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Our World Transcript — December 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 stem cell controversy, launching a new front in the war against cancer ... and a 2,000 year old discovery in Central America ...

SATURNO: "I was awestruck by its state of preservation. Its brilliant colors and fluid lines looked as though they could have been painted yesterday."

An archaeological find, urban legends on our Website of the Week, and more ... I'm Art Chimes. Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

South Korean scientist Dr. Hwang Woo-suk on Friday denied having faked parts of his breakthrough work human stem cells, which he published in June in the prestigious journal, "Science."

He told reporters in Seoul that he would welcome an investigation, but he said he is requesting that editors of Science retract his paper because of controversy about the research.

In the study, Dr. Hwang reported an efficient method for creating embryonic stem cells with DNA that was identical to the patient's. Many scientist believe embryonic stem cells -- which have not yet developed into specific cell types -- could be used to treat many different diseases.

On Thursday, a colleague of Dr. Hwang's and co-author of the article said that nine of the 11 stem cell lines they claimed to have produced never existed.

U.S. medical research officials this week announced a three-year, $100-million pilot program aimed at eventually developing gene-based treatments for cancer.

Announcing the initiative in Washington was the head of the U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute, Dr. Francis Collins, who stressed the genetic basis of cancer.

COLLINS: "More than 300 genes have been implicated as contributing to the diabolical transformation of normal cells into cancer cells. And that has led to major new insights into cause, prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure."

The Cancer Genome Atlas, as the new program is called, builds on experience gained in studying the human genetic structure. The Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. Dr. Anna Barker of the National Cancer Institute, says the new study of cancer genetics will use advances from that work in biological and technological fields.

BARKER: "This is a revolutionary program that we're describing to you today. It leverages and capitalizes on everything we've done in the last 40 years in biomedical research. The sequencing of the human genome, everyone knows about and talks about, but what we've not been able to do to date is really leverage that information. This is the first attempt to leverage that on a large scale."

Dr. Barker described the "core" of the project as a collection of patient specimens that will be analyzed for their genetic structure.

Genetic mutations have already been identified for breast, colon and other cancers. Several new medicines are already available that target those genetic flaws. The hope is that with a better understanding of the genetic basis of cancer, better treatments can be developed that will target specific mutations with fewer side effects.

Of course, even better than treating cancer is preventing cancer.

Some studies have shown that eating a diet rich in fiber can reduce your risk of colon cancer. But a large, new international study indicates that fiber does not affect colon cancer risk after all. Still, before you change your diet, listen to this report from VOA's science correspondent David McAlary, who says there are still good reasons to continue eating a fiber-rich diet.

McALARY: Whole grains, cereals, vegetables, and fruits are good sources of dietary fiber. People like Jane Stevens depend on it for a healthy diet.

STEVENS: "Well, I think I should be eating a fair amount of fiber. From what I understand it is good for you. It is supposed to keep cancer at bay."

McALARY: Lots of people believe that eating fruits, vegetables, cereals and whole grains can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer, or cancer of the colon, the major part of the large intestine. But the results of numerous studies have been inconsistent. Some have shown a protective effect, others have shown increased risk, and still others have shown no effect at all.

A new study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association takes the latter position.

SMITH-WARNER: "We found that eating a high-fiber diet was not associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer."

McALARY: Dr. Stephanie Smith-Warner and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston analyzed 13 studies that altogether tracked the health and fiber-eating habits of more than 725-thousand people in North America and Europe for up to 20 years. About eight-thousand of those people developed colorectal cancer.

SMITH-WARNER: "We found that people who ate higher amounts of fiber had the same risk of developing colorectal cancer as individuals who ate lower amounts of fiber."

McALARY: It did not matter what kind of fiber. In the European studies the Harvard team evaluated, it came mostly from cereals, while fruits and vegetables were the main sources in the North American studies.

SMITH-WARNER: "Specifically, we found that men and women who ate at least 30 grams of fiber a day had the same risk of colorectal cancer as men and women who ate 10 to 15 grams of fiber a day."

McALARY: But eating lots of fiber did slightly lower the risk of rectal cancer. Fiber has also been shown to help reduce heart disease and diabetes risk.

