Issue 90

The Business of Fertility, aka "Big Baby"

March 22, 2020

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

Happy Spring, friend.

Today, the days are officially longer than the nights now. Go outside if that’s possible for you. If that isn’t possible, open your window—remember that carbon dioxide buildups from constant exhalation in rooms make you sleepy and dull. Be safe and kind to others, friend, and enjoy some scrap facts from my fertility series. If you’re not already a QZ member, you can get 40% off your membership to read this guide (and so many more!) by using the code QZFLASHSALE.

An illustration of a blue egg and a pink sperm swimming toward it. Credit: Daniel Wolfe.

Limited access to information plus high-strung emotions create an irrational market.

Found while reporting: The whole gosh-darn series.

I chose to explore the science of fertility care because it’s an opposite force to those driving our globally aging population. I have never reported on a topic where I found it more difficult to get objective information, I told my colleague Jenni Avins for the newsletter Quartzy:

Jenni: What surprised you about this topic?

Foley: I’m not at a point in my life where I want to have kids, and I think what was most surprising was that purely objective, unbiased information is actually really hard to find. I just can’t imagine having to navigate this information in a heightened emotional state.

There’s RESOLVE (the National Infertility Association), the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which to various degrees provide information for prospective parents. But other than those big societies, it’s either really technical stuff—like papers from embryologists—or stuff that clinics put out, but the clinics are trying to get you to come to them. FertilityIQ is good too, but, again, they’re trying to get you to buy their courses.

And because clinics are trying to sell you services, it’s like: “There are all these things you can do if you absolutely want to be a parent. But if you decide you don’t want to go further, then I guess you don’t want to be a parent.” Nobody is there to say: “It’s okay when you want to stop.”

You can read the full interview here.

The problem with a lack of clear, objective information is that it creates almost a predatory field for people who may already be vulnerable. By the time most people seek out fertility care, they desperately want a child. They will pay the thousands of dollars they can for medications, intrauterine insemination, and eventually in vitro fertilization, or IVF, as long as they can. If they can’t, they may try to borrow money from families, take out loans, or head to crowd-funding sites like GoFundMe. If they can only afford one round, they may pressure doctors to transfer multiple embryos to their uteruses—a choice that could result in multiple pregnancies, which is dangerous for both the pregnant person and their unborn children.

It’s an incredibly difficult field to navigate even when you’re not personally emotionally invested in it—my heart goes out to those who are going through it right now.

The world’s first embryologist was ignored for her work.

Found while reporting: How fertility care went from an evolutionary need to a luxury good.

There was a trio of scientists who contributed to the birth of Louise Brown, the first IVF baby, in 1978. One of scientists who developed IVF, Robert Edwards, won a Nobel Prize for his work in 2010. The second was Patrick Steptoe, who was constantly referenced in conjunction with Edwards. And the third was Jean Purdy. But she was largely forgotten in the scientific community—despite collaborators best efforts.

Sigh.

Purdy was the world’s first embryologist. She was responsible for culturing embryos to grow in the lab, until they were five days old when they are officially blastocysts—a term she also coined. She was so essential to the research that when she had to stop coming into work in order to take care of her mother, all research stopped for months. Edwards and Steptoe spoke out that she should be recognized for her contributions—and she has been, posthumously—but during her time, she was yet another victim of sexism.

Taking gender-affirming hormones does not render a transgender person sterile.

Found while reporting: Fertility care has opened more doors for trans people to have biological children.

This was my favorite story to report for this series because it is the happiest.

An image of Trystan, Biff, and one of their sons, Leo, all reading books on the couch. Courtesy of Trystan Reese.

Fertility care has opened another door for LGBTQ+ people to have kids and expand their families. Which is great! But one area that it has lagged is with regard for trans folks—particularly those who have decided to take gender-affirming hormones.

One such person is Trystan Reese, who, at 37, gave birth to a son. Trystan and his husband, Biff, already had two children through adoption. He had written off having biological kids. He was assigned female at birth, but as a young adult, he knew he was transgender. At 22, he legally changed his name and started taking testosterone—which he assumed would render him sterile. Plus, he didn’t know any trans people with kids. Kids require a certain level of love and stability, which he didn’t know was in the cards for him as a member of a marginalized community.

