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Our World Transcript — March 12-13, 2005


This transcript is provided as a service; there may be some variation between it and the program as broadcast.

MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... Aspirin and women's health ... evidence of genetic damage to the fetus when a mother smokes ... and the value of seed banks...

HAWTIN: "It was because of that material held in the international gene bank that the agriculture was able to be restored and why we didn't hear, for example, of widespread famine in Afghanistan."

Banking seeds for the future, plus high school science projects that will amaze you. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

For years, doctors have been advising many of their patients to take a daily, low-dose aspirin pill to protect against heart attack and stroke. The advice was based on extensive studies. But although doctors were suggesting the aspirin regimen to both men and women, the aspirin research had been done mainly on men.

Well, that changed this week with results of a 10-year study of 40,000 women and how they respond to aspirin therapy.

The new research, led by Dr. Julie Buring, found that women do benefit from aspirin, but in different ways from men.

BURING: "For example, aspirin in what's called 'primary prevention among apparently healthy people' does work on cardiovascular disease for both men and women. But for men it reduces the risk of a heart attack, and for women it appears to reduce the risk of stroke.

Dr. Buring, who is an epidemiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said one likely reason for the difference in aspirin's effects is that heart disease, itself, is different in men and women.

BURING: "We know that men and women do differ with respect to cardiovascular disease. A man gets heart disease about 15 years earlier than a woman does. So it should be of no surprise that an agent such as aspirin might really have a different effect or a different risk-to-benefit ratio."

And there are risks involved in using aspirin, even a dose as small as 100 milligrams every other day, as in this study. Aspirin is a powerful drug, and it helps prevent blood clots from forming. That's why it can help prevent or even treat some cardiovascular events. But there is a downside, too. Aspirin increases the risk of bleeding in the stomach or brain, and it may interact with other medicines.

Dr. Buring points out that, although there are differences between men and women, there are also similarities in how the two sexes respond to aspirin. Take the group known as "survivors of a prior event."

BURING: "They've had a heart attack or a stroke. For those people, whether you are a man or a woman, aspirin has been clearly shown to reduce the risk of dying of that event or having another event."

Commenting on the findings, cardiologist and women's health advocate Nieca Goldberg stressed the importance of aspirin for women who have certain risk factors.

GOLDBERG: "For instance, women who have diabetes or a family history of heart disease. Women who have already had a heart attack or heart surgery should be on an aspirin a day, and we know from other studies [that] these women who are at high risk for heart disease aren't getting the aspirin."

Dr. Goldberg, who appeared on NBC television's "Today" show, is head of cardiac rehabilitation at New York's Lenox Hill Hospital.

There are several reasons why previous studies on heart disease focused on men. Bias in the male-dominated research community might have been a factor, but study author Julie Buring notes that men are also more likely to have a heart attack.

BURING: "The studies that were done first were among men, because at any given age men have a higher risk of having a heart attack than women do. But that also meant that the recommendations that were made for women were made on the basis primarily of data in men.'

As the massive Women's Health Study indicates, that is finally changing.

The head of the U.S. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, Dr. Elizabeth Nabel, said in a written statement that many women, especially those over age 65, will benefit from taking a low-dose aspirin every other day. But she stressed the importance of checking with your doctor first.

The study on women and aspirin is being published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Dr. Buring announced the findings this week [March 7] at the American College of Cardiology.

In the United States we observe March as Women's History Month, a time to reflect on the achievements of American women. And we do our part here at "Our World" with our Website of the Week, the National Women's Hall of Fame, at greatwomen.org.

LUISI-POTTS: "The criteria are that the woman's achievement has to have had enduring, broad and significant impact across the country and/or across the world."

Billie Luisi-Potts is executive director of the National Women's Hall of Fame, which was established in 1969 in Seneca Falls, New York, a relatively small, out of the way place today where the first U.S. Women's Rights Convention was held in 1848. Whether you visit in person or online, you'll find that the Women's Hall of Fame honors a cross-section of personalities, both living and dead, from diplomat Madeleine Albright to jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald to businesswoman Madam C.J. Walker to astronaut Sally Ride.

