Climate change amped up the rains that pounded southeastern Africa and killed hundreds of people during two powerful storms in early 2022.
But a dearth of regional data made it difficult to pinpoint just how large of a role climate change played, scientists said April 11 at a news conference.
The findings were described in a study, published online April 11, by a consortium of climate scientists and disaster experts called the World Weather Attribution network.
A series of tropical storms and heavy rain events battered southeast Africa in quick succession from January through March. For this study, the researchers focused on two events: Tropical Storm Ana, which led to flooding in northern Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique in January and killed at least 70 people; and Cyclone Batsirai, which inundated southern Madagascar in February and caused hundreds more deaths. To search for the fingerprints of climate change, the team first selected a three-day period of heavy rain for each storm. Then the researchers tried to amass observational data from the region to reconstruct historical daily rainfall records from 1981 to 2022.
Only four weather stations, all in Mozambique, had consistent, high-quality data spanning those decades. But, using the data on hand, the team was able to construct simulations for the region that represented climate with and without human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
The aggregate of those simulations revealed that climate change did play a role in intensifying the rains, Izidine Pinto, a climatologist at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said at the news event. But with insufficient historical rainfall data, the team “could not quantify the precise contribution” of climate change, Pinto said.
The study highlights how information on extreme weather events “is very much biased toward the Global North … [whereas] there are big gaps in the Global South,” said climate scientist Friedericke Otto of Imperial College London.
That’s an issue also highlighted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC cites insufficient Southern Hemisphere data as a barrier to assessing the likelihood of increasing frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones beyond the North Atlantic Ocean (SN: 8/9/21).
Before Russia invaded Ukraine, many military analysts feared that the capital of Kyiv would fall within days of an attack, undermining any further resistance. Instead, the war is well into its second month. Ukrainian fighters have reversed some Russian gains, forcing a retreat from Kyiv and an apparent narrowing of Russia’s sights to the country’s eastern provinces, closest to Russia’s border.
What these analysts and Russian President Vladimir Putin himself missed, social scientists say, is research showing that people who live within the borders of Ukraine have identified more and more as Ukrainian — and less as Russian — since Ukraine’s independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
That trend intensified after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and started backing separatists in the Donbas region, political and ethnic studies scholar Volodymyr Kulyk said in a virtual talk organized by Harvard University in February. “Russians came to mean people in Russia,” said Kulyk, of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv.
These Ukrainian loyalists are now fighting tooth and nail for their country’s continued, sovereign existence.
“Putin underestimated Ukrainians’ attachment to their country and overestimated [their] connection to Russia,” says political scientist Lowell Barrington of Marquette University in Milwaukee. “One of his biggest mistakes was not reading social science research on Ukraine.”
Historic divide The common refrain is that Ukraine is a country divided along both linguistic and regional lines, political scientists Olga Onuch of the University of Manchester in England and Henry Hale wrote in 2018 in Post-Soviet Affairs.
While the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, most people speak both Ukrainian and Russian. People living in western cities, most notably Lviv, primarily speak Ukrainian and those in eastern cities closer to the Russian border primarily speak Russian.
The origins of those divisions are complicated, but can be traced back, in part, to between the late 18th century and early 20th century when western Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and eastern Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. Then, after the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, Ukraine was briefly an independent state known as the Ukrainian People’s Republic before being incorporated into the Soviet Union in the early 1920s. Putin seems to believe that national identities stay relatively fixed across time, says Hale, of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Social scientists refer to that idea as primordialism, the belief that individuals have a single nationalistic or ethnic identity that they pass on to subsequent generations. In other words, once a Russian, always a Russian.
That rigid mentality shows up in official documents and censuses conducted in the Soviet Union starting in 1932. That’s when government officials began recording every citizen’s natsionalnist, essentially a conflation of nationality with ethnicity. People in the Soviet Union fell into one of over 180 possible ethnic categories, such as Russian, Chechen, Tatar, Jewish or Ukrainian, political scientists Oksana Mikheieva and Oxana Shevel wrote in 2021 in a chapter of the book From ‘the Ukraine’ to Ukraine.
“Nationality was transformed into a characteristic of a person that was inherited from his parents, rather than chosen consciously,” says Mikheieva, a political scientist at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt and the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
While the Kremlin’s goal was to unite people of different nationalities under a single Soviet label, those with a Russian ethnicity remained at the top of the social ladder, write Mikheieva and Shevel, of Tufts University in Medford, Mass . Paradoxically, one’s nationality both provided a sense of belonging and deepened ethnic divides.
Putin, who served in the Soviet-era KGB, may have either directly or indirectly been counting on people to still view their nationality in this way. “He’s stuck in his formative years from the Soviet period,” says Elise Giuliano, a political scientist at Columbia University.
Shifting identity Today, primordialism has largely fallen out of favor among social scientists, Hale says. Most researchers now see ethnic and nationalistic identities as fluid, evolving and dependent on the political and social environment. Individuals may also consider themselves to have multiple ethnicities.
Some of that shift in thinking comes from the study of Ukraine itself. The country’s relatively recent independence in 1991 means that social scientists can track the Ukrainian people’s evolving sense of identity in real time. And Ukraine also made the unusual move of granting citizenship to nearly everyone living within its territorial borders at the time of independence. When Ukrainian passports became available in 1992, officials likewise stopped the Soviet practice of stamping them with the owner’s natsionalnist. During the 2000s, that category also disappeared from birth certificates.
These practices contrasted with countries such as Latvia and Estonia, which refused automatic citizenship to ethnic Russians in their countries, says Barrington, the Marquette political scientist. Consequently, Ukraine paved the way for the emergence of a civic, or chosen, identity.
In studying post-Soviet Ukraine, researchers wanted to know: Would people living in Ukraine, even those with non-Ukrainian natsionalnists, shed their Soviet identity and become Ukrainian?
Official censuses conducted before and after independence hinted that the percentage of people living in Ukraine and identifying as Ukrainian did increase after 1991. In 1989, about 22 percent of people identified as Russian, but by 2001, only about 17 percent did. Migration out of Ukraine cannot fully account for that change, researchers say.
Since 2001, no national censuses have been held in Ukraine. So scientists have instead had to rely on smaller but often more detailed surveys, many generated in collaboration with the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Initially, researchers continued to use Soviet terminology on those surveys. Censuses and surveys shoehorn people into categories, Hale says, but understanding how people’s interpretation of those categories change over time, particularly when the social context changes, is useful (SN: 3/8/20). Researchers thus needed to look into what people meant when they chose a certain answer.
