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News at a glance: Immunotherapy for lupus, near-instant health effects of racism, and forest loss from mining


ASTRONOMY

The Sun’s kinky magnetism

New images from the European Solar Orbiter may shed light on mysterious shifts in the Sun’s magnetic field and could help explain why the solar wind blows at two different speeds. In March, the spacecraft spotted an S-shaped vortex of ejecting plasma in the Sun’s corona—an observation that jibes with previous predictions that the star’s looping magnetic field lines sometimes crash into rarer straight ones, causing straight lines of emanating plasma to develop a telltale kink known as a switchback. Scientists had previously seen evidence of switchbacks in magnetic field data, but the images of them reported last week in The Astrophysical Journal Letters are a first. The findings support the idea that slower solar winds arise from switchbacks in looping magnetic field lines. The work could help scientists better predict the impact of powerful solar storms on Earth, which can wreak havoc on communications systems and navigational equipment.

POLICY

First ARPA-H director named

President Joe Biden has picked Renee Wegrzyn, an applied biologist with a background in industry and government, to head his new agency for biomedical innovation, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H). Wegrzyn, 45, served 4 years as a program manager in the biological technologies office of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the model for ARPA-H, where she led programs in synthetic biology and gene editing. She is currently vice president of business development at the Boston-based Ginkgo Bioworks, which focuses on cell engineering; she also has expertise in biosecurity. ARPA-H, which has a $1 billion budget this year, was created by Congress in March to develop cutting-edge medical technologies and is currently part of the National Institutes of Health.

They need to acknowledge their role in spreading disinformation, and choose a different path.

  • University of California, Santa Barbara, energy policy expert Leah Stokes
  • to Grist about her research on utility companies’ role in climate change denialism.
IMMUNOTHERAPY

Cancer treatment tackles lupus

Suggesting a new way to battle certain autoimmune conditions, five people with lupus have been successfully treated with engineered immune cells. A team in Germany reports this week in Nature Medicine that the patients—four women and a man who had serious organ complications from the autoimmune disease—received chimeric antigen receptor T cell (CAR-T) therapy. The strategy, which was approved 5 years ago in the United States for people with cancers of the immune system’s B cells, involves isolating T cells, genetically modifying them outside the body to target specific cells—in this case the B cells that spur lupus—and infusing them back in. All five patients tolerated the treatment well, and their impaired organ function, such as kidney problems, improved or resolved. The patients also discontinued other drugs they were taking, such as immune suppressants. The researchers note that although promising, CAR-T therapy needs to be studied in more people with lupus over time to ensure it’s safe and effective.

RACISM

Racism’s effects in real time

A study testing an innovative way to assess racism’s impact on health has found stress hormone levels in saliva spike almost immediately after someone experiences a racist interaction. In a pilot study, researchers had 12 Black participants in the United States collect their saliva four times a day over 4 days. Over the same period, participants used a phone app to record perceived discrimination and microaggressions—such as being mistaken for a service worker because of their race. Levels of cortisol—a hormone released during emotional distress—increased in the participants’ saliva the morning after they reported racial discrimination events, the team reports this week in PLOS ONE. Microaggressions seemed to have a faster effect, increasing cortisol levels the very same day. The study authors, led by Soohyun Nam at Yale University’s School of Nursing, say the strength of their strategy lies in being able to follow participants in real time and analyze their hormone levels throughout the day and are planning other similar studies.

In Focus

a southern right whale
Among this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year winners is this portrait of a southern right whale calf off New Zealand’s coast. After circling and inspecting photographer Richard Robinson, the calf reportedly returned for a second look. New Zealand’s right whale population had been hunted to near-extinction, but recent protections have helped revive it from a group with 13 breeding females to more than 2000 animals. The contest is developed and produced by the Natural History Museum in London.© RICHARD ROBINSON/WILDLIFE PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE YEAR
SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY

Women faculty paid less

Echoing previous findings, women faculty members, even those with a stellar publication record, are paid less than their male colleagues, a new study has found. After examining publicly available salary data for more than 2300 tenured or tenure-track professors who work in science, technology, engineering, and math fields at 17 research-intensive U.S. universities, researchers identified a gender pay gap that persists even after accounting for factors such as the average pay in a department and an individual’s h-index, a metric that reflects how many papers they have published and how many times those papers have been cited. Among faculty members with a relatively high h-index of 49, for instance, women were paid roughly $6000 less per year than their male counterparts. The authors of the study, which is in press at Scientometrics and available as a preprint on ResearchGate, say the findings underscore the need for universities to examine equity in faculty pay.

Dug up and deforested

Just four countries accounted for 81% of tropical forest loss caused by industrial mining as of 2019, according to a study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The largest contributor, Indonesia, digs mainly coal, whereas others mine gold and aluminum ore. Forest losses have dropped 45% since 2014, mainly because of declining prices for the mined materials and coal mining restrictions in Indonesia. Overall, agriculture remains a bigger cause of deforestation.

graph showing deforestation
(GRAPHIC) K. FRANKLIN/SCIENCE; (DATA) S. GILJUM ET AL., PNAS, 119 (38) E2118273119 (2022)
GEOGRAPHY

U.S. alters offensive place names

The Department of the Interior (DOI) last week removed a name used as a slur for Native American women from some 650 peaks, creeks, buttes, and other geographic features across the United States. Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member in the U.S. government, set up a committee that considered more than 1000 suggestions for new names. Federal agencies, including the U.S. Geological Survey, will update their maps. Museums will also update databases for specimens collected near the places on the list. “Having our collections information reflect diversity and inclusion values is important,” says Carol Butler, assistant director for collections for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The museum will change hundreds of instances in its online database, mostly for plant specimens collected at sites with the offensive names. DOI will continue to accept suggestions for other names that need changing.

HEALTH CARE

Sexual assaults’ hidden costs

People seeking emergency care following a sexual assault may also be burdened with a hefty medical bill. Looking at nearly 113,000 emergency department visits in 2019 for sexual violence, researchers found that nearly 16% of those assaulted didn’t have health insurance and had to pay, on average, nearly $3700. Pregnant individuals who were sexually assaulted incurred the highest charges, of more than $4500, on average. Such expenses may discourage people from reporting their experience or seeking help, warn the authors of the study, published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine. They also write that low-income women and girls—who are disproportionately subject to sexual violence—may be particularly hard hit by the medical charges.



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