Monday, June 30, 2008

Plants Help Boost Scientific Research

June 30, 2008
By Syed Akbar
What have trees and plants to do with the research output of an institution? Scientists at the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad believe that the greenery on the campus has been helping them in producing more research papers than their counterparts in other research bodies elsewhere in the world.
NGRI, a premier research institute in the country, has 16,400 trees on its sprawling campus at Habsiguda. It is going to lose about 300 trees in road widening, but the Institute plans to compensate the loss by planting 4000 trees. This is the greener side of NGRI. And what about its scientists?
NGRI director Dr VP Dimri argues that his scientific team has produced more research papers than those in other institutes for the simple reason that NGRI has a vast expanse of greenery. And none other than Dr G Madhavan Nair, chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation, agrees with Dr Dimri.
The NGRI has produced 0.1 per cent of research publications. Moreover, one of its former directors Dr Harsh Kumar Gupta has bagged the prestigious award presented every year by the American Geophysical Research Institute. The American institute has more than 50,000 scientists on its rolls and yet it has selected Dr Harsh
Gupta for the coveted prize.
The secret behind the success of NGRI team is the unlimited oxygen pumped in by thousands of trees on the campus. More oxygen means more energy and alertness. And more brain power. The brain, after all, needs more oxygen to function. If we reduce the oxygen supply to the brain, it becomes dull and the intelligence output is relatively low.
In fact, NGRI is the only research institute in Hyderabad and perhaps in the country which has the highest number of trees on the campus. Talking of oxygen and scientists' intelligence, one is reminded of the oxygen chambers the Hyderabad police had once set up to provide pure oxygen to the traffic cops, who work amidst vehicular emissions. The oxygen chambers did not work well with the police
for obvious reasons, and there's no news about them now. In the initial days, the cops were directed to spend at least half an hour in oxygen chambers to get a fresh whip of oxygen.
Then the department shifted to pollution masks and later to goggles. And yet the traffic snarls in Hyderabad continue unabated and people continue to suffer because of poor traffic management.
Perhaps only a proper scientific study by a reputed institution will reveal the secret behind the paradox: oxygen helping scientists produce more research papers and the same oxygen failing to yield the desired results when it comes to our traffic cops!

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ultra rice: Grains that heal come to India

June 28, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, June 27: Now it's rice that heals. Ultra rice, the artificial rice grains that worked wonders in Brazil, Columbia and China, will soon make its way into the Indian market.
Developed by internationally-renowned research and service organisation, PATH, Ultra rice looks and tastes just like the ordinary rice. But it contains special elements that will check anaemia and vitamin A and zinc deficiencies.
Ultra rice, when mixed with ordinary rice in the ratio 1:100, brings down maternal mortality rate during childbirth and blindness in young children, besides providing the much-needed micronutrients to people.
"We will soon introduce Ultra rice in the Indian market. We have already transferred the technology to a firm in West Bengal. Soon we will provide the technology to a government agency too. Micronutrient deficiencies threaten the health of people, particularly young mothers and children. Ultra rice will be the best nutrient substitute in the mid-day meal scheme," Michael Joseph, PATH's food technologist, told this correspondent.
Those using Ultra rice need not change their cooking habits. "When blended with rice and cooked like usual, the Ultra rice looks so much like white rice, it’s hard to differentiate," he points out.
The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition has proposed to fund a large-scale trial that will provide schoolchildren with fortified rice through the midday meal programme in the country. The department of biotechnology, Government of India, has already approved Ultra rice and declared it as safe for human consumption.
Studies by the city-based National Institute of Nutrition have found the taste
of Ultra rice was acceptable or good for 86 per cent of schoolchildren. As much as 98per cent of the iron was retained, even after the rice was rinsed multiple times before cooking.
Ultra rice resembles natural milled rice grains in size, shape, and colour, but
they are made from rice flour, selected micronutrients, and nutrient-protecting ingredients that are combined and extruded through a rice-shaped mold. When the Ultra rice grains are blended with white rice the result is nearly identical to unfortified rice in smell, taste, and texture.
Ultra rice is presently available in two formulations, one fortified with vitamin A, and the other carrying iron, thiamine, folic acid, and zinc.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Lakshadweep: Corals Make A Come Back

June 23, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Indian marine scientists and oceanographers have successfully repopulated corals in Lakshadweep showing the world that coral reefs can be created artificially.
Using the help of local people trained as scuba drivers, experts at the National Institute of Oceanography, Goa, have artificially grown coral reefs near all the 10 islands in Lakshadweep. Coral reefs in India are present only at two places, Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep and they suffered heavy damage in the last two decades because of human intervention.
"Coral reefs in India have been under stress for quite some time. Lakshadweep reefs bore the brunt of coral mining, souvenir coral collection, ground water pollution and mechanical damage owing to activities like dredging. We involved local people in rebuilding coral reefs in Lakshadweep," Dr MV Moideen Wafar told this correspondent
from Goa.
Corals are distributed below water surface down to 50 m depth, assessment of their well-being and management requires competence in scuba diving and observation skills. Dr Wafar and his team created a dive centre in Lakshadweep, acquired diving kits, trained a broad spectrum of stakeholders ranging from officers, wardens, scientific staff to unemployed local youth.
The scientists then took up transplantation of corals to repopulate damaged coral reef areas. During the last two years the technique has been tested and found suitable. It is also simple enough to be used by the local population with limited or no knowledge of corals.
"I am in the process of transferring this to a community-involved exercise in all islands so that reef restoration is enhanced and additional income generated for the local population by way of fish catch from near the transplantation site," he said.
Repopulating corals is a hectic task as corals grow very slowly. The massive ones like the brain corals grow no more than a cm per year. This is because the calcium carbonate deposition is a slow process and the growth occurs in all directions. The branching corals are relatively fast-growing. Some of them can grow as much as 18 to 20 cm per year but their skeletons are less dense than those of the massive ones.
Unlike the fringing reefs which are common around the islands in the Gulf of Mannar, Gulf of Kachchh, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the reefs in the Lakshadweep group of islands are oceanic atolls.
During the summer in 1998 a vast layer of warm surface waters spread over the whole tropical region. As a result, the temperature increased by two degrees higher than the seasonal maximum and persisted for several weeks. This was too much for corals. Most of them, in particular the branching corals which are more sensitive, got bleached and died, eventually leaving vast stretches of the reefs barren.
More than 40 countries reported impacts varying from moderate to severe. In India, Andaman and Nicobar reefs were the most severely affected (up to 80 per cent death of corals) followed by Lakshadweep (40 to 80 per cent) and Gulf of Mannar (60 per cent) reefs.
"Our Lakshadweep coral reefs are no more a splendour as was before. In the last three decades we lost lot of our corals, due in part to our own developmental activities and in part to the massive bleaching in 1998. We are left now with reefs that have hardly a quarter of live coral cover - reefs where we could not put our foot down earlier without crushing a coral are now barren for long stretches," Dr Wafar said.
The NIO scientists have been experimenting with growing the corals. The idea is simple, collect fragments of corals, transplant them to secure bases and let them grow in new sites or those sites where they were once luxuriant.
The team carried out initial experiments in the Kavaratti lagoon. The most affected coral general such as Acropora and Pocillopora were selected for this trial. The scientist used 2 x 2 m iron frames with 30 cm high supports and covered with a metal screen. The frames were deployed first at 3 m depth in the lagoon where coral life was totally absent.
Slabs of concrete and coral stones (12 x 12 cm) were used as bases for transplantation. The coral pieces were tied to the bases with thin nylon string and the slabs in turn were secured to the metal screen. Securing the corals to the slabs and the slabs to the frame was done underwater by SCUBA divers in order to minimise stress to the corals. During regular visits, the length of the transplanted coral was measured. In addition, notes were made of the increase in other life forms, like fishes and animals like sea cucumbers, crabs and snails.
In each visit, the frames were cleared of the debris and algal matter. Form the photographs accompanying this article, one can compare how the transplants looked like at the beginning of the experiment and again after 11 months. Besides the formation of several branches, the growth, in terms of increase in length, was of the order of 5-10 cm in Acropora and 2 cm in Pocillopora, with no significant
differences between those secured on concrete and coral stone slabs. There was also no mortality of corals at all during the one year which includes a 4-month monsoon period known for rough sea conditions and low light transparency. This was due to the care exercised in handling the fragments, locating good sites for transplantation and continuous monitoring. What is of further interest is the increase in other biodiversity at the site - several species of fishes besides
holothurians, cowries and snails have colonised the transplantation site.
"We now have a simple technique to increase the coral cover and biodiversity in our reefs as fast as possible. Besides increasing live coral cover, this could also serve tourists who neither swim nor dive and yet would like to see corals at shallow waters. As this technique does not demand high skills, this could be developed into a community venture, generating modest income for local slanders as well as
instilling in them a sense of commitment to coral reef conservation," he said.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Black Holes Have Simple Feeding Habits

