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Straight ahead on "Our World," the South Korean stem cell debacle ... frogs going extinct ... and bringing pieces of a comet back to earth.
BROWNLEE: "So the goal of Stardust is to preserve samples of the initial building blocks of our Solar System — the sun and the planets, and even ourselves."
The Stardust mission, science humor on our Website of the Week, and more.... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."
As you might have heard by now, last year's exciting news from South Korea about cloning human stem cells has been exposed as a fake.
Scientist Hwang Woo-suk claimed to have created human stem cells cloned from different individuals. His research was published in June in the prestigious journal, Science. But the dramatic story soon began to unravel, and on Tuesday, an expert panel at Seoul National University confirmed not only that he never actually cloned the stem cells, but also that an earlier claim, of cloning a human embryo, was also bogus.
The investigators did, however, confirm Dr. Hwang's earlier published success in cloning a dog.
The South Korean scientist apologized in a televised news conference, but said his research colleagues had made errors, which he failed to check.
Seoul National University, where Dr. Hwang worked, said the fabrication of scientific papers is an "academic criminal act." The government stripped him of the prestigious title of "top scientist," which entitled him to five years of research funding worth millions of dollars.
The fraud was big news, but at least one leading stem cell expert labeled it a "distraction." Stem cell research has seen its share of ethical controversy, but Dr. Richard Hynes of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) says the issue here was more clear-cut.
HYNES: "People don't always agree as to where the ethical lines [in stem cell research] should be drawn. Clearly, this was lying, and everybody agrees that shouldn't be done."
Dr. Hynes co-chaired a committee of the National Academy of Sciences on guidelines for human stem cell research. Although some scientists might have been discouraged by the dramatic progress claimed by South Korean competitors, Dr. Hynes said that, in the end, the incident will have little impact on the ultimate course of stem cell research.
HYNES: "I don't think it's going to affect it that much. If you go back 18 months, before the first of [Hwang's] papers, everybody was very enthused about the possibilities, realizing there was a lot of work to be done. And then his...subsequent...paper came out, and everybody thought, well, this is going to be easier than we thought. But they still thought it was worth doing in 2004, and that's where we are now, and people will get on with doing it."
On Thursday, the journal Science, which published Dr. Hwang's cloning papers, retracted them, saying the results reported in them are "deemed to be invalid."
Global warming has caused the extinction of one species of frog in an area of Costa Rica and is threatening others in the region, according to a new study published in the journal Nature. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, scientists say it appears global warming has opened an ecological niche for a toxic fungus that is wiping out the frogs.
BERMAN: Seventeen years ago, in Costa Rica's mountainous Monteverde Forest region, the tiny, brightly-colored red, black and yellow harlequin frog could be spotted everywhere on rocks along streams. The golden toad, another frog in the same family, was also abundant, according to Alan Pounds, an ecologist with the the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve in Costa Rica.
POUNDS: "In 1987, there were maybe 1,500 golden toads observed at the principal known breeding site. But then the next year, only a single male appeared there. And in the same year, harlequin frogs, which were so abundant along some of the streams that you had to be careful not to step on them, went to being virtually absent. And then after that, we haven't seen them."
BERMAN: Investigators say the cause of the extinction, and 67 percent reduction of the family of toads that includes the harlequin and golden frogs, was a 0.18 percent increase in temperature each decade since 1975.
Drawing on an extensive database produced by 75 researchers, scientists found a clear relationship between the number of frogs deaths and temperature increase, with the most amphibians disappearing in the warmest years.
During those years, Mr. Pounds say it appears a fungus, which normally lives harmlessly on the frogs' skin, became toxic and killed the amphibians. Under normal circumstances, the fungus is kept in check by the temperature extremes of the mountainous tropical forest regions. But milder temperatures, brought about by such factors as deforestation, have caused the deadly fungus to thrive, leading to the frogs' demise.
POUNDS: "So the disease is the bullet killing frogs. The climate is pulling the triggers."
