Thursday, December 31, 2015

End of a Year, End of Another Decade

Everyone is posting these elaborate "BEST OF 2015" lists and photos, but for me, the end of 2015 marks another big milestone: the end of my 20s. In celebration of my 30th year in existence, I thought it would be fun to look back to what was happening in science 30 years ago.

Cover page of Science vol 231, issue 4733, released on January 3rd, 1986 - one day after I was born.

The 1980s were a decade of fearlessness in science, where there were still so many unknowns, yet everyone was excited about all of the possibilities. There were two major scientific pushes in the 1980s: space travel and deciphering the AIDS epidemic, and as you may remember (or have guessed), there were many tragedies in 1986. Let's take a look:

 January 12th: STS-61-C Space Shuttle Columbia is launched. 
Among the crew was Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz, the first Latino astronaut. Dr. Franklin Chang Díaz is an engineer and physicist of Chinese and Costa Rican descent.

January 24th: The Voyager 2 space probe made its first encounter with the planet Uranus.
Launched in 1977, Voyager 2's primary mission was to study distant planets. Voyager 2 visited the Jovian system in 1979, Saturnian system in 1981, Uranus and the Uranian system in 1986, and Neptune in 1989.Now in it's 39th year since launch, Voyager 2 is on an extended mission to study the outer reaches of the Solar System. Check out some of the images taken by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 here.

Voyager 2, photo credit: NASA

Uranus, taken by Voyager 2 in 1986. Photo credit: NASA

January 28th: Space Shuttle Challenger (STS-51-L) explodes on launch.
On its 10th flight, Challenger exploded 73 seconds into mission launch, due to an explosion. All seven crew members and the Challenger shuttle were lost as a result of the malfunction. The shuttle and the bodies of the crew members were found mostly intact on March 9th by the US Navy.

February 21st: Nintendo releases the first game in the Legend of Zelda series in Japan.
Nerds everywhere have no idea how their lives are about to change. This may not seem directly scientific, but if we think about how far computer science and gaming science has come in 3 decades, it is revolutionary.

Legend of Zelda, 1986

Here's the trailer for the upcoming release in the Legend of Zelda series:

March 3rd: The first paper on Atomic Force Microscopy is published.
Atomic Force Microscopy (AFM), or Scanning-Force Microscopy, allows for very high-resolution with demonstrated resolution on the order of fractions of a nanometer, more than 1000 times better than the optical diffraction limit.
Setup of AFM, image from Wikipedia.

April 3rd: IBM releases the first laptop computer.
It weighed 13 pounds, and looked like a little robot.

IBM "PC-Convertible", photo via Wikipedia
April 13th: The first child born to a non-related surrogate mother is born.
Produced by gestational surrogacy, this revolutionary human pregnancy resulted from the transfer of an embryo created by in vitro fertilization (IVF), in a manner so the resulting child is genetically unrelated to the surrogate.

The surrogate and biological mother, Mary Beth Whitehead, refused to cede custody of Melissa (otherwise known as "Baby M", born 4/13/86) to the couple with whom she made the surrogacy agreement. The courts of New Jersey found that Whitehead was the child's legal mother and declared contracts for surrogate motherhood illegal and invalid. However, the court found it in the best interest of the infant to award custody of Melissa to the child's biological father, William Stern, and his wife Elizabeth Stern, rather than to Whitehead, the surrogate mother.

April 25th: The Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded, causing the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history.


May: The first method to create part-human, part-mouse monoclonal antibodies was published. 
The development of humanized monocolonal antibodies lead the way for many medical therapeutics being used today. There are currently more than 30 FDA-approved monoclonal antibody therapies available for a wide range of diseases, including (but not limited to) cancers, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, severe psoraisis, Crohn's disease, transplant rejection, and cardiovascular diseases.

Image from Britannica: Monoclonal Antibodies

May: HIV is named.
The International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses said that the virus that causes AIDS will officially be called HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) instead of HTLV-III/LAV.

Dr. Jay Levy of UCSF, who discovered the "AIDS-related virus", or ARV, which would eventually be named Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Photo via UCSF archives.

 July: FDA approves the first genetically engineered vaccine for Hepatitis B.
Prior to the development of recombinant Hepatitis B vaccines, all Hep B vaccines were plasma-derived. Now, with the synthetically prepared vaccine, it is impossible for you to get Hepatitis B from the vaccine.

November 3rd: TIME magazine releases an issue on viruses, specifically discussing new research surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic. 
By the end of 1986, 85 countries had reported 38,401 cases of AIDS to the World Health Organization, including Africa (2,323), Americas (31,741), Asia (84), Europe (3,858), and Oceania (395).