June 20, 2008
The biggest black holes may feed just like the smallest ones, according to data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ground-based telescopes. This discovery supports the implication of Einstein's relativity theory that black holes of all sizes have similar properties, and will be useful for predicting the properties of a conjectured new class of black holes.
The conclusion comes from a large observing campaign of the spiral galaxy M81, which is about 12 million light years from Earth. In the center of M81 is a black hole that is about 70 million times more massive than the Sun, and generates energy and radiation as it pulls gas in the central region of the galaxy inwards at high speed.
In contrast, so-called stellar mass black holes, which have about 10 times more mass than the Sun, have a different source of food. These smaller black holes acquire new material by pulling gas from an orbiting companion star. Because the bigger and smaller black holes are found in different environments with different sources of material to feed from, a question has remained about whether they feed in the same way.
Using these new observations and a detailed theoretical model, a research team compared the properties of M81's black hole with those of stellar mass black holes. The results show that either big or little, black holes indeed appear to eat similarly to each other, and produce a similar distribution of X-rays, optical and radio light.
One of the implications of Einstein's theory of General Relativity is that black holes are simple objects and only their masses and spins determine their effect on space-time. The latest research indicates that this simplicity manifests itself in spite of complicated environmental effects.
"This confirms that the feeding patterns for black holes of different sizes can be very similar," said Sera Markoff of the Astronomical Institute, University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, who led the study. "We thought this was the case, but up until now we haven't been able to nail it."
The model that Markoff and her colleagues used to study the black holes includes a faint disk of material spinning around the black hole. This structure would mainly produce X-rays and optical light. A region of hot gas around the black hole would be seen largely in ultraviolet and X-ray light. A large contribution to both the radio and X-ray light comes from jets generated by the black hole. Multi-wavelength data is needed to disentangle these overlapping sources of light.
"When we look at the data, it turns out that our model works just as well for the giant black hole in M81 as it does for the smaller guys," said Michael Nowak, a coauthor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Everything around this huge black hole looks just the same except it's almost 10 million times bigger."
Among actively feeding black holes the one in M81 is one of the dimmest, presumably because it is "underfed". It is, however, one of the brightest as seen from Earth because of its relative proximity, allowing high quality observations to be made.
"It seems like the underfed black holes are the simplest in practice, perhaps because we can see closer to the black hole," said Andrew Young of the University of Bristol in England. "They don't seem to care too much where they get their food from."
This work should be useful for predicting the properties of a third, unconfirmed class called intermediate mass black holes, with masses lying between those of stellar and supermassive black holes. Some possible members of this class have been identified, but the evidence is controversial, so specific predictions for the properties of these black holes should be very helpful.
In addition to Chandra, three radio arrays (the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope, the Very Large Array and the Very Long Baseline Array), two millimeter telescopes (the Plateau de Bure Interferometer and the Submillimeter Array), and Lick Observatory in the optical were used to monitor M81. These observations were made simultaneously to ensure that brightness variations because of changes in feeding rates did not confuse the results. Chandra is the only X-ray satellite able to isolate the faint X-rays of the black hole from the emission of the rest of the galaxy.
This result confirms less detailed earlier work by Andrea Merloni from the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany and colleagues that suggested that the basic properties of larger black holes are similar to the smaller ones. Their study, however, was not based on simultaneous, multi-wavelength observations nor the application of a detailed physical model.

