Toward a Cure for Cancer & Alzheimer’s?

 It’s About How Cells (Fail to) Take Out the Trash

By Shlomo Maital

Prof. Ido Amit

   Prof. Ido Amit is a scientist at Israel’s Weizmann Institute, and heads an immunology lab there.  On his website, he writes:  “You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by trying and falling over.”  

     In this weekend’s Haaretz magazine, science writer Asaf Ronel has a lovely cover article (in Hebrew) about a possible breakthrough by Amit, in treating cancer and even Alzheimer’s.

     I will try to explain it.

     In order for cancer cells to spread through our bodies, they have to evade and defeat our immune system – specifically, immune cells that attack and kill these foreign invaders.  But how exactly do cancer cells defeat our immune system?

       Amit’s lab has perhaps discovered how.  Cancer cells, it is claimed,  latch on to specific cells in the body, whose purpose it is to ‘take out the trash’ made by the body’s cells, as they consume energy and do their jobs.  Cancer cells transform those kidnapped ‘garbage truck’ cells and  turn them into cells that that deprive the body’s cells of energy ..basically, making the ‘garbage trucks’ collect energy from the body’s immune-response cells and not just the trash. 

       Immunotherapy helps the body’s immune-response cells to identify and destroy cancer cells. But cancer cells can neutralize those immune-response cells by using the ‘garbage truck’ cells to deprive them of much-needed energy. Without energy, the immune cells can’t do their job.

       Amit’s lab believes it has a way to neutralize the kidnapped ‘garbage truck’ cells and disable them, so that the body’s tissues get the needed energy – in particular, the immune-response cells.   Once the immune-response cells get the needed energy, they are able to successfully attack and destroy the cancer cells.

        Several Pharma companies are at work on finding drugs that implement Amit’s approach.    There is hope that as a result,  many of the 10 million persons who die worldwide annually of cancer may be saved.  

         But wait.  There is more.

         We know that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia afflict 50 million people worldwide.  Alzheimer’s is linked to plaque that forms in the brain and ‘gums up the brain cells’, like putting sugar into someone’s gas tank (don’t try this at home) that gums up the carburetor or fuel injection. 

          Amit believes the cause may be the same ‘garbage truck’ cells in the brain, that somehow become unable to ‘take out the trash’ and get rid of the plaque and waste generated by brain cells (which generally work very hard every minute of the day).  As that trash accumulates in the brain, the brain ceases to function properly – more or less, like the streets of, say, Tel Aviv, when the garbage collectors go on strike and the trash accumulates in piles on streets and sidewalks..

       Amit says if we catch early-stage dementia, and repair the ‘garbage truck’ cells, maybe we can delay or prevent the disease’s onset and keep the brain cells trash-free..

        How soon will there be drugs that implement his finding?  Amit believes – two to four years

         Hang on there, Snoopy.  Help may be on the way. 

         To discover this, Amit had to invent new technologies that enable the study of individual cells.  He was told by experts that what he was attempting was impossible.  As with many breakthroughs,  he persisted. 

         I myself have survived prostate cancer, a close call,  and the only thing I really fear in this world is having my brain gummed up with plaque.  So I will follow Amit’s progress very closely.  A lot is at stake.    

…And Now – a Lebanese and an Israeli Join them!

By Shlomo Maital        

Noubar Afeyan

                     Dr. Tal Zaks

     It has just been announced that the COVID-19 vaccine under development by Moderna – also an mRNA vaccine, like that of Pfizer – has proved in early trials to be 94.5% effective!  That means – some 95% of those exposed to the virus were prevented from contracting it by the vaccine.  Dr. Anthony Fauci said this result, and that of Pfizer (90% effective), were better than one could hope for.

    In my previous blog, posted hours ago,  I described how two German doctors of Turkish origin, founders of BioNtech, joined with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, of Greek origin, to develop, produce and distribute an mRNA vaccine, now shown effective. 

