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Our World Transcript — June 11-12, 2005


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The global warming controversy heats up ... health experts sound an alarm on drug-resistant tuberculosis ... and we cast a light on the genetic treasures of the deep, dark ocean floor...

SALVATORE: "There are micro fauna species that can be found there. They look pretty much like other species like shrimp but they function in a totally different way."

Bio-prospecting for extremophiles, medical records online, and more. ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Eleven of the world's national science academies issued an unusual joint statement this week urging prompt global action to address the causes of climate change.

The declaration blames human activities for most of the earth's warming in recent decades. It urges leaders at next month's G-8 summit to acknowledge that the threat of climate change is "clear and increasing," and to take the lead in science, technology and politics to address the consequences of warmer temperatures on Earth.

The statement was endorsed by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Russian and Chinese Academies of Sciences, and similar bodies in Brazil, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, Italy, and Japan.

Two of the G-8 leaders met in Washington this week -- U.S. President George Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two men have very different views on the issue. President Bush withdrew the United States from the United Nation's Kyoto treaty on industrial "greenhouse gas" emissions, saying it would hurt the U.S. economy, and that the connection between industrial emissions and climate change has yet to be proved. Still, at a news conference with Mr. Blair, President Bush stressed the U.S. commitment to continue studying the issue.

BUSH: "I don't know if you're aware of this, but we lead the world when it comes to dollars spent, millions of dollars spent on research about climate change."

The United States, he went on, is "spending a lot of money on developing ways to diversify away from a hydrocarbon society."

For his part, Tony Blair acknowledged their differences on the issue --

BLAIR: "But I also think that it's increasingly obvious, whatever perspective people have and whatever -- from whatever angle they come at this issue, there is a common commitment and desire to tackle the challenges of climate change, of energy security and energy supply. And we need to make sure that we do that."

The British leader was more forthright after returning to London, telling the House of Commons that, long term, climate change is "the single biggest issue that we face." Mr. Blair hosts the G-8 summit in Scotland next month. He has been working to get the G-8 leaders to adopt an aggressive plan of action on global warming.

One of the world's leading medical journals has devoted its latest issue to one of the world's biggest health threats.

The journal of the American Medical Association, JAMA, focuses this week on tuberculosis. Editor Catherine DeAngelis notes that TB kills two million people every year, and infects an astonishing one-third of the world's population.

Health officials say intensive efforts are needed to reach an international goal of cutting in half the number of TB infections and deaths by 2015. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: Ninety seven percent of the TB cases are in the developing world. Half of the afflicted live in Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia and Nigeria.

The lung disease is curable if caught and treated in time. Treatment usually consists of faithfully taking one or two inexpensive antibiotic drugs for a period of six-to-nine months.

But officials are alarmed by the growing threat of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis, or MDR TB, when the disease does not respond to antibiotics. Officials say MDR TB occurs when people with tuberculosis do not take their medications long enough, or they spread MDR TB to those who are not infected.

Reuben Granich is the author of an article in the June 8 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) devoted to tuberculosis.

Dr. Granich of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says MDR TB can be lethal, especially to AIDS patients with compromised immune systems, and it's harder to treat. He says MDR TB also threatens conventional tuberculosis control efforts.

GRANICH: "It has a more prolonged infectious period. It is harder to kill the bacterium, and people spread it for longer. It's very, very expensive. Most cases [of MDR TB] can be treated for $200,000, but some individual cases can cost over one-million dollars to treat and control."

Surveys published in JAMA show that multi-drug-resistance has increased significantly in 10 regions, including Kazakhstan, Israel, Uzbekistan, Estonia, China and Ecuador.

The TB epidemic is being fueled by its spread among people infected with HIV. Also in JAMA, Alison Grant of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, reports on using the standard TB drug, isoniazid, to prevent infection in South African gold miners who were at risk for TB because they were HIV positive.

The study, which took place between 1999 and 2001, involved just over 1,000 men. Overall, the drug kept 38 percent of them from developing tuberculosis.

Dr. Grant says isoniazid may be used along with more conventional strategies to combat tuberculosis in a community setting.

GRANT: "That's basically taking everyone in a community and screening them for TB, obviously treating anybody who has active TB, but offering preventative therapy to everybody to see whether you can really cut transmission to try to bring down TB rates rapidly."

But Dr. Grant called unacceptably high a tuberculosis infection rate of nine-percent in the South African community where she conducted her study.

The World Health Organization adopted a plan, as part of its so-called Millennium Development Goals to improve health and eliminate poverty, to slash the number of new cases of tuberculosis each year from eight million to four million by 2015. The plan also calls for cutting the number of TB deaths to under one million. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

This past week was Ocean Week, a time set aside by private and government conservation groups to focus on the scientific and natural wonders of the seven seas. Of special interest this year has been the surge in bio-prospecting -- exploring and exploiting unusual life forms many kilometers below the ocean surface -- on the seabed floor, and even below.

