As per the CDC, in 2018, an estimated 16 million people in the United States live with a smoking-related disease, and 1 out of 5 deaths is due to cigarette smoking. Smoking-related maladies can vary from cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, and lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). While cancer-related deaths are the leading cause of premature deaths, respiratory diseases like COPD rank second among heavy smokers. An estimated 328 million people have COPD worldwide. COPD was also estimated to be the seventh and tenth leading cause of disability in high-income countries and low or middle-income countries, respectively. COPD is a clinical manifestation associated with the lung, leading to shortness of breath, cough, exercise intolerance, and sputum production. Lung function tests and chest X-ray primarily detect COPD. Although constant exposure to pollutants and particulate matter can lead to progressive COPD, a survey conducted by Copenhagen City Heart study for a period of 25 years showed that the absolute risk of developing COPD among smokers is 25% higher than non-smokers. Another survey conducted in South Carolina similarly reported that 25.6 % of active smokers who had smoked ≥ 30 years had developed COPD.
Effects of cigarette smoke on the lungs
The human lung is a complex system involved in gas transfer. It possesses a large surface area (nearly 100 sq meters), which begins at the trachea, gradually branching out as bronchioles (airways) to over millions of closed air sacs, termed alveoli, where gas transfer takes place. An average human inhales about 10,000 liters of air per day. The lung possesses an elegant set of defense mechanisms (cilia, mucus, and immune cells like neutrophils, alveolar macrophages, and dendritic cells) to protect itself from inhaled particulate material and pathogens. Cigarette smoking leads to particulate material deposition in the lung. Inhaled tobacco smoke moves from the mouth through the upper airway, ultimately reaching the alveoli. As the smoke moves more deeply into the respiratory tract, more soluble gases are adsorbed, and particles are deposited in the airways and alveoli.
Cigarette smoking causes severe pathophysiological changes in the lung, including mucus production, airways remodeling, tissue damage, and accelerated decline in lung function. Constant exposure of cigarette smoke initiates a cascade of chronic inflammation characterized by activation and infiltration of inflammatory cells like neutrophils, T cells, and B cells into the lung.
Smoking = accelerated aging
Aging is a natural process that results in a decline in organ function and an increased vulnerability to infection and chronic diseases. The human lung none-the-less faces the same fate. Lung aging is associated with several anatomic (enlargement of alveoli without alveolar wall destruction, the reduced surface area for gas exchange, often referred to as "senile emphysema") and functional changes (reduced elastic recoil and increased gas trapping). These changes result in a progressive decrease in expiratory flow rates with age in otherwise healthy people.
Smoking induces a profound remodeling of the aged lung. As per CDC reports, approximately 80% of the COPD related deaths have been associated with smoking, and approximately 8.4 % of the US population above 65 years smoke regularly. The World health organization (WHO) states that by 2050 approximately 22% of the world population will be over 60 years of age compared to 11% in 2000.
A study in a mouse model demonstrated that cigarette smoke exposure in aged mice (12-month-old) accelerated inflammation (higher accumulation of neutrophils, macrophages, and lymphocytes in the lung) and COPD symptoms as compared to young mice (2-month-old). Cigarette smoke exposure increases collagen deposition around the airways of aged mice, enhancing stiffness resulting in difficulty in breathing. Accelerated aging was also observed in mice exposed to cigarette smoke. In short, cigarette smoke exposure elevates lung inflammation in old mice, induces changes in the immune cells, and accelerates COPD's pathophysiological hallmarks. The duration of smoking is also directly related to COPD severity. The combined effect of age and smoking duration correlates with higher lung deterioration among aged subjects (60 years and above) with over 20 years of smoking than those of the same age with only five years of smoking.
Although not completely curable, COPD progression can be eased with proper medications, like inhalers, steroids, or surgery. Inhalers are prescribed depending upon the severity of the disease and can be short-acting (inhaled just before any physical activity) like albuterol, levalbuterol, or long-acting (inhaled daily) aclidinium, arformoterol, formoterol, tiotropium, etc. These inhalers act as a quick relief and function by relaxing the muscles' stiffness around the airways. Steroids (inhalational/ oral) are prescribed to patients with worsened COPD conditions. They function by preventing airway inflammation, relaxing the airways, and preventing exacerbations. A few names of steroids are fluticasone, budesonide, roflumilast, and theophylline. Often, these steroids are given in combination with inhalers. However, prolonged use of these steroids can lead to side-effects like weight gain, osteoporosis, diabetes, and cataracts. Surgery is the option for patients who are not relieved by medication. However, they carry significant risks, such as organ rejection, and one may need to take lifelong immune-suppressing medications. Finally, COPD is a disease manifestation. Its progression can be paused with proper medication and care, like breathing exercises, avoiding pollution and smoke, a healthy lifestyle, and regular consultation with your healthcare provider.
