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Straight ahead on "Our World" … an intriguing advance in stem cell research ... bridging the "health gap" ... and more warnings on climate change ...
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"it's not just about spotted owls, it's not just about snail darters, it is about widespread ecological environmental effects. The canaries in the coal mine are squawking, and we should take that seriously."
those stories, plus a controversial drug for heart disease. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
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A new report from the World Health Organization recommends spending less money on biotechnology and more on finding the best ways to deliver proven medical treatments to people in the developing world. Authors of the study are calling for research to bridge the health care gap between rich and poor nations. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.
Since the rush to develop vaccines against HIV and malaria, biotechnology has been favored over other priorities in the scientific community. High tech research has received the vast majority of grant money amid promises that new and better drugs could eliminate infectious diseases worldwide.
But international health policy analysts say the focus on biomedicine has taken resources away from where they are really needed, at the provider level.
A new report issued by the World Health Organization, entitled "Knowledge for Better Health," calls for a reassessment of how health dollars are spent in the developing world. It's author, Tikki Pang, says research dollars should be earmarked to figure out ways to improve health delivery in some of the world's poorest nations.
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"You know, we can sequence the human genome, and yet we still have huge problems in poor countries with malaria, with tuberculosis, with HIV AIDS, with childhood infections, with the whole range of things."
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Many of the health problems of children are treatable with existing therapies, according to pediatrician Michael English.
In a study published recently in the journal The Lancet, Dr. English reports from Kenya on the severe lack of basic medical interventions, such as adequate nutrition to feed premature infants and malnourished children and antibiotics to treat routine infections. He says seven to 10 illnesses cause 90-percent of childhood conditions that could be cured if there were enough supplies to go around.
The WHO study comes one week before a meeting of 30 health ministers in Mexico City to discuss the Millennium Development Goals adopted by the United Nations. Those goals include improving health by extending the benefits of biomedicine to the developing world. But some observers think the delegates should approve a resolution to strengthen health care delivery in poor nations.
A new study of African-Americans has found that patients at risk of heart failure benefited greatly from BiDil, a new medicine that combines two older drugs.
In heart failure, the heart loses the ability to pump enough blood throughout the body. It's a major type of heart disease, and heart disease is the leading cause of death worldwide. And here in the United States, study co-author Dr. Clyde Yancy says that African-Americans are particularly at risk.
"Not all groups of people have the same experience with heart failure. African-Americans get it more frequently; when they get it, the disease is more severe; and we do know that even when they are well-treated, they end up requiring more hospitalization."
The drug BiDil appears to work by increasing the body's supply of nitric oxide, which is important to the health of the heart and blood vessels.
"These drugs do relax the blood vessels; they make it easier for a weak heart to circulate blood. So that helps patients feel better. We also know that this regimen drops blood pressure to a mild to moderate extent. And we know from other investigations done in the medical literature that when you can lower blood pressure, patients tend to do better.
Although this study was done with African-American patients - the group most at risk for heart failure - the study's head, Dr. Anne Taylor, stressed that this new therapy may be useful on a much wider population:
"It may well have applications in Africa, in Europe, in Asia. This is the beginning of understanding that there is a mechanism of heart failure treatment, which has not been previously addressed by other medications. And so now the task is to determine who will respond and how best to use this drug. So, just limiting it to one ethnic group was a beginning of understanding this particular mechanism of action, but it is not the end of the story."
Some commentators have raised concerns about this study leading to race-based medicine, but that's not something that worries Winston Price, president of the National Medical Association, which represents some 25,000 black physicians. I reached Dr. Price on his mobile phone at a noisy airport lounge in New York.
"I don't think that we should get too clouded about where we go with the benefits of this medication based on this study. That said, the majority of studies done for medications in this country were done on a Caucasian population. And so we have based our treatment guidelines for all populations on studies that were primarily Caucasian.
The BiDil study was reported this week at the scientific sessions of the American Heart Association.
An international team of scientists says the Arctic is warming much more rapidly than previously known because of the burning of fossil fuels around the world. Their four-year study says the Arctic is warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the planet, with major impacts that are spreading far beyond the region, as in rising sea levels. VOA's David McAlary reports from Washington.
The 300 scientists who contributed to the report say concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, have caused a three to four degree Celsius rise in Arctic temperatures over the last 50 years. The report says the trend is expected to continue over the next century with an additional average temperature increase of three to five degrees over land and up to seven degrees over the Arctic Ocean.
The author, Susan Hassol, says the amount of Arctic Sea ice during the summer is expected to decline by at least half by the end of this century.
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"Temperatures have gone up, the sea ice has retreated, the glacial mass is retreating, and the snow cover season is shortening. All of those are very strong evidence of warming from all around the Arctic. What you can see is even greater increases projected for the future than what we've seen in the past."
