Accessibility links

Our World — 5 April 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... The link between climate change and your health ... Motivating drug companies to develop medicines for tropical diseases ... and why rocket scientists are taking up gardening ...

BUGBEE: "There's a point at which you can't possibly bring enough food with you. You can imagine an entire trailer full of bag lunches for a four-year trip to Mars."

Astronaut-farmers, plus the food situation here on Earth, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

Global warming could result in rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, and so on. You know about those physical effects. But experts say climate change is likely to have some serious impacts on our health as well.

So this week, the leading association of U.S. public health officials launched a campaign aimed at drawing attention to climate change as a potential threat to public health.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, who heads the American Public Health Association, explained the link in a conference call with reporters.

BENJAMIN: "We know there's an established connection between climate change and our health. For example, we know that the changes that are already occurring in our climate certainly have effect on the environment in which we live. But one of our concerns is that there really hasn't been a great enough focus on the issues and how they actually affect human health."

Jonathan Patz, professor of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, points out that the health risks from climate change stem from a variety of sources.

PATZ: "The concerns of climate change cut across many different exposure pathways, be they direct effects of heat waves or more indirect effects, be it from sea-level rise to changes in ecosystems that could affect many biological agents of disease, especially those carried by insects, and waterborne disease, if we're talking about extremes in the water cycle."

Some of those effects are already being seen in developing countries, says Dr. Benjamin of the Public Health Association.

BENJAMIN: "Regions of the world where diseases are linked to warm temperatures are experiencing an increase in disease burden, to some degree rising incidence of things like malaria [and] vector-born disease. In sub-Saharan Africa, especially in young children, there are increases in problems around drought and access to food. We want to point these things out to the public and try to engage the public in a dialog to try to make this linkage."

And if climate change could spark new outbreaks of disease, Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin says some of the solutions that target global warming could themselves have a positive effect on our health.

PATZ: "When you think, for example, about our problems with obesity, there is a huge benefit to trying to make our cities more walkable and more bikeable. So there's one win-win great opportunity. One other one, of course, is beef consumption is very energy consumptive. And if we reduce our beef consumption, we can reduce our greenhouse gases and also possibly reduce the risk of heart disease."

In a statement, the American Public Health Association noted that the health impacts of climate change will be a special burden for the world's most vulnerable populations - the poor, the elderly, children, and those who already have medical problems.

The public health officials' comments came ahead of World Health Day on Monday (April 7), an annual event sponsored by the United Nations, and whose theme this year is Protecting Health from Climate Change.

Lebanon is a tiny, Middle East country that has seen more than its share of violence in recent decades. With the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990 came death and injury and massive physical destruction, of course, but what kind of toll did it take on the mental health of the Lebanese people?

To try to answer the question, researchers have conducted the first-ever mental health survey of its kind in the Arab world.

Dr. Elie Karam of Saint George Hospital University Medical Center in Beirut led the team, which used a standard World Health Organization interview form to survey nearly 3,000 adults throughout the country.

Karam says they found that the cumulative effect of exposure to war trauma dramatically increases the risk of certain kinds of mental disorders.

KARAM: "Your risk of having a mood disorder, which includes depression, or an anxiety disorder is increased by several fold, six- or seven-fold, grossly. Another thing that we have found which is important is that impulse-control disorder seems to be increased like 1,000 percent increase."

About 70 percent of the people they interviewed had been exposed to war in some way, such as by being a refugee or witnessing death. Fully one in four had experienced some mental disorder at some point in their lives, with the most common being depression. That rate might sound high, but it's actually similar to the rate in Britain. Absent the civil war, Karam suggested, Lebanon's rate would be a lot lower.

In fact, I told Dr. Karam I was surprised the rates of mental illness in Lebanon weren't a lot higher.

KARAM: "Don't forget that Lebanon is known for its happy-go-lucky kind of temperament and they adapt easily to different conditions?, etc., and hadn't we had the war and hadn't we been under so much strife and sectarian violence, maybe the people would have fared much better. You're right."

Even though Lebanon has the highest number of physicians per capita in the Arab world, only half of those identified in the survey as having some sort of mental disorder were ever treated, and typically, it was many years before they got any kind of help at all.

KARAM: "The cost of war is huge when it comes to mental health. With all the consequences of poor mental health, meaning poor social life, meaning poor development, poor education, poor marital life. And so leaders in the world, they have to be reminded that even if you're the victors, being exposed to the atrocities of war will carry on scars for many, many years."

We reached Dr. Elie Karam at his office at Saint George Hospital University Medical Center in Beirut. His paper was published in the journal PLoS Medicine.

For about a century now, doctors have used a variety of imaging techniques to peer inside the body. X-rays, the first, are still widely used, now joined by an alphabet soup of technologies including MRI, CT and PET scans. And now, as we hear from VOA's Rosanne Skirble, a laser-based tool may be joining them.

SKIRBLE: A team of American researchers has developed a new imaging tool that can take pictures of cells and molecules deep inside the body.

GAMBHIR: "What's going on with proteins inside your cancer cells, what's going on with things that are inside your brain that lead to Alzheimer's disease."