PhD students are often asked what they like to do after graduate school. Since the beginning, my answer has always been something in the realm of science communication. Sure, I have flip-flopped between being an MSL, a medical writer, and working in science policy — but I’ve always stayed steadfast that my post-PhD job will play towards my strengths: critical thinking, presenting, and writing. At first, I mostly received encouraging responses to my career goals. I felt special, like I had my life together with a solid plan of where I wanted my PhD to take me. A couple years into my PhD, that perception changed, when I met the “post-doc bullies”.
Post-doc bullies might be a confusing term, they are not post-docs who bully, they are people who bully you into doing a post-doc. Post-doc bullies believe a PhD is not worth pursuing if a post-doc is not the next step. They also share a perspective that academic research careers are paramount, and that choosing otherwise is a lesser option. They might say an alternative career is a “sell out.”
In the current economy where industry hires as many PhDs as academia, perhaps it’s time we stand up to these post-doc bullies and have alternative opinions be heard. This blogpost is not a condemnation about doing a post-doc. If a post-doc is in the cards for you, get after it! Chase your goals. I advocate for putting a stop to pushing ideals on the next generation of scientists and recognize them for the individuals that they are.
Perhaps the worst trait that some post-doc bullies have is the perception that they know better, more specifically, they know what’s best for you (the audacity!). I’ve been talked to in this condescending manner a few times, “trust me I’ve been in academia for so many years, you haven’t been a scientist long enough to understand.” To this I concede, I am younger than most (all?) established academic scientists, and yes, I have less experience than them too.
When I’m told this, I second-guess myself, even doubt the research and networking I’ve done for my career. When someone says, "I know better because I’m older," they are using their position to make you question your own reasoning. They are making you feel ignorant so they can win the argument.
How do you combat gaslighting career advice? Don’t take the gas-lighter head on. First, recognize that you are being gaslighted, their attempts to make you feel stupid is an attempt to appear superior. Recognizing this behavior will allow yourself to alleviate your uncertainty and hold true to your beliefs. If the gas-lighter is your PI, speak to your committee members or other mentors who support your choice. Always remember, your thoughts and opinions are valid.
Most post-doc bullies believe the only option post-PhD is to post-doc. Academia or – well, there is no “or”. This philosophy negates the fact that scientists are firstly, humans and thereby unique.
I am a person first and a scientist fifth (wife, daughter, sister, and friend precede scientist). As an individual, I have expectations in my life that do not align well with a post-doc. Some scientists may love the culture of academia, while others look forward to a new work environment. Advising every PhD student to do a post-doc assumes that other factors aren’t pertinent to a career choice, utterly dehumanizing the scientist.
In conversations with cookie-cutters I first ask myself if the argument is worth my time and effort. It usually isn’t. But, if you decide to argue, take the high road. Congratulate them for making their choice and highlight that you are a different person from them. Explain why the post-doc option is not right for you. If all else fails, explain that academia does not make you happy and you want to find a job that makes you happy. They can’t argue with that, although some may try.
Skewed perceptions of time
Many post-doc bullies will argue that a few years in a post doc is not much of a difference in the long run. “Building a career is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t be impatient.” This point is something I agree with from time to time. After-all, I made this same argument to convince myself to pursue a PhD.
However, I inherently do not understand what is wrong with wanting a well-paying job in your late 20s/ early 30s. When I graduate, I will have a B.S, M.S, PhD, and two years of industry experience. Why should I accept a job with a $50,000/ year salary? I was offered a job with that salary without my M.S and PhD in 2015. I want to pay off my student loans, buy a house, and raise a family. I want to retire at 65. Unfortunately, a $50,0000 salary cuts into my financial well-being, and makes my personal goals, which I elevate above my career goals, harder to attain. I am happy to bring up these points in arguments against post-doc bullies because I am not ashamed to have prioritized my personal life over my professional life.
