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Our World — 06 June 2009


This week on Our World: Using the Internet to track disease outbreaks ... A little invasive pest causes big trouble at a giant hydroelectric dam ... and a new report on women scientists on university faculties ...

LEBOY: "When I first asked about a faculty position in the department, I was told, oh c'mon Phoebe, you know we don't hire women for tenure track faculty."

It's much better now. Those stories, our Website of the Week, and more.




Studies hint at progress in search for vaccine cancer treatment

The American Society of Clinical Oncology wrapped up its annual meeting this week in Orlando, Florida.

Among the scientific presentations were two that advance the idea of using vaccines to treat cancer - in this case lymphoma, cancer of the lymph glands, and the skin cancer known as melanoma.

The two separate studies involved researchers from a number of leading universities, including the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and VOA Houston correspondent Greg Flakus joins us.

Greg, this might be confusing to some people. We normally think of vaccines as a way of preventing disease, but that's not what's going on in these studies, right?

FLAKUS: "No, Art. These are vaccines that are called therapeutic vaccines. In other words, the same basic idea of a vaccine is there in the sense that you're taking part of a protein or something and tweaking it so that it will be used against the disease. To take the example of the melanoma, they would take a small protein from the surface of this cancerous cell and then synthesize it in such a way that they can make a vaccine that would attack it, then reintroducing that into the body of the cancer victim, you have this vaccine then going after that protein and also going after the proteins in the tumor."

Q: That sounds complex, but basically straightforward. What are the challenges?

FLAKUS: "Well of course there are a number of challenges in that the body's immune system is not normally trying to fight off something that the immune system recognizes as part of the body, and the cancer cells are of course growths in the body and so the immune system doesn't necessarily see that as something foreign or something that should be fought off. So trying to trick the immune system into seeing the cancer as a problem is what's difficult."

Q: What was reported in Orlando were Phase III studies, Phase III trials which involve actually giving the prospective drug to human patients. What was the result?

FLAKUS: "Well, the results are that in that study, they found that - and this is again, the one concerning the melanoma - they had what they regard as a significant response rate, 22.1 percent, and a progression-free survival of 2.9 months. And that compares with 1.6 months [for] the people who weren't receiving this vaccine. And in the case of the response rate, it was only 9.7 percent among that control group as opposed to the 22.1 percent. Obviously you're not going to cure everybody with this. But the fact that you got some response to this shows that they're on the right track, and so that means they have to start narrowing in on what is working and what isn't working and see if they can expand that further."

Q: Yeah, it does sound like it's an incremental rather than a dramatic improvement.

FLAKUS: "That's right. It's interesting because I was talking to one of the scientists from M.D. Anderson, Patrick Hwu, who was one of the main people involved in this study. And what he told me was, yes they're excited on one level because they see some progress, they see something there that's working, and that's exciting. But on the other hand, they also have to caution everyone that this is something that's going to take time.

Q: So it sounds like not a magic bullet, but one more weapon in doctor's arsenal.

FLAKUS: "That's right. And of course the thing to be emphasized here is that while some of these changes might seem small, and some of the statistics you look at, you think well, maybe that doesn't seem like a lot, if you're the cancer patient, these things mean a lot."

Q: Sure does. Greg Flakus, VOA Houston correspondent, thanks very much.

FLAKUS: "Okay."




Music calms babies undergoing painful medical procedures

All over the world, in every culture and every language, mothers sing lullabies to calm their babies. Now new research shows that music helps smaller, sicker babies become healthier, too. Details from health reporter Rose Hoban.

HOBAN: Sleep doesn't always come so easily for the littlest babies - those born too early, too small, or sick. Many of those infants end up in neonatal intensive care units, where they are often hooked up to probes and wires, and subjected to painful but necessary poking and prodding from doctors and nurses.

Neonatalogist Manoj Kumar from the University of Alberta has been in many neonatal intensive care units. Often, he says, he sees that the nurses play music next to the incubators holding these sick infants.

KUMAR: "It's very informal, usually, the choice of the music is by the parents. Usually these are slow, sort of smooth lullaby type of music."

HOBAN: But Kumar no one knew for sure whether this music really is of any benefit for babies. So, he reviewed all the studies he could find about lullabies and neonates. He found only nine done over the last 20 years which were rigorous enough to prove anything, and collated their data in an article published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.