Worm-like Marine Animal Providing Fresh Clues About Human Evolution

June 20, 2008
Research on the genome of a marine creature led by scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego is shedding new light on a key area of the tree of life.
Linda Holland, a research biologist at Scripps Oceanography, and her colleagues from the United States, Europe and Asia, have deciphered and analyzed fundamental elements of the genetic makeup of a small, worm-like marine animal called amphioxus, also known as a lancelet.
Amphioxus is not widely known to the general public, but is gaining interest in scientific circles because of its position as one of the closest living invertebrate relatives of vertebrates. Although amphioxus split from vertebrates more than 520 million years ago, its genome holds tantalizing clues about evolution.
The research led by Holland is published in the July issue of the journal Genome Research. A corresponding research paper is published in the June 19 issue of Nature.
Holland and her colleagues studied the genes of the amphioxus species Branchiostoma floridae through samples obtained in recent years during field work off Tampa, Fla.
Because amphioxus is evolving slowly—its body plan remains similar to that of fossils from the Cambrian time—the animal serves as an intriguing comparison point for tracing how vertebrates have evolved and adapted. This includes new information about how vertebrates have employed old genes for new functions.
“We are finding that today’s complicated vertebrate has not invented a lot of new genes to become complicated,” said Holland, of the Marine Biology Research Division at Scripps Oceanography. “Amphioxus shows us that vertebrates have taken old genes and recombined them, changed their regulation and perhaps changed the gene function.”
Originally discovered in the 1700s, amphioxus appears fish-like with a small tail fin and medial fins, but no paired ones. They spend most of their time burrowed in sand, with their snouts extended for filter feeding.
The human genome has only about 25 percent more genes than the amphioxus genome, according to Holland. During evolution, humans have duplicated genes for different functions. Such duplication has given humans and other vertebrates a much larger “toolkit” for making various structures that are absent in amphioxus, including cells for pigment and collagen type II-based cartilage, for example.
In the new research, Holland and her colleagues describe success in probing the roots of important functions such as immunity. While vertebrates have two types of immune systems—innate, which is a general first line of defense against pathogens, and adaptive, involving antibodies specific for particular pathogens—invertebrates like amphioxus have only innate immune systems. In amphioxus, several of these innate immune genes have been independently duplicated many times over. It may be that with a second line of defense, vertebrates, compared with invertebrates like amphioxus, are less reliant on innate immunity to ward off infection.
The neural crest cells of vertebrates are an excellent example of how “old” genes have acquired new functions. In all vertebrates, neural crest cells migrate from the developing neural tube throughout the body, giving rise to such structures as pigment cells, cartilage of the head and a number of other cell types. Although amphioxus has a brain and spinal cord and makes them using the same genes in the same way as vertebrates, amphioxus has no neural crest cells. Even so, amphioxus has all of the genes necessary for generating migratory neural crest cells; vertebrates have just put them together in new ways. It can be compared with a chef who takes basic leftovers in a refrigerator and whips up a fine gourmet dish.
“The take-home message from this sequencing is that the human and amphioxus genomes are very much alike,” said Holland.
A collaborative effort of some 30 laboratories around the world solved the sequence of the amphioxus genome.
Further, deeper analyses between the amphioxus and human genomes in the years ahead will provide even more important clues about genetic evolution.
“All of this is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Holland. “It will take a number of years for people to look in greater depth at the amphioxus and human genomes. In terms of figuring out what evolution has done and how it generally works, the amphioxus genome has really been a goldmine and will continue to be one in the years ahead.”

Researchers Link Memory Loss to Poor Diet

June 20, 2008
Loss of memory with advanced age is a significant problem within most societies, and appears particularly severe in advanced industrialized nations. A less visible and often ignored problem comes from a food supply high in cholesterol and saturated fat, which has led to high obesity rates particularly in the United States. In a study published in the June issue of the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, researchers from the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) have linked memory loss to a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Collaboration between two laboratories at MUSC and one at Arizona State University led researchers to discover that rodents that were fed a diet high in cholesterol and saturated fat displayed impairment in working memory. This memory loss is associated with inflammation in the brain, as well as the impairment of structural proteins that affect how a nerve cell functions. As inflammation is associated with a poor diet, the failure of functions in other key organs such as the eye and the ear also could be expected.
Assuming that the same phenomenon occurs in human beings, the study suggests that as humans age, memory may be preserved and brain functions improved by restricting the consumption of cholesterol and saturated fats. As cases of obesity and obesity-related diseases have increased exponentially in the United States, and are second only to tobacco use for premature mortality and the number of health-care dollars spent, the importance of this issue is immediate.
“Effects of a Saturated Fat and High Cholesterol Diet on Memory and Hippocampal Morphology in the Middle-Aged Rat,” authored by Ann-Charlotte Granholm, Heather A. Bimonte-Nelson, Alfred B. Moore, Matthew E. Nelson, Linnea R. Freeman and Kumar Sambamurti, appeared in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease 14:2 (June 2008), pp. 133-145.

Study Links Vitamin D to Colon Cancer Survival

June 20, 2008
Patients diagnosed with colon cancer who had abundant vitamin D in their blood were less likely to die during a follow-up period than those who were deficient in the vitamin, according to a new study by scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The findings of the study -- the first to examine the effect of vitamin D among colorectal cancer patients -- merit further research, but it is too early to recommend supplements as a part of treatment, say the investigators from Dana-Farber and the Harvard School of Public Health.
In a report in the June 20 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology, the authors note that previous research has shown that higher levels of vitamin D reduce the risk of developing colon and rectal cancer by about 50 percent, but the effect on outcomes wasn't known. To examine this question, the investigators, led by Kimmie Ng, MD, MPH, and Charles Fuchs, MD, MPH, of Dana-Farber, analyzed data from two long-running epidemiologic studies whose participants gave blood samples and whose health has been monitored for many years.
They identified 304 participants in the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Followup Study who were diagnosed with colorectal cancer between 1991 and 2002. All had had vitamin D levels measured in blood samples given at least two year prior to their diagnosis. Each patient's vitamin D measurement was ranked by "quartiles" -- the top 25 percent, the next lowest 25 percent, and so on. Those whose levels were in the lowest quartile were considered deficient in vitamin D.
The researchers followed the 304 patients until they died or until 2005, whichever occurred first. During that period, 123 patients died, with 96 of them dying from colon or rectal cancer. The researchers then looked for associations between the patients’ previously measured vitamin D blood levels and whether they had died or survived.
The results showed that individuals with the vitamin D levels in the highest quartile were 48 percent less likely to die (from any cause, including colon cancer) than those with the lowest vitamin D measurements. The odds of dying from colon cancer specifically were 39 percent lower, the scientists found.
"Our data suggest that higher prediagnosis plasma levels of [vitamin D] after a diagnosis of colorectal cancer may significantly improve overall survival," the authors wrote. "Future trials should examine the role of vitamin D supplementation in patients with colorectal cancer."
The measurements of vitamin D in the patients' blood reflected both the amounts made by the body when exposed to sunlight and to all sources of the vitamin in their diets, said Ng. However, she added, there may be additional unknown factors that might account for individual differences. Patients with the highest vitamin D levels tended to have lower body-mass index (BMI) indicating that they were leaner, and also were more physically active. However, after controlling for BMI and physical activity, as well as other prognostic factors, higher vitamin D levels were still independently associated with better survival rates.
Ng said that a trial is being planned in which colon cancer patients will take vitamin D along with post-surgery chemotherapy to look for any benefits of the supplements.
Meanwhile, she said that individuals with colon cancer should consult their physicians as to whether they should add vitamin supplements to their daily regimen. Standard recommended daily amounts of vitamin D supplements range from 200 International Units (IU) per day for people under age 50 to 400 IU for people between 50 and 70, and 600 IU for those over 70.
Other authors of the study include Jeffrey Meyerhardt, MD, MPH, of Dana-Farber; Kana Wu, MD, PhD, and Edward Giovannucci, MD, ScD, of the Harvard School of Public Health; Diane Feskanich, ScD, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Bruce Hollis, PhD, of the Medical University of South Carolina.
The research was supported by grants from the National Cancer Institute.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute ( is a principal teaching affiliate of the Harvard Medical School and is among the leading cancer research and care centers in the United States. It is a founding member of the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center (DF/HCC), designated a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute.


