July 2005 Archives

Slick Company Stands behind Teflon©

A recent civil suit against DuPont claims that the company continued marketing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a chemical used to manufacture Teflon&, despite 20 years of research showing derogatory health effects. The class action lawsuits by two firms in Florida call for DuPont to spend $5 billion dollars to reimburse people for their Teflon© cookware, and label products containing PFOA. The suit also demands that DuPont reserve funds for further research on PFOA exposure and to possibly pay for associated medical problems of its customers.

The pressure on DuPont is rising. Last fall it paid $340 million to plaintiffs in West Virginia, where a Teflon© manufacturing facility is located, who claimed that PFOA leaked into their water supply. In May of 2005, the Department of Justice (DOJ) Environmental division issued a criminal subpoena to DuPont in its investigation of DuPont's studies of PFOA's in its own employees in 1981. And the EPA has charged that the company violated the Federal Toxic Substances Control Act from June 1981 to March 2001 and failed to turn over laboratory results.

The current suit focuses on the companies alleged irresponsibility in monitoring the health effects of its product. According to a BBC report, a lawyer for the plaintiffs said:

"DuPont has known for over 20 years that the Teflon© product and the PFOA chemical it contains causes cancer in laboratory animals...I don't have to prove that it causes cancer. I only have to prove that DuPont lied in a massive attempt to continue selling their product."

Dupont replies:

"Approved standard FDA tests also show that non-stick coatings used for cookware sold under the Teflon© brand, do not contain any PFOA...Like any household product, cookware coated with Teflon© non-stick is safe when used properly. Teflon© is a trusted brand and is used all over the world by millions of people every day."

PFOA is currently not regulated by the EPA. Although the European Union, Canada and Japan have taken actions to limit potentially toxic chemicals, the United States has been far less proactive. There are several explanations for this. Federal oversight was postponed in the late 1990's, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), when the chemical industry offered to voluntarily test chemicals being produced in large volumes. There are also logistical issues to effective regulation. The Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA) is procedurally daunting, making it exceedingly difficult to regulate toxicants. As well, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined in 2001 that the agency provided biased reports, because its panelists were often affiliated with the companies whose chemicals they were reporting about.

For these reasons and more, the EPA has only requested health data on fewer the 200 chemicals since 1979, resulting in increased criticism. Theo Colburn, a pioneer for low-dose toxicity research, noted in an an interview with PBS Frontline, that the EPA does little to protect people who depend on their oversight of potential toxicants, and that it ignores existing research evidence about health hazards. A recent (GAO) report found that the EPA is weak on regulating chemicals and protecting public health. As the EWG told the NYT:

"If the E.P.A. were to take action against PFOA, it would be the first major regulation of a chemical in more than 15 years. Of the more than 80,000 chemicals that have been in commercial use since World War II, just five types are regulated: PCB's, halogenated chlorofluoroalkanes, dioxin, asbestos and hexavalent chromium."

In an attempt to tighten up the agencies oversight, Senator Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) and Senator James Jeffords (I- Vermont), introduced the "Kids Safe Chemical Act", that will require that chemicals used in households be tested prior to their release on the market. It also proposes expanding the regulatory power of the EPA.

Since the EPA has now labeled PFOA a "potential carcinogen", it can theoretically participate more in the regulation of the chemical. Naturally, some are skeptical about how fast the changes will actually occur and many point to the slog that happened in asbestos regulation despite the numerous lawsuits and legislation enacted to clean it out of the environment.

More Research on Antibiotic Resistance Risks

Doctors at Bristol University found that individuals who had recently taken antibiotics showed increased resistance to subsequent antibiotic regimens. The researchers studied 3,000 people who had been given antibiotic treatments. The researchers took urine samples from patients who were prescribed antibiotics then tested the bacteria in the patients urine for antibiotic resistance. They found that the bacteria from patients who took antibiotics within two months of testing showed increased resistance to amoxicillin and trimethoprim (two antibiotics). When the antibiotic course was taken 12 months prior to taking the urine samples the influence on the antibiotic resistance of the urinary bacteria waned and the bacteria population resumed normal susceptibility to the drugs.

