Friday, March 31, 2006

Is prayer powerless?

Patients who were prayed for by strangers did not exhibit improved recovery after heart surgery, and patients who knew they were being prayed for actually had more post-surgery complications, according to research published yesterday.

study, published in the American Heart Journal, began ten years ago and involved over 1,800 patients, who were broken up into three groups. The first group was prayed for but not told about it; the second group was prayed for and told about it; and the third group was not prayed for at all.

The researchers asked members of three American church congregations to do the praying. They were given the patients' first and last names and were asked to include the phrase "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" in their prayers.

The researchers followed the patients' recoveries for the next 30 days and found no difference between those who were prayed for and those who were not. They did, however, find that eight percent more of the patients who knew they were being prayed for had complications, like abnormal heart rhythms, than those who did not know.

While no one really knows why this was the case, or even if it was just due to chance, one of the researchers suggested to the
New York Times that it may have been a kind of performance anxiety.

"It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?" said Dr. Charles Bethea, a cardiologist and co-author of the study, in this
article published today in the Times.

But Bob Barth, a director of a Missouri prayer ministry called Silent Unity, did not find the findings worrisome.

"A person of faith would say that this study is interesting," Barth told the Times, "but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started."

That's a recent photo of Saturn taken by NASA's Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, the largest interplanetary spacecraft ever built. It began orbiting Saturn in late June 2004 (after taking nearly seven years to get there!) and will survey the ringed planet and its moons for four years.

(Thanks, Dad!)

Thursday, March 30, 2006

UN and parliamentary scientists argue over aftermath of Chernobyl

A group of European scientists argue that at least 130 times more people may ultimately die from the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear accident than the United Nations estimates, according to an article published in the Guardian newspaper on Saturday.

In a series of reports that will soon be published, the scientists, who were commissed by European parliamentary groups, medical foundations and Greenpeace International, claim that over 500,000 people already have died from the effects of the 1986 disaster and that another 30,000 are expected to die from cancer-related deaths. They have based their estimates on over 50 scientific studies, according to the Guardian.

The UN attributes only 50 deaths so far and estimates that 4,000 people may ultimately die, according to a 2005 statement by the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency. An IAEA spokesperson told the Guardian,"We have a wide scientific consensus of 100 leading scientists. When we see or hear of very high mortalities we can only lean back and question the legitimacy of the figures. Do they have qualified people? Are they responsible? If they have data that they think are excluded then they should send it."

Nikolai Omelyanets, deputy head of the National Commission for Radiation Protection in Ukraine, says that they sent this data to the UN twice last year. "They've not said why they haven't accepted it," he told the Guardian.

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident, which occurred 80 miles north of Kiev in the Ukraine when there was a steam explosion in one of four reactors that led to a fire, a number of additional explosions, and eventually a nuclear meltdown.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Tangled Bank!

I'm very excited to learn that my piece on tea has been featured on the 50th edition of Tangled Bank, which is, in their words, a "fortnightly showcase of good weblog science writing, selected by the authors themselves." (Yes, I admit, I submitted the piece myself but I'm thrilled it was actually selected!)

Check out this week's edition here.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Enjoy your morning coffee with a solar eclipse

NASA is offering people the chance to watch tomorrow's solar eclipse in the comfort of their pyjamas.

The solar eclipse, which occurs when the moon's silhouette completely blocks the sun, will only be directly visible in parts of South America, Africa and Asia, but NASA will be broadcasting it on this website beginning at 5 am EST tomorrow.

If you only want to see the phase of the eclipse known as totality, when the sun is most fully blocked, you have the luxury of sleeping in until 5:55 am. But don't be late, because this will only last for four minutes (and that's longer than usual normally, totality only lasts for one to two minutes).

During the eclipse, the sky will darken, and the corona, or outer atmosphere of the sun, will be visible (it is usually impossible to see). Astronomers will take advantage of the rare opportunity to measure certain aspects of the corona, which is of interest because it is a lot hotter than the sun's surface and no one really knows why.

Solar eclipses are rare events, because the tilted orbits of the sun, moon and Earth all have to align at the same time. You may want to seriously consider sacrificing your beauty sleep for the amazing view Americans will have to wait until 2017 for the next directly visible solar eclipse.

Health care, social security and energy: Americans are worried

The availability and affordability of health care tops the list of issues about which Americans are concerned, with nearly seven out of 10 people citing it as a substantial source of worry, according to an article published in the journal Editor & Publisher today. (See last week's post about how you can voice your health care concerns to the government.)

The next most worrisome issue is social security, followed closely by the
availability and affordability of energy.

