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Our World Transcript — May 28-29, 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" ... A Congressional vote on stem cell research ... the Voyager spacecraft at the end of the Solar System ... and the bird flu crisis in Southeast Asia.

FARRAR: "If this virus retained its ability to destroy tissue like this and then developed the ability to go from me to you, then we really are in a nightmare scenario."

Those stories, the not-so-frozen north, and more. ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

In Congress this week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to allow research on stem cells from embryos that are not needed by fertility clinics.

The measure would substantially ease restrictions on stem cell research imposed in 2001 by President George W. Bush. Action in the Senate is pending. The president has said he would veto the legislation. And although it passed the House by a decisive margin -- including 50 Republican votes -- it failed to attract the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto.

The stem cell bill won strong bi-partisan support because of the potential that embryonic stem cells might have for treating a number of diseases, including Parkinson's, diabetes, and Alzheimer's. But opponents say it would be wrong to use the embryos that would be the source of stem cells. In their view, life begins at conception, so they say embryos should be protected.

The embryos, as we said, would come from fertility clinics, and Congressman Mike Castle, a Republican, says the bill would give donors a choice of donating unneeded embryos for research, rather than having them disposed of as medical waste.

Mr. Castle is a co-sponsor of the stem cell bill along with his Democratic colleague Diana DeGette. She says the United States is losing out to other countries on this promising avenue of research.

DeGETTE: "Right now, the rest of the world understands the tremendous potential of this research. And it's going on in South Korea, Singapore, Israel, and Great Britain and other places. The research is also going into private hands. And states are beginning to try to take the lead in this important research. There's one ingredient missing. The ingredient that's missing is the leadership of the federal government and its ethical oversight."

But opponents say, government oversight or not, it is precisely the ethical issue that makes embryonic stem cell research objectionable. In the House of Representatives, Republican Congressman Scott Garrett put it this way.

GARRETT: "The seminal question that we address is, should American be using their tax dollars to fund research that kills a living human embryo? My answer to that is an emphatic, no.

President Bush this week also focused on the ethical dimension of the debate.

BUSH: "This bill would take us across a critical ethical line by creating new incentives for the ongoing destruction of emerging human life. Crossing this line would be a great mistake."

Congressman Dave Weldon, a Republican and a medical doctor, said research on embryonic stem cells has not been productive, while other types of stem cells have more promise.

WELDON: "A month does not go by where I am not reading an article in a medical journal, where cord blood stem cells and adult stem cells are being used to treat people today with diseases. There is little to no evidence that these embryonic stem cells can ever produce [results]. It's hype. It's not based on reality. And that's the way this debate has been going from the very beginning.

But California Democrat Henry Waxman said it's not surprising that embryonic stem cells have yet to demonstrate their promise, given the restrictions placed on the research.

WAXMAN: "Well, there's no way it will ever work if we don't allow the research to take place. There can be nothing that's more pro-life than trying to pursue research that scientists tell us will lead to cures for MS [multiple sclerosis] and diabetes and Parkinson's and other terrible diseases that people now suffer and die from."

For now, at least, limits on federal funding for stem cell research remain in place. Republican Senate leader Bill Frist has not committed himself to bringing the bill that was passed this week by the House of Representatives to a vote in the Senate.

China has closed its nature reserves after avian flu turned up in migratory birds. Meanwhile, in Vietnam, another person has apparently died from bird flu. The death toll from the current outbreak in southeast Asia now stands at 54. My VOA-TV colleague Carol Pearson has our report.

PEARSON: Vietnam's health inspectors visit local markets and breeding farms on a daily basis. They work well into the night checking shipments of livestock.

The country is taking the threat of avian flu very seriously. But many poor farmers still try to cover up outbreaks in their flocks so government inspectors won't kill their healthy birds.

So far, most of people who have contracted avian flu have had close contact with infected birds. But Dr. Somchai Peerapakorn from the World Health Organization says evidence exists that the virus is already mutating, that direct human to human transmission is a matter of time.

