Katie Love wishes there was some way she could have been prepared. But there was no way to know, early in 2020, that her pregnancy would lead to terrifyingly high blood pressure and multiple hospital visits, ending in induced labor and a 56-hour-long, “nightmare” delivery at 37 weeks. Love, a social media strategist in Pittsburgh, had preeclampsia, a poorly understood and potentially deadly pregnancy complication that affects 1 in 25 pregnant women in the United States. But there was no blood test, no easy diagnostic marker to warn Love that this might happen. Even on her first visit to the emergency room, with sky-high blood pressure, doctors could not be certain preeclampsia was the cause.
In fact, the primary but imperfect indicators for preeclampsia — high blood pressure and protein in the urine — haven’t changed in decades. The Preeclampsia Foundation calls a simple, rapid test to predict or diagnose the condition “a key component needed in the fight.”
Another common pregnancy complication is preterm birth, which affects 1 in 10 U.S. pregnancies, but there are few options to predict that might happen, either.
“The best tool that obstetricians have at the moment is still a tape measure and a blood pressure cuff to diagnose whatever’s happening in your pregnancy,” says Fiona Kaper, a vice president at the DNA-sequencing company Illumina in San Diego.
The hunt for such specific biomarkers is now taking off, at Illumina and elsewhere, as scientists probe maternal blood for signs that could herald pregnancy problems. These same molecules offer clues that might lead to more specific treatments. So far, it’s clear that many complications start with the placenta, the temporary organ that transfers nutrients, oxygen and waste between mother and fetus, and that these problems often start well before symptoms arise. Researchers are using the latest stem-cell technology to better understand the causes of complications and test treatments.
Obstetricians aren’t flying completely blind; medical history can point to high or low risk for pregnancy complications. But ultimately, “everybody who’s pregnant is at risk for preeclampsia,” says Sarosh Rana, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at University of Chicago Medicine and an advisor to the Preeclampsia Foundation. And the symptoms of the condition include problems like headache and swollen feet that overlap with those of pregnancy in general, complicating diagnoses.
The “holy grail" would be early, first-trimester biomarkers. If obstetricians and expecting parents could know, in the first few months of pregnancy, that preeclampsia is a risk, a pregnant woman could monitor her blood pressure at home and take-low dose aspirin that might stave it off.
There are a couple more direct tests physicians can turn to, but these are imperfect. For preterm labor, fetal fibronectin makes up a sort of glue that keeps the amniotic sac, which cushions the unborn baby, attached to the uterus. If it’s not present near a woman’s cervix, that’s a good indicator that she’s not in labor, and can be safely sent home, says Lauren Demosthenes, an obstetrician and senior medical director of the digital health company Babyscripts in Washington, D.C. But if fibronectin appears, it might or might not indicate preterm labor.
“What we want is a test that gives us a positive predictive [signal],” says Demosthenes. “I want to know, if I get it, is it really going to predict preterm birth, or is it just going to make us worry more and order more tests?” In fact, the fetal fibronectin test hasn’t been shown to improve pregnancy outcomes, and Demosthenes says it’s fallen out of favor in many clinics.
Similarly, there’s a blood test, based on the ratio of the amounts of two different proteins, that can rule out preeclampsia but not confirm it’s happening. It’s approved in many countries, though not the U.S.; studies are still ongoing. A positive test, which means “maybe preeclampsia,” still leaves doctors and parents-to-be facing excruciating decisions: If the mother’s life is in danger, delivering the baby can save her, but even a few more days in the uterus can promote the baby’s health. In Ireland, where the test is available, it’s not getting much use, says Patricia Maguire, director of the University College Dublin Institute for Discovery.
Maguire has identified proteins released by platelets that indicate pregnancy — the “most expensive pregnancy test in the world,” she jokes. She is now testing those markers in women with suspected preeclampsia.
The “holy grail,” says Maguire, would be early, first-trimester biomarkers. If obstetricians and expecting parents could know, in the first few months of pregnancy, that preeclampsia is a risk, a pregnant woman could monitor her blood pressure at home and take-low dose aspirin that might stave it off. Similarly, if a quick blood test indicated that preterm labor could happen, doctors could take further steps such as measuring the cervix and prescribing progesterone if it’s on the short side.
