Category Archives: Science

President Obama Expands and Creates Groundbreaking Marine National Monuments

By Kate Hawthorne, Staff Writer

On August 26, 2016, President Obama announced the expansion of the Papahanaumokuakea (pronounced papa-ha-now-moh-koo-ah-kay-ah) Marine National Monument in Hawaii.

Papahanaumokuakea was established under President George W. Bush in 2006.  At 140,000 square miles, it was the largest marine reserve at that time, and is home to more than 7,000 species, as well as the world’s oldest living animal, a black coral estimated to be 4,500 years old.  President Obama more than quadrupled the size of the monument, expanding it by 583,000 square miles.

Rachel Merz, a Professor of Marine Biology at Swarthmore, explains the ecological benefits of expanding the reserve. “Tropical islands are of special conservation importance because of their high proportion of endemic species…, so protecting a whole tropical island chain [which this expansion does] makes it much more likely that a wide diversity of organisms… will be sheltered.”

This expansion is important from a political standpoint as well as environmental standpoint. Professor Don Barber of Bryn Mawr says, “For better or worse, high-level policy statements…  matter, because they express the values, knowledge and understanding of … society. … President Obama’s sweeping expansion of a Pacific National Marine Monument expresses that we [US citizens…] value the ocean and hope to protect it….”

Less than a month later, President Obama   announced the creation of another momentous marine reserve—the first one of its kind in the Atlantic Ocean. This monument, called the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, is roughly the size of Connecticut and is located off the coast of Cape Cod. It encompasses four seamounts and three marine canyons and is home to several endangered species, including sperm whales, fin whales, sei whales, Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, ancient deep-sea coral and species of fish unique to the region. According to The New York Times, the monument is in an area of the Atlantic where ocean temperatures are projected to warm as much as three times as fast as the global average, making these species even more endangered.

Barber elaborated on the importance of this site. “The move to protect large areas in two very different regions of the ocean underscores that we value and consider it important to protect a diversity of marine habitats. … While the expanded Pacific region holds some coral atolls that we often consider ‘pristine tropical paradise,’ the new site in the Northwest Atlantic is rather different due to its higher latitude.”

The expansions have caused concern among the fishing industries. Fisherman in the Pacific fear that the expansion of Papahanaumokuakea to include territory previously used for fishing will hurt the fishing industry. Atlantic fishing, lobster and red crab industries are not thrilled with the establishment of the new reserve near Cape Cod, predicting that it will likely hurt their economic yield. To mitigate this effect, the lobster and crab industries will be  given a seven-year grace period before they will be required to stop all proceedings in the area.

Both marine reserves were created under the 1906 Antiquities Act, which allows the president to create national monuments in order to protect natural, cultural or scientific entities. During his administration, Obama has used this act to protect hundreds of millions of acres—more than any other president.

His actions have caused a great deal of contention among Republicans who believe he is abusing his power. This is likely because “both actions weigh long-term values more heavily than short-term economic benefits,” as Professor Carol Hager of Bryn Mawr points out. “It is difficult to do this in normal policy making because of the power that interest groups have in our legislative system … There is always a trade-off between use for immediate, usually economic benefit and preservation value for generalized, not always economically quantifiable benefit. In this case there will be long-term economic benefits in that the oceans will become more resilient against climate change. However, as President Obama pointed out, it’s about more than that. These unique, beautiful seascapes are part of who we are.”

The results of expanding and establishing these marine reserves may not be immediate, but they are valuable enough to grab our attention. “We should care…if we care about having a healthy planet with a diversity of species.” Professor Joshua Moses of Haverford says. Hager says, “You should care because this is your legacy. The long term is where your children will live. What kind of world do you want them to live in?”

Everyone should be expected to do their part to keep these unique ecosystems from being lost. Merz notes, “We all make dozens of small decisions in a day that impact natural systems … Over our lifetimes and over the lifetimes of the people we influence those small decisions add up to big differences … Being conscious of the environmental consequences of those … decisions is a responsibility we share.”

