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MUSIC: Our World theme

Straight ahead on "Our World" ... a delay in NASA's long-awaited space shuttle launch ... medical research and other innovation in developing countries ... and the dangers of talking on the phone while driving.
RADER: "The body of research, including this study, seems to point toward the conversation as being the big distraction in using a cell phone while driving."

Those stories, and more... I'm Art Chimes.  Welcome to VOA's science and technology magazine, "Our World."

The space shuttle Discovery was scheduled to blast off into space on Wednesday. As you probably know by now, it didn't due to an "unexplained anomaly" -- a technical fault that forced NASA officials to postpone the mission.

The decision to scrub the launch came with only about two-and-a-half hours left in the countdown.

The problem was a device called the Engine Cutoff Sensor. Located at the bottom of the shuttle's huge external tank, the sensor acts something like a fuel gauge in a car. There are four sensors in each part of the tank, and NASA guidelines say all have to be working correctly for a launch to proceed.

A similar problem with the sensors showed up during a test last April. NASA technicians couldn't duplicate the problem, so they switched fuel tanks, and it was the replacement tank sensor that gave Wednesday's false reading.

Senior NASA official Wayne Hale explained that the space agency went into "full troubleshooting mode" in an effort to determine what caused the problem.

HALE:  "We reviewed all the data that we could on the black boxes, the wires, the sensors themselves, the history of this particular tank, the history of Discovery and its peculiarities with these sensors. We sent a number of folks off to get the schematics, the original schematics on many of these parts, to get the factory history and the buildup of the various piece-parts. We established 12 different engineering teams to attack this problem. They stretch across the country. They're NASA and contractor."

NASA's Wayne Hale explaining "full troubleshooting mode."

VOA's Jim Teeple was at Cape Canaveral for Wednesday's non-launch and he joins us now.

[ conversation with Jim Teeple not transcribed ]

Since the beginning of human space flight 44 years ago, at least 18 astronauts and cosmonauts have died during space missions, and others were killed in training. One day, space flight may be routine and safe, but as NASA's Wayne Hale reminds us, that is not the case today.

HALE:  "Going into space is right at the limits of human technology here at the start of the 21st century. We're doing something that's extremely difficult. This is not like going to the airport and getting on a commercial airliner. This is much more complicated and much more difficult. In the future, one hopes -- and I'm very hopeful -- that will become more commonplace and perhaps they'll be more like commercial air travel, but we are not there today. And if you think that this is routine, you surely don't understand what it is that we're trying to do here."

NASA's Wayne Hale explaining the dangers and challenges of human space flight.


Scientists have sequenced the genomes of the parasites responsible for three major diseases that mainly afflict people in the developing world --  sleeping sickness, Chagas disease and a disfiguring condition called leishmaniasis.

The three diseases sicken millions of people each year, and knowledge of their genetic profile could be a significant step in developing drugs and vaccines. In fact, because more than 6,000 genes are common to all three parasites, it might be possible to develop a single drug that would be effective against all three diseases.

The research was published this week in the journal "Science," which notes that much of the gene sequencing was done at laboratories in Africa and Latin America.

That doesn't surprise Carlos Morel, a Brazilian researcher who wrote in a separate article in Science that the innovative capacity of developing countries is often underestimated.

MOREL:  "You have countries like China, India and Brazil, which ... have 'islands' of innovative capacity. And some of the indexes used up to now, they do not pinpoint this phenomenon."

So Dr. Morel and his colleagues created a new metric -- the number of U.S. patents per capita, with adjustments for the countries' economic output -- to better illustrate the level of innovation in nations that in some ways might still be considered "developing countries." By that measure, the United States and Japan are the leading innovators, but they are followed by India and China -- ahead of technology leaders such as Germany and South Korea.

Because of the propagation of technology beyond its traditional strongholds, Dr. Morel says innovative developing countries can now often find partners among other similar countries -- South-South cooperation, if you will, not just North-South.

MOREL:  "The traditional view was that we should always cooperate only with the most advanced countries. This is true. Brazil has most of her connections with the United States. But we should not forget that some solutions can be found internally or in countries at a similar level of development."

