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.”
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.
We are sticking our heads into the sand of reality on Omicron, and the results may be catastrophic.
Omicron is over 4 times more infectious than Delta. The Pfizer two-shot vaccine offers only 33% protection from infection. A Pfizer booster vaccine does raises protection to about 75%, but wanes to around 30-40 percent 10 weeks after the booster.
That’s because the much faster disease transmission and vaccine escape undercut the less severe overall nature of Omicron. That’s why hospitals have a large probability of being overwhelmed, as the Center for Disease Control warned, in this major Omicron wave.
Yet despite this very serious threat, we see the lack of real action. The federal government tightened international travel guidelines and is promoting boosters. Certainly, it’s crucial to get as many people to get their booster – and initial vaccine doses – as soon as possible. But the government is not taking the steps that would be the real game-changers.
Pfizer’s anti-viral drug Paxlovid decreases the risk of hospitalization and death from COVID by 89%. Due to this effectiveness, the FDA approved Pfizer ending the trial early, because it would be unethical to withhold the drug from people in the control group. Yet the FDA chose not to hasten the approval process along with the emergence of Omicron in late November, only getting around to emergency authorization in late December once Omicron took over. That delay meant the lack of Paxlovid for the height of the Omicron wave, since it takes many weeks to ramp up production, resulting in an unknown number of unnecessary deaths.
We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases.
Widely available at-home testing would enable people to test themselves quickly, so that those with mild symptoms can quarantine instead of infecting others. Yet the federal government did not make tests available to patients when Omicron emerged in late November. That’s despite the obviousness of the coming wave based on the precedent of South Africa, UK, and Denmark and despite the fact that the government made vaccines freely available. Its best effort was to mandate that insurance cover reimbursements for these kits, which is way too much of a barrier for most people. By the time Omicron took over, the federal government recognized its mistake and ordered 500 million tests to be made available in January. However, that’s far too late. And the FDA also played a harmful role here, with its excessive focus on accuracy going back to mid-2020, blocking the widespread availability of cheap at-home tests. By contrast, Europe has a much better supply of tests, due to its approval of quick and slightly less accurate tests.
Neither do we see meaningful leadership at the level of employers. Some are bringing out the tired old “delay the office reopening” play. For example, Google, Uber, and Ford, along with many others, have delayed the return to the office for several months. Those that already returned are calling for stricter pandemic measures, such as more masks and social distancing, but not changing their work arrangements or adding sufficient ventilation to address the spread of COVID.
Despite plenty of warnings from risk management and cognitive bias experts, leaders are repeating the same mistakes we fell into with Delta. And so are regular people. For example, surveys show that Omicron has had very little impact on the willingness of unvaccinated Americans to get a first vaccine dose, or of vaccinated Americans to get a booster. That’s despite Omicron having taken over from Delta in late December.
What explains this puzzling behavior on both the individual and society level? We humans are prone to falling for dangerous judgment errors called cognitive biases. Rooted in wishful thinking and gut reactions, these mental blindspots lead to poor strategic and financial decisions when evaluating choices.
These cognitive biases stem from the more primitive, emotional, and intuitive part of our brains that ensured survival in our ancestral environment. This quick, automatic reaction of our emotions represents the autopilot system of thinking, one of the two systems of thinking in our brains. It makes good decisions most of the time but also regularly makes certain systematic thinking errors, since it’s optimized to help us survive. In modern society, our survival is much less at risk, and our gut is more likely to compel us to focus on the wrong information to make decisions.
One of the biggest challenges relevant to Omicron is the cognitive bias known as the ostrich effect. Named after the myth that ostriches stick their heads into the sand when they fear danger, the ostrich effect refers to people denying negative reality. Delta illustrated the high likelihood of additional dangerous variants, yet we failed to pay attention to and prepare for such a threat.