Results are based on a gallup poll of
1,000 adults conducted several weeks ago over the telephone, according to the article.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Credit for this beautiful photo goes to my Dad, who has, since retiring, become quite a photographer. Enjoy!

copyright DLW

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Help keep America healthy

Frustrated with the state of America's health care system? Wish there was something you could do about it?

The Citizens' Health Care Working Group, created by U.S. congress in 2003 as part of the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act, wants to hear your thoughts on how we can better America's health care system. You can learn more about our current system and how to make a difference here.

What America thinks about global warming

Eighty-five percent of Americans believe that global warming is probably happening, according to a report on a new TIME Magazine / ABC News / Stanford University poll out today. And even more Americans polled 88 percent believe that the warming will affect future generations.*

While many people agree that the globe is, in fact, warming, some argue over the causes. According to the poll, three in ten Americans blame humans for global warming, whereas two in ten say the warming mostly has natural causes. The rest nearly half believe that global warming is caused by a combination of the two.

Almost 70 percent of those polled believe the government should do more to address the problem.

Read more in this 26-page global warming cover story in TIME Magazine. (You'll have to register to read it, but you won't have to pay.)

*I'm a little baffled about these two statistics, as they imply that three percent of the people polled believe that global warming probably isn't happening but yet think that this non-existent warming will affect future generations. Anyone know what might be going on?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Can TV really explain something this complex?

Last Wednesday, Vincent Liota, a NOVA ScienceNow series producer and NYU film school alum, spoke to NYU students about his career and the process of making mainstream television pieces about science.

Over the course of the two-hour Q&A session moderated by LA Times journalist Robert Lee Hotz, Mr. Liota played three of his favorite ScienceNow segments and discussed how the pieces progressed from nebulous ideas to polished pieces. (Read what my classmates had to say in backgrounder pieces about Mr. Hotz and Mr. Liota.)

My personal favorite was a segment on RNA interference, or RNAi, a biological defense mechanism that many believe holds the key to treating diseases as diverse as AIDS, Huntington's Disease, and cancer.

If you've got a few minutes to spare — and I bet you do, since you're reading this — check out this entertaining but highly educational 15-minute long piece on RNAi (click one of the options under "Watch the Segment" on the lower left side of the page) .

Friday, March 24, 2006

Schools to be kept away from radiation source

New York residents are fighting to keep cell phone towers away from their schools, fearing that the radiation emitted from them might pose a risk to their children's health.

On Wednesday, the New York State Senate Committee on Local Government approved a bill that would prohibit the building of cellular towers and antennas within 500 feet of schools throughout New York City. The bill is also being introduced within the State Assembly.

“There is a continued controversy over whether cellular towers pose health hazards from exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation. Until there is some conclusive evidence that shows that there are no harmful effects related to this radiation, we cannot in our right mind allow for these towers to be placed near a school, emitting radiation into classrooms, lunchrooms and gymnasiums throughout New York City,” said Bay Ridge Senator Marty Golden, who sponsored the Senate bill, in a prepared statement.

A step forward for bird flu research

Two independent research teams have discovered why it is difficult for bird flu to pass easily between people, according to an article published Wednesday on the New Scientist website.

Whereas most flu viruses bind to cells in the upper respiratory tract, the H5N1 bird flu strain – which has now killed over 100 people binds to cells deep in the lungs. Because of this, viral particles do not get released into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. This makes the virus less able to infect others.

These recent findings might also explain why the bird flu is so deadly. The particular lung cells that the virus binds to are active in lung tissue repair. By binding to the cells, the virus can hijack their ability to work properly and keep the lungs healthy. The virus also binds to white blood cells in the lungs, which serve to increase inflammation and make bird flu-induced pneumonia even more dangerous.

This new information may help virologists understand what types of mutations, or genetic changes, the virus might undergo next
and which ones would make it more lethal. A mutation that caused the virus to bind to cells in the nose or throat, for example, could be catastrophic.

Armed with this new knowledge, scientists will have a better idea of what to watch for as the virus continues to spread around the globe.

Original research articles published here (Nature) and here (Science). Registration is required for full access.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Save the Internet!

One of the wonderful things about the Internet is that, in a sense, all Web sites are created equal. Anyone can build a site, and there's no preference given to one over another -- in terms of how quickly pages load onto your screen, or how how easy they are to download from. This is known as "net neutrality."

Unfortunately, the concept of net neutrality may not be around much longer, according to a New Yorker article by James Surowiecki. He writes,
In the future, Web sites that pay extra to providers could receive what BellSouth recently called "special treatment," and those that don’t could end up in the slow lane. One day, BellSouth customers may find that, say, loads a lot faster than, and that the sites BellSouth favors just seem to run more smoothly. Tiered access will turn the providers into Internet gatekeepers.
Luckily, there is still something you can do to save net neutrality. Voicing your concerns to Congress is only a few clicks away.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Archbishop says creationism shouldn't be taught

The Archbishop of Canterbury, senior clergyman of the Church of England, has recently spoken out against teaching creationism in schools.

