Europe against GMO crops! Please, sign the Avaaz petition! I already did.
It's us who decide, not Monsanto!!!

Friday, 29 February 2008

January in technology (late)

In this edition:

Raindrops could power devices

Here's something residents of cloudy northern Europe should appreciate: a way of using rain to generate power.

Jean-Jacques Chaillout and colleagues at the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) in Grenoble, France, have shown that piezoelectric materials, which generate voltage in response to mechanical force, can be made to produce useful amounts of electrical power when hit by falling rain. "We thought of raindrops because they are one of the still- unexploited energy sources in nature," Chaillout says.

His team started by looking up data on different types of rainfall. Drizzle, they found, produces droplets of about 1 millimetre in diameter which have an impact energy of around 2 microjoules, while droplets from a downpour were typically 5 millimetres across and gave 1 millijoule of impact energy.

The team then used computer simulations to see how different-sized drops hit surfaces and concluded that a 25-micrometre-thick piezoelectric material would be... (source)

My comment: Funny, I was thinking just the same a month or two ago-how many natural resources we let unexplored. Like if we have a house, what could we do to optimally use the renewable energy sources around it. Which will include sun, wind, water (though I must admit I wanted to put turbines on the way of the waste rain-water). But this one is even cooler. I just hope it reaches the market cheap enough.

Rat hearts have been stripped of their cells, repopulated with fresh ones, and made to beat again in a pioneering experiment that could lead to novel treatments for human patients.

You can engineer heart tissue in the lab, but building the whole organ from scratch is tricky, due to its intricate network of blood vessels. Whole organs have therefore been limited to thin structures, including bladders and skin.

But now Doris Taylor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, US, and colleagues have "decellularised" rat hearts by adding chemicals that break up cells, leaving behind just the connective tissue, which is made of proteins.

They found that the resulting scaffolds still have the heart's complex three-dimensional shape, including space for all the blood vessels.

They seeded the scaffolds with blood vessel and heart muscle cells from newborn rats and flowed a soup of nutrients through the scaffold. The seed cells migrated throughout the structure and grew into muscle and blood vessels.

The team also applied small electrical jolts to trigger beating. Within four days, the tissue had started to contract, and within just 8 days the new heart was pumping with 2% of the efficiency of an adult heart. (source)

My comment: I already wrote about this, but repeating won't heart. And it's way too great anyway.

According to Russian news agency Novosti, baby cockroaches conceived aboard a satellite in September have apparently grown up to be faster and tougher than their terrestrial brethren.
The first creatures ever conceived in space also grew more quickly than ordinary Earth-bred cockroaches. (source)
My comment: Ok, this is a funny one. But it's interesting to see what free fall and radiation can do to a living thing.
3D tissue printer

3D printers have been around for a few years now. They work by printing a structure in layers, one on top of the other, to form complex 3D shapes. Now James Yoo at the Institute of Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, US, says he can do the same thing with living cells.

Yoo uses a standard inkjet printing mechanism to create layers of viable cells, which can then be built into 3D structures. He says the structures may comprise several different types of cells, just as conventional image printers use several different colours of ink.

Yoo says his printer can make almost anything from skin and bone to pancreatic or nerve tissue – an exciting idea with huge potential.

Read the full tissue printer patent application. (source)

My comment: I thought this is an old one, but there it is again.

A molecule chews up uranium contamination

A MOLECULE that can bite a uranium-containing ion between its "jaws", could one day lead to a way to clean up groundwater contaminated with the toxic metal.

Uranium leaches into groundwater from natural deposits of its ore, depleted uranium munitions, nuclear facilities and the detritus of uranium mining. It occurs most commonly in the form of the water-soluble uranyl ion, (UO2)2+, in which the uranium atom is linked to two oxygen atoms by double bonds.

Allowing uranyl to react with other substances might change it into a different, insoluble ion, which can be filtered out. But uranium binds very strongly to oxygen - the bonds it forms are 25 per cent stronger than typical double bonds - making the uranyl ion very stable. Combined with its solubility, this makes dissolved uranium virtually impossible to remove. "It's a very problematic, persistent groundwater contaminant," says Polly Arnold, a chemist at the University of Edinburgh in the UK.

Arnold's colleague Jason Love had been working on improving catalysts for fuel cells using a large organic molecule known as a macrocycle, that can fold in half to form a structure like a pair of jaws. Love was using the gap between the jaws to capture a pair of cobalt ions, but Arnold realised that it was just the right size and shape to clamp onto a uranyl ion.

When she added the macrocycle molecule to uranyl ions dissolved in an organic solvent, she found that it did indeed capture them in its jaws, leaving one oxygen atom protruding (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature06467). What's more, a silicon-containing compound present in the mixture was able to bind to the protruding oxygen atom, a sign that the uranyl's stubborn bonds with oxygen had been weakened.

