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MUSIC: Our World theme
Straight ahead on "Our World" ... A question of pandemic preparation ... treating cancer survivors ... and sustainable agriculture in the vineyard
TRUMBULL: "It is helping out Mother Nature. We've taken all we can from the earth and it's really time to give back. I think everybody that is involved in it and using it on their wine grapes or on their apples — or whatever the crop is — will reap the benefits."
Those stories, the solar system on our Website of the Week, and more... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
The World Health Organization held three days of talks this week on planning to combat a possible outbreak of avian, or bird flu in humans.
The disease has killed about 60 people in Asia, all of whom are believed to have gotten it from infected birds.
Public health experts fear it could reach pandemic proportions if the avian flu virus mutates into a form that can be easily transmitted from person-to-person.
WHO official Klaus Stohr says even a mild pandemic could require that tens of millions of people be treated in the hospital.
STOHR: "The good news is that the majority of people who are going to be ill will get away with it. But the small fraction which is going to be severely ill will be a challenge to the hospital services. And there will be people who are going to die. The number is not insignificant, two to seven million."
Preparation for a possible bird flu outbreak was also on the mind of lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week, as both the Senate and House of Representatives heard from health officials here on getting ready for a possible outbreak.
Republican Congressman Fred Upton says he's consulting with local officials on how ready they are.
UPTON: "Basically I've learned, obviously we need more boots on the ground, particularly public health nurses. As one of my directors put it, We may have biohazard suits hanging on the wall, but no one to don them."
U.S. health secretary Mike Leavitt stressed the need for what experts call surveillance — close monitoring, which he compared with getting a head start on controlling a forest fire, which one person can stomp out when it first ignites.
LEAVITT: "However, if it's allowed to smolder and burn over the course of an hour or more, it grows beyond containment. That's precisely the way a pandemic works. If we're able to be there when the spark occurs, when the virus makes that transition between an animal disease and a sustainable person-to-person disease, we're able to contain it. And that should be our first line of defense."
Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, stressed to the US lawmakers that the focus must be on pandemic as an _international_ threat.
GERBERDING: "Our doctrine is that if there is a threat of avian flu anywhere, we have to assume that there's a threat everywhere and act accordingly."
If the current strain of avian flu, known as H5N1, does mutate to allow person-to-person transmission, a possible pandemic will be controlled with medicines and vaccines. But anti-viral medicines are expensive and may not be available to everyone who needs them.
Developing a flu vaccine may be a better approach, and Dr. Anthony Fauci of the U.S. National Institutes of Health said preliminary tests of a vaccine based on the current bird flu virus have produced an immune response.
FAUCI: The sobering news is that the dose that was required to get to that level of immunity was substantially higher than the dose that we generally use for the seasonal flu. This compounds the issue of our global deficiency in production capacity.
Manufacturing a flu vaccine is a complex and time-consuming process, and very few drug companies do that kind of work, adding to the challenge of preparing for a pandemic.
At one time, a diagnosis of cancer was frequently a death sentence. Today, thanks to better treatment, that's often no longer the case. But while research has focused on better medicines or other ways of fighting cancer, there has been relatively little attention to the special needs of cancer survivors, who may live for years or even decades after their initial diagnosis.
A new report from the prestigious U.S. Institute of Medicine says the medical establishment has failed to address the special needs of cancer survivors. Cancer patients often endure surgery, toxic chemotherapy, and radiation. A committee of experts concluded that cancer and its treatments leave survivors with a host of negative consequences. The group's chairman, Dr. Sheldon Greenfield, listed some of those consequences —
GREENFIELD: "Psychological distress, sexual dysfunction, infertility, impaired organ functions such as heart disease, cosmetic changes, limitations in mobility, communication and cognition are among the problems faced by many cancer survivors. Importantly, the survivor's health care is forever altered."
A member of the panel, Dr. Patricia Ganz, herself a cancer physician, stressed the need for communication between doctor and patient, not necessarily more high-tech medicine.
