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Our World — 11 October 2008


MUSIC: "Our World" theme

This week on "Our World" ... We'll hear from some winners of this year's Nobel prizes ...find out why one-fourth of all mammal species face possible extinction ... and learn why experts are rethinking hospital care of the sickest patients.

SAFRAN: "If you take a healthy, well-nourished person, and give them a week of bed rest, they lose 4-5 percent of their muscle strength. We want patients now to wake up and move when they're in the ICU."

Those stories, bringing the ocean's wonders to museum visitors, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

This year's Nobel Prize winners were named this week.

Three scientists from Europe win the medicine prize for their discoveries of the viruses that cause deadly diseases.

Germany's Harald zur Hausen linked the human papilloma virus to cervical cancer, paving the way for a vaccine against the disease.

French researchers Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier share the honor for the discovery of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV — the cause of the AIDS epidemic.

In an interview posted on the Nobel website, Montagnier said the battle against HIV/AIDS continues.

MONTAGNIER: "Even after 20 years we are still fighting this virus very strongly, and the AIDS epidemic is still spreading in Africa, and so the fight is not finished, and my message is that we should continue the research."

Notably, the Nobel committee did not include American researcher Robert Gallo. After a long dispute, Gallo and Montagnier agreed in 1987 that they would share credit for the discovery of HIV. But many scientists felt the deal was merely a compromise, and did not necessarily reflect the facts of the discovery.

The physics prize went to three Japanese-born researchers. Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa were cited by the Nobel Committee for work that predicted the existence of several kinds of quarks.

American Yoichiro Nambu, with the University of Chicago, was cited for discovering the mechanism for spontaneous symmetry-breaking. His work underpins much of the later work in developing the Standard Model that describes the basic particles and forces of the universe. Many physicists thought the recognition of Nambu's work was long overdue, including fellow University of Chicago Nobel laureate James Cronin.

CRONIN: "He was so far ahead of his time that it maybe wasn't completely realized the importance of his contributions, which are the cornerstone of the standard model of particle physics, which unites the strong interactions, the electromagnetic interactions, and the weak interactions, all in a clear understandable whole."

Nambu came to the United States from Japan in 1952, ironically at the invitation of Robert Oppenheimer. He's the man who led the wartime U.S. project to develop the atomic bomb, which had been used against two Japanese cities in 1945.

Nambu, who has long been an American citizen, told reporters at a news conference in Chicago that early reaction to his work was sometimes skeptical.

NAMBU: "Reaction? I must say, very poor."

Needless to say, the reaction today is a little more positive.

And finally, the Nobel prize for chemistry went to three Americans. Japanese-born Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie, and Roger Tsien were honored for discovering green fluorescent protein.

GFP, as it's known, has become a very useful way to watch biological processes happening. Tsien, who is a professor at the University of California-San Diego, explained that it's possible thanks to a glowing protein first observed in a jellyfish.

TSIEN: "We still don't know why the jellyfish really wants to glow. We can speculate that it wants to glow because of avoiding predation or maybe it wants sex. We can speculate all we want. We haven't figured out a way of asking the jellyfish. And we don't know why, if it really wanted to be glowing, why did it choose green."

The president of the American Chemical Society praised the Nobel committee's choice. I reached Bruce Bursten in Oslo.

BURSTEN: "What the three laureates have done is really use the tools of chemistry to tremendous advantage in studying biology. One of the things that I just marvel at is how simple this is in concept, to basically have proteins that bind to specific metals in living systems, change shape and therefore change physical properties, and allow monitoring. And I think it's a wonderful choice. Very, very clever science."

This year the Nobel prize is worth about $1.4 million in each category. The science prizes will be presented at a ceremony in Stockholm in December.

A survey of the world's mammals has found that one out of four species is threatened with extinction.

A report on the threatened species was released in Barcelona on Monday at the World Conservation Congress and published in the journal Science. Jan Schipper was the lead author of the article.