Because the macrocycle is destroyed by water, it cannot be used to remove uranium from contaminated water. But Arnold's team believe their demonstration that the uranyl ion's bonds can be loosened is a first step towards finding substances that can transform dissolved uranyl into an insoluble compound.

The Edinburgh team will also investigate how some bacteria and iron-rich minerals reduce uranium concentrations naturally in contaminated water, and whether the macrocycle is able to loosen bonds in ions containing plutonium. (source)

My comment: Well, this is the coolest one in this edition. I think it's obvious by now that nuclear plants are the most efficient and the cleanest way to produce energy for the moment, so eventual discovery how to clean contaminated materials can be very important in our path to the future. Not to mention what a moral boost it represents for scientists.

Monday, 25 February 2008

A life without sleep?

Snorting a Brain Chemical Could Replace Sleep


A nasal spray of a key brain hormone cures sleepiness in sleep-deprived monkeys. With no apparent side effects, the hormone might be a promising sleep-replacement drug.

In what sounds like a dream for millions of tired coffee drinkers, Darpa-funded scientists might have found a drug that will eliminate sleepiness.


A nasal spray containing a naturally occurring brain hormone called orexin A reversed the effects of sleep deprivation in monkeys, allowing them to perform like well-rested monkeys on cognitive tests. The discovery's first application will probably be in treatment of the severe sleep disorder narcolepsy.


The treatment is "a totally new route for increasing arousal, and the new study shows it to be relatively benign," said Jerome Siegel, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and a co-author of the paper. "It reduces sleepiness without causing edginess."


Orexin A is a promising candidate to become a "sleep replacement" drug. For decades, stimulants have been used to combat sleepiness, but they can be addictive and often have side effects, including raising blood pressure or causing mood swings.


The military, for example, administers amphetamines to pilots flying long distances, and has funded research into new drugs like the stimulant modafinil and orexin A in an effort to help troops stay awake with the fewest side effects.


The monkeys were deprived of sleep for 30 to 36 hours and then given either orexin A or a saline placebo before taking standard cognitive tests. The monkeys given orexin A in a nasal spray scored about the same as alert monkeys, while the saline-control group was severely impaired.


The study, published in the Dec. 26 edition of The Journal of Neuroscience, found orexin A not only restored monkeys' cognitive abilities but made their brains look "awake" in PET scans.
Siegel said that orexin A is unique in that it only had an impact on sleepy monkeys, not alert ones, and that it is "specific in reversing the effects of sleepiness" without other impacts on the brain.


The research follows the discovery by Siegel that the absence of orexin A appears to cause narcolepsy. That finding pointed to a major role for the peptide's absence in causing sleepiness. It stood to reason that if the deficit of orexin A makes people sleepy, adding it back into the brain would reduce the effects, said Siegel.


Both Twery and Siegel noted that it is unclear whether or not treating the brain chemistry behind sleepiness would alleviate the other problems associated with sleep deprivation.
"New research indicates that not getting enough sleep is associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease and metabolic disorders," said Twery.


Sleep advocates probably won't have to worry about orexin A reaching drugstore shelves for many years. Any commercial treatment using the substance would need approval from the Food and Drug Administration, which can take more than a decade.
source
My comment: The sleep is undispensable part of being a human as it allows us to experience freedom in an unique and awesome way and to explore our spiritual self without limits. Sleep should be mastered, not avoided.
But still, there are many occasions when one has to be awake. If this is safer than koffeine, why not? One can abuse anything, the question is what he/she can use it for and is it worthy. And to always know the limit between using it and letting it use it. Let's see where this will take us....

Friday, 22 February 2008

Schizophrenia spotter

Schizophrenia spotter

Diagnosing psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and depression is a difficult business – as many as 70% of people who experience a psychosis for the first time are misdiagnosed. So the need for an accurate and objective way of spotting these illnesses is much needed.

John Pettrigrew, professor of physiology at the University of Queensland in Australia, has found a way that this might be done.

His idea is based on a phenomenon that occurs when a viewer is presented with a different visual stimulus for each eye. When this happens, the brain switches from perceiving one image to the other, but patients suffering from conditions such as schizophrenia switch much more rapidly.

Pettigrew has tested this idea for a specific type of image in which two slatted forms or "gratings" are superimposed to form a diamond-shaped pattern. When the gratings move, the viewer sees either the diamond patterns move, or the gratings move relative to each other.

The rate at which the viewer's perception switches from one form of motion to the other can then be used to diagnose mood disorders, or even a predisposition to such a disorder.

Pettigrew has created a device that incorporates the test above, and says it worked well on a limited number of volunteers.