SKIRBLE: That's Sanjiv Sam Gambhir, professor of radiology and biochemistry at Stanford University Medical School and senior author of a study that describes the technique.

The paper validates use of Raman spectroscopy in animals. The laser-based imaging tool is the first to use light rather than radiation to gather molecular signals. In the study, researchers injected mice with nanoparticles directed to find cancer cells.

GAMBHIR: "If I shine light onto the animal, the light interacts with these small nanoparticles. The nanoparticles, they make the light bounce off them. The light pops back out of the body and then is detected."

SKIRBLE: This scattering of light, called a spectral fingerprint, is unique to each type of molecule and can be measured. Gambhir says the signals are stronger and longer-lived than other imaging methods and can transmit information about multiple targets simultaneously.

GAMBHIR: "One signal might reflect a target on a cancer cell. Another signal might reflect a protein inside the cancer cell. So having multiple signals has always been a challenge for molecular imaging."

SKIRBLE: Gambhir explains that Raman spectroscopy could, for example, detect breast cancer at a very early stage.

GAMBHIR: "When a male or female feels a one-centimeter lump in their breast that one centimeter lump is about three billion cells. So, how do we see fewer cells? How do we see just 300 cells? If this technique is very sensitive and can detect very low level of signal, then it can detect fewer and fewer cells."

SKIRBLE: Gambhir believes that if his research can achieve positive results in human trials, Raman spectroscopy could become a routine medical procedure within three years. Gambhir's research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

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

Food is something we all have in common. Some of us grow, store, sell or transport it. And we all eat it. The United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization keeps an eye on the entire system, from food production and crop diseases to commodity prices and food emergencies. And they have a new website to help make that information easy for anyone to access.

ABBASSIAN: "We all know prices have gone up, and many countries around the world are extremely nervous about what's happening in the markets and so forth, so we set up this website and we named it World Food Situation with the objective to bring together information that [is] relevant to the current food situation around the world."

Abdolreza Abbassian of the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization helped develop the World Food Situation website, just launched a month ago at fao.org/worldfoodsituation. Speaking on a mobile phone from Egypt, he said the site aims to help a wide variety of users.

ABBASSIAN: "This website tries to provide objective analysis. So we have the early warning system in place there, providing information. We have our latest publications, reports that cover food situation. So we think we have the information that the general public is interested in, and surely also farmers will be interested in, assuming they have access to the Internet."

You'll find short answers to frequently asked questions such as "What is the role of biofuels" in the run up of food prices? to detailed technical analysis reports on food and feed markets, plus links to FAO databases.

The website is presented in English plus Spanish, French, Russian, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese, though not all the content is available yet in each language.

Abbassian says the goal is to have the World Food Situation website as up-to-date as possible.

ABBASSIAN: "For example on Monday we will have a very important report which gives the first forecasts in 2008. All this information which are relevant to the food situation will be posted here."

Keep an eye on the world food situation at fao.org/worldfoodsituation, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Noble Watts — "Red Beans & Rice"

Food for thought here on VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

As profit-making corporations, drug companies naturally like to develop medicines that make them a lot of money.

But what about diseases that are very rare? Or ones that mainly affect people who can't pay a lot for medicine?

An innovative new U.S. program aims to encourage drug companies to develop new medicine for tropical diseases, in exchange for which they get a so-called priority review voucher that may get the companies' highly-profitable drugs on the market sooner.

VOA's Jessica Berman explains.

BERMAN: Last year, U.S. drug makers were handed what some say could be a huge financial benefit.

The U.S. Congress gave the Food and Drug Administration permission to issue what it calls a voucher to any pharmaceutical company that is granted regulatory approval for a new tropical medicine.

The list of eligible diseases includes tuberculosis, malaria, and schistosomiasis along with other illnesses caused by worms and parasites.

The voucher will give a manufacturer expedited consideration of any experimental medicine that the company believes could become what is known in the industry as a "blockbuster" drug. Previous blockbusters include Viagra for erectile dysfunction and Prozac for the treatment of depression.

Timothy Cote is director of the FDA's office that oversees the approval of products for diseases affecting less than two hundred thousand people in the United States.

COTE: "Drug sales for [a] typical blockbuster can extend between three and $10-12 billion, that's with a 'b,' billion dollars per year in sales. So, making it faster to review those has a financial value if you have five billion dollars in sales and you can speed the review process up by six months, well, that's $2.5 billion, which is a lot of money."

BERMAN: The average review process by the FDA takes between ten and eighteen months. Under the voucher program, the U.S. regulatory agency will consider applications seeking approval for blockbuster drugs within six months.

Cote says the expedited review in no way compromises safety.

COTE: "It doesn't change the review. It doesn't guarantee an approval. It only says that we will speed review of some other drug.

BERMAN: Despite such guarantees, Harvard University Medical School professor Aaron Kesselheim thinks racing to develop drugs for tropical illnesses in order to get a voucher is a bad idea.

