Dr. Gregory Petsko, Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and a major contributor to the Sweet Readers training in three countries over the past 12 years, sat down with Sweet Readers CEO Karen Young to discuss the impacts of the pandemic and social distancing, why finding a cure for Alzheimer’s isn’t the same as finding a vaccine for COVID, the rise of AI and the power of youth, among other things.
Dr. Petsko runs a laboratory at Harvard Medical School to identify new potential targets for treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS and works with companies doing translational work to develop drug therapies for those neurodegenerative diseases, based on the research.
KY: Good morning Dr. Petsko, delighted to have this time with you, let’s get right to it….Could you share with our readers how your work been impacted by the pandemic?
GP: Well, first of all, the pandemic changed everything. The pandemic permeated every aspect of life and caused changes that we only now start to appreciate.
One of them is Zoom calls, which have almost gotten too easy. As a consequence, although we’re not missing human contact in one sense, we’re missing it in another. I think eventually that’s going to come back to bite us in some fashion, though I do not yet know how. I do know that in my academic lab, one of the things I missed the most, was sitting down right next to a student or post doc. with a piece of data in front of us, talking about what it means, going over to the board and writing stuff and then going back to the data. Because of the pandemic, it’s getting easy to slip away from that. We’re beginning to imagine that the kind of interaction over Zoom is a “real” interaction when in fact, there’s something artificial about it.
We also ended up losing more than a year’s worth of research time because of pandemic related illnesses.
On the translational side, for two years, you couldn’t schedule a clinical trial for anything other than COVID related vaccines or antibodies. All of the resources for clinical trials, all of the companies and consulting services were tied up with COVID. Thankfully, though, it looks like we will be back on track by the end of this year.
KY: Do you think the protocols that led to the acceleration of effective vaccine development for COVID can translate to a faster cure for Alzheimer’s?
GP: Most people think they will eventually, but not yet. So let’s talk about treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
Let’s say you want to put a gene into the human brain that can fix Alzheimer’s. What you have to do is package that gene in a virus. That virus has to enter the brain and then the brain cells. Once in the cells, it has to not replicate, but just produce the one protein you want it to produce. All of those things we know how to do, but getting the virus to do those things at the right dose with your gene is very non trivial. The way they did the COVID vaccines is, they didn’t bother with the virus. They just made the messenger RNA and codes for that protein and packaged that in a lipid droplet, like a fat droplet. And that’s what they injected you with. That lipid droplet delivers the RNA into the cell and in the cell the RNA makes the protein which is displayed so your immune system can help you develop antibodies against the virus. But that is short term because the RNA eventually gets degraded in the cell. The goal there is to get an immune response from a burst of the protein. Now if we could get a gene into cells this way that was permanent, that stayed in the cell and expressed all the time, then that would be amazing. But this wouldn’t work for chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or ALS. You want something to go in and stay in and produce the protein all the time, not just a burst, like is done in relation to COVID. We’re in a process and hopefully eventually we can figure this out.
Furthermore, the fundamental research for mRNA had already been done. Not true for Alzheimer’s where funding has only fairly recently been opened up. As a result, we still need to do the fundamental research, but funding is finally there.
KY: How did the social isolation impacted you daily life?
GP: Probably the worst thing that could have happened to someone like me. I have always found it easier to live in my work than to live in my life. My work is something I ostensibly have some control over. It’s also usually logical, understandable. Human beings are messy, complicated, confusing, difficult. I probably like my own company too much for my own good anyway. The pandemic just made all of that easier. Easier to isolate yourself. Not only physically, but emotionally and in some cases even intellectually. It made it easier to withdraw from things that you didn’t like or didn’t want to confront. And it made it harder when it was over, to get back to something more approximating a normal human existence. For someone like me, it played into a lot of things I’ve spent my life trying to escape from. I’ve tried to get away from this natural tendency of being a solitary human being and I was doing a reasonable job of that before the pandemic. It’s gotten tough getting back to doing it again.
KY: That’s fascinating and so self-aware. I think we all have some degree of introvert and extrovert. For me, having worked from home for many years, that aspect of the pandemic was quite easy, seamless. I also started practicing yoga from home for the first time and find it much more focused and satisfying than in a group setting. But I must say, I still value in person contact and I actually enjoy Zoom as an opportunity to connect with people who are geographically far away.
KY: As a collaborator, how have you been impacted by the pandemic?