Read the full schizophrenia diagnosis machine patent application.
source:NewScientist

My comment: In the time of the year when depressions are the worst enemy on the horizon, I'd say this tool is quite cool. Especially if it works not only on limited number of volunteers. But anyway, at least it doesn't electrocute them :)

On the serious side, I just heard on the news that some expect that by 2020, depressions will be the second after the heart diseases on numbers of patients in the world. I find that quite worrying. It looks like we still can't get used to our long and stressful life and that's why we die. Isn't it time we learn to manage our emotions and live even longer? I hope so.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Caffeine and pregnancy

Pregnancy Problems Tied to Caffeine

Too much caffeine during pregnancy may increase the risk of miscarriage, a new study says, and the authors suggest that pregnant women may want to reduce their intake or cut it out entirely.

Many obstetricians already advise women to limit caffeine, though the subject has long been contentious, with conflicting studies, fuzzy data and various recommendations given over the years.

The new study, being published Monday in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, finds that pregnant women who consume 200 milligrams or more of caffeine a day — the amount in 10 ounces of coffee or 25 ounces of tea — may double their risk of miscarriage.

Pregnant women should try to give up caffeine for at least the first three or four months, said the lead author of the study, Dr. De-Kun Li, a reproductive and perinatal epidemiologist at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland, Calif.

Now, having reviewed the new study, the March of Dimes plans to change its message, to advise women who are pregnant or trying to conceive to limit their daily caffeine intake to 200 milligrams or less, said Janis Biermann, its senior vice president of education and health promotion.

Dr. Li said the study answered an important question that previous research had left unresolved. Women who have morning sickness are less likely to miscarry than those who do not, possibly because the same hormonal changes that cause nausea and vomiting contribute to a healthy pregnancy. But some researchers said morning sickness could lead to confusing results in caffeine studies. These researchers argued that because they feel ill, some women may consume less caffeine. That tendency may make it appear that they are less likely to miscarry because they avoid caffeine, when the reason is actually that they began with healthier pregnancies.

Dr. Li said he and his colleagues had determined that the risk from caffeine was real and could not be explained away by different rates of morning sickness. source

Saturday, 16 February 2008

Scientists create rat heart from cells of baby rat

Team Creates Rat Heart Using Cells of Baby Rats

Medicine’s dream of growing new human hearts and other organs to repair or replace damaged ones received a significant boost Sunday when University of Minnesota researchers reported success in creating a beating rat heart in a laboratory.

Experts not involved in the Minnesota work called it “a landmark achievement” and “a stunning” advance. But they and the Minnesota researchers cautioned that the dream, if it is ever realized, was still at least 10 years away.

Dr. Doris A. Taylor, the head of the team that created the rat heart, said she followed a guiding principle of her laboratory: “give nature the tools, and get out of the way.”

“We just took nature’s own building blocks to build a new organ,” Dr. Taylor said of her team’s report in the journal Nature Medicine.

The researchers removed all the cells from a dead rat heart, leaving the valves and outer structure as scaffolding for new heart cells injected from newborn rats. Within two weeks, the cells formed a new beating heart that conducted electrical impulses and pumped a small amount of blood.

With modifications, scientists should be able to grow a human heart by taking stem cells from a patient’s bone marrow and placing them in a cadaver heart that has been prepared as a scaffold, Dr. Taylor said in a telephone interview from her laboratory in Minneapolis. The early success “opens the door to this notion that you can make any organ: kidney, liver, lung, pancreas — you name it and we hope we can make it,” she said.

Todd N. McAllister of Cytograft Tissue Engineering in Novato, Calif., said, “Doris Taylor’s work is one of those maddeningly simple ideas that you knock yourself on the head, saying, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ” Dr. McAllister’s team has used a snippet of a patient’s skin to grow blood vessels in a laboratory, and then implanted them to restore blood flow around a patient’s damaged arteries and veins.

The field of tissue engineering has been growing rapidly. For many years, doctors have used engineered skin for burn patients. Engineered cartilage is used for joint repairs. Researchers are investigating the use of stem cells to repair cardiac muscle damaged by heart attacks. Also, new bladders grown from a patient’s own cells are being tested in the same patients.

Her view changed about three years ago when she recalled that cells were removed from human and pig heart valves before they were used to replace damaged human ones. As she contemplated replacing the old rat cells with new ones, Dr. Taylor followed another of her mantras: “Trust your crazy ideas.”

She poured detergents like those in shampoos in the rat’s arteries to wash out the heart cells and then injected neonatal cardiac cells. The first two detergents she tested failed. But a third concoction led to a clear, translucent scaffold that retained the heart’s architecture.

After injecting the young rat heart cells into a scaffold, she stimulated them electrically and created an artificial circulation as the equivalent of blood pressure to make the heart pump and produce a pulse. The steps also helped the cells mature. Tests like examining slices of the heart under a microscope showed they were living cells.