LUISI-POTTS: "Very comprehensive and extremely diverse - all sections of the country, all ethnicities, and I think that has always been a goal from the start is to have the most comprehensive reflection of women's contributions to the development of the nation as was possible."

At the Hall of Fame's website, each of the 207 women inductees has a biographical sketch, photo and references for further information. Executive director Billie Luisi-Potts says the references to books or online resources about each of the women in the Hall of Fame were added recently in recognition of the site's main users.

LUISI-POTTS: "We see our website as a researcher's tool. We know that the major constituency are educators and students, who use the site very intensively. So last year we expanded the information by adding bibliographic and website citations for every inductee, and we will be expanding by putting up curricula and lesson plans, so that's coming.

The Hall of Fame inducts new members each year. This year's selection included Senator and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Patricia Locke, who worked to preserve American Indian languages, and Maya Lin, the architect who designed Washington's landmark Vietnam Veterans Memorial. To learn about them or more than 200 other notable American women, surf on over to GreatWomen - all one word - GreatWomen.org, or get the link from our site, VOANews.com/ourworld.


Spanish researchers have discovered the first direct evidence that smoking by pregnant women can damage the genes of their unborn fetuses. They say that some of the genetic mutations they observed raise the newborn's risk of developing leukemia. VOA science correspondent David McAlary reports.

McALARY: In a study of 50 pregnant women, scientists in Barcelona found more abnormalities in fetal cells taken from the 25 women who smoked than in the other 25 who had never used tobacco.

The abnormalities occurred in fetal chromosomes, the microscopic strings of DNA in cells that contain genes. Such aberrations can lead to disease and other dysfunction. The Spanish researchers saw the abnormalities after extracting cells the fetuses shed into the fluid surrounding them in the womb.

In a report in the Journal of the American Medical Association [news release], they say the smoking mothers had about three times more fetal genetic alterations than the non-smoking women.

Physician Josep Egozcue of the Autonomous University of Barcelona says his team found that one particular fetal chromosome region was the most frequently disturbed.

EGOZCUE: "Chromosome instability is known to be linked to cancer. But we found abnormalities in a specific chromosome region which are present in many types of leukemia, especially in infants with leukemia, but also in children and adults."

McALARY: Scientists have never before found such direct genetic evidence of the toxicity of maternal smoking on a developing fetus.

The study was rigorous. The researchers set rigid conditions that limited the number of participants to fifty. None could have been exposed to other potential gene-altering agents during their pregnancy, such as radiation, alcohol, or caffeine. The smokers had to have had at least 10 cigarettes a day for 10 years, while the non-smokers could not have been exposed to the exhaled smoke of others anywhere while pregnant.

A U.S. government scientist who studies cancer-causing agents in the environment, David DeMarini, calls the study heroic.

DeMARINI: "That's one reason this study has never been done before. No one has ever gone out and said, 'Let's find some smoking mothers and non-smoking mothers and look at the actual cells of the baby for chromosomal mutations.'"

McALARY: However, Mr. DeMarini argues that the study is not definitive because of its small size and some other reasons. His major criticism is that the chromosome mutations detected are the very same kind that occur spontaneously in the laboratory when cells are cultured and grown for several days in a dish, as were the studied fetal cells. But he is not discounting the findings completely.

DeMARINI: "The fact is there are three times more of them, mutations, showing up in the smokers than in the non-smokers, so you can't completely ignore it."

McALARY: Dr. Egozcue in Barcelona says that is precisely the point of the study. He questions Mr. DeMarini's argument.

EGOZCUE: "They say that [lab] culture conditions may have influenced the results, but all cultures were subject to the same conditions. So why did these conditions, then, affect the smokers' fetuses more than the other ones? I don't understand."