GANZ: "Patients and doctors often go through the motions of treatment without taking a moment to kind of reflect on what's gone on. And so it's [the survivorship plan's] just saying, what did we do, what do we expect from what we did — we expect you're going to live a long time, but these may be some of the things that you may face along the way — and what are the things that we need to look out for. So it's high touch, not necessarily high tech."
Dr. Ganz added that most cancer patients aren't treated at cutting edge cancer centers, and she stressed that information about the most appropriate care has to be disseminated to health care professionals who are seeing those patients, too.
From the patients' perspective, cancer survivor and advocate Ellen Stovall worries about patients who are poor or otherwise disadvantaged:
STOVALL: "Those folks are going to be underinsured or uninsured, and the body of work that the Institute of Medicine has done to point out the disparities in our health care system— This report could be, in my opinion, it's recommendations [could be] a shining example of how we should be better delivering health care and disemminating what we know works. When somebody says to me, I've just been diagnosed with cancer, what should I do? I shouldn't have to say to them, get on a plane and go see Patty Ganz because she does it right."
The Institute of Medicine report issued this week acknowledges that considering the survivor years as a distinct stage in the progression of cancer disease is a new concept, and that doctors and other health care provides need to be educated about their new role. Also, in the United States, where many people under age 65 don't have health insurance, asking them to pay for even more cancer-related care is guaranteed to stir a heated debate.
Different people have different senses of humor. Sometimes the differences relate to culture, and you've probably noticed occasions when men and women react very differently to a comedy on TV or a cartoon in the newspaper.
Well, now research from Stanford University in California indicates there may be actual differences in how brains of men and women respond to humor.
Allan Reiss and his colleagues put men and women in an MRI scanner as they showed them a series of cartoons.
REISS: "And while they watched the cartoons, we saw how their brain responded."
In this small study of only 20 people, the scientists found some brain activity was similar in men and women, but they also observed some differences. For example, in women, the humor response activated an area of the brain that is also associated with language processing. Dr. Reiss says that suggests the women were subjecting the cartoons to more intense analysis. And unlike the men, they didn't begin with the presumption that the cartoons would be funny.
REISS: "What's interesting about that, is that that might have something to do with the sense that men and women don't connect fully on humor."
So not only does this research help scientists understand how the brain works, it sheds a little light on relationships, and on some behaviors that are related to humor, such as resilience.
REISS: "And it's absolutely clear that humor is an essential and cross-cultural method for withstanding stress, and being resilient. My favorite quote, actually, is from Mohandas Gandhi, who said, If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide."
Dr. Allan Reiss of Stanford University added that this study may help researchers figure out why women are more prone to depression than men. The results were published this week in the online edition of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
Since antiquity, humans have gazed upwards with wonder. In recent decades, astronomers have been able to learn much more about our nearest neighbors in space — the planets, moons, and other bodies of our solar system — thanks to great new tools. Our Website of the Week features much of what we've learned.
WESSON: "The NASA Solar System Exploration homepage is a one-stop shop for planetary information."
Alice Wesson is an outreach manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. She said their website has a broad range of information on each planet or other object. Using Saturn as an example, she said it begins with basic information.
WESSON: "You can also dig into Saturn's moons, its rings, a gallery with images of Saturn. You can go to 'fun facts and figures,' you can get a kid's eye view of Saturn. You can even dig further and go to all the missions that have gone to Saturn or passed by Saturn."
One thing I like about NASA's Solar System Exploration page is how authoritative it is, and how frequently it is updated.
WESSON: "We talk to our scientists here and around NASA all the time. We have scientists from various universities." CHIMES: How often do you have to update the site with new information? WESSON: "The site may be updated throughout the day, several times a day, just depending on what missions are pretty active."
The high-bandwidth version of the site has some great animation, but if you're using a dial-up connection there is also a low bandwidth version that has the information without a lot of eye candy.
And speaking of visual treats, there is a rich lode of pictures here — close-up views of the planets and their moons, of course, but also spacecraft, some wonderful historic photos and a delightful collection of children's space pictures.