SCHIPPER: "Well generally, what we're seeing is observationally a decline in a huge amount of species around the world. Depending on how you consider various aspects of the data, there's anywhere between 21 and 36 percent of the species considered to be threatened."

Out of some 5,500 species of mammals, hundreds are listed as endangered or critically endangered. They include a bat called the Mauritian flying fox, the Tasmanian Devil, the Black Crested Gibbon, and many others.

As to why many species of mammals are at risk of becoming extinct, Schipper says deforestation is probably the biggest threat, followed closely by hunting.

SCHIPPER: "But it's actually the compounding effects of when you have both of those acting at the same time in the same areas where we tend to see the highest rates of decline on a regional scale. So where you have, especially, historic deforestation, which leaves usually only remnants of forests, this is where we're starting to see really serious and really rapid decline, as in Southeast Asia, some parts of Africa and even some parts of South and Central America now."

The multi-year survey was conducted by 1,700 researchers working in 130 countries.

SCHIPPER: "One of the reasons this has taken five years for us to complete is because of the sheer volume of information that's out there for mammals. But surprisingly, there's quite a lot of species we still don't know."

The International Union for Conservation of Nature is the group that keeps track of species threatened with extinction on what they call the Red List.

IUCN official Jane Smart says it's not just mammals that are threatened.

SMART: "One in three amphibians. One in eight birds. We have not assessed all the species on the planet, but all those we have assessed tell us that there is very, very bad news."

Including the mammals that Jan Schipper writes about in Science magazine, the IUCN Red List cites more than 44,000 plant and animal species. Almost 17,000 are threatened, and more than 3,200, or seven percent, are in the highest category — "critically endangered" with extinction.

Also at the IUCN's World Conservation Congress in Barcelona this week, health experts from a New York-based conservation group said that global warming could lead to the spread of infectious diseases into new regions of the world. If not addressed, they say, it could be bad news for both human and animal health. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: The Wildlife Conservation Society issued a list it calls the "Deadly Dozen," 12 wildlife diseases or pathogens the organization says could spread into new regions as a result of global warming.

The list includes cholera, the Ebola virus, tuberculosis and yellow fever. Some of the diseases only affect wildlife, some affect humans, and some affect both.

Experts are concerned that changes in climate influence migrations of wild birds, which then could infect domestic poultry over a wider area.

At a conference of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Barcelona, the Wildlife Conservation Society's director of Global Health Programs, William Karesh, says infectious diseases have the potential to spread with increasing temperatures and fluctuating precipitation caused by global warming.

KARESH: "Like some viruses do well in a moist environment, and they'll do better when it gets wetter in some places. Some organisms, like anthrax, survive drying very well. So it changes the distribution of diseases. And what we're concerned about is, we'll start to see diseases in places we didn't see them before."

BERMAN: Karesh says wild animals are very sensitive to changes in their environment, which is why his organization monitors their habitats for early clues that there might be danger.

Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

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

This week we introduce you to one of the Web's top sites for information technology news, comment, and conversation.

FISHER: "Ars Technica is the leading source for news and analysis that is of interest to technologists."

Ken Fisher is editor in chief and founder of ArsTechnica.com, a website whose name is a hybrid of Greek and Latin, but whose content is as up-to-date as the latest software release. There are a lot of technology-oriented websites, of course, with news, comment and product reviews, but Fisher says Ars Technica is different because of the expertise of its staff and contributors, who are tech professionals.

FISHER: "So when we go to a show — say Microsoft puts on a show about technology — we don't really hang out with the other press members that are there. We hang out with the engineers."

Fisher says that professionalism extends to the reader forums, where the topics include computers, gaming, mobile phones, and more.

FISHER: "I'm very proud, actually, of the fact that we have a very mature audience, and again that reliance on fact and accuracy means that the level of discussion is much higher, the so-called signal-to-noise ratio is much better than you find many places online."

