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The electrical system of the United States has been infiltrated by Chinese and Russian spies, national security officials have warned. (iStockphoto)

National Security Officials Say System Is Under Attack From Russian And Chinese Cyber Spies

GoogleNews.com, (CBS/ AP), April 8, 2009 — The U.S. electrical grid is under attack from Russian and Chinese cyber spies who have inserted software that could disrupt the system, current and former national security officials tell the Wall Street Journal.

So far, these spies have not tried to damage the system, but the possibility remains likely should a war or national security crisis hit the United States, the officials said.

“The Chinese have attempted to map our infrastructure, such as the electrical grid,” a senior intelligence official told the newspaper. “So have the Russians.”

In addition to electrical systems, nuclear power plants and financial networks; water and sewage systems are also at risk, officials said.

“There are intrusions, and they are growing. There were a lot last year,” a former Homeland Security official told the newspaper.

The report follows a Pentagon announcement Tuesday which showed more than $100 million was spent in the last six months responding to and repairing damage from cyber attacks and other computer network problems, military leaders said.

Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command, said the military is only beginning to track the costs, which are triggered by constant daily attacks against military networks ranging from the Pentagon to bases around the country.

“The important thing is that we recognize that we are under assault from the least sophisticated – what I would say the bored teenager – all the way up to the sophisticated nation-state, with some pretty criminal elements sandwiched in-between,” said Chilton, adding that the motivations include everything from vandalism to espionage. “This is indeed our big challenge, as we think about how to defend it.”
© MMIX, CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The rising cost of health care is crushing families, business, and government. President Obama is working with Congress to enact urgently needed health reform this year, and every American has a stake in the outcome. On Wednesday, April 8, from 10 am to 12 pm ET, a diverse group of those stakeholders, from businesspeople to insurers to health professionals, will come to the White House to share their views with Counselor to the President and Director of the White House Office of Health Reform Nancy-Ann DeParle.

This Health Care Stakeholder Discussion is part of a continuing series of conversations that began last December, when roughly 30,000 Americans took part in 3,200 Health Care Community Discussions around the country. The stories of Americans across all walks of life will play an important role as the President and Congress work to enact legislation that lowers cost, guarantees that people have a choice of doctors and health plans, and assures affordable, quality health care for all Americans.

Please visit www.HealthReform.gov to watch this discussion, sign a statement of support, and learn more about the President’s commitment to enacting comprehensive health reform this year.

Yours in democracy,

Joyce Hays, CEO
Target Health Inc.

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Ocular Oncologists Inject Drug Into Eye To Starve Tumors And Save Sight

ScienceDaily.com — Ocular oncologists adopted a drug originally intended to treat colon cancer as a treatment for cancers in the eye as well as macular degeneration. The drug reduces abnormal blood vessel growth, which starves tumors and stops blood vessels from leaking. This interrupts the processes that would, if not stopped, greatly damage patients’ vision.

Whether it’s cancer or macular degeneration, many times patients must face the reality that they will go blind. Now, a new treatment is helping save their sight.

The first thing everyone notices about Dove Karn is her beautiful blue eyes — and it was in Central Park where she came to terms with the fact that she had melanoma in one of those very eyes.

Her tumor was treated with radiation — but the side effects could destroy her vision. Ocular oncologist Paul Finger turned to a new drug to stop Dove’s vision from slipping away.

“It’s a real paradigm shift — like antibiotics were for infections,” says Paul Finger, M.D., an ocular oncologist at the New York Eye Cancer Center in New York City. “This anti-blood-vessel drug is saving people’s vision.”

Avastin is a shot given directly into the eye. It starves the tumor by stopping the growth of abnormal blood vessels that normally would feed the tumor.

“Avastin stops new blood vessels from growing, but it also prevents new and old blood vessels from leaking — and the leaking is what takes away most of the patient’s vision,” Dr. Finger said.

Dove will need to get shots every 6 to 8 weeks, indefinitely — but she says it’s worth it.

“This year was the year that I could say I’m in remission,” Karn said. “I have a full-time teaching job. My children are fabulous — life is wonderful right now.”