Biomarkers in Blood
It was fatherhood that drew Stephen Quake, a biophysicist at Stanford University in California, to the study of pregnancy biomarkers. His wife, pregnant with their first child in 2001, had a test called amniocentesis. That involves extracting a sample from within the uterus, using a 3–8-inch-long needle, for genetic testing. The test can identify genetic differences, such as Down syndrome, but also carries risks including miscarriage or infection. In this case, mom and baby were fine (Quake’s daughter is now a college student), but he found the diagnostic danger unacceptable.
Seeking a less invasive test, Quake in 2008 reported that there’s enough fetal DNA in the maternal bloodstream to diagnose Down syndrome and other genetic conditions. “Use of amniocentesis has plunged,” he says.
Then, recalling that his daughter was born three and a half weeks before her due date — and that Quake’s own mom claims he was a month late, which makes him think the due date must have been off — he started researching markers that could accurately assess a fetus’ age and predict the timing of labor. In this case, Quake was interested in RNA, not DNA, because it’s a signal of which genes the fetus’, placenta’s, and mother’s tissues are using to create proteins. Specifically, these are RNAs that have exited the cells that made them. Tissues can use such free RNAs as messages, wrapping them in membranous envelopes to travel the bloodstream to other body parts. Dying cells also release fragments containing RNAs. “A lot of information is in there,” says Kaper.
In a small study of 31 healthy pregnant women, published in 2018, Quake and collaborators discovered nine RNAs that could predict gestational age, which indicates due date, just as well as ultrasound. With another set of 38 women, including 13 who delivered early, the researchers discovered seven RNAs that predicted preterm labor up to two months in advance.
Quake notes that an RNA-based blood test is cheaper and more portable than ultrasound, so it might be useful in the developing world. A company he cofounded, Mirvie, Inc., is now analyzing RNA’s predictive value further, in thousands of diverse women. CEO and cofounder Maneesh Jain says that since preterm labor is so poorly understood, they’re sequencing RNAs that represent about 20,000 genes — essentially all the genes humans have — to find the very best biomarkers. “We don’t know enough about this field to guess what it might be,” he says. “We feel we’ve got to cast the net wide.”
Quake, and Mirvie, are now working on biomarkers for preeclampsia. In a recent preprint study, not yet reviewed by other experts, Quake’s Stanford team reported 18 RNAs that, measured before 16 weeks, correctly predicted preeclampsia 56–100% of the time.
Other researchers are taking a similar tack. Kaper’s team at Illumina was able to classify preeclampsia from bloodstream RNAs with 85 to 89% accuracy, though they didn’t attempt to predict it. And Louise Laurent, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist and researcher at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), has defined several pairs of microRNAs — pint-sized RNAs that regulate other ones — in second-trimester blood samples that predict preeclampsia later on.
Placentas in a Dish
The RNAs that show up in these studies often come from genes used by the placenta. But they’re only signals that something’s wrong, not necessarily the root cause. “There still is not much known about what really causes major complications of pregnancy,” says Laurent.
The challenge is that placental problems likely occur early on, as the organ forms in the first trimester. For example, if the placenta did a poor job of building blood vessels through the uterine lining, it might cause preeclampsia later as the growing fetus tries to access more and more blood through insufficient vessels, leading to high blood pressure in the mother. “Everyone has kind of suspected that that is probably what goes wrong,” says Mana Parast, a pathologist and researcher at UCSD.
To see how a placenta first faltered, “you want to go back in time,” says Parast. It’s only recently become possible to do something akin to that: She and Laurent take cells from the umbilical cord (which is a genetic match for the placenta) at the end of pregnancy, and turn them into stem cells, which can become any kind of cell. They then nudge those stem cells to make new placenta cells in lab dishes. But when the researchers start with cells from an umbilical cord after preeclampsia, they find the stem cells struggle to even form proper placenta cells, or they develop abnormally. So yes, something seems to go wrong right at the beginning. Now, the team plans to use these cell cultures to study the microRNAs that indicate preeclampsia risk, and to look for medications that might reverse the problems, Parast says.
