BioQuakes

AP Biology class blog for discussing current research in Biology

Author: hydrolexandra

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, Vaccine Visionary

Despite the recently-approved Moderna Covid-19 vaccine’s place at the forefront of many STEM-related discussions, the fact that a Black woman played an integral role in its development is comparatively underpublicized. During a month intended to celebrate both historical and current Black trailblazers, it is of the utmost importance that the American public properly recognize Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett, who – through both her illustrious career and her contributions to the vaccine – remains a fine example of Black excellence in science.

Portrait of Corbett

Per BlackPast, Corbett was born on January 26, 1986, in Hurdle Mills, North Carolina. Even at an early age, Corbett was considered by her mother (Rhonda Brooks) as a “sweet little, opinionated detective” due to her intellectual curiosity. While attending Hillsborough High School, she interned for numerous research labs and enrolled in ProjectSEED, a program dedicated to providing supplemental STEM courses for exemplary math and science students. During her summers off from UMBC (which she attended on a Meyerhoff scholarship), Corbett worked under the National Institute of Health alongside Dr. Barney Graham in studying the way that the respiratory syncytial virus develops in children. According to Graham, her ambition and desire for success were apparent from the start; upon his asking of what she wanted to accomplish in her life, Corbett informed him that “[she wanted his] job.” Soon after she earned her PhD and became a postdoctoral fellow of the NIH, Corbett started working on the creation of a vaccine to combat SARS and MERS, two coronavirus diseases. She and her team were responsible for identifying the spike protein of both viruses; as a result, she was asked to lead a team of scientists enlisted by Moderna to finish developing an effective mRNA-based vaccine (NOTE: Per the CDC, “mRNA vaccines contain material [from the SARS-CoV-2 virus] that gives our cells instructions for how to make a harmless protein that is unique to the virus. [Once] our cells make copies of the protein, they destroy the genetic material from the vaccine.” After recognizing that the protein is an invader, the body will create T-memory cells and B-memory cells, which are responsible for preventing re-infection). Luckily for the general public, her and her team’s efforts proved to be successful, as the Moderna vaccine has an impressively high efficacy rate. 

Corbett’s road to success wasn’t always easy; due to her race and gender, she was often deprived of a voice to share her research during times when it was desperately needed. Corbett was the only woman and Black person who was invited to now-former President Trump’s conference with leading figures of the NIH (including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Graham) regarding progress on the vaccine; according to NBC, no one at the meeting asked her a single question, despite her position as the head of the aforementioned scientific team leading the vaccine’s development. This treatment is not an anomaly: despite Graham’s stressing of the fact that Corbett is the leading expert on the project, many scientists around the globe defer to, direct questions to, and even double check her work with him instead. Even more egregious is the fact that Corbett is the subject of racist and sexist cyber abuse, as shown by this tweet telling her to “go back to McDonalds where [she belongs].”

Nevertheless, Corbett has made it clear (via an interview with Black Enterprise) that she never intends to change who she is and what motivates her in order to fit the expectations of the (increasingly diverse, but still largely white) STEM community. “I am Christian,” she says. “I’m Black. I am Southern, I’m an empath. I’m feisty, sassy, and fashionable. That’s kind of how I describe myself. I would say that my role as a scientist is really about my passion and purpose for the world and for giving back to the world.” By giving back to the world in such a formative way through her research, Corbett has proven that the growing desire for diversity in science is not just an option, but a necessity.

Meaningful Momentum or Mirage? The True Effect of The Covid-19 Pandemic on Our Environment – and How We Must Move Forward

During a time where everyone is forced to self-isolate inside, it may not feel very natural to think about the environment in which we live. However, the Covid-19 pandemic has certainly affected the great outdoors for the better and (if reports are to be believed) the worse.

At first glance, it would be entirely logical to conclude that a decrease in travel and industrial production would lead to a significant boost in the health of the environment. According to the NIH, “the global disruption caused by […] COVID-19 has brought about several effects on the environment and climate. Due to movement restriction and a significant slowdown of social and economic activities, air quality has improved in many cities with a reduction in water pollution in different parts of the world,” therefore allowing many governments to gain more momentum in their strides against climate change.

