Meet our scholarship recipients: Isabella Hauptman

Isabella Hauptman is a 2020 recipient of the Keck School of Medicine scholarship for incoming master’s students. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology degree at USC. She was selected as valedictorian of USC’s Class of 2020.

What has been your journey so far?

Isabella Hauptman (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

My name is Isabella Hauptman and I am in the final year of my Progressive master’s degree in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology. In May of 2020, I was selected to serve as the Valedictorian of USC Class of 2020 and graduated with a degree in Cognitive Science and a minor in Public Health. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California and attended Grover Cleveland High School (go Cavs!). I developed an interest in public health early in life and have been pursuing my dream of becoming an epidemiologist ever since.

What drives you to get involved in the population and public health sciences field?

Interestingly enough, I have wanted to become an epidemiologist since the age of eleven. My introduction to epidemiology came from rudimentary elementary school lessons on the Black Plague, which inspired me to conduct my own research on the transmission of diseases. Needless to say, I was instantly sold on epidemiology. The field of epidemiology and more generally public health is critical to the progress of humankind. Years later, I find myself just as (if not more) passionate about epidemiology.

What led you to the Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology degree at USC?

I made the decision to attend USC as an undergraduate because I was drawn to the Progressive Degree Program (PDP). The PDP allows undergraduate students to take graduate courses and work toward the completion of a master’s degree. I knew from a very young age that I wanted to become an epidemiologist and planned to attend graduate school. The PDP would enable me to accelerate my studies and begin my career in epidemiology early. USC was the clear choice for this reason. I decided to complete the MS in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology because it directly aligned with my interests and career goals.

What does this scholarship mean to you?

I cannot overstate what the Dean’s scholarship means to me and my family. I am immensely grateful to have been selected as a recipient of the scholarship, which has afforded me the opportunity to pursue my lifelong passion.

What has been your experience at USC so far?

My experience at USC has been nothing short of amazing. I cherish the memories and friendships I’ve made both as an undergraduate and graduate student. I feel incredibly honored to learn from the best professors and mentors in the field. It is a unique experience to be studying epidemiology in the midst of a pandemic and now, more than ever, I am grateful to have the opportunity to make a difference.

How do you see your degree helping to drive your future?

The MS in Applied Biostatistics and Epidemiology will propel my career forward as an epidemiologist. The training I received in the program has undoubtedly prepared me to enter the field. I am excited to apply what I have learned at USC to tackle the challenges we currently face in public health, whether it be Covid-19, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, or other conditions. My ultimate goal is to pursue a PhD in Epidemiology.

How are you making a difference in public health outside of the classroom?

I currently volunteer for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles in the Biobehavioral Pain Laboratory. The laboratory focuses on research projects that investigate the use of technology (specifically virtual reality) to reduce pain and anxiety during medical procedures. I am approaching my third anniversary at CHLA, a milestone I am very proud of! I am also involved in the USC Chapter of Camp Kesem, which provides support to children through and beyond a parent’s cancer diagnosis. It is my fifth year with the organization and quite easily the highlight of my time at USC.

What message would you like to share with your scholarship donor?

I wish to express my sincerest gratitude for your more than generous contribution to my education. Your generosity is truly a testament to the good-will of the Trojan Family, a community where I so proudly belong. I am confident that my studies will enable me to enter a field where I will make a lasting difference. Your generosity is truly inspiring and I hope that one day I will be in the position to give this gift to another student like me. Thank you for helping me fulfill my dreams and continue my education at USC!

Preventive Medicine welcomes Jeffrey Klausner, MD, MPH

Rear view of man gesturing with hand while standing against defocused group of people sitting at the chairs in front of him

By Cristine Hall

At the height of the materialistic ‘80s, when most of his classmates in medical school were shooting for brass ring specialties like orthopedics and ophthamology, Jeffrey Klausner, was ready to call it quits.

A year at a new AIDS research center in Zaire changed his mind. Studying the spread of HIV among heterosexuals in Kinshasa transformed his worldview and inspired a prolific 30-year career in public health, specializing in infectious diseases such as HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea.

Jeffrey Klausner“No one had ever explained to me that you could be a doctor and do this kind of work—serving public health on a global scale,” said Klausner, who recently joined USC’s Department of Preventive Medicine as a clinical professor of preventive medicine. “It was exhausting, challenging, but it was invigorating in many ways as well.”