BERMAN: As further proof that global warming is adversely affecting the frogs, Mr. Pounds says there are no extinctions of harlequin frogs in the lowlands where it is warm all the time.
Mr. Pounds says the study provides proof that global warming is creating disease where none existed and that should raise concern.
POUNDS: "You can't keep changing ecosystems and expect our own life support system to be viable. So, you have to take notice and do something about it."
BERMAN: Researchers believe similar extinction processes are under way in other parts of the world, and there are efforts to identify them and their causes. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.
Rosanne Skirble is here now with Health Briefs, a quick look at some of the more interesting developments in the medical field. This week, the amazing diagnostic abilities of a favorite household pet. But first, a new study on a drug for Alzheimer's Disease. Memantine is not a cure, but it does slow the progression of the illness.
SKIRBLE: Memantine - identified after its success with patients in a nursing home in Latvia - was approved for use by European Union countries in 2002 and for the U.S. market in 2004.
A study published in the January issue of Archives of Neurology updates previous research and says Memantine is safe, effective and has few side effects for at least one year. Lead author Dr. Barry Reisberg of New York University Medical Center reviews the findings.
REISBERG: "What we found was that the effects that we saw over the six month period for the patients who received the Memantine treatment in the initial six months seemed to be, in some, maintained over the subsequent six month period. So the medication appears to be effective and useful over a full one year period."
SKIRBLE: The medication slows the loss of cognitive function and the ability to perform daily tasks such as eating, dressing and bathing in the later stages of the disease when symptoms are most severe. Dr. Reisberg says Alzheimer's is a tragic and tragically common illness that affects millions of people worldwide. No drug exists to stop the disease.
Dr. Reisberg says properly-managed home care, combined with medication that can slow down the disease, can help Alzheimer's patients be more fully engaged in life — even in the final stages of the disease.
There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, at least, that many Alzheimer's patients benefit from having dogs and cats around. Pet therapy, it's called. Dogs can also be trained to detect illegal drugs or explosives — maybe you've seen them at work, sniffing around an airport or border crossing. Well, according to soon-to-be-published research, trained dogs can also distinguish cancer patients by smell, and do it accurately nine times out of 10. Again, here's Rosanne Skirble.
SKIRBLE: Dogs can detect disease on the breath of a human cancer victim, according to a study to be released in the March issue of the Journal Integrative Cancer herapies. The study finds that specially-trained dogs identified patients with breast and lung cancer with an overall accuracy rate of between 88 and 99 percent.
Lead author Michael McCulloch is with Pine Street Foundation, a research group that helps cancer patients make informed treatment decisions.
He says dogs were deployed as a diagnostic tool because they work well with people, are easily trained and have an extraordinary sense of smell.
McCULLOCH: "Dogs are currently the best-known chemical detectors on the planet. They can detect target compounds in concentrations as low as parts per trillion."
SKIRBLE: After a three-week training session, McCulloch says, dogs were put to the test.
McCULLOCH: "The method used in our diagnostic study was to have the subjects - whether cancer patients or controls - breathe through a tube. Within that tube is a fibrous material that would then capture the breath and the odors that came with it. That tube is Then presented to the dog."
SKIRBLE: The dogs were instructed to pick the cancer breath sample from the four controls. The trails involved 86 patients - all of whom had been recently diagnosed with breast or lung cancer — and 83 healthy people. McCulloch says the next step is to seek funding to develop non-invasive technology for cancer detection that can analyze chemicals in the breath comparable to what the dogs do naturally. With Health Briefs, I'm Rosanne Skirble.
Science is serious business. But that doesn't mean that there's nothing to laugh about. The lighter side of science is on display at our Website of the Week, the Annals of Improbable Research, at improbable.com.
ABRAHAMS: "It's all about things that first make people laugh and then make them think, and a lot of those things have to do with science. We've become the collecting point for anyone, anywhere in the world, who sees something funny related to science."