Biomarkers could lead to treatments. For example, one of the proteins that commercial preeclampsia diagnostic kits test for is called soluble Flt-1. It’s a sort of anti-growth factor, explains Rana, that can cause problems with blood vessels and thus high blood pressure. Getting rid of the extra Flt-1, then, might alleviate symptoms and keep the mother safe, giving the baby more time to develop. Indeed, a small trial that filtered this protein from the blood did lower blood pressure, allowing participants to keep their babies inside for a couple of weeks longer, researchers reported in 2011.
For pregnant women like Love, even advance warning would have been beneficial. Laurent and others envision a first-trimester blood test that would use different kinds of biomolecules — RNAs, proteins, whatever works best — to indicate whether a pregnancy is at low, medium, or high risk for common complications.
“I prefer to be prepared,” says Love, now the mother of a healthy little girl. “I just wouldn’t have been so thrown off by the whole thing.”
In the 1990s, a mysterious virus spread throughout the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Lab—or that’s what the scientists who worked there thought. More of them rubbed their aching forearms and massaged their cricked necks as new computers were introduced to the AI Lab on a floor-by-floor basis. They realized their musculoskeletal issues coincided with the arrival of these new computers—some of which were mounted high up on lab benches in awkward positions—and the hours spent typing on them.
Today, these injuries have become more common in a society awash with smart devices, sleek computers, and other gadgets. And we don’t just get hurt from typing on desktop computers; we’re massaging our sore wrists from hours of texting and Facetiming on phones, especially as they get bigger in size.
In 2007, the first iPhone measured 3.5-inches diagonally, a measurement known as the display size. That’s been nearly doubled by the newest iPhone 13 Pro, which has a 6.7-inch display. Other phones, too, like the Google Pixel 6 and the Samsung Galaxy S22, have bigger screens than their predecessors. Physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons have had to come up with names for a variety of new conditions: selfie elbow, tech neck, texting thumb. Orthopedic surgeon Sonya Sloan says she sees selfie elbow in younger kids and in women more often than men. She hears complaints related to technology once or twice a day.
The addictive quality of smartphones and social media means that people spend more time on their devices, which exacerbates injuries. According to Statista, 68 percent of those surveyed spent over three hours a day on their phone, and almost half spent five to six hours a day. Another report showed that people dedicate a third of their day to checking their phones, while the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University has found that bigger screens, ideal for entertainment purposes, immerse their users more than smaller screens. Oversized screens also provide easier navigation and more space for those with bigger hands or trouble seeing.
But others with conditions like arthritis can benefit from smaller phones. In March of 2016, Apple released the iPhone SE with a display size of 4.7 inches—an inch smaller than the iPhone 7, released that September. Apple has since come out with two more versions of the diminutive iPhone SE, one in 2020 and another in 2022.
These devices are now an inextricable part of our lives. So where does the burden of responsibility lie? Is it with consumers to adjust body positioning, get ergonomic workstations, and change habits to abate tech-related pain? Or should tech companies be held accountable?
Kavin Senapathy, a freelance science journalist, has the Google Pixel 6. She was drawn to the phone because Google marketed the Pixel 6’s camera as better at capturing different skin tones. But this phone boasts one of the largest display sizes on the market: 6.4 inches.
Senapathy was diagnosed with carpal and cubital tunnel syndromes in 2017 and fibromyalgia in 2019. She has had to create a curated ergonomic workplace setup, otherwise her wrists and hands get weak and tingly, and she’s had to adjust how she holds her phone to prevent pain flares.
Recently, Senapathy underwent an electromyography, or an EMG, in which doctors insert electrodes into muscles to measure their electrical activity. The electrical response of the muscles tells doctors whether the nerve cells and muscles are successfully communicating. Depending on her results, steroid shots and even surgery might be required. Senapathy wants to stick with her Pixel 6, but the pain she’s experiencing may push her to buy a smaller phone. Unfortunately, options for these modestly sized phones are more limited.