Some of the studies found music was useful for babies having painful procedures, such as a skin prick to collect blood, or a circumcision.

KUMAR: "Usually when babies are subjected to painful procedures, their heart rates go up and stay up for a fairly long period of time and they come down as the stress level comes down. So, what they noticed was there was more stability in their heart rates, there was more stability in terms of other physiological parameters as the babies who were not subjected to music while they were going to painful procedures."

HOBAN: Kumar says babies stopped reacting to pain more quickly when music was played and they calmed themselves more efficiently.

The most interesting thing Kumar says he found was that playing music for babies who were undernourished helped them eat better.

KUMAR: "If they were subjected to a system where while they were sucking on their bottles they were able to activate lullaby music, their feeding habits improved. They were able to finish their bottles much faster."

HOBAN: And Kumar says the faster and better these babies ate, the sooner they were able to go home with their families.

He says he'd like to do some original studies on music and infants. Kumar says he wants to see if music alone is best, or if the music is more effective combined with sounds of a heart beat - the kind of rhythm babies might have heard when they were inside their mothers' wombs.

I'm Rose Hoban.




Using the Internet to track disease outbreaks

To track the spread of disease, public health officials rely on what they call surveillance. It's a system of illness reports that ultimately get collected by national and international health agencies.

It's a tried-and-tested system that is centuries old. In one U.S. state, for example, a law back in 1741 required tavern keepers to let authorities know if any customers had smallpox, cholera, or yellow fever.

Now in the digital age, efforts are underway to use 21st century technology to track the spread of disease and maybe get a head start on fighting the next epidemic.

Last year, Google launched Google Flu Trends, which uses influenza-related search terms to track the annual flu season. A website called HealthMap.org combines a wide variety of Internet sour ces in an effort to track disease.

In a recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine, HealthMap's creators describe how this ever-increasing universe of online data can be used for disease surveillance. I spoke this week with the lead author, John Brownstein, of Childrens Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School. I asked him first about the traditional method of doing public health disease surveillance.

BROWNSTEIN: "Public health agencies use things like case reports. They do the traditional shoe-leather epidemiology of case finding and interviews and surveys. There's been a whole movement around trying to use electronic medical records and clinical health systems to automatically capture people coming in and using health care systems. And that's been a major focus of surveillance in the U.S.

"Unfortunately a lot of those technologies are not available globally, and that's why we've been thinking about other types of data sources that might be useful in complementing more traditional disease surveillance systems."

Q: Well, give me a couple of examples.

BROWNSTEIN: "Well, we've been really considering the idea that there's all this information on the Web that is useful for telling us something about outbreaks. For instance, if we take a local newspaper in a local town. The reporter there may be the first person to notice and then, in fact, report on a strange, mysterious illness, well before, say, a public health agency might. So for instance, with H1N1, or swine flu, the earliest report that we could identify of something happening did come off, actually, a local Spanish media source in Mexico."

Q: So besides newspapers I understand that a lot of it is happening in ways that are a little more indirect - such as looking at the pattern of searches going through a search engine.

BROWNSTEIN: "Exactly. So there's two areas. One is where we're seeing people directly reporting on events, whether that's in the news media, whether that's blogs or chat rooms. Then there's the other area, where we're actually able to get the health of the population through how they interact with the Web. So if someone puts a flu-related search term in, we can capture that individual and monitor the population as a whole in terms of people typing in specific terms. Or for instance, a big area right now is Twitter. So people discussing their health on Twitter, on Facebook, that's another area in which we can explore, to capture the overall public health."

Q: This isn't going to put out of business those people who are doing what you call the shoe-leather reporting for public health?

BROWNSTEIN: "Absolutely not. The idea here is really to provide additional information, or what we call situational awareness to people that are doing this type of work to really help them in their job, potentially find things early, and for that matter help monitor the spread of a disease as it emerges. It's highly complementary and not duplicative whatsoever."

Q: Is this still a proof-of-concept or is this now a useful tool for the public health community?

BROWNSTEIN: "I think we're past the concept phase. We actively collaborate with agencies like the CDC and provide them data, so we've seen in practice that these data sources are, in fact, very useful for a whole range of people - whether the general public, physicians, public health practitioners, a whole range of people are now using the site, so we're using the site of just a prototype phase."