This is important for doctors who choose whether to prescribe antibiotics or not. Generally it is known (and Acronym Required has previously discussed) that the overuse of antibiotics creates a pool of antibiotic resistant bacteria in the environment. This exposes the human population as a whole to the increased risk of infections from of microbes that mutate and develop physiological abilities to resist the lethal affect of antibiotics. People sometimes think (and this was also discussed previously) that although they personally might be affected by their choice, not anyone else will, a misconception that allows them a certain nonchalance about whether they finish their prescription or not. If this study is repeated and the results are robust then it appears that there is an increased risk to individuals who take antibiotics, in addition to the increased risks to the population. This should add a cautionary note to patients and doctors about the dangers for individuals as well as populations of prescribing antibiotics overzealously. Though whether it changes behavior remains to be seen.

Turtle Lost, Turtle Found

*typo corrected, link fixed 01/07/08

The New York Times tells the tale of an endangered turtle, a Batagur baska or "Asian river terrapin". The endangered species was re-discovered in 2001 in Cambodia. King Norodom Sihanouk endorsed a program for the turtle's preservation and turtles were radio tagged. (this article previously stated that his son, Norodom Sihamoni, who only came into power in 2004, was resposible for the program). Poachers recently smuggled one of the tagged turtles to Vietnam. There, officials confiscated it in a raid along with some other more run-of-the-mill turtles. One inspection officer noticed the large size and unfamiliar features and contacted environmentalists who identified the turtle as one of the rare species. The batagur is one of Asia's largest freshwater turtles and this one weighed over 30 pounds. It will be returned to its home habitat, a river in Cambodia, which was identified by its radio tags. There it will join an estimated 2-8 female Asian river terrapins.

Part of this story is a familiar one. In small villages in South East Asia and China, as well as other remote areas of the world, people hunt, fish (and poach) whatever they can to eat and sell. They often don't discriminate between endangered and unendangered species, especially when there's profit to be gained from a rarefied feature like a tusk or hide or hoof or leaf or root.

A Fine Balance

Suketu Mehta received enormous praise and some criticism for "Maximum City", a non-fiction book about Bombay. The Economist said about the book:

"Suketu Mehta tells the stories of slum-dwellers, dancing girls, hitmen, and poets, all of whom have come to Bombay to make it. With a clear but non-judgmental voice, his is an outstanding tale of the exhilarating city in which he grew up."

Suketu Mehta boldly highlights a "clear but non-judgmental voice" on his website. This week the author uses his platform to opine in the New York Times about the outsourcing of jobs by the West to India. With the media chirping daily about outsourcing, Mehta portrays American workers as despairing over their lost jobs in A Passage From India". He speaks again with a clear voice but this time he is decidedly judgmental.

It is admittedly difficult to argue with the article since it touches on many sides of a complicated issue from a variety of perspectives and voices. Mehta masterfully spins bits of truth into an argument that cossets our fears with gentle conciliatory gestures. On one hand he provides easy examples to illustrate what we already suspect are our national failings. "In this year's national spelling bee", he says, as we succumb to the idea that our children are getting dumber;"the top four contestants were of South Asian origin"".

Mehta was apparently educated in English schools in Bombay, moved to New York when he was fourteen, then graduated from NYU and University of Idaho Writer's workshop. He portrays himself in the image of a Pico "Iyer-esque"cosmopolitan - a trans-continental city denizen who finds friends and family in Paris, San Francisco, Bombay or New York. From this position, he contends that the education in the West is inferior. "If I were now to move with my family to India, my children - who go to one of the best private schools in New York - would have to take remedial math and science courses". Then he lines up his evidence to assert that this is the cause, which can be linked to an effect; "one in 10 technology jobs will leave these shores by the end of this year". The result, he concludes, leaves the West poised to plummet noisily to "their" (third person) demise - "complaining when their jobs are being lost to children of the empire who are working harder than they are." Does he suggest that perhaps the West deserves the outsourcing as some sort of come-uppance?

Mehta then assumes the role of the underdog when he appeals to our guilt at a time when many of us question our seemingly oafish international foreign policy behavior: "I was mercilessly bullied during the 1979-80 hostage crisis, because my classmates couldn't tell the difference between Iran and India". He scoffs at comparatively slothful habits, "Indians have had to learn; we have had to slog for long hours in the classroom while the children of other countries went out to play". He strings it all together onto a history of imperialism; "Why are Indians willing to write code for a tenth of what Americans make for the same work? It's not by choice; it's because they're still struggling to stand on their feet after 200 years of colonial rule." Colonialism can hamper growth despite what Great Britain says and what you hear about the trains. But is it possible that Mehta's India also has a chip on its shoulder or is reflecting some personal bitterness.