PEERAPAKORN: "Based on history, based on scientific evidence, it will be serious. And deadly."

PEARSON: More than half of those who have contracted the virus have died.
Dr. Jeremy Farrar, from the Hospital for Tropical diseases in London, says in these x-rays from a Vietnamese Hospital, the black area is normal lung tissue. The white areas on this x-ray shows lung tissue that has been destroyed by the virus.

FARRAR: "If this virus retained its ability to destroy tissue like this and then developed the ability to go from me to you, then we really are in a nightmare scenario."

PEARSON: That is why Vietnamese health inspectors are working day and night.
They know the only way to prevent a human epidemic is to defeat the epidemic in birds. And that victory is far from certain. Carol Pearson, VOA News.

Past studies have shown that exercise can reduce a woman's risk of getting breast cancer. But researchers wanted to know if exercise could also help women who already have breast cancer, by reducing their risk of death. As VOA's David McAlary reports, they found that exercise can help.

McALARY: Susan de Vries, a 43-year-old mother of three, is in great physical shape, considering that four years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

DE VRIES: "After my mastectomies, [I] got right out there and started walking pretty much right away. I mean, I remember one week after my surgery, walking. I was staying at my parents, walking down my parents' driveway, very proud of myself that I made it that far."

McALARY: Now Susan exercises about four hours a week. A new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association says this activity could cut her risk of dying from breast cancer in half.

HOLMES: "Women with breast cancer who walked three to five hours per week were 50-percent less likely to die from breast cancer compared to inactive women with breast cancer."

McALARY: This is the lead author of the study, physician Michelle Holmes of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. She and colleagues at the hospital studied about three-thousand breast cancer patients, tracking their health and exercise habits for up to 18 years or, in several cases, their deaths.

HOLMES: "Compared to the most inactive women, just about any amount of physical activity was linked with a lower risk of death from breast cancer."

McALARY: But that does not mean breast cancer patients have to become serious athletes.

HOLMES: "If you had asked me before this study, I would have guessed that perhaps more exercise, more benefit, but we did not find that. Women do not have to run marathons to gain the maximum benefit. We found that women who performed activity at the level of walking three to five hours per week gained the most benefit."

McALARY: There are several reasons why exercise might have this effect. It reduces levels of fat and the female hormone estrogen, which have been linked to breast cancer.

HOLMES: "Physical activity most benefited women who had the kind of cancer that is responsive to hormone levels, and that is the most common kind."

McALARY: Exercise also bolsters the immune system, which fights disease.

Whatever the reason exercise helps, Susan de Vries says it makes her feel much better.

DE VRIES: "I am fighting for my life. It is such an uplifting part of my life that I think the day I can no longer exercise will be a sad one."

McALARY: Dr. Holmes emphasizes that all the women in the study received standard treatment for breast cancer and that exercise is not a substitute for such treatment. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

Time again for our Website of the Week, and this week we go back into what paleontologists call "deep time," tens- or even hundreds of millions of years ago... through the Paleontology Portal, at

LINDBERG: "The Paleontology Portal is basically a web-based venue by which you get access to paleontological information for North America, and probably the best part about it is that it's graphically driven."

David Lindberg is a curator at the Museum of Paleontology at the University of California-Berkeley, where the Paleontology Portal is based.

Those graphics he mentions include a map, where you can pick a spot and go back in time at that location.

Another great feature is the fossil gallery, where you can explore, let's say the once common hard-shelled creatures known as trilobites.

LINDBERG: "The gallery gives you a way of going into the history of life in a very sort-of logical, organized way, where you can explore different groups, and then again you can go laterally into a time period to find out what the plants were that were living at the time the trilobites were."

Many of the visitors to are students, and the site has special resources for teachers.

LINDBERG: "One of the great things, again, about the Internet is the virtual nature of this. Now, it will never really equal holding that fossil in your hand or actually being at that outcrop, but in the classroom it's amazing what you can do. You can take the fossil gallery and get a vast array of different organisms from that, that can be turned into a teaching plan.