VOA's Adam Phillips spoke with the co-author of a United Nations report about the scientific and commercial benefits that could be derived from organisms found at those nearly unimaginable depths.

PHILLIPS: The deepest ocean floors may be only several kilometers down, but in terms of their biological diversity, its utter strangeness and its potential usefulness they are a world away.

SALVATORE: “And I’ll tell you why. Those organisms are extreme organisms. We call them ‘extremeophiles’ because they are able to resist extreme pressure, extreme temperatures, and extreme toxicity.”

PHILLIPS: Arico Salvatore, a visiting researcher at the Institute of Advanced Studies at United Nations University in Yokohama Japan, says that bio-prospecting is in its early stages, but seabed organisms with those unusual qualities have already proved of great practical benefit in the biotechnology field, which uses living things to develop and make products.

SAVATORE: “For example, it’s possible to derive enzymes to treat DNA which would resist very high temperatures. When you deal with DNA, you need to use enzymes to replicate DNA because you need really big quantities. And one way of reproducing DNA in a really quick way is by increasing the temperature. But if you increase the temperature beyond a certain degree, then the enzyme you are working with wouldn’t work anymore. But in the case of enzymes derived from deep-sea bed organisms, they would.”

PHILLIPS: Mr. Salvatore says that other substances that have been derived already from the ocean depths include chemical products for industry and consumer items.

SAVATORE: "For example, skin protection products -- which have been developed by a company based in France that provide higher resistance to ultraviolet and heat exposure. Other types of products is [are] an enzyme that is used in industry to reduce viscosity. For example, [in] pulp production and wood production."

PHILLIPS: In addition to its commercial and industrial potential, the organisms of the ocean floor are also of enormous scientific interest. Because deep-sea environmental conditions are so extreme, what is found there can offer important clues about the development of early life. Indeed, some of the discoveries made at depths of eleven thousand meters or more are tantalizingly weird.

SAVATORE: “There are macrofauna species that can be found there. The look pretty much like other species like shrimp but they function in a totally different way. Because those environments are not powered by sunlight.”

PHILLIPS: They are powered by chemical energy. Traditionally, scientists thought that this chemical energy was always derived from the sun. But that turned out not to be the case.

SAVATORE: In 1977, there was an exploration of the islands of Galapagos and they found a new type of ecosystem which is called a hydrothermal vent, where the volcanic activity is such that the mineral substances that come out are used by some microbes which are able to grow at very extreme temperatures and also toxicity and pressure. And those microbes are at the very basis of a whole chain of energy that goes from those microbes all the way to mollusks, marine worms all the way up to fish species.

PHILLIPS: So there is a whole different energetic engine driving life that has nothing to do with the sun but comes from below!

SAVATORE: Definitely! Exactly. And in fact, when you conduct deep sea research you realize when you start drilling the ocean form you will be able to find living organisms in the subsoil of the ocean down to thousands of meters below the bottom of the ocean.

PHILLIPS: In the report he has co-authored, Arico Salvatore offers a note of caution along with his optimism. He urges the establishment of ethical guidelines where the benefits of the deep are shared, and stresses that the health of wonderful yet delicate ecosystems must be preserved as research continues to intensify. Mr. Salvatore is a visiting researcher at United Nations University’s Institute of Advanced Studies in Yokohama, Japan. For Our World, this is Adam Phillips reporting.

MUSIC: Paul Adkins: "What Does the Deep Sea Say"

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

The United Nations cultural arm UNESCO estimates that some 6,000 languages are currently spoken on Earth. But only about 600 languages are predicted to survive to the end of this century.

Endangered languages are the subject of Our World's Website of the Week, the Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing, online at unesco.org/webworld/babel/atlas.

There have been two editions of a printed book on endangered languages, but UNESCO's Sabine Kuba says the web version has some specific advantages.

KUBE: "The problem you have with the printed book is that it's difficult to update the information, so it appeared to us that to have an online version, where you can actually regularly update the data, would be the best way to present the language endangerment.

The Interactive Atlas just went online a month ago, and it's still very much a work in progress. So far, editors at UNESCO have just posted information on some 100 endangered languages in Africa. You can access information by clicking on the name of the language, or though an interactive map that shows where it's spoken.

KUBE: "Then a file opens, with much more information on the language -- information on the number of speakers, on the geographic distribution, on the sociolinguistic situation, on books or articles available on the language on websites, so much more detailed information.

Anthropologists see language as more than just a way to have a conversation, which is why Ms. Kube says UNESCO puts a high value on preserving even languages spoken by tiny, indigenous communities.

KUBE: "Actually, every language is a vehicle of a whole culture, and a very large body of knowledges, and if a language dies out, then this body of knowledge, this culture also dies out. Safeguarding endangered languages is very important."

To learn more about threats to linguistic diversity, and about the struggling languages that may not survive, surf on over to our Website of the Week, Interactive Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing, at unesco.org/webworld/babel/atlas, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.

