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Our World Transcript — 9 September 2006

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 genetic blueprint for cancer ... An old flu treatment revisited ... and two stories of engineers and their innovations.

ASHFORD: "It takes three things to make smog. You take hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen, and sunlight. And if you can take one of the legs of that triangle away, then you can make some great strides."

Those stories, American history on our Website of the Week, and more. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

U.S. researchers have identified the genetic mutations behind two of the most common and deadly types of cancer.

KINZLER: "We've known for quite a long time now that cancer at its roots is a genetic disease. And what we did in this study is, we performed a comprehensive analysis of the cancer genome for two common cancer types. And for the first time we can read the genetic blueprint of colorectal and breast cancer, and we sort of now have a glimpse of the enemy's game plan."

That's Dr. Kenneth Kinzler of the Johns Hopkins University. He and his colleagues examined the genetic code of colon cancer and breast cancer cells to see if they could identify the mutations that cause normal cells to become cancerous.

The genetic code is billions of characters long, each represented by a letter, and while the researchers identified comparatively few mutations, there were more than they expected.

KINZLER: "The average cancer cell had 90 differences, 90 letters out of the six billion. That's a small percentage of the code in a cell - 90 out of six billion - but it's still more changes than were expected."

Kinzler says the numerous mutations they found in individual cancer cells might help explain why cancer can be so difficult to treat. Different patients with the same cancer may respond differently to a particular treatment.

KINZLER: "And this may explain why clinically we often have difficulty identifying therapies that will work. But now that we have a view of these [genetic] alterations, we can start to sort them out and try to figure out therapies and predict which ones will work."

Eventually, a genetic test could indicate which treatment will work best on a particular patient's cancer.

Still, identifying the genetic mutations that might cause cancer is a long way from developing improved treatments or a cure. But Kenneth Kinzler says this is an important step. He compares it with the discovery of the microbe that causes an infectious disease like AIDS.

KINZLER: "We now know a critical step in the [disease] process. The thing that distinguishes cancer from these other diseases - bacterial infection or AIDS - is there's an outside agent that causes them. The cancer is actually our own cells that have turned bad, and the key change that results from that change is a genetic change, and we now know these genetic changes. So we at least have a place to start."

Dr. Kenneth Kinzler of Johns Hopkins University. His study on the genetic mutations of breast and colon cancer was published online on Thursday and will appear later this year in the journal Science.

Health experts have been keeping an eye on a particularly nasty strain of avian, or bird flu. The H5N1 strain of the virus that causes the disease doesn't seem to spread from person-to-person in its current form. But the concern is that it could mutate into a form that could spread among humans, possibly sparking a pandemic. According to research published online in the Annals of Internal Medicine, a treatment used in a pandemic almost a century ago might help in the next flu pandemic, whenever it comes. Health reporter Rose Hoban has more.

HOBAN: A group of researchers looked at records kept by US Navy doctors during the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918 through 1920. Tropical infectious disease specialist Stephen Hoffman was one of the study authors. He says doctors at the time treated flu victims with blood transfusions from recovered patients.

HOFFMAN: "Knowledge at that particular point regarding the immune system was evolving quite rapidly and there was a general sense in the medical community that there were substances in the blood of individuals when they recovered from an illness that had helped them, in the case of flu, cure themselves of the illness."

HOBAN: Hoffman says scientists now know those substances are antibodies. Humans develop antibodies when they're exposed to viruses. This is the basis of vaccines and immunity.

HOFFMAN: "And so what we believe was occurring was that there were antibodies against the virus in the blood of the individuals who'd recovered and when that blood, or the plasma - which is the part of the blood that doesn't contain the red blood cells but contains the fluid - when that was given to very sick patients with flu that the antibodies in there attacked the flu virus and helped them to survive."

HOBAN: Most hospitals already have the equipment to extract plasma from blood, a process known as plasmaphoresis. And hospital blood banks routinely test blood products for safety. Hoffman says this technique could be a powerful tool in the face of the worst-case scenario: a worldwide bird flu pandemic where there might be a lack of medication to treat victims.