Marc Abrahams is the guy behind the Annals of Improbable Research, which is also a printed magazine and the sponsor of the annual spoof award ceremony, the Ig Nobel Prizes. The presenters have actually included real Nobel laureates, but the winners of the Ig Nobel Prizes are perhaps a bit less distinguished.
ABRAHAMS: "And I'm talking about things like the physicist who used big magnets to levitate a frog. There's also the woman who invented that alarm clock that runs away and hides repeatedly until you track it down."
And, of course, the unsung inventor of karaoke. But Marc Arbrahams says humor serves a serious purpose in the often competitive and challenging world of science.
ABRAHAMS: "Most scientists really have a good sense of humor. The have to 'cause what they're doing every day is really, really frustrating. They're trying to figure out stuff that nobody else could make sense of. And that means [that] most of the time they're going to fail. And if you have a sense of humor about it, life is a little bit easier, and your work goes a little bit better."
Fun with science in the Annals of Improbable Research, at improbable.com, or get the link from our site, voanews.com/ourworld.
MUSIC: Nashville Mandolin Ensemble - "Where No Mandolin Has Gone Before a/k/a Star Trek"
It's VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.
A report released in Washington this week is recommending that the promising new field of nanotechnology get stricter government oversight.
So what is nanotechnology? It's a new kind of chemistry or material science that involves creating or manipulating extremely tiny structures, sometimes just a few atoms thick. We're only at the earliest stages of what some are calling the nanotech "revolution," but already nanotechnology is being used to create windows that clean themselves, or clothes that resist staining, or even so-called "high-performance" cosmetics.
The health and safety laws currently in place in the United States and elsewhere were mostly written when industrial chemicals were measured in tons, not micrograms. The author of this new report, J. Clarence (Terrry) Davies, says our decades-old regulations aren't appropriate safeguards for nanotechnology.
DAVIES: "The existing regulatory system isn't adequate to protect health and the environment in relation to nanotechnology. And while we have a lot we need to learn about the new technology, it's not too early to start talking about new legislation or new programs to deal with it."
Mr. Davies, who was a senior official of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the first President Bush, says nano-size materials need a different regulatory framework because of the fundamental ways they are different from conventional materials.
DAVIES: "Its chemical behavior, its biological behavior, its physical behavior. It's a extraordinary technology in terms of its promise, but also in terms of just how different it is. When you make things very, very small they don't behave at all the way their larger brothers do."
He says nanotechnology could have profound implications in a wide variety of areas.
DAVIES: "We can probably make computer chips out of nanomaterials that will increase the capacity and speed of computers beyond anything that we've even thought about today. We can use it in things like generating hydrogen and making solar panels that will make a huge difference in terms of energy consumption in this country. In terms of health, we can insert nanomaterials into the bloodstream; it can find cancer cells, identify them at the earliest possible stage, and then it can deliver medicines directly to cancer cells rather than having to distribute it throughout the body."
Industry groups are wary of regulation, and the Bush administration says it is too soon to know how or whether this new technology should be regulated. The head of the government's nanotech coordination office, Clayton Teague, was not available for an interview, but a statement from his office says regulatory agencies consider current laws adequate for now, and that new regulations would be "unduly burdensome," absent information that new laws were needed. But the technology coordination office concedes that the situation could change.
Clarence Davies is the author of a new report on nanotechnology regulation, released by the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson Center.
Tiny natural particles are also of special interest to space scientists, as NASA gets ready to welcome to Earth a sample of tiny specks of material from a distant comet.
Early Sunday morning, U.S. time, if all goes well, a capsule from the space agency's Stardust mission will parachute into the Utah desert with its cargo of particles captured two years ago from comet Wild 2. The spacecraft also collected some interstellar material while traveling through space.
BROWNLEE: "So the goal of Stardust is to collect preserved samples of the initial building blocks of our Solar System — the sun and the planets, and even ourselves."
Principal scientist Don Brownlee says the microscopic particles were trapped in a specially-designed material called aerogel, a porous solid which looks like smoke and is barely denser than air.
