OH Digest: Gene-edited babies, preventing malaria, and more

OH Digest: Gene-edited babies, preventing malaria, and more

A researcher claims to have edited the genes of a pair of twins, sending the scientific community into debate. (Photo: WikiCommons)


By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

Chinese researcher claims first gene-edited babies
AP News, Nov. 26, 2018
Chinese researcher He Jiankui claims to have successfully gene-edited day-old embryos. He altered the DNA of twin girls, using a rare gene that allows one to naturally fight off HIV. Controversy surrounds this news, and some experts have strongly condemned the experiment.

Malaysia is ground zero for the next malaria menace
Science News, Nov. 4, 2018
Cases of monkey malaria are increasing in Malaysia, and deforestation is partially to blame. Malaria-carrying mosquitoes thrive in deforested areas with felled trees because humans move closer to the cleared areas.

Massive crater under Greenland’s ice points to climate-altering impact in the time of humans
Science, Nov. 14, 2018
Beneath the Hiawatha Glacier in Northwest Greenland, there’s a crater bigger than Washington, D.C., researchers report in Science Advances. The crater might hold the key to understanding the crater’s impact changed our climate.

Palm oil: One woman’s fight to save ‘the last place on Earth’
BBC, Nov. 18, 2018
Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem is the only place on Earth where elephants, rhinos, orangutans, and tigers live together. Facing climate change and the palm oil industry, environmental activist Farwiza Farhan vows to protect it.

WHO chief warns Congo violence is allowing Ebola to spread
Scientific American, Nov. 19, 2018
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warns that rebel attacks in the Democratic of Congo, particularly on the Ebola outbreak center in Beni, have made the virus difficult to contain.

Air pollution cuts two years off global average lifespan, says study
The Guardian, Nov. 20, 2018
Pollution produced by vehicles, industry, and fossil fuels cuts the average human lifespan by about two years, according to a new study. The effect worsens in heavily polluted nations such as China and India, which see lifespans shortened by six years.

OH Digest: Insect fertility, genetically modified mosquitoes, and more

OH Digest: Insect fertility, genetically modified mosquitoes, and more

Insect populations have seen a sharp decline in male fertility, which may be the cause of population decreases. (Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

Heatwaves can ‘wipe out’ male insect fertility
The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2018
Heatwaves might be destroying the fertility of male beetles. As heatwaves become more common and as wildlife disappears, scientists suspect these trends are linked. Also worrying is the decrease in the sperm counts of western men, which have been cut in half during the past 40 years. 

Climate change may have made the Arctic deadlier for baby shorebirds
Science News, Nov. 13, 2018
The Arctic used to be a haven for shorebirds during nesting season. As larger numbers of birds have been migrating to these breeding grounds, more predators have arrived, putting young birds at risk. Experts suspect climate change plays a role.

As Ebola outbreak worsens in Congo, U.S. stays out of war zone
The Washington Post,
Nov. 14, 2018
Ebola response teams are struggling to isolate and track Ebola patients in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Violence has intensified near the Ebola operations center in Beni, an urban epicenter, which has interfered with standard disease control measures.

Hurricane Harvey passed over, but these fish kept making babies
The New York Times, Nov. 15, 2018
Though Hurricane Harvey wreaked havoc on land, the spotted seatrout continued reproducing, which suggests that some animals might remain resilient in the face of environmental destruction.

Africa doesn’t need genetically modified mosquitoes
Scientific American, Nov. 13, 2018
Some say genetically modified mosquitoes could eventually eliminate not only mosquitoes, but vector-borne diseases as well. But critics say the risk isn’t worth it, and that genetically modified animals could create unforeseen disasters.


How will the midterms affect health care, women’s health, and climate change?

How will the midterms affect health care, women’s health, and climate change?

Tomorrow’s midterm elections will affect health-related issues. Three Penn experts weigh in with their opinions on how the results may change health care in general, women’s health, and environmental policy.

Health care
If Republicans retain a majority in the House and the Senate after the midterm elections, they might make another push for repeal and replacement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), says Janet Weiner, co-director for health policy at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. However, it is unclear whether they could muster enough votes with a presidential election on the horizon. If Republicans maintain control of the Senate but lose the House, she says, the ensuing gridlock would leave little chance for major health care reform legislation in the next two years.