HOFFMAN: "It wouldn't require a drug company, wouldn't require the government. As long as you can meet the same stringent requirements that you're already meeting when you do plasmaphoresis. Plasma from plasmaphoresis is already used routinely in many settings throughout the world."

HOBAN: Hoffman says he and his co-authors are hoping to organize studies of plasma treatment for avian flu in Southeast Asia. That's where most of the human cases of avian flu have occurred in the past five years. I'm Rose Hoban.

When you think of climate change and the so-called greenhouse gases that are trapping the sun's heat in the upper atmosphere, you might think first of carbon dioxide, or CO2. But there are other greenhouse gases. Methane, for example, is a potent one. It traps over 21 times more heat per molecule than carbon dioxide, according to government scientists.

Methane is produced naturally by a variety of organisms from goats to termites, and it's also released when plant matter decays.

Methane is in the news this week. Russian and American scientists have measured methane bubbling up from lakes in Siberia, and they have found that a lot more of the gas is being released than was previously thought.

Measuring the methane is difficult because the gas is concentrated at so-called hot spots underneath the surface, and random placement of sensors fails to deliver a complete picture. So the University of Alaska's Katey Walter and her colleagues waited 'til winter, and went out on the ice to see just where the methane was bubbling up. And that's where they placed their sensors.

WALTER: "It's a difficult process to measure because the bubbles are so patchy across the lake surface; they occur here and there. So we came up with a technique to measure the patchiness of the bubbling and to really quantify how much bubbles are coming out, and in that way we could provide an estimate for how much is coming out of Siberian lakes, and we found out, wow, this is a large source of methane."

Some of the hot spots were producing more than 30 liters a day of methane gas. The source is 40,000-year-old plant material trapped in permafrost. When temperatures rise, the permafrost at the edge of the lake melts, releasing the carbon-rich plant material into the lake, feeding a cycle of warming.

WALTER: "When methane comes out of the lakes, it is a greenhouse gas, so it traps heat, and then that warms the surface of the Earth further, which causes the permafrost to melt more. And because that permafrost melting is supplying the bacteria with food — carbon — they decompose even more of it, creating more methane, and so it accelerates in that way. It's sort of a time bomb.

Scientists had previously identified Siberia's abundant lakes as a methane source, but Walter's research indicates earlier studies underestimated the amount of methane being produced. And she says the current mathematical models — the computer programs that analyze and predict climate — generally don't include this particular source of greenhouse gas.

WALTER: "So we're showing is that, wow, when that permafrost starts to melt, methane's coming out of the lakes. But when we look at how much carbon there is in the ground in Siberia alone, there's 500 gigatons of carbon there. When that gets released up to a third of it will come out as methane. So that's thousands of teragrams of methane that can come out."

Katey Walter plans to continue the study of methane production in Siberia's lakes. Her paper appears this week in the journal Nature.

MUSIC: "Star Trek" theme

One of the must durable franchises in American entertainment celebrated its 40th anniversary this week.

SHATNER: "Space, the final frontier ..."

Star Trek, the television series created by Gene Roddenberry, first aired on September 8, 1966.

SHATNER: "These are the voyages of the star ship Enterprise. It's five year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilization, to boldly go where no man has gone before."

The original series, starring William Shatner as Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, ran for three seasons and has endured in reruns.

The Star Trek universe ultimately comprised six spin-off TV series, 10 feature films, a vast array of merchandise, numerous parodies, countless Star Trek conventions and a global community of enthusiastic fans. The first space shuttle prototype vehicle was named Enterprise in honor of Captain Kirk's starship. And an Enterprise model used in filming the TV show was once exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, here in Washington.

That very museum has just closed for a two-year renovation project. If you come to Washington, you won't be able visit the National Museum of American History, but if you can get to a computer you can take a virtual tour of our Website of the Week at

GLASS: "Well, the museum's mission is to tell the story of America through our collections and our public programs and exhibitions and websites, so the website is really part and parcel of our public program effort here at the museum."