Most often, a post-doc bully does not have a good understanding of the job landscape for STEM PhDs. Fortunately, arguing with a post-doc bully with outdated facts is the easiest, all you have to do is update them:
Post-doc bully: You won’t make as much money if you skip your post-doc.
Rebuttal: PhDs who skip the post-doc make almost a quarter-million dollars more in the first 15 years of their professional career than their post-doc counterparts.
Post-doc bully: You can’t get a job with a post-doc.
Rebuttal: No. This is not true. In fact, a recent independent survey said 40% of PhDs began their post-graduate school career in a position that did not require a post-doc.
Post-doc bully: Play it safe, do the post-doc first, then do industry.
Rebuttal: Some argue that doing a post-doc might make you less marketable for industry. If you truly want to play it safe, try an industry post-doc.
Post-doc bully: You can’t come back into academia if you don’t do a post-doc.
Rebuttal: Not completely true. If industry doesn’t work out, there are avenues back to academia. It’s the road less traveled, but not impossible.
Disclaimer: Not all post-doc bullies are malicious. Some truly believe the post-doc route is the way to go. When faced with a post-doc bully, you might not be able to dissuade them. And that’s ok, we are entitled to our own opinions. I respect the pro-post-doc attitude as long as team post-doc lend non-post-doc proponents equal respect.
I’m a postdoctoral researcher now, but truthfully, I never did like science. Nor did I see myself having a future in academia. Throughout my career, I’ve wondered which is better, do what you like, or like what you do? A simple Google will result in many articles discussing this, so I can’t be the only one wondering.
Growing up financially restricted, I could not afford many things — education was one of them. This was the case for many others in my home country. The education system is a little bit complicated to describe, but suffice to say, higher education was not equally accessible, influenced by uncontrollable factors, like finances and racial identity.
Here in Melbourne, Australia, I am now a post-doc, with four first-author publications resulting from my PhD, and several awards. To this day, I continue to reap the fruits of labor from my PhD even after having left the lab nine months ago. Believe me, when I say, most of my early accomplishments were not planned! My end goal was to live comfortably overseas in a country with better living standards, and along those lines, that required a PhD in a relatively well-established university. Although concerned I wouldn’t enjoy the PhD journey, it was my genuine captivation for research that got me through grad school — even though I had begun my education with hardly any passion.
A university degree in molecular and cell biology
In high school, I picked up biology faster than my peers, probably because English was the language in which it was taught, and I had a reasonably good command of the languages, but honestly, studying was never my thing! Not knowing what I could achieve at the end of high school, I thought it would be best to do what everyone did – attend a university and graduate with a degree. With some luck and a student loan as a stepping stone, I acquired a relatively competitive (and high valued) scholarship to transfer from Malaysia to Australia midway through my undergraduate.
Though biology was easy for me to pick up, I had a lot of doubt if it was my calling. I spent four years studying something I was “talented” at, and asked questions later. During those four years, I was somewhat engrossed in molecular and cell biology, yet I would not have called it “my true calling.” It was hard to know if it was, probably because the bulk of my life decisions at that point were made by going for the next best thing.
Genuine interests for the sciences developed during grad school
As an undergraduate, my grades and my performance for molecular biology were pretty decent, and I received some encouraging remarks from others that led to thoughts of considering undergrad research. Despite the grades and favorable outlook, I was still uncertain at this point in time if I was cut out for research. When I applied for grad school in Australia, one person berated for deciding to do a PhD just because others encouraged me and thought it might be a good fit. After all, one can imagine that this was probably not a very sound reason to pursue years of commitment to research.
The first time I learned of my PhD topic, I struggled to genuinely fall in love with it, but I had hopes that curiosity and passion could be nurtured because it would have been disastrous to go through a PhD training without any enthusiasm.
What really made the difference was having a great team that nurtured what little excitement for the sciences I had. I was fortunate to have a wise PhD advisor who often integrated the humanities into our PhD training, making science more fun and enjoyable. Who knew that years later, I would be going to conferences, engaging with scientists of different backgrounds, most of whom seem to say I am full of vibrant energy when I speak about my research. Once, a PI said to me, “Wow, it’s incredible to see someone at the end of their PhD, and still have so much passion for science!” and it was then I realized that I was actually passionate about my work. Go team cholesterol and ubiquitin! Oh, and I’m still working on ubiquitin!
