[Editor's Note: This essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to several experts: "Under what circumstances would you send a child back to school, given that the virus is not going away anytime soon?"]
It is August. The start date of school is quickly approaching. Decisions must be made about whether to send our children back. As a physician, a public health researcher, and the mother of two school-aged children, I have few clear answers.
To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19.
Let me start with the obvious. My kids, and all kids, deserve a safe, in-person school year. We know the data on the adverse effects of school closure on kids, particularly for those who are already vulnerable. I also know, on a personal level, that distance learning is no substitute for in-person schooling. Homeschooling may be great for those with the privilege to do it, but I - like many Americans - am unable to quit my job, and children need more than a screen to learn.
Moreover, safe school reopening should not be an impossible dream. I and many other physicians, teachers, and scientists have described the bare minimum that we need to safely reopen schools: a stable, low rate of COVID-19 in the community; funding and mandates for basic public health precautions (like universal masking and small, stable classes) in the schools; and easy access to testing for kids and teachers. This has been achieved, successfully, in other countries.
Unfortunately, the United States has squandered its opportunity to do right by families. Across our country, rates of COVID-19 are rising. Few states have been able to sustain a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent - the maximum that most of us, in the public health world, would tolerate. Delays in testing are rampant. Systemic under-funding of public schools means that many schools simply can't afford to put basic public health measures in place. Worst, science denialism (and the spread of quack conspiracy theories online) means that many communities are fighting even the most basic of safety precautions.
To add insult to injury, a spate of recent new data suggests that - as many of us suspected all along - kids are susceptible to COVID-19, they transmit COVID-19, and they can get really sick from COVID-19. This data increases the risk calculus. Our kids are not immune, and neither are we.
Given that the necessary societal interventions simply have not happened, most American families are therefore left making an individual choice: do I send my kid to school? Or not? There are five key questions for parents to ponder when making the difficult choice about what to do.
First, we must look at our community. Knowing that testing is difficult to obtain, a true estimate of community prevalence of COVID-19 is nearly impossible. But with a test positivity rate of more than 5 percent, it's safe to assume that in a school of 500 people, at least 1 will be positive for COVID-19. That is too high for safety. Whether or not the local government does the right thing, I would not send my child to in-person school if my community had these high rates of test positivity.
Second, we must look at our school district's policies. Will the school mandate masks? Are they cohorting students and teachers in small, stable groups? Do they have contact tracing and isolation policies in place for when a student or teacher inevitably tests positive? Do they have procedures to protect vulnerable teachers and staff? If not, I would not send my child to school. If the district is doing all of the above, I would consider it.
Third, we must look at the health profile of our own kids and families. If my child had chronic medical issues, or if I lived with my elderly parents or were myself at high risk of severe disease, I would not send my child to in-person school.
It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October.
Fourth, we must do the difficult, ethical weighing of the non-zero risk of infection (even in the safest communities) with the needs of our children. Even in low-prevalence states, there will be infections in the school setting. That said, the small risk of a severe infection may be outweighed by the social, emotional, and financial risk of keeping a child home. This decision must be made on a family-by-family basis. I know my answer; but I cannot provide this answer for others.
Finally, we must call attention to the fact that many kids and families have no options. There are far too many American children who literally depend on their school system for physical, nutritional, emotional, and academic safety. There are too many parents who have no way to earn an income and keep their kids safe without in-person learning. If anyone deserves to be prioritized for in-person schooling, it should be them. (And yes, we should also work to fix the social safety net that leaves these children high and dry.)
As I write this on August 2nd, 2020, I am planning to send my two children back to our public schools for in-person education. We have low rates of infection in our community, we have masking and stable cohorts in place, and my family is relatively healthy. We also depend on the schools to keep my children safe and engaged while I'm working in the ER! I will not hesitate, however, to pull my children out of school should any of these considerations change, if local test positivity rates go up, or if my children report that masking is not the norm in the classroom.
And sadly, I expect that this discussion will soon be a moot point. We continue to fail as a nation at basic public health policies. It is therefore unlikely that schools anywhere in the U.S. will be open by October. Our country has not shown the willpower to control the virus, leaving us all with, literally, no choice to make.
[Editor's Note: Here's the other essay in the Back to School series: Masks and Distancing Won't Be Enough to Prevent School Outbreaks, Latest Science Suggests.]
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.