At the end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I answered a call from an unknown number.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not.
"I know your due date is approaching," said a stranger at the other end of the line, completely freaking me out. She identified herself as being from Natera, a company that my doctor had used for genetic testing I had consented to months ago.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Have you considered cord-blood banking?" she said.
"No, I'm not doing that," I said. I had read enough about cord-blood banking, the process of saving stem cell-containing blood from your baby's umbilical cord, to understand that my family was in the vast majority of those that would with extremely high likelihood derive no medical benefit from it. Of course, in the societally sanctioned spending spree that accompanies new parenthood, plenty of companies are happy to charge anyone hundreds if not thousands of dollars plus annual storage fees to collect and manage your cord blood.
"Why not? Have you considered all the bene—"
"I'm not doing it and I don't want to explain my decision," I said before hanging up. I would later learn I neglected to check a miniscule box on my testing consent forms at the doctor to opt out of solicitations. Still, I was angry that I was being telemarketed unnecessary and costly medical services by someone who had been trained to immediately call my judgment into question. I was annoyed that my doctor's office would allow such intrusions at all. When I asked my OB about it at my next visit, she told me there's no way Natera would have gotten my information from them. Apparently even she didn't realize what was on those forms.
The incident with Natera did nothing to heighten my trust of the medical establishment during my pregnancy. I was hardly alone. Almost every mom I knew had expressed a similar sentiment.
"I don't trust doctors," read the text of a loved one when I told her I would probably get an epidural after my doctor recommended getting one because, she said, it can help relax the pelvic muscles during labor. But this friend, a highly educated woman who had had done her research and had two unmedicated births, believed firmly otherwise. "Look it up," she said. Thus commenced more of the furious Googling I found myself doing multiple times a day since deciding I wanted to become pregnant.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not. Information presents to us from Google's never-out-of-reach search bar, friends and family eager to use our pregnancies as an excuse to recall their own, and the doctor's office, where the wisdom of medical professionals neatly comingles with brochures and free samples from myriad companies that would really, really like our business as new moms. Separating the "good" advice from the rest is a Herculean task that many pregnant women manage only with vigorous fact-finding missions of their own.
The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood.
Doing my research during pregnancy felt like a defense against the scary unknowns, overabundance of opinions, and disturbing marketing schemes that come with entering parenthood. The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous emotional and societal pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood. Too much of what pregnant women experience at the doctor has to do with dated ideas about our care, mandated by tradition or a fear of being sued rather than medical necessity. These practices, like weigh-ins at every appointment or medically unnecessary C-sections (which are estimated to account, horrifically, for almost 50 percent of all C-sections performed in the U.S.), only heighten anxiety.
Meanwhile, things that might alleviate stress – like having thorough discussions about the kinds of interventions we might be asked to accept at the hospital during labor and delivery – are left to outside educators and doulas that insurance plans typically don't cover. The net effect isn't better health outcomes for mom and baby, but rather a normalized sense of distrust many American women feel toward their OBGYNs, and the burden of going to every appointment and the delivery room on the defensive. Instead of being wed to dated medical practices and tangled in America's new motherhood industrial complex, shouldn't our doctors, of all people, be our biggest advocates?
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I devoured Expecting Better, by Emily Oster, an economist who embarked on her own fact-finding mission during her first pregnancy, predicated on the belief that the advice OBGYNs have been giving pregnant women for decades is out of date and unnecessarily restrictive. The book includes controversial stances, like that having small amounts of alcohol while pregnant is OK. (More recent research has called this view into question.) Oster writes that for the vast majority of pregnant women, it's perfectly fine to lie on your back, do sit-ups, and eat Brie — all things I was relieved to learn I wouldn't have to give up for nine months, despite the traditional advice, which my doctor also gave to me.
