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MUSIC: Our World theme
Straight ahead on "Our World" ... benefits of a low-fat diet for breast cancer survivors ... a space pioneer criticizes NASA ... and a big step forward in stem cell research
SCHATTEN: "Regardless of age, regardless of sex, regardless of infirmity, they have been able to establish stem cells that promise incredible breakthroughs in medicine and science."
Those stories, a helpful drug for Alzheimer's patients, and more. ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
South Korean researchers who last year became the first to clone human embryos have announced a big step forward in stem cell research. Their purpose is to create embryos as a source for human stem cells to treat patients. As VOA's David McAlary reports, they have isolated several new stem cell lines from their latest embryo crop compared to only one line last year. but the work raises ethical questions.
McALARY: Researchers at Seoul National University report in the journal "Science" that they cloned the human embryos in the same manner as last year, by transferring the nucleus of skin cells into donated human eggs whose nucleus had been removed. The embryo clones artificially fertilized this way grew into a clump of cells in laboratory dishes genetically matched to the skin cell donors, who all had some disease or injury.
The scientists then removed stem cells from each embryo, showing they established several new stem cell lines. These are the basic, undifferentiated cells that can develop into any kind of tissue and are believed to have the potential to treat many illnesses.
The fact that the stem cells were genetically matched to the individual skin cell donors means that science has the potential to offer them specifically tailored therapies if they can be safely transplanted into their disease or injury sites.
SCHATTEN: "This brings us much closer to the day when clinical grade stem cells might be available."
McALARY: This is University of Pittsburgh reproductive biologist Gerald Schatten, who advised the Korean laboratory on data analysis and preparation of their English-language paper.
SCHATTEN: "This year's announcement represents a stunning, spectacular set of breakthroughs in just one year."
McALARY: When the Korean researchers performed the procedure last year, they were able to create only one human stem cell line from the eggs of 16 women. That was a breakthrough in itself because human stem cells before then had been taken only from embryos obtained by conventional fertilization.
Nevertheless, last year's single stem cell line was the product of introducing skin cell nuclei from a healthy woman into her own eggs. This left the question of whether the process could be successful when implanting the nucleus of cells from a person of any gender, age, and health status into the egg of a unrelated donor.
The latest experiment shows that it can work.
SCHATTEN: "This year, their efficiencies have gone up between 10 to 16 times greater. Regardless of age, regardless of sex, regardless of infirmity, they have been able to establish stem cells that promise incredible breakthroughs in medicine and science."
McALARY: But the Korean stem cell success this year and last has caused several U.S. groups to fear that the work is a blueprint someone will copy to clone a baby. They are renewing their calls for laws to prevent this.
South Korea has such a law and regulations requiring the strict monitoring of stem cell research to ensure no human is created by cloning. Similar legislation has stalled in the United States because some lawmakers, such as Republican party Senator Sam Brownback, insist it ban not only the creation of cloned infants but also the making of cloned embryos for research.
BROWNBACK: "There is only one type of cloning, and when successful always results in the creation of a human. I, along with the President and the vast majority of Americans, do not believe that we should create a human life just to destroy it."
McALARY: Many others, including Gerald Schatten, argue that banning embryo cloning for stem cell research prevents scientific inquiry they believe would dramatically improve disease treatments. They say allowing it would not weaken measures to prevent cloning people.
While the debate rages in the United States, Bush administration policy bans scientists funded by the U.S. government from conducting research on human embryo stem cell colonies created after August, 2001, when President Bush introduced the regulation.
CHIMES: On Friday, President Bush threatened to veto a bill making its way through Congress to expand the limits on government funding for embryonic stem cell research. He said if the bill promotes "science which destroys life in order to save life," he would veto it.
Another medical story in the news this week might be of more immediate use to women who have had breast cancer and are hoping to avoid a recurrence of the disease.
