)

By Carol Clark

Efforts to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused K-12 schools to shutter, driven universities from on-campus to remote learning, and forced laboratory scientists doing research that is not immediately critical to saving lives to stop experiments and close their facilities.

Jennifer Heemstra, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University, is working to adapt to many new realities, like people across the Emory community and around the globe. By March 18, she had shut down her lab, which is run by a team of 16 students and post-doctoral fellows. Their many projects included synthesizing molecules as tools for diagnostics, gene therapy and drug delivery. When the lab doors shut, other doors opened onto new challenges for everyone involved.

Heemstra, who is also a spouse and parent of two young children, Tweeted: “Waking up and realizing I have two new job titles: Professor at an online university and first- and sixth-grade homeschool teacher.”

“It’s been really challenging,” Heemstra admits by phone, more than a week later. “It’s fun to spend more time together as a family, but I’m not a natural work-life integrator. I enjoy intense days at work and then coming home to be a mom. But blending work with the rhythm of family life is more difficult than I expected.”

It’s this kind of frankness that has earned Heemstra more than 48,000 followers on her lively Twitter feed (@jenheemstra). While her career is thriving, Heemstra is no stranger to academic disruptions and disappointments. She draws from her own experiences to encourage others to learn and grow from setbacks.

Heemstra writes a column for Chemical and Engineering News Magazine, a leading trade publication, called “Office Hours.” It covers topics like the importance of human relationships to science and how to create a supportive environment in a research lab.

“As scientists, we are trained to do research,” Heemstra says. “But there are many other things involved in managing a lab, like leading and motivating teams of people. Apparently, there was a gap that needed to be filled for chemists talking about the ‘people’ part of doing science.”

On Wednesday, March 25, Heemstra will moderate a Chemical and Engineering News Magazine Twitter chat, #COVIDisruption, from 3 to 4 pm ET, focusing on the impact on faculty. The chat is part of a #COVIDisruption series by the magazine (@cenmag), running at the same time each day from March 24 to March 27. Different moderators will take questions on topics of interest involving the pandemic and academia, such as the impact on employment, the switch to online teaching and graduate student mental health.

“This pandemic may be one of the biggest challenges many of us face in our careers and our lives,” Heemstra says. “One of the toughest parts of it right now is the uncertainty of the situation.” 

Heemstra invites anyone seeking community to join in the Twitter chat on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, here are a few coping strategies she recommends.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s important to reach out to family, friends and colleagues when you need it, and to tap any institutional resources at your disposal. Emory, for example, has a web site listing support services for the well-being of students, faculty and staff. “Dealing with the impact of COVID-19 is not easy for anyone, but I’m so thankful in this moment to be a faculty member at Emory,” Heemstra says.

Acknowledge the loss. Even though we’re in a global crisis, it’s normal to feel badly about how it’s impacting you personally. “It’s okay to let yourself mourn the loss of the experiences you thought you were going to have,” Heemstra says, whether you’re a senior who will not get to walk across a stage for commencement or a PhD candidate having to defend a thesis virtually.

Find some higher purpose. Missing out on lab research, or other experiences you had planned, means you’re helping to reduce infection rates by staying home. “That a huge purpose,” Heemstra says. “Look for opportunities to help others however you are able.”

Cultivate community. “During Zoom calls with team members and collaborators we spend a good amount of time listening to everyone’s stories about how we’re coping,” Heemstra says. “That’s been unbelievably therapeutic. Hopefully, one thing everyone can gain from this experience is going beyond texts and emails to having more real conversations.” If you’re feeling isolated, consider joining one of the many online social groups popping up, everything from virtual book clubs to Twitter’s #COVIDCafe, where researchers from around the world gather in small groups to chat about how the pandemic is affecting them.

Practice gratitude. Be thankful for the healthcare workers on the frontlines of the pandemic, and all the other people providing essential services, from cashiers to police officers. Learn to appreciate small things, like the chance to take a walk on a beautiful spring day. “When you’re going through a difficult situation, you realize that so much of what you put your energy into is just noise,” Heemstra says. “This crisis may be a chance to think about what really matters and to learn to focus on that.”

'Bilingual' molecule connects codes for life

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Getting back to chemistry basics: How simple soap saves lives

"Even now, I don't think most people spend a full 20 seconds washing their hands," says Emory chemist Bill Wuest, who researches disinfectants. "But maybe if they understood the chemistry of soap and water it would make them more conscious of the need to do so." 

By Carol Clark

Scientists are rushing to find effective treatments and vaccines for the COVID-19 infections sweeping the globe. Meanwhile, social distancing and hygiene are the best defense.

Emory University chemist Bill Wuest — who researches disinfectants — recently appeared on The Weather Channel to explain how washing your hands with plain soap and water can destroy the coronavirus that causes the infections, to help minimize its spread.

“There are so many unknowns about this pandemic that are driving fear and leading to irrational actions, like panic buying of toilet paper,” Wuest says. “It’s important to focus on what we do know — washing your hands properly and often with soap and water can help reduce your chances of getting infected with many pathogens and for spreading them to others.”

Soap and water work through the hydrophobic effect, a basic chemistry concept that explains why oil and water don’t mix. The effect drives protein folding, a process that alters the structures of amino acids and allows them to perform different functions within a cell.

“I usually use the example of protein folding to teach the hydrophobic effect to chemistry undergraduates,” Wuest says. “But now I realize that soap provides a much more relatable example.”

Soap molecules have hydrophilic heads — they cling to water molecules — and tails that are hydrophobic — which means “water-fearing.” When immersed in water, the soap molecules form into tiny balls, called micelles, with their hydrophobic tails pointed inwards. While the soap molecule tails want to avoid water, they are attracted to oils and fats.

Many bacteria and viruses, including coronaviruses, are encased in a fatty acid membrane. In the most simplistic terms, the soap molecule tails poke into these bilayer membranes, breaking them apart, and destroying the pathogens.

Wuest urges people to choose plain soaps and hand sanitizers that do not contain antibacterial ingredients. 

Warmer temperatures boost the hydrophobic effect, and may help hand soap to lather and remove grime or microbes sticking to your skin, just as hot water and soap helps remove grease from a kitchen pan. Wuest recommends lathering your hands in water that’s warm to the touch. Evidence suggests it’s best to spend at least 20 seconds washing your hands to remove more germs, he adds. 

Wuest plans to use the soap and water example in his Chem 202 classroom from now on. Emory’s Chemistry Unbound curriculum is designed to give undergraduates context for real-world problems and solutions. Although washing with soap and water may sound too basic a topic for college students, Wuest now realizes that it is not.

“This pandemic has changed the way I think about teaching,” he says. “Even now, I don’t think most people spend a full 20 seconds washing their hands, but maybe if they understood the chemistry of soap and water it would make them more conscious of the need to do so.”

Hand washing is important to reduce illnesses and deaths for many diseases, including seasonal influenza, he notes.

If soap and water is not available, hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol is also effective at breaking up the membranes surrounding coronaviruses and bacteria. It should be rubbed thoroughly into the hands until all the liquid evaporates, Wuest says.

Wuest is a Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator and associate professor in Emory’s Department of Chemistry. He is also a member of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center.

For everyday use in a non-medical setting, Wuest urges people to choose soaps and hand sanitizers that do not contain antibacterial ingredients. Proper use of plain soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer product is key, he stresses.

“I worry that there could be a spike in antibacterial resistance in a few years if too many people start using antibacterial products to clean their hands,” he says.

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