Q: What's on the horizon, what's coming next?

BROWNSTEIN: "What our hope is to really engage more people in the process of surveillance and really, for instance, get people to enter in new outbreak information, help us classify things properly, to comment, or if people have firsthand evidence of this to help comment and curate and classify. It's the individual that has the power to really bring the news to the world."

About that personal information about your health that might show up on Twitter or Facebook ... John Brownstein says it gets anonymized and aggregated, so it won't be tracked back to you personally. Brownstein describes Internet-based disease surveillance in the New England Journal of Medicine.





Online science magazine sees links with arts, culture

It's time again for our Website of the Week, when we showcase interesting and innovative online destinations.

This week, a source of science news, comment, and analysis that tries to take a different approach from many of the other great science websites out there.

GORMAN: "SeedMagazine.com is a daily science news website. We report on all the latest breaking science news, but then we place it in context and give the audience something to really chew on, something to really think about and place into the larger perspective of what's going on in the world today."

Don Hoyt Gorman is editor of SeedMagazine.com.

Seed Magazine will keep you up to date with the latest science news and trends, but one thing that distinguishes it from other science journalism, online or otherwise, is a special focus on culture and the arts.

GORMAN: "We believe science is a fundamental, driving element of culture so that science, of course, has an impact on arts. And so what we do is monitor that intersection and report for our audience on how science is driving new ways of expressing ideas through the arts."

You can see that in an engaging feature called the Seed Salon, where you can watch videos of dialogues between noted scientists and thinkers in other fields.

GORMAN: "So you take somebody like [activist and linguistics scholar] Noam Chomsky and [biologist] Robert Trivers, you sit the two of them down together and ask them a question about deceit, self-deceit - what you get over the course of an hour and a half long conversation where we're interviewing them is some really beautiful nuggets of conversation where you can see the lights are going off in both of their heads. They're getting excited about what they're taking about, and they're being inspired by each other. ."

A fresh way of looking at developments in science and technology at SeedMagazine.com, or get the link to this and some 250 other Websites of the Week from our site, VOAnews.com/ourworld.

MUSIC: Jan Hammer - "Seed"

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



Tiny, invasive mussels challenge operators of huge dam

Hoover Dam, near Las Vegas, is one of the world's largest electric power-generating stations. Behind it stretches Lake Mead, a popular recreation area. Now, a tiny invasive species is challenging the dam operators to keep the generators turning. Reporter Shawn Allee checked in with Leonard Willet of the Bureau of Reclamation, which runs the dam.

ALLEE: "Where are we right now?"

WILLET: "It's kind of a work station where all the quagga mussel control activities take place for Hoover Dam, Davis Dam, and Parker [Dam].

ALLEE: Willet first heard quagga mussels were growing in the nearby Lake Mead reservoir in 2007.

He called an expert for advice.

WILLET: "First thing out of her mouth was, 'I'm sorry to hear that.'"

ALLEE: Willet learned quickly enough - quagga mussels attach to nearly anything underwater.

He shows me a sandal that was in water - and is smothered in them.

They're like clams the size of your pinky fingernail.

WILLET: "We went from zero to THAT in seven months."

ALLEE: And that's the problem.

Hoover Dam uses water from Lake Mead to spin generators.

The water moves around in pipes - and quagga mussels can attach to pipes.

What does that mean in a real practical sense?

WILLET: "Our intake towers would close off. Once you start closing off, then you can't spin the turbines"

ALLEE: Zero power generation.

That's the worst-case scenario. It hasn't happened - but it's a fight to prevent it.

WILLET: "Now, we're going to go down to the third floor, which is the generator floor."

ALLEE: The generators are inside broad metal cylinders.

Big water pipes turn the generators. Smaller water pipes cool them off.

WILLET: "Well, we circulate cold water from those pipes. If those start to plug up with mussels, then you can't keep a generator cool. It shuts down due to overheating."

ALLEE: Right now, it takes a lot of scraping to keep everything clear.

All this effort is adding up - Willet says he'll spend $2 million soon on new equipment.

Even with that, Willet is still a bit jittery about some pipes outside, at the very bottom of the dam.