After completing his work in Zaire, Klausner finished medical school at Cornell University and went on to work at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan in the ’90s, during the AIDS epidemic. From there he conducted more AIDS research in Thailand, studied at Harvard University, worked for the Centers for Disease Control in San Francisco and completed a clinical fellowship in infectious diseases at the University of Washington.

As director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health STD Section, Klausner set up the St. James Infirmary, the first occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers. The clinic recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. More recently after a stint with the CDC in South Africa as head of the PEPFAR HIV and TB Program, he was a professor of medicine and public health at UCLA, where he practiced and taught infectious diseases.

Klausner has a large NIH portfolio of research projects in Botswana, South Africa, Peru and Vietnam. The underlying theme in his work is addressing global health injustice—transferring technology and interventions from the U.S. to other areas to improve the community health. In Peru, for example, his team is working to develop a vaccine for syphilis, which contributes to the high rate of stillbirths globally.

He takes great pride in his work as a mentor to his students.

“Part of my joy of being in academic medicine is working with young, smart, hard-working people,” he said. “My teams are very productive because I delegate and allow them to take the lead.”

Klausner’s passion for health equity drew him to USC. He will be working with the  COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center and other faculty on HPV vaccination policy.

“USC has a reputation for serving different populations that traditionally may not have the best access to medicine,” he said. “It is a tremendous opportunity to have a greater focus on community health.”

Preventive Medicine ranked No. 2 in NIH funding nationally

Stock image of researcher in lab.
Stock image of researcher in lab.

By Cristine Hall

USC’s Department of Preventive Medicine has earned a No. 2 ranking in funding from the National Institutes of Health for the second year in a row.

Preventive Medicine was one of six departments in USC’s Keck School of Medicine to reach the top 10 in their respective fields. The rankings are based on data compiled by the Blue Ridge Institute for Medical Research.

“The Department of Preventive Medicine is once again proud to have gained this re-affirmation of the research strength of its faculty,” said Howard Hu, MD, MPH, ScD, the Flora L. Thornton Chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine. “Behind the numbers is a deep and abiding commitment to generate the scientific evidence that is essential for optimizing the health of large and diverse urban populations, locally and globally.”

Preventive Medicine recently opened a COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center in response to the pandemic and DPM faculty have covered a wide range of research topics in recent years.

“We’re competing better than we used to,” said Tom Buchanan, MD, professor of medicine, the Bernard J. Hanley Chair in Medicine and KSOM’s Vice Dean for Research.

Buchanan noted how difficult it is to secure an NIH grant, which is based on merit. “It takes a good fundamental idea, it takes preliminary data that the idea could be right, and a proposal that is feasible and scientifically very vigorous.”

KSOM’s Ophthalmology Department is again ranked No. 1 among medical schools in the country.

Rounding out the Top 10 is Neurology at No. 4; Physiology and Neuroscience at No. 5; Otolaryngology at No. 7, and Orthopaedics at No. 9.

Neurology, led by Helena Chui, MD, the Raymond and Betty McCarron Chair in Neurology, rose from No. 9 to No. 4, while Otolaryngology went from No. 10 to No. 7.

Meet our scholarship recipients: Melissa Lorenzo

Melissa Lorenzo is a 2020 recipient of the Keck School of Medicine scholarship for incoming master’s students. She is currently pursuing a Master of Science in Biostatistics degree at USC.

What has been your journey so far?

Melissa Lorenzo (Image courtesy Melissa Lorenzo)

Born and raised in the San Fernando Valley, I call the Los Angeles area home. Growing up, desiring higher education was regarded as dreaming of a treasured prize — hardly out of reach, yet virtually unattainable. My family, as incredibly supportive as they are, did not grow up with advantages at their disposal that could easily bring me to pursue university and a better life. Yet, I managed to work against the odds: I am the first person in my family to obtain a bachelor’s degree and the first to pursue graduate education.

From a young age, I was captivated by both mathematics and the medical field. When I volunteered at the local hospital during my adolescent years, I was already in awe of the environment I was working in, envisioning my career in this field. At the same time, I noticed that my interest in mathematics rose to a high peak when I had the opportunity to take an advanced placement statistics course. As soon as I was introduced to basic applications and theory of fundamental statistics, I was captivated — I immediately knew what I wanted to major in when the time came to apply to universities. But I still firmly held my interest in medicine, as my days spent volunteering constantly reminded me. I eventually found a career path that perfectly combines my two passions: biostatistics.