That work started with the “native language” question on surveys, which even in Soviet times was hard for researchers to interpret. Asking people what they considered to be their native language was meant to capture their language of everyday use. But people often selected the language that aligned with their ethnicity. For instance, about 12 percent of Ukrainians selected Russian as their native language on the 1989 census, Kulyk, the political and ethnic studies scholar at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, said in his talk. But other surveys conducted around that time that did distinguish between native language and language of everyday use revealed that over 50 percent of Ukrainians spoke Russian in everyday life.
That confusion surrounding the native language question carried over to post-Soviet Ukraine. Surveys conducted in the 1990s and 2000s showed that many people selecting Ukrainian as their native language did not necessarily speak the language, Kulyk reported in 2011 in Nations and Nationalism.
In a more recent analysis of three nationwide surveys in Ukraine — conducted in 2012, 2014 and 2017, and each involving roughly 1,700 to 2,000 respondents — Kulyk investigated responses to the question: “What language do you consider your native language?” In 2012, some 60 percent of respondents said Ukrainian and 24 percent said Russian. By 2017, over 68 percent of respondents selected Ukrainian and just under 13 percent selected Russian, he reported in 2018 in Post-Soviet Affairs.
Those numbers say little about actual language use, Hale says. Instead, the native language question is a way to gauge people’s shifting views of national identity. The growing number of Ukrainian “speakers” and the decreasing number of Russian “speakers” suggests that people are selecting the answer that’s in line with their Ukrainian civic identity, he says. “Knowing Russian isn’t any kind of predictor for supporting the Russian state. Instead, what is [becoming] more important is the civic identification with the Ukrainian state.”
Choosing Ukraine Researchers who study identity have also begun investigating Ukrainians’ responses to the question, “What is your natsionalnist?” which still occasionally appears on official paperwork, Mikheieva says.
Ukrainians filling out those forms can interpret the term as asking about their ethnic background in the Soviet sense, their chosen identity or some combination of both. What social scientists need to understand is how Ukrainians no longer under Soviet rule perceive themselves.
To that end, the three nationwide surveys Kulyk evaluated in his 2018 study all asked people multiple questions about nationality. In one, for instance, participants were told: “… some people consider themselves belonging to several nationalities at the same time. Please look at this card and tell which statement reflects more than the others your opinion about yourself.” People could then select a single nationality or some combination of Russian and Ukrainian nationalities. That work revealed that the percentage of people selecting only Ukrainian went up from 67.8 percent in 2012 to 81.5 percent in 2017.
What’s more, the greatest rise occurred among people living in the historically Russian strongholds of eastern and southern Ukraine. In 2012, some 40 percent of Ukrainians from that region selected “only Ukrainian” compared with almost 65 percent in 2017. Meanwhile, the percentage of eastern and southern Ukrainians identifying as “only Russian” decreased from roughly 17 percent in 2012 to less than 5 percent in 2017.
The actual percentage of Ukrainians allying with Russia might be slightly higher, however, as Kulyk and other researchers have been unable to collect more recent data from the Russian-controlled Crimean Peninsula and the disputed Donbas region.
More recent research also suggests that the Ukrainian people are gradually shedding their Soviet understanding of identity. For instance, in a 2018 survey of over 2,000 people, some 70 percent of respondents said that their Ukrainian citizenship constituted at least part of their identity, Barrington reported in 2021 in Post-Soviet Affairs. That’s due, in part, to Ukrainian leaders’ concerted efforts to shift away from ethnic nationalism and toward civic nationalism, Barrington wrote. Deprioritizing ethnicity weakens the linguistic and regional divides; civic nationalism, meanwhile, bonds people through “feelings of solidarity, sympathy and obligation.” Broadly speaking, researchers say, these surveys all show that identification with the Ukrainian state began immediately after the country achieved independence, and accelerated following Russian aggression in the region in 2014.
The current war, by extension, is almost certainly cementing many Ukrainians’ loyalty to their country, everyone interviewed for this story said. “In some paradoxical twist,” says Shevel. “Putin is basically unifying the Ukrainian nation.”
Identity grows stronger, and internal divisions weaker, when nations are under attack, says Giuliano, the political scientist at Columbia University. During an invasion, “you are going to rally around the flag. You’re going to support the country in which you live.”
In December 1987, my family moved from sweltering Florida to a snow-crusted island in the Niagara River just north of Buffalo, N.Y. There on Grand Island, I heard for the first time about a place called Love Canal. Right across the river, not a mile away, lay an entire neighborhood that had been emptied out less than a decade before by one of the worst environmental disasters in American history.
In the 1940s and ’50s, Hooker Chemical dumped about 20,000 tons of toxic waste into the canal, eventually covering it with soil and selling the land to the city of Niagara Falls for a dollar. The city built a school on it, and houses sprang up around it. For years, residents would smell strange odors in their homes, and kids would see chemicals bubbling up on the playground, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s that local officials began to take notice. Eventually, testing revealed dangerous levels of toxic chemicals along with increased rates of certain cancers in adults, as well as seizures, learning disabilities and kidney problems in children.
To me as a kid, the area surrounding Love Canal was an eerie abandoned neighborhood where teenagers would drive around at night to get creeped out. The place is truly haunting. The stories I heard of toxic chemicals gurgling up in people’s backyards stayed with me, and in 2008, I returned as an environmental reporter to write about Love Canal’s legacy. Only then did I understand the magnitude of the crisis.
And only now, with the publication of Paradise Falls, do I fully comprehend the human tragedy of Love Canal and the neighborhood called LaSalle that straddled it. Journalist Keith O’Brien chronicles events primarily through the lens of the people who lived there. He focuses on the period from Christmas 1976 to May 1980, when President Jimmy Carter signed a federal emergency order that evacuated more than 700 families. Having covered the story myself, I was puzzled at first to see that O’Brien covered such a tight time frame in a story that developed over decades. He skims quickly through the history of chemical dumping and touches only briefly on follow-up studies of residents in the 1980s. But he fills more than 350 pages with a narrative of the main crisis period so gripping it could almost be a thriller. As the disaster unfolds, there are horrific discoveries, medical mysteries and plenty of screaming neighbors. The whole narrative is pulled directly from O’Brien’s extensive research, including interviews and documents that had been stored for decades.