ABOUT CANCER IN THE EYE: Ocular melanoma — eye cancer — is a particularly rare and aggressive form of cancer that attacks the pigment cells in the retina. There are essentially two types of intraocular melanoma: low-grade tumors, which grow slowly and rarely metastasize, and high-grade tumors, which grow more quickly and metastasize at a very early stage. Once a tumor metastasizes, the cancer spreads quickly to the liver and other organs, and a patient has only 6 to 12 months to live in the worst cases, although some can survive for as long as 5 years. The National Eye Institute estimates some 2,000 newly diagnosed cases of ocular melanoma occur per year in the United States and Canada –roughly seven in one million people. It affects people of all ages and races, and is not hereditary. Ocular melanoma kills nearly half of those who develop it.

ABOUT THE RETINA: We can see because light reflects off objects in our surroundings and enters the eye through the pupil. The light is then focused and inverted by the cornea and the lens, and projected onto the back of the eye. There we find the retina, which is lined with a series of photoreceptors that convert the light signal into an electrical signal. Ganglion cells then transmit those signals to the brain via the optic nerve.

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ScienceDaily.com, April 7, 2009 — Research led by David Hess of the Robarts Research Institute at The University of Western Ontario has identified how to use selected stem cells from bone marrow to grow new blood vessels to treat diseases such as peripheral artery disease. It’s one of the severe complications often faced by people who’ve had diabetes for a long time.

Reduced blood flow (ischemia) in their limbs can lead to resting pain, trouble with wound healing and in severe cases, amputation.

Hess drew human bone marrow and simultaneously isolated three different types of stem cells that co-ordinate together to form new blood vessels. These are called pro-angiogenic stem cells. They were purified to remove any inflammatory or contaminated cells, and then injected into the circulation of mice which had one of their leg arteries ligated and removed. The researchers showed how these stem cells have a natural ability to hone in on the area of ischemia to induce blood vessel repair and improve blood flow. Hess says this research is clinically-applicable because they studied the function of human stem cells in immune-deficient mice.

The preclinical data from Hess’ research was used by a biopharmaceutical company, Aldagen to receive FDA approval for a multi-center clinical trial now underway in Houston, Texas, involving 21 patients with end-stage peripheral artery disease.

“We can select the right stem cells from the patient’s own bone marrow and put them back in the area of ischemia to allow these cells to coordinate the formation of new blood vessels.” says Hess, a professor in physiology and pharmacology at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry. “These principles could be applied not only to ischemic limbs, but to aid in the formation of new blood vessels in ischemic tissue anywhere in the body, for example after a stroke or heart attack.”

The research is published in Blood. The research was funded by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, Aldagen Inc. and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Adapted from materials provided by University of Western Ontario.

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Deafness caused by loud noises could one day be cured thanks to auditory cells grown from stem cells, a new study says.

Sensory cells and neurons essential for hearing have been grown from stem cells found in the inner ear

TheGuardian.co.uk, April 7, 2009 — Researchers have taken the first step towards curing deafness with stem cells grown in the laboratory.

Early versions of the sensory hair cells and neurons essential for hearing were created from stem cells taken from the inner ear. Further work could lead to the creation of fully functional cells that could be used to treat total hearing loss.

The British-led team has now begun the next phase of their work involving research on animals.

Practical deafness treatments are believed to be at least 10 years away, but the cells could also provide useful tools for studying the causes of deafness and testing new drugs.

Lead researcher Dr Marcelo Rivolta at the University of Sheffield said: “The potential of stem cells is very exciting. We have now an experimental system to study genes and drugs in a human context.

“These cells could help us to develop the technologies needed to deliver them into damaged tissues, such as the cochlea, in order to restore the different cell types. This should facilitate the development of a stem cell treatment for deafness.”

Stem cells are immature cells, mostly found in embryos and fetuses, that can develop along a number of different pathways. Those used in the research were isolated from the developing cochleas of discarded human fetuses aged nine to 11 weeks.

Dr Rivolta’s team grew the cells in the laboratory and exposed them to a cocktail of chemicals.

Around 56% of the cells displayed the electrical and physical features of sensory hair cells — the cells in the inner ear that use tiny hairs to turn sound waves into nerve impulses. Other cells showed the biological properties of auditory neurons, the nerve cells that transmit hearing messages to the brain.

The research, reported in the journal Stem Cells, was funded by the Royal National Institute for Deaf People and the charity Deafness Research UK.

