November 2005 Archives

Holocene Days

Scientists have long presented evidence that the current period of global warming is unpredicted - an anomaly - and that human activity since the industrial revolution spurred unprecedented climate change. Of course some argue that the climate change we're seeing in this Holocene period isn't anthropogenically generated, we're either in a natural cycle climatic cycle or the warming started thousands of years ago with deforestation by early human activity. As the two sides present their evidence, environmental policy evolves after the scientific research is established when hopefully the chinks are uncovered.

Research on climate and atmospheric gases during several glacial periods helps predict future climate patterns and discern via historical data whether earth's current climate is cyclical or unique. The European Project for Ice Coring in Antartica (EPICA) collects data and analysis from international teams of scientists who embark on bone-chilling expeditions to gather historical information about the atmosphere from deep ice cores they drill in Antarctica. Analysis of air bubbles trapped in the ancient ice pack gives information about greenhouse gases and climate changes hundreds of thousands of years ago. The previous core at the Vostok, Antarctica site provided data through 440,000 years ago. The recent drill provides atmospheric and climate data from 650,000 years ago.

The Antarctic information can be compared to similiar investigations in Greenland to determine what triggers climate changes in the two hemispheres. The scientists also study the historical pace of climate change and the transitions between glacial to interglacial periods.

This week's Science published studies by two research groups. Taken together, the results show that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere vary with climate in Antarctica. Temperature changes are periodic, however the periods were historically stable. The most recent periods were 10,000 years, a relatively short temperature change. The previous period (before 400,000 years ago) lasted for 30,000 and looked more like the current Holocene period.

Edward J. Brook, the author of the perspective, ("Tiny Bubbles For All"), in Science writes that the current levels of "carbon dioxide and methane levels just before the Industrial revolution" are higher then in the previous 650,000 years. Since CO2 levels are higher now then it ever, scientists predict that temperatures will continue to rise. The evidence bolsters previous research and concurs with predictions made in response to the "EPICA Challenge", which asked scientists to predict the results of the ice core analysis before the data was presented. The scientists were successful at predicting the data outcomes prior to the completion of the studies, which is important because we need to build public confidence in scientists' ability to predict future patterns based on evidence at hand.

At Real Climate climatologists and their readers discuss the research in depth. A previous Acronym Required article discussed some of the challenging aspects of Science Communication.

Burning Bridges?

The journal Science reports this week that Southern Illinois University (SIU) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) are possibly facing a suit by the Department of Justice unless they curtail a controversial scholarship program. SIU supports some graduates via the National Science Foundation's (NSF) "Bridge to Doctorate" scholarship program. "The Bridge To Doctorate" scholarship helps fund graduate minorities, women, and students with disabilities who study science and math. Science reports that the program is being targeted because it "engage[s] in a pattern or practice of intentional discrimination against whites, nonpreferred minorities, and males". The University has previously been warned about three of its scholarships, according to the school paper, "The Daily Egyptian". The National Institute of Health NIH has a similiar "Bridges To Doctorate" program.

Thanksgiving

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The history of Thanksgiving is somewhat murky, but the first harvest festival in North America was probably in Newfoundland. The American colonists most likely had a somewhat more modest festival than our cranberry laden myths would have it. Tryptophan in turkey doesn't cause post meal sleepiness. Nevertheless, for some in our audience who have the day off, we hope it was a pleasant pause in this November week.

Medical Technology -- Whose to Use?

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Technology promises that once fatal medical conditions are now surmountable. Patients with once incurable conditions will live, and even when the condition is only manageable, through technology, therapy, and familial support, they can often live rich meaningful lives. The outcomes far exceed what we used to expect.

The article "In a Stroke Patient, Doctor Sees Power Of Brain to Recover", in yesterday's Wall Street Journal describes how some of these medical techniques are changing patient paradigms. Thomas Burton's article centers on a young doctor who suffered a series of strokes and sank into a coma. A couple of weeks into the patient's coma, his family moved him from one hospital, where they perceived he was destined to doom, to another.

Shooting Holes in the Manifesto

The current "end to end" principle is being challenged by telecoms who want to control the networks and arguably access to which services get to use what resources. A lot of people were alarmed by Business Week's interview with the CEO of SBC - "Why should they be allowed to use my pipes" Ed Whitaker - glibly outlined his plan for global domination. In Newsweek he elaborated about more actions he would take to wrest power over the networks. But wasn't SBC, at one time, dependent on the graces of the same regulations they now want to smother? On the other side of the issue, Doc Searls discusses the tussle over whether the networks should be "owned", "controlled" or "managed", along with his take on the rhetoric that different sides of the Internet privatization issue use, in this interesting essay.

Infectious Disease and Superspreaders

Epidemiologists recognize that for vector borne diseases like malaria and sexually transmitted diseases like AIDS, the 20/80 rule applys, that is 20% of infected individuals provide 80% of subsequent infections. This has important treatment implications; containment or eradication programs must target that 20% of the population in order to be successful. By comparison, the consequences of outbreaks of directly transmitted infectious diseases like measles, smallpox, SARS, and ebola virus are usually predicted by including many variables to determine an average "homogenous" infection rate across a population. Public health measures are then planned based on these calculations.

A team of researchers led by UC Berkeley's James Lloyd-Smith suggest that a heterogeneous model of infection occurs for these diseases too. Along with co-authors Sebastian Schreiber, associate professor of mathematics at the College of William and Mary in Virginia; and P. Ekkehard Kopp, professor of mathematics at the University of Hull in Great Britain, the group analyzed data from eight disease outbreaks from the last sixty years.

Resuscitating The FDA

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has gleaned excessive attention for mishandling various products. There were safety issues surrounding Vioxx and other drugs as well as the prolonged political machinations around the emergency birth control drug Plan B. The flight of its officials and top leaders has been noteworthy. In this week's Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) 2005; 294:2395, Howard Markel, MD, Ph.D, comments on the developments in "Why America Needs a Strong FDA".

The FDA is a crucial government agency that now has an almost cloyingly cozy relationship with the pharmaceutical companies, the author contends, and the political fallout surrounding recent problems has undermined the agency's critical role. The FDA cannot be an effective regulator when its reputation is riddled by scandal and distrust.

Markel outlines the long history of "this fabled and beleaguered agency" with two events that he says mark the rise of the organization and now its slide. The FDA came into its own with the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Apparently the law was well needed, as foods were consistently tainted when reached consumers:

"...a cornucopia of chemicals routinely was poured on vegetables to make them appear green and cover any evidence of decay; brown sugar often was cut with ground-up lice (which apparently looked a lot like sugar), and flour often was adulterated with anything white, from plaster of Paris to chalk and talcum powder. Worse, many of the medicines and soothing syrups were bolstered with alcohol, cocaine, morphine, arsenic, and a host of other decidedly unhealthy agents."

Companies advertised in misleading ways and prepared food and drugs in grotesquely unsanitary conditions. Markel writes that Americans were incited to stand up to irresponsible food and drug companies, as people brought attention to the issue. Upton Sinclair wrote "The Jungle", a "purposely disgusting" novel about the revolting practices of the meat-packing industry that helped bring public attention to the problem. Many others pushed for proper health regulations, including Harvey Washington Wily, and Samuel Hopkins Adams.

"[M]uckraking journalists and writers who incited millions of readers to protest for clean foods and drugs cannot be discounted...The result of all this public education and social agitation was that American citizens would no longer stand for being poisoned, cheated, or endangered by irresponsible food and drug companies."

The other "bookend", he writes, began with deregulation in the Reagan administration. Markel writes that the slide of the FDA's effectiveness was precipitated by budget cuts and increased documentation requirements that left fewer resources for pursuing investigations and aberrant organizations. The agency continued in this southerly direction-

"...during the Gingrich revolution of the early 1990s...[and] in recent days, as the George W. Bush administration pursues health and science policies based more on politics and ideology than scientific data"

Markel points out that Americans depend on the FDA to curb industrial impulses that tend to place profits over safety. In fact, Americans probably take for granted the role that the FDA plays in "watching over" their food and medicine. Yet today, as in the last two centuries, we need a strong, functioning FDA, divorced from the drug industry and led by people not linked to it.

Newsweek also highlights the subject this week in an interview with Marcia Angell in, "The Public is Waking Up", a title that defies the facts of the article. She comments on some of the barriers to improving the FDA in the current political climate. Acts like the 1992 Prescription Drug User Fee Act [PDUFA] allow that drug companies pay fees to the FDA for reviewing drugs, while the lobbying strength of pharma prevents passage of legislation that would strengthen the FDA. She argues that people really aren't "waking up":

"...I'd like to see the public a little savvier about what is going on. They are being taken to the cleaners. Many people are still intimidated by this idea that drug companies are producing medical miracles and if you mess with them the miracles will stop.

The FDA is important, as it acts as a buffer between profit interests and health. Privatization has tipped the public healthcare boat so it is leaning precipitously to the gunwales. Markel argues that the state and the FDA need to be revitalized to recover objective oversight of commercial food and drugs. Angell observes that its not likely to happen during this administration. Both authors argue for greater public awareness and involvement with the issues.

Stem Cell Ethics Glitch

The newly opened Global Stem Cell Consortium is on hold following allegations that the famous Korean cloning researcher, Hwang Woo-suk, the "cloning king", crossed ethical boundaries to obtain human eggs for his research. The rumor first appeared that the researcher had used eggs from junior members of his lab in Nature (429, 3; 2004), but the recent announcement that University of Pittsburgh cloning researcher Gerald Schatten broke off ties with Hwang gives additional credibility to these original reports. Hwang's work has now been reportedly "thrown into an ethical cloud" that affects many organizations and researchers.

Some, like the Children's Neurobiological Solutions Foundation (CNS) are taking a wait-and-see stance. More, like Schatten and affiliated colleagues across in the U.S., are breaking ties with the consortium. The newest development will also affect governments' willingness to fund or participate in the cloning research, which has been stymied by these very same ethical issues. Science (subscription) quoted Hans Scholer of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Medicine in Germany in "Stem Cells: Collaborators Split Over Ethics Allegations", (Nov. 18, 2005 vol.310; 5751, p1100), who said that the German government would now hesitate before letting its scientists to collaborate on the cloning project: "One argument will be that if Hwang was dishonest with a collaborator, how dishonest will he be toward the public?"

Open Science and Public Health

Josefina Coloma and Eva Harris write in "Open-Access Science: A Necessity for Global Public Health", that all aspects of science, including research, publishing and licensing need to be made more accessible to scientists in developing countries. They argue that many of medicine's most pressing challenges persist in developing countries, yet scientists and doctors in those countries are often excluded by the less-than-international research and development processes that they depend on to address their unique medical challenges. The authors note that in every area of science, doctors and researchers in developing countries compete unfavorably with those who have access to the collegial science environment that favors success within an ethnocentric 'western' paradigm. To address this inequity they urge that:

"...the whole spectrum of scientific endeavor should be as open access as possible, from training in laboratory and epidemiological techniques, proposal writing, and manuscript-writing skills to open-access publishing and socially responsible intellectual property policies."

Fetal Cells Migrate to Maternal Brain

In last August's journal Stem Cells, scientists report that fetal cells enter the maternal brain in experiments with mice. In "Fetal microchimerism in the maternal mouse brain: A novel population of fetal progenitor or stem cells able to cross the blood-brain barrier?", Xiao-Wei Tan et al., found that fetal cell were especially abundant 4 weeks post-partum, and that the cells apparently differentiated. They also found that when a lesion was introduced, more fetal cells were present at that site. The authors did not investigate the physiological affects of the fetal cells. Via Scientific American's report: "Baby to Brain".

Avian Flu Pandemic -- Officials Save The Date

The World Health Organization (WHO) hosted a summit focused on planning for a flu pandemic this week, November 9-11, in Geneva. By all accounts the meeting went well. All nations recognize that a flu pandemic perhaps involving H5N1 is inevitable and have expressed a commitment to cooperate in stemming the outbreaks when they occur.

The US assistant secretary to Health and Human Services, Stewart Simonson, wanted a more specific outline and "urged international health leaders to decide quickly 'what action will be taken and by whom to contain a pandemic strain when it emerges'". The Wall Street Journal wrote yesterday in "Scientists at WHO Draft Plan to Contain Outbreak of Avian Flu", that the plan would be complete by the end of the year. It involves details such as the transportation logistics of getting flu shots from the warehouses to the outbreak region via plane and truck and shuttling teams of health care workers to distibute the vaccines. Supermarkets and drugstores are being considered as distribution centers for Tamiflu.

The plan is reportedly based on epidemic modeling presented in two articles published in Nature and Science earlier this year. Acronym Required reported on these research reports in Modeling Epidemics", last August. The bottom line, says the Wall Street Journal quoting Michael Ryan, a WHO official who is charge of responding to outbreaks is that "[n]obody knows if it will work". But he added encouragingly, "we have to be ready to act".

Meanwhile, perhaps motivated by memories of aimlessly meandering trucks that set out for Louisiana and ended up in Maine after Hurricane Katrina ("The FEMA Ice Follies") or perhaps in its general, "the sky is falling", mode -- MoveOn.org put out the alarm a month ago that Stewart Simonson has "no experience related to his job - he's a political appointee". They issued a petition. Yesterday, The Nation published an online article that traces Simonson's interesting ascent from Amtrak general counsel to influential Health and Human Services (HHS) bioterror planning leader in "Germ Boys and Yes Men". Simonson apparently helped architect the controversial "Bioshield" and "Bioshield II" plans, and has now turned to focus on flu pandemic logistics. It's a great tale of familiar Bush era politics, replete with political backlashes, ruined careers, and he said/he said antagonisms.

Simonson has staunch defenders within the administration. Donald Henderson, founding director of HHS's Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness (OPHEP) asserted; "[he] may not have been qualified but he is a real learner....".

As we all know, the capricious media and cynical public are primed to chastise the public official who hasn't picked out his T.V. outfits in advance of the crisis. As the WSJ suggests, and we hope, Simonson's preparation is pandemic focused as well.

Acronym Required previously wrote about disaster preparedness with regard to Hurricane Katrina here and here. We also wrote about Avian Flu in these articles: Avian Flu v. Everyday Plagues, "Hopes For Avian Flu Vaccine"; "Modeling Epidemics", and "Avian Flu in China- Increasing Resistance", "Avian Flu Updates"

Medical Frontiers -- Old and New

The Amish, who don't like drawing attention to themselves, were featured in two articles about medicine in the New York Times this week. One was titled "5 cases of Polio in Amish Group Raise New Fears" and is about the emergence of polio in a rural Minnesota community. The other, "A Doctor for the Future", Dr. Holmes Morton's work with rare genetic diseases at his Pennsylvania clinic. His group researchs and treats patients in the Amish and Mennonite communities in Lancaster County. The two stories show the promises and hopes of medical technology on one hand, and the eternal frustrations of bringing the promises to fruition for patients on the other.

Chemical Regulation in the EU - REACH

In a letter to the editor of Financial Times today, a group of professors representing the CASCADE Network, a European Union funded organization, write about a proposal to monitor chemicals used in the EU. The EU parliament will vote November 15 on REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and Authorization and restriction of Chemicals), a regime that addresses growing concern about the unconsidered production and accumulation of xenobiotics that persist in the environment, humans, and animals.

The scientists note that the EU produces 31% of the world's chemicals, 100,000 of which are released into the environment. For the vast majority of chemicals, the health risks are unknown. Scientists give the example of the persistence of PCBs in the food chain despite their banned production years ago, to illustrate the long term effects of historical choices about chemical use. Lack of knowledge combined with lax regulation has left governments, after decades of PCB use, urging women of childbearing age to avoid eating certain species of fish. Biomonitoring studies show the presence of hundreds of chemicals in humans, a result that brings to the fore how little attention governments and citizens have paid to fairly wanton production and disposal of chemicals.

"As scientists studying different aspects of endocrine systems, we argue that decisions on how a chemical is used must be based on scientific data...[T]he European parliament must consider long-term effects of exposure and protect the European population from involuntary exposure to chemicals."

In summary, the proposal seeks too enact the following:

  • Registration of chemicals produced or imported in large quantities (> 1 ton), to be managed by a designated agency.
  • Evaluation of substances that pose risks to health or environment.
  • Authorization for use of chemicals that are either carcinogenic, mutagenic or teratogenic (causes developmental malformations), and those that are toxic, persistent and bio-accumulative, unless certain conditions exist, like there are no chemical alternatives or the risks can be controlled.
The ultimate goal of REACH is to find a compromise between the regulation of dangerous chemicals, and the economic cost of imposing regulations. Various parties have problems with the proposal for different reasons.

  • The chemicals industry and their customers such as carmakers claim the changes will lead to loss of competitiveness and jobs.
  • The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) approves the proposed regulations because they will lower incidence of occupational diseases and decrease health insurance costs.
  • The environmental and consumer's groups complain that the commission has made destructive concessions to lobbyists from industry and to the United States.
  • Some governments such as Germany (the largest chemical producer) and France are angling to postpone the vote on the proposal for economic or logistical reasons, however Norway is threatening to veto the proposal because some of the measures have been essentially gutted by chemical lobbying efforts.

Citizens have signed various petitions urging action on the chemicals in the environment. If REACH were approved by the EU parliament, the professors say in their article that it would replace 40 existing petitions and would establish a habit of long-term thinking about the effects of chemicals on our health and environment.

Evolution v. Not Evolution

When "evolution" and "creation" are presented close to each other sparks are bound to fly, especially in a political context, like - " -- [a]ll presidents, of course, have essential counselors and confidants...Mr. Rove, however is an evolutionary step beyond those accomplished professionals. President Bush is, in many respects, Mr. Rove's creation.

The words are especially contentious when they turn up in the education arena, which they often do. Here, apparently freighted with history, *Evolution*, -as in Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic, Cenozoic - spars bitterly with *Creation*, or Intelligent Design, as in floods, Genesis (or John), and six days, says a Sunday School primer, -- or confusingly -- seven , says the New Yorker.

Some people jump in with both feet to the talk about the place of religion in science class, vigorously defending one position or the other. Others feel that the debate is too overcharged, outdated, over-rated; they stand on the sidelines. Many of us were led to believe the science had prevailed in the evolution debate. We believed the derivative play about the Scope's Trial, Inherit The Wind, that lawyers in Dayton, Tennessee argued on behalf of science in 1935 and triumphantly banished the moth-eaten explanations of creation theory. These people are most bewildered by current events and the Dover trial on teaching evolution and intelligent design in the classroom. Have we not moved on?

The science/religion issue arguably replays itself throughout history, some say since Plato, others say since Galileo. However, quite a few historians argue that the rift is a recent one, within the last two centuries. It's predictable said George Gaylord Simpson who noted: "...attacks on the teaching of evolution are cyclical and largely coincide with more general anti-science and anti-rationality trends. (Science 6 Sept. 1974 p. 832).

Indeed, by many accounts there is an anti-science edge today, seen in a reluctance of political leaders and citizens to accept environmental data, an increasingly ideological bias in science funding, and a staunch refusal to endorse emerging technology like embryonic stem cell research. The media adds to the perception that this is a cyclical "debate". They labeled the Dover trial "Scopes II", which coincidentally isn't unique. The Epperson v. Arkansas case in the late 60's and cases and challenges in the 70's, 80's and 90's and recently have all been labeled "Scopes II". Indeed, if we were really counting, we may actually be up to "Scopes XL" or "Scopes LX" by now.

Whether this is the return of a centuries old argument or not, the one thing that remains constant is the imperative to keep the issue alive. Not only alive but contentious, as a "debate", a "disagreement", a "controversy", a "battle", a "stand-off", or a "war".

Edward Larson's 1997 book Summer of The Gods documents how the rift behind the Scopes trial was more or less manufactured by a couple of influential authors in the early 19th century. Over time "the warfare model of science and religion had become ingrained into the received wisdom of many secular Americans"(p 21).

Some philosophers weigh in to note that "the controversy" is specious. It's a way to draw scientists into an arena to spar but it's also a ploy of the fundamentalist social conservative movement. It's trickery, says esteemed philosopher Daniel Dennett:

"First you misuse or misdescribe some scientist's work. Then you get an angry rebuttal. Then, instead of dealing forthrightly with the charges leveled, you cite the rebuttal as evidence that there is a "controversy" to teach...Note that the trick is content-free. You can use it on any topic."

Scientists are invariably drawn in to correct the record. They ably defend science. However most would argue that its not about science at all. One Pittsburgh paper quoted the defending witness (Professor Behe) for Intelligent Design playing the role of the consummate scientist by arguing that a school board statement urging against teaching alternatives to evolution was flawed because, "What scientific paper do you know where it says, 'whereas'?" Similarly specious, he argued that his own University's statement that IT "has no basis in science", was flawed because it wasn't supported by "a single [scientific] journal paper". ID's strategy is a study in twisted logic, but it seems to work.

The fact that it does work, however, and that the debate has attracted so much attention, is itself an outstanding argument for increasing the scope and intensity of science education in schools. As others have said, it can be excruciatingly discouraging when money and resources are used for the purpose of defending science, as opposed to working on tangible problems with benefits to the environment, life, medicine. However without widespread understanding of science, none of these problems with be recognized and solved.

In the face of the absurdity, humor is welcome. According to the San Francisco Chronicle's account of the last day of the trial; "one lawyer pointed out that, 'this is the 40th day of the trial, and tonight will be the 40th night...'" To which the judge replied: "That's an interesting coincidence. But it was not by design."

(To be continued)

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