Research Roundup: Design flaws in early COVID-19 studies, ‘molecular scalpel’ targets unwanted proteins, coronavirus impacts Earth systems

Aug. 5, 2020, 5:09 p.m.

Each week, The Daily’s Science & Tech section produces a roundup of the most exciting and influential research happening on campus or otherwise related to Stanford. Here’s our digest for the week of July 26 – Aug. 1.

Early COVID-19 studies lack high-quality trial design standards

Numerous COVID-19 studies conducted before mid-May have low-quality design and low-value evidence, a research letter published on July 27 in “JAMA Internal Medicine” reports. These studies often failed to meet quality standards such as adequate sample size, geographic reach among patients in hospitals and trial randomization.

“These smaller trials aren’t going to give us the best evidence we need,” cardiovascular medicine associate professor Mintu Turakhia told Stanford Medicine’s blog, SCOPE.

The findings suggest that out of the nearly 1,500 clinical studies listed on as of May 19, only around 29% produced data significant enough to inform changes in coronavirus clinical care.

“These findings really make the case that a scientific response — a research network that is on standby and ready to be deployed — should be part of a pandemic preparation plan,” Turakhia told SCOPE.

‘Molecular scalpel’ targets harmful proteins for degradation

A newly developed “molecular scalpel” can eliminate harmful cell surface proteins by relocating these proteins to the lysosome, a cellular compartment designed to degrade proteins, a study published on July 29 in “Nature” found.

The potential uses of protein degradation include treating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s or certain cancers, which are both linked to harmful proteins.

“It’s like a molecular scalpel,” chemistry postdoctoral research fellow Steven Banik told Stanford News. “This tool allows you to accelerate the natural degradation of one individual protein among all the different proteins that are on or outside a cell.”

The ‘molecular scalpel’ utilizes molecules called lysosome targeting chimeras (LYTACs). When a harmful protein is tagged with LYTACs, the protein is shuttled to the lysosome where the lysosome destroys the harmful protein.

“With protein degradation strategies, you can not only expand what is druggable but also improve therapies that are already out there,” chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi told Stanford News. “Every cell has lysosomes. Every cell already has a way to degrade proteins. No matter what your target is, if you can get a LYTAC there, you can degrade it.”

COVID-19 presents an opportunity to study global-wide Earth systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided researchers with opportunities to study natural and human systems, a paper published on July 29 in “Nature Review Earth & Environment” reports.

“Without distracting from the most important priority — which is clearly the health and well-being of people and communities — the current easing of the human footprint is providing a unique window into the impacts of humans on the environment, including a number of questions that are critical for effective public policy,” earth system science professor Noah Diffenbaugh B.S. ’97 M.S. ’97 told Stanford News.

The findings suggest that future researchers intending to study the short and long term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic need to focus on two categories: energy, emissions, climate and air quality; and poverty, globalization, food and biodiversity.

“Almost overnight, people across the world had to change the way they live, the way they work — with many facing loss of income — commute, buy food, educate their children and other energy-consuming behaviors,” energy resources engineering associate professor Inês Azevedo told Stanford News. “It’s critical for us to better understand how future societal disruptions and catastrophes could affect interactions among energy systems and other systems that serve society.”

“COVID-19 poses some of the biggest challenges we have faced in the last century,” biology and earth system science professor Chris Field biological sciences Ph.D. ’81 told Stanford News. “With every challenge, there are opportunities for learning, and this paper provides a map for expanding the set of opportunities.”

Contact Derek Chen at derekc8 ‘at’

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