To test the biological compatibility of the new hearts, the team transplanted them into the abdomen of unrelated live rats. The hearts were not immediately rejected. A blood supply developed. The hearts beat regularly. And cells from the host rats moved in and began to reline the blood vessels, even growing in the wall of the hearts.

Dr. Taylor is now conducting similar experiments on pigs as a step toward human work. “Working out the details in a pig heart made a lot more sense” because the anatomy of the porcine heart is the closest to humans and pigs are plentiful, she said.

“The next goal will be to see if we can get the heart to pump strongly enough and become mature enough that we can use it to keep an animal alive” in a replacement transplant, Dr. Taylor said.

As for human hearts, the best-case situation would be to obtain them from cadavers, remove their cells to make a scaffold and then inject bone marrow, muscle or young cardiac cells from a patient. The process of repopulating the scaffold with new cells would take a few months, she said.

The body replaces its proteins every few months, so the hope is that the body will create a matrix that it recognizes as its own.

One potential problem is that antirejection drugs might be required to prevent adverse immune reactions from the scaffold. In that case, Dr. Taylor hopes such therapy would be needed only temporarily. source:NYTimes

My comment: Should I comment? This is brilliant! I have no idea why or how, cells just being in the scaffold decided to produce a heart, but who cares. That is awesome! As the idea of the blog states: those are the innovations that will lead us in the brilliant and glorious future. Yes, there could be problems or even huge failures (God forbids) but in any case, we're getting there one way or another. I can only wish those researchers to have lots of success, money and desire to work.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Wi Fi for everyone

Wi-Fi 'co-op' could provide internet for all

(New Scientist Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)
LAST year, a man was arrested in London for accessing the internet via someone else's wireless connection. Now "borrowing" a stranger's Wi-Fi could become the norm, and might even be encouraged.

Jon Crowcroft and Nishanth Sastry at the University of Cambridge have developed a "wireless cooperative" that allows people to share their Wi-Fi connection with strangers, securely and at no extra cost. It could enable cities to provide free, secure Wi-Fi coverage without needing to invest in expensive infrastructure.

Despite many promises, ubiquitous wireless internet . Planned city-wide Wi-Fi projects in Dublin, Ireland, and in San Francisco have been derailed by the cost of blanketing a city in routers. And schemes that get people to open up and share their home routers with passers-by are "dangerous from a security perspective", Sastry says. If malicious users take advantage of free connections to launch viruses and spam, the router's owner could be held liable. Simple sharing also encourages freeloaders, who borrow other people's routers but don't share their own.

Sastry claims to have come up with a scheme that is not only secure, but also prevents freeloading. To join, you download free software that turns your router into a hotspot and logs your username and router address with an online registry. If you are out and about and want to use a router belonging to another member of the co-op, you enter your username, which the router then checks against the central registry to confirm you are a member. The registry also sends your home router's address to the router you are borrowing.

From then on you can surf the net normally via the borrowed Wi-Fi router. A system known as a secure tunnel routes all your data packets via your home router, so to the outside world that is where they appear to come from. "You will be traceable," Crowcroft says. "Liability for anything bad can follow through to you." As you can only join the cooperative if you register your wireless router, the freeloader problem is solved too.

The Spanish company Fon already sells technology that allows people to share their Wi-Fi connections, but to use it you have to buy a special router. The co-op's open-source software means people can use the routers they already own. "It's a nice way to use existing resources to solve a community problem," says Bruce Schneier, a computer security expert based in Mountain View, California. source

My comment: Ok, I don't have the part that you'll be absolutely traceble, but I bet that could be circumvented just the way you can do it now with proxies. But Wi Fi for everyone sounds great and reminds me of The Common Wealth Unisphere.

Weird gay desease-And happy day of love!

Happy Day of Love, everyone! I wish you lots of spiritual and physical love. Just don't forget to protect yourselves and your partners! Because the nasty little beasts are just watching for a host to torture...


A new, highly drug-resistant strain of the “flesh-eating” MRSA bacteria is being spread among gay men in San Francisco and Boston, researchers reported on Monday.

The bacteria seemed to be spread most easily through anal intercourse but also through casual skin-to-skin contact and touching contaminated surfaces.

The authors warned that unless microbiology laboratories were able to identify the strain and doctors prescribed the proper antibiotic therapy, the infection could soon spread among other groups and become a wider threat.

The San Francisco researchers suggested that scrubbing with soap and water might be the most effective way to stop skin-to-skin transmission, particularly after sexual activities.

MRSA, for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, was once spread chiefly in hospitals. But in recent years, a number of healthy people have acquired it outside hospitals.

Nearly 19,000 people died in the United States from MRSA infections in 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported.