GP: That’s a great question. In one way it makes it easier because if your collaborators live far away or in another country. This makes it easier to have more interactions. On the other hand, again, it depersonalizes everything.
KY: And it makes you wonder about AI and the next chapter.
GP: Well, there’s something else worth considering. I’m on record as saying and I believe this… that AI is going to be more disruptive than we can possibly imagine. We aren’t even close to preparing ourselves for what that’s going to do.
When the industrial revolution set in, it was exactly what you’ve heard about. Machines started to replace manual labor in a variety of jobs. That was in England and the US in the 19th century with the development of the steam engine and electricity and so forth. The jobs that were lost from this? Huge numbers of jobs. Unskilled jobs. Sometimes people got retrained, sometimes they lapsed into crime or despair. Other times they took to protesting. The rise of the anarchist movements. The same with the rise of the computer, which also took away jobs. They tended to be lower level jobs. Jobs that could be easily automated by computers. In some cases you could retain people or let them have early retirement. So disruptions, though considerable and for some people very serious, were not earth shaking. Artificial Intelligence is going to take away skilled jobs. The jobs that are going to be taken away are jobs that people have spent a lifetime training for. A social disruption will come about because so many people who have spent their lives thinking they are irreplaceable will suddenly be redundant.
KY: So back to social isolation, because the AI discussion demands a whole other interview….how, even as an introvert, did you cope? Any tips for our readers?
GP: I read more. I also came to appreciate more the time I did spend with people. We should recognize that something like this is so pervasive, so complicated and so deeply rooted in our society now, that each of us is going to find our own way of dealing with things and we shouldn’t worry about what other people are doing or what other people think is the best strategy, or the worst strategy. Just find what works for you.
KY: Listen to your own voice.
KY: You know Greg, you’re the reason we talk about the population shift in our trainings. Because you brought that up using building blocks when you were training the Sweet Readers. You also brought in a dump truck to explain how the brain clears out toxins. You used those tactile, fun tools to teach….could you share a bit more about that?
GP: It’s funny dealing with children. It varies depending on their age. I find when I’m dealing with children six years or younger, one of the things that I think works very well is to be silly. It seems to work well for me. Don’t worry too much about your dignity. You probably don’t have any anyway, with them. Don’t be afraid to be a bit of a child yourself.
When they get a little older, 10 or 11 years old. They’re at the stage where they are trying to figure out who they are and they can be more serious about the way they look at the world. You can still be playful with them, but I find that at those ages, best to treat them with respect. Treat them as though they are your peers. Not to talk down to them, but to engage them as real, functional human beings (even though they are probably not yet fully formed!).
When I spoke to the Sweet Readers, I didn’t dumb things down. I gave them pretty high level information. I avoided jargon because they wouldn’t have the vocabulary, but there was absolutely nothing low level about the concepts I presented and they handled them well.
KY: And what inspired you to bring in building blocks, soda cans and a kids dump truck to explain aging population demographic shifts and Alzheimer’s on the brain?
GP: I find the best way to think about a complex problem is to try to cast it in some kind of metaphor and then work through the metaphor and see what the implications of that are. Metaphors can be dangerous if pushed too far, but sometimes you can push them far and learn a lot from doing so. So basically, what I was doing was to give them some mental tools to think about some of these issues themselves. I was giving them the same mental tools I use every day.
KY: How have young people impacted your life?
GP: Well, I think that’s the best benefit I’ve had both from having acquired a family somewhat late in life and also having taught at the college and graduate levels for 40 plus years. The constant contact with younger people. I love that. First of all, young people ask both penetrating and extremely simple questions and both of those challenge your understanding of your own subject. And that constant challenge is terrific! That’s how you think deeply, that’s how you get new ideas, that’s how you distinguish between assumptions and facts.
Young people are great bullshit detectors and I value their presence enormously in my life and my work.
I would also say something else. It’s pretty easy to get cynical at my age and even if you don’t get cynical, it’s pretty easy to despair. But it’s hard to despair when you’re surrounded by young people. Bright, enthusiastic, curious, ambitious young people. They’re the future. And if you keep seeing that future reflected in them, it keeps you from sinking into a pit of despair. It raises your hopes for the future. They are the future. The young people I’ve been in contact with for the past 10-20 years are more diverse, more tolerant, more critical and a bit more anxious and less self-satisfied then the generations I remember before them including my own. I think those traits will serve them well.