Space agency doesn’t want to flush away good will following online poll

Jason Decrow / AP file

“Come on, Serenity?” Stephen Colbert said on his March 10 show. “That’s not a space module, that’s a Glade plug-in.”, March 26, 2009 By Brian Berger and Jeremy Hsu — NASA may consider putting Stephen Colbert’s name on a space toilet, after the comedian came out on top of the U.S. space agency’s online naming poll for a new space module.

The eponymous host of “The Colbert Report” swept in as a dark-horse challenger after urging viewers to enter his name through a write-in option. When voting ended March 20, “Colbert” had amassed more than 230,000 votes to beat out second-place name “Serenity” by more than 40,000 votes.

“Come on, Serenity?” Colbert said on his March 10 show. “That’s not a space module, that’s a Glade plug-in.”

The Node 3 module contains eight fridge-sized racks for many of the space station’s life support systems, such as the new space toilet, as well as an observation deck that contains a work station for the International Space Station’s 57-foot robotic arm. It is currently slated for launch later this year to the space station.

Colbert pressed NASA’s human space flight chief, Bill Gerstenmaier, to name the space module after him during a show on March 10. But Gerstenmaier was noncommittal, saying only that the space agency would have to “think about that” as the votes came in.

“That’s NASA’s problem,” Colbert said. “You guys think too much.”

As it became clear that “Colbert” was likely to win the popular vote, NASA insiders told, agency personnel floated the idea of naming the station’s new toilet “Colbert.”

NASA spokesman John Yembrick said the Node 3 naming decision would not be made until April and that the “highest voted names” were receiving the most consideration.

“As for the toilet rumor, we don’t want to flush away any goodwill by announcing something before we are ready,” Yembrick said.

The Node 3 naming contest attracted nearly 1.2 million votes, with other write-in suggestions also coming in strong. “Myyearbook” placed third behind “Serenity” with 147,637 votes, while “Gaia” finished fourth at “114,427.”

NASA recently opened a new naming contest for its Mars Science Laboratory rover on Monday, although no write-in option exists there.

But the U.S. space agency has expressed strong interest in incorporating public opinion, as evidenced by previous naming contests for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers and the Harmony space station module. That means “Colbert” fans may want to keep watch for the official announcement next month.

“We haven’t decided on a name yet, but we’re certainly not going to ignore more than 230,000 ‘Colbert’ votes from the public,” Yembrick noted.

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The study reveals part of the little-known process of how embryonic stem cells multiplication is regulated, according to USC assistant professor Qi-Long Ying. (Credit: USC)

USC — Research from the University of Southern California (USC) has discovered a new mechanism to allow embryonic stem cells to divide indefinitely and remain undifferentiated. The study, which will be published in the May 22 issue of the journal Nature, also reveals how embryonic stem cell multiplication is regulated, which may be important in understanding how to control tumor cell growth.

“Our study suggests that what we believe about how embryonic stem cell self-renewal is controlled is wrong,” says Qi-Long Ying, Ph.D., assistant professor of Cell and Neurobiology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, researcher at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC, and lead author of the paper. “Our findings will likely change the research direction of many stem cell laboratories.”

Contrary to the current understanding of stem cell self-renewal and differentiation, the findings suggest that embryonic stem cells will remain undifferentiated if they are shielded from differentiation signals. By applying small molecules that block the chemicals from activating the differentiation process, the natural default of the cell is to self-renew, or multiply, as generic stem cells.

“This study presents a completely new paradigm for understanding how to grow embryonic stem cells in the laboratory,” says Martin Pera, Ph.D., director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. “The discovery has major implications for large scale production of specialized cells, such as brain, heart muscle and insulin producing cells, for future therapeutic use.”

Embryonic stem cells have only been derived from a very small number of species.

“We believe the process we discovered in mice may facilitate the derivation of embryonic stem cells from species like pigs, cows or other large animals, which have not been done before,” continues Ying. “If deriving embryonic stem cells from cows, for instance, is possible, then perhaps in the future cows might be able to produce milk containing medicines.”

With better understanding of the multiplication process of embryonic stem cells, researchers have additional insight on tumor cell growth as these cells share similar qualities. “Our study reveals part of the little known process of how embryonic stem cells multiplication is regulated. This is important for us in understanding how to control tumor cell growth moving forward in cancer research,” says Ying.

This research was funded by the Medical Research Council and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council of the UK, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and by the European Commission Framework VI project EuroStemCell. Philip Cohen is a Royal Society Research Professor and Austin Smith is a Medical Research Council Professor.

Journal reference:

1. Qi-Long Ying, Jason Wray, Jennifer Nichols, Laura Batlle-Morera, Bradley Doble, James Woodgett, Philip Cohen and Austin Smith. “The Ground State of Embryonic Stem Cell Self-Renewal,” Nature (2008). Doi: 10.1038/nature06968.

