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Our World Transcript — April 16-17, 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 deadly virus sent to labs world wide ... a polio anniversary ... and a bit of hope for the Hubble Space Telescope ...

GRIFFIN: "When we return to flight it will be with essentially a new vehicle. At that time, I think we should reassess and, in light of what we learn after we return to flight, we should revisit the earlier decision.

Those stories, plus an ambitious plan to gather DNA from indigenous peoples. I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The World Health Organization has urged medical laboratories around the world to destroy samples of a deadly influenza virus that had been shipped to them as part of a quality control program.

The virus, known as H2N2, is similar to one responsible for a deadly flu pandemic in 1957 that killed an estimated one to four million people.

The virus was contained in test kits distributed by a contractor called Meridian Bioscience, which was working for the College of American Pathologists.

The director of WHO's Global Influenza Program, Klaus Stohr, said in Geneva that because this virus has not been identified in humans for decades, its release could be extremely dangerous.

STOHR: "This virus is fully transmissible from humans to humans, and everybody born after 1968 would have no immunity. This H2N2 virus was, by this company in the United States, distributed to more than 3,700 laboratories worldwide. The majority of these samples were sent to American laboratories; in Canada, 14 laboratories; and 61 laboratories outside North America.

The U.N. health agency says there have been no reported infections of lab workers from the H2N2 virus.

In the United States, where most of the virus samples were sent, the head of the government's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Julie Gerberding, stressed the importance of quality control programs at the labs, but noted that use of a deadly virus was not necessary.

GERBERDING: "Well, there are procedures that labs are expected to follow to contain the safety of any unknown specimen. This is actually a very important part of assuring the quality of our laboratories. As I said, we want them to be able to find these pathogens, so this is sort of a test to make sure that they can. And they're expected to do this using the appropriate level of safety. But we can make those tests without having to use pathogens that pose this kind of a potential threat to lab workers or even the public.

Dr. Julie Gerberding was on NBC-TV's Today show.

One of the great heroes of 20th century medicine died this week. He was virtually unknown to the general public, but in the medical community Maurice Hilleman was a legend. Dr. Hilleman is credited with creating some 40 vaccines, including some of the most widely used -- against measles, chicken pox, rubella, meningitis and pneumonia.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Dr. Hilleman had "a more positive impact on the health of the world than any other scientist ... in history."

This week we also note the anniversary, 40 years ago, of the approval by U.S. regulators of a vaccine for polio. That vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, plus a later vaccine from Albert Sabin, lead to the eradication of polio from much of the world -- an effort that is still underway.

By far the most prominent American with polio was Franklin Roosevelt, who was president from 1933 to 1945, serving longer than any other president. Roosevelt didn't exactly deny he had polio, but he was almost never photographed in the wheelchair he used. And newsreels showed a vigorous man, never disclosing, for example, the heavy metal braces he needed to stand at a podium to give a speech. At home, though, things were different, says his granddaughter, Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.

ROOSEVELT: "We always knew that my grandfather had polio, that it had a great effect on his life, that he thought about it a lot. He didn't hide it in his daily life, in his associations and work at the White House. So it was his open commitment to eradicating this kind of problem that disrupted not only the person but families, and not only the family, but the community. And then, as it spread to the nation it had a paralyzing effect on the nation. So he was open about that, and that's why he started the March of Dimes, so that he could share his experience and his commitment to making things better, starting with something that had dramatically affected his own life."

The March of Dimes, which was formed to combat polio, was named for the American 10-cent coin. The group still exists today, with a focus now on preventing birth defects and infant mortality. And after Roosevelt died suddenly in 1945, his portrait was placed on the 10-cent coin as a memorial, and the Roosevelt dime is still being produced today.

This week the aging Hubble Space Telescope seemed to get a new chance at a longer life.

The new head of the U.S. space agency says he will reconsider NASA's previous decision not to send astronauts back to service the space telescope.

Michael Griffin was on Capitol Hill Tuesday, answering questions from Senators, who later confirmed his appointment.

Hubble was launched in 1990 and has been visited by astronauts on the space shuttle a number of times in the years since for repairs and maintenance. But after shuttle Columbia burned up as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere in more than two years ago, NASA decided it would be too dangerous to fly repair missions to Discovery. But Mr. Griffin said upgrades to the remaining shuttles may bring a Hubble mission within NASA's safety limits.

GRIFFIN: "The decision not to execute the planned shuttle servicing mission was made in the immediate aftermath of the loss of [shuttle] Columbia. When we return to flight it will be with essentially a new vehicle, which will have a new risk analysis associated with it, and so on and so forth. At that time, I think we should reassess the earlier decision and, in light of what we learn after we return to flight, we should revisit the earlier decision."

Hubble has been a tremendously valuable tool for astronomers, who want to keep the space telescope working for as long as possible. Hubble's batteries or gyroscopes could likely fail in the next couple of years, rendering the telescope useless. Another possibility for repair is a robotic mission. But the new NASA chief insists there will be no change in the space agency's rejection of that option.

