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Our World — 14 April 2007


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," another step forward in genetic research as the genome of the macaque monkey is decoded ... the growing threat of drug-resistant bacteria ... and a promising new way to make influenza vaccine.

TREANOR: The vaccine reduced the rate of flu by 85 percent. That compares favorably to what you might see with the regular flu shot."

Those stories, threats to deep sea ecosystems, our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Scientists have deciphered the genetic code of the rhesus macaque — the third primate, after humans and chimpanzees, to have its genome sequenced.

Humans and chimpanzees took different evolutionary paths about six million years ago, making us quite close cousins. Macaques are not as closely related; they branched off from the family tree about 25 million years ago. But researcher Richard Gibbs at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, says this greater evolutionary distance actually helps shed more light on the human genomic map.

GIBBS: "It is close enough to the human to be extremely like us and yet distant enough away to be a great mirror of what our genome contains. So it is at the perfect evolutionary distance from the human to be magnificently informative."

The macaque genome should help researchers identify what genetic material has survived — or been conserved, as scientists like to say — over millions of years of evolution. Ironically, Gibbs says, the chimpanzee genome is not all that useful for this purpose, as it is genetically too close to humans, with an overlap of up to 99 percent.

GIBBS: "The macaque in contrast is a little more divergent, about 93 percent across its whole genome with either human or the chimp, and that's just enough difference for the truly important conservation to be seen quite a bit more readily. So that's one reason. Another reason is that even when you compare a perfect chimp sequence to a perfect human sequence and you see differences, you can't know which side of the family the differences are on. What you need is a third member in a triangle who is a little further away who can tell you what the ancestral state of the change is."

Understanding macaques on a genetic level could help researchers more efficiently use laboratory animals in experiments that are aimed at improving human health and fighting disease.

GIBBS: "It makes the possibility of the experiments that are currently done on macaques being done in an even more rational manner, because we can know more about the individual macaques. So one of the things we did in the study is compare a number of macaque individuals, as well as our deep sequencing of the single macaque individual. So this gives us knowledge of the underlying genetic variation across the macaques."

Gibbs says researchers should actually be able to reduce their use of the animals, which will save money and reduce ethical concerns about the use of primates in the laboratory.

The macaque and chimpanzee are only the first of several primates whose genome is being sequenced. Projects already underway or scheduled include the orangutan, marmoset, gibbon, gorilla and others.

With multiple genomes from related species available to study, scientists might find it easier to identify genes that cause disease. That could lead to tests that could spot people at risk of, say, high blood pressure. And ultimately, genetic therapy may one day even provide cures for hereditary disease.

The U.S. Senate this week passed a bill that would overturn a ban on government funding of embryonic stem cells research.

The ban was imposed by President Bush in 2001. He cited ethical concerns in taking cells from human embryos, which otherwise might develop into babies.

But critics say the embryos used are discarded byproducts of in vitro fertilization and would otherwise be thrown away. And they cite the tremendous potential of stem cells, which can in theory be coaxed into becoming any kind of human cell. Researchers believe embryonic stem cells could be a novel way to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's or diabetes.

In Senate debate this week, that argument didn't persuade the opponents of stem cell research, such as Kansas Republican Sam Brownback.

BROWNBACK: "We know that the human embryo is a human life, so how should we treat it? Human life has an immeasurable value; we all agree upon that, from the youngest to the oldest. Human beings are ends in themselves. It is wrong to use any human as a means to an end. Period."

But Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin focused on the potential benefits of embryonic stem cell research.

HARKIN: "It's about giving hope to people. It's about health. It's about helping people who have devastating, devastating illnesses."

The House of Representatives earlier passed a stem cell research bill, but President Bush has said he will veto the measure.

Despite obstacles placed on federally funded American researchers, scientists continue to investigate the potential of stem cell treatments. In some of the latest work, an international team this week announced they had used stem cells taken from the blood of diabetic patients to enable those patients to live without insulin medication. As we hear from VOA's Jessica Berman, the scientists say the research has the potential to cure Type 1, or juvenile diabetes, which afflicts millions of people who must have daily shots of insulin to survive.

BERMAN: So-called juvenile diabetes makes up 5-10 percent of all cases of diabetes. It is an autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the pancreas, the organ that makes insulin-producing cells that regulate the amount of sugar in the blood.

When the pancreas is not working properly and it fails to control blood sugar levels, there can be serious complications later in life, such as blindness and kidney failure.

By the time most Type 1 diabetics are diagnosed, experts say half or more of their insulin-producing cells have been destroyed.

U.S. and Brazilian researchers hoping to salvage the surviving cell mass conducted a study in which they used high doses of drugs to suppress the immune system of 15 patients and then infused them with the stem cells taken from their blood.

The goal was to reprogram the faulty immune system to halt its attack.

Study co-author Richard Burt of Northwestern University in Chicago says, as of February, one patient has been completely insulin free for 35 months, four for at least 21 months and seven for at least six months. Two patients responded late and were insulin-free for one and five months.

Burt says the results are remarkable.