June 19, 2008
WASHINGTON: NASA's Human Research Program and the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, or NSBRI, of Houston will fund a group of research proposals to help investigate questions about astronaut health and performance on future space exploration missions. The 33 selected proposals represent 21 institutions in 12 states.
The goal of the Human Research Program is to provide knowledge and technologies to improve human health during space exploration as well as possible countermeasures for problems. Goals include the successful completion of exploration missions and preservation of astronauts' health throughout their lives. The program quantifies
crew health and performance risks during spaceflight and develops strategies that mission planners and system developers can use to monitor and mitigate health risks.
The 33 projects were selected from 126 proposals that were reviewed by scientific and technical experts from academia and government laboratories. Ten of the projects will join the Human Research Program's team of principal investigators, while 23 will join NSBRI's team-based research program.
NSBRI is a NASA-funded consortium of institutions studying health risks related to long-duration spaceflight. The institute's science, technology and education projects take place at more than 60 institutions across the United States.
A complete list of the selected principal investigators, organizations
and proposals is available at:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

GE Mosquitoes to Fight Dengue Raise Concerns

June 18, 2008
Millions of transgenic mosquitoes are to be released into the fishing village of Pulau Ketam off Selangor, Malaysia, as part of an international series of field trials to fight dengue fever. The Malaysian field trials will be undertaken by the Health Ministry's Institute of Medical Research (IMR) in collaboration with Oxitec Ltd., a spin-off biotech company from the University of Oxford in the UK. This follows the reported success of confined laboratory trials conducted under the supervision of the IMR over the past year.
The technique, which has won Oxitec the Technology Pioneers 2008 award at the World Economic Forum, involves releasing transgenic male Aedes mosquitoes carrying a ‘killer' gene to mate with wild female mosquitoes, which causes (nearly) all their progeny to die. This is a variant of the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) that has been successfully used in wiping out other insect vectors in the past, though the sterile males were created by X-irradiation, and not by transgenesis.
The release of sterile males is considered “environmentally benign”, as only female mosquitoes bite and suck blood and transmit the disease-causing virus; not the male mosquitoes.
If the Pulau Ketam trials are successful, the transgenic killer mosquitoes will be released in bigger towns which have a high incidence of dengue. Dengue is reported to be the fastest growing vector-borne disease in the world, affecting 55 percent of the global population with an estimated 100 million cases in over 100 countries. Chikungunya, a disease similar to dengue fever and also spread by the Aedes mosquito, has become a major problem, at least in India, where there were 140 000 cases in 2007.
Oxitec has received regulatory and import permits for confined evaluation in the US, France and Malaysia, while still holding discussions with regulators of other endemic countries such as India. Environmental groups fear that releasing the transgenic mosquitoes may affect the ecosystem and cause further damage. But there has been remarkably little informed reporting on the nature of the potential hazards involved.

What is dengue?

Dengue fever is an illness caused by an RNA flavivirus spread by the bites of mosquitoes. The symptoms include fever, headache, rash, severe pains in the muscles and joints, and pain behind the eyes. Dengue fever is rarely fatal, while the related dengue haemorrhagic fever is a severe disease that leads to death in approximately 5 percent of cases. Dengue hemorrhagic fever is seen most often in children younger than 15 years old. It is also seen most often in individuals who were previously infected with simple dengue fever.

The dengue flavivirus occurs in four different serotypes, DEN-1, DEN-2, DEN-3, and DEN-4. Contracting one form of dengue fever provides lifelong immunity from that serotype, but not from the other serotypes. Cases of dengue fever occur primarily in urban areas in the tropics. Humans contract dengue fever from bites of infected female mosquitoes of the genus Aedes . Aedes aegypti is the primary vector in most regions. When a female Aedes mosquito bites a person infected with dengue, the virus incubates in the insect body for 8-11 days, after which the mosquito can spread the disease to other humans for the remainder of its life span (15-65 days). Once the virus enters a human, it circulates in the bloodstream for two to seven days, during which time the virus can spread. Aedes albopictusis was originally the primary vector of dengue fever, and remains a major vector in Asia. The species has recently spread to Central America and the US, where it is a secondary vector of the disease . Aedes aegypti is primarily urban, and Aedes albopictusis rural, thereby increasing the ecological range of habitats in which people can become infected. Humans are the primary reservoir for the virus.
In recent years, dengue has spread extensively in North and South America. In Mexico the number of dengue cases increased 600 percent between 2001 and 2007. In 2007 alone, there was a 40 percent increase in dengue cases. The disease has also spread to Hawaii and along the border in Texas. Even though the impact of climate change on the increased incidence and spread of dengue is less obvious than is the increase of malaria, it is reasonable to assume that global warming will greatly extend the range of the virus disease, though this assumption has been contested.

The blueprint for exterminating mosquitoes

Exterminating the mosquito vector is the preferred approach to controlling dengue according to those promoting genetic modification of mosquitoes. The Stanford Business School proposed that releasing genetically modified (transgenic) male mosquitoes could eliminate dengue fever and other mosquito-borne diseases within a year in communities of up to a million people. Stanford Business School is promoting the work of researchers at Stanford's Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, and Oxford University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in the UK. The technique employed is called “Released Insects with a Dominant Lethal” (RIDL), a variant of SIT. The dominant lethal male mosquitoes developed for RIDL are more sexually attractive to female mosquitoes than the dominant lethal males produced by X-irradiation, and they cause death of the progeny during the late larval stages, thereby allowing the transgenic larvae to compete with the normal insect larvae for food. The mathematical model analysing the control of mosquito-borne diseases by a RIDL predicts eradication of dengue disease in one year.
The mathematical model cannot be trusted to make reliable predictions, however, simply because the genetics and even more so, the ecology and host-parasite relationship of dengue disease are complex and poorly understood; in particular, there are silent as well as overt infections. More seriously, the optimistic mathematical model says nothing about the genetic modification involved in RIDL, and there lies the devil in the detail.

Genetic modification to produce RIDL

The RIDL trait was created using a transposon. Transposons are mobile genetic elements (‘jumping genes'). They are similar to viruses, but lack the ability to form viral coats. RIDL was created by the piggyBac transposon originally isolated from a culture of cells of the cabbage looper, and has been used extensively in insect genetic-engineering. The piggyBac vector is prevented from replicating independently of the chromosome bearing it (non-autonomous) by removing its transposase enzyme that enables it to multiply and move among the chromosomes of the cells that it infects (though this is by no means a safeguard, see below).
The transgenic male mosquito to be released has incorporated a gene for a red fluorescent marker protein for easy identification, but the key gene that confers dominant lethal trait is tTAV , encoding a tetracycline repressible transcription activator protein, driven by the promoter tetO of a Drosophila heat shock protein gene. In the presence of tetracycline, tTAV binds tetracycline and the complex does not bind to tetO , so no further expression of tTAV takes place. In the absence of tetracycline, there is a positive feedback loop in which tTAV binds to tetO , driving more expression of tTAV. The over production of tTAV is toxic, and kills the insect. But it is uncertain why excessive tTAV is lethal. In summary, RIDL is a tetracycline-repressible lethal system. It has been suggested that the lethality of excessive transcription activator is due to transcriptional ‘squelching' or interference with ubiquitin-dependent breakdown of proteins. Mice modified with a gene for the tetracycline repressible transcription activator were not killed when the gene was activated by removing tetracycline.

