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Our World — 24 November 2007


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... giving ordinary skin cells the disease-fighting power of embryonic stem cells ... an alternative to the Windows computer operating system that's NOT a Mac .... and do website designers try to find out what works for users?

SULLIVAN: "How many of these people bring in a focus group and see, actually, how easy this is. And I'm guessing that not a lot of them do that."

Top web annoyances, is pregnancy getting safer for women?, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Research reported this week moves the science of stem cells from the laboratory one step closer to the doctor's office. American and Japanese research teams, in separate papers, said they had modified human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells.

Kyoto University researcher Shinya Yamanaka says the modified skin cells behave almost exactly like embryonic stem cells.

YAMANAKA: "As far as we have tested, they are nearly indistinguishable in function. However, we did so-called micro-array analysis, and by that method we found, like, 1,000 genes that differentially expressed between the two [types of] stem cells."

Q: So you found some differences on the genetic level, but not functionally?

YAMANAKA: "Exactly."

Yamanaka's latest research advances the work he published last year, in which he reprogrammed skin cells in mice.

Embryonic stem cells have the potential to grow into any kind of cell in the body, making them potentially useful in treating disease. In their laboratory, Yamanaka and his colleagues genetically modified the cells, and watched at the "induced pluripotent stem cells," or iPS cells, as they're called, grew into a wide variety of human tissue types:

YAMANAKA: "We were able to make muscle and fat tissue, epithelial tissue and so on. So we were able to make many kinds of cells from human iPS cells, in addition to neurons and heart cells."

Those heart cells started beating after 12 days in a laboratory dish.

Yamanaka says there are clear advantages to using skin cells rather than embryonic stem cells. First, it avoids the ethical issues surrounding the use of any embryonic tissue. Also, it should solve the potential rejection problem.

YAMANAKA: "So that means, after transplantation you have to worry about immune rejection. But by using our method, iPS cells, we don't have to use human embryos, and also we can make stem cells directly from patient's own cells. That means we don't have to worry about immune rejection."

Yamanaka's study was published online by the journal Cell on Tuesday. Also on Tuesday, a separate group of researchers, using slightly different procedures, reported similarly promising results in a paper published online in the journal Science. A team led by James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin used fetal cells and skin cells from a newborn, while the Japanese team used skin from adults.

There are safety issues with both techniques, which use retroviruses to insert genes into the cells. A safer technique would reprogram the cell's original genes, rather than inserting new ones. Scientists don't yet know how to do that.

But this is a fast-moving field, and I asked Dr. Yamanaka how long it might be before this laboratory technique is tried with actual human patients.

YAMANAKA: "Well, it's kind of difficult, but I would say it should be less than five years."

Q: Less than five years before this is clinically used?

YAMANAKA: "Well, in some case of clinical usage, at least for clinical trial."

Q: That's pretty remarkable.

YAMANAKA: "That's what we hope. We'll do our best."

The rapid pace of the work by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and other scientists illustrates the potential of embryonic stem cells, or cells that work like them. Experts in the field say they may be used one day to treat a variety of conditions, from Diabetes to Parkinson's to spinal cord injury.

Throughout history, pregnancy was historically a leading cause of death. In too many countries, it still is. VOA's Rosanne Skirble has a report on a new survey of the perils of childbirth.

SKIRBLE: Is pregnancy getting safer? The answer is 'yes' and 'no' — depending on where you live.

BERER: "In Latin America, the Caribbean, North Africa and Oceania — that's the Pacific region — maternal deaths are falling. But in sub-Saharan Africa, the numbers are going up at the moment."

SKIRBLE: That's Marge Berer, editor of Reproductive Health Matters. The journal has devoted its November issue to maternal mortality and the progress made since the World Health Organization launched its "Safe Motherhood Initiative" in 1987.

According to WHO estimates, 536,000 women died from pregnancy complications in 2005, the last year for which numbers were calculated. Berer says the difference between rich and poor countries is staggering.

BERER: "In Scandinavia the number is two, maybe three, sometimes one per 100,000 live births, whereas in sub-Saharan Africa it is 900 per 100,000 live births. And all the other regions fall somewhere in the middle there."

SKIRBLE: Fifteen percent of women worldwide suffer complications with pregnancy that require emergency care. But woefully inadequate healthcare systems in Sub-Saharan African countries are further compromised by war and other social and economic circumstances. Journal editor Marge Berer adds that donor funding for maternal health programs has been falling.

BERER: "In my view maternity services have been the most grossly under-funded global priority ever identified. And there is not much sign that this is going to change in a major way right now. Overall, the most important thing that is needed is the improvement of health systems, across the board."

SKIRBLE: Berer notes that where such health services are more available and where economic development has been promoted, women are faring better. But the editor of the Reproductive Health Matters journal says women must fight for access to health care and better facilities and organize to demand changes in laws that can protect them.

Unsafe abortions, for example, account for 13 percents of maternal deaths globally. Making them safe, legal and accessible could end deaths from abortion almost immediately. Marge Berer says this kind of change is possible, but requires political leadership that values women. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

A week ago, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its strongest warning yet on the danger of climate change. In its Fourth (and final) Assessment report, the Nobel Prize-winning group said there is "unequivocal" evidence that global warming is underway.