Oster recommends hiring a doula, based both on research and personal experience. It's a worthwhile investment for those who can afford it: according to one study, 20.4 percent of laboring women with doulas had C-sections compared with 34.2 percent of women without them. A doula can do many things for a pregnant client, including helping her write a birth plan, massaging her back in labor, and cheering her on, which is especially useful for women who plan to labor without pain medication. Use of doulas is on the rise; according to DONA International, the world's largest and oldest doula association, the number of doulas who have been certified to date is over 12,000, up from 2,000 in 2002.
But the most significant role a doula plays is that of patient advocate in the hospital. This is a profound commentary on the way the medical establishment handles childbirth, a medical event that 86 percent of women aged 40 to 44 had gone through as of 2016. Recognizing the maternal mortality crisis in the U.S., where women are far more likely to die as a result of childbirth than anywhere else in the developed world and black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, a few states now allow Medicaid to cover doulas. Can you imagine feeling the need to hire an independent non-medical care provider to help you run interference with your doctors and nurses for something like an appendectomy?
I wouldn't have been aware of all the imminent interventions during my labor if my doula hadn't told me about them. Things happen fast in the hospital and doctors and nurses may rush patients to consent before proceeding with things like breaking their water or hooking them up to an IV of Pitocin. Only because my husband and I had spent six hours in birth class — a suggestion by my doula — did I realize that I was empowered to say "no" to such procedures.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable.
Of course, we all feel immense pressure to become good parents, and questioning conventional medical wisdom is a natural response to that pressure. "Looking around at the world and saying, who am I as a parent? What is important to me? Who are the wise people? What do I think wisdom is? What is a good decision? If you're a certain type of introspective person, if you're really asking those questions, that's going to include like taking a second look at things that doctors, for example, say," says Koyuki Smith, a doula and birth educator.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable. Yet my doctor's office seemed more concerned with checking off a list of boxes rather than providing me with personalized care that might have relieved my understandable anxiety about my first birth. When I still hadn't gone into labor around the time of my due date, my doctor encouraged me to be induced because my baby appeared to be large. I declined but scheduled an induction to "hold my spot" around the 42-week mark.
When I asked what medication would be used for an induction if I had one and she said Cytotec, I told her I had read that drug could cause serious complications, but she dismissed my concerns after I told her they stemmed from a book I read on natural childbirth. The FDA's page on Cytotec isn't exactly reassuring.
The nurse who took me in triage after I went into labor a week past my due date practically scolded me for waiting to go into labor naturally instead of opting for induction sooner. My doula told her while I was struggling to speak through labor pains to get off my case about it. I hadn't even become a mom and I was already doing so many things "wrong." Because I had done my own reading, I felt confident that my choices weren't harming my baby or me.
Becoming a mom would be less daunting if the medical community found a way to help women navigate the pressures of motherhood instead of adding to them. "Our culture at large doesn't support women enough in the complicated emotions that are a part of this process," said Alexandra Saks, a reproductive psychologist and author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood. "I hope that every practitioner that works with women around reproductive health prioritizes her emotions around her experience."
For many of us, that will mean doctors who help us understand the pros and cons of conventional advice, don't use their offices as marketing channels, and don't pressure women into medically unnecessary inductions. Moms should also receive more attention after delivery both in the hospital and after they get home; a single, quick postpartum visit at six weeks is not an adequate way to care for women recovering from the trauma of childbirth, nor is it an adequate way to ensure women are emotionally supported during the transition. While several people interrogated me about my mental health at the hospital and my doctor's office just before and after birth, if I had been concerned about postpartum depression, I can't imagine feeling comfortable enough in those moments to tell strangers filling out obligatory worksheets.
It also means figuring out how to talk to patients who are prone to Googling their pregnancies with gusto every single day. It would be impossible for many women to shun independent research during pregnancy altogether. But it would also be nice if our doctors didn't add to our impulse to do it.
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Intralytix's phage cocktails to safeguard food from bacteria are approved for consumers in addition to food producers, but currently the company sells to food producers only. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says.
It's not the company's only goal. Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery.
"Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria," Sulakvelidze says, "we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."