BURT: "This is the first time in the history of diabetes that patients have gone an interval, an interval now up to three years, and perhaps longer — only time will tell — requiring no treatment, no insulin, no immune suppression, no medications at all."

BERMAN: The study was conducted in Brazil and the results are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Kim is a teenager who has juvenile diabetes.

KIM: "I have to think about it like 24/7, all the time, like when I'm going to eat next, where I'm going, and if I have to bring a test kit, and how much insulin I have to give myself and everything."

Kim says she wishes she could find out what it is like not to have diabetes.

Even though it was a small study, observers say the research is likely to be the first of many efforts now to develop a therapy to free diabetics from the need for insulin shots. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Sixty-three thousand Americans die each year from drug-resistant infections they get in hospitals. Antibiotic resistance is not a new problem, but what is troubling is that the number of drug-resistant bacteria is growing at the same time that the drugs used to combat them are decreasing in number and potency. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study assesses the growing public health crisis and what to do about it.

SKIRBLE: Before the discovery of antibiotics in the 1940s, millions of people died from routine staph infections and more serious bacterial infections like meningitis, pneumonia and tuberculosis.

The study published by the research think tank Resources for the Future explores the policy options that will help preserve these life-saving drugs. Co-author Ramanan Laxminarayan says antibiotics must be valued as societal resources, much like clean air or safe drinking water.

LAXMINARAYAN: "Newer antibiotics cost literally orders of magnitude more than older drugs. So even if we are able to keep up or to pick up the pace of new innovation in antibiotics, that is not a solution to the problem. So, we have to find a way to manage antibiotics sustainably both on the demand and supply sides, and we have to figure out a way of doing it for the next 50 years because everything in modern medicine depends fundamentally on the availability of antibiotics."

SKIRBLE: The report calls for new strategies to reduce demand for the drugs and to buildup new supplies.

On the demand side, this means encouraging doctors to prescribe antibiotics only when absolutely necessary and for patients to use the drugs appropriately. Taking too small a dose of an antibiotic or using it for too short a time allows the targeted bacteria to develop mutations or to acquire drug resistance from other bacteria.

The report also calls for strict controls to reduce the most common hospital-acquired antibiotic-resistant infection: Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus or MRSA. Laxminarayan says so-called 'search and destroy' measures adopted by Dutch hospitals have greatly reduced MRSA infections in the Netherlands.

LAXMINARAYAN: "And an important reason for that is about 10 years ago they decided that they wanted to have their levels of MRSA to be very low or non-existent if they could. And what they did was, they came up with a plan for all Dutch hospitals, as soon as they got an incoming patient, they would make sure that that person was not colonized with MRSA and if they were, they would keep them in isolation and treat them until they were cured, and that is what they would do."

SKIRBLE: And it worked.

On the supply side of the antibiotics problem, the report recommends tax incentives to support development of truly novel antibiotics and a vaccine against MRSA. It also calls for expanding vaccination against pneumococcal bacteria. The report says these measures would help delay the emergence and spread of infections.

The report also recommends coordinated government action that would go beyond the interagency task force currently charged with addressing the problem.

Laxminarayan hopes the study will raise awareness among consumers and public officials about the need to preserve the effectiveness of modern antibiotics, and how to go about doing that before the health crisis gets any worse. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, it's a source of entertainment, culture and education that blends a centuries-old system of information storage and retrieval with the latest online technology.

HART: "Project Gutenberg is the oldest site on the Internet whose goal is to encourage the creation and distribution of electronic books."

Michael Hart is founder of Project Gutenberg, an online library of electronic books you can download for free.

Books downloaded from gutenberg.org are "free," for the most part, in more ways than one. They are free in the sense that there is no charge. But also, for the 98 percent that are in the public domain — not protected by copyright — you are free to use them however you like.

HART: "You are absolutely free to make your own edition of Shakespeare or Milton or Sherlock Holmes or H.G. Wells or Edgar Allen Poe, or whatever you like. They're yours. You own them. So when you download one of our books, unless it says at the top that it's copyrighted, it's your book. And if you want to create a new edition of Alice in Wonderland, you're more than welcome to start with ours."

English is by far the most common language, but there are some 50 other languages represented on Project Gutenberg. There are tens of thousands of different titles available in various formats: one for your web browser, another for your Palm PDA. There are even audio books, read by both humans and computer. And, when all else fails, plain, unformatted text.

HART: "We just want to make sure that whatever device you have, no matter what software you like, no matter what hardware you like, the odds are that you can read our books."

In fact, Michael Hart said that he expects that mobile phones will soon become the device of choice for reading ebooks. Download that plain ASCII text, and you're good to go.

A library of free books at Project Gutenberg, online at gutenberg.org, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC — Bela Flek "Reading in the Dark"

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

Being innoculated with the influenza vaccine can lessen the severity of symptoms if you're exposed to the virus, or it might help prevent your getting sick at all. But each year's flu vaccine is different, made to protect against the particular strain of flu that experts consider most likely to spread through the population. So you can't stockpile vaccine from one year to the next. Not only that, but the vaccine is grown in chicken eggs. It works, but it's less than ideal. So researchers have been exploring different ways to make flu vaccine. As we hear from VOA's Faith Lapidus, an experimental vaccine made in insect cells appears to be as safe and as effective as conventional vaccines.