TEXT: Brent Glass is director of the National Museum of American History and its vast array of objects and documents marking events and trends, places and people in U.S. history. The museum's collections include items from advertising, clothing, computers, photography, and sports, among other fields. Glass says the website includes a sampling of objects from each collection, with photographs and explanations — many of them more in-depth than you would see in the museum itself.

GLASS: "We have three million objects in our collection, and that includes archival manuscripts and coins and currency. And we don't have a description of every object. But we do have a description of many of the highlights of the collection. And then, if you want to learn a little more, you can drill even further into that particular subject for information on individual objects."

The website also offers online exhibits for an in-depth look at subjects including sweatshop labor, American wine, the disability rights movement and … transportation. That's a particularly well-done exhibit, called "America on the Move," featuring not just how Americans have traveled over the years but how transportation has affected the country's development.

The National Museum of American History is one of Washington's most eclectic, featuring locomotives and farm equipment, clocks and toys, the inauguration gowns of America's First Ladies, and the flag that inspired our national anthem. And director Brent Glass says the website reflects the museum's diversity.

GLASS: "There is something for everyone. There is information for teachers. There are activities for kids. And then there is just general, rich information about American history."

Yolu can experience the Smithsonian Institution's entertaining and educational panorama of U.S. history at, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "Remember" — Red Norvo

And you're listening to VOA's museum-quality science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

Many of the touchstones of American history were based in innovation. Schoolkids learn about Thomas Edison and how he worked hard to develop a practical light bulb. The global information industry owes much both to big corporate research centers like Bell Labs, which invented the transistor, and brilliant people working at a much smaller scale in their Silicon Valley garage.

So for the rest of Our World this week, a look at two different innovators, each hard at work on a different problem.

Our first story comes from Alabama, where engineers working with colleagues in Texas have developed a device aimed at reducing vehicular pollution from unburned fuel during the first few moments after an engine starts. Reporter Butler Cain met with one of the developers of the system, details of which appear in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

CAIN: Early September is still oppressively hot throughout the American South, and and in his office at the University of Alabama, assistant mechanical engineering professor Marcus Ashford has his air conditioner on full blast. The cool, crisp air in his office is quite different from the type of air quality he has been most concerned about lately: an unhealthy mix of airborne pollutants called smog.

ASHFORD: It takes three things to make smog. You take hydrocarbons, oxides of nitrogen, and sunlight. You mix them together and you get smog. And if you can take one of the legs of that triangle away, then you can make some great strides. So our idea is to go after the hydrocarbons.

CAIN: Most motor vehicles are powered by hydrocarbon-based fuels such as gasoline and diesel. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says hydrocarbon pollution is produced when unburned fuel leaves an automobile as exhaust. Professor Ashford says it is at its worst during the first moments after starting the engine.

ASHFORD: When you're starting a vehicle, not all of the fuel that you'll inject will actually go toward starting your car. Anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of it will actually vaporize. So we have to make up for that by injecting 5 times, 10 times, 15 times as much fuel as you would ordinarily need if the engine were already warm.

CAIN: The unburnt fuel comes out of the exhaust pipe as hydrocarbon pollution. Once the engine warms up, emissions go back down. But Ashford says by then, it is too late.

ASHFORD: What you end up with is in the first 30 to 60 seconds after you start the car, you're creating anywhere from 60 to 90, 95 percent of your hydrocarbon emissions.

CAIN: Ashford and a colleague at the University of Texas have developed a new fuel system to solve that problem. It's called the On-Board Distillation System.

ASHFORD: We heat up the gasoline. The lighter parts of it, or the parts that we want, vaporize. We take them, separate them away from the liquid, condense them, and we save that in a special tank.

CAIN: The new fuel is injected into the engine at start-up. Its more volatile than gasoline, so much more of it burns away when the engine is started. Ashford says the first test results were very positive.

ASHFORD: We were able to cut hydrocarbon emissions entirely by over 80 percent.

CAIN: Ashford's idea has also received some criticism from others, including potential competitors at corporations or other universities.

