Science

News at a glance: AI reveals protein structures, racism’s impact on memory, and rising tiger numbers

INFECTIOUS DISEASE

Progress toward ending AIDS has stalled

The world’s response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic is faltering badly in the face of declines in spending and the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an annual update from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) released last week. In a campaign announced in 2015 to “end AIDS as a public health threat” by 2030, UNAIDS set targets for 2025 that the new report finds are far from being met. Last year, 1.5 million people became infected with HIV, 1 million more than the 2025 target. Of the 38.4 million people living with the virus in 2021, 10 million are still not receiving lifesaving antiretroviral drugs, and last year saw the lowest number of new people starting treatment in a decade. Alarmingly, UNAIDS notes, 52% of infected children aren’t being treated.

It is embarrassing for the F.D.A. … to have its employees go to a company that is a leading manufacturer of death.

  • Micah Berman
  • a public health law expert at Ohio State University, commenting in The New York Times after the chief of the office of science in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Tobacco Products moved to a job with tobacco giant Philip Morris International.
HEART DISEASE

Boost for heart gene cures

The British Heart Foundation will award £30 million ($36 million) over 5 years to an international team to develop genetic cures for some inherited heart diseases called cardiomyopathies. The group, dubbed CureHeart, won over three others shortlisted by the Big Beat Challenge, a competition launched in 2019 to fund transformative heart disease research. The team aims to use one-time injections of gene-editing tools to precisely correct or silence mutations that cause heart muscle cells to produce too little or a harmful form of a needed protein. These cardiomyopathies affect one in every 250 people, putting them at risk for heart attacks and heart failure; some will need a heart transplant. Within 5 years, CureHeart members in the United States, United Kingdom, and Singapore hope to develop one or more treatments to the point that companies will pick them up for clinical testing.

HEALTH INEQUITIES

Racism takes a toll on memory

Two studies presented this week at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in San Diego find people who experienced racism and discrimination have lower memory scores, a symptom of dementia. The work supports the findings of previous research and systemic inequities such as limited health care access are likely responsible. Systemic inequities such as limited health care access are likely responsible. In an analysis of nearly 1000 middle-aged Black, Latino, and white adults in the United States, researchers found past experiences of individual and structural racism, such as residential segregation, were correlated with poorer episodic memory—the ability to recall personal events in one’s life. Black individuals, who are more likely to have Alzheimer’s and other dementias, were the most affected. In the other study, of almost 450 Asian, Black, Latino, white, and multiracial people ages 90 or older, those who experienced discrimination throughout their lives had lower semantic memory—general world knowledge accumulated over time—compared with those who experienced little to no discrimination.

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

AI reveals structures of nearly all proteins

structure of a protein from thale cress plant
AlphaFold predicted the structure of a protein from the thale cress plant that may confer disease resistance.DEEPMIND/EMBL-EBI

In a potentially transformative event for drug development and biology studies, the artificial intelligence (AI) company DeepMind last week unveiled the likely structures of nearly all known proteins, more than 200 million in total, from organisms ranging from bacteria to humans. The structural bounty comes from AlphaFold, one of the new AI programs that have cracked the protein-folding problem and learned how to accurately derive 3D shapes of proteins from their amino acid sequences. DeepMind released some 350,000 predicted structures last year and AlphaFold has since continued to churn out new structures, taking about 10 to 20 seconds per protein, accordinhttps://alz-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/dad2.12067g to the company. The latest structures were released into an existing database through a partnership with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory’s European Bioinformatics Institute. “With this new addition of structures illuminating nearly the entire protein universe, we can expect more biological mysteries to be solved each day,” Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, tweeted about the achievement.

INFECTIOUS DISEASE

China replaces its CDC chief

Virologist George Gao, who helped forge China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, was replaced as director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC) on 26 July. Internationally connected and respected, Gao, who led CCDC since 2017, was more outspoken than most Chinese scientists and promoted international cooperation. CCDC has said Gao, 60, was replaced because of his age, but observers suspect the change is part of a wider bureaucratic shake-up to strengthen political control over the agency. In an email to Science, Gao wrote it is “hard to say” what comes next in his career but hinted at a continuing interest in public health, noting that emerging diseases and climate change are “two of the most important issues mankind faces.” Gao’s successor is Shen Hongbing, a public health researcher and former president of Nanjing Medical University.

Senate weighs in on research spending

The U.S. Senate last week released proposed 2023 budgets for key research agencies that are close to levels agreed on in June by the House of Representatives (see below, $ billions). But final numbers likely won’t be adopted until after the November elections.

  2022 Biden 2023 request House bills Senate bills
National Institutes of Health core 45 50.5 47.5 47
ARPA-Health 1 5 2.7 1
National Science Foundation 8.8 10.5 9.6 10.3
NASA science 7.6 8 7.9 8
Department of Energy science 7.5 7.8 8 8
NIST core labs 0.9 1 1 1
EPA science 0.7 0.9 0.9 0.9
WHITE HOUSE; CONGRESS
SPACE

Mars mission gets revamped

NASA and the European Space Agency announced last week they will make greater use of the Mars-based Perseverance rover—with helicopters as a backup—to retrieve samples from the planet, in a mission launching later this decade. Since 2021, Perseverance has been collecting samples of Mars rocks and sealing them in finger-size tubes. The agencies originally planned to send a new rover to gather the tubes for return, but are now betting Perseverance will be fit enough to deliver them in person. When a lander arrives around 2030, it will use an arm to load 31 tubes into a rocket that will launch and rendezvous with an orbiter waiting to return home to Earth. If Perseverance shows signs of faltering before then, operators can order it to drop its cargo. Then two small choppers brought by the lander, resembling Perseverance’s hovering sidekick Ingenuity, will collect the dropped tubes. Either way, the most expensive half-kilogram of soil in history—given the $7 billion mission cost—will land in Utah in 2033.

CONSERVATION

Nepal counts record tiger numbers

Wild tiger numbers in Nepal have nearly tripled since 2009, the country announced last week. In 2010, with populations declining because of poaching and habitat loss, countries with tigers pledged to increase the number of wild animals from 3200 to more than 7000 by this year. In December 2021, a conservation group estimated fewer than 5600 across 13 Asian countries. Yet with a wildlife survey counting 355 of the big cats within its borders, Nepal has greatly exceeded its 2022 goal of 250 such animals. Tiger populations are also increasing in China and Thailand. Some of the apparent global increase may be due to improved survey methods and tools such as remote cameras. But in Nepal, the boost is largely thanks to conservationists’ focus on habitat restoration, such as replanting forests as corridors for tigers. Nepal has also reduced tiger deaths by helping villagers better defend livestock from the cats with fences and compensating farmers when tigers kill their animals.

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