I acquired my undergraduate degree in mathematics under the statistics option from California State University, Northridge (CSUN), where I conducted a research project studying medical applications and theory of categorical data analysis. Now, I am extremely grateful to be presented with the opportunity of studying the specific field of biostatistics at USC.

How do you hope to make a difference in population and public health?

As mentioned earlier, my passion for health and medicine began with volunteering at a hospital during my high school years. The experience of volunteering during my younger years gave me the gratifying opportunity to help nearly everyone, from patients to doctors, to visitors. I relished every moment of providing assistance of any form, no matter how simple or small the job may be. The volunteering experience instilled in me a drive to contribute to the improvement of public health and medicine by the use of statistics and mathematics.

Due to the pandemic, I am pursuing education in public health and population sciences with a fiercely determined spirit now more than ever. I’m inspired by and in absolute awe of public health professionals and practitioners: they are making more than every effort promoting and fortifying public health and medicine, and it is my sole desire to assist them.

The core of my interest in public health is a simple yet strong desire to help people. If I can manage to be of assistance along the way of my never-ending pursuit of education, that would be all the better.

What led you to pursue your MS in Biostatistics at USC?

Since I have always been fascinated by medicine while being engrossed in mathematical statistics, I chose the program of biostatistics since it artfully combines my passions. When I completed my bachelor’s degree, I still yearned for the knowledge that could be found beyond the undergraduate level. The time to choose a graduate school eventually came, and I knew even then that USC holds great renown and prestige, especially for its specialty in medicine and public health. The Keck Hospital of USC stands among the most highly valued hospitals in the country, and the Keck School of Medicine drew me in when I learned of its plethora of remarkable research towards the betterment of public health and medicine. After taking these facts into consideration, USC became the optimal choice for me.

What does this scholarship mean to you?

From my standpoint, this scholarship offers a vast number of opportunities. Being the recipient of this scholarship provides not only advantageous financial assistance but also gratifying recognition. The name of this scholarship is accompanied by a sense of distinction, which is quite meaningful for me: a person who grew up with a quiet and simple lifestyle without any expectation of pursuing higher education. On top of that, receiving this scholarship means that someone out there genuinely supports students like me, and truly desires to be of assistance in their academic journey. Being aware of the fact that there is a generous person out there who has students of need on their mind is remarkably heartwarming.

What has been your experience at USC so far?

One of my favorite classes thus far is PM 512: Principles of Epidemiology. In spite of the unusual circumstances we are all facing, I still find myself enjoying the class and internalizing considerable amounts of information. Suddenly switching gears from four years’ worth of mathematics to graduate-level public health and epidemiology was certainly an enjoyable and engaging experience. Learning about some elements of the pandemic — such as outbreak investigation and measures of disease occurrence — was almost surrealistic, as I concurrently observed these elements unfolding in the real world, in real-time.

On top of that, receiving news of being the recipient of this scholarship, as well as having the opportunity to feature my story on the department website, has undoubtedly been a notable highlight of my first semester of being a graduate student in my dream program.

How do you see your degree helping to drive your future?

My ultimate goal is to apply statistical applications towards medicine and public health while studying and researching mathematical and statistical theory, and to simultaneously teach the topics I’ve learned and researched. I understand that this goal would require years of academic training; therefore, in order to reach that destination, I found that it would be ideal to acquire a master’s degree in biostatistics as preparation for a PhD in the same subject. By obtaining a master’s degree first, I would be able to strike a balance between statistical applications and theoretical statistics relating to medicine and public health.

To fulfill my desire of endless learning, I plan to continue studying biostatistics through both research and practical applications, while ideally serving as a professor. “The more you know, the more you owe” dwelled in my mind as a prominent proverb for a considerable amount of time, and I aspire to apply this mentality by sharing any knowledge I acquire with my peers — and, eventually, to future generations of students.

What message would you like to share with your scholarship donor?

Please accept my utmost and genuine, heartfelt thanks for your charitable acts and contributions. Without a doubt, the future will bring other students like myself — and with the help you had kindheartedly given to me, it would be my honor to represent those future students, relate to them, and assist them to reach their goals, just how I had been assisted. I dearly hope you know how much your contribution means to me.

Those previously infected with COVID-19 should delay getting a vaccination

By Neeraj Sood, PhD, Abigail Horn, PhD and David Conti, PhD


This commentary was originally published on CalMatters.

President Joe Biden wants 100 million Americans vaccinated in 100 days, but scarce supplies and rollout snafus threaten to open a huge gap between ambition and achievement. 