SMITH-WARNER: "So it is still important to eat a high-fiber diet."

McALARY: There are ways to reduce your risk of colon cancer. The U.S. government's Centers for Disease Control says avoid smoking, limit the amount of red meat and alcohol you consume, and exercise regularly. David McAlary, VOA News, Washington.

The online, user-written encyclopedia Wikipedia has been in the news lately. A man admitted adding fake information to the Wikipedia entry on a prominent journalist, John Seigenthaler, that linked him to the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert Kennedy.

The incident highlights conflicting views about Wikipedia. Founder Jimmy Wales says the ability of anyone to edit articles means that false information will be quickly corrected. But critics say the system is just a recipe for mischief.

Amid the controversy, the respected British science journal "Nature" this week compared the accuracy of Wikipedia's science articles with those in the venerable Encyclopaedia Britannica. Reviewers found numerous errors in both encyclopedias — in Wikipedia, an average of four per article, and three per article in the Britannica. An editorial in Nature says "Researchers shoud read Wikipedia cautiously and amend it enthusiastically."

Wikipedia was one of our Websites of the Week last year, and this week we highlight a website that deliberately publishes false information so it can debunk it.

Urban legends are stories that seem to be true, but aren't, and which get passed on seemingly forever, with their details often changed to add credibility. And many play on our anxieties, says Barbara Mikkelson, co-founder of the Urban Legends Reference Pages, at

MIKKELSON: "For instance, one of them features, like, a supposed gang initiation, where a mother and daughter are going to be murdered by a prospective gang member as his way of getting into the gang of the moment."

And the classic urban legends are localized, current, and almost first hand.

MIKKELSON: "You were told this story by your best friend's hairdresser's mechanic."

But of course, as close as you get to the supposed source, you never quite nail it down. That's why they call them urban legends.

This website goes beyond the traditional definition of an urban legend, though, and takes on a wide variety of stories circulating as fact: for example, the story that a cursed Egyptian mummy was on board the Titanic when the ship sank in 1912 — false — or the one about Microsoft sending you $245 if you forward an e-mail — also false — or the story that Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine — actually, that one's true.

Barbara Mikkelson says that they use a variety of tools to get at the truth behind the urban legends.

MIKKELSON: "If it's something that's supposed to be recent, we're going to look through any number of online news archives. We're sometimes going to have to call the people who are involved. We're just going to attack it the way most reporters would.

And in the case of older legends, she says it may require research at a university library or staring at microfilmed copies of newspapers a century or more old. And some of these legends are old. One, still told today about a woman driver picking up a suspicious hitchhiker, is substantially identical to a tale told in 19th century America, but instead of a hitchhiker, it was a stagecoach passenger.

MIKKELSON: "And the driver becomes suspicious, makes an excuse, gets people out, and then is able to drive off without this 'woman' as he gets the other passengers back on. And afterwards [he] discovers in her carpetbag that was left on board a great big revolver."

The website is fun for casual browsing, but it's also the first place I turn when I see some sort of preposterous claim in an e-mail. The Urban Legends Reference Pages is at, or get the link from our site,

Archaeologists working in Guatemala have unearthed a large, brightly-colored Mayan mural thought to be the oldest of its kind. As VOA's Jessica Berman reports, the two-thousand year old wall painting depicts the mythology surrounding ancient kings and life during a period in early Mayan civilization.

BERMAN: Using carbon dating, archaeologists have put the age of the mural at 100 BC.

It was discovered in an ancient Mayan pyramid at San Bartolo in Guatemala by scientists who found another mural at the site four-years ago.

While that finding was spectacular, team leader William Saturno of Harvard University's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology says it did not prepare archaeologists for their most recent discovery.

SATURNO: "I was awestruck by its state of preservation. Its brilliant colors and fluid lines looked as though they could have been painted yesterday. More important than its preservation, however, was its content. As the wall was uncovered, so too was the Maya story of creation."

BERMAN: Mr. Saturno says the nine-meter by one-meter mural shows the establishment of the Mayan's belief in world order. Four deities, which are variations of the same figure and apparently sons of the maize god, offer up blood sacrifice as they set up the physical world.