My advisor always focused on the positives. He brought out my strengths, which was certainly not an easy endeavor for an introvert like myself with low self-esteem. The support for many of my decisions and unwavering trust in my abilities were huge bonuses for my PhD experience. The outcome? Papers, travel awards, conference opportunities, and now a job in another lab!
Maybe it worked out eventually?
I aimed to live as a permanent resident abroad, and one such path included a PhD program. I took an approach where I grabbed opportunities first and worried later. But it was certainly not easy to pursue a PhD as a means to an end.
It was easy to lose sight of my research and life goals considering my limited devotion to science, and I was still unclear of many decisions while working towards my goals. From time to time, I would remind myself to always be honest and true to myself, to not let goals blur my judgments of what I was comfortable with. For instance, I would like to always be surrounded by respectful, empathetic, and supportive individuals. I also value honesty and kindness. Looking back, it was this environment that nurtured me as a scientist during grad school, and I am still grateful for that. Perhaps as long as we stay true to ourselves and ensure our needs are met, we would always be happy regardless of the career path we choose to take?
Eventually, the time came when I applied for post-doc jobs, and the same thoughts replayed. What kind of research was my calling? Is it better to prioritize a work environment where my personal needs were met? Or, should I chase the topic and hope I can cope with a subpar work environment?
In an ideal world, the best situation is to love what you do, and you’re able to do what you love, but perhaps that may be age-old advice? How many of us get to do that? My main job is a scientist, but that is not the entirety of my life. There is a lot more in life to look forward to! Yes, a significant amount of my time is spent doing research, so I probably should learn to enjoy it, yet I know what speaks to me. In fact, from a young age, many of us probably know what excites us! That is also part of the reason why this article is written because I like to share stories!
To live a happier life, I try to find new outlets to accomplish things I’ve always intended to do! Sadly, being a Pokémon master is not a real-life job, so I’ll have to make do with decorating the lab with Pokémon stickers! As I’m entering a new phase, I think I’ll do the same in my post-doc. I can learn to like my job, but importantly, I need to make sure that my science role can meet my personal needs too!
So, it's your first year of grad school — congrats! But your first year is during a pandemic — yikes! Graduate school is stressful enough without having to worry about a deadly virus. Hopefully, this post will help you navigate through your first year by providing concrete advice for choosing your new lab and acclimating to a new workspace.
As a first-year STEM student, your school likely requires you to conduct research in various labs (usually 2-4) for a temporary period of time. After these rotations are complete, you will choose a lab as your new home for the next 4-7 years! It's an important choice to make, and you aren't alone if this process brings about some anxiety. Here are 10 tips to help ensure you arrive at the right decision.
1. Keep an open mind. You might arrive at your school with a PI or research topic in mind. Unfortunately, there are many factors at play that dictate what you will research other than your preferences. Have a Plan B and C just in case Plan A is not in your cards.
2. Shrink that chip on your shoulder. Its tempting to show-off and be over-competitive with your new lab mates. Don't. It's an awful way of making new friends. To be blunt here, your new co-workers don't care how smart you are. They want a lab-mate who is a hard-worker and helpful to work alongside. Be yourself. Save the energy you would spend on trying to impress others to do well at the tasks at hand.
3. Remember why you are there. The purpose of a rotation is to test out a lab. You are not there to churn out data, work long weeks, and publish a paper in a short amount of time. If you feel anxious or overworked during a rotation, imagine what five years in that lab will be like.
4. Ditch the "that's not how my old lab did it." saying. Your new lab will do things in new ways, and there might be a reason for that. When starting work in a new place, it's easy to get caught up in comparisons to the past. But this is a fresh start, embrace the changes and be willing to learn from your new lab-mates and mentors.
5. Ask about funding. $$$$. This point cannot be stressed enough. Just because a PI is taking on rotation students does not mean they have funding to bring you on as a full-time student. Before rotating with a PI, ask if they have money to cover your stipend. If they do not, consider rotating elsewhere. If a PI does not directly answer this question, they might be baiting you to get free labor.
6. Discuss potential thesis topics. Many labs treat students as employees. The students produce data like lab techs, and the thesis is an afterthought. Labs with this mindset are reluctant to let students graduate because they are precious cheap labor. It's important to have research expectations outlined before joining the lab as a student.