Adapted from materials provided by University of Southern California.

San Francisco Chronicle, March 25, 2009, by Elizabeth Fernandez — The rate of tuberculosis in San Francisco has been dropping over the last decade, but health officials say they are seeing a new type of TB patient, someone who isn’t poor or homeless or a newly arrived immigrant.

Rather, the disease is now being found in low-risk settings that don’t usually harbor TB – at an affluent high school, a law office, bars, even at a venture capital firm.

The cases at the school and bars triggered fear and hundreds of screenings, and public health officials say it’s a trend they’re closely watching, particularly because San Francisco continues to have the highest rate of TB of any metro area in the country.

“We’re concerned,” said Dr. Masae Kawamura, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s TB Control. “We can prevent and cure TB, but it’s really not over. It’s a complex problem.”

According to just-released data, California’s overall tuberculosis rate has dropped to its lowest level on record. The number of cases in San Francisco has also declined, from 143 in 2007 to 118 last year. In Contra Costa County, however, the number of cases shot up 55 percent – from 51 in 2007 to 79 last year. Contra Costa, which had undergone a steady decline in recent years, is the only jurisdiction in the Bay Area to see an increase.

The increase is due largely to latent infections becoming active, said Dr. Charles Crane, medical director of the Contra Costa Health Services’ tuberculosis program. He said the statistics are a grim reminder of the ever-present danger posed by TB.

“Everybody breathes,” he said. “It isn’t just a disease for immigrants, it is a threat to everybody.”

TB is a bacterial disease that is spread in the air from one person to another. It can attack any part of the body, but usually centers on the lungs, and generally requires extensive antibiotic treatment. Last year, nearly 13,000 cases were reported in the United States, a 4 percent dip from the previous year.

But with the deepening recession, medical experts fear the rates will reverse.

“I think we’ll see later diagnoses as people lose their jobs and health insurance,” said Dr. Robert Benjamin, Alameda’s TB controller. “People are losing housing. Instead of having one family of five people living in one household, now there are eight or nine people or more – prime conditions for transmission.”

Alameda County has experienced two TB clusters in the last few years, he said.

In San Francisco, the rate of TB has dropped nearly in half over the last decade.

But last fall, a 16-year-old student in San Francisco – the name of the high school is not being disclosed – came down with an active case. Public health officials screened 106 students and 11 faculty members who were exposed – they found that 11 students and one teacher had been infected.

“There is evidence of transmission from the student,” said Dr. Christine Ho, a field medical officer with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who is stationed with San Francisco TB Control.

In December, a cluster of five cases was unexpectedly linked to bars.

“These were people who were young and active,” said Kawamura.

Public health workers launched an aggressive screening campaign among a dozen bars in the Castro and South of Market neighborhoods. Altogether 237 bar employees were screened – 4 percent were positive.

For San Francisco attorney Neil Rosenbaum, 65, the cause of his TB is still a mystery, though he suspects he might have acquired it at a Mission district elementary school where he’s a tutor.

In the summer of 2007, he came down with a persistent cough. Then, classic TB symptoms: night sweats, low-grade fever, loss of appetite. After nine months of antibiotics, he is now free of the disease.

“It is not pleasant, you feel really bad,” he said. “But once I got on the regimen of antibiotics, the symptoms lifted. When I had the disease, the X-rays of my lungs looked like a cloudy day in San Francisco. After the antibiotics, the X-rays look like a clear day.”

In Business: Gene-based test developer Cepheid of Sunnyvale has devised a rapid, sensitive diagnostic test for tuberculosis and will make it available at reduced cost in developing countries where the life-threatening disease is widespread.

Michael Reynolds/European Pressphoto Agency
Representative Henry Waxman questioning President Obama during a health care forum. Congress is trying to address the problem of the nearly 50 million people without health insurance.

The New York Times, March 25, 2009, by Reed Abelson — It is one of the most contentious health care proposals President Obama has floated: offer a federal, Medicare-like insurance plan to anyone, at any age. And let commercial insurers offer their private health plans alongside it.

“It gives consumers more choices, and it helps keep the private sector honest, because there’s some competition out there,” Mr. Obama said this month at a health care forum in Washington.

But the insurance industry and others wary of too much government intervention vehemently oppose the idea. They say the heavy hand of the government will eventually push out the private insurers, leaving the government option as the only option. That is why the industry seems unwilling to give ground on the issue, even while making other concessions to national health reform — like the industry’s announcement on Tuesday that it might be willing to stop charging sick people higher rates than healthy customers.

The debate is over how best to provide coverage to the nearly 50 million people in the United States who do not have health insurance, while also trying to rein in the nation’s galloping health care costs. While the details of a federal insurance plan remain vague, a central question is whether it would function like Medicare — wielding the government’s size and clout to essentially dictate the prices it pays for medical care.