Is this terminator insect safe?

The most glaring aspect of the proposed release is that the lethally acting transcription activator tTAV has a rather ill-defined action. The information presently available does not tell us what is killing the target animals. Even though a homologous tetracycline-repressed gene was not toxic to mice upon its activation, the killing toxin in the mosquito should certainly be identified before release to the environment is contemplated.

Another major hazard is horizontal gene transfer of the piggyBac insert. This issue has been thoroughly addressed in ISIS' submissions to the USDA with regard to the release of the pink bollworm in 2001. We provided evidence that the disabled vector carrying the transgene, even when stripped down to the bare minimum of the border repeats, was nevertheless able to replicate and spread, basically because the transposase function enabling the piggyBac inserts to move can be supplied by ‘helper' transposons. Such helper transposons are potentially present in all genomes, including that of the mosquito. The main reason for using transposons as vectors in insect control is precisely because they can spread the transgenes rapidly by ‘non-Mendelian' mean within a population, i.e., by replicating copies and jumping into genomes, including those of the mammalian hosts. Although each transposon has its own specific transposase enzyme that recognizes its terminal repeats, the enzyme can also interact with the terminal repeats of other transposons, and evidence suggest “extensive cross-talk among related but distinct transposon families” within a single eukaryotic genome.
It is disingenuous to claim that because only male mosquitoes are released that don't bite people or other mammals, the technique is “environmentally benign”. First of all, the transgenic mosquitoes, both males and females, have to be mass-produced in the laboratory. In order for transgenic females, also carrying the dominant lethal in double dose, to propagate the line, they have to take blood meals from laboratory animals such as mice or rabbits, not to mention the odd lab worker, which gives plenty of opportunity for horizontal gene transfer. Second, the transgenic males have to be sorted from the females, and this takes place at the pupae stage, when males are generally smaller than females, but this may not be 100 percent accurate. Third, the tetracycline-dependence of the transgenic lines is not absolute. In the absence of tetracycline, 3 to 4 percent of transgenic progeny actually survive to adulthood.
It is obvious that transgene escape can readily occur. As Ho commented: “ These artificial transposons are already aggressive genome invaders, and putting them into insects is to give them wings, as well as sharp mouthparts for efficient delivery to all plants and animals and their viruses.”
One cannot stress enough that horizontal gene transfer and recombination is the main highway to exotic disease agents.
The piggyBac inserts may also be mobilised by the transposase of piggyBac transposons already carried by Baculovirus (a common soil-borne insect virus) that infect insect cells, and this possibility has not been evaluated in the laboratory. Baculovirus not only carries piggyBac transposons, it has also been used in human gene therapy as it is capable of infecting human cells. It is indeed strange that the mobility and horizontal gene transfer of the piggyBac vector has not been thoroughly studied even though the activity of the vector is widely recognized.
The piggyBac transposon was discovered in cell cultures of the moth Trichopulsia , the cabbage looper, where it causes high mutation rates in the Baculovirus infecting the cells by jumping into its genes. The piggyBac itself is 2.5 kb long with 13 bp inverted terminal repeats. It has specificity for the base sequence TTAA (at which it inserts); the probability of this sequence occurring is (0.25) 4 or 0.4 percent in any stretch of DNA, where it can cause insertion mutations: disrupting and inactivating genes, or inappropriately activating genes. This transposon was later found to be active in a wide range of species, including the fruit fly Drosophila , the mosquito transmitting yellow fever A aegypti , the medfly Ceratitis capitata , and the original host, the cabbage looper. ThepiggyBac vector gave high frequencies of transpositions, much higher than other transposon vectors in use, such as the mariner and Hirmar. The piggyBac transposon is also active in human and mouse cells, and in the mouse germline; and a version with minimal terminal repeats exhibited greater transposition activity in human cells than another, well-characterised hyperactive Sleeping Beauty transposon system widely used for preclinical gene therapy studies.

Recent alternatives to RIDL

There are recent effective and affordable alternatives to RIDL in controlling mosquitoes that spread dengue fever and other diseases. Extracts from the paradise tree Melia azedarach showed promising larvicide and oviposition deterrent effects on the mosquito. Essential oil from mullila and zedoary plants also proved effective in treating mosquito larvae. Euphoriaceae extracts, particularly Euphorbia tirucalli can be applied as an ideal larvicide against Aedes aegypti.
A study in Thailand surveyed water-filled containers where Aedes mosquitoe pupae were found. Large water containers held 90 percent of pupae in rural areas and 60 percent in urban areas. Covering and treating such large containers should greatly reduce the mosquito population. Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis VectoBac proved effective in treating water jars to combat dengue mosquitoes in Cambodia. In Cuba, studies on the social and environmental determinants of Aedes aegypti confirmed that the greatest risks were associated with failure to treat stored water, and water in flower vases for religious practices. Efforts to reduce infestation should therefore focus on preventive practices.
These low tech practices may prove much more effective than the expensive high technology solutions, which are also far from safe.

Failure to Take Seizure Drugs Linked to Increased Risk of Death

June 18, 2008
People with epilepsy who fail to take their seizure medication regularly could be as much as three times more likely to die, according to a study published in the June 18, 2008, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the merican Academy of Neurology.
For the study, researchers looked at insurance records from three U.S. state edicaid programs over eight and a half years. The study included 33,658 people with epilepsy who filled at least two epilepsy drug prescriptions.
The study found that people who took their epilepsy medication less than 80 percent of the time over the course of three months appeared to be three times more likely to die compared to people who took their medication regularly in a three-month period.
In addition, the study showed that hospital visits went up by 86 percent and emergency room visits increased by 50 percent during the time when people didn’t take their medication regularly. There also appeared to be a significantly higher incidence of car accidents and bone breaks. Only head injuries were less common during periods of non-compliance with epilepsy drugs.
“These results are concerning since some studies show about 30 to 50 percent of people with epilepsy do not take their medication regularly,” said study author Edward Faught, MD, Director of the University of Alabama Epilepsy Center in Birmingham and Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology.
“There are many reasons epileptic patients fail to take their seizure medications, including cost, side effects and pregnancy. But this study suggests that none of those reasons overshadow the threat of death or other problems related to uncontrolled seizures. Patients need to stay on their medications and physicians need to recognize and treat issues related to people failing to take epilepsy drugs,” said Faught.
The study was supported by GlaxoSmithKline.
The American Academy of Neurology, an association of more than 21,000 neurologists and neuroscience professionals, is dedicated to improving patient care through education and research. A neurologist is a doctor with specialized training in diagnosing, treating and managing disorders of the brain and nervous system such as epilepsy, dystonia, migraine, Huntington’s disease, and dementia. For more information about the American Academy of Neurology, visit