Chapters hop between the perspectives of key residents and the scientists and officials dealing with the crisis, but the story is told chronologically and in great detail. In fact, there’s so much detail that we even learn the type of cookies (oatmeal) served to the officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who housewife-turned-activist Lois Gibbs famously took hostage in a publicity stunt.
O’Brien’s previous book, Fly Girls, was about pioneering female aviators of the 1920s and ’30s. So perhaps it’s no surprise that he has again focused on heroines. Gibbs was the public face of Love Canal, but many of the other women who took action got far less attention. O’Brien brings their stories to light. There was Elene Thornton, a Black resident of public housing who fought for her neighbors; Bonnie Casper, a young congressional aide who rallied government action; and Beverly Paigen, a scientist who risked her job studying a problem her superiors wanted to drop.
But perhaps the most poignant story, told in heartbreaking detail, is that of Luella Kenny. She was a cancer researcher living with her family in a house that backed up to a creek near Love Canal when her 6-year-old son Jon Allen fell ill with mysterious symptoms. Doctors ignored her at first, but eventually the child grew so sick he was hospitalized with a kidney disease called nephrotic syndrome.
O’Brien narrates the family’s days with stunning clarity, capturing small but moving moments like Jon Allen gathering fallen chestnuts in the hospital parking lot and rolling them between his small, swollen fingers. By the time I read of Jon Allen’s death, even though I already knew the outcome, I cried. I felt as if I knew these people personally by the end of the book, and any misgivings I had initially about O’Brien’s approach disappeared. There are many ways to tell a story, but sometimes the simplest way — the perspective of those who lived it — is best.
Europa’s frozen surface is covered with distinctive pairs of ridges that straddle troughs of ice. These double ridges are the most common features on the Jovian moon. But scientists don’t yet have a clear idea of how the oddities are created.
Now, an analysis of images of a similar set of ridges on Greenland’s ice sheet suggests that relatively shallow water within Europa’s thick icy shell may be behind their formation, scientists report April 19 in Nature Communications. If so, that could mean that Europa has much more shallow liquid water than scientists have thought.
Europa’s double ridge systems, which can stretch for hundreds of kilometers, include some of the oldest features on the moon, says Riley Culberg, a geophysicist at Stanford University. Some researchers have proposed that the flexing of the moon’s icy shell due to tides in an underlying liquid water ocean plays a role in the ridges’ formation (SN: 8/6/20). Yet others have suggested that water erupted from deep within the icy moon — a process known as cryovolcanism — to create the ridges. Without a closer look, though, it’s been hard to nail down a more solid explanation. But Culberg and his colleagues seem to have caught a break. Data gathered by NASA’s ICESat-2 satellite in March 2016 showed an 800-meter-long double ridge system in northwestern Greenland. So the team looked back at other images to see when the ridge system first appeared and to assess how it grew. The researchers found that the ridges appeared in images taken as early as July 2013 and are still there today.
When the ridges — which lie on either side of a trough, like those on Europa — reached full size, they averaged only 2.1 meters high. That’s a lot smaller than the ridges on Europa, which can rise 300 meters or more from the moon’s surface. But surface gravity is much lower on Europa, so ridges can grow much larger there, Culberg says. When he and his colleagues considered the difference between Earth’s gravity and Europa’s in their calculations, they found that the proportions of the two ridge systems are consistent. Scientists will never get a perfect analog of Europa on Earth, but the ridges in Greenland “look just like the Europan ridges,” says Laurent Montési, a geophysicist at the University of Maryland in College Park who was not involved in the study.
Data from airplane-mounted radar gathered in March 2016 show that a water-filled layer of snow about 10 to 15 meters below the surface underlies the Greenland ridges, Culberg and his team say. That water comes from surface meltwater that sinks into and is then collected in the buried snow, which in turn sits atop an impermeable layer of ice.
Repeated freeze-thaw cycles of water in that layer of snow would squeeze water toward the surface, the researchers propose. In the first phase of refreezing, a solid plug of ice forms. Then, as more water freezes, it expands and is forced toward the surface on either side of that plug, pushing material upward and producing the double ridges at the surface.
On Europa, the process works the same way, the researchers suggest. But because there is no known meltwater or precipitation at the moon’s surface, near-surface water there probably would have to come from the ocean thought to be trapped beneath the moon’s icy shell (5/14/18). Once that water rose toward the surface through cracks, it could pool in thick layers of ice shattered by tidal flexing or the impacts of meteorites.
“There’s a general consensus that these ridges grow from cracks in the ice,” says William McKinnon, a planetary scientist at Washington University in Saint Louis who was not involved in the study. “But how do they do it is the question.”
The answer to that question may not be long in coming, McKinnon says. NASA’s Europa Clipper mission is scheduled to launch in late 2024. If all goes well, the orbiter will arrive at Jupiter in April 2030. “If there’s anything like what has happened in Greenland going on at Europa, we’ll be able to see it,” he says.
Researchers will also be interested to see if the mission can ascertain what sort of materials might have been brought to Europa’s surface from the ocean deep below, because the moon is considered to be one of the best places in the solar system to look for extraterrestrial life (SN: 4/8/20).
Fake — and fatal — invitations to romance could be the newest bit of trickery uncovered among some jack-in-the-pulpit wildflowers.
The fatal part isn’t the surprise. Jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema) are the only plants known to kill their own insect pollinators as a matter of routine, says evolutionary ecologist Kenji Suetsugu of Kobe University in Japan. The new twist, if confirmed, would be using sexual deception to woo pollinators into the death traps.
Until now, biologists have found only three plant families with any species that pretend to offer sex to insects, Suetsugu says online March 28 in Plants, People, Planet. But unlike deceit in jack-in-the-pulpits, those other attractions aren’t fatal, just phony.
The orchid family has turned out multiple cheats, some so seductive that a male insect leaves wasted sperm as well as pollen on a flower. Yet he doesn’t get even a sip of nectar (SN: 3/5/08; SN: 3/27/08). Similar scams have turned up among daisies: A few dark bumps that a human in bad light might mistake for an insect can drive male flies to frenzies on the yellow, orange or red Gorteria petals. Enthusiasm wanes with repeated disappointment though (SN: 1/29/14). And among irises, a species dangles velvety purple petals where deluded insects wallow. Two jack-in-the-pulpit species in Japan have now raised suspicions that their family, the arums, should be added to the list of sexual cheats. To visually oriented humans, the 180 or so Arisaema species look like just a merry reminder of evolution’s endless weirdness. Some kind of flappy canopy, sometimes striped, bends over a little cupped “pulpit” with a pinkie-tip stub or mushroom bulge of plant flesh peeping over the rim. Below the rim, swaths of flowers open in succession — male blooms overtaken by flowers with female parts — as the plant grows from slim young jack to big mama.
