Married couple Dean Felsher, M.D., and Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, Ph.D., are both researching Covid-19 at Stanford University. (Photo/Scott Lasky Photography)
Married couple Dean Felsher, M.D., and Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, Ph.D., are both researching Covid-19 at Stanford University. (Photo/Scott Lasky Photography)

Married Stanford scientists fight Covid on two fronts: cancer and smoking

This is the third part of our four-part Battling Covid series, in which we speak with local Jewish researchers battling the pandemic.

Conversation at the dinner table between Dean Felsher, M.D., and his wife, Bonnie Halpern-Felsher, Ph.D., is in many ways typical of Bay Area Jewish couples. The two might discuss how their daughters are doing at college, or whether the Warriors look like playoff contenders heading into next season.

In other ways, their chats are not at all typical.

She might ask him how he’s doing with his research exploring similarities between Covid-19 and certain cancers. Or he might ask about her study showing higher rates of Covid-19 symptoms among teens who smoke.

They are a rare breed of married couple: a two-scientist household, each independently studying Covid-19 at Stanford University. Both hope their work leads to better understanding of the disease and helps eradicate the pandemic, which as of last week had claimed more than 235,000 American lives.

That day can’t come soon enough for them.

“We’re very scared,” said Felsher, a physician, molecular biologist and professor of medicine at Stanford. “The epidemic is out of control. It closed down my lab for three months. We were worried many of our experiments were permanently lost. It’s had a big impact on medical research.”

The 57-year-old for years has conducted world-renowned research of the MYC oncogene, which has been shown to cause many common cancers. As the pandemic spread last spring, Felsher and his colleagues observed that Covid-19 ravaged the human body in ways not unlike cancers they study.

“One reason Covid-19 is so bad is that it figured out how to really screw up your immune system,” Felsher said. “One of our biggest findings is this MYC oncogene works by screwing up the immune system. We wondered, would cancer patients [with Covid-19] be more sick in their immune systems?”

He said the people on his 15-member laboratory team have found evidence that Covid-19 indeed takes a toll on the immune system in a manner similar to that of cancers caused by the MYC oncogene.

“The reason people die from Covid is they get this overwhelming immune inflammatory reaction,” he said. “It blocks part of your immune system, and at some point you get bad inflammation in the lungs and other problems. If it was true that Covid and cancer were using similar mechanisms to disrupt the immune system, it might be that we could tell who would get really sick, [and] there may be some [existing] cancer therapies we can use.”

Meanwhile, Halpern-Felsher, 54, began wondering in the spring whether teens who smoke or use e-cigarettes (vaping) were more likely to be diagnosed with the coronavirus and show symptoms. In May, she and colleagues from Stanford and UCSF surveyed more than 4,300 teens and young adults, half of them e-cigarette users and half not.

It’s absolutely a problem that the scientists are not being listened to. It comes back to science getting undermined by politics.

Among their findings: A Covid-19 diagnosis was five times more likely among e-cigarette users and seven times more likely among subjects who both vaped and smoked cigarettes in the previous 30 days. Possible explanations include the adverse impact on the lungs smoking and vaping can have, as well as the frequent touching of the face observed in smokers and vapers. The study also found that Hispanic and Black smokers were at even higher risk of Covid, as were overweight and underweight youth.

“We’re not saying vaping causes Covid,” stressed Halpern-Felsher, a longtime researcher of teens’ use of tobacco and other harmful substances (and how to reduce it). “We say, if you vape, you are more likely to get Covid. Youth share their vaping products, so they increase the possibility of being diagnosed. You’re taking your mask down, more likely to be exposed.”

Halpern-Felsher is a developmental psychologist by training, and a professor of pediatrics at Stanford, specializing in the study of adolescents and young adults. Her joint paper, published in July in the Journal of Adolescent Health, garnered attention from media heavyweights such as CNN, ABC, NBC and NPR — but it also triggered some pushback.

“There was some concern from people who think e-cigarettes are a way to help adults quit smoking,” she said, “or think they are less harmful than cigarettes. They were concerned policy would be made based on one study.”

She said she hopes her work will inspire educators, as well as government and public health officials, to improve screening, testing and Covid-19 education directed at young people, especially those who indulge in smoking and vaping.

“I’m very proud of the paper,” she said. “It did what I wanted it to do, which is get people to talk. And if we get five kids to stop vaping, I’m thrilled.”

Covid research is only the latest thing the South Bay couple have in common. Both are natives of the Los Angeles area, and both came from families that celebrated Jewish holidays. The two met as college students, when he was a medical student at UCLA and she was an undergraduate at Cal State Northridge.

In addition to her Stanford research, Halpern-Felsher founded the Tobacco Prevention Toolkit, an online service aimed at reducing and preventing youth tobacco use. Her research has impacted teen tobacco prevention policy at the local, state and national levels.

Her husband, meanwhile, has taught, conducted research, run clinical trials and published extensively. He also is a recent recipient of a National Cancer Institute award (the 2020 outstanding investigator award).

Despite all of the above, it’s not all shop talk at home.

Both say Passover is a major event (in normal times), with Felsher boasting he makes a “very good matzah ball soup.” He said friends at the seder routinely bring to-go containers to take some home with them.

Halpern-Felsher enjoys the way their family “extend[s] our Jewish holiday traditions to others” by inviting their friends to celebrations. “We have even had non-Jewish friends making gefilte fish and knishes for various holidays,” she said.

Alas, there was no such seder in 2020, due to the coronavirus.

As painful as it was to forgo that beloved family tradition, it’s been equally if not more painful for them to see the efforts to discredit science and to disparage scientists working to fight the pandemic.

“We talk about it 24/7,” Halpern-Felsher said of the Trump-fueled war on public health science. “It’s ridiculous that scientists are not being heeded for their thoughts, whether on infectious disease or epidemiology. It’s absolutely a problem that the scientists are not being listened to. It comes back to science getting undermined by politics.”

Once science defeats the virus, and the world finds a new normal, the couple hope to get back to their old haunts on the Stanford campus. Though both work there, they inhabit different spheres, so colleagues of one or the other sometimes are surprised to learn the two are married.

“Not everybody realized we are husband and wife,” Felsher said. “We’d hold hands on campus and we’d get funny looks. I get amused by it. It’s like we’re having an affair with our spouses.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.