The idea for sequencing the genes of the three parasites emerged from a meeting that took place in Brazil in 1994. At the time, admitted Dr. Morel, the idea that scientists in what some call the "third world" could succeed might have seemed unlikely.

MOREL:  "But I think the network that we assembled, finally after 11 years, most of the work was done. So I think this shows as a good example that some initiatives can bear fruit even if, at the time, it was considered too premature or too unrealistic."

Carlos Morel points out a number of important pharmaceuticals have emerged from labs in less developed countries, including the first effective meningitis B vaccine, developed in Cuba; and a malaria drug known as E-mal, developed in India.

Top 10 countries ranked by total patents issued in 2003
adjusted for GDP and per capita (Adapted from Science)
United States 2.760
Japan 1.203
India 0.912
China 0.732
Germany 0.545
South Korea 0.424
France 0.195
Canada 0.194
United Kingdom 0.182
Italy 0.107

If you have a mobile phone, and if you have a car, there's a pretty good chance you sometimes talk on the phone while you're driving. Now, there's new research indicating these two technologies can be a dangerous combination.

RADER:  "The risk of an injury crash is four times higher for drivers who are using cell phones compared with drivers who are not using cell phones. And the risk of a serious crash was the same, whether drivers were using a handheld phone or a hands-free phone."

Russ Rader is a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the research arm of the U.S. auto insurance industry, which commissioned this latest study. He says there is evidence that drivers can be mentally distracted while talking on the phone.

RADER:  "The body of research, including this study, seems to point toward the conversation as being the big distraction in using a cell phone while driving."

Several U.S. cities and states ban the use of handheld phones while driving, but it's a hard law to enforce. In any event, this study indicates you may not be any safer using a hands-free phone.

RADER:  "'Hang up and drive' is good advice. Or, if you must talk on the cell phone, pull over or pull into a parking lot someplace because clearly this is a risk, and it's not just a risk of a minor crash, it's a risk of an injury crash."

Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The study was published in the British Medical Journal. The research was actually done in Australia, because U.S. phone companies would not release call records.

Time again for Our World's Website of the Week. In the past we've featured online sources of medical information. This one is a little different. At you can see actual surgical procedures live from hospital operating rooms. 

Company official Peter Gailey says there are now some 200 different surgeries in the archives that can be viewed on demand.

GAILEY:  "We find that our most popular events typically are the orthopedic events -- knee replacement surgeries, shoulder surgeries, hip replacement surgeries, those types of things. We also have found a very lively audience in gastric bypass and other weight reduction techniques."

There is one big advantage to watching in real time, though: you can send questions direct to the operating room by e-mail.

GAILEY:  "The ability to access the world's leading surgeons in a variety of different specialties for that hour really gives everybody access that they might otherwise not have or might have to go to great lengths to get."

And it's about as close as you can get to observing surgery without putting on a sterile gown.

SURGEON:  "And then I intersect that line with the line going down the thigh. I could feel directly inside exactly where I want that all to go. [fades]"

OR-Live was originally developed for medical education, and it might not be for you if you're put off by the sight of blood. But it does attract many lay visitors, including patients who want to see a procedure they may be undergoing themselves.

GAILEY:  "The audience is much larger than we originally anticipated. We have fifth grade science classes tuning in to our programs. So there is a certain 'gee-whiz' factor, and I think that that gee-whiz factor helps us to better introduce a larger audience to the type of information  that this portal can provide. And I think more and more, as the population grows and ages, I think it's going to become a better and better resource for a lot of people to de-mystify the process of surgery for themselves, as they either approach the surgery or as they try to get better educated to help their loved ones."

In addition to the content, another interesting aspect of is how it's financed. In the United States, hospitals often have extensive marketing campaigns so patients will choose them, rather than the hospital across town. Hospitals and medical device makers pay OR-Live to include their procedures, hoping to attract patients looking for a quicker recovery from a hip replacement or an advanced treatment for brain tumors., or get the link from our site,

MUSIC: "Good Lovin'"(The Rascals)

You're listening to VOA's science and technology magazine, Our World. I'm Art Chimes in Washington.