These oddball flowers depend mostly on pollinators that deserve a much bigger fan base: fungus gnats. These gnats, small as punctuation marks and hard to identify, are true flies. But don’t hold that against them. They don’t stalk picnic spreads or buzz-thump against windows. Pollinating gnats “are very frail,” Suetsugu says, and their wings make no noise a human can hear.
Nor can a human always smell what draws fungus gnats. It’s clear, though, that the varied canopied pulpits can have a strong happy hour lure for those cruising pollinators looking to meet the right gnat. This will go terribly wrong.
A tiny escape hatch deep in the trap stays open during the male phase of flowering, but that two-millimeter hole vanishes during the big mama stage. A gnat can’t overcome the slippery, flaking wax of the plant’s inner wall to climb out. So any gnat tricked twice is doomed.
Biologists had assumed that jack-in-the-pulpits seeking fungus gnats were perfuming the air with mushroomy, nice-place-to-have-kids scents. Many kinds seem to do so, but homey smells don’t explain an odd observation by Suetsugu and his colleagues. Of the important pollinator species for two Japanese jack-in-the-pulpits (A. angustatum and A. peninsulae), almost all the specks found in the traps were males. An odor lure targeting males might mimic a come-hither scent of female gnats, the researchers propose. That’s outright fraud. Even if the hopeful males find a mate in the waxy green dungeon, they and their offspring would starve. They’re stuck in a plant with no fungus to eat. Whatever that ruinous scent is, a human nose can barely detect it, Suetsugu reports.
The notion that biologists have so far overlooked a scent important to other animals seems “more than possible” to Kelsey J.R.P. Byers of the John Innes Centre in Norwich, England. Byers’ work overturned a common assumption that monkeyflowers (Mimulus) had no scent even though hawkmoths, flying at night and known to track odors, visit the flowers.
“We’re such visual creatures,” says Byers, who studies floral scents. We can laugh at how insects mistake some off-color blob of plant tissue for a fabulous female, but we’re missing the odors. Fungus gnats, however, even look like the citizens of a smellier world, with giant guy-style antennae “like an ostrich plume on a hat.”
At least now, modern analytical lab techniques and equipment are opening up the vast sensory world of communication wafting around us. To see if even familiar plants like jack-in-the-pulpits are up to something odd, scientists need to identify the lure itself. Then maybe we’ll understand the irresistible valentine scent of a female fungus gnat.
One year ago, Ingenuity took its first flight on Mars. And its story since is that of a real-world little helicopter that could.
Ingenuity traveled to the Red Planet attached to the belly of NASA’s Perseverance rover, and both arrived in Jezero crater last February (SN: 2/17/21). About six weeks later, the helicopter began what was meant to be only a 30-day technology demonstration to see if flight is possible in the thin Martian atmosphere.
It proved it could fly — and then some (SN: 4/19/21). Over the next couple weeks, Ingenuity took four more flights, each time going a bit farther, a bit faster and a bit higher. After those first test flights, Ingenuity’s mission morphed from a technology demonstration to operations, helping Perseverance traverse the surface by scouting the terrain ahead (SN: 4/30/21; SN: 12/10/21). Before the helicopter arrived, scientists had two perspectives of Mars. “We have pictures taken from orbit around Mars, and then we have pictures taken by rovers driving on the ground,” says planetary scientist Kirsten Siebach of Rice University in Houston, who is not part of the Ingenuity team. “But now this has opened up an entirely new perspective on Mars.”
Ingenuity has surpassed all expectations. It has shown not only that flight is possible but also what is possible with flight. Science News discussed the helicopter’s big moments, collaboration with the rover and upcoming flights with Håvard Fjær Grip. He’s Ingenuity’s chief pilot and an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. His answers were edited for length and clarity.
SN: What does the “chief pilot” for a helicopter on another planet do?
Grip: The biggest part of the job is planning the flights. Ingenuity doesn’t know where it is or where it wants to go when it wakes up, so all of those decisions are made here [on Earth]. Every maneuver that the helicopter makes during the flight is planned here on the ground first, and then we uplink the instructions to Ingenuity. When it comes time to fly, it uses its onboard software to follow our instructions as precisely as possible. SN: Ingenuity has completed 25 flights. Can you talk about how it’s exceeded expectations?
Grip: It is pretty great. We came there expecting to perform at most five flights within the 30-day window. And all of that was going to happen within in a small area that we carefully selected. We spent weeks figuring out exactly where to place the helicopter, studying these tiny little rocks. Everything was mapped out. And then things went so well when we started flying that almost immediately people started thinking, “Wow, let’s try to make use of this beyond those five flights.”
We started this next phase where, to be useful at all, we had to fly away from this carefully selected area. I’m really proud of that. We’ve been able to take this technology that was designed for this very limited mission and extend it to go and land different places on Mars and to travel across terrain that, originally, we had never planned on traveling across.
It’s lasted now for over a year since we deployed it to the surface. I don’t think any of us had imagined that that would be possible.
SN: Have there been any specific flights that have stood out to you?
Grip: Obviously, the first flight. That was the most important flight; it still is. We had a more challenging [time on] flight six. It became exciting, because we had an anomaly during the flight. [A glitch led to navigation images being marked with the wrong time stamps, which caused Ingenuity to sway back and forth during its flight.] Ingenuity had to power through that and survive and get down on the ground in one piece.
We’ve had some flights that have been dedicated to scouting activities. We went to an area where the rover was going to spend several months, and we went ahead of the rover and scouted [it] out so the rover drivers could be more efficient in finding safe ways to drive. Those were flights 12 and 13. Then some of these longer flights have been exciting. Flight No. 9, until a few days ago, was the biggest thing we’d ever done, at [a distance of] 625 meters. And with flight 25, we just beat that and flew more than 700 meters.
SN: There was a flight recently that had to be postponed because of a dust storm, right?