The focus at the Paleontology Portal is on North America, but as Professor Lindberg points out, much of the paleontology record goes back to before the formation of the continents we know today. Fossils and more online at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: Albert Collins and Johnny Copeland - Black Cat Bone

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

The U.S. space agency NASA announced this week that the intrepid Voyager 1 spacecraft is at a new stage in its almost 28-year long journey after crossing the boundary called the Termination Shock. That's the turbulent region at the edge of the solar system where the solar wind is slowed down by pressure from the thin gas between stars.

Scientists at the University of Iowa used their plasma wave instrument on board the spacecraft to detect the disturbances related to the Termination Shock. They posted this audio recording, sent 14-billion kilometers from Voyager. Three hours of data is compressed into six seconds. Listen.


The sounds of Voyager.

Forty-four years ago this week, in an audacious moment of Cold War bravado, President John F. Kennedy vowed to send astronauts to the moon.

KENNEDY: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."

That vision became a reality eight year later. And between 1969 and 1972, there were six Apollo moon missions.

At the Kennedy Space Center, meanwhile, efforts continue to resume Space Shuttle flights, with special attention to safety issues after shuttle Columbia broke up as it re-entered the atmosphere in 2003.

Discovery was to have been launched this month, but liftoff was delayed until late July. The shuttle was already on its launch pad, but on Thursday the spacecraft was rolled back to the gigantic Vehicle Assembly Building to get a different fuel tank equipped with heaters to protect against ice that could break off and damage the shuttle during launch.

The second annual World Blood Donor Day is coming up in about two weeks. The World Health Organization sponsors the observance to raise awareness of the need for blood and blood donors.

Organized blood banks are well-established in richer, developed countries. But in the developing world, the blood system often does not meet the need. Patients can die from a lack of blood and blood products, and without proper screening, life-saving blood can actually spread disease, including HIV/AIDS.

This month, Nigeria opened its first national blood transfusion center in Abuja. President Obasanjo donated blood at the opening ceremonies, saying it was a turning point in efforts to establish a national blood system. The blood center in Abuja is a demonstration project set up by the Safe Blood For Africa Foundation. VOA's Paul Westpheling spoke with the group's CEO, Jeffrey Busch, who explained the challenges facing health officials throughout Africa.

BUSCH: In many places in Africa, there's no cold storage, so they can't have refrigeration, to keep the proper tests. They're not properly trained people. In some places they don't even test at all because of lack of supplies and HIV testing. When we came into Nigeria, most places did not test the blood. We've opened up a national blood service for Nigeria, which didn't exist before. And at the Abuja center, this is the headquarters where we have proper refrigeration and proper testing. And this is now going to be supplying the whole federal capital region in Nigeria. There's plans to extend this very shortly to Lagos and throughout Nigeria.

WESTPHELING: What about other countries in Africa? South Africa, maybe Zimbabwe, you name them?

BUSCH: South Africa has an excellent blood service, but there are many countries that don't. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one where there's almost a million transfusions going on with almost none of it being tested for HIV.

WESTPHELING: How prevalent is the spread of HIV because of contaminated blood in Africa?

BUSCH: The WHO estimates between five and 10 percent of the new infections are coming out of the blood supply, but in Nigeria, DFID [Department for International Development, the UK aid agency] did a study three years ago that showed about 14 percent of all new cases of HIV are coming in Nigeria from blood supply.

WESTPHELING: In the United States, when people want to donate blood they go to the Red Cross, which as been more or less designated the central central collector of the blood supply in this country. Is this the case in Africa? Do people go to a central location if they want to give blood?

BUSCH: There are none of these, except from rare circumstances, in Africa. Every once in a while there is a blood bank that you can go to. Ninety percent of the transfusions in Africa occur at the hospital, where a relative is looking for a donor to either, what we call replacement donors or sometimes paid donors, where they ask somebody to give blood right then and there. There's not proper blood-banking in most places in Africa.