There is a smarter and easier way to attain the same public health benefits:  Ask the millions of people who have already survived the coronavirus infection to step to the back of the line for vaccines. 

Unfortunately, that is not the prevalent view of public health officials. Their chief rationale is that we cannot be sure how long natural immunity lasts.  

But substantial evidence points to past infection producing a strong and sustained immune response which dramatically reduces the risk of symptomatic re-infection. Past infection looks to be as effective as a vaccine in providing protection. 

Los Angeles County, the epicenter of the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic, illustrates what is at stake. More than 14,000 people have died, and recently about 10,000 tested positive each day. At the same time, scientists believe 1 in 3 of the county’s 10 million residents has already been infected by the virus – with a majority of those infections occurring within the last few months.  The county simply can’t afford to misdirect vaccines to millions of individuals with recent past infections when inoculations are so critical to stemming the tide among the vulnerable. 

We used the USC COVID-19 Model to show the public health consequences of different vaccination paths for Los Angeles during the first 100 days of the Biden administration. At its current rate of vaccinations, about 10,000 a day, Los Angeles County will save approximately 1,000 lives and avert 1,200 hospitalizations in the next 100 days compared to no vaccinations at all.  By dramatically accelerating the vaccinations to 50,000 a day, we could double the public health benefits with an additional 1,000 lives saved and 1,400 hospitalizations avoided.

These same additional benefits can occur if the county convinced residents with past infections to postpone inoculations and increased vaccinations to only 15,000 a day. Even if we are only able to successfully convince half of those with previous infections to delay their vaccinations, the benefits would still be striking – the same number of lives can be saved at half the speed.

These projections are backed by a recent comprehensive analysis of post-infection immune response by leading immunologists that found that antibodies for the COVID-19 spike protein remained stable for more than six months, and that memory cells that trigger antibody production increased over time.     

Despite millions of COVID-19 cases worldwide, only a handful of suspected reinfections have surfaced. A U.K.-based study that included 1,200 health care workers who had antibodies at the time the study began found no new symptomatic infections when tracking the workers over a 6-month period. A miniscule 3 out of the 1,200 workers developed asymptomatic COVID infection.   

The science strongly indicates that someone who has had an infection and recovered is not likely to benefit immediately from a vaccination, especially compared to an unvaccinated person over 65. In the long run, it may be fine for individuals with past infections to double down and get vaccinated. Just not now. 

Los Angeles County should ramp up antibody testing to try to identify as many people as possible who have had coronavirus infections, especially since many of them with asymptomatic disease might not have been diagnosed. Each person found to have had an infection is one less person who has to make an appointment for a vaccination.  

Doctors and other health care professionals can counsel their patients who get an antibody test to postpone vaccination if the results come back positive. Then public health officials should launch a campaign telling people with past infections that they are OK to delay vaccination. What a welcome public health message that would be. 

Meet our scholarship recipients: Cassidy Hernandez-Tamayo

Cassidy Hernandez-Tamayo is a 2020 recipient of the Keck School of Medicine scholarship for incoming master’s students. She is currently pursuing a Master of Public Health degree at USC.

What has been your journey over the last few years?

Cassidy Hernandez-Tamayo (Image courtesy Cassidy Hernandez-Tamayo)

I am a 2016 graduate of Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii, and recently graduated this past March 2020 from the University of Washington at Seattle with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Public Health-Global Health. During my undergraduate studies, I joined the University of Washington’s Public Health Brigade to Honduras in June 2018 where we taught public health issues to the community and built sanitation stations for the village. Moreover, I interned for the Vulnerable Population Strategic Initiative’s (VPSI) Stroke and CPR Outreach Program to Older Adults in Washington wherein I educated older adults in recognizing and responding to life threatening medical emergencies like strokes, cardiac arrests, hypertension, and fall prevention. In August of 2020, I began attending the University of Southern California (USC) where I am pursuing a Masters of Public Health degree specializing in Biostatistics and Epidemiology.

How do you hope to make a difference in public health?

I long to take what I learn from USC and return to Hawaii, the place where I was born and raised, to assist the community and locate innovative solutions as public health issues continue to plague Hawaii. I aspire to work in a clinical setting in the field of biostatistics and epidemiology to analyze and assist with epidemic outbreaks affecting society. In addition to conducting research to examine the spread of diseases and developing a method for prevention and control, I would like to work directly with the public when epidemic outbreaks arise to assist in uncovering treatments for the infections and preventing further spread. Thus, I would like to reach out and impact society in the field of public health as humanity will be my patient.

