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Our World Transcript — December 10, 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" ... Launching a new front in the war against cancer ... The danger of hospital infections ... and a 2,000 year old discovery in Central America...

SATURNO: "I was awestruck by its state of preservation. Its brilliant colors and fluid lines looked as though they could have been painted yesterday."

An archaeological find, urban legends on our Website of the Week, and more ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

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McALARY: Whole grains, cereals, vegetables, and fruits are good sources of dietary fiber. People like Jane Stevens depend on it for a healthy diet.

STEVENS: "Well, I think I should be eating a fair amount of fiber. From what I understand it is good for you. It is supposed to keep cancer at bay."

McALARY: Lots of people believe that eating fruits, vegetables, cereals and whole grains can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, or cancer of the colon, the major part of the large intestine. But the results of numerous studies have been inconsistent. Some have shown a protective effect, others have shown increased risk, and still others have shown no effect at all.

A new study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association takes the latter position.

SMITH-WARNER: "We found that eating a high-fiber diet was not associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer."

McALARY: Dr. Stephanie Smith-Warner and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston analyzed 13 studies that altogether tracked the health and fiber-eating habits of more than 725-thousand people in North America and Europe for up to 20 years. About eight-thousand of those people developed colorectal cancer.

SMITH-WARNER: "We found that people who ate higher amounts of fiber had the same risk of developing colorectal cancer as individuals who ate lower amounts of fiber."

McALARY: It did not matter what kind of fiber. In the European studies the Harvard team evaluated, it came mostly from cereals, while fruits and vegetables were the main sources in the North American studies.

SMITH-WARNER: "Specifically, we found that men and women who ate at least 30 grams of fiber a day had the same risk of colorectal cancer as men and women who ate 10 to 15 grams of fiber a day."

McALARY: But eating lots of fiber did slightly lower the risk of rectal cancer. Fiber has also been shown to help reduce heart disease and diabetes risk.

SMITH-WARNER: "So it is still important to eat a high-fiber diet."

McALARY: There are ways to reduce your risk of colon cancer. The U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control says avoid smoking, limit the amount of red meat and alcohol you consume, and exercise regularly.

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BERMAN: Using carbon dating, archaeologists have put the age of the mural at 100 BC.

It was discovered in an ancient Mayan pyramid at San Bartolo in Guatemala by scientists who found another mural at the site four-years ago.

While that finding was spectacular, team leader William Saturno of Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology says it did not prepare archaeologists for their most recent discovery.

SATURNO: "I was awestruck by its state of preservation. Its brilliant colors and fluid lines looked as though they could have been painted yesterday. More important than its preservation, however, was its content. As the wall was uncovered, so too was the Maya story of creation."

BERMAN: Mr. Saturno says the nine-meter by one-meter mural shows the establishment of the Mayan's belief in world order. Four deities, which are variations of the same figure and apparently sons of the maize god, offer up blood sacrifice as they set up the physical world.

SATURNO: "We then witness the maize god's birth, his death and his resurrection, before the wall ends with the coronation of a named and titled Maya king, newly crowned in the company of the Gods."

BERMAN: As for what the room was used for, Mr. Saturno says archaeologists are still trying to figure that out.

SATURNO: "Our best guess is that this was sort of a preparation room. That this is where the king performed ceremony, and sort of rehearsed the mythology that he would perform on the front side of the pyramid."

BERMAN: Two kilometers from the mural room, archaeologists discovered a tomb containing the remains of what they believe to be one of the early Mayan kings. Outside the pyramid, archeologists found nine-thousand mural chips, which they intend to piece together in the hope of gaining a fuller picture of the ancient civilization.

Before the discoveries, scientists say they had very little information on the lives of the earliest Mayans.

Scientists say they have no plans to move the murals or put them on display, although that is something the Guatemalan government may do in time.

The latest findings from San Bartolo will be published in the January 2006 issue of National Geographic Magazine. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.


SKIRBLE: Two years ago, Maureen Daly's 63-year old mother was admitted to a New York City hospital with a fractured shoulder. Ms. Daly recalls this disturbing scene at her mother's bedside following surgery.

DALY: "Two doctors came in and checked on her incision, and they removed her [surgical] dressing. Neither one of the doctors washed their hands or put on gloves. And, later on in the day when mom was getting out of the bed to dress to go home, we found the disgusting dirty dressing in her bed."

SKIRBLE: Five months later, her mother was dead. The tragedy opened Ms. Daly's eyes to a major problem: Hospitals breed infections.

One in 20 patients contracts an infection during a hospital stay. And rates are soaring for the drug-resistant staph infection that killed Ms. Daly's mother.

But these infections are preventable, according to Betsy McCaughey, who chairs the Committee to Reduce Infection Death, an advocacy group for patient health. Its latest report documents the human and financial burdens of hospital infections.

The report mandates rigorous hand washing and meticulous cleaning of equipment and rooms between patients. And it says patients must be tested for drug resistant bacteria as soon as they're admitted, so that the hospital can take additional measures to prevent its spread.