The infection can cause unusually severe problems, including abscesses and skin ulcers. The bacteria can invade through the skin to produce necrotizing fasciitis, giving them the popular name of flesh-eating bacteria. They can also cause pneumonia, damage the heart and produce widespread infection through the blood.

Among gay men in the study, MRSA was spread by skin contact, causing abscesses and infection in the buttocks and genital area.

The new strain is closely related to earlier ones. Both are known as MRSA USA300.

The strain is much more difficult to treat because it is resistant not just to methicillin, but also many more of the antibiotics used to treat the earlier strains, said Dr. Henry F. Chambers, an author of the new study.

The new strain contains a plasmid called pUSA03.

“This particular clone is resistant to at least three other drugs, clindamycin, tetracycline and mupirocin,” Dr. Chambers said in a telephone interview.

Of the alternatives recommended by the C.D.C. and the Infectious Diseases Society of America, trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim), clindamycin and a tetracycline, “this strain is resistant to two of those three,” he added. “In addition, the new strain is resistant to mupirocin, which has been advocated for eradicating the strain from carriers.”source:NYTImes

My comment: I somehow fail to understand why it's spreading only among gay-people. Maybe because they touch more regularly? Duno, but anyway, it sounds disgusting. I don't know why we have so many touching and sex-related diseases. Like there is universal conspiracy against spreading the love among our kind (and i don't mean gay-kind, but humans as a whole). It sucks. Anyway, gays or no, this is dangerous one.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Brain signals make robbot walk!

Monkey’s Thoughts Propel Robot, a Step That May Help Humans

On Thursday, the 12-pound, 32-inch monkey made a 200-pound, 5-foot humanoid robot walk on a treadmill using only her brain activity.

She was in North Carolina, and the robot was in Japan.

It was the first time that brain signals had been used to make a robot walk, said Dr. Miguel A. L. Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University whose laboratory designed and carried out the experiment.

In 2003, Dr. Nicolelis’s team proved that monkeys could use their thoughts alone to control a robotic arm for reaching and grasping.

These experiments, Dr. Nicolelis said, are the first steps toward a brain machine interface that might permit paralyzed people to walk by directing devices with their thoughts. Electrodes in the person’s brain would send signals to a device worn on the hip, like a cell phone or pager, that would relay those signals to a pair of braces, a kind of external skeleton, worn on the legs.

“When that person thinks about walking,” he said, “walking happens.”

A brain machine interface is any system that allows people or animals to use their brain activity to control an external device. But until ways are found to safely implant electrodes into human brains, most research will remain focused on animals.

In preparing for the experiment, Idoya was trained to walk upright on a treadmill. She held onto a bar with her hands and got treats — raisins and Cheerios — as she walked at different speeds, forward and backward, for 15 minutes a day, 3 days a week, for 2 months.

Meanwhile, electrodes implanted in the so-called leg area of Idoya’s brain recorded the activity of 250 to 300 neurons that fired while she walked. Some neurons became active when her ankle, knee and hip joints moved. Others responded when her feet touched the ground. And some fired in anticipation of her movements.

To obtain a detailed model of Idoya’s leg movements, the researchers also painted her ankle, knee and hip joints with fluorescent stage makeup and, using a special high speed camera, captured her movements on video.

The video and brain cell activity were then combined and translated into a format that a computer could read. This format is able to predict with 90 percent accuracy all permutations of Idoya’s leg movements three to four seconds before the movement takes place.

On Thursday, an alert and ready-to-work Idoya stepped onto her treadmill and began walking at a steady pace with electrodes implanted in her brain. Her walking pattern and brain signals were collected, fed into the computer and transmitted over a high-speed Internet link to a robot in Kyoto, Japan.

The robot, called CB for Computational Brain, has the same range of motion as a human. It can dance, squat, point and “feel” the ground with sensors embedded in its feet, and it will not fall over when shoved.

Designed by Gordon Cheng and colleagues at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, the robot was chosen for the experiment because of its extraordinary ability to mimic human locomotion.

As Idoya’s brain signals streamed into CB’s actuators, her job was to make the robot walk steadily via her own brain activity. She could see the back of CB’s legs on an enormous movie screen in front of her treadmill and received treats if she could make the robot’s joints move in synchrony with her own leg movements.

As Idoya walked, CB walked at exactly the same pace. Recordings from Idoya’s brain revealed that her neurons fired each time she took a step and each time the robot took a step.

When Idoya’s brain signals made the robot walk, some neurons in her brain controlled her own legs, whereas others controlled the robot’s legs. The latter set of neurons had basically become attuned to the robot’s legs after about an hour of practice and visual feedback.

Idoya cannot talk but her brain signals revealed that after the treadmill stopped, she was able to make CB walk for three full minutes by attending to its legs and not her own.