"If creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories, I think there's just been a jarring of categories," Archbishop Williams said in an article appearing in The Guardian newspaper yesterday.

This follows almost three months after the completion of the landmark Intelligent Design (ID) case against the Dover, Pennsylvania school district, who wanted to teach Intelligent Design, the idea that life is too complex to be explained by Darwin’s theory of natural selection and that it must have been made by God or some other intelligent cause or designer, alongside evolution in Dover schools.

By saying that creationism shouldn't be taught, the Archibishop is essentially agreeing with the trial decision
Intelligent Design has been linked both ideologically and historically to creationism. U.S. District Judge John Jones III ruled in the Dover case that Intelligent Design cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents” and later described ID as “an untestable alternative hypothesis grounded in religion.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Guinea Pigs for Hire

We’ve all been there -- broke and desperate for cash. These are the times when we actually read bulletin boards and local papers, scanning for ads offering easy money.

Healthy volunteers needed for clinical trials. Will pay.

Hmm, tempting. But what could you be getting yourself into?

Six men in England are asking themselves just that. They volunteered to test a drug called TGN1412, designed to treat leukemia, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. The drug, which was developed by German pharmaceutical company TeGenero, had already been tested extensively in the laboratory and was not expected to elicit dangerous side effects in people -- but it left the six men fighting for their lives.

Doctors aren’t yet certain what the drug did to make them so sick, but they believe that it over-stimulated the men’s immune systems. When present in the body, TGN1412 binds to a molecule on the surface of special immune cells, prompting the body to make more of the cells. The drug may have caused the body to make so many of them that they essentially “went crazy,” turning on the body and attacking healthy body cells by mistake. It didn’t take long for the cells to do serious damage -- the men in the trial suffered from multiple organ failure and have been in the hospital for over a week.

TeGenero maintains that the drug showed no such effects in its animal tests on rabbits and monkeys, though apparently some monkeys did develop swollen glands. “In pre-clinical studies, TGN1412 has been shown to be safe and the reactions which occurred in these volunteers were completely unexpected,” says Dr. Thomas Hanke, TeGenero’s Chief Scientific Officer, in a prepared statement.

This is exactly why it’s important to consider the risks of participating in clinical trials before jumping in head first. It’s likely that a drug being clinically tested, especially in a phase I trial (drugs usually go through four trial phases), has never been administered to people before. And even if it has already been shown to be safe for animals, there’s no guarantee that it is also safe for people.

“Part of the problem is how predictive our animal models are. They’re not too bad, but they’re not perfect,” says Peter Smith, a senior vice president at Millennium Pharmaceuticals in Massachusetts, in an article appearing in the magazine Drug Discovery & Development last July.

Indeed, clinical trials exist to determine whether a drug is safe and effective for humans -- no one knows beforehand. In a clinical trial, participants are essentially guinea pigs.

An even if a drug is essentially “safe,” there can still be pretty unpleasant side effects associated with taking it, including nausea, headaches, hair loss, and skin irritation. Some drugs, like Merck’s Vioxx, may even squeeze through clinical trials despite evidence of more serious “side effects.” (Vioxx, which was sold to an estimated 20 million Americans before being withdrawn from the market, has been shown to cause heart attacks.)

Clinical trials are also complicated by the fact that drug safety is rarely a black-and-white issue. Safety and efficacy are often highly dependent on dosage – and it’s difficult to predict the correct dosage from pre-clinical tests. As a result, trials are often used to experiment with dosage, and even if a drug is safe in certain amounts, it’s possible for volunteers to be administered an incorrect and harmful amount. Although overdose risk is minimized by giving volunteers low doses to start with and gradually increasing them, dosage effects are not always predictable.

That said, drug companies try their best to ensure that drugs entering clinical trials are likely to be safe. A clinical trial is an expensive venture, so it’s in a company’s best interest to uncover potential safety issues before a trial begins. To this end, companies are constantly developing technologies and improving animal tests so as to weed out dangerous or useless drugs early on.

And, don’t get me wrong -- clinical trials are also a medical necessity. Without them, new life-saving drugs would never be uncovered and brought to market. Most participants do, of course, emerge healthy, and catastrophes like that with TGN1412 are a rarity. Trials can also offer sick people access to new experimental treatments that may help them.

The bottom line is that it is important to recognize and consider all aspects of participating in a clinical trial before doing so. There is a reason that these trials offer money -- if you participate, you’re accepting a risk to your health. No one can ensure your safety, and the doctors treating you won’t really know what you’re getting yourself into any more than you do.