My dream of working in the public health field and love for travel can be intertwined in ways that I wish to give back to Hawaii. First of all, although many of Hawaii’s youngsters are leaving Hawaii for claims of better cost of living standards on the continental United States, I yearn to dedicate a portion of my life to working in Hawaii and impacting the community I grew up in with the knowledge I gain from the Master of Public Health program by providing services that benefit residents in the surrounding areas. Events such as these are important because they are excellent sources of potentially life-saving assistance that help to ensure that our fellow citizens are benefited indeed. Furthermore, because of my love for travel, I desire to provide free public health services by joining public health and medical missions that proceed to places in Southeast Asia, Central and South America, and other areas where epidemic outbreaks occur, to assist in locating cures for diseases and prevent the spread of the infections. The impact will be felt far beyond Hawaii’s borders. Thus, I would be able to make an immense influence in humanity in the public health field.

What led you to pursue an MPH degree?

I became interested in the public health field in middle school. At the age of eleven, I seized the initiative to organize, acquire donations, and distribute food for my church’s food bank for a school project. That leadership role persisted through high school. Moreover, while a student at Iolani School, several of my many community service activities relating to public health included organizing my church’s food bank, arranging and delivering donations to a homeless shelter, cleaning up a charity house, and volunteering at an emergency preparedness fair.

During my undergraduate studies, my favorite class at the University of Washington was the Research Methods class wherein I conducted an entire research study and wrote a research protocol and report with my colleagues during the fall of 2019 that determined the correlation between a sense of belonging and perceived ability to succeed academically among students of different racial groups at the University of Washington. I enjoyed conducting this research study and hope to conduct more research studies on various public health topics in the future. Additionally, I wrote a mini-version of a grant that examined the relationship between formaldehyde exposure and its health effects related to nasopharyngeal cancer and leukemia. The grant proposal contained the problem statement, project goals, objectives, methods, and evaluation. As a part of this grant, I wrote a literature review regarding research on formaldehyde exposure. Thus, I enjoyed the Research Method course and conducting research in the public health field. Thus, I yearned to continue my education in public health and pursue a degree in the Master of Public Health program specializing in biostatistics and epidemiology.

USC was definitely my first choice university because of its outstanding reputation and appeared to be the best fit for me. Moreover, USC has always been my dream school, and that aspiration has finally come to fruition.

What does this scholarship mean to you?

This scholarship is extremely meaningful as this subsidy displays USC’s confidence in me. I am able to utilize this scholarship to complete my graduate studies and in turn assist the lives of others in the field of public health.

What has been your experience at USC so far?

Unfortunately, my first year of graduate school at USC has been online from home in Hawaii due to COVID-19. My favorite class so far has been PM 512 (Principles of Epidemiology). As an epidemiology intern for the State of Hawaii Department of Health’s Disease Outbreak Control Division, my learnings from PM 512 and my internship have overlapped, strengthening my knowledge about the epidemiologic concepts.

How do you see your degree helping to drive your future?

Upon graduation, I plan to pursue a PhD in Epidemiology. Furthermore, I aspire to work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and/or the State of Hawaii Department of Health.

How are you making a difference in public health outside of the classroom?

Currently, I am an epidemiology intern for the State of Hawaii Department of Health’s Disease Outbreak Control Division, wherein one of my supervisors is State Epidemiologist Dr. Sarah Kemble. This internship has enabled me to receive extensive experience in the biostatistics and epidemiology field as I have been assisting in combating COVID-19. Some of the statistics and information that are being released by the Department of Health regarding COVID-19 are part of my research and work. For instance, I have performed numerous projects in relation to COVID-19 in Hawaii and its schools; conducted literature reviews on Hispanic populations and COVID-19 and the public health effectiveness of Google/Apple Exposure Notification; and completed primary cleaning of missing Asian and Pacific Islander race data and school COVID-19 case data. For my capstone/practicum for USC, I am planning on executing a data project that looks at coding address data provided by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) into census tracts which would allow the Disease Outbreak Control Division (DOCD) of the Hawaii State Department of Health to perform more granular geographic analysis on socioeconomic status and vulnerability of COVID cases using CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index.

What message would you like to share with your scholarship donor?

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to my scholarship donor who has given selflessly to make a difference in the lives of others. Thank you for your generous offer of providing me with financial assistance during my graduate studies at USC. I will make you proud!