SATURNO: "We then witness the maize god's birth, his death and his resurrection, before the wall ends with the coronation of a named and titled Maya king, newly crowned in the company of the gods."

BERMAN: As for what the room was used for, Mr. Saturno says archaeologists are still trying to figure that out.

SATURNO: "Our best guess is that this was sort of a preparation room. That this is where the king performed ceremony, and sort of rehearsed the mythology that he would perform on the front side of the pyramid."

BERMAN: Two kilometers from the mural room, archaeologists discovered a tomb containing the remains of what they believe to be one of the early Mayan kings. Outside the pyramid, archeologists found nine-thousand mural chips, which they intend to piece together in the hope of gaining a fuller picture of the ancient civilization.

Before the discoveries, scientists say they had very little information on the lives of the earliest Mayans.

Scientists say they have no plans to move the murals or put them on display, although that is something the Guatemalan government may do in time.

The latest findings from San Bartolo will be published in the January 2006 issue of National Geographic. Jessica Berman, VOA News, Washington.

A hospital stay can be deadly. More than 100,000 Americans die each year from infections acquired in the hospital. That's as many as deaths in this country from AIDS, breast cancer and automobile accidents combined. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, rigorous infection prevention methods can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in unnecessary health care costs.

SKIRBLE: Two years ago, Maureen Daly's 63-year old mother was admitted to a New York City hospital with a fractured shoulder. Ms. Daly recalls this disturbing scene at her mother's bedside following surgery.

DALY: "Two doctors came in and checked on her incision, and they removed her [surgical] dressing. Neither one of the doctors washed their hands or put on gloves. And, later on in the day when mom was getting out of the bed to dress to go home, we found the disgusting dirty dressing in her bed."

SKIRBLE: Five months later, her mother was dead. The tragedy opened Ms. Daly's eyes to a major problem: Hospitals breed infections.

One in 20 patients contracts an infection during a hospital stay. And rates are soaring for the drug-resistant staph infection that killed Ms. Daly's mother.

But these infections are preventable, according to Betsy McCaughey, who chairs the Committee to Reduce Infection Death, an advocacy group for patient health. Its latest report documents the human and financial burdens of hospital infections.

The report mandates rigorous hand washing and meticulous cleaning of equipment and rooms between patients. And it says patients must be tested for drug resistant bacteria as soon as they're admitted, so that the hospital can take additional measures to prevent its spread.

McCAUGHEY: "If a doctor or nurse leans over a bedside of a patient carrying this bacteria on their skin, 65 percent of the time when they stand up again they have bacteria on their lab coats and on their nurses uniforms and then they go to the next person's bedside and deposit that. Twenty-four percent of the time it is deposited to the next patient's bedside or it contaminates the hands of the doctors or nurse when they touch their own body."

SKIRBLE: Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA - the bacterium that killed Maureen Daly's mother - accounted for just 2 percent of in-hospital staph infections in 1974. By 2003, that percent had risen to 57 percent, and it continues to climb.

Betsy McCaughey says institutional precautions save lives and money.

MCCAUGHEY: "The nation is spending $30 billion a year in treating infections that are primarily preventable."

SKIRBLE: The Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths is calling for state laws that require hospitals to report their infection rates. Six states -Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York - have such a law in place. Thirty others are considering the legislation.

The hospital industry has lobbied against the idea, saying that it would be unfair to hospitals that treat AIDS, cancer and organ transplant patients who are especially vulnerable to infection. But Betsy McCaughey says the report cards take these health risks into account.

MCCAUGHEY: "Everybody knows it is the right thing. If you have to go into a hospital you should be able to find out which hospital is safest. After all, most state health departments already tell you if a deli or a restaurant has been cited for health violations. So, they make it easy for you to buy a safe sandwich, it should be just as easy to find a safe hospital."

SKIRBLE: Maureen Daly agrees, and says it could have made a difference for her mother.

DALY: "When the public finds out that one hospital has a higher infection rate, we are not going to go to that hospital. We are going to pick the hospitals that have the lowest infections. I think it is important that hospitals learn that, and I only wish that information had been available to me. I believe that my mother would have been alive today, if it had been available."