Vision is a powerful, dominant signal in the brain, Dr. Nicolelis said. Idoya’s motor cortex, where the electrodes were implanted, had started to absorb the representation of the robot’s legs — as if they belonged to Idoya herself.
source:NYTimes

My comment: I felt like crying on this one, it's so nice. The most amazing part is that they made a monkey move the robot's legs. A monkey that has limited visualization's abilities (most probably). And what if it was human. This technology is absolutely amazing. Of course, it will requires knowledge of the right spots in human's brain, but in the end, it could give so much to humankind. Well, actually I prefer if we manage to grow body parts for replacement, but anyway, until then, it's absolutely necessary to be able to give the severed or missing limbs way to serve us. And I guess this could lead to brain controlled technology, which may have some nice appliance in factories. After all the delicate movement of hands controlling robot arm, may not be delicate enough, while the brain has immense capabilities in that direction.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Plug-in hybrids for Toyota

Toyota Will Offer a Plug-In Hybrid by 2010

The Toyota Motor Corporation, which leads the world’s automakers in sales of hybrid-electric vehicles, announced Sunday night that it would build its first plug-in hybrid by 2010.

The move puts Toyota in direct competition with General Motors, which has announced plans to sell its own plug-in hybrid vehicle, the Chevrolet Volt, sometime around 2010.

Mr. Watanabe said Toyota, best known for its Prius hybrid car, would develop a fleet of plug-in hybrids that run on lithium-ion batteries, instead of the nickel-metal hydride batteries that power the Prius and other Toyota models.

Plug-in hybrids differ from the current hybrid vehicles in that they can be recharged externally, from an ordinary power outlet. In a conventional hybrid the battery is recharged from power generated by its wheels.

Mr. Watanabe said the lithium-ion fleet would be made available first to Toyota’s commercial customers around the world, like government agencies and corporations, including some in the United States. He did not say when they would be available to consumers.

The Volt also is set to run on lithium-ion batteries, which are more expensive than the batteries currently used by Toyota, but which can potentially power the vehicle for a longer time.

Additionally, Toyota said it planned to develop a new hybrid-electric car specifically for its Lexus division as well as another new hybrid for the Toyota brand. It said it would unveil both at the 2009 Detroit show.

Mr. Watanabe also said Toyota planned to offer diesel engines for its Tundra pickup truck and the Sequoia sport utility vehicle “in the near future,” but was not more specific.

The automaker announced last July that it was testing plug-in hybrids on public roads in Japan. It also is testing them in France, Toyota officials said Sunday, and it has given prototype versions of plug-in hybrid vehicles to university researchers in California.

It has two nickel-metal hydride batteries under the floor of its trunk, instead the conventional Prius’s single battery.

Unlike the Prius, which has a single fuel-filler door on the left side of the car, the plug-in model has another door on the right hand side that opens to reveal an outlet for the electrical charger. One end of the charger looks like a small fuel nozzle; the other end is a conventional three-pronged plug.

Each charge, which takes about four hours, uses the equivalent of 2.7 kilowatt hours of electricity, said Jaycie Chitwood, a senior strategic planner in Toyota’s advanced technologies group.

Inside the car, there is a button with the letters “EV” inside an outline of a car. If the driver pushes the button, the car reverts to electric vehicle mode, meaning the Prius is powered completely by its two batteries.

In electric mode, the Prius gets 99.9 miles a gallon, according to a gauge on a screen in the middle of the dashboard.

But it cannot go very far: the plug-in hybrid’s two batteries hold enough power for only seven miles, said Saúl Ibarra, a product specialist with Toyota who worked on developing the Prius. source

My comment: Cool, ay? I love the idea to be able to charge the car from a random place, though I hope it could be recharged by the wheels too. This way we could benefit from the both technologies. Anyway, it's great to see that big automakers to make new hybrid models. I bet 10 years from now people will wonder how we ever used oil to power a car. At least I hope it will happen this way.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Dangerous medicaments

Study Reveals Doubt on Drug for Cholesterol

By ALEX BERENSON
Published: January 15, 2008

A clinical trial of a widely used cholesterol drug has raised questions both about the medicine’s effectiveness and about the behavior of the pharmaceutical companies that conducted the study, cardiologists said Monday.

Merck and Schering-Plough, which make the drug, Zetia, and a pill that contains it, Vytorin, said Monday morning that Zetia had failed to benefit patients in a two-year trial that ended in April 2006.

Merck and Schering repeatedly missed their own deadlines for reporting the results, leading cardiologists around the world to wonder what the study would show. At the same time, millions of patients have continued taking Zetia and Vytorin.

The drug companies blamed the complexity of the data for the delay. Now, barely a month after news articles noted the delay and Congress pressured the companies to disclose the study’s findings, the results are out.

