Predoctoral training slots are available for the spring 2010 term on the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) training grant “Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Biodefense.” HSPH students from all departments are encouraged to apply.To apply or for more information, visit the HSPH Web site.Applicants are encouraged to apply immediately for spring 2010 openings. After spring slots are filled, applications will be accepted on a rolling basis until April 2010 for the coming academic year.
The Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States has awarded Harvard College seniors Zhou Fan and Yi Sun Churchill Scholarships for 2010-11.The scholarship program, which was established in 1959, offers American students of “exceptional ability and outstanding achievement” the opportunity to pursue one year of graduate studies in engineering, mathematics, or the sciences at the University of Cambridge, England. The scholarship covers or assists in university and college fees, a living allowance, and travel expenses, and provides the opportunity to apply for a special research grant.Fan, who will receive an A.B. in mathematics and an M.S. in computer science from Harvard, and Sun, who will receive an A.B. and an M.A. in mathematics and economics from Harvard, will both work toward master’s degrees in advanced study in pure mathematics at Cambridge. Fan, after his year of study in Cambridge, will return to the United States to work on a Ph.D. in applied mathematics, computational mathematics, or statistics. Sun will return to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical mathematics.
A therapy that multiplies the effect of a natural disease-fighting antibody has extended the lives of patients with metastatic melanoma in a large, international clinical trial. The study’s researchers reported their findings simultaneously at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) annual meeting in Chicago and in the New England Journal of Medicine over the weekend.Patients in the phase III clinical study who received the drug ipilimumab — a monoclonal antibody made by duplicating a single type of human antibody thousands of times over — survived for an average of 10 months whether they received the drug alone or in combination with a therapeutic vaccine known as gp100, compared to just over six months for those who received gp100 alone, investigators found. The four-month difference represents a 67 percent increase in survival time between the two groups. And because it occurred in patients who were otherwise out of treatment options — all of them having metastatic disease that spread even after earlier treatment — the treatment demonstrates the promise of monoclonal antibody treatment for cancer patients not helped by conventional therapies, the study authors say.First co-author of the paper F. Stephen Hodi, director of the melanoma treatment center at Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, says the findings are significant on two levels. “It is the first study to show a survival benefit for metastatic melanoma, which is often a fatal disease, and it is proof that this first-in-class treatment is effective in cancer.”The study, which was presented in a plenary session at ASCO June 6, was posted on the Internet in advance of print publication by the New England Journal of Medicine.The number of cases of metastatic melanoma — considered the most serious form of skin cancer — has increased during the past 30 years, and its death rate is rising faster than most other cancers. Associated with extended periods of exposure to ultraviolet rays in sunlight, the disease is expected to be diagnosed in more than 68,000 Americans and be responsible for 8,700 deaths in this country in 2010, according to the American Cancer Society. There are no approved therapies for metastatic melanoma beyond standard frontline treatments, and no previous therapy for the disease has been proven effective in a phase III clinical trial.Ipilimumab, developed by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Medarex, consists of millions of copies of a human antibody that binds to a molecule on T cells — white blood cells that patrol the body for signs of illness. The molecule, known as CTLA-4, serves as a control switch for the immune system’s response to disease. With no antibody attached, CTLA-4 suppresses the immune response. Ipilimumab reverses that condition, unleashing the immune attack on abnormal cells, including cancer cells. “It essentially takes a brake off the immune system,” Hodi says.The new phase III trial involved 676 patients with advanced (stage III or IV), inoperable melanoma that had worsened during prior therapy for metastatic disease. Patients were randomly assigned to receive one of three treatment regimens: ipilimumab and the gp100 vaccine (which seeks to spark an immune response by presenting the immune system with a protein fragment associated with cancer), ipilimumab alone, or gp 100 alone.The median survival period for patients receiving ipilimumab plus gp100 was 10 months, compared with 6.4 months for those receiving gp100 alone. The median survival for participants receiving ipilimumab alone was 10.1 months. In the ipilimumab-alone group, nine of 15 patients continued to benefit from the therapy for at least two years, as did four of 23 patients in the combination therapy group.About 60 percent of the patients treated with ipilimumab experienced adverse side effects to the therapy, as did 32 percent of the patients treated with gp100. The complications were generally immune system-related and most often affected the skin and gastrointestinal tract. The most common included diarrhea, nausea, constipation, fatigue, decreased appetite, and rash. While the adverse effects could be severe and long-lasting, most of them were reversible with appropriate treatment, the authors report.“These findings are very encouraging and will serve as the foundation for future studies,” says Hodi. “The next step is to focus on developing combination therapies to develop synergistic and more robust effects as well as incorporating other antibodies that target the same family of molecules.”The senior author of the study is Walter Urba of the Earle Chiles Research Institute in Portland, Oregon. Steven O’Day of the Angeles Clinic and Research Institute in Los Angeles, is the paper’s co-first author.The study was supported by Medarex, Inc. and Bristol-Myers Squibb.