If so, the government’s main advantage over the private sector would be to demand much lower prices from doctors and hospitals than private insurers are able to negotiate. It could then pass those savings along to consumers in much lower premiums than the private plans might be able to offer. Critics say such a system would eventually force private insurers out of business.

“There’s no way to run a side-by-side competition within the current structure,” said Karen Ignagni, the chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association. If the unstated and eventual goal of the public plan is to push private insurers out of the way — a de facto nationalization of health care — “let’s have a debate on a government-run system,” Ms. Ignagni said.

The president’s idea has been supported by many in Congress, including Senator Max Baucus, the Democrat from Montana who is chairman of the Finance Committee and has proposed a similar kind of public option. But across the aisle, some legislators who are considered critical to achieving bipartisan support for health reform have voiced concerns.

“There’s a lot of us that feel that the public option, that the government is an unfair competitor,” Senator Charles E. Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who is influential on health issues, said at the president’s meeting.

Even Mr. Obama has acknowledged that those concerns are valid, and it is unclear how the government plan could be set up to give insurers a fair chance to compete.

The main selling point for a government-run program would be its low cost. It would have a much lower overhead than private plans, with no need to make a profit or spend money on marketing or brokers’ commissions. And, if allowed to flex its muscle, the government would buy medical care at much lower prices.

Bryan Dowd, a health policy expert at the University of Minnesota, is critical of private insurers but does not necessarily favor a government plan. He agrees that the private insurers will never be able to match the steep discounts the government can demand. “If discount-getting is all you do, a large public plan is always going to clean your clock,” he said.

But supporters of a public plan say that its low price would impose greater discipline on insurers by forcing them to keep costs in check and make their policies affordable — something they say commercial insurers have seemed especially unable to do in providing coverage to small businesses and individuals.

“It would transform the market for private insurance,” said Karen Davis, the president of the Commonwealth Fund, a health policy research group. She estimates the average premium for a family of four would run around $9,000 a year under a public plan, in contrast to nearly $11,000 for a typical private alternative. The savings to the nation’s health care bill over the next decade could run into the trillions of dollars, she said.

And many supporters say the government must be able to curb costs if it is going to expand coverage for people who are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but might still require some sort of subsidy to buy insurance. The only way to control costs, they say, is to engage the purchasing power of a Medicare-like system.

“The Medicare program is a real success story,” said Jacob S. Hacker, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is a longtime advocate of a federal plan.

While private health insurance premiums increased an average of 7.3 percent annually from 1997 to 2006, Mr. Hacker said, Medicare spending per enrollee rose only 4.6 percent a year for the same benefits.

Private insurers will be able to compete with a federal plan, he said, by offering a wider range of benefits and being more flexible in how they work with doctors and hospitals. “A lot of people are going to want to be in a private plan,” he said.

But many hospital executives object strenuously to the idea of a new program that would behave like Medicare.

“Medicare has systematically been underpaying for services,” said Dr. Denis A. Cortese, the chief executive of the Mayo Clinic, the highly regarded health system in Minnesota. If more patients are enrolled in a Medicare-like program, he predicted, “your very best providers will go out of business” or stop seeing patients covered by the government plan.

Doctors also worry about being underpaid. Dr. Nancy H. Nielsen, president of the American Medical Association, issued a statement saying in part: “Advocates for a public plan need to put a concrete proposal on the table so we can evaluate the details. We have a long history of public programs that are not adequately funded, resulting in cuts to those who provide health care.”

No consensus has yet emerged over exactly how a federal plan might work. Some proponents envision an expansion of the current Medicare program to those younger than 65 — although with fewer government subsidies.

Others argue that an entirely new government program should be created. And some contend that the only way a public plan would be viewed as fair to private insurers would be if the government did not try to use its pricing power.

“The definition of what a public plan option is is all over the place,” said Amanda Austin, senior manager for legislative affairs for the National Federation of Independent Business, which represents the interests of small businesses. Her group prefers to work with private insurers, she said, but is withholding judgment on whether to support some variation of a public option until the proposal has been made clear.

Some policy experts say a compromise can be struck. They advocate a public plan that would be required to negotiate with doctors and hospitals on a level playing field with commercial insurers, rather than have the government set prices à la Medicare.

Because the public plan would still have much lower overhead costs, it would encourage private insurers to work harder for customers, said Len Nichols, a health economist at the New America Foundation, a public policy institute that advocates health care changes.

“It puts pressure on the private sector status quo,” he said, but avoids using “the nuclear weapon” of government price controls — which he thinks is so controversial that it could derail the discussion.

But some wonder if there is any point in having the government play the insurance game at all if it cannot use its full advantage. “It isn’t a public plan, so why have it?” said Stuart M. Butler, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a policy research organization that advocates limited government involvement in the marketplace.

