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Our World — 19 July 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... The health benefits of shutting down dirty power plants ... different weight-loss diets compared ... and farmers weigh the value of using genetically modified crops.

COPPOCK: "And so, it was something where some of our members would get the benefit, but everybody faced potential risk of having customers say, 'we don't want this in wheat.'"

Potentially better yields vs. consumer resistance...a new drug to attack a stubborn infection, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."


American and Chinese researchers have found that shutting down an old, dirty, coal-fired power plant can reduce air pollution and significantly improve cognitive developmentthe ability to think — in young children.

PERERA:"This study compares children who were exposed in-utero to pollution from coal-fired power plants with children who were not so exposed, and it demonstrates the benefits of closing the plant on children's development measured at age two."

Frederica Perera of Columbia University led the research team, which took advantage of a decision by Chinese officials to close down a power plant in the city of Tongliang, in Chongqing Municipality.

PERERA:"This power plant was shut down because the Chinese government had ordered the closure of old, small, polluting power plants that burned coals, and this one was on the list."

The coal-burning facility was a major source of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Earlier research has identified PAHs as toxic materials that can cause a variety of developmental defects in young children.

To evaluate the impact of PAHs, the researchers compared two groups of children. One group was born in 2002, before the power plant closed; the second group was born in 2005, after it shut down.

When the babies were two years old they were tested using the standard Gesell test of child development. And the group born after the coal-burning plant shut down scored higher, particularly in a measure of motor skills.

Perera says previous studies demonstrated that the pollutants could be harmful. But the researchers here were able to clearly demonstrate the benefits of reducing pollution with compelling before-and-after data.

PERERA:"This study was unique in that it allowed us to show the benefits of removing such a polluting source and to demonstrate that the children in the second group actually fared better in terms of developmental tests, particularly in the area of motor function."

China has been closing older, dirtier coal-burning power plants. But with oil prices in record territory, coal remains a dominant fuel for generating electricity around the world. The newest, high-tech plants do have pollution controls, but many older plants remain in operation. As the demand for electricity continues to increase, Dr. Frederica Perera says her research sounds a note of caution ... and, at the same time, demonstrates the benefits of cutting emissions from existing facilities.

PERERA:"These findings do have relevance for environmental health and energy policy worldwide since these are pollutants that are extremely widespread from fossil fuel burning, particularly from coal, so they are a positive message both for China and the rest of the world."

Frederica Perera's paper appeared this week in Environmental Health Perspectives. The journal is published by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.


The U.S. Senate Wednesday passed a bill to triple U.S. spending on a program to combat AIDS and other diseases. On Tuesday, lawmakers and AIDS experts gathered to reflect on the successes and challenges facing PEPFAR, which is currently a $3 billion a year program, plus the larger fight against HIV/AIDS. Eric Libby has our report.

LIBBY:Unlike other diseases such as smallpox and polio, HIV/AIDS is a chronic disease. Those infected with HIV may not show symptoms of AIDS for years, allowing this killer to infiltrate a population. Senator John Kerry, one of several speakers invited to assess the global war on AIDS, outlined the magnitude of the crisis with some grim statistics.

KERRY:"You've got 12 million kids who have lost one or both parents [to AIDS]. Some 30 percent of the world's orphans today are AIDS-related orphans. The fact is that 33 million people worldwide are still infected with HIV, and more than 2.1 million people died of AIDS last year, more than 2.5 million will be infected this year."

LIBBY:Despite these challenges, Kerry highlighted some of the progress made by programs like PEPFAR.

KERRY:"The good side of the story is that we've got a program that can assist 10 million people, including five million AIDS orphans, hopefully prevent seven million people from being infected provide and help provide anti-retrovirals to two million people. That's a big deal."

LIBBY:Part of PEPFAR's funding supports scientific research. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, points out that there are now more FDA-approved drugs against HIV than all other antiviral drugs combined. A study released two months ago identified more than 30 new protein targets for anti-retroviral therapy. At the Capitol Hill forum, Fauci described a new technology that will help treatment.

