Kira Peikoff was the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org from 2017 to 2021. As a journalist, her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two young sons. Follow her on Twitter @KiraPeikoff.
In his lab at UCLA, Dr. Charles Sawyer discovered two drugs for metastatic prostate cancer that are now in routine use all over the world.
At the University of Washington at Seattle, Dr. Heather Cheng was part of a team that discovered the connection between BRCA2 mutations and advanced prostate cancer, and she recently opened a prostate cancer genetics clinic – a new frontier in the field.
At UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Dr. Nima Sharifi's pioneering research showed why certain drugs don't work in castrate-resistant prostate cancer, and now new therapies are being developed instead.
"We have good reason to believe that investing in young scientists is the way to go."
What Do These Researchers Share in Common?
They were all under 40 when they received a special grant for early-career scientists from the Prostate Cancer Foundation, the leading philanthropic organization that funds prostate cancer research. Experts say that the foundation's dedicated support for young innovators has been a game changer in contributing to the discovery of newer and better therapies for prostate cancer patients.
Howard Soule, the foundation's Executive Vice President and Chief Science Officer, was aware that many of the people who leave behind major legacies in science typically make their discoveries before age 40, like Albert Einstein, who was in his thirties when he published his paper on general relativity.
So back in 2007, the PCF decided to ramp up its support for young researchers.
"We have good reason to believe that investing in young scientists is the way to go, so we've created a program at PCF that is I believe is unique in the field," says Soule.
The Young Investigator Awards Program rigorously screens a pool of roughly 150 applicants for 20 to 25 awards that consist of funding for three years – and that's just the start.
"It's much more than sending them money," says Soule. "We celebrate them at annual meetings, we have a networking center with no equal in the field, and throughout the years of their three-year-award and basically forever, we create community. We are a safe place for them to land, they share data with us that's unpublished, and we provide a lot of feedback and stewardship to their donors."
Spotlighting Recipients: From the Study of Tumors to Twitter
Heather Cheng was in her thirties when she received her award three years ago. "It's been very, very helpful in allowing me to do the type of work I am really excited about doing," she says.
At the time, she had recently joined the faculty at the University of Washington after completing an MD/PhD medical scientist training program, internal medicine residency and hematology/oncology fellowship, and she was considering what new direction to take in her research. Several patients captured her imagination who were diagnosed at a very young age with metastatic prostate cancer, and "even though we had cool new drugs to extend life, these particular patients' cancers blew through everything."
"This is a new intersection because genetics has not been discussed in the context of care for men with prostate cancer that much."
She decided to make a niche out of understanding the connection between often early-onset aggressive prostate cancer and familial genetic risk, in order to improve treatment options for these patients. In 2016, Cheng launched a new clinic and invited any men to visit who have a family history of cancer and who are interested in genetic testing, or who have a known mutation and want to learn about treatment opportunities, or who want to know if their cancer tumor can be inherited.
"It's an open door to have a discussion because the technology and treatment potentials are so new," Cheng says. "There's a lot to learn."
It used to be that a doctor would ask a male patient about his family history, and if a mother had breast cancer at a young age, for example, and several other family members met the criteria for a genetic risk, then perhaps the patient had inherited a mutation in a cancer risk gene. But what to do next was unclear.
Now, doctors are taking men with a diagnosis of prostate cancer, sequencing their inherited DNA or their tumors, and finding out if they have mutations that could guide their treatment plan. For example, medications called PARP inhibitors have shown encouraging early results for men with a BRCA2 gene mutation and are now in clinical trials for treating prostate cancer.
"This is a new intersection because genetics has not been discussed in the context of care for men with prostate cancer that much," Cheng says. "This has changed practice because changes to national cancer guidelines have happened in less than five years. The change has happened so quickly that the field is not completely prepared for implementation and clinical logistics."
Another young investigator, New York University urologist and prostate cancer researcher Stacy Loeb, received her award at age 36 two years ago. She realized that no one had scientifically studied how patients are using crowdsourcing platforms like GoFundMe and YouCaring to raise money for their treatments. In her research, she found that there are many more campaigns for breast cancer and that they are more successful in crowdfunding than the prostate cancer campaigns.
"We have identified some gaps in advocacy and awareness for prostate cancer – fewer people know about it or discuss it, but it is a leading cause of death of U.S. men, so it is important to get more people aware," Loeb notes.
In fact, today the PCF releases data from a survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults that reveals widespread ignorance about the disease. Two-thirds of respondents, for example, did not know that men with early stage prostate cancer experience no symptoms, and many were unaware that screening begins with a simple blood test.
Besides studying patient behavior, Loeb also wanted to better understand how physicians and scientists are using social media, and how their participation on platforms like Twitter could be fostered to promote greater dissemination of knowledge. So she helped start a monthly prostate cancer journal club on Twitter, hosted through the PCF science account. The club features an important new research paper in the field each month, and she invites the authors of the paper to participate in a 48-hour online discussion.
"The Journal Club is a monthly thing at most institutions," she says, "but typically it's one institution with people from one department. What's better about this is we have people who are doctors, nurses, scientists, patients, stakeholders participating from all over the world."
Why Do Young Innovators Have an Edge?
The environment matters, for one.
"We all bring different life experiences to the table, we grew up in different eras, so we have different norms and tools at our disposal that weren't available," says Loeb, who was one of the early adopters of social media in the urology space. She now gives a lecture at the annual PCF retreat on how to use social media to advance one's scientific career.
"The more you're invested into a system, the less you may be able to recognize its limitations."
But the advantage of youth is not just greater familiarity with the newest tools. It's also the existential benefit of not being entrenched in the way it's always been.
"Often there is a healthy skepticism of what's come before," explains Dr. Joseph La Brie, a clinical psychologist and professor at psychology at Loyola Marymount University. "That's connected to not being wedded to a programmatic view of the problem. There's a freshness and creative outlook because they are looking at it with a new set of eyes, and there's a desire to make their mark on the field, to be unique and innovative and not just follow in somebody else's footsteps."
And as Cheng puts it, "The more you're invested into a system, the less you may be able to recognize its limitations."
But it's notoriously difficult for scientists to get funding for innovative ideas without having already published preliminary data, which is what the National Institutes of Health and other funding bodies like to see. Eliminating that hurdle is a big part of why PCF's approach has been so effective, according to a veteran of the field, Johns Hopkins urologist Dr. Kenneth Pienta; his own groundbreaking research has been supported by PCF since he was a young scientist in the '90s.
"Any granting mechanism that allows people to fund ideas without a lot of preliminary data is a good thing," he declares.
Support for creative young minds is crucial across all endeavors, beyond any single disease or discipline. At a recent conference showcasing emerging technology for DARPA, the research arm of the Defense Department, expert panelists in artificial intelligence were asked: What is the single most important thing to focus on over the next decade?
Robotics pioneer Dr. Rodney Brooks may have put it best: "Figure out how to fund some really radical young mavericks and see what happens."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”