But then, he fell in love—first with his husband, and then with their two adopted children. “I truly wanted to create life, and to have that experience be a physical manifestation of this love that I never thought I’d find out in this world,” he told me.

Trystan was able to get great care from one a fertility clinic in Portland, Oregon that is LGBTQ+ friendly. There are many of these across the country, and even some awesome scientists researching how to make this kind of care more successful. But still, a lot of people aren’t aware that this kind of care exists, and could be for them! It’s got a long way to go, but it’s another chance for people to grow their families.

Animal of the week: Pigs

An image of a small spotted pig munching on some grass.

Like many of you, I now find myself working in close quarters with my partner constantly. This means that he has seen my daytime eating habits (read: constant snacking) and the way I prefer to keep my desk (read: unorganized to the untrained eye, but I know my system), and showering habits (read: only when I’m absolutely sure I’m done exercising for the day—why waste water? [Editor’s note: she is *never* done exercising for the day.]). The spare bedroom that we’ve converted to my office is now known as the Pig Sty. Which means that (in an extremely “I’m baby” voice) I’m Piggy.

I don’t mind because pigs are wonderful creatures. They’re are smart and playful. They’re fast. They don’t really like being muddy—they figured out that it’s an excellent way to compensate for the fact that evolution hasn’t blessed them with sweat glands. [Editor’s note: Katherine has sweat glands. They work extremely well.]

And surprisingly, their bodies—including their embryos—are surprisingly similar to our own.

Pigs have been instrumental in advancing transplant research. They’ve received genetically modified baboon hearts—and lived!—and grown working lung tissue. But they also were the animal model basis of work by Jonathan van Blerkhom. Starting in the 1970s and 80s, he used pig embryos to show that it’s possible to carry out IVF in a minimalist setting. His work is the basis of the organization The Walking Egg, a non-profit that hopes to bring IVF to developing countries for hundreds, not thousands, of dollars.

Some of the discoveries he made with them were actually an accident—he had to find a way to transfer pig embryos from one site to another, which is how he learned that a simple thermos would suffice instead of a lab-grade incubator. He also used them to figure out that a simple titration will create the specific gaseous environment that embryos need—about 90% nitrogen, 5% oxygen, and 5% carbon dioxide.

Based on research with pig embryos, van Blerkhom and his colleagues figured out how to successfully do human IVF successfully for about $200. About 200 couples in Belgium have had kids that way—it works! But it would also disrupt the status quo of expensive treatment.

One last personal request: If you are healthy, please, please stay away from others. Please forgo your group meetups for now (even runs), and only meet up with healthy loved ones who have quarantined for two weeks—assuming you have too, and you can get to them without taking public transportation. Isolation sucks, but it’s not permanent. Deaths are, though. The sooner we can take Covid-19 with the gravity it deserves, the faster we’ll get through this.

Special thanks to Ben Daniels for this issue—he’s a generous copy editor, a public health expert, and he makes sure I eat more than just trail mix and kale.

That’s all for now—stay curious, friend ❤️

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 89

Covid-19, but ALSO some non-Covid-19 news

March 16, 2020

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

I’m back!

It’s been odd being out of your inbox during such a major global health crisis. I’ve been working on an exciting series I’m thrilled to share with you—but that means I haven’t been reporting as much as I’d like on Covid-19.

Instead, I’ve observed most of the news around this pandemic from afar. Seeing the news and watching the public’s reaction to it, I’m worried:

My biggest concern is that the message about social distancing to stop the spread of the virus isn’t hitting home. Many people are correctly assuming that they won’t get sick with Covid-19. Most of us won’t, and if we do, it’ll be mild.

Yet for those who will get severely ill, it’ll be bad. Like, not-enough-hospital-beds bad. And it seems like it’s hard to comprehend how the healthy among us will directly impact those of us who are more vulnerable. This at-risk population includes older adults, those with pre-existing lung issues, or suppressed immune systems. (That said, a perfectly healthy person still could experience major complications. We’re likely to see more of these surprisingly severe cases as the pandemic continues.)

Viruses (technically virions, but now’s not the time to be pedantic) do not care who they infect. They do not care if they make people sick or not; that’s collateral damage that isn’t their concern. Their only goal is to reproduce, and they can only do that if they have an ample supply of host cells. (Again, technically viruses have no desires, because they don’t have brains. They’re intracellular parasites.)