Dr Ralph Holme, director of biomedical research at RNID, said: “Stem cell therapy for hearing loss is still some years away but this research is incredibly promising and opens up exciting possibilities by bringing us closer to restoring hearing in the future.”

David McAlpine, professor of auditory neuroscience and director of the ear institute at University College London, said: “Is this the ultimate upgrade for the iPod generation? The possibility of regenerating the sensory cells of the inner ear, so easily damaged by exposure to loud sound, has just moved a step closer.

This is really step one,” says Dr. Neil Theise, director of the liver and stem cell research laboratory at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center. “For years people have been saying that we could take these stem cells and turn them into the sensory cells that line the ears and detect sounds. Now they’ve done it. The stem cells have been able to be turned into this very highly specialized cell type. This is very promising.”

In people who are deaf because of loud noise damage, these specialized auditory cells have been killed off, Theise says. But if they could be replaced with new cells made from manipulated stem cells, the hearing could be restored, Theise explains.

ScienceDaily (Mar. 26, 2009) — Some 65 million years ago, the earth’s most recent ‘mass extinction’ took place. One or more catastrophic events – such as a comet strike or increased volcanic activity – produced widespread fires and clouds of dust and smoke that obstructed sunlight for a long period of time.

These adverse conditions killed off about 60% of the plant species and numerous animals, including the dinosaurs. Only the most well-adapted plants and animals were able to survive this mass extinction – but what is ‘most well-adapted’?

A role for DNA duplication?

Jeffrey Fawcett, Steven Maere and Yves Van de Peer (VIB-UGent) have been working as bioinformatics specialists to decode various plant genomes – the complete content of a plant’s DNA – ranging from small weeds to tomatoes and rice to trees. Time and again, they have been confronted with the fact that, over the course of the history of these plants, their entire DNA was duplicated one or more times. By means of sophisticated research techniques, they have dated these duplications as closely as possible.

Yves Van de Peer’s group then noticed that the most recent duplications occurred at approximately the same time in all of the plants. But, in terms of evolution, ‘the same time’ is relative: the DNA duplications occurred between 40 and 80 million years ago. So, the bioinformaticians worked to refine the dating. Thanks to their expertise in comparative genome studies and their extensive database, they were able to make a very precise dating of the duplications on the basis of standard evolution trees. This indicated that, in all of the plants under study, the most recent genome duplication occurred some 65 million years ago – thus, at the time of the last mass extinction.

A universal mechanism

From these results, the VIB researchers concluded that plants with a duplicated genome were apparently the ‘most well-adapted’ for survival in the dramatically changed environment. Normally, in unaltered circumstances, duplications of DNA are disadvantageous. In fact, they cause very pronounced properties that are not desired in an unaltered environment. However, in radically changed circumstances, these very properties can make the organism better adapted to the new climate.

In previous research, Yves Van de Peer had discovered very old genome duplications in early ancestors of vertebrates and fish. At that time, he showed that these duplications were probably crucial for the development of vertebrates and thus of human beings as well. So, genome duplication is probably a universal mechanism that has ensured that the role of our planet’s vertebrates and flowering plants has become much greater over time.

ScienceDaily (Apr. 5, 2009) — Human embryonic stem cells (hESC) provide a potentially unlimited source of oral mucosal tissues that may revolutionize the treatment of oral diseases. When fully exploited in the future, this source of cells will be able to produce functional tissues to treat a broad variety of oral diseases.

However, little is known about how hESC can be developed into complex, multilayer oral tissues that line the gums, cheeks, lips, and other intra-oral sites. However, the use of hES cells for oral application faces numerous obstacles that must be overcome before their therapeutic potential can be realized.

Today, during the 87th General Session of the International Association for Dental Research, investigators from Tufts University in Boston report on their research to optimize the potential of hESC cells to generate complex, functional multilayer tissues, such as the oral mucosa and skin, and to understand how tissue fabrication is controlled and directed.

The Garlick lab has used tissue engineering principles to produce complex oral-lining tissues that mimic many features of their counterparts found in the oral cavity. Making these tissues was a two-step process. With a combination of chemical signals and specialized surfaces on which these cells attach, an hESC cell line (H9) was directed toward two divergent cell populations. The first population comprises the surface layer (epithelial cells) of complex tissues, while the other is found beneath these cells (mesenchymal cells). Following their isolation and characterization, the team incorporated these two distinct cell populations into the two tissue compartments that comprise these tissue types. The populations were then grown at an air-liquid interface to mimic their growth environment in the oral cavity. Within two weeks, tissues developed that shared many features in common with normal tissues that were constructed with mature cells that are the “gold standard” of normal tissue generation in our lab.