Five young and six established Harvard faculty members have received grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) under two programs designed to stimulate innovative and transformative research whose potentially high reward comes with high risk, which makes the researchers unlikely to win more traditional grants.Six faculty members, working on three separate projects, were named recipients of the NIH Director’s Transformative Research Project Award Thursday (Sept. 30). The awards are aimed at “truly daring” projects by scientists rethinking the way science is conducted, according to the NIH.“Complex research projects, even exceptionally high-impact ones, are tough to get funded without the necessary resources to assemble teams and collect preliminary data. The TR01 awards provide a way for these high-impact projects to be pursued,” said NIH Director Francis S. Collins.One grant was given to Sunney Xie, Mallinckrodt Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, and Xiaowei Zhuang, professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics, who are collaborating on one project. Assistant Professor of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology and Assistant Professor of Surgery Paola Arlotta of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, Associate Professor of Pathology J. Keith Joung of Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, and Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows Feng Zhang are working together on the second. Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Simon L. Dove, of Harvard-affiliated Children’s Hospital Boston, is collaborating with colleagues at Rutgers on a third project.The second award program, the New Innovators Awards, supports young scientists conducting work on highly creative scientific approaches that may be at too early a stage to qualify for more traditional NIH funding. Recipients include Adam Cohen, an assistant professor of chemistry and chemical biology and of physics; Peng Yin, assistant professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS); Sandeep Robert Datta, assistant professor of neurobiology at HMS; Nathalie Agar, instructor in surgery at HMS and Brigham and Women’s Hospital; and Conor Evans, instructor in dermatology at HMS and Massachusetts General Hospital.The Transformative Research Projects:Xie and ZhuangXie and Zhuang, who are both members of the Chemistry and Chemical Biology Department in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, are seeking to advance understanding of protein function in cells and how disease disrupts that functioning. Both are experts at single-molecule biology and have developed several tools to image and probe what’s going on with individual molecules.“In this joint grant, Sunney and I propose to determine the dynamic cellular architecture of the entire proteome of the model bacterial organism E. coli by combining single-molecule detection, super-resolution imaging, and systems biology tools,” Zhuang said. “A global view of the cellular architecture of bacteria will bring new paradigms to the microbiology field and potentially suggest new therapeutic targets for treating bacteria-based infectious diseases. Moreover, the super-resolution imaging and systems biology tools developed in this project will also broadly benefit biomedical research.”Arlotta, Joung, and ZhangArlotta, Joung, and Zhang are working on a project that seeks to regenerate specific components of the nervous system as a way to treat neurodegenerative diseases. Among the methodologies is one being developed in the Joung lab to create customized proteins that can bind to genetic sequences, allowing them to edit the sequences and change the expression of specific genes.“We are exploring the uses of this technology both for biological research and for the treatment of genetic-based diseases,” Joung said.DoveDove, working with Bryce Nickels at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, is working to challenge conventional ways to make RNA by investigating the role of tiny fragments of RNA, called nanoRNAs, in initiating transcription in cells.The Innovators’ work:Adam CohenCohen is seeking ways to monitor the electrical activity in a large number of neurons at once to better understand neural function. He’s working to create an artificial protein based on the microbial green proteorhodopsin protein that flashes with fluorescent light when activated. Once developed, the gene for the protein can be inserted into neurons, which would provide a flash of fluorescence each time the neuron fires. Molecules that have previously been developed for this purpose lack both the sensitivity and speed that Cohen hopes to get from the proteorhodopsin proteins.