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

CDFD study: Indian murghi and chicken separate

June 17, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, June 16: The Indian murghi (jungle fowl) not only tastes good but also tells the genetic history of other Indian birds, particularly the chicken.
A study conducted by the city-based Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics reveals that domestication of chicken has occurred independently in different locations of Asia including India. But the Indian chicken has not evolved from the Indian murghi as is commonly believed.
The Indian murghi (Gallus gallus murghi) is relatively pure and is not the parent of the Indian chicken. The CDFD study has shown that the red jungle fowl or Indian murghi and domestic birds do not hybridise in nature.
"Domestication of chicken is believed to have occurred in Southeast Asia, especially in Indus valley. However, non-inclusion of Indian red jungle fowl in previous studies has left a big gap in understanding the relationship of this major group of birds. In the present study, we addressed this issue by analysing 76 Indian birds
that included 56 Gallus gallus murghi, 16 Gallus gallus domesticus (domestic chicken) and four Gallus sonneratii (grey jungle fowl).
We also compared the D-loop sequences of Indian birds with those of 779 birds obtained from GenBank. Our results suggest that the domestication of chicken has occurred independently in different locations of Asia including India," according to CDFD's J Nagaraju.
The study was conducted jointly by Nagaraju, K Sriramana, M Muralidhar and RD Jakati.
Further, the study also suggested that the chicken populations have undergone population expansion, especially in the Indus valley.
Archaeological findings have indicated that the "mother of all poultry" is the Southeast Asian Red jungle fowl or Gallus gallus. Since domestication of chicken has been observed at the Indus valley as early as 3,200 BC, it is believed to be the epicentre of chicken domestication.
There was very rare genetic exchange between the red jungle fowl and domestic chicken populations, at least in recent history. A Maximum Likelihood tree obtained from the microsatellite data showed a clear separation of Gallus gallus domesticus from the Gallus gallus murghi, with Gallus sonneratii as an outgroup suggesting the genetic distinctness of Gallus gallus murghi.
The scientists also constructed a genetic distance based neighbour-joining tree to obtain the genetic relationship among Indian birds.
The result clearly pointed to the fact that hybridisation between Indian chicken and Indian red jungle fowl in the wild is extremely rare.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The beneficial effects of pleiotropic drugs

By Syed Akbar
June 14, 2008
Hyderabad: Imagine a heart patient benefiting from a tablet he takes for relief from
nagging headache. The tablet not only gives him relief from headache, but also dilutes his blood to the extent of preventing further cardiac attacks.
Or a person suffering from some neurological problem finds that the wrinkles on her face have vanished and she looks younger, after a doctor prescribed her Botolinium Toxin, also known as Botox. The drug was originally intended for neurological conditions like stiff neck, but is now being increasingly used for cosmetology, uplifting face and as an anti-ageing drug that reduces wrinkles.
What more does a patient ask for? Take a cheap tablet for some known small problem and get relief from a major health problem yet to be discovered. Many drugs have side effects. Some of them are good and some of them are quite bad. Drugs with multiple effects, either beneficial or harmful, are called pleiotropic medicines. In short, pleiotropic effects of a drug are actions other than those for which the medicine was specifically developed. For instance, a medicine primarily meant for headache relief working against a cardiac problem without the knowledge of the patient.
Health experts say that pleiotropic effects may be harmful (toxicity), neutral (without any side-effects) or beneficial. Such drugs come cheap and are quite affordable even for the economically poorer sections. Take the case of the simple drug called aspirin. Everybody knows that it’s available off the counter in a medical shop and provides the much-needed relief from headaches and other body aches. Aspirin was originally used as an analgesic (pain reliever) agent by doctors across the world. In-depth research has shown that aspirin has benefits unimaginable, such as helping patients who suffered a stroke. It works in patients with a history of heart attack and peripheral vascular diseases.
Says senior physician Dr Aftab Ahmed, “the list of such drugs is quite long. The active agent in these drugs works in more than one ways. Thus it benefits the patient in several ways. Some drugs have negative effects too and it is quite common. But the drugs with multiple beneficial effects really work in favour of the patient. Beta blockers are generally prescribed for BP control but they are also beneficial for heart failure, angina, and post myocardial infarction patients.”
Doctors worldwide prescribe statins for patients with high levels of cholesterol. Statins reduce cholesterol. They also improve the functioning of blood vessels. Statins are potent inhibitors of cholesterol biosynthesis.
In clinical trials, statins are beneficial in the primary and secondary Prevention of coronary heart disease. However, the overall benefits observed with statins appear to be greater than what might be expected from changes in lipid levels alone, suggesting effects beyond cholesterol lowering.
Statins also involve improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response. They are also beneficial with their extra-hepatic effects on the immune system and bones.
“Sildenafil popularly known as Viagra is basically a drug for impotency or erectile dysfunction, later on it was found to be useful in new born children too,” says Dr Manoj Agarwal, senior cardiologist, Apollo Health City, Hyderabad. The drug can be used for patients who have primary pulmonary hypertension. There are lots of patients suffering from this disease, it has no permanent cure. This drug helps to improve their quality of life.
“In new born nitric oxide is required to decrease the resistance in lungs known as pulmonary vascular resistance. However nitric oxide is expensive and most patients here can’t afford. A few years ago Sildenafil, nitric oxide donor was found very useful in new born children with heart disease. These children have high pulmonary artery pressure and this drug helped in reducing the suffering of the children. That way a drug originally intended for some other purpose has become a boon for these children,” argues Dr Manoj.
Suffering from malaria? Doctors prescribe chloroquine. You get rid of the dangerous malaria thanks to chloroquine dose. And you are also relieved of your nagging joint pains, arthritis, amoebic liver abscess, photosensitive skin lesions, in case you are suffering from all or any one of them. Chloroquine has properties beyond curing malaria. Diabetics, particularly women, have much to cheer about metformin, the
commonly prescribed drug for diabetes. Metformin has got benefits for women with polycystic ovary disease associated with infertility and overweight.
Viagra is now increasingly prescribed for patients with pulmonary Hypertension. ACE inhibitors, originally for BP control, but is also useful for heart failure, diabetic kidney diseases and post MI Patients.
The next time one goes to a medical shop, one need not be shy of asking for Viagra. For, it has benefits other than those popularly known or advertised by drug manufacturers.