ASHFORD: Some of them are actually pretty good, the kind that make me sit back and say I wish I had thought of that. But hopefully, with what we're coming up with in the near future and what weve already been doing, well be making a lot of other people say I wish I had thought of that.

CAIN: And there is already some commercial interest in this new approach to pollution control.

ASHFORD: There have been a handful of companies that have expressed some interest that I've heard from. I have some conversations with a company that were working right now on getting some work done and doing some contracts because they would like to build a small, commercial ready version of it.

CAIN: He says he hopes that process will get started sometime in October. In the meantime, Professor Ashford says the field of mechanical engineering is ever changing. He says even though he has worked very hard on perfecting the On-Board Distillation System, current experiments being conducted at the University of Alabama could eventually improve or even replace his idea. For Our World, I'm Butler Cain in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

For our other innovation story, VOA's Mike O'Sullivan visited engineers in the California desert who are testing a new communications platform that blends modern electronics with old technology. Developers say a helium-filled balloon carrying high-tech equipment can be a cheaper alternative to satellites, providing communication links to inaccessible places.

O'SULLIVAN: The prototype of the robotic airship is being assembled in a huge hangar where the B-1 bomber was built, and where engineers once worked on the experimental X-33 spacecraft.

Bob Jones of the company Sanswire Networks says the balloon will hover in the stratosphere at a height of nearly 20-thousand meters. From there, it will provide video, voice and data communication to an area the size of Texas.

The Stratellite will offer links for cell phones and television receivers, in what he calls the last-mile solution.

JONES: "The last-mile solution - it means that people that live up in the mountains or out in the country where there's no infrastructure, well, this is the answer."

O'SULLIVAN: He says a network of Stratellites could offer computer users Internet access anywhere.

JONES: "For example, if I'm in the middle of the Mojave Desert, I could open up my laptop and I could communicate."

O'SULLIVAN: Jones envisions hundreds of the airships hovering high above the United States to augment, but not replace, existing satellite and ground communications.

JONES: "We would like to see a lot of these things flying and providing the needed communications."

O'SULLIVAN: The Stratellite is a rigid airship, unlike a blimp, which has no supporting structure. The new ship is more like the Zeppelins of the 1920s and '30s.

The prototype is a little smaller than an advertising blimp, at 37 meters stem to stern. Made with modern materials such as carbon composites, it is incredibly light, weighing only 340 kilograms. The prototype is one-fifth the size of the final version.

Jones shows a visitor the components being crafted in the hangar.

JONES: "Yeah, these are the fins. They are very light. This is carbon/carbon right here. This is a foam core. And you have got carbon with foam sandwiched. So what we are doing is, for the structure - this is the main structure here - we want to make sure that this does not fail."

O'SULLIVAN: The Stratellite is intended to stay aloft for 18 months, before operators on the ground return it for servicing.

The airship will undergo testing in coming days. Its technology is unproven, and even if it works, there is tough competition in a crowded industry. But Jones believes the new device will fill a niche in the communications market, and will also have other uses.

JONES: "It is amazing looking at the potential of this vehicle, not only the use of the communication but for homeland security, utilizing something like this to fly the coastal area, the border between Canada and the U.S., and down in Mexico and the U.S., and being able to detect people going across."

O'SULLIVAN: He says the balloon could be used for search-and-rescue operations and in natural disasters.

Jones says the South American nations of Colombia and Peru and the US military have shown interest in the project.

Sanswire is not the only company looking for new uses of old technologies. Next door, a company founded by Russian immigrants is making advertising blimps, and developing a new hybrid airplane-airship to carry tourists and cargo.

And just down the highway, in the desert town of Mojave, aerospace visionary Burt Rutan is working on a craft to carry tourists into space. In 2004, he launched the world's first private spaceship, called SpaceShipOne, from Mojave Airport. For Our World, I'm Mike O'Sullivan in Palmdale, California.

MUSIC: "Our World" theme

That's our show for this week. If you'd like to get in touch, email us at Or use the postal address -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Rob Sivak edits the program. Eva Nenicka is the technical director. 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.