Is he an outsider to all nations, uncomfortable in a quest for illusive identity? Or is his position enviable, maybe uniquely fortunate, in that he can assume multiple identities but be caged by none? Perhaps his multi-lingual, multi-cultural identity positions him well to elude the vagaries of globalism. Regardless, he glibly assumes different personas, donning the robe of the worldly elitist to scorn us, then the scuffed shoes of the beleagured exile to rebuke us, before assuming the mantle of dutiful American: "I have a vested interest in seeing America prosper. But I am here because the country of my ancestors didn't understand the changing world.." Continued protectionism, he warns, "will ensure only that *our* schools stay terrible, it'll be an entire country run like the dairy industry, feasible only because of price controls and subsidies". We are left to peer quizzically if doubtfully into the mirror that he holds up for us, re-examining the blemishes that he highlights.

Meanwhile, the author embellishes not only India's education system but its technological abilities with select evidence; "During the technology boom of the late 1990's, Indians were responsible for 10 percent of all the start-ups in Silicon Valley". This he uses to hint at inevitable dominance - "Those Indians who went to the United States...have done remarkably well: Indians make up one of the richest ethnic groups in this country". As deftly as a Bollywood script writer, he adds magnificence, bright colors, shiny sparkly glory, and a bit of song and dance to create the glittering myth of India Ascendant

Then, having drawn the line down the middle and deftly balanced the two sides with some well worn arguments and classic handicaps he concludes "The outsourcing debate seems to have mutated into a contest between the country of my birth and the country of my nationality." Finally, after ever so politely, apologetically and properly putting the ambiguous *us* in our place, he offers nobly that, "Indian-Americans can help..deal with the emerging economic superpower that is India".

It is interesting how the gritty picture of Bombay in "Maximum City" opposes the shiny glossy composite of the ascending India (a sleight of even-handedness) in this article. Shall we trust the words of this benevolent self styled avatar of global understanding? What is true? Are U.S. schools failing abysmally next to India's? Are we losing our scientific edge as abruptly and tragically as a child misspells some impossible multi-syllabic word presented in a spelling bee? Is the trend in outsourcing proof that India is just a hop skip and jump from becoming "the empire", the "economic superpower"? Could we possible answer all these questions?

"A Fine Balance" is also a book about India by Rohinton Mistry.

Panda Baby

Giant Panda The Giant Pandas at the National Zoo had a baby. The parent pandas, Mei Xiang and Tian Tian, were exchanged from China a few years ago for $10 million dollars in donations to be used for conservation projects. Mei Xiang and Tian Tian are the National Zoo's second pair of giant pandas. Meix Xiang birthed the tiny baby 3-5 ounce baby at about 3:45AM this morning. The sex of the baby is not known since the zookeepers won't disturb the infant or mother.

Pandas are difficult to breed in captivity. If this baby lives it will be only the third to survive a captive birth in the U.S. Five others have been born at the National Zoo but have not survived. The pandas were mated last March when zookeepers artificially inseminated them. Pandas ovulate once a year, and if they do not become pregnant they can have "pseudopregnancies" with elevated hormone levels and behavior that mimics a pregnant panda. Some cues that Mei Xiang was pregnant include that she was "sleeping much of the day, eating little, building a bamboo nest in her den and cradling apples".The new panda will become property of China after it is weaned, when it reaches two years. China will also name the baby after its first 100 days.

Pandas have been considered an endangered species since the 1960's. The good news is that a recent census by the World Wildlife Fund and the Chinese government found 1600 pandas living in China, 50% more then they had expected to find. Placing the pandas in zoos around the world helps raise awareness of pandas and endangered species. As well attempting to breed pandas in captivity provides a potential alternative to breeding and hopefully helps insure the panda's precarious existence in the wild. There are several breeding facilities in China, including the renowned Chengdu breeding center.

Political Scientists - We are All Scientists Now

Three political scientists recently made some research suggestions for the political science discipline based on their analysis of twin studies. Dr. John Alford, Dr. John Hibbing, and Dr. Caroline Funk of Virginia Commonwealth University derived their ideas about the genetic components of political views by reanalyzing two twin studies. They published their research in the American Political Science Review. The New York Times summarized their research. The 'scientists' "combed" the two research studies for indications that political instincts and party affiliations are genetic. Based on political analysis, they found that political instincts have genetic components. Based on their ideas they "urg[e] political scientists to incorporate genetic influences, specifically interactions between genetic heritability and social environment, into models of political attitude formation."