In a study of more than 2,000 breast cancer survivors, those who were put on a low-fat were less likely to have a recurrence of their cancer than those who stayed on their regular diet.
Dr. Rowan Chlebowski of the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles presented the results of the five-year study at the American Society of Clinical Oncology meeting in Florida.
CHLEBOWSKI: "Survival was longer in the diet group, with 12.4 percent being disease free, compared to 9.8 percent in the control group, representing a 24 percent reduction in recurrence risk.
Statistically, the results of the study were not dramatic. Dr. Chlebowski himself admits the results were borderline, and he hopes to continue studying the same group of women to see if the low-fat diet -- the intervention, he calls it -- will continue to be associated with reduced risk of a recurrence of cancer.
CHLEBOWSKI: "But having said that, the intervention could be recommended for other health benefits. So it's something that a breast cancer survivor potentially, after discussion with her [doctor], could consider."
Whatever benefit a low-fat diet may have for cancer survivors, the women on the low-fat diet lost an average of almost 2 kilos, and doctors often recommend a low-fat diet to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Getting participants to reduce their consumption of fat was no simple matter. Women assigned to the low-fat diet group received intensive, ongoing counseling from specially-trained dieticians.
CHLEBOWSKI: "Many of our participants actually stated that one of the reasons they were doing this was because of their relationship with the dietician. There's benefit from feedback and adjustments. One of the things the dieticians would do is, when people had trouble, they would be able to propose a solution, where other people couldn't get around the problem. They said, I need, I have to eat ice cream or something like that. [The dieticians] would propose a potential, where an individual by themself would just get stuck and then would just kind of give up. I think that's the other issue that that came up: ongoing motivation but also problem solving that the patients couldn't come up with by themselves."
Commenting on the study, Dr. Len Lichtenfeld of the American Cancer Society recalled an interest expressed by cancer patients three decades ago, when he was beginning his medical career, in macrobiotic and other special diets that would get them -- the patients -- involved in their cancer care.
LICHTENFELD: "Even back then, people were interested in knowing what they could do to help themselves if they were diagnosed with cancer. Here we are, 30 years later, and now what is exciting about this particular study is [that] we do have a randomized, controlled trial that suggests that a lowfat diet -- and not a particularly strict low-fat diet, but a modestly low-fat diet -- can actually delay the recurrence of breast cancer in a particular group of women."
Dr. Lichtenfeld stressed that the low-fat diet seemed to benefit certain women more -- those who had what is called estrogen receptor, or ER-negative breast cancer. That type represents about one-third of breast cancers, but they tend to have a poorer prognosis.
For our Website of the Week we take a look deep inside the human body ... as seen by the publishers of anatomy books in centuries past.
Historical Anatomies on the Web is an online exhibition with high-resolution images from historically- and artistically important books depicting human organs and structures. It's a project of the U.S. National Library of Medicine, and the head of their Rare Books & Early Manuscripts section, Michael North.
Mr. North says that from about the mid-16th century, both anatomical knowledge the technology of engraving and printing made it possible to publish reasonably accurate anatomy books.
NORTH: "Beginning with Andreas Vesalius's work, 'De Fabrica Corporis Humani' in 1543, that's really sort of the first detailed, somewhat accurate anatomy that came out. It was really sort of a revolution in the study of medicine and anatomy. And from then on, the anatomies basically just started getting better and better.By the middle of the 19th century, the introduction of new publication technology and more advanced knowledge of human anatomy resulted in a dramatically-different looking book.
By the middle of the 19th century, the introduction of new publication technology and more advanced knowledge of human anatomy resulted in a dramatically-different looking book.
NORTH: "Color lithography was available. Color, of course, added certain dimensions that these black-and-white woodcuts and copper plate engravings earlier could not. And then of course in the late 19th century, photography began being used. And I don't have any examples of that in this collection, at least not yet."
By using large, high-resolution images, Michael North says his online exhibit aims to provide the level of detail you could get if you sat down with these rare and old volumes with a magnifying glass. Still, there are some things he says that don't translate well over the Internet.