One aspect of the ACA has dominated campaigns across the country, Weiner adds.“People are very concerned about pre-existing conditions,” she says. “There’s widespread agreement across parties that people shouldn’t be turned down [for having a pre-existing illness], but some policies might have that effect. People are concerned about prices in general, but neither party has a magic bullet for that.”

In August, Republicans had set forth legislation that they said would protect those with pre-existing conditions, but the bill would have allowed insurers to deny treatment and services for certain conditions. In light of that proposal and in an effort to retain Senate seats in states like West Virginia and Florida, which Donald Trump won in 2016, many Democrats have honed their focus, saying they will continue to protect those with pre-existing illnesses from being denied insurance.

“We need a discussion about health care that’s taken out of the political realm, which is hard, but solutions come from finding agreement across parties,” Weiner says. “For now, people will vote for whoever they think will protect pre-existing conditions and the ability to see a doctor without going into debt.”

Women’s health
Twenty-three women are running for seats in the Senate, 239 women are competing for seats in the House, and 16 women are gubernatorial candidates. Those are record numbers, says Wendy Grube of Penn Nursing, who serves as interim director of the Center for Global Women’s Health. “This shows that women’s issues, especially women’s health, will be front and center [during the elections].”

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation Poll, three in 10 women voters say that health care is “the most important issue” when considering candidates, with gun policy and the economy following closely behind. “Additionally, 88 percent of women believe that funding for reproductive services is important or somewhat important in this election,” Grube says. “This means more than just birth control; this is access to cancer screenings, health education, and more.”

But few women’s health topics divide women across party lines more than abortion. Almost three-quarters of women who identify as Democrat or Democratic-leaning support access to these services, and 58 percent of women who identify as Republican or Republican-leaning favor restricting it. Republican women are also split down the middle on whether the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision should be overturned.

Add to this the surge of the #MeToo movement and the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, and one of the most common challenges of midterm elections—apathy from voters, particularly young voters—vanishes.

“We’re witnessing a set of circumstances that is galvanizing, along with women candidates, women voters, and in particular younger women voters,” Grube says. “We can see this reflected in activities right here on campus. They’re canvassing, registering people to vote, and have been very vocal on the importance of voting. These young women see themselves as part of a change for the future.”

Climate change
Following the October report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which asserts the world must limit global warming to 1.5º C—not the previous 2º C max—climate change should be at the forefront of political discussion, says Christina Simeone, director of policy and external affairs at the Kleinman Center for Energy Policy. However, the report seems unlikely to influence long-term climate deniers.

“With the current administration, the potential to have meaningful climate change legislation passed will be zero, and the chance of a change in this administration’s executive agenda is slim to none,” Simeone says. This changes slightly, however, if Democrats win a majority in the House. They could then practice more oversight of the executive branch’s activities around climate change, environmental deregulation, and expansion of fossil fuel production.

In the interim, leadership will happen at the state level. Simeone says voters should keep an eye on two interesting ballot initiatives, one in Washington state, the other in Colorado.

Voters in Washington will vote to decide whether to implement a carbon fee, which would require polluters to pay for greenhouse gases emissions. Ballot Initiative 63 will test the waters as to whether states can implement climate policy as the Trump administration rolls it back.

In Colorado, voters will decide whether to establish Proposition 112, which would increase limits on new oil and gas drilling in the state. If passed, this would require 2,500 feet between wells and all buildings, unlike current limits, which require 1,000 feet from schools and 500 feet from homes. This could deal a major blow to the oil and gas industry, Simeone says.

A close House race in Florida’s 26th district, in the state’s southernmost part, could indicate how this topic will impact elections in states directly threatened by climate change. Incumbent Republican Carlos Curbelo and Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell both recognize the danger that a changing climate poses to their state, which Simeone says is a step toward bipartisan agreement. On the other hand, in the state’s Senate race, climate change-denier and Republican candidate Rick Scott appears to have just a 30 percent chance of beating incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. As climate change begins to reshape the state’s coastline, Simeone says she expects voters will reshape politicians’ stances on it too.

“We’ve already started seeing more extreme weather events, as climate scientists predicted,” she says. “Scientists have warned a changing climate could have significant health impacts: heat-related deaths in the summer, flooding, drought, and increases in vector-borne diseases. Sadly, these terrible outcomes may be the only thing able to create the political will needed to make change.”