Kesselheim points to a just-released study by colleagues at Harvard, which found that U.S. regulators, feeling the pressure to approve new drugs in a shorter time frame, approved medications that were five times more likely to be withdrawn from the market for safety reasons.

Kesselheim says the financial lure of a voucher may attract companies with no experience in developing drugs for tropical diseases.

KESSELHEIM: "You know, a company that might be really good at making cardiovascular medications is going to try to get faster reviews to enter the tropical disease development world and might not be as skilled as other manufacturers who might be focused on anti-infective products."

BERMAN: James Geraghty is Senior Vice President of Genzyme Corporation, a biotechnology firm that develops new drugs and stands to benefit from the voucher program.

Geraghty says the FDA's program will not compromise the safety standards of the drug manufacturing industry.

GERAGHTY: "Expedited review does not involve any lowering of standards. It's just a prioritization system that provides for prioritization and acceleration of review for important public health reasons, not in any way a reducing of the standards of that review."

BERMAN: Harvard's Kesselheim thinks there are better ways to encourage the development of new drugs for neglected diseases, including front end commitments from developing countries to Western drug makers to purchase large quantities of tropical medicines once they are developed.

The voucher program is scheduled to take effect in September. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington

Astronauts on long space flights — perhaps to Mars — will surely be growing some of their own food. In fact, there's a little garden already in orbit on the International Space Station. But as Sheri Quinn reports, a little bit of space farming is about more than just a fresh salad a long way from home.

QUINN: Plants are a vital part of the earth's eco-system, and they're just as crucial in the artificial environment of an orbiting space station. As on earth, they provide food and offer a sense of tranquility.

Scientists from the U.S. space agency NASA and Utah State University are working with Russian colleagues to figure out how to grow edible plants in space and understand their psychological value to space explorers. Bruce Bugbee is Professor of Plant Physiology at Utah State. His lab helps test so called space gardens.

BUGBEE: "We now are trying to quantify, how important are they? Are there people that just don't need plants around and if there are, are those the kind of people we want to be flying? Are those the most mentally stable people or are the most mentally stable people the ones that like plants and like interacting with plants?"

QUINN: In fact, since 2002 the International Space Station has had a small greenhouse garden called Lada. Named for the ancient Russian goddess of spring, Lada was created to provide green space for the crew during their long flights. It was a collaborative effort by Utah State researchers at the Space Dynamics Lab and scientists from the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow. The suitcase-sized plot has produced a small but steady supply of fresh produce, mainly peas and a type of fast growing lettuce called mizuna.

Scientists use Lada to study how plants grow in microgravity. And Space Dynamics Lab engineer Shane Topham says it also provides a welcome distraction for crewmembers.

TOPHAM: "In fact when the space shuttle a few years ago broke up on re-entry, the crew members who were on the space station were obviously shaken up about that, and one of the things that the Russian space program did to try and calm them down was to assign them more crew time to gardening because they noticed it did have a calming effect. So if they can use that as a psychological tool to help regulate the worry or difficulties psychologically then that's a very good benefit to having plants in space, independent of the food."

QUINN: Now, researchers are working to quantify those psychological benefits. They plan to track the amount of time crewmembers spend tending the garden. Vladimir Gushin, a psychologist at Russia's Institute for Biomedical Problems, says this kind of study is new and there's not enough data yet to make scientific conclusions.

GUSHIN: "Plants, they changed the orientation of the scientific research during recent years and American scientists help us a lot with the technology and with some insights and if you can exchange ideas, it's so important."

QUINN: Gushin says confinement on the space station isn't the problem for the crew, it's a lack of stimuli ... things often taken for granted on earth like wind blowing or seeing a new face.

GUSHIN: "We have to minimize the cargo on the ship and at the same time keep them alive physically and mentally. Plants are one of the opportunities that makes them feel something is changing, that nature is with them, a piece of earth is with them. That gives them the feeling that there is still of piece of earth, of life. From this point nothing can substitute for plants."

QUINN: The trick is getting the plants to think they are growing on earth with sunlight. In the tiny Lada greenhouse, plants grow upwards towards common household fluorescent bulbs. Instead of soil, they're planted in a bed of baked clay particles. Since excess water won't drain away in micro-gravity, it's meticulously measured and replaced, and air is recycled through filters to remove trace contaminants that are toxic to the plants. The space garden is also helping researchers learn more about air quality and agriculture on earth.

The ultimate goal is to grow food in space for long missions to other planets. In fact, Utah State professor Bruce Bugbee looks forward to a greenhouse on Mars.

BUGBEE: "I think it's essential. There's a point at which you can't possibly bring enough food with you…you can imagine an entire trailer full of bag lunches for a four-year trip to Mars. At some point, it's cheaper to bring the whole space farm and solar cells and grow your own food."

QUINN: The next crop to be planted, and harvested in orbit is the grain barley. The seeds are going up on the next shuttle mission to the International Space Station later this year. For Our World, I'm Sheri Quinn in Logan, Utah.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to 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 show. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. Thanks to Faith Lapidus for sitting in last week. I'm 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.

XS
SM
MD
LG