“I am profoundly grateful” to receive this award, Cohen said. “We are trying a very risky project, in an area that is new for my lab. It would be almost impossible to fund this work through conventional means. Now we have the freedom to give this our best shot for the next five years. I’m really excited.”Peng YinYin, a core faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, is the principal investigator for the Molecular Systems Lab at Harvard, a group of scientists and students interested in engineering programmable molecular systems inspired by biology. The group plans to use the award to advance one of the tools most essential to biological and medical research, the imaging probe.Imaging probes translate a cell’s invisible biological information, such as proteins or RNA molecules, into viewable signals, such as a change in fluorescence. The information provided by these fluorescent markers helps researchers to understand better the role of cell behavior in the onset of diseases, such as cancer, and their progression.Yin is proposing a novel type of bioimaging probe, one based on “triggered” molecular geometry. Such a probe would assemble itself into a prescribed, identifiable three-dimensional geometric shape upon detecting a target molecule. This new approach has the potential to enable the imaging of a dramatically larger number of distinct molecular species in a single cell, thus providing researchers with a much richer, more accurate view of what is happening in a cell.Yin said the award “will allow my group to undertake an audacious research plan. Working in the highly stimulating environment of the Wyss Institute, … we hope to advance the vision of engineering programmable molecular systems to provide tools for addressing important biomedical challenges.”Nathalie AgarIn neurosurgery for brain cancers, the main objective is to maximize removal of the tumor while preserving healthy tissue. Agar’s project aims to develop and implement a real-time molecular analysis of the tissue involved, using three-dimensional mass spectrometry in combination with radiology imaging as a guide for neurosurgery. The project involves a cross-disciplinary, multi-institutional team, with groups from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Purdue University, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as industrial collaborators.The grant gives the effort the recognition and opportunity to make progress in developing and implementing the technology, Agar said. A further goal is to create portable tools that may be used in operating rooms that don’t have the same level of imaging that is available in highly specialized centers.Conor EvansEvans’ research is focused on developing optical approaches for detecting, understanding, and treating therapeutically resistant metastatic cancer. Although much progress has been made in detecting and treating cancer, metastatic cancer, which has spread through the body, remains the leading cause of death in patients with advanced cancer. In ovarian cancer, 90 percent of all fatalities arise from microscopic, difficult-to-visualize lesions that often resist treatment. A lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia, is a major cause of treatment resistance in cancer, and is likely responsible for resistant ovarian disease.Evans hopes to overcome hypoxia-induced resistance by developing a new microscopic and translational imaging approach for battling metastatic disease. He plans to map the detailed relationship between hypoxia and therapeutic response by developing new oxygen-imaging probes, high-throughput microscopy platforms, and multimodal microendoscopes to directly visualize treatment resistance. Furthermore, to fight treatment resistance, he hopes to develop an oxygen-independent therapy that improves the survival of women with ovarian cancer.“As a young investigator and new faculty member at Harvard, I am excited to receive the New Innovator award, as it provides an unparalleled opportunity for me to pursue my research goals in fighting treatment-resistant metastatic cancer,” Evans said. “This award gives me the resources to explore the underlying relationships between hypoxia and resistance in cancer, which will allow us to better understand therapeutic resistance and build more effective therapies for patients.”Sandeep Robert DattaDatta studies the mammalian sense of smell for insights into how the brain extracts information from the environment and converts that into action. He is specifically interested in odors that cause innate responses, those that are of critical importance to an animal, such as the odor of food, of a predator, or of a mate. These odors may be processed by special receptors in the nose, unlike the complex combinations of receptors that process other odors. This simplifies the still-complex task that Datta and members of his lab have undertaken, which is to link specific odors to certain neural circuits and to understand how electrical signals in that circuit then lead to specific animal behavior.“This grant will enable me to perform the next generation of experiments today instead of five years from now, and give me the freedom to follow the science wherever it leads,” Datta said. “It is gratifying to be given the opportunity to freely explore the complexities of the brain without the tether of constantly searching for funding.”