Higher temperatures pose the risk of mass extinction, more extreme weather events, and rising sea levels, the report says.

IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri told delegates that current levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are alone enough to produce some impacts, such as a rise in sea level of between 40 and 140 centimeters.

PACHAURI: "Now this is an extremely serious finding, which clearly establishes that with our actions and placed as we are today, with the concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere, we have already committed the world to experiencing a sea level rise due to thermal expansion alone."

Pachauri said the burden of climate change would not be shared equally. The poor, and those living in coastal regions, are among those who will see the biggest impact.

PACHAURI: "For instance in Africa, between 75 [and] 250 million people are projected to be exposed to increased water stress. And in Asia, you have problems of fresh water availability, coastal areas being affected, particularly the megadelta regions, which are really at the highest risk from sea flooding."

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon challenged the two biggest greenhouse gas emitters — the United States and China — to play a more constructive role in combating climate change.

Among human activities, burning fossil fuels like oil and coal are the biggest contributors of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Ending our use of these fuels may be a long-term goal, but it's not an immediate solution.

In the meantime, experts say capturing carbon dioxide and storing it is an effective way to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere.

In a report earlier this year, experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, as a critical technology to allow the continued, responsible use of coal. MIT researcher Howard Herzog told members of the Senate Commerce and Science committee this month that the report highlighted the importance of CCS in the future use of coal, which remains an abundant and inexpensive fuel.

HERZOG: "Coal is responsible for about 40 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. The MIT "Future of Coal" study concluded that carbon dioxide capture and sequestration is the critical enabling technology that will reduce carbon dioxide emissions significantly while also allowing the world to meet its pressing energy needs."

Carbon capture is not a new technology, though it has never been deployed on the scale that would be needed to significantly reduce greenhouse emissions.

Storage of the captured CO2 would probably be in underground rock formations. Pumping CO2 underground is not new either. Oil companies do it to help boost oilfield productivity, a process called enhanced oil recovery, or EOR.

Charles Fox is a senior executive at the Kinder Morgan pipeline company, which supplies carbon dioxide to the petroleum industry. Fox says there are existing, albeit expensive processes for removing the carbon and then transporting it. It's what happens next that is more problematic, he says.

FOX: "Geological storage may present the most formidable challenge of any CCS development. Though the science and engineering knowledge gained through EOR (is) well understood, the technology was not developed to store CO2 for long periods. Relatively little is known, for example, about saline aquifers, the largest and most widespread of CO2 storage options.

Senator John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, has a bill pending in Congress to establish large-scale demonstration projects to evaluate the technology. One of the biggest obstacles is not technical but legal: companies involved in storing CO2 underground, potentially indefinitely, want to limit their legal liability if something goes wrong.

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

In the scientific world, maintaining standards is a necessary part of the work. By standards, I don't mean how clean the laboratory is. I'm talking about the unglamorous job of making sure that one gram of something really is one gram, that a measurement of one meter really is one meter — that sort of thing.

Here in the United States, a government agency called the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST, is responsible for advancing standards, and measurement science in general. To learn more about the surprisingly broad range of their work, visit their online museum at museum.nist.gov.

CORAGGIO: "Our scientists conduct research in a wide variety of areas in the physical and engineering sciences with the goal to promote the nation's technology infrastructure. So the virtual museum showcases some of the best parts of NIST history."

Mary-Deirdre Coraggio heads the information services division at NIST, which used to be known as the National Bureau of Standards.

If you are a shortwave listener, you probably have heard time and frequency stations like this one.

WWV: "[BEEP] National Institute of Standards and Technology time. This is radio station WWV ..."

Getting out accurate time and frequency information is an important job at NIST, one that helps insure that communications services — from mobile phones to network broadcasts — work correctly. So naturally the NIST museum has an exhibit on timekeeping, and you'll learn how time and other essential measurements have been re-defined over the years.

CORAGGIO: "That one goes back to the very early days of the development of such objects as the Short [pendulum] clock and then the quartz crystal frequency standard, the atomic clock. And this is one of the exhibits that students sometimes like to visit, that and the weights and measures, and you'll find that our students enjoy visiting these two sites."

Some of the standards work at NIST seems surprisingly low-tech. There's an exhibit on a wall composed of more than two thousand kinds of stone used in construction to test how they are affected by weather. Another one describes the standardization of women's clothing sizes, based on measurements of 15,000 American women decades ago to help the then-new mail order industry.

CORAGGIO: "Most catalogs have a copy of how to measure according to the standard that is set. So these standards, while they were set over 50 years ago, still hold true and we are still trying to continue to revise measurements for clothing for today's fairly diverse female population."

Mary-Deirdre Coraggio says there's much more at the National Institute of Standards and Technology virtual museum, so check it out yourself at museum.nist.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: The Rifles — "She's Got Standards"

If you use the Internet, you probably enjoy the convenience of email, you may participate in virtual, online communities, or even listen to your favorite radio program.