How to overcome COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy: Build confidence and establish trust

Countering misinformation, leaning on community leaders, using the proper terminology. USC experts explain why all this and more is needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

By Leigh Hopper

LAC+USC Pharmacy Supervisor Kevin Weissman holds a vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, Dec. 15, 2020. (Photo/Michael Owen Baker)

The COVID-19 pandemic has spiraled out of control as a more contagious version of the virus spreads, increasing the urgency to quickly vaccinate as many people as possible. Just this week, Los Angeles County and Orange County designated Dodger Stadium and Disneyland as vaccination supersites.

Yet polling over the last several months has shown that many Americans have safety concerns and don’t want the vaccine just yet. USC experts say that hesitancy can be overcome by normalizing the process surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine with straightforward information from trusted sources such as clinicians and pharmacists.

Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, a professor of preventive medicine and the associate dean for community initiatives at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, says mistrust and misinformation abound.

Among the false claims: vaccines cause infertility, vaccines give you COVID-19, vaccines alter your genetic makeup, vaccines are a ploy by the government to implant microchips to track people.

“We see a lot of concern about vaccines, fueled in part by an anti-vaccine movement that we happened to walk into with the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said.

“We’re seeing a trend where at first there was a high level of support for vaccines, but that started to diminish among the African American and Hispanic communities. Then we found health care providers were hesitant to get the vaccine.

“We see huge disparities in acceptance. Unless we get herd immunity with lots of people vaccinated, we’re not going to get this disease under control.”

To lessen hesitancy, bring the COVID-19 vaccine to the community

Tailoring the message to the audience, using simple information and making vaccination visible and accessible could go a long way toward creating buy-in, experts say.

“Converting Dodger Stadium from a testing center into a vaccine supersite, as L.A. is doing this week, makes COVID vaccination more visible in a positive way and helps normalize it — especially for a Black and Latino population that has historically been discriminated against in health care,” said April Thames, an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“Having a vaccination center in the heart of the community can open up lines of trust.”

Pharmacists are well-positioned to lead the way in vaccine encouragement — partly because many of them get to know their customers personally, says Vassilios Papadopoulos, dean of the USC School of Pharmacy.

“Pharmacists are the most-contacted health professionals for people with chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension — those at high risk for COVID-19,” he said. “At many independent community pharmacies, pharmacists know their patients well enough to be proactive in urging them to come in for a vaccination.

“The plan is to open dozens of additional vaccination sites, many of which will be retail pharmacies. Pharmacists are in a good place to lead COVID-19 vaccine encouragement efforts; 90% of the population lives within five miles of a pharmacy.”

Proper communication about COVID-19 vaccination is key, especially if the virus mutates

Using the wrong vocabulary can cause outreach efforts to misfire, says Wändi Bruine de Bruin, USC Dornsife Provost Professor of Public Policy, Psychology and Behavioral Science at the USC Price School of Public Policy.

In a 2008 study she conducted, she learned that parents seeking information about vaccination would search online using the word “shots.” The search results pointed them to anti-vaccine websites instead of the information from sources like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Using a nationally representative survey that we’ve been doing every two weeks, we’ve been asking people since March 2020 how likely they are to get the coronavirus vaccine if it’s available. In March, 83% of our participants said they would get it. In December, that declined to 63%,” Bruine de Bruin said.

“That suggests we really need to get in place a good vaccine allocation and communication strategy to encourage people to get vaccinated.”

Recent news about the more contagious variant of the virus may cast doubt on the efficacy of the current vaccine — but those concerns aren’t warranted.

“The good news about our immune response to vaccines is that it’s multifaceted, creating antibodies, for example, that will recognize different parts of the virus spike protein,” said Paula Cannon, a Distinguished Professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Keck School of Medicine and an expert in how viruses are transmitted and controlled.

“Even if the virus mutates and perhaps becomes resistant to one antibody, there will be others lining up to take its place. So far, very early lab experiments suggest that the new strains will be just as sensitive to the immunity created by these vaccines.”

Air pollution may contribute to Alzheimer’s and dementia risk – here’s what we’re learning from brain scans

Jiu-Chiuan Chen, University of Southern California

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It slowly destroys memory, thinking and behaviors, and eventually the ability to carry out daily tasks.

As scientists search for a cure, we have been learning more about the genetic and environmental factors that can increase a person’s risks of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

In particular, my colleagues and I in preventive medicine, neurology and gerontology have been looking at the role of outdoor air pollution.