One of the biggest questions confronting the field of stem cell science is whether iPS cells — stem cells created by reprogramming adult cells — are the equal of the field’s gold standard, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs).Now, a team of Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) researchers, in collaboration with scientists at Columbia University Medical Center, have demonstrated that many iPS cells are, in fact, the equal of hESCs in creating human motor neurons, the cells destroyed in a number of neurological diseases, including Parkinson’s. Another HSCI group, working with the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has produced a simple, quick method for testing the equivalency of iPS cell lines with human embryonic stem cells.The latter group, led by Professor Alex Meissner of HSCI, Harvard’s Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (SCRB), and the Broad, conducted a genomic analysis of 20 commonly used hES cell lines — 17 from Harvard and three from the University of Wisconsin — and created “epigenetic and transcriptional reference maps” for them.The study, which was published by the journal Cell, then compared a dozen iPS cell lines, derived by the team of Professor Kevin Eggan at HSCI and SCRB, with the 20 hESC lines, and found that the 12 iPS cell lines showed a pattern of variation similar to that of the reference embryonic stem (ES) cells.“The reference maps provided us the necessary understanding of the range of variation that is found between pluripotent cells,” Meissner said. “This means that when someone now creates an iPS line, they can compare it to what the map shows and see if it falls within the expected range, and, if it doesn’t, where it doesn’t.”Doug Melton, co-director of HSCI and co-chair of SCRB, said the two “papers represent further advances in studies on ES and iPS cells, showing how careful and thorough characterization of cell lines enables one to effectively use these stem cells for studies on human development and disease. The advance here is to use a detailed molecular characterization (transcription analysis and DNA methylation patterns) to find a signature, or scorecard, for cell lines. It is impressive to see two labs collaborate so effectively to take on such large and important projects.”The 12 iPS cell lines used by Meissner were part of a set of 16 created by Eggan’s team and his collaborators at Columbia. In a study published in Nature Biotechnology, the Eggan group reported that “all 16 lines were turned into motor neurons and were usable. Some needed more ‘coaxing’ than others,” Eggan said, “ but the main message is that, on average, iPS cell lines behaved as well as human embryonic stem cell lines.”Meissner said Harvard has applied for a patent on the new cell characterization method. “When you generate iPS cell lines, you have to put them through assays to make sure they are pluripotent,” which means they can develop into any cell type in the body. “The current test in humans generally involves generating a teratoma, a germ cell tumor, and that can take two months. This new test is a much more accurate predictor of pluripotency, and is easy to scale up to test millions of cell lines quickly,” Meissner said.Postdoctoral fellow Christoph Bock of the Meissner lab was the first author on the Cell paper, and Gabriella L. Boulting of the Eggan lab was first author on the paper in Nature Biotechnology.
Harvard University announced today that Siddhartha Yog, M.B.A. ’04, founder and managing partner of The Xander Group Inc., an India-focused, emerging-markets investment firm, has given the University $11,000,001 to establish two new professorships, fellowships and financial aid, and an intellectual entrepreneurship fund.The gift is inspired by and honors the teaching and mentorship of Professor Arthur I. Segel at Harvard Business School (HBS). It spans multiple Harvard Schools and focuses on innovative science, educational access, public service, and academic–public policy collaborations.The Xander University Professorship recognizes an eminent scholar in emerging areas of scientific inquiry, particularly those at the intersection of existing scientific disciplines. University Professorships are a singular honor reserved for faculty members who are both extraordinarily accomplished in their fields and respected leaders in the University community. Noted Harvard stem cell scientist Douglas A. Melton was named to the position in September.The Xander Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (GSE) recognizes an educator whose work promotes equity, access, and readiness for college, especially for economically disadvantaged and urban students, as well as for students in vocational education programs. Dean Kathleen McCartney has announced that Bridget Terry Long, an economist whose research focuses on issues of access and choice in higher education and the outcomes of college students, will be the inaugural Xander Professor of Education.The Xander Financial Aid and Fellowship Fund at Harvard Law School (HLS) will provide financial aid for deserving international students and students enrolled in the J.D. program who pursue public interest and public service work. The fund also will provide fellowships for one year of postgraduate public service. The Xander Fund for Intellectual Entrepreneurship at HBS will support novel projects and collaborations engaging both the academic and public policy sectors.