McALARY: David DeMarini says that, although the study should be repeated with larger numbers of participants, it does conform to what is already known about the hazards of smoking during pregnancy, and that pregnant women should take note.

MUSIC: "Smoke That Cigarette" (In Cahoots)

In a speech delivered to U.S. governors at last month's National Education Summit, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates pointed out that American high school seniors rank near the bottom in math and science when compared to their peers around the world. But at a select group of American public high schools across the nation, teens are exploring math and science on a level generally reserved for university students. VOA'S Susan Logue visited one of those schools in the suburbs of Washington, DC, and prepared this report:

LOGUE: At first glance, Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology seems like many other suburban American high schools. Between classes, noisy students spill out into crowded hallways lined with lockers. But talk with some of the students about what they are working on, and it's clear that this school is different:

STUDENTS: "[I'm] Scott Cole. I am testing the effects of creatine on earthworms. Creatine monohydrate is a supplement used in bodybuilding to enhance muscle gains. I'm feeding it to earthworms. Hopefully they will grow to be larger than the average earthworm. So far they just don't eat the creatine. I'm Tim Smith. George Harris. Makoto Bentz. Were working on a Japanese text-to-speech synthesizer that takes in whatever input we give it, coverts it to a sound and you hear Japanese from whatever English you put in."

LOGUE: Other seniors at Thomas Jefferson are designing buildings or fashions in the computer-assisted design lab, building robots in the robotics lab, creating a video yearbook in the video technology lab, or developing a microbial fuel cell in the chemical analysis lab.

Students can choose from twelve different science and tech labs in which to do their senior tech projects, a requirement for graduation. Rahul Guha says students spend much of their first three years at Thomas Jefferson preparing for these year-long research projects.

GUHA: "In order to get into a lab, you have to work on a proposal in freshman and sophomore year, a philosophy of what you want to study. Then you have to start taking core classes to specialize in that lab. For example, you can study DNA science to get into the biotechnology lab, which I am in."

LOGUE: Rahul is doing his lab work off-campus at a state university as part of Thomas Jefferson's mentorship program. The director of the program, Jerry Berenty, says students serve as lab assistants to working scientists, and apply what they have learned in school to real world science and technology.

BERENTY: "They may be working on stem cell research at the NIH or working on pathologies at Walter Reed [Army Medical Center]. Astronomers work at universities and the naval observatory. They make great discoveries and commit themselves to endless amount of hours to the type of work that sometimes a lot of these research types can ill afford to hire someone to do."

LOGUE: The emphasis may be on science and technology at Thomas Jefferson, but students here have a broad range of other interests, from athletics to drama, and from art and music to politics. And there are ample opportunities to explore those interests in extracurricular activities. Some students, like Sasha Tobin, decide by their senior year that they are going to pursue a career in a field outside of science and technology:

TOBIN: I'm interested in politics, maybe foreign service, something like that. I'm taking a lot of courses geared toward that. I'm taking European history. All four years I've taken Spanish, so I hope to go into a more humanities-oriented career rather than science or research.

LOGUE: No matter what field they pursue, graduates of Thomas Jefferson High School will be well-equipped for careers in the technology-driven 21st century. But the students here represent an elite group, even within the region. Last year, more than 2,600 8th graders applied for a chance to study at Thomas Jefferson instead of their local high school. Of that number, only 450 -- less than 20 percent -- were selected, based on test scores, grades, and recommendations from their teachers.

Thomas Jefferson, you may know, was the third president of the United States. What you may not know is that, among his other talents, he was also an inventor. His innovations included an improved plow, a portable device for encoding messages, and what he called a polygraph, which could create a duplicate copy of a document as he wrote it.

Susan's report is the first in what we plan to be an occasional series of reports on "Our World" on science education in the United States. So stay tuned....