The more contact we have with each other, the more likely it is that the virus can jump to more potential hosts. Healthy folks have immune systems that keep the virus in check. They won’t feel sick; but they’re still hosts. And they’re still capable of passing it on to others.

We all have parents or grandparents or other loved ones who fall into the “vulnerable” category. We all want to protect those people desperately, and would never dream of putting them in danger by exposing them to the virus if we knew we could. But it’s a lot harder for us to imagine our second or third degree connections—people we don’t know—and how our actions could affect them. Some of these farther connections are undoubtedly vulnerable individuals. Any kind of social engagement right now puts those vulnerable people at risk.

On the flip side of that, the benefit of protecting these second and third degree connections is hard to see. We’ll never know who we save by not giving the virus a chance to jump from one person to another.

It’s like a scaled-down version of the way we think about climate change: We know that some people are going to be victims of extreme weather resulting from climate change, but it’s hard to imagine that our own meat-eating habits or energy consumption contribute to any particular storm.

The difference is, with climate change we’ll never be able to prove that one person’s specific habit contributes to a specific storms. With the spread of Covid-19, our individual actions could actually kill specific individual people down the line—someone’s grandparent, someone’s friend, etc.

Please, please limit your social contact over the next few weeks. Do not go to bars, restaurants, group fitness classes, or public spaces, if you can avoid it. It sucks, I know: I’ve felt the day-to-day effects of it in my own life: running groups and races called off, missed parties, no public transportation, figuring out how to change apartment space to accommodate two adults working from home. Each of these little stressors adds to an acute anxiety that I like to carry in a specific spot on the left side of my upper back. I’ve cried and argued with my partner, who works in public health, because I didn’t want his concerns and precautions to be true. (He is right.)

This is an opportunity for us to do the right thing to protect other human beings. That’s what’s going to matter much more than missed happy hours when we look back on this time.

By the way, pandemics like this one will not be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of you reading this newsletter. We’ve had three different coronavirus diseases (a generic term for a particular type of virus) jump from animals to humans since 2000—SARS, MERS, and now Covid-19. The more we press into animals’ territory through deforestation and urbanization, the more likely it is that more viruses will make the zootonic jump, too. AND, because global populations are aging, these pandemics will likely affect an even larger percentage of people. We need to learn how to handle these types of pandemics now to do so better in the future.

Anyway, onto the good stuff!

If you find yourself having a lot more reading time on your hands and needing a break from coronavirus news, I’ve got just the series for you:

For the past six weeks, I’ve gone deep into the world of fertility care, which popped up just 40 years ago. It’s the other side of the coin of reproductive rights—individuals or couples who want to have kids can, even if there are a social or biological factors that would normally prohibit them from doing so.

And it’s big business (for “Big Baby,” as I like to call it). The field is a combination of state-of-the-art technology and a vulnerable client base of hopeful parents. In short, capitalism has worked its magic and turned having a baby into a luxury good.

You can now enjoy the series online. On Thursday, I’ll be sending a special edition of Scrap Facts with everything else I learned reporting this series. If you have any questions for me about the topic, reply to this email and I’ll answer them in Thursday’s issue! I’ll also take your questions on Covid-19, or direct you to the best resources, because now is a time for information sharing.

That’s all for now—stay curious, friend ❤️

Special thanks to Ben Daniels for this issue—he’s a generous copy editor and a public health expert who has informed a lot of my thinking.

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 88

Coronaviruses vs the flu, treadmills as punishment, and please get your dental work done

Feb. 1, 2020

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

Not all infections tear down the body in the same way

Found while reporting: Coronaviruses hit seniors the hardest.

You’ve heard lots about the novel coronavirus that got its start in Wuhan this week. It causes pneumonia, and cases have skyrocketed in the past couple of weeks, with nearly 10,000 cases (as of Friday morning when I last checked).

The virus has killed some 200 people. But I noticed an interesting trend among these death rates: Most of them seem to be older adults with other health conditions. So while these cases are worrying, they’re not entirely unexpected. Older adults are more likely to die from lots of infectious diseases — they already make up most flu deaths annually.

I spoke with Vineet Menachery, an immunologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch who studies how coronaviruses affect aging immune systems, and he said that different viruses have different ways of damaging the body. Even if the end result is the same (death), it happens differently. He used bank robbers as an analogy (slight editing for clarity from me):

The flu is like bank robbers that are bursting open the doors with guns blazing. They doesn’t care about the host. Coronaviruses are like bank robbers that try to cut the alarm and hide as much as possible. They’re both two ways to get to the same thing—walking away with the bank’s cash—but they go about it differently. Both are effective in their own ways.