“Harvard’s legacy of teaching and learning has long emphasized intellectual exploration and public service,” said Harvard President Drew Faust, who is also Lincoln Professor of History. “We are grateful to Sid Yog for this generous gift, which will help us to extend that legacy with the support it spreads across three of our Schools and its recognition of emerging areas of scientific research.”Faust also highlighted the important role of University Professors. “The University Professorships were established almost 80 years ago as a special way to recognize individuals of distinction who are working on the frontiers of knowledge in ways that cross the traditional boundaries of academic disciplines.”She added, “While the world knows Doug Melton as a scientist who has played a seminal role in the exponential growth of the new field of stem cell science, we at Harvard also know him as an untiring mentor to scientific leaders of tomorrow, and as an academic who is passionate about improving undergraduate education.”Explaining his gift, Yog said, “Despite the advances we have made as a race, global events are forcing us to confront our most fundamental vulnerabilities — disease, social injustice, and economic disparity — in ways we have never needed to before. Harvard University’s multidisciplinary and collaborative ecosystem uniquely positions it to find innovative and far-reaching solutions to what I consider are the greatest challenges of our times. I am certain that the beneficiaries of this gift will be remarkable individuals who will bring positive and sustainable change to our world.”McCartney said, “All of us at the Harvard Graduate School of Education are grateful to Sid Yog for endowing this chair and, in so doing, assuring that equity, access, and college readiness remain a focus of our work in perpetuity. Through the work of faculty in this chair, we will improve student opportunity, achievement, and success. I am thrilled to appoint Bridget Terry Long as the inaugural Xander Professor of Education. The policy implications of Professor Long’s research on access to higher education for low-income students is great, which is why she has been asked to testify before Congress and was recently named chair of the National Board for Education Sciences.”HLS Dean Martha Minow said, “We at the Law School are deeply grateful for Sid Yog’s wonderfully generous Xander Financial Aid and Fellowship Fund. This gift will make a critical difference to our students from around the world who wish to pursue public service, especially during this challenging time. That the gift comes from a person whose own career inspires our increasingly entrepreneurial students is especially significant as we seek to support those who are committed to developing innovative ways to serve the public interest. How truly delightful to share Mr. Yog’s vision and splendid support for our students pursuing initial and advanced law degrees.”HBS Dean Nitin Nohria said, “We are grateful for Mr. Yog’s generous gift, which will help support our students’ interest in the intersection of business and government, as well as to enhance their study and practice of entrepreneurship, which creates value for society through the pursuit of opportunity and the development of innovative solutions to some of the world’s most difficult challenges.”Yog has been involved in global real estate and infrastructure since 1993. From 1999 to 2002, he was based in Singapore and Hong Kong as founding director of CB Richard Ellis’s (CBRE) Asia/Pacific strategic consulting practice. From 1994 to 1998, he helped set up CBRE’s India operations and led the consulting, valuation, and research groups. He has also worked at Bain & Co. in New York, Deutsche Bank Real Estate Investment Management GmbH in Frankfurt, and Feedback Ventures in New Delhi.As managing partner of The Xander Group Inc., an investment firm that he co-founded in 2005, Yog has been responsible for overseeing $1.2 billion of investments in India, concentrated primarily on companies and assets in the real estate, retail and entertainment, infrastructure, and hospitality sectors.Yog received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School with highest distinction and was elected a Baker Scholar. He was also elected president of his class and served on the board of directors of HBS’s alumni association. Earlier, he earned an honors degree in economics from the University of Delhi, where he was elected head of the students’ union of his college.He serves on numerous boards and foundations, and is a founding member of the International Advisory Board of the Real Estate Academic Initiative at Harvard University. He splits his time among Boston, London, and New Delhi.Yog discussed his hopes for the various aspects of the gift. “By spearheading pioneering research in emerging areas of scientific enquiry, the University chair in innovative sciences will have a global impact. It is an honor to be able to create a chair whose first appointee is Doug Melton. His path-breaking work in embryonic stem cell research has probably already changed the future course of the lives of millions of people, especially those suffering from Parkinson’s disease or type 1 diabetes.“The Harvard Graduate School of Education is playing a critical role in addressing the urgent need for evolved and appropriate systems of education, by enabling teachers and trainers to lead the charge in their respective communities,” continued Yog. “I am confident that Bridget Terry Long will help promote more equitable and inclusive systems of education globally.”Yog said that the Xander Financial Aid and Fellowship Fund at HLS “will hopefully enable individuals from the developing world to become votaries and implementers of a strong and just legal system in their respective countries, a foundational aspect of any developed society.”He added that HBS’s Xander Fund for Intellectual Entrepreneurship “will assist in pushing the boundaries of intellectual inquiry to resolve the range of problems our world faces today by rethinking the ways in which business engages with other stakeholders in society.”Yog concluded with an explanation of the significance of the “$1” in his $11,000,001 gift amount. In Indian tradition, it is considered lucky to add a token of one to any monetary gift. It is believed that adding that 1 to, say, an amount of 1,000 or 10,000 will start off the next series of thousands or tens of thousands for the recipient.“This is just my way of wishing good luck to all those who will be associated with this gift in times to come, and expressing my hope that they will add exponential value to the gift itself.”