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The scientific assessment was commissioned by the Arctic Council, a ministerial level organization composed of the United States and seven other nations with Arctic regions and six indigenous peoples' groups. The council will consider the findings at a meeting this week in Reykjavik, Iceland.
The report incorporates results from five major global climate models used by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The chairman of the panel who wrote the report, Robert Correll of the American Meteorological Society, says that if the Arctic ice cover declines as expected, polar bears and some seal species may become extinct and Arctic peoples will suffer severe economic consequences.
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"Climate change is really happening in the Arctic and it is having deleterious effects on many systems. The preponderance of evidence is suggesting that it is creating some very difficult times for the people who live there, for the animals and plants that are residing there."
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The impact will soon be felt beyond the Arctic, according to Michael McCracken of the U.S.-based non-profit organization the Climate Institute. He says the most pronounced global effect will be rising sea levels, which will inundate coastlines and other low areas.
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"There's a lot of ice on Greenland. Once we start this melting going, We're talking about sea level rise around the globe, so everybody is going to experience it, particularly regions that have low lying areas."
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Two senators from the opposing U.S. political parties -- Republican John McCain and Democrat Joseph Lieberman -- say the report shows that global warming is making it more difficult for human society and wildlife to adapt. They again plan to propose a law requiring cuts in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Those are the gases that scientists say trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming. The senators' effort last year failed by seven votes in the 100 seat Senate.
President Bush rejects that approach and decided against allowing the United States to sign an international treaty that imposes such limits, the Kyoto Protocol. He argues that the accord would hurt American economic growth because he says it requires more of the United States than of other countries. Instead, he seeks voluntary cuts in greenhouse gas emissions and calls for an increase in government spending on climate change research.
And there was another study on global warming this week. According to a report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, warming temperatures in the United States indicate potentially serious impacts on American ecosystems and wildlife. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
TEXT: The Pew report is based on a broad range of scientific studies that link warming temperatures in the United States with observed ecological changes.
Studies show, for example, that butterflies are moving north and to higher altitudes and that some have disappeared altogether in the southern end of their regions. The red fox is expanding north into the range of the arctic fox and warm-water fish are entering the waters off California coast an area previously dominated by cold-water fish.
The report says such migrations could alter competition and predator-prey relationships. Co-author Hector Galbraith of the University of Colorado says the basic functions of the ecosystem are at stake.
AUDIO-1 HECTOR GALBRAITH
We might like to think of pollination [and reproduction] of plants as an ecosystem function. If communities [of plants and animals] dissociate or split apart under climate change, ecosystems may lose that capability because plants and animals migrate at different rates.
TEXT: Mr. Galbraith says public attention has focused on the endangered status of the spotted owl and snail darter and not on changes in more common species.
AUDIO-2 HECTOR GALBRAITH
I think that it provides a very clear signal that people take seriously that it is not just about spotted owls and snail darters, it is about widespread ecological environmental effects. The canaries in the coal mine are squawking, and we should take that seriously.
TEXT: The United States pulled its support from the Kyoto Protocol the U.N. sponsored global climate change agreement - shortly after President Bush took office four years ago.
Pew Center President Eileen Claussen says the report calls on decision-makers to make greater efforts to minimize the impact of climate change.
She says the Pew report makes two major recommendations.
AUDIO-3 EILEEN CLAUSSEN/SKIRBLE
One is that we have to start taking action to reduce emissions, and I should say what is happening on the state level good as it is is not enough. The report also urges governments to take into account and to try to help species to adapt at the same time that we try to reduce emissions so the problem does not get so much worse.
SKIRBLE: What is it going to take to do that?
EILEEN CLAUSSEN: Will … political will and money.
TEXT: Eileen Claussen says it is unlikely that the White House will shift its policy on climate change. However, she does see some hopeful signs among Republican leaders.
New York Governor George Pataki and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger favor policies that address climate change. So does Senator John McCain, a Bush supporter who some political analysts say might make a run for the White House in 2008.
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Early in the coming week, the X-43 space plane is set to make its third test flight, and engineers at the US space agency, NASA hope the aircraft will reach a record-shattering speed of mach 10 - that's 10 times the speed of sound, or more than 12,000 kilometers per hour.
This will be the third and final test flight of the small, unmanned vehicle, which uses an exotic engine called a scramjet. The first X-43 test failed, but the second, last March, successfully flew at Mach 7. At a pre-flight briefing for reporters, program manager Vince Rausch stressed the experimental nature of the X-43 program.
"This is flight research, so there is risk in this program. And we fully anticipate that we have reduced that risk to acceptable levels, but you never are sure, especially when you're doing something for the first time -- going to mach 10 -- until we actually fly."
The $230-million X-43 program is expected to provide data to help designers of the next generation of supersonic aircraft and spacecraft.