Not to freak you out, but you can get a brain infection if you put off your dental work for too long.

Found while reporting: The sorry state of US dental insurance led to the rise of direct-to-consumer orthodontia.

Most research papers in medical research are based on data from an experiment with many participants. Every now and then, though, physicians will publish a study on a single person. These papers, called case studies, show what happens in extreme or rare case. In other words, they aren’t average presentations of what can happen to the body.

This case study I came across is of a 30-year-old otherwise healthy man who went in for a root canal. Dentists do root canals when there’s a bacterial infection deep in the tooth that needs to be taken out, usually as a result from tooth decay over time.

Unfortunately, during the root canal it seems like some of the bacteria from the infection in this guy’s tooth made it into one of his sinus cavities, and ultimately his brain. He went blind in his eye after two days, and died shortly after going to the emergency room.

I bring you this fact not to terrify you of the dentist, but to encourage you to go to one regularly if you can. AND to remind you that dental health is ultimately a huge part of the rest of your physical health, too. AND to point out that for many people, dental insurance is so meager (or non-existent), that exorbitant costs keep them from doing routine maintenance, like getting cleanings or cavities filled. It’s not a big deal for a while, but can blow up into a major issue all at once.

Oral health is important at every age. It’s particularly important as we age, however, and our teeth wear down and need extra work. Additionally, failing to brush teeth daily, either because of newly acquired physical or cognitive limitations, can be the early flags of a much more serious condition, like cognitive impairment. At the moment, the US does NOT cover dental for adults over 65 through Medicare; you can get it for extra, but it’ll cost you—and it may not be possible on a fixed income. We’ve got to get that changed ASAP.

Oscar Wilde was forced to run on a treadmill as punishment for sodomy.

Found while reporting: This obsession email on treadmills.

Today’s world is not always friendly to the LGBTQ+ community, but it was way worse in the 19th century.

On May 25 in 1895, writer Oscar Wilde was sentenced to prison in the UK after word got out that he had sex a man. His boyfriend’s father turned Wilde in. Instead of leaving the country, Wilde went ahead with a trial. In the first, one juror refused to condemn him; in the second, most witnesses refused to testify, but the judge sentenced him to two years in prison anyway.

The treadmill was invented not for exercise, but for prison labor. In the late 1800s, prisons were just starting to phase out treadmills—but they were still there.But unfortunately, running on a treadmill for seven to ten hours daily isn’t great for you in the long run; because of high mortality rates, prisons abandoned treadmills fully in the early 20th century.

Wilde served his time using prison treadmills, but only managed to live three years beyond that. He died at 46.

PSA: Want to get into (or continue) running but hate winter (or summer) weather? Go ahead and sub in a few treadmill workouts for an outdoor run—but set the incline to at least 1% to mimic outdoor running. And don’t hold onto the handlebars. Turn down the speed instead.

Animal of the issue: Striped bass

I was recently in the great first state of Delaware (where I’m from), and I went for some lovely runs along the Christiana River* (named after a Swedish Queen way back in the 1600s when the Swedes tried to start New Sweden). Turns out the river is a major breeding ground for a fish I hold near and dear to my tummy: the striped bass, or rockfish.

Striped bass are some of the few fish that usually hang out in the salty ocean waters, but come to freshwater rivers to reproduce. They can live up to 30 years old, and play a key role in the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem because they eat basically everything (read: zooplankton, fish larvae, insects, worms, amphipods, Bay anchovy, spot, menhaden, herring, shad, white perch, and yellow perch). The only thing that eats these beefy boys and girls (besides us) are sharks and seals at sea.

We overfished striped bass for a while, but regulation as able to get it all under control by putting limits on fishing in the 80s and 90s. It’s a form of delayed gratification, if you think about it: Fewer fish now means we get to eat so many more later.

(Note that the Billy Mouth bass is actually a largemouth bass—not a striped one.)

*Turns out in 1937, the state of Delaware tried to change the river’s name to the Christina River. Although this is its official new name, everyone in Delaware still calls it the Christiana River—likely because the major hospital (Christiana Care) and mall (Christiana Mall) never got a nomenclature update.