NORTH: "You're always going to miss some of that: the quality of the printing and the paper. Another thing that I think is a bit lost, though, is the size of some of these books. For instance, the ... 'General Anatomy of the Viscera' by [Gautier d'Agoty.] It's an enormous book. It almost takes two people to pick it up."
No, browsing books online isn't the same as holding the original volume. But on the other hand, you can do it from the comfort of your own computer, and there's no heavy lifting required, and no travel.
Our Website of the Week is Historical Anatomies on the Web at www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/historicalanatomies. Or better yet, get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
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It's science fiction, not science fact, but we do have to mention that the sixth and final Star Wars film opened Thursday. "Episode III: Revenge of the Sith" is showing at thousands of cinemas -- including a handful offering the latest in movie theater technology, digital projection. George Lucas's galactic epic began a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away -- well, 1977 in Hollywood. Science fiction has been a staple of the movie industry at least since the 1902 French classic, "A Trip to the Moon," the Georges Méliès fantasy adapted from Jules Verne.
You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
Medical imaging has come a long way in the 110 years since X-rays were first introduced. To take advantage of today's advanced technologies requires sophisticated equipment, but also trained specialists who can interpret the results. That may not be a problem at major medical centers, but outside of the wealthiest countries it can be an obstacle. Now, a medical school professor in the United States and a student of his originally from Serbia have teamed up to allow a radiologist to interpret images from a sonogram thousands of kilometers linked up through the Internet. Robert Harris is the professor. He teaches at Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire.
HARRIS: "Well, it's basically a fancy form of video conferencing. Instead of a video where people are sitting face-to-face, we're sending ultrasound images real-time, at a relatively slow frame rate -- 3 to 6 frames per second -- and we're having audio transmission as well so we can talk to the person who's performing the ultrasound over there, and we give them sort of sophisticated interpretation [of the images] over on our end, and we kind of direct the person who's doing the ultrasound and say, maybe move rightward or upward or leftward, and it seemed to work out fairly well."
In a test of image quality, in fact, most of the time the radiologists couldn't tell the difference between the original sonogram image and the compressed picture transmitted over the Internet on an ordinary dial-up connection.
The Serbian student, Veljko Popov, has been in the United States for about a decade.
POPOV: "At the end of my first year of medical school here I was really impressed by the technology that's available in U.S. academic institutions, and I really wanted to start a project in which we could utilize this technology or deploy the technology or expertise to the underdeveloped or underserved regions of the world. So we thought it would be really good if we could come up with a model in which radiologists could do this philanthropic work over the distance."
The technology is pretty straightforward. The video output of the sonogram device goes into a computer video capture card, and in the demonstration project the transmission was managed by Microsoft's NetMeeting software.
Mr. Poov describes the clever way they maximized the usefulness of the ordinary telephone line's limited bandwidth.
POPOV: "So we would supervise the entire exam, using this real-time video transmission, and then during the exam we would collect 10-15 still images that were sent real-time that were used for diagnosis. So in that sense we combined low-resolution video used to guide the examiner with higher-resolution still images used for diagnosis."
The remote sonograms originated at St. John's Hospital in Zrenjanin, Serbia, where Dr. Mileta Popov -- who happens to be Veljko Popov's father -- says "telemedicine is the future."
MILETA POPOV IN SERBIAN
We are using it regularly, says Dr. Popov, and the next step is to use tele-medicine in endoscopic surgery.
His son the medical student, and Prof. Robert Harris spoke to me from New Orleans, where they presented their study at a meeting of the American Roentgen Ray Society.
While there is still a long way to go before Alzheimer's disease is cured, researchers say they have made major strides in treating the degenerative illness. Some of these developments raise hope for a cure, while others improve the quality of life of Alzheimer patients. VOA's Jessica Berman reports on new research on a medicine that appears to slow the progression of the disease.