     Now comes Noubar Afeyan, a serial entrepreneur, born to Armenian parents in Lebanon, who migrated to Canada as a teenager, did his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering at MIT, and founded several companies, including Moderna, which he chairs.  Afeyan employs Dr. Tal Zaks, an Israeli, as chief medical officer,  and they have collaborated to quickly and effectively develop a COVID-19 vaccine, based on the mRNA technology that I explained in my earlier blog. 

      These two vaccines are not competitors, they complement one another.  Moderna’s vaccine is easier to store as it remains stable at minus 20C for up to six months and it can be kept in a standard fridge for up to a month.  Pfizer’s needs dry ice and minus 70 degrees C.  The Moderna vaccine may be much easier to administer in low-income countries.

    For both these vaccines, Pfizer’s and Moderna’s,  the key roles played in developing and producing them were played by immigrants.    Greece, Germany, Turkey, Armenia, Lebanon, Israel, Canada. 

     What beautiful irony, that the anti-immigrant Trump administration, RIP, is in its dying days watching America and the world being saved by the very immigrants it tried so hard to hassle, and to keep out of America.   

       Stephen Miller, hello?  Any second thoughts?   

Two Turks and a Greek Collaborate – And Save the World

By Shlomo Maital

Dr. Uğur Şahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci

  Every major nation in the world is feverishly working to develop a vaccine against COVID-19.  Billions of dollars have been spent, thousands enlisted, politics pollutes science —  and in the end, the world will be saved by two brilliant people whose families emigrated from Turkey to Germany, together with a Greek CEO.  Here is the story, based on David Gelles’ New York Times article.*

*David Gelles. They’re first in the face for a vaccine. NYT, Friday Nov. 13, 2020, p. 8

   On Monday Nov. 9, Pfizer announced that a COVID-19 vaccine developed by Dr. Ugur Sahin and Dr. Ozlem Tureci had been shown to be over 90% effective.  Predictably, Trump claimed falsely that the announcement had been purposely delayed to harm his re-election.  The announcement was made by Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO, who is Greek.  What lovely irony that two Turks and a Greek combine to save the world!

    Who are Ugur Sahin and Ozlem Tureci?

     Sahin, 55, was born in Iskendurun, Turkey.  His family moved to Cologne, Germany, when he was 4; his parents worked in a Ford car factory there.  He graduated from the Univ. of Cologne as a medical doctor and later, Ph.D., after researching immunotherapy for caner.   He met Dr. Tureci, 53,  early in his career; she hoped to become a nun, but ended up studying medicine; she was the daughter of a Turkish physician who emigrated to Germany from Istanbul.   

    In 2001 Sahin and Tureci founded Ganymet Pharmaceuticals to develop monoclonal antibodies to treat cancer.  [A monoclonal antibody is   made by cloning a unique white blood cell, that bind to an antigen, e.g., a virus, cancer cell or bacteria and keep it from making us ill]. They sold Ganymet for $1.4 billion in 2016.

      As billionaires, did they go off to bask on a beach in the Bahamas?

     Far from it.  They founded BioNTech, even before selling Ganymed, to use messenger RNA (mRNA) (see below) to treat cancer.  

     What insight did Dr. Sahin have two years ago?

     At a conference in Berlin, Sahin told a roomful of infectious disease experts, that his company BioNTech “might be able to use messenger RNA to create a vaccine in the event of a global pandemic.”  BioNTech began work on the vaccine in January, after Sahin read an article in a medical journal and saw how the novel coronavirus was about to spread worldwide.    Scientists at BioNTech cancelled vacations and went to work on what they called Project Lightspeed (Trump copied Warpspeed from them). 

     What is an mRNA vaccine?

     This is brand-new vaccine technology.  “To produce an mRNA vaccine, scientists produce a synthetic version of the mRNA (RNA, ribonucleic acid, is a molecule vital in genetic coding and decoding)  that a virus uses to build its infectious proteins. This mRNA is delivered into the human body, whose cells read it as instructions to build that viral protein, and therefore create some of the virus’s molecules themselves. These proteins are solitary, so they do not assemble to form a virus. The immune system then detects these viral proteins and starts to produce a defensive response to them.”  This is a relatively new technology for creating vaccines. No such vaccine existed before.