A programming note.

Friend, the bad news is Scrap Facts is once again going dark for a bit. But the good—really, GREAT news if you ask me, is that it’s because I’m working on another amazing series. I’ll be back in March with more stories and more scrap facts. Stay curious in the meantime!

Stuff I learned from others:

The US Census Bureau starts its survey in Unalakleet, Alaska (why they chose to start there in January is beyond me). India’s first female rock band is strumming for equality. (H/T SCMP’s Lunar newsletter, it’s incredible.) There’s a key number the epidemiologists use to gauge how bad a pandemic will be; but no one’s great at figuring it out. Surgeons can use your big toe to replace your thumb if you’ve lost it—but it’s a 10 hour procedure. The average adult produces 320 pounds of poop annually. WeWork is ditching its free kegs. DC has a state dinosaur and an awesome group of Girl Scouts, but we still need statehood.

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 87

Introducing The Aging Effect, the telomere positron effect, and the history of the FDA

Jan. 18, 2020

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

Population trends of the past decade are going to have lasting implications on the next one and beyond.

Found while reporting: Slow US population growth will create high demand for caregiving.

Friend, I’ve been writing a lot about aging a lot, and I love it. I do this through reporting on health and neurodegenerative disease a lot. But ultimately, I want to show that although older adults tend to be forgotten (or made fun of), they’re not all that different from younger adults at their core.

This mission is more important than ever when you look at the US population growth in the 2010s:

The natural population change is still increasing, but at a decreasing rate. When the two lines below cross:

We’ll enter a shrinking population—much like Japan has now.

Having a lower birth rate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It can mean that people who can become pregnant have access to reproductive health care that empowers them to make the choice to have children. But it does make it harder to find ways to support all of the older adults who aren’t working, or have more complicated health needs (and really, anyone with complicated health needs).

In the next decade, aging populations are going to change the economies, health care systems, and overall infrastructure of the US and beyond. I’m thrilled to say one of my reporting priorities in 2020 tracking all the countries are adapting over time. You can follow the Quartz Obsession The Aging Effect for more stories like this one throughout the year.

Telomeres may do more than track cellular aging.

Found while reporting: A biotech startup thinks its idea could cure dementia—but scientists have their doubts.

Last issue, I wrote about the 10-year anniversary of the discovery of telomerase. It’s that enzyme that builds up our telomeres in cells, but is also pretty closely tied to cancer. If you missed it, you can read the story here.

This week, I wrote a story about a company created on the idea that a gene therapy introducing telomerase could actually be the treatment for not just Alzheimer’s, but all forms of dementia.

The thinking is that in addition to functioning like tree rings that depict a cell’s age, telomeres also regulate other genes. So as telomeres shorten, they tell other genes coding for different proteins to produce fewer or sloppier products that are less efficient at their jobs. Over time, it’s these insufficient proteins resulting from shrinking telomeres that lead to dementia or other health problems related to aging. The scientific name for the phenomenon is the telomere positron effect but scientists still don’t fully understand it.

Could this be a viable treatment for dementia? Who knows! At this point, without a cure for dementia all ideas are worth exploring. But this theory is indeed pretty out-there, and because of the ties to cancer it’d have to be well-studied before actually being tried in humans.

The US Food and Drug Administration didn’t check to see if marketed drugs actually worked until 1962.

Found while reporting: The US Food and Drug Administration is green lighting new drugs faster than ever.

When the FDA was first created in 1906, when medicine was essentially a free for all. A lot of over-the-counter drugs—often peddled by people with questionable medical knowledge—had ingredients like alcohol, opium, and cocaine. (True, they likely made people feel better, but didn’t address the root cause of anything and ultimately had a lot of undesirable long-term consequences.) The FDA’s job then was to make sure that these medicines had ingredient labels, and that a doctor had in fact written the patient a prescription for a specific, “safe” dose.

It didn’t really help. So in 1938, Congress passed another law saying that all medications had to have demonstrated data proving it was nontoxic, but limited the FDAs power to within the first 60 days it was on the market. Also, a bit of a dud of a law for regulation.

So in 1962, Congress passed another law that forced drug companies to conduct these clinical trials and present the data to them for review, much like the system we have today. The switch was inspired by thalidomide—an anti-nausea drug that ended up causing severe birth defects in the children of people who took it while pregnant.