LAPIDUS: In research led by John Treanor of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, an insect virus known as baculovirus was used to grow key components of the flu virus in cells originally derived from caterpillars. Treanor says it's safer than the current approach, which uses live flu virus.

TREANOR: "Working with the live pandemic virus to make vaccines carries with it some risk that you won't contain it well. That risk can be mitigated a bit by manipulating those viruses so they're not so pathogenic, and that's another approach that's been taken. But the nice thing about the baculovirus approach is that there's no influenza involved at all, it's just the gene for the important vaccine antigen."

LAPIDUS: It also does not require eggs, which could be in short supply as the world faces the threat of pandemic bird flu.

Treanor says another advantage of using insect cells is speed; the new method is quicker.

TREANOR: "You might get to the point where you had the vaccine in vials ready to administer to people a few weeks earlier using this approach, rather than the traditional approach, And that's useful because there's a very limited window of opportunity to get people vaccinated every year, and even saving just a few weeks could have an impact of vaccination programs."

LAPIDUS: The vaccine was tested on a small group of healthy volunteers, ages 18 to 49.

TREANOR: "If you compare the number of people who got flu in the placebo group, people who had not been vaccinated, with the number of people who got the flu in the vaccine group, the vaccine reduced the rate of flu by 85 percent. That compares favorably to what you might see with the regular flu shot."

LAPIDUS: Treanor says the next step is to repeat the study with a larger group of subjects. Results of the initial study appear in the current issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. I'm Faith Lapidus

In the deep ocean swims a fish that's part of a family known as slimeheads, but that's not a very appealing name. So in restaurants and fish markets from London to Sydney it's called orange roughy. It's a mild-tasting fish that has become especially popular in the United States. It is also one of oldest fish in the sea, says Selina Heppell of Oregon State University.

HEPPELL: "This is a species that grows so slowly that it may not reach sexual maturity until it's 34 years old, and may live to be 150 years old. These fish tend to be attracted to things like sea mounts. It's a good strategy if you live in a big, open, dark area to aggregate around a mountain or some sort of structure, so you can find mates and find food. But it also makes it a lot easier for people to catch you."

Heppell was among several concerned researchers who spoke recently at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.

The seamounts she mentioned are extinct volcanoes on the ocean floor. There may be as many as 100,000 large sea mounts in the world's oceans, and perhaps 10 times as many smaller ones.

In recent decades, the commercial fishing industry has been scooping up orange roughy from the tops of these undersea mountains. Matthew Gianni of the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition in Amsterdam says the trawlers are getting a lot more than century-old fish.

GIANNI: "And so the trawlers move into these areas and fish the tops of these sea mounts. And in so doing they can remove part or all of the coral cover. And once the coral cover is removed, the whole ecosystem essentially collapses."

Gianni says that as a result of this habitat destruction, whole species are in danger of being wiped out. Because of its long maturation cycle, the orange roughy population might need decades to recover. But Elliott Norse of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Washington, says other species — such as those that might exist only around the heavily-fished sea mounts — are at even greater risk of extinction:

NORSE: "If you wipe the organisms out there just once, they will never come back again. And so we need to act now to avoid irreversible loss of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of deep-sea species."

In the process of collecting orange roughy, the trawlers' nets also scrape away the deep-sea coral that has built up on the sea mounts. Murray Roberts of the Scottish Association for Marine Science says that undersea coral contains clues to what ocean temperatures have been in the distant past, knowledge which could help scientists improve their understanding of climate change.

ROBERTS: "They're also incredible archives of climate change history, because the coral skeletons are locking in a chemical signature that helps us understand past seawater temperatures. So we do run the risk also, of not only losing the structure that supports fish and other species, but also a climate archive that we've only just begun to unravel."

Deep-sea trawling happens outside the exclusive economic zone of coastal nations. Beyond that zone — 200 nautical miles, or 370 kilometers out from shore — in international waters, or the high seas, there are relatively few restrictions on fishing, and even less enforcement.

Fishing on the high seas requires expensive equipment, and the catch is usually sold in wealthier countries. But there is no fence at that 200-mile limit, and University of British Columbia researcher Rashid Sumaila, who is originally from Nigeria, says what happens in the deep ocean can affect coastal fishers.

SUMAILA: "... because the coast of West Africa is also linked to the high seas. So what happens? They have some of the species that straddle between the coastal waters and also the high seas. So clearly what happens there impacts on what happens on the coast." Q: So it's all one ecosystem? "It's one ecosystem. One ocean, if you like - many oceans, but all linked up.

Scientists and conservation organizations have been campaigning against deep sea trawling, but with limited success. Sumaila says many governments — including Japan, Russia, and Australia — subsidize the deep-sea trawlers, turning what would be a money-losing industry into a profitable one, according to his analysis. The issue has yet to resonate with many consumers, and even many who "think green" aren't aware of the controversy over the true environmental costs of that orange roughy in the fish market window.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. We're always interested in your comments. Email us at ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address —

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edited the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. 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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