Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Debate on the HPV Vaccine

A lot of fuss has been made recently about Merck's new vaccine for human papillomavirus (HPV), GARDASIL®. Legislation has been proposed in several states mandating the HPV vaccine, which has caused an uproar for various reasons.

One of the concerns is that making a vaccine mandatory is a big decision that the government would be making for people, leaving them no choice. I can't, personally, think of any reason why a woman might decide that she'd rather just take her chances with cancer, but I suppose there are people who would make that decision. The question becomes, should we let them? Or should we put together a program where the vaccine is freely available, but make it an opt-in situation?

Another major reason people have objected is because, it turns out, the main group pushing these legislative actions has been a lobbying firm employed by Merck, who stands to make a sizeable profit off this vaccine, even if it doesn't become mandatory... but an even bigger profit if it does.

My feeling on this latter reason--Merck making huge profits--is this: good for them. Why should we care if somebody makes a profit? They put a lot of time and resources into developing this vaccine. And let's keep something else in mind here: they developed a vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer in many cases. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, in 2002 nearly 4,000 women died from cervical cancer and more than 12,000 others were diagnosed with the disease. Merck has invented a product with the ability to save thousands of lives every year, with three separate shots costing about $120 each.

So think about any girl or young woman you know between the ages of 9 and 26 and ask yourself this... is $360 a fair price to pay for a 70% chance of preventing HPV and reducing the risk of cervical cancer?

Shuttle Launch Delayed

The U.S. Space Shuttles are fragile beasts, with (so far) a catastrophic failure rate of about 1-in-60. For that reason, NASA takes even small amounts of damage to the shuttles very seriously.

When a severe storm pounded Florida a couple of days ago, Atlantis was already sitting on the launch pad, and consequently the foam protecting its external fuel tank was damaged by severe hail. Since degraded foam doomed Columbia a few years ago, NASA has taken damage to the foam protectant very seriously.

As a result, NASA has decided to roll the shuttle back into the Vehicle Assembly Building to repair the damage, which will result in a roughly six week delay in launching the shuttle (they cannot launch to the ISS while the crews are being changed out due to traffic congestion). So the new expected launch date for Atlantis will be in late April.

By the way, I'm not an expert on launch pad processes, but it seems to me that rolling the shuttle out to the pad a month before launch is just asking for this kind of trouble. This isn't the first time NASA has had to delay a launch because of something like this. I know they get to have drills and practice the launch a couple of times by having the launcher on the pad, but do they really need a month to do all of that, or could they be server by having it out 7-10 days before launch?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Better Way to Clean Water

From the category of Pretty Cool News With a Lot of Applications, researchers at the University of Delaware have devised a new, inexpensive means of removing viruses from drinking water by using elemental iron.

The technology would be tremendously useful in parts of the world where clean water is difficult to come by, as the elemental iron used to purify the water is available as a by-product of iron and steel production. It would also be useful in the U.S. and other industrialized countries as it would allow water utilities to stop using chlorine to purify water supplies.

The researchers suggest that the process could also be applied to other tasks besides purifying drinking water, especially agricultural processes. The technique is said to be capable of removing up to 99.999% of viruses from water.

Monday, February 26, 2007


Through a series of links today, I stumbled upon this site, where you will apparently be able to lease a solar energy system for your home. It doesn't do me much good at the moment (I live in an apartment), but if you own a home and you want to improve your energy efficiency while helping make the world a cleaner, healthier place, check out the Citizen REnU program at this website.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

New Avenue of Treatment for MS

Have you ever had one of those teachers who really inspired you and made you think, as opposed to just memorizing stuff to regurgitate for your exam? For me, that teacher was Stan Harris, who taught government (political science) and sociology at my high school.

The first semester of my senior year in high school, while I was taking his government class, Stan announced that he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a debilitating disease that, according to Wikipedia, can cause a variety of symptoms, including changes in sensation, visual problems, muscle weakness, depression, difficulties with coordination and speech, severe fatigue, short term memory loss, problems with balance, over heating and pain. MS will cause impaired mobility and disability in more severe cases.