     What role does Pfizer play?

     BioNTech developed the vaccine.  But the process of clinical testing, passing regulation, and producing billions of doses, needed a Big Pharma company.  BioNTech has been collaborating with Pfizer since 2018.  Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla was born in Thessaloniki, Greece and has been with Pfizer since 1992.  In March BioNTech and Pfizer signed a collaborative agreement.

     Is BioNTech a major company?

     It is now!   Its market value has understandably soared, to over $21 billion, and it is based in Mainz, Germany, employing 1,323.  This makes Sahin and Tureci among Germany’s wealthiest persons.  However, they live in a modest apartment, with their teenage daughter, and bicycle to work.  They do not own a car.

      Will the BioNTech mRNA vaccine save the world?

      Maybe.  But a major problem will be transporting it.  It requires cooling to minus 70 degrees C.  Even major hospitals do not have storage facilities for a vaccine at that ultra-low temperature.  The vaccine will have to be shipped in dry ice (solid frozen CO2), which is minus 78.5 degrees C.  

Why Trump Will Lose Decisively

By Shlomo  Maital   

Lichtman’s 9 Correct Calls

Allan Lichtman is a professor of history at the American University, in Washington DC.  He has predicted correctly the US Presidential Election,  every time,  since Ronald Reagan’s win in 1984.  He does this with a system of 13 ‘keys’, or crucial factors.

     To win, Lichtman says you need a majority of the crucial factors – at least 7 of the 13.  For this election, tomorrow, Lichtman is predicting a Biden win.  Why?  Because Trump is lacking 7 of the 13, and fulfills only 6 of the 13. 

     What is Trump missing?  Here is the list:

Key 1, Mandate Key, because of Republican losses in the midterm elections of 2018. 

Key 5, Short-Term Economic Key, because of an election-year recession.

Key 6, Long-Term Economic Key, because of the sharply negative growth this year.

Key 8, Social Unrest, because of what is raging across the land.

Key 9, Scandal, Trump is only the third American president to be impeached by the full US House of Representatives.

Key 11, Foreign/Military Success, because of the lack of an acclaimed success abroad.

Key 12, Incumbent Charisma, because Trump appeals only to a narrow base.    

     Trump claims he would have won easily had it not been for the pandemic.  Probably true, because of Key 5 and Key 6.  That would have given him 8 keys favorably, out of Lichtman’s 13, and a predicted win. 

      Could Trump have won despite the pandemic?  He could have made it close, by systematically moving beyond his ‘base’ and appealing to a broader audience.  That would only have given 7 of the 13 positives, and a very close election.  But he simply could not give up his self-worshipping narcissistic love of crowds cheering him and wearing red Trump hats.

      Footnote: a Stanford study showed that hundreds probably died, after contracting COVID-19 during crowded Trump rallies in many states, where few wore masks and stood shoulder to shoulder.  For them – Trump has been fatal.

COVID-19 Leaders: Listen to the Women

By Shlomo  Maital 

  I’ve written this before – but now, today, with the coronavirus raging in the US and EU – it bears repeating.  Women have done far far better than men, as national leaders in the fight against the pandemic.   Question is – why? *

  * see Arwa Mahdawi, “the secret weapon in the fight against coronavirus: women”.  The Guardian, April 11 2020.

    * Tsai In-Wen, a former lawyer, Taiwan’s first female President elected in 2016, has effectively limited the pandemic in her country, from the start.

    * Jacinda Arden has virtually eliminated the coronavirus in New Zealand and won resounding re-election, with a parliamentary majority.

      * Angela Merkel,  lame-duck German Chancellor, has been a voice of calm and reason, in the face of neo-Nazi demonstrations in her country.  She is herself a scientist, and not only listens to the science but truly deeply understands it.

      * Denmark, led by PM Mette Frederiksen, and Finland, led by PM Sanna Marin, have both done well in limiting the pandemic in their countries. 