You, too, can be inspired at NASA's Solar System Exploration home page at SolarSystem.nasa.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: "Mr. Spaceman" - The Byrds
You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
SKIRBLE: Every morning at dawn, Jean-Francois Pellet walks into his fields at Pepper Bridge Winery in the Walla Walla Valley of Washington State to check on his grapes. It is the end of the growing season this year, and the vines are heavy with bunches of small dark red grapes ready for harvest.
PELLET: "Really, the main thing is flavors. And usually I take two berries - one for my bag and one for my mouth. You can taste it. And, I look at the seed, too, to make sure it is very ripe. You can try it. They are great. Great palate."
SKIRBLE: "They are so sweet! Do you like what you taste?"
PELLET: "Yes, I do very much."
SKIRBLE: Mr. Pellet is a third-generation winemaker from Switzerland whose talents as a vintner brought him to Walla Walla, whose high dry plateau provides an excellent climate and good soil for wine grapes. Mr. Pellet says he welcomed the opportunity to develop Pepper Bridge as a model for sustainable viticulture.
PELLET: "It's all a question of balance."
SKIRBLE: Mr. Pellet says sustainable viticulture is more than a set of farming practices. He says it is a common-sense approach to agriculture that follows a strict set of environmental standards that also makes economic sense.
PELLET: "Stewardship of the land is really our biggest mission. I have two young children and I think my goal in life is to return the land the way I got it or maybe in better shape. Our goal is also to make quality grapes, to make really fine wine."
SKIRBLE: In pursuit of that goal, says Mr. Pellet, many of the region's wine makers have adopted basic sustainable farming techniques.
PELLET: "We encourage all the growers not to spray if they see one bug or little fungi in the vineyard. But you evaluate. If you say, 'Okay, I have 5% or 10% or 15% disease maybe at that time you can spray. But it's really trying to understand your soil and your plants and do things very conscientiously and not spray or do things that you don't have to.
SKIRBLE: Pepper Bridge also employs drip irrigation to conserve water. Shrubs and trees planted throughout the vineyard encourage biodiversity and composting helps to enrich the soil. Jean Francois Pellet gets his compost at a facility located on a former field not far from Pepper Bridge.
The old farm is lined with dark, earthy-looking and clean-smelling windrows - each as long as a football field. The mounds consist of discarded logs, yard waste, cow manure and vineyard debris. They cook naturally into a nutrient-rich, disease-free fertilizer in about ten weeks. Travis Trumbull runs the business. Jean-Francois Pellet comes for a look around.
TRUMBULL: "This is top notch. Nothing matches it. There is a huge market for it."
PELLET: "The compost is basically what will keep food and microbiology in our soils. And, some of those soils have been farmed for 80 years and they have been totally depleted. So, we have to re-enter this to replace the humus."
TRUMBULL: "It is helping out Mother Nature. We've taken all we can from the earth and it's really time to give back. And, I think that everybody that is involved in it and using it on their produce or on their wine grapes or on their apples — or whatever the crop is — will reap the benefits."
SKIRBLE: Jean-Francois Pellet agrees. This compost is a food bank for his soil. It may take a decade or more to enrich the land, but he says it is worth the wait, because it will ensure that his vineyard will produce better grapes and better wine for generations to come. I'm Rosanne Skirble.
We had some pretty serious technical problems here at VOA last week, and as a result, most of you heard a repeat of the previous week's Our World program. Or maybe you heard VOA Music Mix instead. Either way, it was our mistake, and we're very sorry.
If you have Internet access you can go to our website at voanews.com/ourworld and listen to the full show, but I do want to give you a second chance to hear one of the stories you probably missed. It continues our visit with ocean scientists aboard the research vessel Seward Johnson, where they've have been studying coral formations at the edge of the continental shelf.
Standing in a low-ceilinged workroom aboard ship, surrounded by computers, video gear and nautical charts, chief scientist Steve Ross explains how the coral specimens they bring up from the bottom provide a window into the past. Coral growth can be seen in rings — tiny versions of the growth rings of trees — that serve as a library of information about ocean conditions in the distant past.