Many years ago, scientists studying MS patients noticed that women with MS who became pregnant experienced not just reduced symptoms, but actual improvement of symptoms, during the course of their pregnancy and shortly after. After a while, however, symptoms return and continue to progress.

New research conducted at the University of Calgary shows that a hormone produced during pregnancy, prolactin, triggers production of myelin, a fatty substance that insulates nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, indicated that prolactin could be used in people to repair damage caused by MS and improve their symptoms.

The lead researcher said he anticipated that one to two years of additional animal studies will be needed before testing prolactin in people with MS, meaning that actual treatments will not be available for probaly a decade or more, but if you know anyone who suffers from this debilitating disease, this is still excellent news.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

MIT and Novartis Make Diabetes Genetic Info Freely Available

The Broad Institute at MIT, Novartis, and Lund University have publicly released the results of a genome-wide map of genetic differences in humans and their relationship to type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders.

The work is the result of a pioneering public-private collaboration known as the Diabetes Genetics Initiative (DGI), which was formed in 2004 and is aimed at deciphering the genetic causes of type 2 diabetes. The collaboration brings together diverse expertise in diabetes and metabolic disease, human genetics, genomics, statistical analysis, and drug development.

The results of the study are freely available online at

First, let me start by saying I'm pretty much a die-hard capitalist, and I believe that profit is an excellent motivator for companies in performing research and development. But I don't think that anybody should be allowed to profit off of human suffering, so that's why I'm really happy when I see something like this. A for-profit company (Novartis) has put forth their resources to help find better ways to treat or even cure a disease that affects more than 170 million people world-wide (including several people that I know personally).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

LysoSENS Progress Update

I blogged recently about the Methuselah Foundation's LysoSENS project, one of their funded research efforts to help eliminate the deleterious effects of aging. What I didn't read closely enough was that the contest ended on December 31 (although I'm sure they are still accepting samples).

On their blog, they have posted an update including details of the top five samples they received. If you're interested in details of the progress being made in the fight against aging, check it out.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Researchers Develop Method to Control Water Flow Through Carbon Nanotubes

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a new method of controlling the flow of water through carbon nanotube membranes with an unprecedented level of precision. That may not sound that interesting, but it could lead to technologies designed to transform salt water into pure drinking water almost instantly, or to immediately separate a specific strand of DNA from the biological jumble.

Nanotube membranes have fascinated researchers with their combination of high flow rates and high selectivity, allowing them to filter out very small impurities and other organic materials like DNA and proteins from materials with high water content. The problem is that nanotube arrays are hydrophobic, strongly repelling water.

The researchers found a way to use low-voltage electricity to manipulate the flow of water through nanotubes. They discovered that when the nanotube’s membrane is given a small positive potential of only 1.7 volts, and the water is given a negative potential, the nanotubes quickly switch from repelling water to pumping water through the tube. When the charge on the water is raised, the water flows through at an exponentially faster rate. When the experiment is reversed with a negatively charged nanotube, it takes much higher voltage (90 volts) to move the water through the tube.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Intel Builds Fastest Chip Ever

Intel yesterday announced that its researchers have created a single chip with 80 processing cores, capable of a trillion floating point operations per second (Teraflops). The chip isn't available yet, however, and likely won't be for another five or six years.

A chart on Intel's website demonstrates how, through frequency scaling, the chip can be made to achieve as much as 1.81 Teraflops, though doing so increases the power needed from 62 Watts (less than many commercial processors available today) to 265 Watts. Just 10 years ago, a cluster of supercomputers capable of processing the same amount of calculations took up more than 2,000 square feet and consumed a half-megawatt of electricity.