WESTPHELING: So [now] if the hospital needs blood, it calls up this new center in Abuja, and the blood is brought over?

BUSCH: Correct. When hospitals need blood or we anticipate their needs at a time, the blood is brought over from Abuja to the hospitals in the Abuja region.

Jeffrey Busch, who heads the Safe Blood for Africa Foundation, spoke with VOA's Paul Westpheling.

When it comes to rising sea levels caused by a warmer global climate, our first thoughts might be of places like Greenland and Antarctica, where much of the world's freshwater is locked within massive ice sheets. But scientists at the U.S. space agency NASA are just as concerned about the role of much smaller ice caps and glaciers in places like northern Canada. As we hear from Doug Schneider, NASA says global sea levels could rise as much as 40 centimeters in the next century.

SCHNEIDER: Around the planet, melting glaciers and ice caps are causing sea levels to rise.

NASA scientist Waleed Abdalati has been busy monitoring the loss of ice within
Canada's ice caps.

ABDALATI: "What we were after was to try to understand just how much the ice caps in Canada have changed and what, if any, amount they've been contributing to see level."

In 1995 and again in 2000, Abdalati and colleagues used a small plane equipped with a high-tech laser altimeter to measure elevation changes of ice caps and glaciers in the Queen Elizabeth Islands of northeast Canada. They also collected temperature and precipitation data from weather stations in the area, and used several decades of direct measurements of ice growth and shrinkage on certain ice caps and glaciers to arrive at their findings.

Abdalati says researchers discovered that most of the ice caps and glaciers changed little or became thicker at higher elevations, but nearly all had become thinner at lower elevations.

ABDALATI: "So we basically found that they're all shrinking near the edges. Some of
the southern ice caps are shrinking all over the place, and at a pretty substantial rate." In the big picture of global sea level rise, the amount of fresh water in Canada's ice caps and glaciers is actually quite small. In fact, Canada has only about 58,000 square miles [150,000 sq. km.] of ice caps and glaciers, an area roughly the size of Illinois. In contrast, Greenland has about two million square miles of ice, while Antarctica has 13.5 million square miles [35 million sq. km.]. Such large ice caps react slowly to warming temperatures. But Abdalati says Canada's smaller ice caps and glaciers reacted quickly as temperatures increased, something he says may have a more immediate effect on global sea levels.

ABDALATI: "Despite that fact that there is not that much ice up there compared to
Greenland and Antarctica, what it is contributing to sea level is significant.
Where it derives its significance, though, is that it is closer to the melting point, and it
responds more quickly than the larger ice sheets. And so these small ice masses really matter in the near term."

While Canada's melting ice caps and glaciers do not by themselves contribute much to
the overall rise in sea levels, Abdalati says Canada's contributions are important when taken together with melting occurring elsewhere around the globe.

ABDALATI: "Patagonia contributed about one-tenth of a millimeter of
sea level rise during the late 1990s, per year. Alaskan glaciers contributed about a quarter of a millimeter per year, and Canada is about a little under a tenth of a millimeter, it's about .07. These sound like small numbers but they add up."

Exactly why Canada's ice caps and glaciers are melting is a complicated question. Ice in the southern Canadian Archipelago is melting faster, perhaps, twice as fast, as the ice in the north. Abdalati says that may just be a natural continuation of melting that began at the end of the so-called Little Ice Age in 1850. The region also experienced a warm spell in the 1990s. But Abdalati says local climate changes as well as human activities that burn fossil fuels are likely also having an impact. I'm Doug Schneider.

That report from Arctic Science Journeys Radio, a production of the
Alaska Sea Grant College Program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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That's our show for this week. Got a science question? If we answer it on the show we'll send you a special VOA gift as our way of saying thanks. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -

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Our World is edited by Faith Lapidus. Our technical director is Bob Doughty. And this is Art Chimes, inviting you to join us online at or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.