GRIFFIN: "Actually, until I was nominated by the president to be his choice for administrator, I was the independent chair of the robotic servicing mission design review committee. As you know, and as was in the news very recently, that committee -- now without me as its head -- that committee has concluded that the robotic servicing mission is not feasible. So I would like to take the robotic mission off the plate. I believe that is a correct assessment."

An internal NASA report obtained by news organizations this week suggested there may still be life in the robotic repair proposal. But space analyst Jeff Foust, editor of the online publication The Space, notes that the document came from those working on the project.

FOUST: "Obviously the people who have been working on it have the best idea of the technical capabilities, and to the degree that they've mastered those capabilities to date. On the other hand, they've really been lobbying to try and keep the robotic repair option going for a while, too. So there may be a little bit of rose-colored glasses here, trying to see the best possible alternative."

Scientists have praised the Hubble as the most important telescope in the history of astronomy, and they want to keep it working for as long as possible -- at least until 2011, when its successor, theJames Webb Space Telescope, is set to go into orbit.

The National Geographic Society this week announced an ambitious program to trace the history of human migration through the analysis of DNA of indigenous peoples.

The five-year Genographic project, as it's called, aims to collect blood samples from 100,000 people around the world, then apply sophisticated computer and laboratory technologies to identify certain segments of DNA that can be associated with migrations of populations at some point in history.

For example, project director Spencer Wells explained to Mongolian-born Battur Tumur what his DNA revealed.

WELLS: "This traces its origin, of course, back to Africa, and it delineates an expansion out of Africa roughly 50,000 years ago that followed a coastal route along the south coast of Asia. It reached Australia by around 45- to 50,000 years ago, and some of these individuals would have turned northward in East Asia, ultimately migrating back into Mongolia, which is where your ancestors come from. So it's a very typical Mongolian lineage."

Also typical, perhaps, in that his DNA indicates Mr. Tumur is a direct descendant of Ghengis Khan, the 12th century warrior, a hero to Mongolians and said to be one of the most prolific men in history.

Using DNA to track migrations thousands of years ago could provide a powerful new tool to scientists. National Geographic president John Fahey says that, until now, the best evidence came from the study of bones and rocks --

FAHEY: "But now we have new technologies and new sciences that can help us as well in terms of really understanding the migration and origins of man. And I think it's a perfect companion to the fine work that we've been doing with paleoanthropology for years."

Scientists involved in the Genographic project hope to learn more about how humans spread out from origins in East Africa to become the diverse species we are today.

Ted Waitt, whose family foundation is helping fund the project, stressed the urgency of the effort as traditional ways of life disappear.

WAITT: "The ethnic populations this amazing team are going to study are indeed reflections of humanity in all its uniqueness and splendor. Exploding urban populations and homogenizing effect of globalization endangers many of these cultures. And while genetic clues are still present and likely most pure in their DNA, the snapshot this research is attempting to take will not be present forever."

American Indians are among the indigenous people who will participate in the project. Phil Bluehouse of the Navaho Nation in Arizona choked up after hearing of his ancestral journey out of Africa, as told by his DNA.

BLUEHOUSE: "It's always been a dream. It's always been something that was in me, that finally I was able to say, yeah - it's been confirmed. It's been there genetically, and that's what the genetics was trying to tell me, that you did come from somewhere. And I think that I did shed tears, and it was tears of joy because making that connection is -- I think it's very important."

Members of the public can have their own DNA analyzed for about $100. Part of that money will help fund the collection of DNA from the indigenous peoples, and for cultural preservation. Project leaders say one of its key goals is to raise awareness of the pressures facing indigenous groups. One of its challenges will most certainly be convincing the indigenous groups they approach of their good intentions.

While scientists are using state-of-the-art laboratory studies to retrace ancient migration paths, the folks at the Migration Policy Institute use more conventional methods to study current migration patterns and issues and present the information on Our World's Website of the Week.

HAMILTON: "The Migration Information Source is our online resource that we use to provide up-to-date data, analysis, [and] articles on current migration and refugee trends."

Kim Hamilton is managing editor of the Migration Information Source, at, which includes on the one hand articles about migration issues, and on the other a great deal of raw data about migration -- some of which she says can be hard to find.

HAMILTON: "For anyone who's tried to get international migration data, you'll know that it's incredibly difficult to make sense of and to access. And I think the service we've brought to the field is to really put this in one place. You can make charts. You can do graphs. You can do comparisons. And we've created, I think, some really good interactive tools that people can use to get a better sense of this."

The Migration Information Source website fetures more than 40 extended essays called country profiles, countries that are important senders or recipients of migrants. This month Poland is featured on the site's homepage. Although each country profile is unique, they do share certain features.

HAMILTON: "We want to know about asylum numbers. We want to know about big policy debates -- what's happening around, for example, citizenship or deportations or migration and development in terms of remittances. So it changes a little bit from country to country. So each country profile takes on a unique character."