However, this positive sentiment is not shared by many high-ranking officials of NASA, who believe that the pandemic has put a pause on necessary procedures that served to improve our environment. As a result of social distancing and quarantine mandates, there “are far fewer intentional fires to boost biodiversity [the level of variety of life on Earth] and reduce fuel loads in the Southeast.” The lack of these fires is suspected to have impacted the region’s biodiversity by both eliminating habitats for eukaryotic organisms (organisms with nuclei) who thrive in fiery environments and polluting prokaryotic organisms (organisms without nuclei) with fuel (according to Ben Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center). Moreover, the positive effects of the pandemic on the environment may not even be sustainable. Per National Geographic, “daily global carbon emissions were down by 17 percent compared to last year [before the pandemic]. But as of June 11, new data show that they are only about 5 percent lower than at the same point in 2019, even though normal activity has not yet fully restarted.” This spike in carbon emissions could be due to both the government “favors” (such as tax breaks, regulatory rollbacks, and cash loans) offered to high-polluting industries in order to help them stay afloat during the pandemic and the fact that the lax quarantine restrictions in place have not been very effective in keeping people off of the road and in their homes. When these two developments are taken into account, the state of our world during the pandemic looks rather grim.

The theory that the so-called “improvement” in our environment’s health may be very short lived is also supported by data concerning former Covid-19 patients. A new study discussed by Healthline reveals that “people who recover from even mild cases of COVID-19 produce antibodies that are believed to protect against infection for at least 5 to 7 months, and could last much longer” (For context, antibodies are blood proteins produced by Plasma B Cells that combat viruses that invade the body. The production of antibodies is part of the body’s Humoral Immune response.). While this is great news for healthcare workers who must deal with the disease firsthand, it has dangerous implications for former Covid-19 patients who may use their newfound “immunity” to resume life as normal, which could undo the minimal environmental progress that our country has made.

Despite this backslide, it is still possible to ameliorate the damage done to the environment after the pandemic ends. The chief editors of Scientific American argue that while the pandemic has “barely made a dent in climate change,” our environmental plight has shown us a way forward: using our newfound free time to fight for justice and equality for marginalized groups that are disproportionately affected by the pandemic. “The pandemic has not only aggravated the stark inequities and injustices [against minorities], [but] the mass unemployment it has generated has also given millions of Americans the motivation and opportunity to express their outrage. Their impassioned protests against systemic racism may be essential to moving the U.S. to a more equitable and sustainable future. Change is in the air.” While it may appear unorthodox to equate climate change activism with social justice advocacy, it’s entirely possible that they’re one and the same, as evidenced by the social and environmental reforms proposed by the Green New Deal. Consolidating these two fights against the exploitations of nature and humans may prove to be a viable path forward in the coming months.

Overall, while it’s possible that the pandemic’s improvement of our environment was a false mirage, we can make that imagined progress real by campaigning for all forms of justice, whether it’s environmental or societal.

That’s a Foul: “Interfere”-ons and the Fight Against Covid-19

Great news to those infected with Covid-19 – scientists have discovered a new (if risky) way to ameliorate the disease’s advanced symptoms.

According to Scientific American, several studies have concluded that immune proteins could suppress the potentially fatal “viral replication” that results from Covid-19. The proteins in question, called “interferons,” are released in “response to virus infection” and “induce numerous molecular changes that ‘interfere’ with cellular functions in order to prevent inflammation (according to ScienceDirect) .” Such a function could be likened to the way that enzymes in the lysosome break down foreign material, viruses, and bacteria. 

However, similar to lysosomes, the overpopulation or malfunctioning of interferons can have undesired consequences. Described by immunologist Eui-Cheol Shin as “a double-edged sword,” interferons may inadvertently worsen a patient’s deadly respiratory problems or lead to a dangerous disease called “children’s interferonopathies.”

Furthermore, several health organizations have warned against the use of interferons in treatments for the coronavirus. Citing “insufficient data to recommend either for or against the use of” the protein, the NIH does not endorse the proposal being practiced outside of extensive clinical trials. With major powers in the public health domain forbidding interferon-based treatments, it appeared that in-depth studies were needed to make a case for the idea.

Luckily, Shin and his fellow scientists were prepared to do just that. Research teams in France and South Korea conducted blood tests and RNA sequencing, respectively. The results of both tests were, to put it bluntly, not very conclusive. In the former experiment, patients with advanced Covid symptoms were surprisingly discovered to have a rather low count of interferons; conversely, the findings of the latter study showed that the interferon count of patients affected by severe symptoms was actually quite high compared to patients with mild symptoms. 

At first, this clash in results suggested that determining the full effect of interferons in cells would be extremely difficult. However, a clinical trial conducted by Eleanor Fish (an immunologist at the University of Toronto) showed that “[interferons] helped clear viral infections almost seven days sooner on average than people given arbidol hydrochloride, a drug thought to block viral entry to cells.” This conclusion would be a huge win in the rapidly escalating fight against Covid-19. Despite the notion in sports that an interference is an unfair foul, the interferons might just be the interference needed to save countless lives.

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