For the first time, researchers have established proof of concept that a single, common source of pluripotent hESC could provide the multiple cell types needed to be recombined within different, but interactive, tissue compartments to generate complex, multilayer tissues. In addition to providing oral mucosal tissues for future transplantation, the tissues generated in these studies can now be used to answer questions regarding the stability and safety of hESC-derived cells and tissues by providing information that will predict how they will respond after therapeutic transplantation in the future.

This is a summary of abstract #3021, “Microenvironmental Cues Direct 3D Tissues from Human Embryonic Stem Cells”, by J. Garlick et al. of Tufts University (Boston, Mass., USA), presented on April 4, 2009, at the Miami Beach Convention Center, during the 87th General Session of the International Association for Dental Research.

Adapted from materials provided by International & American Association for Dental Research

Molecular Diagnostics

Molecular diagnostics are increasingly being developed to help guide treatment choice of targeted therapies, as well as to help optimize treatment outcomes and reduce the risk of serious adverse events associated with the presence or absence of genetic mutations in individual patients. Our two interviewees this month discuss their complementary roles in this field.

Michael Nohaile, Ph.D. Head, Molecular Diagnostics, Novartis, Basel, Switzerland.

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Towards the end of 2008, Novartis established a molecular diagnostics unit to focus exclusively on innovative clinical diagnostics. According to Michael Nohaile, Head of the new unit, the aim is to “…create a new business in diagnostics that are companion with our drugs — that would help to stratify patients and help improve efficacy and safety — and stand-alone diagnostics.” Nohaile will build on Novartis’ long-term experience in targeted therapies and biomarkers. “The new capability is to take those biomarkers and develop commercially viable, clinically useful tests,” he explains.

Nohaile’s career path began following his Ph.D. on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy with David Wemmer at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. For his postdoctoral work he moved from Berkeley to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to research protein design and engineering with Robert Sauer. It was during this time that Nohaile realized he would need additional skills to achieve his personal goal of working in the clinical application of research. He says, “Protein design and engineering is scientifically fascinating but in the late ’90s it was far away from clinical application. This opportunity is what most excited me.”

To broaden his experience, Nohaile applied to consulting firms and was offered a position at McKinsey. “I wanted to develop my business skills to have the ability to make decisions about which therapeutics would move forward,” he says. Over the next six and a half years he rose to the position of partner, specializing in health care with particular focus on pharmaceuticals and diagnostics. He now considers his experience at McKinsey invaluable for his current position. “Building a business based on new diagnostics requires the integrative leadership skills I developed while I was leading complex global consulting projects.”

Before his current position, Nohaile was Head of Pharma Strategy and then Head of Corporate Strategy for Novartis. When the company decided to build the molecular diagnostics unit it was too good an opportunity to miss. “This is a dream position as I love this area and have a technical background in it. This is the next generation — delivering really improved patient outcomes.” He was also attracted by the chance to build something new within Novartis. “Not only do I have the support structure of an existing company but also the entrepreneurial opportunity,” he says.

Creating a new business obviously also presents fresh challenges, particularly as the regulatory and reimbursement landscapes for molecular diagnostics are unsettled. Nohaile is working closely with his pharmaceutical colleagues as the landscape and diagnostics portfolio evolves. “We have to jointly decide what to add to the clinical trials to deliver value.” Despite the challenges, Nohaile is excited by the potential of his current position. “If we can deliver tests that can detect cancers earlier, for example, the implications for patient treatment and outcomes are potentially transformational.”

Bryan Dechairo, Ph.D. Senior Director, Development Head, Personalized Medicine, Medco Health Solutions, Bethesda, Maryland, USA.

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In the United States, prescription benefit management (PBM) companies are third-party administrators of prescription drug programs. Medco Health Solutions is an independent PBM company that processes and pays prescription drug claims for more than 60 million Americans. Bryan Dechairo is Development Head of Medco’s Personalized Medicine R&D division responsible for developing a broad range of personalized medicine products. “The aim is to develop products that drive down the cost of health care, improve drug efficacy and safety for the individual patient, and are cost effective for implementation,” says Dechairo.