Based on their study, they make wide ranging suggestions, like:

It has long been known that certain political issues seem "hard"to people, and others seem "easy," presumably because some issues trigger "gut responses" while others do not(Carmines and Stimson 1980, 79), but no explanation has yet been offered for why given issues do or do not elicit gut responses. Why do social, more than economic, issues tend to hit people in the gut, even though both constitute ongoing and equally complex societal concerns? In light of the new findings, one distinct possibility is that easy "gut" issues tend to be those that are more heritable.


...admitting that genetics influences political attitudes could actually help to mute societal divisions...As frustrating as it may be to debate with someone who holds such different orientations, value exists in recognizing that intransigence is not the result of willful bullheadedness but, rather, genetically driven differences in orientation...The exciting next step is to understand the reason such distinct orientations have evolved and lasted.

With the facile agility of political scientists to pogo stick over all scientific reasoning whatsoever in order to adapt convenient conclusions, who needs scientists?

News of Lightweight Study: "Obese Should Walk Slowly"

Heavy and "obese" people read headlines recently urging them to "Walk Slowly For Weight Loss". The *news*, which made headlines throughout the mainstream media including CNN, Yahoo, Science Daily, and MNBC, originated from a study and subsequent press release from the University of Colorado, Boulder June 14, 2005. The study's authors urged the exact opposite advice of what people have tried to adhere to for years. Reliable sources including the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Obesity Association (AOA), The American Heart Association (AHA), among others, have long encouraged everyone to "walk briskly!" We have been told to "pick up the pace from leisurely to brisk", not only to improve overall health , but to decrease the risks of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes, as well as to lose or maintain healthy weight.

The headlines referred to research published in the May issue of Obesity Research titled: "Energetic Cost and Preferred Speed of Walking in Obese vs. Normal Weight Women", by Raymond Browning, Roger Kram and others. Here's how the CU's press release summarized the researchers results, quoting Ray Browning, the lead author (emphasis ours):

"The message is that by walking more slowly, obese individuals can burn more calories per mile and may reduce the risk of arthritis or joint injury."

We found the study in order to look at the original results. According to the CU press release, the authors started with the hypothesis that:

"Obese adults would have a greater energy cost when walking [based] on previous studies by Kram's lab team. In one study, energy expenditure increased by about 25 percent when normal-weight people walked with a deliberately wider stance"

Based on these previous results, authors expected that further research would show that heavier people walked more slowly then lighter weight people, with higher energy cost and commensurately greater cardiovascular effort. Instead, Browning and Kram found that the two groups walked at similar speeds. Surprisingly, the heavier group only burned only 11% more calories per pound. Browning and Kram had theorized that the heavier group would use at least 100% more calories per pound.

Said the Browning:

"This was a surprise...The subjects probably are unwittingly altering their posture and walking with straighter legs, conserving calories in the process."

Here's an approximate graph of the results. It differs slightly from the graph published by the study because the authors used "2.5" as the starting Y axis value, instead of "0". The results (our lines are based on theirs, which are second-order least squares regression calculations), show that as the walkers increase their speed they decrease the energy they use until the optimal "preferred speed" for walking is achieved. This "preferred speed" was reached at 1.47m/s for the normal group and 1.4m/s for the obese group. These speeds represent approximately the points where the walkers cover the greatest distance using the least amount of energy.

Energy Cost

Interestingly, both the thinner and the heavier subjects used more energy at slower speeds. So why then, did the researchers only recommend that obese subjects walk more slowly? According to the authors it was because the heavier cohort were the only ones at risk for osteoarthritis. The authors indicate in their press release that their research shows this risk. However nowhere in the original study was this question addressed except for a brief reference to a paper from different authors.

However the research group whose work Browning and Kram referenced, had done work only with a normal weight cohort, not with the obese who walked more efficiently. So in essence the basis for their press release is not their own research, at least not published research, but their approximations based on another lab's study. This is all very vague in their paper and completely obscured in the press release. The study that they reference carefully noted that their results were relevant to "normal" healthy people. This is important because according to co-author Kram:

"As people become gradually obese, they also seem to become particularly graceful...there appears to be some sort of a physiological drive for them to minimize the amount of energy they expend."