From TIME: " It would be another year before the first antiviral drug against HIV, AZT, is developed, but scientists are learning more about the biology of the AIDS virus, and testing new treatments, including gene therapy."

Cover Image, credit TIME Magazine.

So there you have it: 30 years ago in science history. I hadn't really thought about it before, but my scientific career has been very representative of science in 1986. I've worked for NASA, studied HIV, and, for many years as a lying, idiot teenager, told my peers that I was the first "test tube baby".

Any guesses as to what the next 30 years will hold for science?

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

World AIDS Day 2015: Did you even notice?

December 1st is World AIDS Day. It has been for decades, and will continue to be for decades to come. Yet, did you even notice?

Years ago, I was venting to my dad about how I wish people used social media for intelligent conversation and to spread important information instead of posting pictures of their outfits and arguing over inaccurate news stories. He looked at me and said "make Facebook what you want it to be", suggesting that I ignore all my boring acquaintances and follow organizations that I believe in, instead. So that's what I did. Twitter, Facebook, and eventually Instagram. I follow government organizations relating to public and global health, nonprofit organizations, scientists, museums, etc.

But, today, I found myself frustrated again. I was looking forward to seeing posts about World AIDS Day, but I saw TWO posts on facebook, and only FIVE quick tweets (80% of which were from US government organizations like Health & Human Services or the CDC).

So, why don't we care about HIV and AIDS anymore? Why has HIV and AIDS turned into a docile disease?

I have a few theories about this:

1. We're inundated with articles about how "A CURE IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER" or about "ONE MAN: CURED OF AIDS".
 Don't get me wrong, I have complete faith in the scientific research community and the medical community, but I'm tired of things being announced or declared in a way that isn't really all that true. We are already in an age where there is a huge distrust of science, so when breakthroughs are made, results are expected immediately. When we talk about "curing AIDS", I imagine the general masses imaging taking a huge red marker and checking a box. But, we've seen with every drug trial (I'm especially thinking of cancer drugs and the public outcry as a result of some of the waiting periods), results aren't immediate. We don't go from test tube to mass production of a perfectly effective drug. Even with animal trials, many times there are unforeseen side effects or changes in dosage efficacy.

Not to mention, the "curing" or "clearing"  of HIV has not had a lasting effect. The incredibly invasive, extensive, and expensive procedures that lead to the initial news stories are simply not feasible for everyone (and even most people!). But the realistic side of the story is often not included.

I don't say this in any way to minimize the great advancements we've seen with antiviral treatments. We are in an age where many people who are infected with HIV are living long, healthy lives as a result of treatment options and lifestyle changes.

2. HIV isn't as scary as other emergent diseases and infections.
How can we take HIV seriously as an ongoing threat if we hear about something new, unknown, and terrifying every week? There are many factors that go into viruses breaking out of a small region and spreading to previously unaffected areas. But, we are in an age of emergent diseases. Ebola has been around for decades, but up until last year, most people had never heard of it. Zika virus was isolated in specific regions of sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and suddenly, this year, more than 14,000 people have been infected in Salvador, Brazil. Kissing bugs are in 26 states, and Aedes mosquitoes have been moving in to California for a few years now. Chikungunya is in the Caribbean and certain parts of Europe.

With scientific distrust, comes fear. Everyone is too busy fearing new viruses to remember that HIV is still here.

TEM micrograph of budding HIV virions

3. Young generations haven't experienced death from HIV and AIDS. Young generations haven't experienced the disease revolution.
The largest recorded ebola outbreak in human history happened (is still happening, albeit slower) happened in an area of the world with which most people are still not familiar. The cases that caught the most media attention were Americans that received experimental treatment.

Younger generations aren't familiar with the fear and death associated with HIV in the 80s and 90s. They aren't familiar with the imagery of that time. They aren't familiar with the huge and devastating number of children that have HIV.

This lack of realistic knowledge and awareness of HIV and AIDS has lead to incredibly sad facts, such as: 60% of HIV positive youths are not aware of their HIV status.

Speaking of statistics, its estimated that 34 million people worldwide are living with HIV.
I recently attended the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) annual conference, and I collected some really devastating statistics. As of 2013, it was estimated that 3.2 million children were living with HIV worldwide, and less than 25% of them were receiving antiretroviral therapy (ART). That was almost 3 years ago.

With the bleak statistics of the number of people living with HIV who don't know their status and the number of children with HIV, we are not in the position to say that HIV is not a threat, or that "we can see the end of AIDS by 2030". If we aren't even acknowledging World AIDS Day anymore, then how can we see a future without HIV and AIDS?

Take this matter into your own hands. Get tested regularly.