Grip: That’s correct. That was flight No. 19. With flying, whether it’s on Mars or here on Earth, you’re worried about weather. We always look at the weather before flying. And every time we’ve done that [on Mars], it had been more or less the same. Then the afternoon before we were about to open flight 19, we were notified that we had a dust storm. That delayed us by quite a bit. When we woke up from that, we had dust on our navigation camera lens, and sand covered our legs partially. We had to fly out of that, and it was a new challenge for the helicopter, but again, it tackled that perfectly. SN: Ingenuity has flown through two seasons on Mars. As seasons change, so does air pressure. Does that affect the helicopter?
Grip: Yeah, that’s a pretty big deal. We knew, for several years before launch, exactly when we were going to land and where we were going to land. Our design was geared towards the first few months after landing, and that coincided with a particular season [spring] in Jezero crater on Mars. We could [ahead of launch] predict reasonably well what the air density would be. And when we extended [the mission] beyond that, the air density started dropping. To be able to keep flying, we had to increase our rotor speed. In fact, we increased it above anything we tested on Earth. Now we’ve come out of summer, the density has started climbing again, and we’ve been able to go back to our original rotor speed and also extend our flight time.
SN: What comes next? Are there any big flights planned soon?
Grip: We’re going to make our way over to the river delta that Perseverance is headed toward. We’ve just completed the biggest obstacle to doing that, flight 25, which was getting across this region called Séítah, which has a lot of sand and varied terrain. And when we get to the river delta, there are a few different options on the table: to help the rover drivers, to scout out targets, or even potentially to do some scouting on behalf of the next Mars mission. Perseverance is the first part of a sample return campaign. It’s sampling right now. And those samples will be left on the surface and will be eventually picked up — that’s the plan anyway — and sent back to Earth.
SN: What does Ingenuity mean for future exploration?
Grip: This is a new era. Aviation in space is now a thing. We can’t think about Mars exploration without aerial assets as part of that. I think that’s the most exciting thing.
A type of light commonly observed in astrophysics experiments and nuclear reactors can help detect cancer. In a clinical trial, a prototype of an imaging machine that relies on this usually bluish light, called Cerenkov radiation, successfully captured the presence and location of cancer patients’ tumors, researchers report April 11 in Nature Biomedical Engineering.
When compared with standard scans of the tumors, the Cerenkov light images were classified as “acceptable” or higher for 90 percent of patients, says Magdalena Skubal, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Cerenkov radiation is generated by high-speed particles traveling faster than light through a material, such as bodily tissue (SN: 8/5/21). Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, but light travels more slowly through a material, allowing particles to overtake it. In Cerenkov luminescence imaging, or CLI, particles released by radiotracers cause the target tissue to vibrate and relax in a way that emits light, which is then captured by a camera.
Between May 2018 and March 2020, in the largest clinical trial of its kind to date, 96 participants underwent both CLI and standard imaging, such as positron emission tomography/computed tomography, or PET/CT. Participants with a variety of diagnoses, including lymphoma, thyroid cancer and metastatic prostate cancer, received one of five radiotracers and were then imaged by the prototype — a camera in a light-proof enclosure. Skubal and colleagues found that CLI detected all radiotracers, suggesting that the technology is more versatile than PET/CT scans, which work with only some radiotracers.
CLI images aren’t as precise as those from PET/CT scans. But CLI could be used as an initial diagnostic test or to assess the general size of a tumor undergoing treatment, says study coauthor Edwin Pratt, also of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “It would be a quick and easy way to see if there’s something off … [that warrants] further investigation,” Pratt says.
The findings strengthen the case for the technology as a promising low-cost alternative that could expand access to nuclear imaging in hospitals, says Antonello Spinelli, a preclinical imaging scientist at Experimental Imaging Centre in Milan, Italy, who was not involved in the research.
Fragmenting planets sweeping extremely close to their stars might be the cause of mysterious cosmic blasts of radio waves.
Milliseconds-long fast radio bursts, or FRBs, erupt from distant cosmic locales. Some of these bursts blast only once and others repeat. A new computer calculation suggests the repetitive kind could be due to a planet interacting with its magnetic host star, researchers report in the March 20 Astrophysical Journal.
FRBs are relative newcomers to astronomical research. Ever since the first was discovered in 2007, researchers have added hundreds to the tally. Scientists have theorized dozens of ways the two different types of FRBs can occur, and nearly all theories include compact, magnetic stellar remnants known as neutron stars. Some ideas include powerful radio flares from magnetars, the most magnetic neutron stars imaginable (SN: 6/4/20). Others suggest a fast-spinning neutron star, or even asteroids interacting with magnetars (SN: 2/23/22). “How fast radio bursts are produced is still up for debate,” says astronomer Yong-Feng Huang of Nanjing University in China.
Huang and his colleagues considered a new way to make the repeating flares: interactions between a neutron star and an orbiting planet (SN: 3/5/94). Such planets can get exceedingly close to these stars, so the team calculated what might happen to a planet in a highly elliptical orbit around a neutron star. When the planet swings very close to its star, the star’s gravity pulls more on the planet than when the planet is at its farthest orbital point, elongating and distorting it. This “tidal pull,” Huang says, will rip some small clumps off the planet. Each clump in the team’s calculation is just a few kilometers wide and maybe one-millionth the mass of the planet, he adds.
Then the fireworks start. Neutron stars spew a wind of radiation and particles, much like our own sun but more extreme. When one of these clumps passes through that stellar wind, the interaction “can produce really strong radio emissions,” Huang says. If that happens when the clump appears to pass in front of the star from Earth’s perspective, we might see it as a fast radio burst. Each burst in a repeating FRB signal could be caused by one of these clumps interacting with the neutron star’s wind during each close planet pass, he says. After that interaction, what remains of the clump drifts in orbit around the star, but away from Earth’s perspective, so we never see it again.
Comparing the calculated bursts to two known repeaters — the first ever discovered, which repeats roughly every 160 days, and a more recent discovery that repeats every 16 days, the team found the fragmenting planet scenario could explain how often the bursts happened and how bright they were (SN: 3/2/16).
The star’s strong gravitational “tidal” pull on the planet during each close pass might change the planet’s orbit over time, says astrophysicist Wenbin Lu of Princeton University, who was not involved in this study but who investigates possible FRB scenarios. “Every orbit, there is some energy loss from the system,” he says. “Due to tidal interactions between the planet and the star, the orbit very quickly shrinks.” So it’s possible that the orbit could shrink so fast that FRB signals wouldn’t last long enough for a chance detection, he says.
