Applied mathematician Sara del Valle works at the U.S.'s foremost nuclear weapons lab: Los Alamos. Once colloquially called Atomic City, it's a hidden place 45 minutes into the mountains northwest of Santa Fe. Here, engineers developed the first atomic bomb.
Like AccuWeather, an app for disease prediction could help people alter their behavior to live better lives.
Today, Los Alamos still a small science town, though no longer a secret, nor in the business of building new bombs. Instead, it's tasked with, among other things, keeping the stockpile of nuclear weapons safe and stable: not exploding when they're not supposed to (yes, please) and exploding if someone presses that red button (please, no).
Del Valle, though, doesn't work on any of that. Los Alamos is also interested in other kinds of booms—like the explosion of a contagious disease that could take down a city. Predicting (and, ideally, preventing) such epidemics is del Valle's passion. She hopes to develop an app that's like AccuWeather for germs: It would tell you your chance of getting the flu, or dengue or Zika, in your city on a given day. And like AccuWeather, it could help people alter their behavior to live better lives, whether that means staying home on a snowy morning or washing their hands on a sickness-heavy commute.
Sara del Valle of Los Alamos is working to predict and prevent epidemics using data and machine learning.
Since the beginning of del Valle's career, she's been driven by one thing: using data and predictions to help people behave practically around pathogens. As a kid, she'd always been good at math, but when she found out she could use it to capture the tentacular spread of disease, and not just manipulate abstractions, she was hooked.
When she made her way to Los Alamos, she started looking at what people were doing during outbreaks. Using social media like Twitter, Google search data, and Wikipedia, the team started to sift for trends. Were people talking about hygiene, like hand-washing? Or about being sick? Were they Googling information about mosquitoes? Searching Wikipedia for symptoms? And how did those things correlate with the spread of disease?
It was a new, faster way to think about how pathogens propagate in the real world. Usually, there's a 10- to 14-day lag in the U.S. between when doctors tap numbers into spreadsheets and when that information becomes public. By then, the world has moved on, and so has the disease—to other villages, other victims.
"We found there was a correlation between actual flu incidents in a community and the number of searches online and the number of tweets online," says del Valle. That was when she first let herself dream about a real-time forecast, not a 10-days-later backcast. Del Valle's group—computer scientists, mathematicians, statisticians, economists, public health professionals, epidemiologists, satellite analysis experts—has continued to work on the problem ever since their first Twitter parsing, in 2011.
They've had their share of outbreaks to track. Looking back at the 2009 swine flu pandemic, they saw people buying face masks and paying attention to the cleanliness of their hands. "People were talking about whether or not they needed to cancel their vacation," she says, and also whether pork products—which have nothing to do with swine flu—were safe to buy.
At the latest meeting with all the prediction groups, del Valle's flu models took first and second place.
They watched internet conversations during the measles outbreak in California. "There's a lot of online discussion about anti-vax sentiment, and people trying to convince people to vaccinate children and vice versa," she says.
Today, they work on predicting the spread of Zika, Chikungunya, and dengue fever, as well as the plain old flu. And according to the CDC, that latter effort is going well.
Since 2015, the CDC has run the Epidemic Prediction Initiative, a competition in which teams like de Valle's submit weekly predictions of how raging the flu will be in particular locations, along with other ailments occasionally. Michael Johannson is co-founder and leader of the program, which began with the Dengue Forecasting Project. Its goal, he says, was to predict when dengue cases would blow up, when previously an area just had a low-level baseline of sick people. "You'll get this massive epidemic where all of a sudden, instead of 3,000 to 4,000 cases, you have 20,000 cases," he says. "They kind of come out of nowhere."
But the "kind of" is key: The outbreaks surely come out of somewhere and, if scientists applied research and data the right way, they could forecast the upswing and perhaps dodge a bomb before it hit big-time. Questions about how big, when, and where are also key to the flu.
A big part of these projects is the CDC giving the right researchers access to the right information, and the structure to both forecast useful public-health outcomes and to compare how well the models are doing. The extra information has been great for the Los Alamos effort. "We don't have to call departments and beg for data," says del Valle.
When data isn't available, "proxies"—things like symptom searches, tweets about empty offices, satellite images showing a green, wet, mosquito-friendly landscape—are helpful: You don't have to rely on anyone's health department.
At the latest meeting with all the prediction groups, del Valle's flu models took first and second place. But del Valle wants more than weekly numbers on a government website; she wants that weather-app-inspired fortune-teller, incorporating the many diseases you could get today, standing right where you are. "That's our dream," she says.
This plot shows the the correlations between the online data stream, from Wikipedia, and various infectious diseases in different countries. The results of del Valle's predictive models are shown in brown, while the actual number of cases or illness rates are shown in blue.
(Courtesy del Valle)
The goal isn't to turn you into a germophobic agoraphobe. It's to make you more aware when you do go out. "If you know it's going to rain today, you're more likely to bring an umbrella," del Valle says. "When you go on vacation, you always look at the weather and make sure you bring the appropriate clothing. If you do the same thing for diseases, you think, 'There's Zika spreading in Sao Paulo, so maybe I should bring even more mosquito repellent and bring more long sleeves and pants.'"
They're not there yet (don't hold your breath, but do stop touching your mouth). She estimates it's at least a decade away, but advances in machine learning could accelerate that hypothetical timeline. "We're doing baby steps," says del Valle, starting with the flu in the U.S., dengue in Brazil, and other efforts in Colombia, Ecuador, and Canada. "Going from there to forecasting all diseases around the globe is a long way," she says.
But even AccuWeather started small: One man began predicting weather for a utility company, then helping ski resorts optimize their snowmaking. His influence snowballed, and now private forecasting apps, including AccuWeather's, populate phones across the planet. The company's progression hasn't been without controversy—privacy incursions, inaccuracy of long-term forecasts, fights with the government—but it has continued, for better and for worse.
Disease apps, perhaps spun out of a small, unlikely team at a nuclear-weapons lab, could grow and breed in a similar way. And both the controversies and public-health benefits that may someday spin out of them lie in the future, impossible to predict with certainty.
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.”