     * As of 27 September 2020, Norway has performed 1,034,670 tests and reported 13,741 confirmed cases and 274 deaths.   A senior Norwegian Institute of Public Health consultant said one of the major reasons why the mortality rate was significantly lower than in other European countries (such as Italy, Spain, the UK) was the high number of tests performed in Norway.  Erna Solberg has been Norwegian PM for over 6 years.

    *  Iceland joins Taiwan,  mong a group of countries which adopted a cooperative strategy early on in the pandemic, bringing together multiple organizations to tackle the challenges in containing COVID-19.  Katrín Jakobsdóttir is  erving as the 28th and current Prime Minister of Iceland since 2017.

    Seven brilliant women, who have led their countries to safe shores.  Concidence?  When the three biggest failures in controlling the pandemic were led by men:  Trump (US), Bolsinaro (Brazil) and Johnson (UK)? 

    I could list some speculative theories about why women have been far more successful than men in controlling the pandemic crisis. 

    But I leave it to the reader.  Because – you, dear reader, know why. 

Mental Health Impact of COVID-19: A Survey of 59 Countries

By Shlomo Maital   

  We are approaching almost a year of the coronavirus pandemic – and in virtually every country (except perhaps New Zealand, where fans are filling stadiums to watch the All-Blacks), it is beginning to wear people down.  Here are the results of  large-scale study of the mental health impact, based on a sample of 6,882 individuals in 59 countries. *

  • Elisabet Alzueta et al., “How the COVID-19 Pandemic has changed our lives: A study of psychological correlates across 59 countries”.  J. of Clinical Psychology 2020: 1-15.

Of the nearly 7,000 participants, 25.4 % reported moderate-to-severe depression,  while 19.5% reported anxiety symptoms. 

  What caused the depression?  A variety of factors:  Among them,

*  the country’s income level (higher income correlated with higher depression),  * exposure to COVID-19 (e.g. unconfirmed symptoms), * government lockdowns, * life changes (e.g. working from home); and * conflicts with other adults at home.  However, all these factors ‘explained’ (in a statistical sense) only about one-fifth of the variance in depression.

A major battle is underway between the “the cure (of the pandemic) is worse than the disease, let’s open at once” camp,  and the “you cannot heal the economy until you stamp out the damned virus” camp.  I think the latter are more right – better to severely lock down, like taking a very bitter medicine to cure an illness, to shorten the prolonged impact on mental health by failing to do so.

  It is surreal that American voters are basically being asked to choose between these two camps, Trump vs. Biden —  when the issue is really rooted in complex epidemiology and shrouded in massive uncertainty.   It is clear, however, that the science and the scientists overwhelmingly favor the “end the virus first, clamp down hard” policy. 

Post-Pandemic Youth: Tired But Hopeful

By Shlomo Maital  

    A great many hard words have been said and written about GenY and GenZ, the young generations – who are tired of lockdown and perhaps spread virus to vulnerable elderly. 

     Here is a different take, based on a survey of 1,300 full-time college students in the US, UK and Canada, published in Harvard Business Review.*

  • A. Whillans, L.M.Giurga, L. Macchia and A. Yemisoigil, “Why a Covid-19 World Feels Both Tiring and Hopeful for College Students”.  Harvard Business Review, August 3, 2020.

The main finding, is this:

“Many students also demonstrated a heightened concern for helping others and hoped to find work that fulfilled a greater purpose. Specifically, students reported a heightened interest in pursuing careers that were useful to society and that helped other people. The single highest job priority for the college students we studied was “to have a job that allowed them to help other people.” In light of the economic recession, perhaps unsurprisingly, students’ desire to have a purposeful career was followed closely by “having a job that resulted in high income” and “job security.” Perhaps most interesting was the fact that prosocial and economic-based career motivations were stronger in this student sample than opportunities for advancement, job flexibility, and free time: three motivations which typically dominate career interests among this age group.