The country profile for the United States, for example, is a 4,000-word article including links to other resources, both online and in print.

The site is updated monthly, and recent articles include the effect of December's Asian tsunami on migration and the vulnerability of women who leave home in search of domestic work, focusing on those who travel to the Middle East.

That and more online at Migration Information -- all one word --, or get the link from our site,

MUSIC -- "Truckin'" (Fats Waller)

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

An independent panel of U.S. scientists is calling for a national system to collected and distribute umbilical cord blood for its life-saving stem cells. The recommended national system would replace a patchwork of inefficient state systems, say the scientists. VOA's Jessica Berman reports.

BERMAN: The report released Thursday by the independent Institute of Medicine calls on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to create the National Cord Blood Policy Board to set in motion a system for the donation, storage and distribution of umbilical cord blood donated by the pubic.

The study further recommends that the Health and Human Services Department find an organization that can oversee the day-to-day operations of a national cord blood banking system.

Kristine Gebby is director of Nursing Science at Columbia University in New York and chairman of the Institute of Medicine panel recommending a national system to store cord blood.

GEBBY: "It appears to be a very good source and one with fewer complications of rejection, probably because of some of the other cells that circulate in umbilical cord blood. And so there's a great interest increasing it and understanding how to use it, but without a coordinated system, it's not happening the way it should."

BERMAN: Blood from umbilical cords, a byproduct of birth, is a rich source of hematopoietic progenitor cells, the type of stem cell that is also found in bone marrow. Transplants of the stem cells can be used to cure a variety of blood diseases such as leukemia and sickle cell anemia.

Women who donate umbilical cord blood must do so when giving birth -- usually a chaotic time. Experts say standardization in the collection and storage of cord blood would ensure that this valuable resource doesn't go to waste.

An estimated 20,000 Americans with blood diseases have been cured in recent years with stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. Experts say it seems to offer a more effective form of therapy than stem cells derived from bone marrow.

But Dr. Gebby says the shortage of cord blood means thousands of transplant patients die every year waiting for compatible bone marrow through a public registry.

GEBBY: "And so having cord blood available as an alternate source where match is easier to come by, and where you can get the product within 24 hours of knowing that it's a match, does seem to be a very good alternative."

BERMAN: The Institute of Medicine report doesn't recommend creating any new banks, but it is calling for an increase in the national supply of high-quality cord blood by 100,000 units. Currently, there are 50,000 units. But many units go unused.

The study by the Institute of Medicine was commissioned by Congress, which appropriated $10 million for establishment of a National Cord Blood Stem Cell Bank Program. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

Time now for one of my favorite features on Our World. I wish we could do this more often. We have a science question sent in by listener Ferddie Okonkwo from Onitsha, in Anambra State, Nigeria. He recently sent us an e-mail asking how night vision goggles work.

You've probably seen those spooky green images on television or maybe a Hollywood thriller. Maybe you, too, wondered, "how do they do that?"

For the answer we turned to Richard Zallen, a university physics professor at Virginia Tech. He explained that the process works in three stages: first the light is converted into electrons, the electrons are then amplified, or intensified; and finally, the electrons are converted back into light.

ZALLEN: "Very weak light comes in at night and it's focused on a thin semiconductor sheet that's sensitive to light. (The semiconductor, by the way, is not silicon, but it's gallium arsenide.) Anyway, the energy from the light that comes in kicks electrons out the back, the other side of the semiconductor sheet. Then it's these electrons that are amplified or multiplied to give you the intensification. Light in, electrons out."

In the next step, explains Prof. Zallen, the beam of electrons goes through something called a "micro channel plate."

ZALLEN: "'Microchannel' is because this glass plate has tiny cylindrical holes in it. And when the electron crashes into the sides of these tubes, one electron bounces off and five electrons come out, and these five become 25, and it keeps going 'til you get an enormous beam of electrons at the other side. And it's this amplification that's really the key that allows the image to be intensified."

That beam of electrons then hits a glass plate covered with phosphors, and the process is very much like what happens in the picture tube of a television set -- the phosphors glow where they've been struck by the beam of electrons.

The phosphors are all one color -- green works best, which is why the image you see is green. Professor Zallen says a full-color night vision device wouldn't be very practical --

ZALLEN: "Because that would require dividing the light up into different wavelengths and then, as your color TV works, using the electrons to hit different phosphors that would give you red, blue, and green.

The technology can amplify light by some 10,000 times, so you don't need much light for this kind of image enhancement technology, but you do need some. A different kind of night vision system actually detects the heat given off by objects and produces an image based on that thermal information.

As our way of saying 'thank you,' we'll be sending Ferddie Okonkwo a special VOA gift. If you've got a science question you'd like us to answer, e-mail it to us at ourworld, or listen for our postal address at the end of the show.

MUSIC: Our World theme

That's our show for this week. We're always happy to hear from you. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or write us at -

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

Our World is edited this week by Rob Sivak. Our technical director this week is Kevin Raiman. 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.