Our early research in 2017 became the first study in the U.S. using both human and animal data to show that brain aging processes worsened by air pollution may increase dementia risk. Our latest studies show how older women who lived in locations with high levels of PM2.5 – the fine particulate matter produced by vehicles and power plants – suffered memory loss and Alzheimer’s-like brain shrinkage not seen in women living with cleaner air.

Together these findings suggest a way to avoid one risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease – reduce human exposure to PM2.5. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

Silent risk for dementia

PM2.5, also known as soot, consists of microscopic particles of chemicals, car exhaust, smoke, dust and other pollutants suspended in the air. An estimated one in six Americans lives in counties with unhealthy levels of particle pollution.

We have been investigating whether PM2.5 may accelerate the brain’s aging processes at the preclinical stage – the “silent” phase of the disease before any symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias appear.

In the first U.S.-based nationwide study to link PM2.5 exposure and cognitive impairment, published in 2017, we found older women were almost twice as likely to develop clinically significant cognitive impairment if they had lived in places with outdoor PM2.5 levels exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s standard than if they hadn’t. Because we worked with the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study, which followed the participants closely, we were able to account for other dementia risk factors, such as smoking, lack of exercise and hormone therapy.

Illustration showing how a brain with Alzheimer's disease shrinks.
The brain atrophies with Alzheimer’s disease. National Institute On Aging

In a new study, we wanted to see how the brains of older people were changing if they had experienced different levels of PM2.5 in the years before Alzheimer’s symptoms began.

We followed the progress of 712 women with an average age of 78 who did not have dementia at the start of the study and who underwent MRI brain scans five years apart. By combining EPA monitoring data and air quality simulations, we were able to estimate the everyday outdoor PM2.5 level around where the participants lived before their first MRI scan.

We found older women were more likely to have brain shrinkage similar to what is observed in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. When we compared the brain scans of older women from locations with high levels of PM2.5 to those with low levels, we found dementia risk increased by 24% over the five years.

Perhaps more alarming is that these Alzheimer’s-like brain changes were present in older women with no memory problems. The shrinkage in their brains was greater if they lived in locations with higher levels of outdoor PM2.5, even when those levels were within the current EPA standard.

Researchers in Spain recently examined brain MRI scans of healthy individuals at risk for Alzheimer’s disease and also found associations between air pollution exposure and reduced volume and thickness in specific brain areas known to be affected in Alzheimer’s disease.

Pollution and brain shrinkage

We also looked at episodic memory, which involves memories of specific events and is affected early by Alzheimer’s disease. If episodic memory decline was associated with living in locations with increasing PM2.5, could we see any evidence that such specific cognitive decline came as a consequence of the Alzheimer’s-like brain shrinkage?

Data from the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study and past MRIs allowed us to look for changes across time for nearly 1,000 women. We found that as outdoor PM2.5 increased in locations where these older women lived, episodic memory declined. Approximately 10%-20% of the greater memory decline could be explained by Alzheimer’s-like brain shrinkage.

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Because the silent phase of dementia is thought to start decades before the manifestation of symptoms, findings from our recent studies raise concerns that air pollution exposures during mid to early life may be equally or even more important than late-life exposure.

How Alzheimer’s changes the brain. National Institute On Aging.

Genes also appear to play a role. Our research has shown that a critical Alzheimer’s risk gene, APOE4, interacts with air particles to accelerate brain aging. We found the environmental risk raised by long-term PM2.5 exposure was two to three times higher among older women with two copies of the APOE4 gene than among women without the gene.

Other researchers have subsequently investigated the possible interplay of that gene and environment. A Swedish study in 2019 did not find strong evidence for gene and environment interaction. But a 2020 study using data collected from elderly residents of two New York City neighborhoods found an association between long-term air pollution exposure and cognitive decline, with steeper rates of decline found in APOE4 carriers.

An avoidable risk

In the U.S., the Clean Air Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency to develop air quality standards that provide an adequate margin of safety to protect sensitive populations, such as children and the elderly.

The U.S. government had an opportunity to strengthen those standards in 2020, a move that EPA scientists explained could prevent thousands of premature deaths from health risks such as heart disease. Scientists advocated tougher standards, citing other health problems linked to PM2.5. However, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler declined, announcing on Dec. 7 that the standards would remain unchanged.The Conversation

Jiu-Chiuan Chen, Associate Professor of Preventive Medicine, University of Southern California

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Largest, most diverse prostate cancer study shows genetic role in health disparities

86 new risk factors identified in research co-led by USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center.