7. Speak to other students and faculty in the department. Check-in with others to learn about the reputation of the lab.
8. Ask about time off. Trust me; you need time off. The ideal answer to this question is, "of course, you can take vacations, just communicate with me first." Inquiring about vacation time is an imperative question if your family does not live nearby. Ideally, you should be able to take time off around the holidays and also have personal vacations.
9. Ask about the work schedule. Some labs have strict schedules; others are come and go. Your PI should not demand or coerce you to work more than 40 hours/week. Overtime is your choice.
10. Discuss career development with your PI. It's helpful to have a PI who is also a mentor. Are they invested in your success? Do they support you taking time off for career development? Are they open-minded to non-academic careers? A "no" to any of these questions is concerning.
Lastly, look out for the following Red flags. Any of these behaviors are serious and should not go ignored.
Does the perfect lab exist … hmmm …. perhaps not. Even if you are careful in choosing a lab, you may find yourself feeling unsure of your choice in the future. Start building a support system around you now. If a PI puts you in a difficult position, you'll be happy to have a supportive thesis committee and empathetic mentors outside of your lab to advocate for you.
Good luck this year! And as an academic, remember to stay positive and be kind.
Have you observed bright colored lights when rubbing your eyes? Have you seen transparent stringy particles floating midair when looking at the sky? Have you wondered if they are actually there? Or, are your eyes are fooling you? The answer is no; they aren’t there, but — your eyes aren’t fooling you either. These visual effects are called entoptic phenomena, derived from Greek, ento (within), and optic (eye). Therefore, entoptic means occurring within or inside one’s eye.
The renowned German scientist Hermann von Helmholtz once said, “under suitable light conditions light falling on the eye may render visible certain objects within the eye itself. These perceptions are called entoptical.” Interestingly, this phenomenon is purely subjective. They cannot be observed by an eye doctor using an instrument and cannot be photographed. Sometimes the phenomenon can be used to monitor eye diseases, but most occurrences are unconcerning. In this post, we discuss three commonly observed phenomena and how to differentiate these occurrences from the abnormal ones.
Rub your eyes by applying mild pressure using your index finger while keeping them closed. Do you see stars or circular shaped patterns moving opposite the direction of the pressure surrounded by bright multicolored lights? These patterns are called pressure phosphenes. We encounter them when rubbing our eyes upon waking up.
The word phosphene is derived from two Greek words; phos (light) and phainein (to show). This is the only phenomenon that occurs in the absence of light entering our eyes. We usually see things because light reflected off of surfaces enter our retinas, the backscreen in our eyes, and stimulate retinal ganglion cells that carry information to our brain to process what we see. So, how do we see light when there is no light entering our eye? Vision science researchers believe the mechanical stimulation caused by applying pressure on our eyes stimulates those same retinal ganglion cells. The cells think they perceive light, and we see several multicolored lights and shapes.
While seeing pressure phosphenes is normal, they should not be confused with flashes of light or aura seen in certain types of migraines and other conditions such as a posterior vitreous detachment or retinal detachment, where certain layers of deeper retina are peeling away. Phosphenes or star-shaped patterns can also be seen after a hard sneeze, a deep cough, a blow to the head, or low blood pressure as there might be mechanical or metabolic (low glucose or oxygen) stimulation of the visual nerve cells. These can also be perceived by meditators and by those who ingest psychedelic drugs.
Blue sheer phenomenon
Have you noticed a small number of circular or squiggly transparent shapes when gazing at the blue sky or on a uniformly bright background like a computer screen or a mobile phone? What do you think caused you to see them? Blue light from the sky enters our eyes and is blocked by red blood cells as they absorb all colored lights and allow only red light to pass. However, since white blood cells are transparent, they allow blue light to pass through them. This light further excites the retinal cells. So, the small transparent shapes we see are actually our white blood cells moving along the thin retinal blood vessels. As red blood cells are not transparent, we sometimes see dark patterns floating next to the transparent shape when observed carefully against a uniformly bright pattern.
Blue field or Sheerer phenomenon is observed only during daylight with open eyes and does not impair vision. However, this should not be confused with visual snow, where small white, black, or multicolored spots are seen in a television static fashion across the entire visual area for long periods. Visual snow usually presents with migraines, can impair vision, and is perceivable even when dark. While the exact cause is unknown, it is believed that visual snow is caused by excessive excitation of neurons, the nerve cells, in our brain and requires immediate medical treatment.