The pandemic has taken a terrible of lives and sickness, among millions.  But in a way, it has also been a global alarm clock, a wake-up call.  And perhaps, according to this Harvard study, it has resonated especially with younger people.  This is crucial, because it is they who will “Build Back Better”.    Older generations sometimes teach the younger ones – but perhaps, today, it is the elderly who can learn from the young.

  The authors conclude:

We are all exhausted and stressed. Perhaps more than any other group, students are especially concerned with what the future holds. Yet, we can all learn something from our data and this moment. Using this present as a chance to reflect about life’s meaning, and our own desired legacy, can increase our resilience in facing our unknown challenges. In becoming more resilient and reflective, we will not only reduce our own personal stress, but also become more focused on helping our families, our communities, and our country.

COVID-19 Immunity: Is It Short-Lived?

By Shlomo Maital

    One crucial fact we need to know and understand about COVID-19 —  for those who have had it, and survived – are they immune?  For how long?

    Now comes a study from England, that is not good news at all.  According to Nicola Davis, writing in The Guardian:

The proportion of people in England with coronavirus antibodies dropped by more than a quarter in the space of three months, researchers have revealed, fueling concerns over reinfection.  The findings come from the React-2 study, which is based on home finger-prick antibody test results from random participants across all 314 local authorities.  The first results, based on data from 100,000 people, were released in August, revealing that about 6% of the population of England had the antibodies – protective proteins produced in response to an infection – although the team say that could be a slight underestimate.   The new work – not yet peer-reviewed – extends this with more testing in two fresh cohorts, each yielding results from more than 100,000 adults.  The results reveal that just 4.4% of those tested in the most recent round, between 15 and 28 September, had detectable coronavirus antibodies.

    “As a whole, these data suggest the possibility that decreasing population immunity will lead to an increased risk of reinfection as detectable antibodies decline in the population,” said Graham Cooke, co-author of the report and professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College London.

 Apparently, too, the elderly lose immunity faster than do the young. 

 This does NOT mean that a  COVID-19 vaccine will be ineffective.  “… the new results do not necessarily mean that immunity arising from vaccination would be short-lived. A good vaccine may well be better than natural immunity.

 So what do the British results imply, for ordinary citizens?  I think they mean —  hunker down, everyone, this novel coronavirus is going to be with us for a long time, and we are going to have to learn to co-exist with it.   Masks, some social distancing, etc.  We are resilient. We CAN live with it. 

    The crucial point is,  to live with it, not die with it.  Those who scorn what science and public health tell us to do, are potentially guilty of “negligent homicide”, a well-defined crime in criminal law.   

China – Newest Global Growth Engine?

By Shlomo Maital

    source: Bloomberg

Once, when the world economy was in trouble, there was a locomotive to pull it out of stagnation – the US economy.  After World War II, when the rest of the world was destroyed, the US supplied purchasing power through its imports.  With frequent global recessions, again the US appetite for consumer goods supplied badly-needed demand for the world.

      Today?  With an incompetent xenophobic addled President (at least for the next 13 days, or 92 days until the Inauguration), and the pandemic worsening in the US in up to two-thirds of all states —  the United States is not the locomotive but in fact the quicksand.

       Enter China,  vilified by Trump, but arguably emerging fastest and strongest from the pandemic.  China’s quarterly GDP growth rate annualized, is nearly 5%….   and that means demand for imports, especially from the Asian ecosystem at which China is at the center.   China can be at least a regional locomotive, and the effects will spread more widely.

       Why has China’s economy done a “V-shaped” recovery, when the US recovery, and that of the EU,  are far more likely to be flat-bottomed U-shaped?  

       China’s local authorities have poured easy credit and infrastructure projects into the economy; lockdown has virtually ended, and when the virus rears its head, China rapidly tests millions of people, to gain control.  

        It is possible to admire China’s economic resilience, while fiercely criticizing its flawed civil rights.  Why cannot every nation learn from other nations, embracing the good, rejecting the bad?   