This type of processor will be a big step in the right direction for making computers do what we really want. Better pattern recognition for speech and video, better simulations of physical and biological processes, and better video games are just a few examples of how more powerful processors can make our lives better.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Branson Creates $25 Million Global Warming Prize

British billionaire Sir Richard Branson has announced a $25 million prize for the first group to come up with a way of removing one billion metric tons of carbon gases a year from the atmosphere for 10 years -- with $5 million of the prize being paid at the start and the remaining $20 million at the end.

The prize will initially only be open for five years, with ideas assessed by a panel of judges including Branson, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, British ex-diplomat Crispin Tickell, U.S. climate scientist James Hansen, Briton James Lovelock and Australian environmentalist Tim Flannery.

Branson also reiterated a pledge he made in September to invest $3 billion toward fighting global warming, saying he would commit all profits from his travel companies over the next 10 years. As part of that pledge, he launched a new Virgin Fuels business, which will invest up to $400 million in green energy projects over the next three years.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

New Synthesized Compound Shows Promise as Cancer Treatment

Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center have synthesized a new compound--similar to one produced naturally by a species of sea squirt--that shows exciting results in tests as a cancer treatment. The compound, called AB-5, is a variant of diazonamide A, a toxin produced by Diazona angulata.

What's truly exciting about AB-5 was that, in the initial tests, the compound worked as effectively as existing cancer treatments (paclitaxel and vinblastine) without their side effects of weight loss or reduced white blood cell counts. The AB-5 appears to be very selective in how it affects cells, attacking only cancerous cells.

The reason, the researchers say, is that in cancerous cells, an enzyme known as OAT is necessary for cell mitosis, but the enzyme is not necessary for regular, healthy cells. The AB-5 somehow interacted with the OAT, preventing it from being uses as part of cell mitosis for cancer cells, and thus blocking the cancer cells from reproducing.

The results are preliminary so far, and only tested in mice, but the researchers felt strongly enough about the results to license the research from UT Southwestern and start their own pharmaceutical company, Joyant Pharmaceuticals. I'll be watching this development closely, so stay tuned for future updates.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Researchers Uncover Why Conductance of Nanowires Vary

A Georgia Tech physics group has discovered how and why the electrical conductance of metal nanowires changes as their length varies. In a collaborative investigation performed by an experimental team and a theoretical physics team, the group discovered that measured fluctuations in the smallest nanowires' conductance are caused by a pair of atoms, known as a dimer, shuttling back and forth between the bulk electrical leads.

The team formed niobium nanowires using the mechanically controlled break junction technique – that is bending a thin nanofabricated strip of niobium until it breaks. In the final stage before the strip breaks completely, all that's left is a nanowire made of a short chain of niobium atoms that bridge the gap between the two sides of the strip.

Conducting the experiment at 4.2 degrees Kelvin (far below niobium's superconductivity transition temperature of 9.2 Kelvin), as well as performing measurements above the transition temperature, Marchenkov's team measured the electrical conductance of the atomic nanowire as it is stretched during the bending of the strip. As this bending occurs, the atoms separate from each other. The researchers were capable of controlling this separation with a precision better than 1 picometer (one thousandth of a nanometer), which is about 100 times smaller than the typical size of atoms.

As the nanowire is slowly pulled, the conductance drops. The drop in conductance was gradual until a rapid decrease in the conductance was observed in a narrow region of just 0.1 angstrom . Upon further pulling of the wire, the conductance resumed its gradual decline.

Friday, February 2, 2007

Can You Explain String Theory?

A little while back, I posted a news article about a test for String Theory, but I realized afterward that I hadn't taken the time to explain what String Theory is. So I thought I'd put together another post explaining what String Theory is and what it represents for physics. But have you ever tried to explain String Theory succinctly, in a way that people will understand?

Turns out it would take me something book-length to pull it off, and that's not what I'm trying to do with this blog. Maybe you can explain it better than I can.

If so, Discover Magazine has a deal for you. They're having a contest that challenges people to create a video explaining String Theory in Two Minutes or Less. That's probably even more daunting a task than trying to explain it in a blog posting, but that's why it's a contest.