Pleiotropic (drugs with multiple benefits):

1. Aspirin: originally an analgesic; useful to stroke, heart attack, peripheral vascular disease patients.
2. Beta blockers: Generally prescribed for BP control; also beneficial for heart failure, angina, and post myocardial infarction patients.
3. Statins: reduce cholesterol; also improve the functioning of blood vessels.
4. Chloroquine: anti-malarial drug; used for joint pains, arthritis, amoebic liver abscess, photosensitive skin lesions etc.
5. Botolinium Toxin or Botox: neurological conditions like stiff neck; beneficial for cosmetology, uplifting face, as an anti ageing drug, reduces wrinkles.
6. Metformin: anti-diabetes; benefits for women with polycystic ovary disease associated with infertility and overweight.
7. Viagra: erectile dysfunction; used for patients with pulmonary hypertension; this reduces pulmonary hypertension and symptoms associated with it.
8. ACE inhibitors: BP control; also useful for heart failure, diabetic kidney diseases, post MI patients etc.

Friday, June 13, 2008

CFTRI Research: Sip Coffee And Avoid Diabetes

June 13, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, June 12: Sip coffee to your heart's content and keep diabetes away.
The Central Food Technological Research Institute has come out with a special type of coffee rich in chlorogenic acid to keep coffee lovers healthy.
Ordinary coffee contains chlorogenic acid, an important anti-oxidant, which has several therapeutic properties. The coffee developed by CFTRI from green coffee beans contains chlorogenic acid in large quantities as compared with the ordinary coffee available in the market.
Since the CFTRI's coffee has large reserves of chlorogenic acid, besides caffeic acid, it increases the uptake of glucose in the body and regulates blood glucose levels. This in other words means regular intake of coffee prevents diabetes and related disorders.
CFTRI scientists selected green coffee beans of various grades and low grade coffee and softened them by steam. Later, they flaked the seeds. The flakes were then passed through a suitable dryer to reduce the moisture and to get light cream/light brown coloured crispy flakes. The flakes were ground to a coarse powder.
"The flakes or powder is loaded into columns and extracted with a suitable solvent mixture. The extract is distilled under controlled conditions to maximise the recovery of the solvent to produce coffee conserves, which are mainly chlorogenic acids and diterpenes. The final product is packed in clean containers," a senior CFTRI scientist told this correspondent from Mysore.
Moreover, coffee rich in chlorogenic, caffeic and paracoumaric acids and eugenol is also useful in preventing tumour growths in the body. Chlorogenic acid has been found to protect gastric mucosa against irritation. It also improves the digestibility of foods, beverages and medicaments. The improved digestibility
is expressed through a much-reduced systemic acid secretion, which has been found to be directly dependent on an increased level of chlorogenic acid content, the CFTRI study found out. It has a chemopreventive effect too on rat stomach cancer.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Andhra Pradesh to emerge as major nuclear fuel hub by 2030

June 9, 2008
By Our Correspondent
Hyderabad, June 8: Andhra Pradesh is all set to play a crucial role in meeting the energy requirements of the country by 2030 through nuclear power.
The Department of Atomic Energy has set its eyes on Andhra Pradesh to explore hidden uranium and thorium reserves to meet the target of producing 10,000 mw of power. DAE plans to make nuclear energy at least 40 per cent of the total power consumption in the country in the next two decades.
Andhra Pradesh has vast nuclear fuel reserves in Nalgonda and Kadapa districts. The "site selection committee" of the DAE has identified certain places in Andhra Pradesh for setting up of nuclear reactors, but a decision has not yet been taken, Atomic Energy Commission chairman Anil Kakodkar told reporters.
Earlier, VP Raja, additional secretary in the Department of Atomic Energy, said his department would make more investment in Andhra Pradesh to achieve the nuclear energy target of the country. "Andhra Pradesh has prospective sites for nuclear exploration at Nalgonda and Kadapa. Nuclear research and development facility would be set up in Visakhapatnam. Together with UCIL plant at Nalgonda, NFC in Hyderabad, R and D facility at Visakhapatnam, ECIL, Atomic Minerals Division and uranium reserves in Kadapa, the State is going to have a major role in the years ahead," Raja pointed out at the NFC Day celebrations here on Thursday.
He said a force of 100 to 120 volunteers would be trained on June 16 and 17 to take up awareness campaign in nuclear sites in the State. They will explain to people in Telugu and Hindi that the safety measures adopted in the country were the most stringent in the world and there was no need to fear about these projects.
A titanium plant will be set up in Kerala, Dr Kakodkar said.

Indian metros: Cancer rate to go up by 26.6 per cent

June 9, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad, June 8: Five cities including Bangalore and Chennai will report 26.6 per cent increase in the registered number of cancer cases this year, according to Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Science.
A research work carried out by Dr P Marimuthu of NIMHANS show that 26.6 per cent increase is expected in the registered number of cancer cases in Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Bhopal. In the case of Delhi, the increase will be 52.68 per cent, the highest for any city in the country. The age adjusted analysis by NIMHANS indicates that in terms of deaths, Mumbai is experiencing the higher incidence rate among the five cities. The mortality rate for Mumbai is 50 per cent reported from the age group 55 and above years.
"The changing demographic scenario in India is declining fertility level and increasing life expectancy. As the life expectancy at birth increases proportionately the percentage of geriatric population also rises. Higher incidence of non-communicable diseases, especially cancer is positively associated with
percentage of aged population of a country. The World Cancer Report documents that cancer rates are set to increase at an alarming rate globally. Cancer rates could increase by 50 per cent new cases for the year 2020," Dr Marimuthu told this correspondent.
The Indian Council of Medical Research indicates that the age adjusted incidence of gall bladder cancer in women in New Delhi is 10.6 per 1,00,000 population, the world's highest rate for women. Thyroid cancer is more prevalent in the coastal areas of Kerala and Karnataka, while oral cancer tops the list in Andhra Pradesh, particularly Hyderabad.
Men from Delhi in the age group 65-69 may have more number of cases followed by the age group 60-64 for the year 2008. Then men from Chennai will have an increasing trend from the age of 50 to 69 years. Almost a similar trend of cancer incidence for males in the year 2008 is expected from Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.
He said in the female-age specific incidence, women from Delhi in the age group 50-54 may have more number of cases followed by the age group 40-44 for the year 2008. Then the females from Bangalore may have more number of cases from the age of 45 to 54 years. Almost a similar trend of cancer incidence for females in the year 2008 is
expected from Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai.
"Though there is no variation in reported number of cases from Mumbai over the years, the standardisation gives the idea of higher incidence rate for Mumbai. After further analysis on the population data, it is found that the Mumbai
population is negatively growing from 1991 to 2001 census years, but the registered number of case is constant over the years. The decreasing population size in Mumbai and almost the same number of registered cancers cases over the years influenced the incidence rate in Mumbai," he said.
Dr Marimuthu pointed out that there is decline in the cervical cancer incidence, but this decline is very meagre. Though the cancer incidence rate in India is less than that of the Western countries but due to the large population size, number of cases is more prevalent at any time. It is shown that in India 8.7 million Disease Adjusted Life Years lost from cancer was second to ischaemic heart disease.
The NIMHANS study found that Delhi is expected to have more number of cases every year. Though the number of cases is marginally declining in Mumbai, it is experiencing higher incidence rate among these five cities. More number of cases are projected in the age group 45-55 and in the age group of 65-70 years for females and males respectively. Cancer deaths are about 3.6 per cent to the total deaths and
50 per cent cancer deaths are recorded from the age group 55 and above categories.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Big Bang experiment: What's going to happen?