But the orbit change could also give astronomers a way to check this scenario as an FRB source. Observing repeating FRBs over several years to track any changes in the time between bursts could narrow down whether this hypothesis could explain the observations, Lu says. “That may be a good clue.”
If you’re an aspiring life-form, you might want to steer clear of planets around orange dwarf stars.
Some astronomers have called these orange suns “Goldilocks stars” (SN: 11/18/09). They are dimmer and age more slowly than yellow sunlike stars, thus offering an orbiting planet a more stable climate. But they are brighter and age faster than red dwarfs, which often spew large flares. However, new observations show that orange dwarfs emit lots of ultraviolet light long after birth, potentially endangering planetary atmospheres, researchers report in a paper submitted March 29 at arXiv.org.
Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomer Tyler Richey-Yowell and her colleagues examined 39 orange dwarfs. Most are moving together through the Milky Way in two separate groups, either 40 million or 650 million years old. To Richey-Yowell’s surprise, she and her team found that the ultraviolet flux didn’t drop off from the younger orange stars to the older ones — unlike the case for yellow and red stars. “I was like, `What the heck is going on?’” says Richey-Yowell, of Arizona State University in Tempe.
In a stroke of luck, another team of researchers supplied part of the answer. As yellow sunlike stars age, they spin more slowly, causing them to be less active and emit less UV radiation. But for orange dwarfs, this steady spin-down stalls when the stars are roughly a billion years old, astronomer Jason Lee Curtis at Columbia University and colleagues reported in 2019.
“[Orange] stars are just much more active for a longer time than we thought they were,” Richey-Yowell says. That means these possibly not-so-Goldilocks stars probably maintain high levels of UV light for more than a billion years.
And that puts any potential life-forms inhabiting orbiting planets on notice. Far-ultraviolet light — whose photons, or particles of light, have much more energy than the UV photons that give you vitamin D — tears molecules in a planet’s atmosphere apart. That leaves behind individual atoms and electrically charged atoms and groups of atoms known as ions. Then the star’s wind — its outflow of particles — can carry the ions away, stripping the planet of its air.
But not all hope is lost for aspiring life-forms that have an orange dwarf sun. Prolonged exposure to far-ultraviolet light can stress planets but doesn’t necessarily doom them to be barren, says Ed Guinan, an astronomer at Villanova University in Pennsylvania who was not involved in the new work. “As long as the planet has a strong magnetic field, you’re more or less OK,” he says.
Though far-ultraviolet light splits water and other molecules in a planet’s atmosphere, the star’s wind can’t remove the resulting ions if a magnetic field as strong as Earth’s protects them. “That’s why the Earth survived” as a life-bearing world, Guinan says. In contrast, Venus might never have had a magnetic field, and Mars lost its magnetic field early on and most of its air soon after.
“If the planet doesn’t have a magnetic field or has a weak one,” Guinan says, “the game is over.”
What’s needed, Richey-Yowell says, is a study of older orange dwarfs to see exactly when their UV output declines. That will be a challenge, though. The easiest way to find stars of known age is to study a cluster of stars, but most star clusters get ripped apart well before their billionth birthday (SN: 7/24/20). As a result, star clusters somewhat older than this age are rare, which means the nearest examples are distant and harder to observe.
Obstetrician Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman was treating patients in New York City when the COVID-19 pandemic swept in. Hospitals began filling up. Some of her pregnant patients were among the sick.
It was a terrifying time. Little was known about the virus called SARS-CoV-2 to begin with, much less how it might affect a pregnancy, so doctors had to make tough calls. Gyamfi-Bannerman remembers doctors getting waivers to administer the antiviral drug remdesivir to pregnant COVID-19 patients, for instance, even though the drug hadn’t been tested during pregnancy.
“Our goal is to help the mom,” she says. “If we had something that might save her life — or she might die — we were 100 percent using all of those medications.”
These life-or-death decisions were very familiar to obstetricians even before the pandemic. Pregnant women have long been excluded from most drug testing to avoid risk to the fetus. As a result, there’s little data on whether many medications are safe to take while pregnant. This means tough choices for the roughly 80 percent of women who will take at least one medication during pregnancy. Some have serious conditions that can be dangerous for both mother and fetus if left untreated, like high blood pressure or diabetes.
“Pregnant women are essentially like everybody else,” Gyamfi-Bannerman says. They have the same underlying conditions, requiring the same drugs. In a 2013 study, the top 20 prescriptions taken during the first trimester included antibiotics, asthma and allergy drugs, metformin for diabetes, and antidepressants. Yet even for common drugs, the only advice available if you’re pregnant is “talk to your doctor.” With no data, doctors don’t have the answers either.
What’s frustrating to many doctors and researchers is that this lack of information is by design. Even the later stages of most clinical trials, which test a new drug’s safety and efficacy in people, specifically exclude pregnant people to avoid risk to the fetus. But in the wake of a pandemic that disproportionately harmed the pregnant population, researchers are questioning more than ever whether this is the best approach.
Typically, researchers have to justify excluding certain groups, such as older adults, from clinical trials in which they might benefit. “You never have to justify why you’re excluding pregnant people,” says Gyamfi-Bannerman, who now heads the obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science department at the University of California, San Diego. “You can just go ahead and exclude them.
“The exclusion of pregnant people in clinical trials is a huge, historic problem,” she says, “and it really came to light with COVID.”
Pregnant in a crisis Teresa Mathews was 43 years old when she found out she was pregnant in June 2020, just as the pandemic was tearing across the United States. “I was really worried,” she says. In addition to her age as a risk factor, Mathews has sickle cell trait, meaning she carries one defective gene copy that makes her prone to anemia and shortness of breath. COVID-19 also causes shortness of breath, so Mathews feared her unborn child could starve for oxygen if she caught the virus.
What’s more, the baby would be her first. “I don’t want to say it melodramatically, but it was my last chance of having a baby, right? So I didn’t really want to take chances.” She went into full lockdown for the rest of her pregnancy.
For good reason. A study during the pandemic’s first year in England found that pregnant women who got the virus were about twice as likely to have a stillbirth or early birth. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November 2020 that pregnant women are about three times as likely as other women to land in intensive care with COVID-19, and 70 percent more likely to die from the infection (SN Online: 2/7/22). So when the race for a vaccine began, many doctors and officials hoped that vaccines would be tested in pregnant women and shown to be safe. There were promising signs: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration encouraged vaccine developers to include pregnant women in their trials. A large body of previous research suggested that risks would be low for vaccines like those for COVID-19, which do not contain live viruses.