In other words, not only is the obese cohort that Browning and Kram study not "normal" but according to the authors, they walk differently. So considering their very own observations, should they be generalizing the results of the other study of normal weighted people without at least doing the research and submitting it for peer review? The fact that obese might conserve energy by adjusting their gait is not a revelation, since previous studies, including ones we talked about with Nepalese porters here, show that humans often economize energy expenditure when walking with heavy loads. Like porters or African women who carry weight on their head, overweight people appear to alter their gait to conserve energy expenditure. That's the interesting result.

It seems like Browning and Kram jump the gun on the research, especially since other studies have found that the obese do not increase the stress on their knees when walking. This is because, again, as the authors concluded, there is a change in gait that seems to favor preservation in energetics. So why would this energy optimization, these self-preservation optimizations, extend to joint preservation and biomechanics as well?

There are two things that are curious about the news of this study. One is the conclusion of the authors. The second is how the research was portrayed in the media. It's hard to know where one ends and the other begins. There's potentially a point where researchers lose control of their words to the machinations of media. The authors admit the confusion about the results on the part of the media. However since the original press release is from the authors own university it's difficult to believe that the confusion between the undone biomechanics research and the kinetics data that was the subject of their published study couldn't have easily been corrected at the source.

Instead the misconceptions were seemingly *allowed* to propagate throughout the media, which risks misleading and misinforming people. Since the researchers are telling people to 'walk more slowly', which flies in the face of a bulk of public health research, it is important to know just how slow obese people are being advised to walk.

Notably, the authors advise that researchers have found disparate "preferred walking speeds" for men and women of various weights. The range varies from study to study, 1.18 m/s, 1.19 m/s, 1.09 m/s, or 0.75 m/s. So the "preferred walking speeds" are widely variable, but the media never modulates their conclusions to accommodate the potential variation. It's possible then, that obese people are already walking slowly. However since the authors conclude that only "obese" people, should "walk slowly" they isolate this population for their recommendation, which could encourage already slow walkers to slow down more and could impede the healthful benefits of walking. Should the public health community be concerned about recommendations that are so wide reaching yet whose benefits may be inconclusive?

Further clouding the result, the researchers tested the walkers for only 5 minutes. They then extrapolated this result to a 45 minutes walk, which was in turn extended to an hour or hour and a half in the media reports. It is quite possible that over longer periods of time the energetics of walking would change. Five minutes of walking is vastly different (especially for an obese person) than 1.5 hours. Shouldn't more work be done at different time periods before publicizing health recommendations?

Finally, is osteoporosis the greatest health risk? What about all the studies that concluded that "brisk exercise" (not slow exercise) lessens health risks such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, weight loss, cancer risk, and even osteoporosis? We are all concerned about public health and as citizens we deserve to hear more robust science based recommendations that will actually inform us, rather than just sell stories about obesity.

Snow Lotus...The Largest Aren't The Fittest After All

Snow Lotus Many species of the plant genus Saussurea are valued by herbalists for their medicinal uses. Although the plants have been being used in traditional Chinese medicine for hundreds of years, research has recently confirmed that their use for medicinal uses were not whimsical. Saussurea lappa for instance, has anti-inflamatory properties and anti-viral potential, while Saussurea eopygmaea and Saussurea medusa have anti-tumor activity. Saussurea medusa and Saussurea laniceps, both commonly known as "Snow Lotus", are harvested at altitudes of 3-4,000 meters by herbal doctors and others seeking the flowers. The flowers are used as therapies for blood disorders, high blood pressure, fertility and menstruation problems. Generally the flowers are thought to be most effective when they are harvested right before they go to seed, which prevents the seeds of these select flowers from being dispersed.

Researchers Jan Salick and Wayne Law published a study forthcoming in Proceedings of the National Academies of Science (PNAS) that reporting that the selective harvesting of the Saussurea laniceps by humans has caused a reduction in the size of the flowers in harvested regions compared to flowers in unharvested regions. They also found that specimens in flower collections over the past century are much larger than what is currently being sold in shops. On the other hand, the species Saussurea medusa, with a purple flower that is apparently less desired, has not decreased in size. The background and purpose for the study are described here.

Researchers have known for years that the habits of harvesters could impact the evolution of species. The phenomena was previously been seen in fish populations that are heavily fished, activity that causes genetic adaptations in response to harvest. The greatest adaptation is a decrease in the average size and very slow recovery of population numbers, though sometimes the headline news belies this reality.