The independent software developers known as The Mozilla Project this week officially released version 1 of Firefox, a free web browser that experts say is easier to use and more secure than the industry's dominant browser -- Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Internet Explorer -- or IE -- is included as a part of the Windows operating system, which gives it a big headstart. Firefox may be free, but you do have to download and install it, and that's more work than most users want to do. IE's market share is down a couple of points in recent months, but it's still the preferred choice of an estimated 90 percent of web surfers.
Well, you can certainly use Firefox to view our Website of the Week, but it might seem a little strange to use a free browser to get information about money, and that's just what Oanda.com is all about: money. Specifically, currency exchange, and company co-founder Michael Stumm says they offer information for a variety of different users.
"Obviously travelers, they go look up what are the exchange rates if they go travel to a foreign country. There's companies that do import-export. They need to exchange currency. They want to look up what the rates are. People doing taxes. It's all sorts of different people."
The Oanda.com website provides different exchange rates, depending on the kind of transaction. It's especially instructive -- and helpful -- to see just how many different kinds of exchange rates there actually are.
"The most expensive are the cash shops you'll find at the airport, train stations, in cities. Those are by far the most expensive. The banks that trade among themselves in million-dollar quantities, they get the best rates. That is referred to as the Interbank rate. Credit cards are actually quite good. Cash cards in ATM machines -- those also offer reasonably good exchange rates for consumers. "
At Oanda.com, you can not only find out what a country's money is worth -- both current and past rates -- you can also see what the money looks like, thanks to the pictures contributed by users.
"They can upload images of the currencies of their home countries, say, and make it available to anybody in the world to go look at what the currencies look like. It's actually very interesting to see all those different types of bills and what the images are that are on it, or the pictures. It's a very popular part of our site."
The Oanda site also provides news about the currency market. Travelers will appreciate a handy feature that allows you to print out a wallet-size quick-reference card for any pair of currencies. So for a website that's right on the money, surf on over to Oanda.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
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HOST: In a breakthrough for stem cell research, scientists at the University of Pennsylvania have announced that they have successfully cultivated the cells that produce mouse sperm. The development promises many possible benefits from continued fertility for male cancer patients after chemotherapy to a kind of genetic immortality. VOAs Adam Phillips has more.
TEXT: It helps to know a bit about stem cells in general to appreciate the importance of what Ralph L. Brinster, a reproductive biologist and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania have achieved with mouse sperm stem cells.
Stem cells are non-specific “parent” cells that “differentiate” or transform themselves into various types of “daughter” cells, each with its own highly specific function, as Dr. Brinster explains.
“All stem cells do two things: they make another copy of themselves, so they exist forever in the body, and they also make a daughter cell which will develop into the characteristic cell of that tissue, like a nerve cell or a blood cell. But in the case of a Spermatagonial stem cell, this cell develops into a sperm. Sperm are the product of Spermatagonial stem cells.”
TEXT: And what a lot of product it is! Every time the male heart beats, the stem cells in the testes – the sperm glands within the scrotum - produce about a thousand sperm. Each carries copies of the father’s DNA, which, when combined with the DNA in the mother’s egg, produces a genetically similar, yet unique offspring. Dr. Brinster notes that this mechanism makes biological diversity possible.
TEXT: In 1994, Dr. Brinster and his fellow researchers successfully transplanted the sperm stem cells from a fertile animal into the testes of an infertile animal, which then produced the sperm of the original animal.
Now. Dr. Brinster has demonstrated that it is possible to grow sperm stem cells in a lab outside the testes and freeze them indefinitely for later use. That, theoretically at least, makes it possible to preserve the genetic line of any male forever. A race horse can father an endless variety of progeny long after it is dead, for example, and endangered species might be saved.
“If you lose a male or a male dies before puberty, you could harvest the stem cells, freeze them, and you have preserved that individual genetic diversity even if the animal is gone! In essence, this technique, coupled with the freezing and the transplantation, makes any male line immortal. Biology doesn’t care what you look like as long as you get that DNA transmitted to the next generation!”
TEXT: According to Dr. Brinster, it will soon be possible to cultivate human sperm stem cells in a lab outside the testes. It would be an achievement with many potential benefits.
AUDIO: BRINSTER“… So you can use the stem cells in the treatment of certain types of infertility in males. If they have a low among of Spermatagonial stem cells into their testes, they may not make enough sperm. So you may be able to take them out, grow them up and reintroduce them.
Or, for example, for men that are undergoing chemotherapy and they’ll lose all their stem cells. You can take some out and freeze them -- because we’ve show some years ago we can also freeze these – and then when the cancer is cured, you can grow them up and reintroduce them into the testes.”
TEXT: Dr. Ralph L. Binster is a reproductive biologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia Pennsylvania. He and his fellow researchers announced this week that they have successfully grown the stem cells for mouse sperm in a laboratory. For Our World, I’m Adam Phillips in New York.
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That's our show for this week. If you've got a question about science, technology, health or the environment, we'd like to answer it. And we've got a VOA gift for you -- IF we use your question on the program. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or write us at -
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.
Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. 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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