A Harvard Community Gifts fundraiser raised $11,700 from more than 400 faculty and staff members who participated in “Rally Against Cancer” by donating to the Jimmy Fund and wearing Red Sox gear to work on April 13 to celebrate opening day at Fenway Park.
Read Full Story Fare increases and service cuts originally proposed by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) to counter a projected $161 million deficit in 2012 would likely have costly consequences and threaten the health of Boston area residents, according to a health impact assessment released March 13, 2012 by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) of Massachusetts. The report was conducted by researchers at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) and Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH).On April 4, 2012 the MBTA board approved plans, effective July 1, to hold average fare increases at 23% for at least a year, to institute modest service cuts, and tap other one-time funding sources to address the budget deficit for one year. The increase was significantly less than the MBTA’s original proposal earlier this year, which had called for raising most fares an average of 35% to 43% while making deep service cuts.The talk of possible significant fare hikes and service cuts captured the interest of researchers at HSPH and BUSPH. HSPH students Peter James, SD’12, and Mariana Arcaya, SD’13, co-authors of the report, described the findings of their two-month health impact assessment to students, faculty, and guests at a March 26 talk in the FXB building. The talk was sponsored by HealthRoots, an HSPH student group that encourages collaboration and student engagement on public health issues. Jonathan Buonocore, HSPH doctoral student in environmental health, and Jonathan Levy, adjunct professor of environmental health at HSPH and professor of environmental health at BUSPH, also were co-authors.
Egypt’s unrest has its root, ironically, in democratic success: the Muslim Brotherhood’s overwhelming ballot box victories, a Harvard Kennedy School Middle East specialist said during a roundtable last week.In elections following the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood captured the president’s office and a parliamentary majority. While those victories were bad news for Egyptian liberals and the remnants of the former regime, alone they weren’t enough to prompt this summer’s military action, according to Tarek Masoud, associate professor of public policy.Instead, Masoud said, it was the prospect of continued electoral dominance by Brotherhood candidates at all levels that led to the move.“The Muslim Brotherhood was just too good at winning elections,” Masoud said. “If the liberals actually thought they could win an election, they would have channeled [public dissatisfaction] into the next election. … The opposition was not confident it could beat the Brotherhood in an election, so it needed the military.”In July, after massive anti-government protests, the Egyptian military suspended the constitution and removed President Mohamed Morsi from office, sending Brotherhood leaders into hiding and the group’s supporters into the streets in protest. More than 1,000 have been killed.On Sept. 5, a conference room and nearby hallways at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies were packed for a discussion that in addition to Masoud included E. Roger Owen, the A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History Emeritus, and grad student Sarah Moawad, who recently returned to campus after spending several weeks in Egypt.Moawad shared observations of the anti-government protests in Cairo and Alexandria and said dissatisfaction with Morsi’s government had been widespread in the weeks before he was removed from office, with long gas lines, irregular electricity supplies, falling tourist dollars, and overall economic decline key factors. In addition, the predominately Muslim Egyptian people were tired of the Brotherhood telling them how to be Muslim, Moawad said.People she spoke with were upset at the characterizations, mostly in the Western press, of the military takeover as a coup, as they preferred to think of it as an action supported by signatures from some 22 million voicing a withdrawal of confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood government.“The Muslim Brotherhood was remarkably effective at alienating the people who were willing to give them a chance,” Moawad said.The military was never removed from its lofty position atop Egyptian society, Masoud said, despite claims to the contrary. The Brotherhood, in fact, went to great lengths to assure the military that they weren’t at odds, he said.Those who view the takeover as a response to the imposition of religious government on what had been a secular state are missing how conservative most of Egyptian society is on religious matters, Masoud said. For most Egyptians, the religious aspects of Brotherhood rule were not a big problem. He also disagreed with those who saw it as an expression of dissatisfaction over very real economic difficulties.The Brotherhood’s role in Egyptian politics is at an end, since the military is vigorously pursuing the group’s members, Masoud predicted. That doesn’t mean, however, that there is no role for an Islamist party in the country’s future, he said.“I do think political Islam has to be accommodated and allowed to participate in Egypt’s future,” Masoud said.Participants expressed uncertainty over what that future might hold. Though some may be tempted to think that recent events represent a return to the authoritarian governments of the past, Owen rejected that view. Instead, he said, what we’re seeing is another stage in ongoing changes that began with the Arab Spring of two years ago.“This process is not over, by any means.”