INTRO: Finally today ... leading international crop scientists came to Washington this week with a warning: food production in the United States and other countries is at risk unless steps are taken to improve the world's seed storage facilities. They spoke at a briefing on Capitol Hill, and VOA's Rosanne Skirble was there:

SKIRBLE: Crop farmers in the United States annually grow and sell more than 190 billion dollars worth of food and fiber products. And nearly every major crop they grow is faced with pests and or emerging plant diseases, for which there is no resistance.

Right now, for example, the $18 billion a year U.S. soybean harvest is being threatened by a persistent fungus called soybean rust.

World-renowned botanist Peter Raven said a critical part of the battle to protect the soybean crop has been the search for genetic varieties that can resist the fungus.

For the most part, that search is taking place in seed storage facilities scattered around the globe known as gene banks, where millions of samples of wild, traditional and modern crop plants are held in protective reserve.

Mr. Raven said looking for the right soybean gene among tens of thousands in the gene bank has been a difficult challenge:

RAVEN: …Screening of 16,000 strains of soybeans in the United States didn't lead to the detection yet of any genes that would be useful for resistance in that context.

SKIRBLE: But the global search continues, as it must. Plant breeders must constantly work to select for traits that produce higher-yielding food crops, and help farmers to stay one step ahead of pests, disease and even climate change.

U.S. farmers also rely today on fewer crops than they did decades ago, and the crops they are growing are more vulnerable to emerging diseases and environmental changes. That, said Mr. Raven, is why new crops must always be developed, and why the gene bank system is so important.

Approximately 1500 seed repositories exist around the world. These storage facilities house genetic material to develop new varieties that increase yield, overcome disease and adapt to environmental conditions like weeds, drought and poor soils.

Gene banks are also central to rebuilding an agricultural economy destroyed by war or natural disaster.

A case in point is Afghanistan.

Geoffrey Hawtin is Interim Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a Rome-based international fund supported by public and private donations. He said the Afghan gene bank - lost in war - got a second chance.

HAWTIN: "Fortunately there was a duplicate in the international collection. And why do I say fortunately? Because many of those materials that we had collected in farmer's fields you can no longer find in farmer's fields. The agriculture of the country had largely been destroyed, and it was because of that material held in the international gene bank that the agriculture in Afghanistan was able to be restored and why we didn't year, for example, of widespread famine in Afghanistan."

SKIRBLE: The collection revived agriculture in the country. But gene banks face mounting stress around the globe. Few of the gene banks meet international standards. One sixth of the collected seed samples are deteriorating.

A power failure in Cameroon destroyed a collection of root and tuber crops important to Africa's food security. A valuable plant gene collection in Russia is largely inaccessible because of a lack of funds to translate and computerize data. Another in China has lost 60 percent of its citrus seed repository.

Geoffrey Hawtin said it is in the best interest of both developed and developing nations to protect these plant collections.

HAWTIN: "In the U.S., in Europe, the amount of diversity that farmers are using on the fields is much less, but the diversity exists in gene banks and in a lot of cases, diversity only exists in gene banks. And it is extremely important when you grow it out that you grow it in conditions that it was originally collected in. Otherwise you get what is known as genetic drift, which means that you are losing some genes just naturally, which is why it is so important that many of these collections are maintained in developing countries themselves where the material originated."

SKIRBLE: What is needed is financial support. The Global Crop Diversity Trust, of which Geoffrey Hawtin is the interim director, was created in 2004 to provide grants to threatened gene banks.

HAWTIN: "The effort that we are putting in at the moment is concentrating on some 35 crops and 30 forage species and eventually we hope and would plan to cover all of the genetic resources of importance to food and agriculture. The reasons for picking these first ones is that there are agreed international systems in place for how these materials will be exchanged, how the benefits that arise from them and so will be exchanged."

SKIRBLE: Geoffrey Hawtin said the Trust is building a 260 million dollar endowment to support gene banks and global crop diversity. And he's hopeful the effort will succeed. The Trust has already raised 20 percent of the projected endowment from governments, foundations, corporations and private donors.

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