Scientists involved in a historic "Big Bang" experiment to begin on September 10 hope it will turn up many surprises about the universe and its origins -- but reject suggestions it will bring the end of the world.
And Robert Aymar, the French physicist who heads the CERN research centre, predicted that discoveries to emerge from his organization's 6.4 billion euro ($9.2 billion) project would spark major advances for human society.
"If some of what we expect to find does not turn up, and things we did not foresee do, that will be even more stimulating because it means that we understand less than we thought about nature," said British physicist Brian Cox.
"What I would like to see is the unexpected," said Gerardus t'Hooft of the University of Michigan. Perhaps, he suggested, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) machine at the heart of the experiment "will show us things we didn't know existed."
Once it starts up on Wednesday, scientists plan to smash particle beams together at close to the speed of light inside CERN's tightly-sealed Large Hadron Collider to create multiple mini-versions of the primeval Big Bang.
Cosmologists say that that explosion of an object the size of a small coin occurred about 13.7 billion years ago and led to formation of stars, planets -- and eventually to life on earth.
A key aim of the CERN experiment is to find the "Higgs boson," named after Scottish physicist Peter Higgs who in 1964 pointed to such a particle as the force that gave mass to matter and made the universe possible.
But other mysteries of physics and cosmology -- supersymmetry, dark matter and dark energy among them -- are at the focus of experiments in the 27-km (17-mile) circular tunnel deep underneath the Swiss-French border.
CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, says its key researchers -- and many ordinary staff -- have been inundated by e-mails voicing fears about the experiment.
There have been claims that it will create "black holes" of intensive gravity sucking in CERN, Europe and perhaps the whole planet, or that it will open the way for beings from another universe to invade through a "worm hole" in space-time.
But a safety review by scientists at CERN and in the United States and Russia, issued at the weekend, rejected the prospect of such outcomes.
"The LHC will enable us to study in detail what nature is doing all around us," Aymar, who has led CERN for five years, said in response to that review. "The LHC is safe, and any suggestion that it might present a risk is pure fiction."
Cox, from the School of Physics and Astronomy at Britain's Manchester University, was even more trenchant. "I am immensely irritated by the conspiracy theorists who spread this nonsense around," he said.
When the experiment begins soon after 9 a.m. (0700 GMT) on September 10, disaster scenarists will have little to work on.
In the first tests, a particle beam will be shot all the way around the LHC channel in just one direction. If all goes well, collisions might be tried within the coming weeks, but at low intensity. Any bangs at this stage, said one CERN researcher, "will be little ones."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

NIMHANS: Tsunami trauma still haunts victims

June 1, 2008
By Syed Akbar
Hyderabad: The Tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in December 2004 is now history. But
four years after the devastation, people affected by Tsunami are still in trauma. Their psychiatric morbidity is quite high and children are the worst-hit. The Bangalore-based National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences conducted a study on people affected by Tsunami and compared the data with those of normal
population. About 12,000 victims were interviewed as part of the study to establish psychiatric morbidity and the extent of mental trauma they had undergone.
"People are still traumatised. The effect will continue for some more time. In case of children, it may continue for life," NIMHANS assistant professor of psychiatry Dr
Suresh Bada Math, told this correspondent. A meta-analysis of 160 studies of disaster victims found that post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, generalised anxiety disorders, and panic disorders were identified.
The factors that most consistently increased the risk for adverse outcome were severity of the exposure to the disaster; living in a highly disrupted or traumatised community; lack of social support; belonging to an ethnic minority group; post-traumatic stress; and being female.
Psychiatric morbidity was 5.2 per cent in the displaced population and 2.8 per cent in the non-displaced population. The overall psychiatric morbidity was 3.7 per cent. The displaced survivors had significantly higher psychiatric morbidity than did the non-displaced population. The disorders included panic disorder, anxiety disorders not otherwise specified, and somatic complaints. The existence of an adjustment disorder was significantly higher in the non-displaced survivors. Depression and post-traumatic stress disorder were distributed equally in both groups.
According to Dr Suresh, one of the study team members, psychiatric morbidity was found to be the highest in the displaced population. However, the incidence of
depression and PTSD were distributed equally in both groups. Involvement of community leaders and survivors in shared decision-making processes and culturally
acceptable interventions improved the community participation.
"Cohesive community, family systems, social support, altruistic behaviour of the community leaders, and religious faith and spirituality were factors that helped survivors cope during the early phase of the disaster," he said.
The NIMHANS study suggested that in a developing country like India there is a high need for psychosocial rehabilitation from day one of the disaster. "Our observations
clearly depicts that the presence of a mental health team in the early phase of disaster is definitely required for treating the immediate needs of the patients and planning long-term psychosocial rehabilitation as per the local need. The ‘mental health/psychiatric’ label needs to be avoided in the country".
The initial assessment by the team revealed that five to eight per cent of the population were suffering from mental health issues following the disaster. This may increase as time passes. Psychiatric morbidity is expected be around 25 to 30 per cent in the disillusionment phase. A notable feature was the high resilience
observed in the joint family system during the early phase of the disaster.
The NIMHANS experiences emphasised the point that in the formulation of any psychosocial rehabilitation plan, due consideration should be given to the local
culture, traditions, language, belief systems and local livelihood patterns. Any rehabilitation programmes need to be flexible, locally adaptable and acceptable. Utilisation of local community resources and community participation should be emphasised, leading towards community empowerment.
The team found that 475 survivors had at least one psychiatric diagnosis. Of these, 244 were displaced survivors residing in the Port Blair relief camps, and 231 were in the Non-Displaced Survivors Group from Car-Nicobar Island. The most common psychiatric problems observed in the survivors’ group were adjustment disorder in 178 (37.5 per cent), depression in 102 (21.5 per cent), panic disorder in 57 (12 per cent), PTSD in 53 (11.2 per cent), anxiety disorder not otherwise specified (NOS) in 26 (5.5 per cent), and other disorders in 16 (3.4 per cent). The "other" disorders were noted in children and adolescents by their parents, and included dizziness, vertigo, startle response, sleep-wake cycle disturbance.