FAUCI:"So some of the things that we have available are now being tested in the field, such as the collection and shipping of samples with dried blood spots — something unimaginable years ago. Five years from now when we have even more people on therapy we are going to want to monitor them for resistance, we want to monitor them for viral load. We can't do it by these very complicated technologies, it has got be simple enough to apply in the field and that's where it's going right now."

LIBBY:Fauci said a vaccine is still a long time away, and past failures have revealed there is still much scientists do not know about HIV/AIDS.

Although PEPFAR holds much promise and enjoys wide political support, it has been criticized for how it allocates some of its resources, and for its promotion of sexual abstinence as a way to slow the spread of AIDS. The congressional debate over PEPFAR's renewal is forcing both critics and supporters of the program to evaluate not only how important it has been in the battles against AIDS so far, but how important it will be in the battles still to come. This is Eric Libby in Washington.

Good nutrition is important for people with AIDS, or actually, pretty much everyone.

A new study in this week's New England Journal of Medicine evaluates the health effects of three of the most popular diets to combat overweight and obesity.VOA's Jessica Berman reports that obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally and is a risk factor for illness and death.

BERMAN:According to the World Health Organization, 1.6 billion adults are overweight or obese, putting them at risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.That number is expected to soar to 2.3 billion by 2015, owing to fast food and under-active lifestyles.

Experts agree that getting the weight off can be life saving, but an international team of researchers wanted to find out the long-term health effects of three of the most popular diet plans.

Investigators compared the standard calorie-reduction diet, the Mediterranean diet that is high in olive oil and grains, and the popular high-protein diet in a group of 322 middle-aged, moderately obese individuals.

Researchers found those on the high-protein diet lost the most weight at 4.7 kilograms and kept it off, followed by those on the Mediterranean diet at 4.4 kilograms.Those on the calorie-reduction diet lost the least amount of weight, 2.9 kilos.

More important, according to study lead author Iris Shai of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, were the cholesterol levels.

Shai says the high protein dieters, who were not calorie restricted, had a 20 percent reduction in their total cholesterol levels compared to a 12 percent reduction among low calorie dieters, whose plans included carbohydrates.

Shai says that could be important for a dieter with high cholesterol who has to lose weight.

SHAI:"So maybe the message here is that carbohydrates must be much more risky than we thought and omitting them benefits obese patients."

BERMAN:Among diabetic participants, researchers found the Mediterranean diet did a better job in maintaining blood glucose levels.

Lawrence Cheskin runs a diet and nutrition program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. For now, Cheskin cautions against reading too much into the study.

CHESKIN:"Even though we have studies such as this one that we are discussing today suggesting that you can lose weight better on a low carbohydrate diet, we have the evidence from many people in non-Western countries that a low fat, relatively high carbohydrate diet results in good weight control."

BERMAN:Meanwhile, Shai believes the results of her study in the New England Journalsuggest that people need to work with their doctors to tailor a weight loss reduction plan to their particular medical needs. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

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

This time, it's an animal website that shows what can happen when one person shares his knowledge and passion with the Internet community.

HUFFMAN:"The Ultimate Ungulate website is designed to be a resource for all the world's hoofed mammals, which are ungulates."

Brent Huffman is the creator of UltimateUngulate.com. It features great photos and in-depth information about a group of animals whose scientific name may be unfamiliar, but whose members may be living right nearby.

HUFFMAN:"Ungulates include really common animals like cows and goats, things like deer, horses. But also rhinoceroses and various antelopes and giraffes. They're all considered ungulates."

In fact, there are some 250 species of ungulates, and the Ultimate Ungulate website is full of deeply-researched (and fully-referenced) information about these often-overlooked animals ... just what you would expect from a trained zoologist.