Related Harvard serves up its own ‘Plate’ A trio of recent reports has shed new light on U.S. health, with mixed results on obesity, smoking, and blood pressure.Data on obesity show it continuing to climb among adults, though there are indications of a leveling-off among children. Thirty-eight percent of Americans were obese in 2013-2014, up 3 points from 2011-2012 and 6 points from 2003 and 2004. The news on smoking was more encouraging. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that smoking, which has been sliding for decades, reached a new low in 2014 — 16.8 percent, a 1 point decline from a year earlier.Findings from a study of adults over 50, meanwhile, showed that keeping blood pressure significantly lower than current guidelines can have a dramatic effect on health. The guidelines suggest keeping systolic pressure — the higher number — below 140. The new SPRINT study, backed by the National Institutes of Health, said that aiming for 120 resulted in 26 percent fewer deaths and 38 percent fewer cases of heart failure. To make sense of this snapshot of our national health, the Gazette spoke with Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition and the Fredrick Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition. His short answer: There’s still work to do. GAZETTE: Is there a most significant finding about our nation’s health or lifestyle habits through these studies?WILLETT: On obesity, it does appear that the obesity rate in adults is continuing to go up — though not as fast as it had been — and that’s not good news.The somewhat encouraging news was that obesity rates in children have not gone up, but they’re still too high. There has been a lot of effort to bend the curve of the childhood obesity epidemic. It’s pretty clear that is happening. We’ve seen more detailed analyses from places like New York City and L.A. and Cambridge, where obesity rates in children do seem to have even turned down a little bit. So making a big and intensive effort does really make a difference — and I think that’s an important message: This is not a hopeless and inevitable trend upward.But we’re still very far from where we should be and where we were 40 or 50 years ago. For adults, we really need to be much more serious about controlling obesity. It’s pitiful what we’re doing to control obesity compared to the powerful trends pushing us toward more obesity.There’s massive encouragement everywhere in the media to eat more of everything. It’s mostly junk that’s being pushed: sugar-sweetened beverages, manufactured, highly processed sweets and things like that. When was the last time you saw a television ad for broccoli or apples?We published a paper [recently] in Health Affairs looking at trends in diet quality. We do see, over time, a modest improvement, again very far from where we should be. But what we also see is that the trends are very uneven by socioeconomic status. People with upper income are doing very well in terms of improving their diet and people with lower income and education really have hardly improved at all. Healthy Eating Plate shows shortcomings in government’s MyPlate GAZETTE: The smoking findings indicate we’re having more success on that side. Are there lessons to be learned for the fight against obesity from the anti-smoking campaigns?WILLETT: Absolutely. We’ve learned a lot from the anti-smoking campaign.It took large effort on the part of many people to turn that around. We had to pull a lot of levers that we’re not pulling for obesity, including a very substantial tax on smoking. It took mass awareness, education campaigns. We aren’t doing those things for obesity in the same way.Obesity is more complicated than smoking. Smoking is all bad and no good, and most food is not quite that simple — although sugar-sweetened beverages are all bad and no good.So we haven’t used all the means available to us. We also have a massive food program, almost $80 billion a year, called SNAP or food stamps. It is actually fueling the obesity epidemic and we are, at the same time, paying for the consequences for that.GAZETTE: Is that ripe for reform?WILLETT: The food industry does not want that touched at all because it’s basically a massive funnel of tens of billions of dollars into the processed food industry.The USDA says it’s putting healthy food on the table for Americans. But we’ve analyzed what SNAP participants are eating and it’s horrible food. It’s a diet designed to produce obesity and diabetes. If you wanted to make a population obese and diabetic, you would feed them a SNAP diet. This is a program that needs to be improved, but not cut because it is essential to millions of seriously stressed Americans.GAZETTE: Why have smoking numbers come down? Is it only because of the anti-smoking campaigns?WILLETT: Smoking rates were going up until 1964, when the surgeon general’s report on smoking was released. It said very clearly that smoking was a cause of cancer.Information and education, while not sufficient, have to be at the base of everything that we do in this area. We can see, just from that information, the upward trend turned around. Then it took layers and layers of programs, warning messages on television, banning advertising of smoking on television and other places. Taxation