In a press release, Merck and Schering said that not only did Zetia fail to slow the accumulation of fatty plaque in the arteries, it actually seemed to contribute to plaque formation — although by such a small amount that the finding could have been a result of chance.

Dr. Steven E. Nissen, the chairman of cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic, said the results were “shocking.”

Both companies’ shares fell Monday. Sales of the two drugs were $5 billion in 2007, and they are important contributors to Merck’s and Schering’s profits.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the delay, said in a statement Monday that the negative results added to suspicions that the companies had deliberately sat on their findings from the study, which was known as Enhance. source

Financial Ties Are Cited as Issue in Spine Study

In a study of nearly 240 patients with lower back pain, the doctors said that the Prodisc, an artificial spinal disk, had worked much better than conventional surgery in which patients’ vertebrae were fused.

“As a surgeon, it is gratifying to see patients recover function more quickly than after fusion and return to their normal activities more easily,” Dr. Jack E. Zigler, a well-known spine specialist and one of the study’s lead researchers, said in a 2006 news release announcing the latest results of the Prodisc clinical trial.

As it turns out, Dr. Zigler had more than a medical interest in the outcome. So did doctors at about half of the 17 research centers involved in the study. They stood to profit financially if the Prodisc succeeded, according to confidential information from a patient’s lawsuit settled last year.

The companies behind the disks and the surgeons who were willing to comment say the researchers’ financial interests had no impact on findings of the research, which they say have been published in various peer-reviewed medical journals. The Prodisc, used on thousands of patients, has been shown to benefit many people with back pain, they say. It is unclear, however, whether the disk’s maker fulfilled its legal obligation to inform the Food and Drug Administration of the researchers’ financial interests before it used the study’s results to approve Prodisc in August 2006.

Synthes, the current manufacturer, said it would not comment on whether the F.D.A. had been fully informed of the researchers’ interests. The F.D.A said it was investigating the matter.

In the study results submitted to the F.D.A., moreover, an unusually large number of patients were not included, and some of those patients have said they fared poorly. As a result, some patients and doctors critical of the research say the study may have cast the Prodisc in an overly flattering light.

The way the Prodisc was tested and approved provides a stark example of conflicts of interest among clinical researchers — conflicts that are seldom evident to doctors and patients trying to weigh the value of a new device or drug. Instead of serving as objective gatekeepers who can screen out potentially harmful or ineffective new devices or drugs, some medical experts say, clinical researchers with conflicts may have incentives to overstate the value of a new product for patients.

For better or worse, doctors in this country frequently have financial ties to the companies whose devices or drugs they recommend to patients. But in the case of the Prodisc clinical trial, as with any clinical research, the doctors were supposed to be acting not as advocates for the product but as objective scientists studying whether the disk was safe and effective enough to be widely sold and used in the United States.

One Prodisc study patient who says the surgery left her worse off, Patricia Kennedy, asserts her surgeon “seemed more concerned with the prospects for the Prodisc than for her medical care,” according to the lawsuit settled on undisclosed terms last year. The surgeon, Dr. Richard A. Balderston, who practices in Philadelphia, was one of the researchers with a financial interest in the disk. He referred questions to his lawyer, J. Scott Kramer, who declined to comment. Ms. Kennedy and her lawyer also declined to comment.

Most of the 11 other Prodisc investor-surgeons who were asked to comment also declined. But Dr. Kevin Foley, a Memphis surgeon involved in the study, says he put $20,000 behind the Prodisc because he considered it a promising technology. He said one patient, a schoolteacher, had trouble standing before her Prodisc but was able to go hiking afterward.

But Dr. Foley said some patients do not do as well after surgery and he favored spinal fusion for most.

The F.D.A.’s rules allow clinical investigators to have financial ties with the maker of the device or drug they are studying — on the condition that such relationships are fully disclosed. Lawyers who have worked with the F.D.A. say that when it becomes aware of potential conflict, it tends to subject research to a higher level of scrutiny.

The F.D.A. now says it is checking to see whether there was adequate financial disclosure information about the Prodisc researchers during the clinical trial and at the time that the subsequent application for approval was submitted.

source-NY Times

My comment: What's interesting is that all these articles are published in about a month. I keep on hearing about problems with FDA, but somehow, I like to explain them with popular hatred to FDA in the alternative circles. But here we can see very main-stream disturbing information about the lack of control over the researches on medicines and medical appliances , as well as lack of control over the origin of medicines ( the case below). As I'm not american, I won't comment on FDA, I just hope that the americans among you, will ask themselves the right questions. The moral? Prevention above all. If you get to the medical system, your chances are very random.

Tainted Drugs Tied to Maker of Abortion Pill

BEIJING — A huge state-owned Chinese pharmaceutical company that exports to dozens of countries, including the United States, is at the center of a nationwide drug scandal after nearly 200 Chinese cancer patients were paralyzed or otherwise harmed last summer by contaminated leukemia drugs.