ROSS: "You know, you probably heard that you can count the age of a tree by its rings. But the width of the rings gives you information about its growing season. You can tell potentially whether it was a wet climate or a dry climate, hot or cold, good or bad for growth. This is a little bit different situation, but we've determined that a lot of these corals live to be quite old. Anywhere from a few hundred years old to almost 1,000 years old potentially."
Analyzing those annual rings for isotopes of chemical elements — including carbon and nitrogen and oxygen — opens a window on the ocean environment in centuries past.
ROSS: "So we can go back to, say, potentially the year 1700 and find out what the temperature of the ocean was, what the pollutant load was, and what the status of the productivity was. And we can do that every year up to the present."
In a conversation with several visiting journalists, one of the first questions was, have you discovered any new species. The short answer is, maybe, but the final word will have to await further study of specimens in land-based labs, after this expedition ends.
The identification of new species isn't what it used to be.
For centuries, biologists compared characteristics of an plant or animal to other similar organisms, not only to determine whether they were looking at a new species, but also to see how species were related to each other. You don't have to be a scientist to realize that a tiger is pretty closely related to a lion, but only distantly related to an elephant. Martha Nizinski is a zoologist with NOAA, the U.S. ocean research agency sponsoring this expedition. Her approach to taxonomy — the classification of organisms — is the traditional method.
NIZINSKI: "Some of these species may have been described in the early to late 1800s, early 1900s. So we have to look and see how it compares to those original descriptions."
Dr. Nizinski explains the unknown organism is studied with careful attention to a variety of physical attributes.
NIZINSKI: "We'll use a crustacean as an example. We take measurements of its carapace, which is its shell. We look at various combinations of spines, the shape of the shell, the shape of the organism, how it carries its abdomen, the type of legs it has — so there's a whole variety of characters that we look at."
But many other taxonomists now use DNA to classify species. Another member of this expedition, Cheryl Morrison, uses genetic identification. She says it's particularly useful with coral, where the shape and structures can be greatly influenced by the environment in which it grows.
MORRISON: "You know, looking like a very long branching pattern in one area, and then a little glob of coral polyps all over the place in another area, but it's really the same species — it could be, it might not be. And so the genetics helps us in those types of situations figure out if we're really looking at the same thing."
DNA taxonomy uses basically the same technology used in police investigations, except instead of tying a suspect to the crime scene it tracks genetic similarities between known species and an unknown specimen. Although she has embraced the new method, Dr. Morrison doesn't reject the older.
MORRISON: "I wouldn't say it's better. I would say that they should go side-by-side, hand in hand. There are times where things are very similar, that we couldn't tell apart by morphology, but sometimes DNA allows us to separate things that we wouldn't have been able to, based on morphology. But often — and I think that this is when this is the strongest technique — is when they agree."
Of course, sometimes they disagree.
So if these scientists exploring the edge of the continental shelf in the Atlantic Ocean off the southeastern U.S. do identify a new species, so what? Chief scientist Steve Ross and the other scientists on board the ship may be focused on knowledge and discovery, but the taxpayers behind this government-funded expedition might wonder, how am I going to benefit?
ROSS: "Usually that's the stumbling block question for most of us, and we say, gosh I'm not sure. But quite a lot of the time we're accumulating information such as, there are biomedical potentials. We're not doing biomedical work, but some of the organisms in the deep sea have biomedical potential. There are groups [of researchers] that are beginning to explore that. That has a worldwide impact. Cancer research chemicals, for instance, is one area where deep sea research has been important."
You can learn more about this and other ocean research missions on their website at oceanExplorer.noaa.gov, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: Our World theme
That's our show for this week. We're always delighted to hear from you. Ask us a science question … tell us what you like about the program, or what you don't like. Email us at email@example.com. Or the postal address is -
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Our show was edited by Rob Sivak. Eva Nenicka is our 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.