McCAUGHEY: "If a doctor or nurse leans over a bedside of a patient carrying this bacteria on their skin, 65 percent of the time when they stand up again they have bacteria on their lab coats and on their nurses uniforms and then they go to the next person's bedside and deposit that. Twenty-four percent of the time it is deposited to the next patient's bedside or it contaminates the hands of the doctors or nurse when they touch their own body."

SKIRBLE: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA — the bacterium that killed Maureen Daly's mother — accounted for just 2 percent of in-hospital staph infections in 1974. By 2003, that percent had risen to 57 percent, and it continues to climb.

Betsy McCaughey says institutional precautions save lives and money.

MCCAUGHEY: "The nation is spending $30 billion a year in treating infections that are primarily preventable."

SKIRBLE: The Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths is calling for state laws that require hospitals to report their infection rates. Six states have such a law in place. Thirty others are considering the legislation.

The hospital industry has lobbied against the idea, saying that it would be unfair to hospitals that treat AIDS, cancer and organ transplant patients who are especially vulnerable to infection. But Betsy McCaughey says the report cards take these health risks into account.

McCAUGHEY: "Everybody knows it is the right thing [to do]. If you have to go into a hospital you should be able to find out which hospital is safest. After all, most state health departments already tell you if a deli or a restaurant has been cited for health violations. So they make it easy for you to buy a safe sandwich; it should be just as easy to find a safe hospital."

SKIRBLE: Betsy McCaughey with the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths says the report cards will motivate hospitals to improve. As a result, she says, fewer patients will carry life-threatening infections with them when they return home. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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SANER: There are a lot of bad things associated with tobacco use: lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease. But at the University of Maryland in College Park, a team of researchers is focusing on the plant's good side -- its nutritional benefits.

KRATOCHVIL: "Yes, believe it or not, tobacco does have a lot of very good properties."

SANER: Agronomist Bob Kratochvil runs the University's research farm, where they're growing tobacco, a plant Professor Kratochvil says has enormous potential for medicine, cosmetics, and energy. And scientists hope they can even tease food out of the inedible plant.

KRATOCHVIL: "It's got excellent quality proteins - human food proteins. They're tasteless, odorless, the same quality as you have in soybeans or with milk. One of the potential benefits is that, supposedly, it will not cause allergies, as some folks have allergies to milk, [they're] lactose intolerant. Wheat is another crop; there is some protein allergy problem that some folks have. It's thought the tobacco protein [could] be something in special diets."

SANER: While tobacco leaves contain many proteins, finding the ones of value is the challenge for researchers like Martin Lo. He processes the research farm's harvest, extracting protein from the plants and analyzing it.

LO: "The small chopped-up tobacco leaves will be sent through this particular equipment called a screw press, and then we press the juice out of it, leaving the residual as the sludge."

SANER: From that juice, Professor Lo extracts protein crystals. He has identified two proteins so far. Both contain all 21 amino acids essential for human health. Because our bodies can't synthesize these amino acids, we have to get them from our food. Tobacco proteins could be an inexpensive, easy nutritional additive.

Professor Lo also sees the possibility of one day using tobacco proteins in medicines.

LO: "I'm studying the peptide segment of the protein, several amino acids from the peptide. To see if any of the protein segments actually match the therapeutic protein that might be of value to the pharmaceutical industry, to replace those proteins from animal origin. Those are considered more risky because there might be some disease that can be transmitted through animal protein. Plant is much safer."

SANER: Another goal of the tobacco researchers is to eventually replace some petroleum-based products with plant-based ones. Remember the sludge left in the screw press? Bio-tech entrepreneur Neil Belson, another member of the University of Maryland tobacco team, says that sludge could play a role in this transition.

BELSON: "In addition to the proteins, tobacco produces an enormous amount of leaf matter that's left over after you get the proteins out, and it's from this material left over that we envision looking for petroleum substitutes."

SANER: But first, the University team must generate more tobacco protein. Since the project began three years ago, Martin Lo has produced only a small amount of his two proteins. He says he hopes that by the end of next year, the researchers will have perfected the process of tobacco protein extraction. Then, they will seek investors to help build facilities where the proteins can be produced in large amounts. The ultimate goal, according to project advisor Gary Hodge, is to help tobacco farmers in the state of Maryland.

HODGE: "If we can [identify] a way for them to continue growing tobacco for beneficial purposes, then we can begin in Maryland to see the transition of a smoking tobacco-based ag[ricultural] economy to one that produces benefits for society, and maybe that will be picked up in the other tobacco growing states, and we can begin to see something very positive come out of this 400 year legacy of smoking tobacco production."

SANER: Since 2000, when the state began paying farmers to stop growing tobacco, many have turned to other agricultural commodities. Some have planted vineyards, others are growing corn or soybeans, but no single crop has proven as lucrative as tobacco. The work being done at the University of Maryland could make tobacco farming a profitable, and respectable, business again. For Our World, I'm Mary Saner in College Park, Maryland.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. If you want to get in touch, Email us at Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our show was edited by _____. Eva Nenicka is our technical director. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.