But there was another problem: Congress didn’t approve the FDA’s budget to be big enough to review a massive amount of data from potential drugs in a timely manner. So to speed up the review process, it passed the Prescription Drug User Fee Act in 1992, which allowed drug companies to give money to the FDA when submitting a new drug application.

In theory, this is so the FDA could hire enough people to review these applications in a timely manner. But it still caused me to raise an eyebrow. Especially because in 2018, the FDA collected $908 million from drug companies. That’s a lot of financial support.

Animal of the issue: The Taliabu Grasshopper-warbler

The Taliab Grasshopper-warbler—a small bird with a grey breast and brown wings with a black beak. Image credit to Ames Eaton/Birdtour Asia

You bet I’m going to take a second to talk about the 10 new species of birds—including the above warbler—described in a paper published Jan. 9! These birds were all found in a single six-week trip to Indonesia. My colleague Alex Ossola has the story here.

I am not a bird expert, but one thing that has brought me a lot of joy recently is the game Wingspan. It’s a strategy game involving collecting bird cards and laying eggs, but it’s also gorgeous. Every bird card features a unique realistic rendition of a bird, and a fact about that creature. It’s a great way to spend time if you’re trying to get away from screens in 2020, and also to just appreciate the sheer diversity of this class of animals.

Stuff I learned from others:

In a study about MDMA, scientists accidentally gave participants meth (the paper’s being retracted). Vulture vomit (a defense mechanism) is so corrosive it eats away at metal radio towers. Nursing homes may charge hidden fees to do things like administer medication. Teens are surprisingly happy to have their phones taken away. Anytime we burn anything, there’s a gas 300x more potent than CO2 being released. The internet is making bullying and breakups far worse than they were before.

If you love Scrap Facts, consider hitting the “like” button at the bottom of this page, or sending it to a friend. You can also send your own scrap facts to scrapfacts@gmail.com to be featured in future editions. Wanna keep in touch outside of this newsletter? Follow me on Twitter and Instagram.

Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

Issue 86

Seal flu, a productive Christmas, and reading clinical trials

Dec. 31, 2019

Hello friend! Welcome to Scrap Facts.

I'm a reporter covering health and science with insatiable curiosity. I love everything I learn, not all of which gets its own story. Each week, I'll bring you some of my favorite facts that I picked up on the job or while out living life.

Archives from Tinyletter can be found here. Love Scrap Facts? Consider hitting the “like” button, or tell your friends to sign up!

It’s the last issue of the year! Scrap Facts is a labor of love. If you’ve loved (or even moderately enjoyed) all the Scrap Facts throughout 2019, please consider tipping me through my Venmo. All donations go to my chocolate/granny smith apple fund.

One of the major flu strains this year is likely harbored by…harbor seals.

Found while reporting: The flu is worse this holiday season than it was last year.

I’d like to add “flu season” to the list of life’s certainties.

Every year flu season rolls around (from about October through March for us in the northern hemisphere, the opposite time of year for those in the southern hemisphere) it’s different. It seems to be more active than usual for this time of year, in part because a strain of the virus called influenza B is more prevalent this year. Normally, influenza B only pops up at the end of the year; influenza A is the star of the show.

For most people, this is a negligible difference: both strains make us sick with the same nasty symptoms. For virologists, the difference is in the proteins that make up the core of the virus. For public health experts, the difference is in the trouble these viruses cause: Influenza A tends to be the one that causes pandemics, whereas influenza B can lead to mere seasonal epidemics.

For seals, though, the difference is that one can make them sick. Influenza B antibodies have been found in both harbor and grey seals. Because antibodies are the result of prior infections (or vaccines!), it means seals have encountered the virus before. They could also be a reservoir for the virus—meaning they could pass a version of it to us—just like some birds or pigs could spread versions of influenza A to us.

There are influenza C viruses, which cause less severe illness, and D viruses, which only trouble cows—not people.

If you haven’t gotten a flu shot, please consider getting one! It’s not too late, and even if it doesn’t protect you from the flu entirely, it can make it easier to get through.

One of the biggest discoveries in longevity research happened on Christmas Day.

Found while reporting: 10 years after the Nobel Prize, telomeres are still a murky lead in longevity research.