The U.S. space agency NASA says its Deep Impact spacecraft is on target for a rendezvous with a comet just over three weeks from now.

Scientist Don Yeomans explained to reporters why comets are so fascinating.

YEOMANS: "Not only are comets thought to be the leftover bits and pieces from outer solar system formation process, but they are thought to have brought to the early Earth much of the water and carbon-based molecules that allowed life to form. So they hold the keys to the birth of solar system, and they hold the keys, perhaps, to the birth of life itself."

One part of the spacecraft is supposed to actually hit the Tempel-One comet, while the other section takes pictures of the collision. We'll have more on Deep Impact in a future "Our World" show.


U.S. officials this week took the first bureaucratic step toward issuing government contracts to create a national, Internet-based system to allow doctors and hospitals to share patient medical records.

The vast majority of medical records in the United States are still on paper, often written by hand. When records are shared, they're often mailed or faxed. Experts say it's an old-fashioned, inefficient system that can sometimes have deadly consequences.

Washington may ultimately have the say on what an electronic medical records exchange system looks like. But in the meantime, some 100 hospitals, foundations and other organizations are launching a prototype system that will operate in three locations to test out the idea.

Those involved in this project stress that the patient will retain control of how his or her medical records would be shared. John Halamka, chief information officer at Harvard Medical School, says, for example, that he might consent to have records of his physical illnesses available.

HALAMKA: "But then again, I may seek counseling or mental health or substance abuse hospitalization and I, as the patient, may say, y'know, I really would prefer that that record not be shared. It is therefore only with patient consent that even a lookup can be done of what the patient has previously consented to be there."

Making all of this very sensitive information available online requires a lot of protection to safeguard patient privacy. At a briefing in Washington, David Lansky of the Markle Foundation, which is helping to pay for this pilot project, stressed the need for a standard set of rules for storing and exchanging the data.

LANSKY: "We're trying to avoid the picture of having 50 or 100 communities around the country, each individually trying to solve the same set of problems. So they've really come to us and said, let's work together with you, and they will in effect be the early adaptors because they're fully engaged in the process we're undertaking right now."

In a project designed to sort out some of the issues involved in sharing medical data, health care providers in three very different settings will be able to access patient information via the Internet. Two are in cities, and one is in rural California.

Transmission of all this medical information could require a lot of bandwidth, but in a teleconference, Marc Overhage, a spokesman for one of the participating groups, the Indiana Health Information Exchange, said the existing Internet has ample capacity to transmit all these medical records.

OVERHAGE: "When you really look at the amount of information exchanged, it's not very scary. You look at the amount of dark fiber [unused fiberoptic capacity] and existing capacity that exists for the exchange of information, it is more than adequate for the coming years' needs."

I spoke with Zoe Baird, head of the Markle Foundation. The problem, she said, is that doctors could make wrong decisions without detailed knowledge of the patient's history.

BAIRD: "If you go into the Emergency Room in Mendicino County, you want them to know that you're allergic to aspirin before they give you an aspirin and kill you. So what we're doing here is trying to develop the base level of standards and common values or principles that are needed to allow information to be exchanged over the Internet between communities. And that, of course, needs to be done with privacy protections and security protection."

CHIMES: "It sounds like a bit challenge. It also sounds expensive."

BAIRD: "The initial work is not terribly expensive. To develop the common framework for how this should be done and for this experimentation , the total cost that we [Markle Foundation] and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have put into this is $5.3 million."

CHIMES: "There's perhaps a bit of an irony in that medicine, which we think of as a very high-tech field is, in terms of recordkeeping, often very far behind a lot of other fields."

BAIRD: "That is true. Unfortunately, health care is very far behind. But that's why it's one of the most important opportunities for us to improve both the quality and the cost efficiency of the delivery of care through the use of information technology.

CHIMES: "How soon can this sort of information sharing be online that will actually be benefiting patients?"

BAIRD: "We'll (finish) our particular experiment showing the exchange of data by the Fall. There are other ways that people now, of course, can get very good information over the Internet, but that's different than exchanging medical data between different community doctors and hospitals and doctors and people's medical records.

CHIMES: "Can you quantify what the investment will bring us in terms of improved medical care?"

BAIRD: "It's very difficult to quantify the cost savings. But clearly we know we can reduce medical error and the cost of duplicative medical services. And this is something that the government and Rand [Corporation] and other research entities will undoubtedly follow very closely as well as attempt to project."


Zoe Baird of the Markle Foundation. She and others stress that the public Internet would be used to transmit medical information, but it would be encrypted to ensure that only authorized users have access to private health records. She says widespread access to medical records on the Internet could come within the next 10 years.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. Got a science question? If we answer it on the show we'll send you a special VOA gift as our way of saying thanks. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -
Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at voanews.com/ourworld or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and technology...in Our World.

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