By Wayne Lewis

Some racial and ethnic groups suffer relatively more often, and fare worse, from common ailments compared to others. Prostate cancer is one disease where such health disparities occur: Risk for the disease is about 75% higher, and prostate cancer is more than twice as deadly, in Blacks compared with whites. Yet whites are often overrepresented as research participants, making these differences difficult to understand and, ultimately, address.


With this problem in mind, scientists at the USC Center for Genetic Epidemiology and the Institute for Cancer Research in London led a study that brings together data from the majority of genomic prostate cancer studies globally. Including more than 200,000 men of European, African, Asian and Hispanic ancestry from around the world, the study is the largest, most diverse genetic analysis ever conducted for prostate cancer — and possibly for any other cancer.

The paper appears today in Nature Genetics.

The study’s authors identified 86 new genetic variations that increase risk for prostate cancer, not previously discovered, bringing the total number of risk loci for prostate cancer to 269. Applying a model for assessing prostate cancer risk based on the interplay of these genetic factors, the researchers showed that men of African ancestry inherit about twice the prostate cancer risk on average compared to men of European ancestry, while men of Asian ancestry inherit about three-quarter the risk of their white counterparts — evidence that genetics play some part in the differences in how often cancer occurs in different racial groups.

This research is also a step toward applying precision medicine to early detection.

Christopher Haiman. (USC Photo/Ricardo Carrasco III)

“Our long-term objective is to develop a genetic risk score that can be used to determine a man’s risk of developing prostate cancer,” said corresponding author Christopher Haiman, ScD, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC  and director of the USC Center for Genetic Epidemiology. “Men at higher risk may benefit from earlier and more frequent screening, so the disease can be identified when it’s more treatable.”

Study tackles health disparities

Praise for the study’s potential in increasing health equity came from Jonathan W. Simons, MD, president and chief executive officer of the Prostate Cancer Foundation. The foundation funds Haiman’s other work leading the RESPOND initiative exploring the disease among African American men.

“PCF believes that Dr. Haiman’s research findings will lead to more effective prostate cancer precision screening strategies for men of West African ancestry,” Simons said. “PCF is certain that identification of these very high-risk individuals will make a positive impact on this significant health care disparity.”

Haiman and his colleagues used genomic datasets from countries including the U.S., the UK, Sweden, Japan, and Ghana to compare 107,247 men with prostate cancer to a control group comprising 127,006 men. By examining a spectrum of races and ethnicities, the study’s authors aim to make the genetic risk score more useful for more people.

“We not only found new markers of risk, but also demonstrated that, by combining genetic information across populations, we were able to identify a risk profile that can be applied across populations,” said Haiman. “This emphasizes the value of adding multiple racial and ethnic populations into genetic studies.”

Risk score could contribute to better screening

Today’s screening guidelines for prostate cancer suggest that those 55 and older with average risk can choose to take the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test in consultation with their physicians. High PSA levels are associated with prostate cancer, but the PSA test tends to detect slow-growing tumors. With widespread use, it too often leads to unnecessary treatment.

The PSA test’s value as a screening tool would grow if it were deployed selectively to monitor people found to be at high risk for prostate cancer — which is where the genetic risk score could come into play. Those at particularly high risk might even begin screening before age 55.

In order to translate the current research findings into better early detection, a large-scale clinical trial would be needed.

“Most important, unlike previous screening trials, this one would need to be more representative of the diversity we see in the world,” Haiman said. “No population should get left behind.”

About this study

The paper has more than 230 co-authors, representing scores of organizations. Co-first authors of the study are David Conti, PhD, professor of preventive medicine, and Burcu Darst, PhD, a postdoctoral scholar and research associate, both of the Keck School of Medicine. Co-senior authors are Haiman, on behalf of the Elucidating Loci Involved in Prostate Cancer Susceptibility (ELLIPSE) consortium, and the ICR’s Rosalind Eeles, FMedSci, PhD, FRCP, FRCR, and Zsofia Kote-Jarai, PhD, on behalf of the Prostate Cancer Association Group to Investigate Cancer Associated Alterations in the Genome (PRACTICAL) consortium.

This study was supported by National Institutes of Health (U19CA148537, R01CA194393, K99CA246063),  with further support from Cancer Research UK, Prostate Cancer UK, and the Movember Foundation.