With July of this year, 2023, being the hottest on Earth yet recorded, there are increasing concerns about how climate change will shape the next several decades. We often hear about how climate change will increase disastrous weather events, decimate crops, and...
The Nobel Prize is famously awarded to those whose contributions to science, arts, and peace drive humankind towards a better tomorrow. Through the COVID-19 pandemic that brought the world to its knees in 2020, the Nobel Committee succeeded in finding the scientific laureates on whom the honor was to be rightfully bestowed. I reviewed their work and found some surprising connections among them and to our current global health crisis.
The Hepatitis-C Virus and CRISPR-Cas9
In the field of Medicine, the Nobel Committee celebrated the extensive work of Dr. Harvey J. Alter, Dr. Michael Houghton, and Dr. Charles M. Rice in discovering the virus that causes Hepatitis C, which further resulted in the development of specific tests and medicines to diagnose and treat the disease.
Before these discoveries, millions around the globe suffered from what was known as non-A, non-B type Hepatitis with no cure in sight. But now, this research has led to the development and availability of new drugs that are now treating those affected by this “chronic” illness. New vaccinations are also being worked upon to ensure the sickness is abolished in its entirety from the face of the Earth.
Simultaneously, new drugs are being formulated thanks to the support of fellow laureates, Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, who discovered how to leverage a gene editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9. Their discovery was lauded alongside others in by the Nobel Committee in 2020 for their critical work in Chemistry that has led to revolutionary results in various fields of science.
CRISPR-Cas9 and COVID-19
Genome editing, in its essence, is the process of picking and choosing what genes make their presence known in a living being. This can be done to filter out destructive genetic codes, such as those that cause disease.
Charpentier and Doudna developed CRISPR-Cas technology, which has opened up a wide avenue for those interested in seeking the causes behind and treatments for various diseases. They’ve identified several genes, for instance that cause cancer patients to become resistant to therapy. This work is enabling researchers to create drugs with the utmost efficiency and lowest resistance, while minimizing side effects. Using CRISPR-Cas technology, Scientists have designed an efficient base-editor for correcting mutations in breast cancer cells that might one day be used in patients.
We can even thank Doudna and Charpentier for the quick development of COVID-19 vaccines: CRISPR-Cas technology was one of the key tools used in the process. And these vaccines have done more than just slow down the spread of COVID-19; they’ve also improved our mental health.
COVID-19 and Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic’s influence around the world on mental health has been multifold.
The fear of physical sickness paired with swift economic decline and “pandemic fatigue” have resulted in depression rearing its ugly head more consistently than ever before. But on the bright side, the news that vaccines are now more widely available has given hope to the world that this period of ailment and loss might finally come to its end. While these vaccines may not help all of those already suffering from depression and other psychosomatic disorders, health experts are hopeful that this will slow the fast-growing number of those ailing.
But while vaccines might bring some much-needed relief to the world, not all drugs so reliably maintain or improve our mental health.
The Effects of Drugs on Human Psyche
As scientists create new drugs owing to the brilliant work of the 2020 Nobel winners, they have to focus on the effect these have on both the physical and the psychological wellness of a person.
While the physical effects of a drug, such as treatment for breast cancer or hepatitis C, can be studied with relative ease, the psychological effects are often neglected by researchers. The scientific study of how drugs affect one’s mood, thinking, perception, sensation, and behavior is called Psychopharmacology. And while you may associate psychopharmacology with the study of recreational drugs such as heroin and cocaine, the study of medicinal drugs such as antidepressants and antipsychotics is equally important, as doctors around the planet prescribe these to their patients. These professionals are usually experts in the branch of medicine called Psychiatry, which deals with the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders.
Given that we now know that medications can cause unwanted effects on our physical as well as psychological well-being, doctors and scientists, backed up with research, now believe that a need has arisen to reduce and minimize the population’s blind reliance on drugs for every small ailment. Instead, some symptoms could potentially be treated just as effectively without medication. To educate society about the impact drugs have on their emotional and mental wellbeing, multiple drug developers are now using visual aids like graphs, posters, videos, infographics and memes to put their message across in a comprehensible and memorable way. Free infographic makers have come in handy during such expeditions alongside social media platforms like YouTube and Twitter.
Ultimately, the innovations made by our 2020 Nobel Laureates could not have come at a better time. The biopharmaceutical industry is gearing up to conduct more advanced studies to create the best possible medications for those suffering while monitoring their short-term and long-term effects on the human mind and body.
But it is only when psychopharmacology and psychiatry join hands with the advancements in scientific innovations, like that by Charpentier and Doudna, that we will move towards humankind that reflects physical, mental as well as emotional soundness.