Floaters are tiny worm-shaped or transparent blobs that appear when you gaze at the sky or a uniformly bright background. Our eyes are made up of a transparent jelly-like component called vitreous humor that helps maintain the eye's shape and structure and helps keep the retina layers intact. With age, the vitreous humor gradually starts losing its transparency and viscosity. Due to this, the cells, proteins, and other components in the vitreous start forming clumps. When light passes through them, they cast tiny shadows on our retinas, called floaters. Seeing floaters in small numbers is normal, but it is alarming when you see large numbers of them constantly with a sudden onset. They could be due to a tear, detachment, or hemorrhaging of our retina or the posterior detachment of vitreous humor and require immediate medical treatment. Floaters should not be confused with blue field or Sheerer phenomenon as they are slightly longer in size and drift away with our eyes' rapid movements.
Entoptic phenomenon reminds us that what we see depends on the image created by our eye's physiology, i.e. the shape and structure of the eye and what we perceive in our environment. Hence, this should not be confused with optical illusions, which are purely caused by visual structures and are perceived differently from reality. So, next time you see some of these shapes floating, don't rush to rinse your eyes. Enjoy your observation with this new understanding.
The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is the virus that causes COVID-19, a disease that has upended the entire world. Scientists have been working tirelessly to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. To control infection and also prevent further spread, entire nations are invested in the development of a safe, effective, and viable vaccine.
The timeline of the pandemic has been rapid, but so, too, has been the race to an effective and safe vaccine. Nidhi Parekh of The Shared Microscope and Sheeva Azma of Fancy Comma, LLC have summarized the key takeaways you need to know to understand the COVID-19 vaccine race. Read on to better understand the journey to a COVID-19 vaccine and the top contenders in this important endeavor.
When might a COVID-19 vaccine be available?
Things are heating up in the vaccine race. Several vaccines are in the clinical trials process, and many have reached Phase 3, the last stage before FDA approval. In late July, biotech company Moderna became the first to begin Phase 3 trials in the United States as a part of Operation Warp Speed, the US government’s effort to speed up the research and development process for a COVID-19 vaccine. Worldwide, Phase 3 trials were already underway when Moderna began Phase 3 trials in the US -- the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine has been in Phase 3 trials since early July in countries like Brazil and South Africa.
Top US White House science advisor, Anthony Fauci has predicted that a COVID-19 vaccine will be commercially available by early 2021. However, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has the power to grant Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) status to vaccines well before then, if they are deemed safe and effective (to be used in high-risk populations, for example).
A variety of technologies and innovative approaches are being used in the race against the novel coronavirus pandemic. Because the entire world will need to obtain this vaccine, it is likely that many of these candidates will obtain approval in order to be quickly manufactured and distributed. In this post, we'll briefly discuss the vaccines from Moderna, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Sinovac, and Novavax.
Defining Viruses and Vaccines
Generally speaking, viruses cannot survive outside of a host. In the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19, the virus uses humans as a host. Because COVID-19 is very infectious and spreads via respiratory droplets — such as by talking to someone without wearing a mask — the novel coronavirus was able to spread and proliferate worldwide.
When a virus infects a cell of the host, it is able to take over and use the resources of the host to replicate. After replication, the virus takes over the host cell to assemble new viral particles and infect more host cells.
Vaccines help stop the spread of viruses by helping humans develop immunity to them. Vaccines are used to introduce vital information about pathogens like bacteria and viruses to the body, in order to train the immune system to prevent future infection.
SARS-CoV-2 Spike Proteins are an Attractive Target for COVID-19 Vaccines
SARS-CoV-2 causes infection in people via spike proteins found on its surface. The infection that the virus causes is called COVID-19. The virus’s spike proteins help the virus interact with cells in our lungs (as well as other organs and even, perhaps, the lining of our blood vessels), to eventually enter and infect these cells. Once the SARS-CoV-2 virus is in our cells, thanks to the spike proteins, the virus can rapidly multiply and cause COVID-19 infection. Since spike proteins are vital to causing COVID-19 infection, the majority of vaccines in development are aimed at the spike proteins as a way to prevent a COVID-19 infection.