These devices are now an inextricable part of our lives. So where does the burden of responsibility lie? Is it with consumers like Senapathy to adjust body positioning, get ergonomic workstations, and change habits to abate tech-related pain? Or should tech companies be held accountable for creating addictive devices that lead to musculoskeletal injury?
Kavin Senapathy, a freelance journalist, bought the Google Pixel 6 because of its high-quality camera, but she’s had to adjust how she holds the oversized phone to prevent pain flares.
A one-size-fits-all mentality for smartphones will continue to lead to injuries because every user has different wants and needs. S. Shyam Sundar, the founder of Penn State’s lab on media effects and a communications professor, says the needs for mobility and portability conflict with the desire for greater visibility. “The best thing a company can do is offer different sizes,” he says.
Joanna Bryson, an AI ethics expert and professor at The Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, Germany, echoed these sentiments. “A lot of the lack of choice we see comes from the fact that the markets have consolidated so much,” she says. “We want to make sure there’s sufficient diversity [of products].”
Consumers can still maintain some control despite the ubiquity of tech. Sloan, the orthopedic surgeon, has to pester her son to change his body positioning when using his tablet. Our heads get heavier as they bend forward: at rest, they weigh 12 pounds, but bent 60 degrees, they weigh 60. “I have to tell him, ‘Raise your head, son!’” she says. It’s important, Sloan explains, to consider that growth and development will affect ligaments and bones in the neck, potentially making kids even more vulnerable to injuries from misusing gadgets. She recommends that parents limit their kids’ tech time to alleviate strain. She also suggested that tech companies implement a timer to remind us to change our body positioning.
In 2017, Nan-Wei Gong, a former contractor for Google, founded Figur8, which uses wearable trackers to measure muscle function and joint movement. It’s like physical therapy with biofeedback. “Each unique injury has a different biomarker,” says Gong. “With Figur8, you are comparing yourself to yourself.” This allows an individual to self-monitor for wear and tear and strengthen an injury in a way that’s efficient and designed for their body. Gong noticed that the work-from-home model during the COVID-19 pandemic created a new set of ergonomic problems that resulted in injuries. Figur8 provides real-time data for these injuries because “behavioral change requires feedback.”
Gong worked on a project called Jacquard while at Google. Textile experts weave conductive thread into their fabric, and the result is a patch of the fabric—like the cuff of a Levi’s jacket—that responds to commands on your smartphone. One swipe can call your partner or check the weather. It was designed with cyclists in mind who can’t easily check their phones, and it’s part of a growing movement in the tech industry to deliver creative, hands-free design. Gong thinks that engineers at large corporations like Google have accessibility in mind; it’s part of what drives their decisions for new products.
Display sizes of iPhones have become larger over time.
Sourced from Screenrant https://screenrant.com/iphone-apple-release-chronological-order-smartphone/ and Apple Tech Specs: https://www.apple.com/iphone-se/specs/
Back in Germany, Joanna Bryson reminds us that products like smartphones should adhere to best practices. These rules may be especially important for phones and other products with AI that are addictive. Disclosure, accountability, and regulation are important for AI, she says. “The correct balance will keep changing. But we have responsibilities and obligations to each other.” She was on an AI Ethics Council at Google, but the committee was disbanded after only one week due to issues with one of their members.
Bryson was upset about the Council’s dissolution but has faith that other regulatory bodies will prevail. OECD.AI, and international nonprofit, has drafted policies to regulate AI, which countries can sign and implement. “As of July 2021, 46 governments have adhered to the AI principles,” their website reads.
Sundar, the media effects professor, also directs Penn State’s Center for Socially Responsible AI. He says that inclusivity is a crucial aspect of social responsibility and how devices using AI are designed. “We have to go beyond first designing technologies and then making them accessible,” he says. “Instead, we should be considering the issues potentially faced by all different kinds of users before even designing them.”
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs.
My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Listen to the Episode
Entomologist Jessica Ware
D. Finnin / AMNH
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight.
But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
The truth is that a healthy planet depends on insects. You may feel stung by that news if you hate bugs. Reality bites.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.