BA398167-FE40-4AFC-BECA-7F22E817394C.jpg, March 26, 2009 — Baylor University, in Texas, researchers, working with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, have detected low-level residues of several human medications and personal care products in fish collected from effluent-dominated rivers, including the residue of one pharmaceutical in wild fish that has not been previously reported.

These findings are part of the first EPA pilot study designed to look for the occurrence of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in fish from our nation’s waterways.

“While this study found the residue of several pharmaceuticals and personal care products in fish tissue, it also demonstrated for the first time that fish from several different locations across the country are exposed to multiple PPCPs in effluent-dominated waterways,” said Dr. Bryan Brooks, associate professor of environmental sciences at Baylor and an aquatic toxicology expert on PPCPs who is a Baylor co-lead investigator on the study.

The study’s methodology is presented today at the spring 2009 National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Salt Lake City by Dr. Kevin Chambliss, a Baylor co-lead investigator with Brooks. The study’s results also are scheduled to be published on-line in a special edition of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. The special issue will be dedicated to PPCPs found in the environment.

The study was funded by a contract from the EPA with Tetra Tech, a leading provider of consulting, engineering and technical services. The Baylor University team, led by Chambliss and Brooks, was contracted by Tetra Tech to use their innovative PPCP detection methodologies in fish tissue to conduct the pilot study.

Many aquatic systems throughout the United States routinely receive effluent discharges from wastewater treatment plants. Sometimes, the flow of streams and rivers can become dominated by these effluents. Although there are federal standards for treated wastewater, no guidelines or federal testing standards exist for pharmaceuticals or most personal care products in wastewater because their effects in surface waters are not well understood. EPA undertook this pilot study as a part of an overall strategy to better understand the occurrence of PPCPs in surface waters, sediment and fish tissue.

The study involved collection of fish from five effluent-dominated rivers in various parts of the country. The sampling locations included discharge areas of wastewater treatment plants in Chicago, Dallas, Orlando, Fla., Phoenix, and West Chester, Pa., near Philadelphia. The Gila River Wilderness Area in New Mexico provided a suitable reference site for the study, because it is isolated from human sources of pollution.

The Baylor researchers tested fish fillets and liver tissue for 24 different human medications. The researchers also tested fish fillets for 12 chemicals found in personal care products. The study results revealed that:

• The residue of seven pharmaceuticals and two personal care products was present in fish at all five effluent-dominated river sites. In many cases, multiple compounds were found in the same fish.

• For the first time, gemfibrozil, used to treat high cholesterol and triglyceride levels, was found in wild fish livers.

• No pharmaceutical compounds or personal care product chemicals were detected in any fish collected at the reference stream in New Mexico.

• Diphenhydramine, an over-the-counter antihistamine also commonly used as a sedative in non-prescription sleep aids and motion sickness; diltiazem, a drug for high blood pressure; carbamazepine, a treatment for epilepsy and bipolar disorder; norfluoxetine, the active metabolite of the antidepressant fluoxetine; and sertraline, an antidepressant, also were detected in this study, confirming results of previous projects by the Baylor researchers.

• Galaxolide and tonalide, both fragrances used in soap and other personal care products, were found in fish fillet tissue from all five effluent-dominated river sites. The concentrations in the fish tissue for these fragrances were the highest of all compounds tested.

“We found the highest concentrations and frequencies of compounds in the fish livers but considering that the liver is the primary site of metabolism for xenobiotics in fish, as in humans, this result is logical.” said Chambliss, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor.

While the impact these compounds have on fish is not yet fully understood, it is documented in the scientific literature that antidepressant accumulation in fish may cause certain behavioral changes, which impact aggression, mating and other behaviors necessary for fish survival.

Based on the pilot study findings, EPA is expanding its investigation of PPCPs in fish under its National Rivers and Streams Assessment. Fish collection began in 2008 and is continuing in 2009.

NEW YORK — March 26, 2009 — The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved tigecycline (Tygacil) for the treatment of adult patients with community-acquired bacterial pneumonia (CABP) caused by susceptible strains of indicated pathogens. The approval was based on results of 2 randomised, double-blind, active-controlled, multinational studies which evaluated tigecycline for the treatment of CABP in adults. The 2 studies were conducted at 116 sites in 28 countries and evaluated the efficacy and safety of tigecycline compared with levofloxacin in 859 patients who were hospitalised with CABP. Results showed that clinical cure rates of patients hospitalised with CABP were comparable for both tigecycline and levofloxacin. Clinical cure rates in clinically evaluable patients were 90.6% for tigecycline and 87.2% for levofloxacin in 1 study and 88.9% for tigecycline and 85.3% for levofloxacin in the other study. The most common treatment-emergent adverse events in patients treated with tigecycline were nausea (26%) and vomiting (18%). Adverse events may occur after the drug has been discontinued. SOURCE: Wyeth Pharmaceuticals