WILLET: "The one that's probably the scariest of all is, we have a fireline that runs around here. Mussels love it. So that's another area you have to really be careful of, safety-wise."

ALLEE: This didn't have to happen.

Quagga mussels invaded eastern rivers and the Great Lakes first.

Experts figure the mussels hitched a ride West on someone's fishing boat, and mussels dropped into Lake Mead.

WILLET: "Actually when they first showed up, I think there was a lot of disagreement among professionals that a little mussel the size of your little finger nail could impact a large hydro facility, but we are quickly that learning a bunch of them can impact water and power delivery."

ALLEE: Willet says if boaters aren't careful - they'll spread quagga mussels to the Pacific Northwest, where there are lots of dams and hydro power plants.

For The Environment Report, I'm Shawn Allee.

Support for the Environment Report comes from the Joyce Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You can hear the Report - and subscribe to the daily podcast at EnvironmentReport.org.



Mixed progress reported for women in university science careers

Finally today ... A few decades ago, there were very few women at major American universities teaching engineering, mathematics, or the physical sciences. There weren't that many women earning the needed qualifications for the jobs, and discrimination was rampant.

LEBOY: "For 22 years I was the only woman on my school faculty, the only tenured woman on my school faculty, I should say. When I first asked about a faculty position in the department, I was told, oh c'mon Phoebe, you know we don't hire women for tenure track faculty."

Phoebe Leboy taught biochemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, and she now heads the Association for Women in Science.

Things are much better now, of course, as described in a new report from the National Research Council, an arm of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. The study was requested by Congress.

The report paints a mixed portrait of the status of women in math, engineering, and science fields at the leading American research universities.

On the one hand, the report's authors conclude that women who apply for faculty positions are interviewed and hired at rates equal to or higher than men, and that women who are considered are just as likely - or more so - to receive tenure.

CANIZARES: "That is not to say there is equity."

MIT physics professor Claude Canizares co-chaired the panel that wrote the report.

Women who interviewed for a job were more likely than men to be hired, it's true. But women with PhDs in math, science, and engineering were less likely to apply for teaching jobs at major research universities.

For example, over several recent years, women earned almost half the doctoral degrees in biology, but accounted for only about one-quarter of the applicants for tenure-track jobs.

CANIZARES: "We continue to find - as many studies have found before - that there's a significant and I would say, my own word, stubborn underrepresentation of women in the academic ranks."

The 10-member panel on gender differences also found that although female applicants were just as likely as men to get tenure - conferring status and job security - women were less likely to be considered for tenure.

Sally Shaywitz, the other co-chair of the gender differences committee and a professor at Yale University School of Medicine, said that may be because women are dropping off the academic career ladder - a phenomenon she calls "leakage."

SHAYWITZ: "Are women leaving their positions more often than men before being considered for tenure? Another possibility is, many more assistant professors have been hired more recently than in the past, and they just haven't had time to climb the academic ladder."

The National Research Council report didn't answer those particular questions, though one reporter at the press briefing said his publication has done stories on how women with PhDs are finding liberal arts colleges a more suitable workplace - more accommodating, perhaps, to woman who are trying to juggle a demanding career with the equally demanding challenge of raising a family.

Phoebe Leboy, the head of the Association for Women in Science we heard from earlier, criticized the new study for focusing on what she called "superficial" matters while failing to deal with the issues that she considers more responsible for the state of women in academic careers.

LEBOY: "The issues of climate, the issues of family-unfriendly policies, and the issues of residual discrimination which doesn't occur in big chunks; it occurs in small wounds."

The report was based on two national surveys. Those involved in the process admit more data and more analysis is needed to fully understand the challenges facing women in the academy. For example, many science departments at many universities are increasingly populated by immigrants - both students and faculty - but the report doesn't address how the increasing internationalization of American academic science may be affecting the academic careers of women scientists, if it is.

One final note from the National Research Council report: women scientists may have made tremendous strides in research universities in the past generation, but among those who made it to the top rung of the academic ladder - full professor - women were paid about eight percent less than their male counterparts.




That's our show for this week.

If you'd like to get in touch with us, our email address is ourworld@voanews.com. Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA

Our World is edited by Faith Lapidus. 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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