An international food safety body has adopted more than 20 food standards at its annual meeting this month in Rome.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission was established in 1963 by two U.N. agencies -- the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization.  Many of the actions taken by the Codex group were highly technical, but the new guidelines adopted by the commission's 172 member do include new recommendations on vitamin and mineral supplements -- encouraging people instead to get the nutrients they need from the food they eat, when possible. The group also set hygienic  standards for animal slaughter and meat processing and set up a taskforce on anti-microbial resistance, which will address, for example, concerns about the use of antibiotics in animal feed.

The U.S. Codex manager, Ed Scarbrough of the Agriculture Department, who attended the Rome meeting, said Codex recommendations are not binding in the many countries that have their own regulatory schemes.

SCARBROUGH:  "There are a number, however, of developing countries that don't have a regulatory infrastructure that we have in the United States or in Europe who automatically adopt Codex standards as their national standard. So when Codex adopts a standard, it automatically becomes the national standard of a number of countries."

However, these scientific standards can be a factor in international trade disputes.

SCARBROUGH:  "They are now recognized as the benchmark in trade disputes. So if the United States has a standard that is more restrictive than a Codex standard. The U.S. then could be vulnerable to a trade complaint by another country who wants to sell their products into our country.

U.S. Codex manager Ed Scarbrough concedes that the Codex commission -- indeed, the whole idea of international food safety regulation -- is scarcely known here in America.

SCARBROUGH:  "I think in general in the United States it's not known because we have a well-developed regulatory system with the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Agriculture, that's now over 100 years old, and the actions of Codex have very little effect on our own citizens internally."

Ed Scarbrough of the U.S. Agriculture Department. The outgoing Codex chairman [Stuart Slorach] said in Rome that standards adopted at this year's Codex meeting will better protect consumer health and improve confidence in the products they consume.


While we're on the subject of food, there's new research out this week that a key ingredient in curry spices and turmeric in particular, may help prevent melanoma and other cancers.

Scientists at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Texas say theirs is the latest study to suggest that the ingredient, curcumin, shuts down a powerful protein that can lead to cancer, and also arthritis.

In laboratory experiments, the Texas researchers found curcumin stops melanoma cells from proliferating, and even prompts the cells to die off.

Animal and human trials are underway.

Curcumin comes from the root of a plant in the ginger family. Lead researcher Dr. Bharat Aggarwal says it's been widely used in South Asia as a spice and preservative, as well as as a traditional medicine.

AGGARWAL:  "An average Indian takes about 100-200 mg. curcumin in the diet every day. And if you were to speak of lung cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer and prostate cancer -- four most common cancers that are found in the Western world -- the incidence of these cancers is 10 times lower in countries such as India."

Laboratory studies indicate that curcumin works by reducing inflammation.

AGGARWAL:  "Increasingly it is becoming clear that inflammation plays a very important role in cancer and a wide variety of other diseases. And curcumin is an anti-inflammatory agent and it has been very, very well-documented in the literature and in a lot of ancient books and so forth."

Dr. Aggarwal went on to say that there is a genetic "master switch" that controls inflammation.

AGGARWAL:  "So we asked the question, does curcumin work through the regulation of this master switch, and we found that the answer is yes."

Dr. Aggarwal's study is only the latest suggesting the power of curcumin. So I asked him if maybe we should all be eating more curries, or taking a curcumin supplement.

AGGARWAL:  "I personally tend to prefer having a lot more curry in the diet as compared to taking supplements, because I personally have a hesitation popping pills."

CHIMES: And of course what you didn't mention is that having a good curry is much more satisfying in so many ways than taking a pill.

AGGARWAL:  "Oh absolutely. And as James Duke put it, in the olden days it was used as a food preservative, but in the modern days it is preserving us."

Dr. Bharat Aggarwal's study is published in the journal "Cancer." 

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That's our show for this week.  We're always delighted to hear from you. Tell us what you like about the program, or what you don't like. Email us at Ourworld is all one word. Or the postal address is -

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Our World is edited by Rob Sivak. Our technical director is Gary Spizler. 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.