News and information from the world of technology from ArsTechnica.com, or get the link to this and more than 200 other Websites of the Week from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Adam Routh — "Funky Droid"

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

While scientists still aren't sure exactly what causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS, new research suggests that better ventilation in a baby's sleeping area can reduce the risk of this mysterious, and often lethal medical phenomenon. Health reporter Rose Hoban has the story.

HOBAN: Over the past two decades, the number of SIDS deaths in the U.S. and Europe dropped dramatically after researchers discovered that babies were less likely to die when they were placed on their backs to sleep.

Dr. De-Kun Li, with the Kaiser Permanente medical system in California, is one of many researchers trying to learn why babies still die from SIDS, and how these deaths can be prevented. He says scientists think SIDS may be caused when babies re-breathe, or breathe back in, the carbon dioxide that they've just exhaled.

Li interviewed the parents of babies who had died of SIDS. He also interviewed the parents of babies who had not died. He says he's found one important difference in the sleeping environment of children who lived — many had fans in the rooms where they were sleeping.

LI: "If there was a fan in the infant's room, the infant's risk of SIDS was reduced by 72 percent compared to infant who did not have a fan of the room."

HOBAN: Li says the theory is that there is a subtle problem in the brains of some babies. These babies don't react by coughing or moving when they re-breathe an excess of carbon dioxide. This is why fans become important.

LI: "The fan can help dissipate any trapped carbon dioxide around the mouth or the baby's airway."

HOBAN: Li says the practice of placing a fan in a baby's room should be added to the list of things parents can do to reduce the SIDS risk to their infants. His research is published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. I'm Rose Hoban.

In many of the world's best hospitals, if you are critically ill and maybe on life support, chances are you will be confined to bed, and maybe sedated. It's a standard protocol, but a new study in JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association, suggests that's often NOT the best route to a successful recovery.

The study's author, Dale Needham, works in the intensive care unit — the ICU — at Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. According to his research, even extremely sick patients can benefit from getting out of bed for a walk.

NEEDHAM: What we know is that deep sedation and bed rest is commonly used in caring for intensive care patients, but that this care may lead to unnecessary muscle weakness and impaired physical function when patients leave the ICU.

So what I'm proposing is a change in paradigm in how we care for critically ill patients. We want patients now to wake up and move when they're in the ICU, and the Johns Hopkins Medical ICU has introduced a new early physical medicine and rehabilitation program in order to create this change.

Q: This is not a new proposal. This really goes back to a paradigm that was in place as early as World War II.

NEEDHAM: You're right. Soldiers that were injured on the front line, when they were hospitalized, they were actively mobilized in order to get them back to the front line as soon as possible.

Q: Well, this is a little bit counterintuitive. It seems like bed rest would actually be good for you. What, actually, sorts of harms do you get when you have an individual who is put in this strict bed rest regimen?

NEEDHAM: If you take a healthy, well-nourished person, and give them a week of bed rest, during that one week they lose 4-5 percent of their muscle strength for each week that they're in bed. So if you have an ICU patient who may tend to be more frail, elderly and certainly malnourished while they're in the ICU, and put them to bed rest for one, two, three, four, five weeks in the ICU, we would expect even larger decreases in muscle strength.

Q: And a word about the overall methodology of the study?

NEEDHAM: So what I talked about in the JAMA publication was really a synthesis or summary of research that's been done in the field. And then finally, we present a single case study of a patient from my ICU that, despite being on life support, was able to be awake, was able to be out of bed and walk laps around the ICU.

Q: And that is "Mr. E."

NEEDHAM: That's right.

Q: There's a picture of Mr. E as he's walking around in the hospital, and he's got two people — maybe nurses, I'm not sure — walking in front of him and behind him. There's a cart-full of equipment. The tubes obviously from the breathing apparatus. It looks like a kind of cumbersome and, well, if you have staff involved, it's an expensive procedure. To what extent is that an impediment?