Following his degree in Biology from the University of California, Berkeley, USA, while working as a laboratory assistant, a collaborative project led to a placement opportunity for Dechairo at Roche, in Alameda, California. From there, he moved to Sequana Therapeutics, a biotechnology company in La Jolla, California, but quickly realized that he would need a Ph.D. to avoid the career ladder glass ceiling. “I moved to Oxford, UK, to work for a biopharmaceutical company, Oxagen, in Abingdon, while simultaneously completing a 3-year Ph.D. in Human Genetics at the Institute of Child Health, University College London,” he says.

After his Ph.D., he continued to work for Oxagen for 4 more years as the head of their genetics laboratory. “At this point, personalized medicine was beginning to take hold as a concept that would drive my future career,” explains Dechairo, “and after searching for almost a year, I found the perfect opportunity as the Neuroscience Lead for Molecular Medicine at Pfizer Global R&D in New London, Connecticut, USA. In this role, I was responsible for bringing strategic innovation to the drug development process, focusing on personalized medicine and biomarkers using molecular biology tools, including a broad range of ‘omic platforms, and neuroimaging and health technologies,” he says.

While at Pfizer, Dechairo learnt a valuable lesson from a professional coaching program. “I learned many ways to understand viewpoints from other people’s perspective and how our styles may impact on successful collaboration in a team setting,” he says. Today, he applies this to maximize the benefit of merging differing perspectives into the development of a superior product.

Although he found his role at Pfizer exciting, Dechairo’s desire to see the promise of personalized medicine fully realized made him look at other companies that he felt may be better positioned to make the promise a reality. “Medco came to Pfizer for a meeting on personalized medicine,” says Dechairo, “and I realized that PBM companies are well placed to conduct personalized medicine R&D without the natural bias of a drug manufacturer.” Now, Dechairo has a sense that Medco is creating the future of personalized medicine. “There is a fantastic feeling of freedom to harness inspiration from internal and external influences and to implement novel concepts immediately for the benefit of the patient,” he says.

The break-up is a ‘really strong indication’ of global warming

BBC.com, April 5, 2009 — An ice bridge linking a shelf of ice the size of Jamaica to two islands in Antarctica has snapped. Scientists say the collapse could mean the Wilkins Ice Shelf is on the brink of breaking away, and provides further evidence or rapid change in the region.

Sited on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, the Wilkins shelf has been retreating since the 1990s.

Researchers regarded the ice bridge as an important barrier, holding the remnant shelf structure in place.

Its removal will allow ice to move more freely between Charcot and Latady islands, into the open ocean.

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The ice bridge has splintered at its thinnest point

European Space Agency satellite pictures had indicated last week that cracks were starting to appear in the bridge. Newly created icebergs were seen to be floating in the sea on the western side of the peninsula, which juts up from the continent towards South America’s southern tip.

Professor David Vaughan is a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey who planted a GPS tracker on the ice bridge in January to monitor its movement.

He said the breaking of the bridge had been expected for some weeks; and much of the ice shelf behind is likely to follow.

“We know that [the Wilkins Ice Shelf] has been completely or very stable since the 1930s and then it started to retreat in the late 1990s; but we suspect that it’s been stable for a very much longer period than that,” he told BBC News.

“The fact that it’s retreating and now has lost connection with one of its islands is really a strong indication that the warming on the Antarctic is having an effect on yet another ice shelf.”

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While the break-up will have no direct impact on sea level because the ice is floating, it heightens concerns over the impact of climate change on this part of Antarctica.

Over the past 50 years, the peninsula has been one of the fastest warming places on the planet.

Many of its ice shelves have retreated in that time and six of them have collapsed completely (Prince Gustav Channel, Larsen Inlet, Larsen A, Larsen B, Wordie, Muller and the Jones Ice Shelf).

Separate research shows that when ice shelves are removed, the glaciers and landed ice behind them start to move towards the ocean more rapidly. It is this ice which can raise sea levels, but by how much is a matter of ongoing scientific debate.

Such acceleration effects were not included by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) when it made its latest projections on likely future sea level rise. Its 2007 assessment said ice dynamics were poorly understood.