This Christmas Day (Dec. 25), I spent the day gorging myself on Chinese food and playing pool. Thirty-five years ago in 1984, Carol Greider, then a graduate student in biology, had a much more productive holiday. She discovered the enzyme telomerase, and won the Nobel prize for it in 2009. At the time, she was 23 years old.

Telomerase is the enzyme that builds up telomeres—which are the part of our chromosomes that act like a little genetic hourglass. Every time our cells divide, our telomeres shorten. When they get too short, our cells stop dividing, and they die. It’s a mechanism of aging—although there’s no one source of aging.

Longevity researchers have jumped on telomeres and telomerase as the one way to stop, or maybe even reverse aging. If we can just get cells to rebuild their telomeres, maybe cells can keep dividing.

Alas, there’s one major problem. Telomerase is only in a handful of healthy cells (blood, sperm/egg, and some GI tract), but it shows up in 95% of cancer cells. Playing with telomerase, therefore, runs the risk of causing cancer.

Instead, most longevity researchers have switched their thinking: They’re on the hunt for all the ways that telomeres shorten outside of regular cell division.

Bonus fact: Most enzymes, which help a particular chemical reaction occur, are usually just giant proteins. Telomerase, though, has a special genetic material component called RNA—making it more biologically impressive.

A note on healthy skepticism with clinical trials.

Found while reporting: Biogen’s latest Alzheimer’s drug trials will change dementia drug research and Rare disease drugs stand out in 2019’s top-performing pharma stocks.

Soon, in the early new year, the drug company Biogen will likely file for approval for their Alzheimer’s-slowing drug, aducanumab. It’s an amyloid-protein antibody, given through monthly IVs to patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease, and it seems to clear out amyloid while slightly improving cognitive function.

It’s huge news: There hasn’t been a new drug for Alzheimer’s in over a decade, and lots of desperate people are likely willing to pay anything for a new hope against the disease. And even for a drug to get approved at all is a moderate deal—only about 13.8% of drugs that go through the clinical trial process make it to market.

But just because a drug is approved doesn’t mean it’ll work.

The US Food and Drug Administration requires drug companies to go through three clinical trials—meaning, in people. The first looks at whether the drug is safe in healthy people. They’re small, and they pay. The second is a little bigger, and looks at whether the drug actually works, and the third, which involves thousands of people, sees if it’s better than existing treatments, and what side effects may occur.

The aducanumab trials—two identical trials—involved nearly 3,000 people with Alzheimer’s. That may seem like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things it isn’t: the people who participate in clinical trials are usually homogenous. Alzheimer’s disease—or any condition, for that matter—is very diverse in who it affects, and how it manifests in the body and how it needs to be treated. Notably, these trials were also not successful at first; Biogen originally discontinued the clinical trials because it seemed like it wasn’t working. Not confidence-inspiring.

If (when) Biogen submits aducanumab to be approved, the FDA will review how it did the trials, and the results, and then decide whether or not it should be approved. I say all of this not to say the drug is bad—it’s definitely inspiring—but it’s not wise to put all your hopes on it, or any drug.

Animal(s) of the issue: the 412 new species discovered this year

Scientists at the Natural History Museum in London added over 400 new species of plants and animals to the known list this year. It was a lot of invertebrates and beetles, and a handful of moths and butterflies, and a couple snakes. It just goes to show that we still don’t know all that’s out there.

Sadly, though, we’ll likely never know all the creatures we share the planet with. Because of human activity that leads to animal extinction, “we are losing species faster than we can discover them,” Tim Littlewood, the Museum's Executive Director of Science, said in a statement.

Did you know that the creators of the Pokémon universe have noticed this trend too? Corsola, a coral-like creature, has been bleached out to a ghost of its former self—the same fate as many real corals as a result of ocean acidification.

Corsola—before and after. Image credit to The Pokémon Company.

My colleague Daniel Wolfe made an awesome quiz that tests your ability to pick out Pokémon from actual species discovered this year. It’s fun! And cool that the stark realities of climate change are reflected in Pokémon.

Stuff I learned from others:

Ben and Jerry’s may not be the cow-friendly ice cream we’ve always thought it was. Armadillos help scientists study the differences in identical twins. Kelly Clarkson is coming for Mariah Carey’s Christmas dominance. Holland wants you to call it “the Netherlands” now.

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Top image by E. Y. Smith, headshot drawing by Richard Howard.

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