HUFFMAN:"There's a section on taxonomy and classification, basically where that animal fits into the general scheme of life on earth. There's a description of that animal, including sizes. There's a section on reproduction. Ecology and behavior. And then a bit on habitat and distribution: where you can find the animal in the world."

Brent Huffman has taken his interest — and his camera — on the road. He has photographed ungulates in Africa and in zoos around North America, so the website has lots of unique images. In fact, he says one of the reasons he started the website was because there was so little material available about ungulates.

Learn more at UltimateUngulate.com, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from oursite, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: The High Llamas — "The Goat"


It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Scientists predict that climate change will bring warmer temperatures, more severe storms, and rising sea levels.

There's also expected to be more tropical disease, as tropical areas expand.

But new research published this week projects a health-related product of global warming that we hadn't thought about:

An increase in kidney stones. Hydrologist Tom Brikowski of the University of Texas in Dallas led the research team.

BRIKOWSKI:"And I believe we've shown pretty sufficiently that certainly there's a significant effect, enough to make a big difference in costs. And of course this is one of the more painful diseases that are not fatal that are out there. So it's going to have a pretty significant impact on the population as well."

Brikowski and his urologist colleagues looked at the link between mean annual temperature and kidney stones. They found that in the United States, the number of people with kidney stones could increase 30 percent in some areas, resulting in some two million more cases a year by 2050.

So why do kidney stones increase in warmer temperatures? Brikowski explains that kidney stones result when salts and minerals, usually calcium, solidify, or precipitate, out of urine. That often happens when the urine is highly concentrated. That's common when it's warm and you lose more water from your body by perspiration than you would otherwise, and probably don't drink enough fluids to replace it.

BRIKOWSKI:"So most likely what's going on is, people lose additional water through perspiration and if they fail to replace that water, then their urine volume goes down, concentration of salts goes up, and the risk of forming kidney stones increases.

This study was an effort to quantify the increase in kidney stone disease in the United States. Even in the U.S., information on the number of people affected is a little sketchy because many people don't need to see a doctor. The data in other countries is even harder to come by. But Brikowski says as other areas get warmer, the risk is likely to increase when mean annual temperatures top 13 degrees.

BRIKOWSKI:"It seems pretty clear that this same kind of phenomenon will take place in southern Europe, Balkan countries, southeastern Europe, South Asia in particular, and probably will have a greater effect just because medical care is a little more limited and more costly in terms of GDPs of each of these countries, so a little bit of morbidity will take place there.

Morbidity meaning illness. Tom Brikowski's study was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Throughout the history of antibiotics, there has been a steady arms race between humans and bacteria. We design a drug that kills them, they develop resistance to it, and we look for another drug. Now, the microbes are fighting back with resistance to multiple antibiotics. Scientists at a university in New York City say they may have a new "magic bullet" ... at least for now.

TEXT:Alexander Tomasz of Rockefeller University says we should be especially concerned about MRSA or multi-drug resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

TOMASZ:"The mortality by MRSA infections is surprisingly high. And also this bacteria that were formerly called the hospital bug — you acquired them when you went to a hospital — now these same bugs showed up in the community."

TEXT:Tomasz and colleagues found that a new antibiotic called Ceftobiprole annihilated colonies of MRSA. Like penicillin — one of the first and still one of the most widely used antibiotic agents — Ceftobiprole binds enzymes crucial to making bacterial cell walls, ultimately killing the bacteria. After widespread use of penicillin, the Staph bacteria developed enzymes less likely to attach penicillin, becoming resistant to the drug. Ceftobiprole manages to elude the bacteria's resistance and bind the enzymes once again.

Moreover, Tomasz says that Ceftobiprole proved effective even against cells that were already highly resistant to powerful antibiotics.

TOMASZ:"A small population — let's say ten thousand out of ten billion cells — would be really highly resistant. These may be the hotbed from which a newer wave of resistance would come forward against Ceftobiprole. So we deliberately went after these subpopulations and tested the Ceftobiprole and to our delight they were wiped out. So that particular resource which the bugs already seem to have put into reserve, they don't succeed."