We commonly hear about endangered species as a result of the loss of habitat due to human population development and encroachment, or environmental warming trends. The authors say that the impact of selective harvesting of the prime species specimens, and the potential direct impact on species evolution are also important to consider.

83 Million Miles from Here- NASA's successful Comet Crash

At 1:52 AM EDT on July 4th, a copper probe going 23,000 miles per hour crashed into the comet Tempel 1, located 83 million miles from earth. The probe was launched from Deep Impact, and the $333 million dollar mission considered a success. NASA scientists were jubilant. The goal was to learn what comets are made of, so information will be forthcoming over the next few days, weeks, months. The spacecraft launched on January 12, 2005. Details about the mission can be found at National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA's) mission page. Photos are here.

Issues over Milk: Research Publishing & Terrorism

The possibility of agricultural terrorism, whether it is the poisoning livestock or propositions that terrorists could steal crop dusters to wreak some sort of havoc, has long been considered. In February, 2001, Janes Defense wrote about potential agricultural threats and the increase of anti-terrorism budget by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

"One somewhat surprising addition to the 2001 budget..a line-item for $39.8 million to be apportioned to the U.S> Department of Agriculture (USDA), a federal body that has not in the past received much attention in U.S. national security contingencies."

The article dealt primarily with the possibility of weaponizing biological pathogens against livestock, but pointed out:

"The capability requirements for carrying out a foodborne attack are rudimentary, and certainly more so [sic] than those necessary for an airborne assault. There are a myriad of possible agents and vectors that could be used, most of which are either readily available or do not require any substantial scientific knowledge to isolate and develop."

Following the attacks on September 11th, various research entities and government agencies scrambled to establish guidelines to curb the dissemination of research which could be used for malicious purposes. The Fink committee issued a report October 2003 on steps to prevent the application of "dual-use" research, and in light of the report, the Bush administration established a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), as part of the National Institute of Health (NIH).

A separate effort in 2003, established a group of top life science journal editors, research university and foundation scientists, as well as agencies like the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, who met and established their own guidelines that would guide science research publication with consideration of national defense issues. Many other organizations did the same, as researchers would rather be self-monitoring, than censored by government agencies.

Despite these efforts this issue seemed unresolved when it was brought to the fore recently in a brouhaha surrounding a Stanford scientist's paper on the capability of terrorists to poison the milk supply. The publication of the paper; "Analyzing a Bioterror Attack on the Food Supply: The Case of Botulinum Toxin in Milk" by Dr. Lawrence M. Wein, was postponed by the department of Health and Human Services because the agency considered it a blueprint for terrorists. Wein then published an editorial about the event in the New York Times; "Got Toxic Milk", May 30, 2005, that summarized the findings of his full length paper. Last week, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published the full research report.

There are diverse opinions about whether the article should have been published. Those who defend publishing the article argue that the article serves as a warning to protect largely unguarded agricultural resources. Those who oppose the publication of the article claim that the article presented specific data and calculations that would be useful to someone with malicious intent, therefore the article threatens national security.

There were also those who strongly opposed the article on a factual basis. Authors at Global Security criticized the article for being; "flawed in its understanding of terrorist capabilities, [the author's] other assumptions in error, and the conclusion therefore erroneous and inflammatory." In short, they maintain that:

  1. Terrorists couldn't procure the toxin necessary. The Global Security authors provide evidence which they say shows the citations used by the paper's authors were flimsy.
  2. They assert that Wein's assumptions about the degree of lethality were potentially flawed, as were assumptions about the inability of the pasteurization process to kill biological toxins. Pasteurization processes have been thoroughly scrutinized by the government and the International Dairy Foods Association and improved - the paper ignores this.
  3. Lastly GlobalSecurity.org criticized the publication of the paper, considering the amount of uncertainty that was built into the paper's risk calculations.

GlobalSecurity.org concluded that:

..[T]oo often, in our opinion, have the debates on securing the country against the threat of bioterrorism degenerated into worst case scenarios which assume an easy and accomplished technical capability for mass killing already or soon to be in the hands of terrorists. Our assessment is that the possible variability in the three key assumptions means that, taken together, they could result in a difference of nine orders of magnitude from the numbers presented by Dr. Wein, that is produce a result only one-billionth as much.

Was Wein's Stanford paper fear-mongering based on faulty assumptions? Or was it critical information being suppressed by government agencies, but imperative information for the public? It is unclear how future rounds of similar arguments will be resolved. On one hand, there is a lot of information published in research journals that could be useful to those with malicious intent. On the other, is secrecy our best way forward?