BROWNLEE: "It's a magic material in the sense that you can have dust particles impact it at relatively high speed from the comet, and actually be preserved."
Magic indeed: those particles are travelling at some 22,000 kilometers per hour.
Scientists hope that analysis of the material will give them important information about the origin of the solar system, and maybe about life itself.
BROWNLEE: "People always want to know, well, what does this mean to us. What is our connection? Well, we're learning about the origin of our solar system — the origin of the sun, the origin of the planets, and something about the origin of life — but actually there's a much more direct connection. Virtually all of the atoms in our bodies and in our Earth were in interstellar grains — stardust grains — before the Solar System formed. We have a mantra of the mission, is that 'we are stardust.'"
Many astronomers not working on Stardust have been in Washington for the American Astronomical Society meeting, presenting the results of some of their latest research.
VOA science correspondent David McAlary reports from the meeting on a new way of looking at our own Milky Way galaxy ... as a hungry cluster of stars, chomping its way through the remains of another galaxy caught in its grip.
McALARY: It is hardly neighborly to eat a visitor, but that is exactly what the Milky Way appears to be doing.
Astronomers have concluded this after mapping the stars in half of the northern sky with the Sloan Telescope in New Mexico. The project is measuring distances to nearly 50 million stars, building a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way.
In the process, scientists have noticed a huge, very faint group of hundreds of thousands of seemingly alien stars spread out over an area about 5,000 times the size of a full moon. This star group is within our galaxy's confines, about 30,000 light years away from us, the distance light travels in that length of time.
Princeton University astronomer Robert Lupton says the most likely interpretation of the new structure is of another, smaller galaxy being consumed by the Milky Way.
LUPTON: "We're seeing a cloud of stars somewhere stuck above the plane of our galaxy. We believe it is almost certainly a dwarf galaxy merging with the Milky Way. It is almost certainly a galaxy being ripped up, eaten, and otherwise digested by our galaxy. So the Milky Way is still growing. It's not a static system. It's growing by cannibalizing smaller neighbors."
McALARY: Lupton says astronomers have come to understand that such mergers are the way galaxies expand.
LUPTON: "People would imagine that there was, long ago, a period when many galaxies grew by mergers. If you look out at the well known galaxies that we see around us, many of those are still interacting, although interacting was very much commoner for big galaxies in the past."
McALARY: Lupton told the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington that our galaxy is taking a long time to swallow its dwarf neighbor.
LUPTON: "It's being eaten and it's going to be part of the Milky Way in another billion years. So welcome to our newest member."
McALARY: Meanwhile, another pair of satellite galaxies is causing the Milky Way to warp at its edge, much like the upturn in the brim of a hat.
Scientists have long known about the warpage, but by studying patterns of hydrogen gas, only now do they understand that the cause is the motion of two small nearby galaxies orbiting the Milky Way called the Magellanic Clouds. As these galaxies circle us, they plow through unseen dark matter thought to exist around the galaxy, amounting to an estimated 90 percent of the matter in it. The motion of the Magellanic Clouds through the dark matter creates a wake like a boat sailing through water. This wake increases the dark matter's gravitational pull on the Milky Way's disk, according to astronomer Leo Blitz of the University of California at Berkeley.
BLITZ: "As the Magellanic Clouds orbit the Milky Way, the warp looks like it's flapping in the breeze."
McALARY: Some astronomers do not believe dark matter is causing the galactic warp or the flapping, but Blitz says the Magellanic Clouds alone are not massive enough to have such a strong effect. Because many other galaxies have warped disks, he says similar dynamics might explain them as well.
BLITZ: "We need dark matter to see the strong bending modes that we see and this is probably a common feature of spiral galaxies in general."
McALARY: David McAlary, VOA News, Washington
MUSIC: Our World theme
That's our show for this week. Thanks to Rosanne Skirble for sitting in last 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the postal address -
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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.