SKIRBLE: Betsy McCaughey with the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths says the report cards will motivate hospitals to improve. As a result, she says, fewer patients will carry life-threatening infections with them when they return home. I'm Rosanne Skirble.

Not too far from Washington, in the flat farmland of southern Maryland, tobacco has been the major cash crop for the past 400 years. But with growing concerns about the health risks of smoking, the state is paying farmers to switch to other crops. The subsidy is necessary because other crops aren't as profitable. Now, researchers at the University of Maryland are looking at some surprisingly healthful alternative uses for tobacco. Mary Saner reports.

SANER: There are a lot of bad things associated with tobacco use: lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease. But at the University of Maryland in College Park, a team of researchers is focusing on the plant's good side -- its nutritional benefits.

KRATOCHVIL: "Yes, believe it or not, tobacco does have a lot of very good properties."

SANER: Agronomist Bob Kratochvil runs the University's research farm, where they're growing tobacco, a plant Professor Kratochvil says has enormous potential for medicine, cosmetics, and energy. And scientists hope they can even tease food out of the inedible plant.

KRATOCHVIL: "It's got excellent quality proteins - human food proteins. They're tasteless, odorless, the same quality as you have in soybeans or with milk. One of the potential benefits is that, supposedly, it will not cause allergies, as some folks have allergies to milk, [they're] lactose intolerant. Wheat is another crop; there is some protein allergy problem that some folks have. It's thought the tobacco protein [could] be something in special diets."

SANER: While tobacco leaves contain many proteins, finding the ones of value is the challenge for researchers like Martin Lo. He processes the research farm's harvest, extracting protein from the plants and analyzing it.

LO: "The small chopped-up tobacco leaves will be sent through this particular equipment called a screw press, and then we press the juice out of it, leaving the residual as the sludge."

SANER: From that juice, Professor Lo extracts protein crystals. He has identified two proteins so far. Both contain all 21 amino acids essential for human health. Because our bodies can't synthesize these amino acids, we have to get them from our food. Tobacco proteins could be an inexpensive, easy nutritional additive.

Professor Lo also sees the possibility of one day using tobacco proteins in medicines.

LO: "I'm studying the peptide segment of the protein, several amino acids from the peptide. To see if any of the protein segments actually match the therapeutic protein that might be of value to the pharmaceutical industry, to replace those proteins from animal origin. Those are considered more risky because there might be some disease that can be transmitted through animal protein. Plant is much safer."

SANER: Another goal of the tobacco researchers is to eventually replace some petroleum-based products with plant-based ones. Remember the sludge left in the screw press? Bio-tech entrepreneur Neil Belson, another member of the University of Maryland tobacco team, says that sludge could play a role in this transition.

BELSON: "In addition to the proteins, tobacco produces an enormous amount of leaf matter that's left over after you get the proteins out, and it's from this material left over that we envision looking for petroleum substitutes."

SANER: But first, the University team must generate more tobacco protein. Since the project began three years ago, Martin Lo has produced only a small amount of his two proteins. He says he hopes that by the end of next year, the researchers will have perfected the process of tobacco protein extraction. Then, they will seek investors to help build facilities where the proteins can be produced in large amounts. The ultimate goal, according to project advisor Gary Hodge, is to help tobacco farmers in the state of Maryland.

HODGE: "If we can [identify] a way for them to continue growing tobacco for beneficial purposes, then we can begin in Maryland to see the transition of a smoking tobacco-based ag[ricultural] economy to one that produces benefits for society, and maybe that will be picked up in the other tobacco growing states, and we can begin to see something very positive come out of this 400 year legacy of smoking tobacco production."

SANER: Since 2000, when the state began paying farmers to stop growing tobacco, many have turned to other agricultural commodities. Some have planted vineyards, others are growing corn or soybeans, but no single crop has proven as lucrative as tobacco. The work being done at the University of Maryland could make tobacco farming a profitable, and respectable, business again. For Our World, I'm Mary Saner in College Park, Maryland.

MUSIC: Our World theme

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

Our World
Voice of America
Washington, DC 20237 USA.

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 or on your radio next Saturday and Sunday as we check out the latest in science and Our World.