From the print edition published on Oct. 5, 2016

Dr. John Wai Speaks at BMC About Creating an Anti-HIV Drug

By Emma Nelson, Staff Writer

On Friday, September 30th, Dr. John Wai of WuXi Apptec (formerly Merck & Co.) spoke in the Park Science Building on Bryn Mawr’s campus. He was introduced by Professor Malachowski, who is standing in as chair of the Chemistry department. Malachowski was warm, and explained that he knew Dr. Wai through Wai’s wife, whom he had met many years ago while collaborating on research. Malachowski continued to give the audience of several dozen people a brief background on Dr. Wai.

Wai has studied at the University of Hong Kong and the University of British Columbia, and completed post-doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has worked at Merck & Co., a pharmaceutical company, for many years. During his distinguished career, Dr. Wai and his colleagues have been awarded the Prix Galien and ACS Heroes of Chemistry Awards for their work on Isentress™, an anti-HIV drug.

After the introduction, Dr. Wai himself stepped up and began his presentation, entitled “Discovery of HIV Integrase Inhibitors: From Diketoacid Hit to Raltegravir and Beyond.” He started by talking about the situation in 1997, when he and his team commenced their research. HIV/AIDS was an epidemic, he explained, showcasing World Health Organization global estimates on annual deaths at the time. There were few treatment options available, no vaccines, and incomplete structural information from which to base their research. This, Wai explained, made the first steps along their path to developing Isentress™ very difficult.

Academic papers on HIV-1 integrase (the part of the virus which attaches to host DNA and infects the host for life) concluded that it was “undruggable,” that it would be impossible to stop a person from being infected once exposed. However, Wai and his team persisted with their research. A major help to their efforts was collaboration with other scientists who were also working on the problem of inhibiting HIV integrase. This problem is that HIV is a stoichiometric enzyme. A “stoichiometric enzyme” refers to a particular atypical property of HIV: it can only do its job (infecting the host) once. If it is prevented, the virus becomes useless.

With this additional information, Wai and his team moved along with the early stages of drug development. In fact, they moved into Pre-Clinical Research, an important step on the way toward clinical animal and human trial, with only one “lead,” or prototype, instead of the typical two or more. This quickly transformed into clinical testing on animals: first rats, then eventually dogs and rhesus monkeys.

First results from the testing on rats went so well, Wai explained in good humor, that his team had a party in celebration. However, Wai grew serious as he continued. By the end of the week, no more than five days after the unbelievable news about their lead’s success, Wai was called and told that the dogs, in the second stage of clinical trials, had grown so sick that they had to be put down. Changes had to be made in certain properties of the chemical to make it safer, and with the determination of Wai and his colleagues, the lead was soon improved.

To explain the clinical trials on human patients, Wai presented an anecdote about his friend Skip, a man with HIV. Wai’s lead moved into human testing, but Skip was not able to join the clinical trials, due to his triple-class resistance, a certain state which is characterized by resistance to different types of antiretroviral drugs. Knowing that this was the case for many patients who desperately needed the drugs provided in clinical trials, Merck & Co. took a risk to get unqualified patients the prototype drug. However, this risk paid off for Wai’s friend Skip, whose HIV was undetectable for the first time in 20 years.

“I couldn’t hold back tears … no award is better than this,” Wai remembered thinking the first time he saw the newly-healthy Skip.

Dr. Wai finished his presentation with an overview of research done to prevent mutations of the HIV virus from halting or impairing the potency and efficacy of his new drug. Using three-dimensional computer models of his team’s prototype, Wai showcased one thing he could not understand: a feature of the molecular structure that should not have helped the drug work. If someone had told him to design the prototype like this, he explained, he would have called them wrong. Despite this inexplicable quirk, Isentress™ was approved by the FDA in 2007, as it passed through the human clinical trials and completed FDA review and monitoring successfully. Wai concluded that it took a lot of work- two decade’s worth, on his part- and luck to develop this drug from start to finish.

From the print edition published on Oct. 5, 2016