But ultimately the three vaccines that the FDA cleared for use in the United States, from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, excluded pregnant people from their initial clinical trials. After its vaccine was authorized for emergency use in December 2020, Pfizer began enrolling pregnant women for a clinical trial but called it off when federal officials recommended that all pregnant women get vaccinated. The company cited challenges with enrolling enough women for the trial, as well as ethical considerations in giving a placebo to pregnant individuals once the vaccine was recommended.
When pregnant people were excluded from vaccine trials, doctors knew it would be difficult to convince pregnant patients to take a vaccine that hadn’t been tested during pregnancy.
Mathews says she would have been willing to get vaccinated while pregnant if there had been data to support the decision. But the choice was made for her. Her daughter, Eulalia, was born healthy in February 2021, shortly before the vaccines became available to all adults in Mathews’ hometown of Knoxville, Tenn. At that point, there was still no clear guidance on whether to get vaccinated while pregnant or nursing. Officials at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., were worried about that lack of direction. Diana Bianchi, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, called for more COVID-19 vaccine research in the pregnant population in a February 2021 commentary in JAMA. She wrote, “Pregnant people and their clinicians must make real-time decisions based on little or no scientific evidence.”
Meanwhile, social media and pregnancy websites filled the void with conspiracy theories and scary stories about vaccines causing infertility or miscarriages. Alarmed, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warned last October that “the spread of misinformation and mistrust in doctors and science is contributing to staggeringly low vaccination rates among pregnant people.”
Indeed, the CDC had issued an urgent health advisory the month before warning that only 31 percent of pregnant people were fully vaccinated, compared with about 56 percent of the general population. (CDC and many experts favor “pregnant people” as a general term. Science News is following the language used by sources, and refers to pregnant women when a study population was designated as such.)
“Every week, I look at the number of pregnant people who have died due to COVID. Right now, the most recent statistic is 257 deaths,” Bianchi said in January. “I look at that and I say, that was a preventable statistic.”
After the vaccines received emergency use authorization, the CDC analyzed the outcomes for nearly 2,500 vaccinated pregnant people and found no safety concerns related to pregnancy. The agency recommended vaccination for anyone who is pregnant, lactating or considering becoming pregnant. But that recommendation arrived more than six months after the first vaccine became available. Since then, the vaccines have also proved to be highly effective in pregnancy. More than 98 percent of COVID-19 critical care admissions in a group of more than 130,000 pregnant women in Scotland were unvaccinated, researchers reported in January in Nature Medicine. And all of the infants who died had unvaccinated moms.
“The story of COVID is yet another cautionary tale,” says Anne Lyerly, a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who trained as an obstetrician and gynecologist. “It highlighted what we’re up against.” Researchers have an ethical duty, she says, not only to protect fetuses from the potential risks of research, but also to ensure that “the drugs that go on the market are safe and effective for all the people who will take them.”
Good intentions Increasingly, scientists are questioning what Gyamfi-Bannerman calls a “knee-jerk” tendency to exclude pregnant individuals from clinical trials. In 2009, Lyerly and colleagues formed the Second Wave Initiative to promote ethical ways to include pregnant women in research. As their ideas have spread, more researchers — mostly women — have held conferences and spearheaded research. Collectively, they’re pushing back on the prevailing culture “that pregnant people need to be protected from research instead of protected through research,” Bianchi says.
“We got here with good intentions,” says Brookie Best, a clinical pharmacologist at UC San Diego who studies medication use among pregnant people. “There were some terrible, terrible tragedies of pregnant people taking a drug and having bad outcomes.”
The most famous of these was thalidomide. Starting in the late 1950s, the drug was prescribed for morning sickness, but it had never been tested in pregnant people. By the early 1960s, it became clear that it caused birth defects including missing or malformed limbs (SN: 7/14/62, p. 22). Afterward, drug companies were reluctant to take on the risk, or legal liability, of potential birth defects. While the FDA enacted new safety rules in response to the thalidomide disaster, the agency did not require testing during pregnancy before drugs went to market.
In 1977, the FDA recommended the exclusion of all women of childbearing age from the first two phases of clinical trials. When the U.S. Congress passed a bill in 1993 requiring that women and minorities be included in clinical research, the requirement did not extend to pregnant women. Some scientists still see plenty of good reasons not to include pregnant women in clinical trials. For example, reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan has seen unexpected health effects crop up long after substances were deemed safe. With that in mind, Swan, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, says that observational studies that follow women and their children after a drug has been approved remain the best approach. These studies are “expensive, and very slow,” she admits, but safer.
For decades, that level of precaution has extended to essentially all medications. As a result, the reproductive effects of a medicine aren’t usually discovered until long after a drug enters the market. Even then, such research is not required for most new drugs, so doctors and researchers must take the initiative. Typically, this happens through pregnancy registries, which enroll pregnant volunteers who are taking a particular drug and follow them throughout pregnancy or beyond.
But voluntary registries leave huge data gaps. A 2011 review of 172 drugs approved by the FDA in the preceding decade found that the risk of harm to fetal development was “undetermined” for 98 percent of them, and for 73 percent there was no safety data during pregnancy at all.
That doesn’t mean all those drugs are dangerous. Relatively few drugs cause major birth defects, and many of those fall into known classes. For example, ACE inhibitors used to control blood pressure have been linked to a range of issues, including kidney and cardiovascular problems in infants, when taken during pregnancy. But the potential for more subtle, long-term effects has been trickier to tease out.
For instance, several studies in the 2010s reported links between mothers taking antidepressants during pregnancy and their kids having developmental problems like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder. Some moms became afraid to treat their own depression. But in 2017, studies of siblings found no difference in these conditions among children who had been exposed to antidepressants in the womb and those who had not (SN: 5/13/17, p. 9). More likely, the problem was the depression the mom was experiencing, the studies suggested, not the drugs.
No legal requirement How the contents of a pregnant woman’s medicine cabinet might affect her child depends on a host of factors, including how the drug works and whether it crosses the placenta. The main way to gauge whether a drug may harm a fetus is through animal studies called developmental and reproductive toxicology, or DART, studies. But drug companies often don’t begin these studies until they’ve already gotten clinical trials rolling.