The Internet is great, but if you surf the World Wide Web, there are bound to be some things that you find really annoying.

Visitors to PCWorld.com, the popular computer magazine's website, have weighed in on what they find annoying, and we invited PC World associate editor Mark Sullivan to share some of those annoyances with us.

At the top of the list was dubious privacy policies, which come into play anytime you provide sensitive, personal data — like when you give a credit card number to an online merchant.

SULLIVAN: "What people are frustrated about is that they're not getting a clear assurance back from these websites that that information won't be misused. What they're getting is something like a 100-page privacy policy published by the [website] company that is very difficult to read unless you're an attorney. And I think it's more of a low-grade anxiety that sort of affects people when they try to buy these sort of things online."

Number two on PC World's list of biggest web annoyances was difficult online forms, such as ones that don't retain information when your browser refreshes. Mark Sullivan says there are probably security reasons for that, but that doesn't make it any less annoying.

SULLIVAN: "How many of these people actually bring in a focus group and see, actually, how easy this is to fill out these forms. And I'm guessing that not a lot of them do that."

PCWorld.com users voted overcommercialization of the web as their third biggest annoyance. Sullivan says commercial websites have been pushing the envelope, to see how much intrusive advertising users will tolerate before they give up on the site.

SULLIVAN: "I think what is going on right now is that a lot of sites are just discovering what that breaking point is. You know, hopefully the crowd, so to speak, will begin to move away from sites like that."

The number four annoyance for web users was the lack of standards. Web sites often look different in different browsers, and some won't work at all unless you use a specific web browser, usually Microsoft Internet Explorer, the market leader.

We don't have time for the rest, but we'll have a link to the full article on our website, voanews.com/ourworld.

Incidentally, several of the people who commented on the PCWorld annoyances article said they were annoyed because articles they want to read are not displayed on one screen but split up into many short pages, so you have to click through page after page to read it all. I wonder if that has anything to do with exposing the maximum number of users to the maximum number of advertisements....

You may have heard about Linux, the free, open-source computer operating system that you can use instead of Microsoft Windows or Apple's Mac OS.

Linux was developed in the 1990s by university student Linus Torvalds, and it's been continuously improved since then.

For years, Linux was the province of, well, geeks, who liked the fact that it was open-source, meaning they could examine the underlying computer code to see how it works. They also appreciated that it was as reliable as any of its competitors, and it was free.

But casual users were scared off. Linux wasn't very user friendly, to put it mildly.

In the last few years, however, that's changed. Now you can get Linux packaged with a graphical desktop that resembles what you find on other PCs, plus all sorts of additional free software for business, multimedia, and more. And — let me stress this again — all of this is free.

To learn more about Linux I called Rickford Grant, the author of the book, "Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks." Ubuntu is one of the most popular of these Linux packages — distributions, they're called. Grant says Linux became more user-friendly because it is an open-source product, meaning that anyone can help improve the software.

GRANT: "As I said, it's sort of a community-driven project. That means that a person in this country and a person in that country and all sorts of different places around the world see a need to fix something, to make it more workable or useable for a particular group of people. And through time, those fixes and additions have made the system more and more useable for the average user. Basically what happened was that these computer geeks decided, okay, well let's try to make Linux not just a back-office product and let's try to make it useable by my sister."

For many home users, like those administering corporate systems, one big attraction of Linux is its security. Computer viruses and other "malware" just aren't much of a threat to computers running Linux.

GRANT: "I think one of Linux's strengths — and part of that is due to its design, another part is due to its lack of market share; it's not a big enough target to bother with — but one of the plusses is that it is a pretty safe system. Every time you go out into the Internet you don't really have to be in panic that you're going to be in danger. Another factor is that, when you get a Linux distribution — basically a Linux installation disk, you're installing not only the operating system, but basically most of the core software that you would need to function in normal life: an office suite — word processor, spreadsheet, etc., graphics programs, a few games and odds and ends. But there's a lot of stuff there. And that's one thing I did like about Linux is that I suddenly found myself doing a lot of things that I didn't do before because I suddenly had these applications that allowed me to do them."

I installed Ubuntu Linux on my home computer last year. I don't use it all the time, but I use it regularly and I like it. One common complaint about Linux is that hardware support is sometimes uneven. Scanners don't always work properly, and some more exotic hardware add-ons may not work at all. Those sorts of things happen less than they used to. And one of the great things about this open-source operating system is that there is a large and generous community of Linux users who are eager to help you — either online or perhaps in your community or at your school.

If Linux seems like something you might want to try, you might want to go the no-risk trial route with a so-called live CD.

GRANT: "It is a CD that contains a compressed Linux distribution on it — the Linux core system and a number of productivity applications. What you do with the live CD is you stick it in your machine, restart it, and then the machine — your computer — will reboot from the live CD. And so you'll have a working Linux system running without touching your hard disk. And yet you can still play around and see what Linux looks like, see what Linux feels like without any risk, basically."

Rickford Grant is the author of "Ubuntu Linux for Non-Geeks."

If you want to learn more about Linux or download a free copy yourself, we have some links that will help at voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, 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. Bob Doughty 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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