BERMAN: In what is being hailed as a major development, researchers attending an American Academy of Neurology conference meeting recently reported news of the first drug ever to slow the progression of Alzheimer's.
Researchers at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota unveiled data showing that a drug, known commercially as Aricept, delays by about a year the symptoms of Alzheimer's in people who are at risk. Aricept is mostly used to improve memory in those who already have the disease.
The study, involving more than 750 older people with mild cognitive impairment, compared Aricept to vitamin E. Vitamin E was shown to have no benefit.
Neurologist Thomas Wisniewski is a neurologist at New York University School of Medicine.
WISNIEWSKI: "So, if a drug is working in early Alzheimer's disease, then you might expect that it would work in these pre-symptomatic stages of Alzheimer's disease pathology. However, in this clinical trial, this is the first time that this has been shown to be true."
BERMAN: Alzheimer's disease is a neuro-degenerative disorder primarily of the elderly. It is caused by the accumulation in the brain of the protein beta-amyloid, whose job normally is to get rid of waste products. Instead, excess beta-amyloid leads to plaques and tangles that rob sufferers of their memory and, eventually, ability to function. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington
At the US space agency NASA, the buzzword is Vision -- as in the Vision for Space Exploration, a Bush administration initiative to return astronauts to the Moon and then go on to Mars.
But for now, most people know NASA for its troubled, two decade-old space shuttle program. And this week, the designer of the first private spaceship criticized NASA for a lack of vision.
Since the end of the Apollo moon flights program in 1972, humans have not ventured out of low earth orbit. And Burt Rutan says NASA has forgotten how to do the kind of research that results in dramatic breakthroughs. It has avoided, he says, the kind of tough problems that will excite and challenge half the engineers in a room --
RUTAN : "And the other half of them say, impossible. Impossible. Too dangerous. And impossible. If you meet that criteria, you are then doing research. And you're then giving yourself exposure to the opportunity to to have a breakthrough. If you don't meet that critieria, if you develop things only with PowerPoint instead of putting people in them and flying, you don't expose yourself to the ability to have breakthroughs. And you don't give yourself a chance to improve what we've had."
That kind of breakthrough, he said, could also make space travel safer. Two space shuttle vehicles have suffered catastrophic accidents; 14 astronauts died in space. He compared the history of commercial aviation, where safety improved dramatically in its early years, to the space program, where the daring Moon flights were safer, he said, than so-called "routine" space shuttle missions.
As for NASA's plans to go to Mars, Mr. Rutan suggested the agency is lacking in the "right stuff."
RUTAN: "And to think that we can put that project in the same environment with the same people and the same mentality and the same process that has occurred over the last 25 years, and it has built an environment in which we right now don't have the courage to go back to the Hubble [Space] Telescope. And the last time I looked, the Hubble telescope is between here and Mars."
NASA says it would be too dangerous to send Space Shuttle astronauts to do repairs on Hubble, which they have done in the past, though it is under pressure to reconsider its decision to give more live to the productive telescope.
Mr. Rutan also criticized NASA's extensive educational program as a way of developing political support around the country, not as an effective way of motivating school children.
RUTAN: "I don't see a value at all in NASA being the educator or the inspirer. That's been a total failure. You don't inspire kids to dream and want and plan to fly in space by sending them lecturers by old, gray-haired astronauts who say how neat it was to go to the moon in the '60s. You inspire them by taking the risks that we took in the '60s and building the systems and developing the capabilities so that kids know they can fly. I believe in 15 years from now every kid will know -- not hope and dream, but he'll know that if he wants to, he can go to orbit in his lifetime. And I think that might be the most significant thing about what we did over the last three years."
The designer of the private rocket SpaceShipOne, Burt Rutan praised NASA's new leader, Michael Griffin, but questioned whether he can return the agency to its roots by overcoming NASA's inertia and entrenched culture.
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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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