really made a difference. Economists will tell you it’s just taxation, but it started downward before taxation and I don’t think taxation could have been put into place until you had enough public support to do it.GAZETTE: Does that decades-long effort indicate that, as far as obesity goes, we may be at the beginning of a long road?WILLETT: It’s definitely a multi-decade process, and obesity is tougher than smoking. But it’s not impossible. Smoking is highly addictive and the fact that so many people quit [is encouraging]. It took a lot of effort on the part of a lot of people. We haven’t gotten nearly as serious about the obesity epidemic as we have about smoking.GAZETTE: What are we seeing as far as inequality in these two cases? Are we seeing the emergence of two Americas in health care?WILLETT: We’re definitely seeing the emergence of two Americas when it comes to health, as we see through other lenses. Look at income and we see a similar picture of an increasing gap.It’s not surprising that people who have more information important for their health and well-being and the means to act upon that information are going to be the first to take action. That’s what we are seeing, in terms of diet quality and obesity. Very broadly, there are two different Americas characterized by income and education, strongly associated with race, ethnicity. African-Americans generally had the worst diet quality, though when you adjust for income and education, those differences vanish. So it really is poverty that we’re talking about.GAZETTE: Why is healthier food more expensive?WILLETT: Really cheap food, unhealthy food, is mostly highly refined starch, sugar, and, until recently, partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. You can produce these things on a mass basis — especially refined starch and sugar — at a very low cost.The ingredients are very, very cheap and very stable. Refined starch and refined grains have a very long shelf life. They are shipped all over the country and can be stored for long periods. You can make them into all kinds of products that have basically the same ingredients. You add flavor, coloring, packaging, and marketing, and there can still be a big profit margin though they’re still relatively cheap.This is probably the worst part of the diet if you look at what SNAP participants are eating. Grocery store shelves are just lined with things like that. It’s cheap and people can fill their stomachs. In contrast, vegetables are more expensive, whether they’re fresh or frozen. They’re perishable … and there’s more labor to produce them. It’s more complicated than just taking grains and refining or mass-processing sugar, so there are reasons why unhealthy food is cheap.However, we have looked into this, and at any cost there’s a [potentially] large difference in healthfulness of the diet. For example, whole grains still are inexpensive compared to a lot of processed things. Legumes are inexpensive and some vegetables — cabbage, string beans, sweet potatoes — are really not very expensive.If you take a little time, you can make those into very healthy meals. But a lot of times people don’t have the knowledge, awareness, skills, and time to do that, so they end up getting the least-healthy things — ready-to-eat, packaged, and convenient.GAZETTE: You weren’t involved in the SPRINT blood pressure study, but blood pressure is linked to lifestyle, through diet and salt consumption. What did you think of the results that a significant decline to 120 from 140 in systolic pressure would save a lot of lives?WILLETT: Nobody’s saying why the blood pressure was so high in the beginning.The average BMI [body mass index] of participants was 30 [obese] and we know that overweight is the single most important factor driving blood pressure. But diet wasn’t even mentioned in the study or mentioned in any of the press reports that I saw. It was all about adding medication.We’ve known for a long time that, in people who have healthy diets, blood pressure does not go up with age and the blood pressure rates are much lower. This is mostly a problem of bad diets and inactivity, with obesity being the No. 1 driver.We know that salt is important too, inadequate potassium is important, and too much refined starch and sugar drives up blood pressure. The results of SPRINT are not surprising because we know there’s a straight-line relationship between blood pressure and mortality. So it’s not surprising that more treatment brought it down.But people do not have hypertension because of drug deficiencies, they have hypertension because of, with some exceptions, unhealthy lifestyles.GAZETTE: Is there an overall take-away message from these reports?WILLETT: The overall message is we really need to get serious about dealing with the unhealthy lifestyles we have in America. We’ve not dealt adequately with the obesity epidemic. If we deal with that — including diet quality — we can also have a very large impact bringing blood pressure down, as well as rates of diabetes and many other conditions. This is a signal that what we’re doing now is not adequate.And, I should add, on a positive note, we have done more for childhood obesity and we should feel good about seeing some benefits of that, even though there’s still much more to do.