NEEDHAM: Art, you've identified a critically important question. The resources required to mobilize a patient are tremendous. The thing to keep in mind is that if we don't do this with patients when they're in the ICU, the resources required when they leave the ICU for weeks of rehabilitation are likely much greater than if we deploy those resources while they're in the ICU to prevent or minimize the weakness that results. And I would like to see patients leave the ICU at a higher level of function so that they can get back to work more quickly, so that they can get back to a more normal quality of life more quickly.

Dale Needham's study on intensive-care patients was published Wednesday in the journal JAMA. I reached him at his office at Johns Hopkins University.

Water covers more than seventy percent of the surface of the earth, yet what's underneath the sea is largely unknown and unexplored. Here in Washington — about 170 kms. west of the nearest ocean, incidentally — a new museum exhibit aims to teach visitors more about the ocean ecosystem. Our tour guide is VOA's Rosanne Skirble.

SKIRBLE: While millions of people worldwide live on or near a coast, for most of us our connection with the ocean stops at the beach. Visitors to Sant Ocean Hall are immediately immersed into another world, with hues of green and blue reflected from the glass display cases rippling like waves through the exhibit space.

Overhead and hanging from the ceiling is Phoenix, an exact replica of a 14-meter-long North American Right Whale tracked by scientists since her birth off the coast of Georgia in 1987. Museum director Cristian Samper updates the story.

SAMPER: "She was spotted a few weeks ago off the coast of Maine. And she is 21 years old. She's had three calves. The name comes from being the 'right' whale to hunt. And the fact is that there [are] less than 400 of these whales in the northeast. So it is a species that is at the brink of extinction, where [human] activities will determine the fate of the species for the future."

SKIRBLE: Phoenix appears as if she were swimming in the ocean, because projected on huge panels on the walls over the exhibit hall are videos alive with action: sharks, whales, jellyfish, manta rays, and schools of colorful darting fish.

Diving into the past can be pretty scary too. Witness the nasty looking deep-dwelling giant squid captured by Spanish fishermen in 2005.

SAMPER: "She is the largest, most intact squid specimen anywhere on display. And one of the big challenges is how to display these specimens, because we couldn't have them in thousands of gallons of alcohol with thousands of people around them."

SKIRBLE: So the 7-meter-long female and the smaller male squid are suspended in time in a non-toxic clear liquid developed especially for Sant Ocean Hall. They make a big impression, as do the other specimens from the museum's marine collection — the largest in the world.

SAMPER: "Probably close to 80 million specimens of our collection are marine in one way or another, and we have a tiny fraction on display, but there are close 700 different specimens on display, everything from jellyfish to sea stars. So you can come here and get a pretty good feeling for what's life in the ocean."

SKIRBLE: Visitors are invited to touch fossils or gaze eye-to-eye at a tiny shark in a glass jar. That's why Sally Babylon from Galesville, Maryland, brought her seven-year-old grandson, Elim, who she says already shows a keen interest in the ocean world.

ELIM: "I really liked the one back there, the deep sea one. It is really cool because it has all these sharp teeth. And I like the sculpture over there, the big whale."

BABYLON: "I just want to pass on to him both my appreciation of the beauty of it, and also the care that it takes. That we all have to not pollute and be aware of species that are threatened."

SKIRBLE: And there is a lot more to see. A crowd gathers around the 6,000-liter Indo-Pacific reef aquarium that contains dozens of species. Other eyes are riveted on the two-meter wide iridescent blue and green rotating globe that represents what the earth looks like from space. Projected videos and graphics show how the ocean interacts with the land, the atmosphere, the sea floor, and humans.

VIDEO: "We call the ocean by many names: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian ..."

Cristian Samper hopes this Science-in-the-Sphere and other exhibits help raise awareness about global issues like habitat change, fishery loss, invasive species, pollution, and global warming that affect the health of the planet. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch — maybe you've got a science question we can answer for you — 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. 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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