We want the future to be normal. We’re tired of the pandemic and just want to get back to pre-pandemic times. Thus, we greatly underestimate the probability and impact of major disruptors, like new COVID variants. That cognitive bias is called the normalcy bias.
When we learn one way of functioning in any area, we tend to stick to that way of functioning. You might have heard of this as the hammer-nail syndrome: when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. That syndrome is called functional fixedness. This cognitive bias causes those used to their old ways of action to reject any alternatives, including to prepare for a new variant.
Our minds naturally prioritize the present. We want what we want now, and downplay the long-term consequences of our current desires. That fallacious mental pattern is called hyperbolic discounting, where we excessively discount the benefits of orienting toward the future and focus on the present. A clear example is focusing on the short-term perceived gains of trying to return to normal over managing the risks of future variants.
The way forward into the future is to defeat cognitive biases and avoid denying reality by rethinking our approach to the future.
The FDA requires a serious overhaul. It’s designed for a non-pandemic environment, where the goal is to have a highly conservative, slow-going, and risk-averse approach so that the public feels confident trusting whatever it approved. That’s simply unacceptable in a fast-moving pandemic, and we are bound to face future pandemics in the future.
The federal government needs to have cognitive bias experts weigh in on federal policy. Putting all of its eggs in one basket – vaccinations – is not a wise move when we face the risks of a vaccine-escaping variant. Its focus should also be on expediting and prioritizing anti-virals, scaling up cheap rapid testing, and subsidizing high-filtration masks.
For employers, instead of dictating a top-down approach to how employees collaborate, companies need to adopt a decentralized team-led approach. Each individual team leader of a rank-and-file employee team should determine what works best for their team. After all, team leaders tend to know much more of what their teams need, after all. Moreover, they can respond to local emergencies like COVID surges.
At the same time, team leaders need to be trained to integrate best practices for hybrid and remote team leadership. Companies transitioned to telework abruptly as part of the March 2020 lockdowns. They fell into the cognitive bias of functional fixedness and transposed their pre-existing, in-office methods of collaboration on remote work. Zoom happy hours are a clear example: The large majority of employees dislike them, and research shows they are disconnecting, rather than connecting.
Yet supervisors continue to use them, despite the existence of much better methods of facilitating colalboration, which have been shown to work, such as virtual water cooler discussions, virtual coworking, and virtual mentoring. Leaders also need to facilitate innovation in hybrid and remote teams through techniques such as virtual asynchronous brainstorming. Finally, team leaders need to adjust performance evaluation to adapt to the needs of hybrid and remote teams.
On an individual level, people built up certain expectations during the first two years of the pandemic, and they don't apply with Omicron. For example, most people still think that a cloth mask is a fine source of protection. In reality, you really need an N-95 mask, since Omicron is so much more infectious. Another example is that many people don’t realize that symptom onset is much quicker with Omicron, and they aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Remember that we have a huge number of people who are asymptomatic, often without knowing it, due to the much higher mildness of Omicron. About 8% of people admitted to hospitals for other reasons in San Francisco test positive for COVID without symptoms, which we can assume translates for other cities. That means many may think they're fine and they're actually infectious. The result is a much higher chance of someone getting many other people sick.
During this time of record-breaking cases, you need to be mindful about your internalized assumptions and adjust your risk calculus accordingly. So if you can delay higher-risk activities, January and February might be the time to do it. Prepare for waves of disruptions to continue over time, at least through the end of February.
Of course, you might also choose to not worry about getting infected. If you are vaccinated and boosted, and do not have any additional health risks, you are very unlikely to have a serious illness due to Omicron. You can just take the small risk of a serious illness – which can happen – and go about your daily life. If doing so, watch out for those you care about who do have health concerns, since if you infect them, they might not have a mild case even with Omicron.
In short, instead of trying to turn back the clock to the lost world of January 2020, consider how we might create a competitive advantage in our new future. COVID will never go away: we need to learn to live with it. That means reacting appropriately and thoughtfully to new variants and being intentional about our trade-offs.