        Bloomberg News shows regularly how the US economy is lagging – and the conclusion is,  you cannot jumpstart an economy without gaining nearly-full control of the virus.  The failed US administration – not just the President, but the incompetent Cabinet and advisors he has appointed, including Dr. Atlas, who espouses ‘herd immunity’ and denigrates masks —  will go down in history as one that outdid Calvin Coolidge (1928-32) in failing to see what was clearly written on the wall.

Blockchain Chicken Farms: Can High-Tech Empower Poor Farmers?

By Shlomo Maital

  My country Israel has grown wealthy largely through high-tech.  Small correction: SOME people in Israel, about one in twelve, have done well through technology-intensive startups (the high-tech sector is 8% of the labor force pre-pandemic).  So it has bothered me for many years, that the benefits of technology have not been more widely dispersed throughout the economy and population, to enhance general wellbeing.

    In a new book BLOCKCHAIN CHICKEN FARM And Other Stories of Tech in China’s Countryside, by Xiaowei Wang, we learn about how high-tech is being brought to many of China’s remote farms and their poor farmers. 

     You ask, how can blockchain make a Chinese chicken farmer wealthy?  Here’s the answer – from Clive Thompson’s New York Times book review:

    Raising free-range chickens isn’t easy, a Chinese farmer named Jiang tells Xiaowei Wang in a fascinating new book, “Blockchain Chicken Farm.” Why? “Chickens aren’t very smart,” he notes; if you leave lights on, they’ll cluster around “and they overcrowd each other, killing each other. A kind of chicken stampede.”

Each chicken has a QR code on its leg.  Those who buy the chicken can scan it and observe the chicken’s entire lifespan, on a free range, and verify it. 

 Even if you get the chickens safely grown in their sunny, free-range yards, you have a new problem: You have to convince your finicky customers, in far-off cities, that you’re telling the truth about how the chickens were raised.   So Jiang turned to high-tech chicken surveillance. He outfitted his chickens with wearable legbands that record their movements — “a chicken Fitbit of sorts” — and worked with a tech start-up to record the data on a blockchain.

    A blockchain is a type of software, most famously used to create Bitcoin, that can make nearly tamper-proof digital records. When customers buy the chicken, they don’t need to take Jiang’s word that his birds strolled around in the sunshine. They can trust the implacable math. Blockchain in this case is a clever tech solution that also happens to have a bleak libertarian philosophy behind it. As Wang notes, some blockchain coders are fond of citing Thomas Hobbes’s dismal view of human nature: Nobody can trust anyone else.  

     It’s a weird, delightful and unsettling tableau. In “Blockchain Chicken Farm,” Wang introduces us to dozens of such quixotic figures, hopscotching across the country on a mission: to document how technology is transforming the lives of China’s rural poor.

      And yes – there is a Trump lesson here, as Thompson observes:

     It’s good to turn on the klieg lights here. Rural China is a part of the world Americans likely ponder very little, despite being economically entwined with it. To the extent China looms in the American imagination, it’s mostly as an economic adversary, a land that has mercilessly stolen American manufacturing jobs by offering dirt-cheap labor in gleaming factories. (At least, that’s the message the White House has hammered for years now.) \

     It’s certainly true that the country’s manufacturing explosion has helped create a much wealthier China. But it has also produced a rural-urban economic schism that neatly mirrors that of the United States itself. While the cities have gotten rich, the countryside has been left behind, with higher infant mortality, lower life expectancy and markedly lower educational attainment.

So, China is trying to use technology to find remedies for the rural poor?  Is America? Is Israel?

   In an ideal world, technology spreads widely to benefit everyone, including those who are not expert in understanding it. (Xiaowei Wang asked the Chinese farmer, how he enjoyed using blockchain, and the farmer responded, what is blockchain?  You don’t need an M.Sc. to implement technologies invented by geniuses).

   Startup entrepreneurs?  Are you at least aware that some of you are benefitting a fairly small sliver of society — and that what you know nad do can benefit a whole lot of people currently shut out of the modern world?  And do you care?

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital