The South Korean stem cell scientist who falsified cloning data was convicted today of embezzlement and illegally buying human eggs. The Seoul Central District Court sentenced Hwang Woo-suk to two years in prison for embezzling research funds and illegally buying human eggs. However, it suspended the penalty, allowing him to stay free if he breaks no laws for three years [Washington Post]. The judge stated Hwang has shown remorse and said that despite his fraudulent research the scientist has made other genuine advancements in cloning.
In May 2005, Hwang published a paper in the journal Science, saying his team had extracted material from cloned human embryos that identically matched the DNA of 11 patients. It was claimed such a technique could be the key to providing personalized cures for diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s [BBC News]. The paper garnered worldwide attention, along with heightened suspicion, because cloning embryonic stem cells was thought to be impossible due to the complexities of human cells. Proving the critics right, an investigation later concluded that the data were intentionally fabricated. Hwang later confessed to obtaining eggs for the research from his female colleagues, a clear violation of research ethics guidelines. However, he maintained that he did not fake his research, and is still working on animal cloning at a local institute.
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80beats: Disgraced South Korean Cloning Scientist May Face Jail Time
Here’s one direct and obvious effect of the economic stimulus package passed in February: The toxic sites where scientists ushered in the nuclear age are getting cleaned up. In Los Alamos, New Mexico, a dump that contains refuse of the Manhattan Project and that was sealed up decades ago is finally being explored, thanks to $212 million from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
But experts aren’t sure what they’ll find inside the dump. At the very least, there is probably a truck down there that was contaminated in 1945 at the Trinity test site, where the world’s first nuclear explosion seared the sky and melted the desert sand 200 miles south of here during World War II [The New York Times]. It may also contain explosive chemicals that could have become more dangerous over the years of burial.
Even as engineers prepare for the first test flight of NASA’s new Ares I-X rocket, a prototype of the launch vehicle that could replace the space shuttle, the experts who conducted a review of NASA’s space flight program are suggesting that this rocket project should be scrapped entirely.
The test flight of the $450 million Ares I-X is scheduled for 8 a.m. tomorrow, weather permitting. It’s a prototype of the planned Ares I rocket, designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station once the shuttle fleet is retired. But the White House panel convened to evaluate NASA’s plan for space exploration issued its final report (pdf) on Thursday, and in a press conference committee chair Norman Augustine harshly critiqued the Ares I project. Though Augustine said the rocket’s technical problems were solvable, he said its first crewed flights would come too late to be much help in servicing the International Space Station (ISS). “The issue that comes up under Ares I is whether the programme is useful,” he said [New Scientist].
The European Space Agency is looking for six brave volunteers to sit in locked chamber for 520 days to simulate the isolation of a space flight to Mars, a trip that in real life would take around 900 days. The ‘mission’ is part of the Mars500 programme being conducted by ESA and Russia’s Institute of Biomedical Problems (IBMP) to study human psychological, medical and physical capabilities and limitations in space [Physorg.com]. But what will scientists actually learn from locking these folks up for a year and a half on Earth, especially when the real mission is close to twice as long?
Although the volunteers will simulate a Mars mission as best they can, the most dangerous aspects of space travel won’t be replicated–like, for example, the radiation from cosmic rays. Volunteers will also be able to walk out at any time if they feel unsafe, which isn’t an option on a real space mission. At least one researcher argues that scientists could learn more by studying the historical diaries of long distance explorers to learn how people cope with stress while traveling through the unknown. Other scientists say studying people in Antarctic research stations, nuclear submarines, or astronauts aboard space stations orbiting Earth would be better strategies. Still, there are many things the Mars500 experiment will reveal that historical records cannot. Volunteers will undergo an array of tests that will monitor stress and hormone levels, immune response and sleep patterns, as well as group dynamics [New Scientist].
Space mission simulations have been conducted in the past—a similar 105-day study just ended in July—and they often have interesting results. In one event that made the news on a space mission simulation in 2000, a man twice tried to kiss a woman against her will. As a result, locks were installed between different crew compartments [New Scientist]. These simulations sound like a scientific version of the T.V. show Big Brother.
Better hurry if you want to sign up, the deadline is November 5th!
80beats: After Three Months in a Tin Can, Six Men End Simulated Mars Mission
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Nature, October 22
The top news this week was that a fossilized primate which got extraordinary hype last spring, when a TV documentary declared it a direct ancestor to humans and a “missing link,” probably didn’t play a major role in the evolution of humans, after all. A new study punched holes in the earlier work, arguing that the 47-million-year-old primate was nowhere near monkeys, apes, and humans on the primate family tree, but was instead part of the lineage that led to lemurs. This corrective study is gratifying to many evolutionary biologists who felt that the “missing link” study hadn’t been properly vetted, and was promoted so heavily in order to raise an audience for the TV show. Nature also had two interesting neuroscience studies this week. In the first, the memory problems of sleep-deprived mice were corrected by reducing the levels of one particular enzyme in the mouse hippocampus, the brain region involved in memory and learning. The study appears to point the way toward drugs for sleep-deprived humans, The second brain-related study identified, for the first time, a small group of neurons that process painfully loud sounds. Until now, researchers had been mystified as to the function of these neurons, which make up about 5 percent of the neurons in the inner ear.
Journal of the American Medical Association, October 21
An article in JAMA kicked up a bit of fuss by questioning the effectiveness of widespread screening for prostate and breast cancer. The authors note that prostate cancer screenings can turn up very slow-growing cancers that don’t pose a real threat, and say that treating such cancers can actually cause more harm to patients than leaving them be. They note a similar trend with the mammographies that screen for breast cancer. While the authors don’t go so far as to recommend the cessation of screening programs, they do ask for a better discussion of benefits versus risks.
Snooty wine pairing rules, such as the edict that one must only drink white wine with fish, now have a little data behind them, according to a new study. Researchers found a correlation between the high iron content of red wine and a nasty, fishy aftertaste when the reds are sipped with seafood. In the experiment, tasters ate a bit of scallop, tasted some wine and evaluated the aftertaste on a scale of 1 to 4. The diners found the unpleasant aftertaste was more intense with wines that had a higher iron content, the researchers say [Los Angeles Times]. The researchers were able to block the aftertaste by adding a compound that masks the iron.
The iron content of a wine depends on the composition of the soil in which the grapes were grown, the dust on the berry, contamination during harvesting, transportation, and crushing, and the conditions during fermentation [Telegraph]. The new research, published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, suggests that some low-iron red wines are OK to drink with fish. While red wines tend to have more iron than whites, it varies according to the type of grape, country of origin, and vintage.
But the iron is only half the story. The researchers report that they haven’t yet isolated the compound in the scallops that reacts with the wine, but they suspect it’s an unsaturated fatty acid, which could be breaking down rapidly and releasing the decaying fish smell when exposed to iron [ScienceNOW Daily News].
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Image: flickr / yashima
The Obama administration plans to designate more than 200,000 square miles in Alaska as protected, critical habitat for the endangered polar bear, the Interior Department announced yesterday. The proposed area covers a vast swath of sea ice off Alaska’s northwest coast, as well as barrier islands and a coastal region where the bears make their dens. The area, the largest single designation of protected habitat for any species, encompasses the entire range of the two polar bear populations that exist on American land and territorial waters. Government scientists estimate that there are roughly 3,500 bears in the two groups, known the Chukchi Sea and the Southern Beaufort Sea populations [The New York Times]. The bears are threatened by the gradual disappearance of their sea ice habitat due to global warming.
The move could lead to new restrictions on offshore drilling for oil and gas in Alaska’s waters. Federal law prohibits agencies from taking actions that may adversely affect critical habitat and interfere with polar bear recovery…. Designation as critical habitat would not, in itself, bar oil or gas development, but would make consideration of the effect on polar bears and their habitat an explicit part of any government-approved activity [AP]. The proposed federal rule will now be subject to public comment, and the final rule is expected to be announced next year.
80beats: Should Humans Relocate Animals Threatened by Global Warming?
80beats: Obama Brings Experts Back to Endangered Species Policy
80beats: Obama Moves to Undo Bush-Era Environmental Policies
80beats: 2 Trillion Tons of Polar Ice Lost in 5 Years, and Melting Is Accelerating
DISCOVER: Polar Bears (Finally) Make the Endangered Species List
Image: flickr / longhorndave
British doctors claim to have made an important step toward completing the first womb transplant. They say they have solved the problem of keeping the blood flowing to the transplanted uterus so that a pregnancy can be carried to term in the recipient. Womb transplants, if proven successful in humans, would offer an alternative to surrogacy or adoption for women whose own wombs have been damaged by diseases such as cervical cancer. Around 15,000 women of childbearing age are currently living with a womb that does not work or were born without one [Guardian]. The research was presented at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) conference in Atlanta.
However, the technique has only been demonstrated in rabbits, a far cry from successfully completing a womb transplant in humans. Using a “vascular patch technique” major blood vessels including the aorta were connected. Two of the five rabbits lived to 10 months and dissection after death showed the womb had stayed healthy [BBC News]. The research team has yet to show that the new wombs can actually support a pregnancy, which leaves some scientists skeptical that the procedure is actually an advancement.
Ethicists, medics and feminists have long argued as to whether infertility is a disease or a cultural phenomenon born of a society where women feel they have no value if they cannot reproduce. But illness or otherwise, it is not a fatal disease, and the suggestion that women could undergo major transplant surgery to fulfill their desire for a child may prompt unease [BBC News]. A woman who received the transplant would have to take drugs to suppress her immune system to prevent her body from rejecting the foreign organ. To avoid taking the drugs for life, the uterus would likely be removed again after the desired babies had been born.
80beats: Are Birth Control Pills Changing the Mating Game?
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80beats: Is It Ethical to Pay Women to Donate Eggs for Medical Research?
Earlier this month, we asked you to support science education by donating through the web site Donors Choose, which allows you to donate directly to a classroom of your choice. Now we’re asking again.
We all know how crucial scientific literacy is to our society. But in cash-strapped schools across the country, science programs are too often considered a luxury. With Donors Choose, you can help provide the funds for a project that will give kids a hands-on experience of science.
A link to the 80beats Donors Choose page will remain in the sidebar until the end of October. You can give as little as $5, and contributions are tax deductable. Your gift will have a clear impact, as emphasized by the thank you letter that every donor receives from the grateful teacher.
As swine flu is now prevalent in 41 states, doctors are getting plenty of chances to study the workings of the disease. They now know that in severely ill patients, intense inflammation in the lungs prevents oxygen from being tranfered to the blood stream. Says physician Robert Fowler: “Most patients are still able to take breaths, but these breaths are ineffective” [Science News]. That oxygen deprivation can cause widespread organ damage.
The speed with which swine flu patients can go downhill marks the H1N1 virus as strikingly different from the seasonal flu virus, doctors say. “In severe cases, patients generally begin to deteriorate around three to five days after symptom onset. Deterioration is rapid, with many patients progressing to respiratory failure within 24 hours, requiring immediate admission to an intensive care unit” [Reuters], says World Health Organization doctor Nikki Shindo.
Doctors say that severely ill patients should promptly be put on breathing machines and given antiviral drugs like Tamiflu. In cases where patients’ respiratory systems have already crashed, some doctors are trying a treatment called extracorporeal membrane oxygenation, in which blood is extracted from each patient and passed through a machine that adds oxygen [Science News].