The argument that it is irrelevant if the research is published because most of the information is available on the internet seems specious - random publishers of sites on the internet that post items of variable accuracy do not garner the same authority, nor (usually) inherit the same responsibilities that academic publishers do. Those who defend publishing such papers, certainly Wein claim that this type of paper is meant as a "warning", to the public, meant to frighten people into action. Pardon the lame analogy, but this rhetorical tack sounds a bit like the film director who claims that his extremely violent film is a "commentary" on violence. If an author or director gains notoriety from this type of production or publication decision, how can we possible judge their true intent?

Moreover, since most of these security assessments involve calculating the statistical likelihood ("nine orders of magnitude", says Global Security) of many individual events occurring at once, one could argue that any particular threat involves a degree of uncertainty. Wein's paper proposes the worse case scenario. In their rebuttal, GlobalSecurity.org uses another set of uncertainty assumptions to make the opposing case - that terrorists could not easily poison the population by poisoning the milk supply. Is it even possible to gather the information necessary to assess who is right? Government officials had information that could have led them to tighten up airline security before September 11th. They assumed a level of uncertainty that turned out to be tragic.

Intellectual freedom and freedom of the press are critical to democracy, as is battening down security by identifying lapses. Balancing the tension between the two critical goals is difficult.

There is seemingly no central authority overseeing these decisions. Since the Wein's paper was originally vetted by the journal editors, editors and NSABB(?), how did the Department of Health and Human Services (which is also part of NSABB) only now become involved? As for Wein's response, published by New York Times - is the mainstream press the appropriate venue to do end runs around decisions concerning national defense and the appropriateness of a scientific publication? How much secrecy is productive? How much is counterproductive? I don't know.

And what about the organization NSABB, which was chartered as a result of decisions in 2003, was formed in 2004, but still hadn't met mid-2005? The National Arms Control Center reports that NSABB just held it's first meeting. How biosecure do you feel?

Group B Strep Vaccine Development

Science Magazine reports that a group of scientists at Chiron, the Institute for Genomic Research, University of Messina Medical School, and Brigham and Women's, have engineered potential vaccine candidates for Group B Streptococcus using genomic screening techniques or reverse vaccinology.

Group B Strep (GBS) is a leading cause of death in neonates. The bacteria resides in the mucosal tracts of adults, where it can cause infection but is generally not lethal. During birth women can pass the infection to babies, where it can cause sepsis, meningitis and sometimes death. In the U.S. a systematic testing and antibiotic administration program for women in the last weeks of pregnancy is used to prevent infection, however each year the infection causes hundreds of deaths worldwide.

Conventional vaccine development uses various methods, such as the attenuation of the virus advanced by Sabin to produce the polio vaccine, isolation of protein subunits, or recombinant methods to isolate candidate antigens from bacteria or viruses. These resulting proteins are then tested to see which ones if any stimulate immunity (without toxicity) in animals or humans.

Several vaccine strategies specific to GBS exist, such as isolating the polysaccharide capsule (that surrounds the bacteria) which is then conjugated with cholera or pertussis toxin subunits. In addition to the logistical and regulatory challenges of the clinical trials, however, one of the difficulties that these vaccines face is that there are many different serotypes of disease, so a vaccine that is developed for one population say in Europe, may not be suitable for another.

The Chiron group used reverse vaccinology, a technology it had previously investigated for other disease vaccine targets such as type C meningococcal disease, caused by Neisseria meningitidis for which they manufactured a vaccine called Menjugate, used abroad.

Reverse vaccinology uses the whole genome of an organism to isolate all possible antigens "in silico" by comparing the sequence with the sequences of known antigens and toxins, in order to identify likely vaccine antigens. Recombinant expression systems (where the gene is isolated and produced by another bacteria) were used to produce candidate antigens, then these were screened to discern which candidates produced protection against the virulent strains. This method of vaccine development, though not without limitations, has the potential to advance at a faster rate, because the availability of complete genome information accelerates the identification of protein candidates. Chiron explains the difference between conventional vaccine development and this new method here.

The researchers used multiple strains of Group B Streptococcus in their genomic analysis and screening. They ended up with 312 surface proteins that were then screened for protective activity. Four antigens were identified that when tested alone, had restricted activity. These were then combined and the result produced broad spectrum protection against multiple virulent strains of GBS.

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