This creates a catch-22, because clinical trials can’t include pregnant people until DART studies suggest it’s safe to do so. That’s why Lyerly and others pushing for change say that pharmaceutical companies should start doing these studies earlier, before clinical trials begin.
In 2018, the FDA issued draft guidance to help the pharmaceutical industry decide how and when to include pregnant people in clinical trials (SN Online: 5/30/18). That guidance is an encouraging first step, Lyerly says, but it didn’t change any of the stringent rules for when pregnant people could be included in research.
Plus, it’s all completely voluntary, says Leyla Sahin, acting deputy director for safety in FDA’s Division of Pediatric and Maternal Health. “We advise industry…. We tell them we recommend that you include pregnant women in your clinical trials,” Sahin says. “But there’s no requirement.”
In fact, the FDA doesn’t even have the legal authority to create a requirement. In that sense, Sahin says, “we’re where pediatrics was 20 years ago.” Until Congress passed the Pediatric Research Equity Act of 2003, children were routinely excluded from clinical trials just as pregnant women are now. The pediatric law required drug companies to gather data on the safety and effectiveness of medications in children and to provide FDA an appropriate plan for pediatric studies.
Congress could pass a similar law for pregnancy. And in 2020, a government task force recommended exactly that to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees FDA. But “it’s almost like it’s gone into this black hole,” Sahin says. “We haven’t heard from HHS. We haven’t heard from Congress.” Stocking the medicine cabinet Until clinical trials during pregnancy become more routine, pregnant people face an untenable choice — take a drug without knowing its safety, or leave their medical conditions untreated.
Case in point: A group of 91 doctors and scientists published a consensus statement in September 2021 in Nature Reviews Endocrinology warning that acetaminophen, the most commonly used drug during pregnancy, may harm fetal development. Research suggests the drug disrupts hormones, with effects ranging from undescended testicles in male infants to an increased risk of ADHD and autism spectrum disorder in boys and girls.
But as is often the case with drugs and pregnancy, there’s not exactly a consensus among doctors about what pregnant people should do. In response to the new paper, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a statement saying the evidence wasn’t strong enough to suggest doctors should change their standard practice, which is to recommend acetaminophen be taken as needed and in moderation.
Acetaminophen is an active ingredient in more than 600 medications, including Tylenol, and is estimated to be used by up to 65 percent of pregnant people in the United States. It has long been the preferred pain medication and fever reducer during pregnancy because the FDA recommends against the anti-inflammatory drugs known as NSAIDs — such as ibuprofen and aspirin — in the second half of pregnancy. Those drugs have been linked to rare fetal kidney problems and low amniotic fluid levels.
While at the University of Copenhagen, clinical pharmacologist David Kristensen began studying acetaminophen’s effects on fetal development after noticing that the drug is structurally similar to chemicals that disrupt hormones. In 2011, he and colleagues published animal and human studies linking acetaminophen use during pregnancy with concerning effects in infants, including undescended testicles.
“My ears perked up when I heard that,” says Swan, the Mount Sinai reproductive epidemiologist and coauthor of the 2021 acetaminophen review. She had seen similar effects with maternal exposure to phthalates, chemicals used in plastics that are known to alter the activity of hormones needed to regulate fetal development.
She and colleagues surveyed 25 years of acetaminophen studies. The group found that five out of 11 relevant studies linked prenatal acetaminophen use to urogenital and reproductive tract abnormalities in children, and 26 out of 29 epidemiological studies linked fetal exposure to acetaminophen with neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems. The strength of these links varied, but were “generally modest,” the authors wrote.
“We’re looking at subtle effects here,” Swan says, “but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important.” With such widespread use, “there’s a good chance that a fair number of offspring are affected.”
Although Swan is wary of testing new drugs in pregnant women, she would like to see better research on medications during pregnancy. “There’s a whole range of options short of doing human study,” she says.
To start with, Swan says, scientists need better data on what medications pregnant women are taking, and how much. That means more studies should ask women to keep daily logs of every pill they take. Researchers can also do more studies of drugs’ reproductive effects in animals, she notes, and even transplant human tissues such as brain, liver or gonads into animals to learn how they respond to drugs.
Not the same vulnerability The cultural shift around pregnancy research may be gaining momentum.
Government-funded research is one key area for change. In 2016, the 21st Century Cures Act established an interagency task force on research specific to pregnant and lactating women. It included officials from NIH, CDC and FDA, as well as medical societies and industry. One of the task force’s recommendations was acted upon in 2018: removing pregnant women as a “vulnerable” group in a federal regulation called the Common Rule, which governs federally funded research. Pregnant women had been listed along with children, prisoners and people with intellectual disabilities as vulnerable and thus requiring special protections if included in research.
Unlike the other groups in that list, pregnant people “don’t have a diminished capacity to provide informed consent,” says Lyerly, the bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. That rule change alone could help “change the culture of research.”
Meanwhile, researchers are forging ahead with studies on many drugs used during pregnancy. HIV drugs are among the most studied, says Best of UC San Diego, in part because the virus can pass from pregnant women to their fetuses. “So right off the bat, everybody knew that we needed to treat these [pregnant] patients with medication,” she says. Yet data on HIV drugs during pregnancy lagged as much as 12 years after FDA approval. Many pregnant women appear to be willing to participate in research. More than 18,000 pregnant people had enrolled in the COVID-19 vaccine pregnancy registry as of March, and every year many volunteer for other pregnancy registries.
Gyamfi-Bannerman says that in her experience, plenty of pregnant patients are willing to volunteer, even for experimental drugs, if there’s potential to benefit from the drug and they will be monitored closely. At Columbia University, she helped lead a clinical trials network called the Maternal Fetal Medicine Units Network that specifically studies complications during pregnancy. “It’s a very safe and protective environment,” she says.
As for next steps, a few policy changes could make a big difference, Best says, like “getting those preclinical studies done earlier and allowing people who accidentally get pregnant while participating in a clinical trial to make the choice of whether or not to stay.” Right now, “if you get pregnant, you’re out. Boom, that’s it,” she says. “But they were already exposed to the risk, and now they’re not getting the benefit. And so we don’t think that’s actually ethical.”
Thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women to treat morning sickness, without ever having been tested in pregnant women. “We took the wrong lesson from thalidomide,” Lyerly says. “The first lesson of thalidomide is that we should do research, not that we shouldn’t.”