Three out of four of the top COVID-19 vaccine contenders (Moderna, Oxford, and Novavax) target the novel coronavirus's spike proteins, whereas a vaccine in development by Beijing-based biotech company, Sinovac focuses on culturing the virus in bulk and then “killing” or inactivating it with the use of heat or chemicals. These vaccines will all be further discussed in this article.
There are even more vaccines under development: you can check out the New York Times’ vaccine tracker for the latest COVID-19 news and updates. Below, we discuss four of the main contenders for a COVID-19 vaccine.
Moderna mRNA-1273: A Nucleic Acid Vaccine
Moderna Therapeutics is a biotech company based just steps away from Sheeva’s alma mater, MIT, in Cambridge, MA (USA). Moderna’s vaccine is based on molecular “messages” called messenger RiboNucleic Acid or mRNA. This messaging system is commonly used by the body to produce all the proteins necessary for survival.
The mRNA vaccine in development by Moderna contains instructions needed for our body to produce the SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins. When naturally infected at a later date, our body will have the tools necessary to scavenger-hunt the SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins as “foreign” entities and eliminate them. In other words, the vaccine will help our bodies develop immunity against the spike proteins.
The Moderna mRNA-1273 vaccine is currently in Phase 3 trials in the United States. To learn more about the vaccine, please check out this article.
Oxford/AstraZeneca ChAdOx1-nCov19 (AZD1222): A Viral Vector Vaccine
Oxford University in the UK has teamed up with AstraZeneca (also with corporate headquarters in the UK) to create a novel vaccine that is currently in Phase 3 clinical trials globally. Like the Moderna vaccine, the vaccine being developed by Oxford University, too, exploits the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. This vaccine uses a non-replicating simian adenovirus as a vector - this means that the vaccine uses a replication-defective adenovirus (a type of virus) which causes cold-like symptoms in chimpanzees. The genetic material from this adenovirus is removed and replaced by the information to make only the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.
Like before, the vaccine introduces vital information of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to our bodies, which helps flag the virus as “foreign” when naturally infected by it at a later date. Using the vaccine, our body has learned the viruses “top moves” and has the ability to cancel these. This allows the body to prevent future infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Oxford/AstraZeneca have received approval to complete phase 3 trials in Brazil and South Africa. We hope to receive the results of these trials by Fall 2020.
We have previously written about how the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine works in more detail, as well as what it's like to participate in the Oxford vaccine clinical trials over at our blog.
Novavax’s NVX-CoV2373: A Protein Subunit Vaccine
Novavax is a biopharma company based in Germantown, Maryland (USA), not too far from Washington, D.C. The vaccine in development by Novavax, called the NVX-CoV2373, is a protein subunit type vaccine. This means that the active ingredient of the vaccine is a protein. More specifically, the protein of interest is the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The spike proteins used in the Novavax vaccine are grown in the laboratory, and then harvested. The spike proteins are then purified to filter out any unnecessary molecules, and used in a vaccine.
Again, the spike protein will be identified by our bodies as “foreign,” and then an attack will be planned against these proteins, to then ensure safety from any future infections. Novavax has received $1.6 billion in funding from Operation Warp Speed. They have since seen their stock prices rocket from $5 to $130 dollars, making it an attractive target for investors.
The vaccine in development by Novavax is currently in simultaneous Phase I/II clinical trials in South Africa. Learn more about Novavax and how it works here.
CoronaVac: An Inactivated Virus Vaccine
The CoronaVac vaccine is being developed by Chinese biopharma company Sinovac. CoronaVac contains an inactivated version of SARS-CoV-2. As a vaccine of the inactivated type, this vaccine relies on a tried-and-true method of vaccine development. The COVID-19 vaccine is made from harvesting whole SARS-CoV-2 viruses and then chemically inactivating (killing) them.
The CoronaVac vaccine has received approval to conduct phase 3 trials in Brazil, the results of which are currently awaited. Learn more about CoronaVac here.
In the COVID-19 Pandemic, Knowledge is Power
Knowledge is power! This stands 100% true amid a pandemic. Knowledge about the COVID-19 vaccines will help combat misinformation and eradicate dangerous ignorance. While many may be fearful of the new vaccines, building understanding can help reduce fear and anxiety, which are driving anti-vax sentiment that threatens to derail all of humanity’s great efforts to overcome the pandemic and many other preventable life-threatening diseases.
You can learn more about the science of COVID-19 vaccines, and more about the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine trials in general, at the Fancy Comma website.