TEXT:Although Tomasz is excited about this new potential weapon against MRSA, he cautions that bacteria are true survivors and capable of finding a way around any drug-even Ceftobiprole. So the war against Staphylococcus aureuscontinues.

The research, to be published in the August 2008 issue of the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapyand available online now. I'm Faith Lapidus.

Food prices are rising around the world. You've probably seen that where you shop. Basic commodities are especially hard hit: vegetable oils, grains, dairy products and rice. Fuel costs are one big factor. Weather is another, responsible for lower exports from some big grain-exporting countries, including Canada and Australia.

Genetically modified wheat could help expand supply, but here in the United States, it's a complex and controversial issue. Julie Grant has our report.

GRANT:Nearly every major U.S. crop is grown with genetically modified seeds — corn, soybeans, cotton.

Biotech companies take genes from other organisms and put them into corn and soybean seeds. This alters the behavior of crops. One of the most-used alters crops to withstand herbicides. So, when an herbicide is sprayed, it kills the weeds, but the crops survive.

But wheat producers said thank you, but no, to those genetically altered seeds.

Daren Coppock is chief of the National Wheat Growers Association. He says a lot of wheat farmers didn't need the genetically altered traits being offered.

First, weeds just aren't a big problem in some types of wheat.

And second, Coppock says wheat growers were worried about the export market in Europe and Japan. In those countries, they call genetically altered crops 'Frankenfoods'.

COPPOCK:"And so, it was something where some of our members would get the benefit, but everybody faced potential risk of having customers say, 'we don't want this in wheat.'"

GRANT:Since the farmers didn't want it, Coppock says Monsanto and the other big seed companies dropped research into biotech wheat. That was five years ago. Coppock says turning down biotech has since proven to be a bad move for wheat growers.

Now, the big biotech companies don't do as much research on how to improve wheat, including breeding drought resistant varieties. Drought in Australia and Canada is part of the reason there's a wheat shortage now, making prices higher.

COPPOCK:"And so the conclusion that the industry basically has come to is, we have to do something to change the competitiveness equation or wheat will end up being a minor crop."

GRANT:And that could mean wheat shortages in the future.

So wheat farmers are re-considering the genetically modified seed question. They think asking for new biotech wheat strains might kick start research on wheat.

Bakers say something needs to be done.

Lee Sanders is with the American Bakers Association.

SANDERS:"When wheat prices go up 173 percent in one year, it certainly effects how bakers can do business. And how smaller bakers, in particular, if they can keep their doors open."

Those rising wheat prices are being passed on to consumers.

But bakers aren't convinced biotech seeds will lower wheat prices. They're more concerned about how their customers will respond to the idea of genetically modified wheat.

Shoppers in the bread aisle at this Ohio supermarket have mixed views.

SHOPPER 3:"I don't know, it just doesn't sound good. I mean, I don't mind paying a little bit more for bread. Everything else is more expensive now too."

SHOPPER 4:"If it would keep prices down, I'd probably actually go with genetically altered wheat."

GRANT:You might not realize it, but you're already eating lots of genetically modified foods.

The U.S. government says they're safe, so they're not labeled.

But people in many other countries are more aware and a lot more concerned about biotech foods.

Doug Gurian Sherman is a senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists. If American wheat goes biotech, he says farmers will probably lose their export markets.

SHERMAN:"They can go elsewhere and they will go elsewhere. They really are trying to avoid it for any kind of human food use."

GRANT:Even if wheat growers can persuade Monsanto and the others to start researching genetically modified wheat, it will take at least five to ten years before anything is in the field.

By then, farmers say, climate change may make some places so dry that people will need biotech wheat whether they like it or not.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.

Support for the Environment Report comes from the Joyce Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the Americana Foundation. You can get in touch with them at feedback@environmentreport.org.

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 show. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. Our story on a new antibiotic was written by Eric Libby. 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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