Chinese drug regulators have accused the manufacturer of the tainted drugs of a cover-up and have closed the factory that produced them. In December, China’s Food and Drug Administration said that the Shanghai police had begun a criminal investigation and that two officials, including the head of the plant, had been detained.

The drug maker, Shanghai Hualian, is the sole supplier to the United States of the abortion pill, mifepristone, known as RU-486. It is made at a factory different from the one that produced the tainted cancer drugs, about an hour’s drive away.

The United States Food and Drug Administration declined to answer questions about Shanghai Hualian, because of security concerns stemming from the sometimes violent opposition to abortion. But in a statement, the agency said the RU-486 plant had passed an F.D.A. inspection in May. “F.D.A. is not aware of any evidence to suggest the issue that occurred at the leukemia drug facility is linked in any way with the facility that manufactures the mifepristone,” the statement said.

The director of the Chinese F.D.A.’s drug safety control unit in Shanghai, Zhou Qun, said her agency had inspected the factory that produced mifepristone three times in recent months and found it in compliance. “It is natural to worry,” Ms. Zhou said, “but these two plants are in two different places and have different quality-assurance people.”

The investigation of the contaminated cancer drugs comes as China is trying to restore confidence in its tattered regulatory system. In the last two years, scores of people around the world have died after ingesting contaminated drugs and drug ingredients produced in China. Last year, China executed its top drug safety official for accepting bribes to approve drugs.

Shanghai Hualian is a division of one of China’s largest pharmaceutical companies, the Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group, which owns dozens of factories. Neither Shanghai Hualian nor its parent company would comment on the tainted medicine.

Last week, The New York Times asked the F.D.A. whether the Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group exported to the United States any drugs or pharmaceutical ingredients other than the abortion pill. But after repeated requests, the agency declined to provide that information; it did not cite a reason.

On at least two occasions in 2002, Shanghai Hualian had shipments of drugs stopped at the United States border, F.D.A. records show. One shipment was an unapproved antibiotic and the other a diuretic that had “false or misleading labeling.” Records also show that another unit of Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group has filed papers declaring its intention to sell at least five active pharmaceutical ingredients to manufacturers for sale in the United States.

One major pharmaceutical company, Pfizer, declined to buy drug ingredients from Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group because of quality-related issues, said Christopher Loder, a Pfizer spokesman. In 2006, Pfizer agreed to evaluate Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group’s “capabilities” as an ingredient supplier, but so far the company “has not met the standards required by Pfizer,” Mr. Loder said in a statement.

Problems with the cancer drugs first surfaced last summer after leukemia patients received injections of one cancer drug, methotrexate. Afterward, patients experienced leg pain and, in some cases, paralysis.

The authorities recalled two batches of the drug, but issued only mild warnings because the cause of the problem was unclear. Officials with Shanghai Pharmaceutical Group stood by their products, saying that drug regulators investigating the plant had found no problems. But when another cancer drug made in the same factory — cytarabin hydrochloride — also began causing adverse reactions, investigators suspected contamination.

In September, health and drug officials announced that they had found that the two drugs were contaminated with vincristine sulfate, a third cancer drug, during production. After issuing a nationwide alert, the government announced a wider recall, and Shanghai’s drug agency sealed manufacturing units at the plant.

Family members at the No. 307 hospital have counted 53 victims in Beijing, and say they were told that there were least 193 victims nationwide. It is unclear how many were paralyzed, because the authorities have not released an official figure. Based on interviews with several families in Beijing and Shanghai, it appears that about half of those injected still cannot walk.

A spokeswoman for China’s Food and Drug Administration, Yan Jiangying, said that Shanghai Hualian had been stripped of its license to produce antitumor drugs, but that this action did not affect RU-486.

Hualian is the latest in a string of tainted medicine cases that have undermined confidence in the safety of drugs here. In 2006, at least 18 Chinese died after an intravenous drug used to treat liver disease, Armillarisin A, was laced with diethylene glycol, a toxic chemical used in some antifreeze. Also in 2006, at least 14 Chinese died after taking a Chinese antibiotic, Xinfu, which was not properly sterilized during production. And more than a hundred people died in Panama after taking cold medicine containing a mislabeled and toxic chemical from China.

In each of these cases, the manufacturer failed to follow good manufacturing practices to ensure the final product was safe.

Mr. Zheng at Peking University said that producing multiple drugs in a single workshop was risky, but that some Chinese companies saw it as a way to save money.
source

My comment:What's scary is that we all get Chinese medicines at some point and obviously, there is no guarantee they are safe. And I don't see how opposition to abortion could prevent a federal agency to control a pill that is already in legal use. Control over medicines is not a popularity contest...