The New York Times, February 17, 2011, by Tara Parker-Pope  —  Scientists still haven’t discovered a cure for the common cold, but researchers now say zinc may be the next best thing.

A sweeping new review of the medical research on zinc shows that sniffing, sneezing, coughing and stuffy-headed cold sufferers finally have a better option than just tissue and chicken soup. When taken within 24 hours of the first runny nose or sore throat, zinc lozenges, tablets or syrups can cut colds short by an average of a day or more and sharply reduce the severity of symptoms, according to the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, a respected medical clearinghouse.

In some of the cited studies, the benefits of zinc were significant. A March 2008 report in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, for example, found that zinc lozenges cut the duration of colds to four days from seven days, and reduced coughing to two days from five.

While the findings are certain to send droves of miserable cold sufferers to the drugstore in search of zinc treatments, the study authors offered no guidance on what type of zinc product to buy. The authors declined to make recommendations about the optimal dose, formulation or duration of zinc use, saying that more work was needed before they could make recommendations.

“Over all, it appears that zinc does have an effect in controlling the common cold,” said Dr. Meenu Singh, the review’s lead author and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education and Research in Chandigarh, India. “But there still needs to be consensus about the dose.”

Zinc experts say that many over-the-counter zinc products may not be as effective as those studied by researchers because commercial lozenges and syrups often are made with different formulations of zinc and various flavors and binders that can alter the effectiveness of the treatment.

“A lot of preparations have added so many things that they aren’t releasing zinc properly,” said Dr. Ananda Prasad, professor in the department of oncology at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit and an early pioneer of research into zinc as an essential mineral. Two of Dr. Prasad’s studies were included in the Cochrane report.

“The public is confused because people have used the wrong dose, they have used the wrong sort of zinc or they have not started the treatment within 24 hours of onset,” he said.

Even so, the new report gives credence to the long-debated theory that zinc can be an effective treatment for colds. While it’s not certain how the mineral curbs colds, it appears to have antiviral properties that prevent the cold virus from replicating or attaching to nasal membranes.

The first study to show that zinc might be a useful treatment for the common cold was published in 1984, but the research was criticized for its poor methods. Since that study, 18 more trials of zinc for colds have been conducted: 11 of them showed it to be a useful treatment, while seven of them showed no benefit, according to the review.

Although a majority of trials have shown some benefit from zinc, many of them have been criticized for failing to “mask” the treatment, meaning the participants most likely knew they were using zinc, which may have skewed the results. At the same time, many of the trials that showed no benefit from zinc have been criticized for using formulations that may have contained ingredients that blunted the effectiveness of zinc.

The Cochrane reviewers selected 15 studies that enrolled a combined 1,360 participants. The studies were all considered to have good methodological quality with a low risk of bias, but they were far from perfect. All the studies compared zinc use with a placebo, but in several studies the zinc users complained about the taste of lozenges, suggesting that some people may have known that they were using zinc rather than a placebo.

Even so, when the data was pooled, the effect shown was strong. The review found that not only did zinc reduce the duration and severity of common cold symptoms, but regular zinc use also worked to prevent colds, leading to fewer school absences and less antibiotic use in children. People who used zinc were also far less likely to have a cold that lasted more than seven days.

The studies used various forms and doses of zinc, including zinc gluconate or zinc acetate lozenges and zinc sulfate syrup, and the dose ranged from 30 to 160 milligrams a day. Several studies in the Cochrane review used zinc acetate lozenges from the Web site, created by George Eby, the researcher who wrote the first zinc study in 1984.

Dr. Prasad said his studies have used zinc acetate lozenges from that contained about 13 milligrams of zinc. Study participants took a lozenge every three to four hours during the day for four consecutive days, resulting in a daily dose of 50 to 65 milligrams a day, he said.

Some cold sufferers have been wary about using zinc since the Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to stop using Zicam nasal sprays and swabs, which contain zinc, after numerous reports that some users lost their sense of smell after using the product. The Cochrane report did not review any studies of nasal zinc products.

Top 10 Foods Highest in Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral required by the body for maintaining a sense of smell, keeping a healthy immune system, building proteins, triggering enzymes, and creating DNA. Zinc also helps the cells in your body communicate by functioning as a neurotransmitter. A deficiency in zinc can lead to stunted growth, diarrhea, impotence, hair loss, eye and skin lesions, impaired appetite, and depressed immunity. Conversely, consuming too much zinc can disrupt absorption of copper and iron, as well as create large amounts of toxic free radicals. The current RDA for Zinc is 15mg. Below is a list of the top ten foods highest in Zinc.

#1: Oysters

Depending on type and variety oysters provide 16-182mg of zinc per 100g serving. This accounts for 110%-1200% of the RDA for zinc. The food highest in zinc is the steamed wild eastern oyster which provides 182 mg of zinc per 100g serving.

#2: Wheat Germ

Packed in jars and sold toasted, wheat germ is great to sprinkle on top of any food. Try it on salads, rice, or steamed vegetables. Toasted wheat germ provides 17mg of zinc per 100g serving which is 112% of the RDA, crude (untoasted) wheat germ provides 12mg (82% RDA).

#3: Veal Liver

The liver of any animal is packed with vitamins and minerals and most commonly served as pâté or liverwurst. Veal liver has the most zinc with 12mg per 100g serving accounting for 81% of the RDA, that is 8.98mg of zinc (60%) RDA in a cooked slice of liver. Liver is best prepared steamed or fried with onions and herbs.

#4: Sesame Flour and Tahini(Sesame Butter)

Sesame products contain about 10mg of zinc per 100g serving (70%RDA). Sesame flour can be used as a substitute for wheat flour in cakes and breads. Tahini is commonly found in hummus, a ground chickpea spread and dip of the middle east, it will provide 4.6mg of zinc per 100g serving (31% RDA). Whole sesame seeds provide 7.8mg/100g (52% RDA).

#5: Low fat roast beef

Low fat beef shoulder,shank,and chuck all contain about 10mg of zinc per 100g serving(70% RDA). If you are looking to buy pre-processed roast beef be sure to consult the nutrition facts about the cut and nutrients. Not all nutrition labels report zinc, so don’t worry if you don’t see it on there.

#6: Roasted Pumpkin and Squash Seeds

A popular food in the Middle East and East Asia pumpkin and squash seeds contain about 10mg of zinc per 100g serving (70% RDA). If you can’t find these in your local supermarket you will surely find them in Middle Eastern or East Asian specialty stores. Alternatively, you can also save any pumpkin and squash seeds you have and roast them in your oven. The seeds are typically eaten by cracking the outer shell and eating the seed inside.

#7: Dried Watermelon Seeds

Much like the pumpkin and squash, watermelon seeds are popular in the Middle East and East Asia and they should be in specialty stores catering to those cultures. It is also possible to just eat the seeds raw with the watermelon. You can shell them, or just chew them up whole. Dried watermelon seeds provide 10mg of zinc per 100g serving (70% RDA).

#8: Cocoa Powder and Chocolate

Chocolate is showing more and more health benefits and dark chocolate is coming into vogue. Unsweetened baking chocolate provides 9.6mg of zinc per 100g serving for 64% of the RDA. Cocoa powder will provide 6.8mg (45% RDA) per 100g or 5.4mg (39%RDA) per cup. Most milk chocolates provide around 2.3mg (15% RDA) per 100g serving or 1mg (7%RDA) per bar.

#9: Lamb

Lamb is a common meat in the Middle East, Mediterranean, and most of Europe, but is increasing in popularity in the Americas. Lamb provides between 4.2-8.7mg of zinc per 100g serving (28%-58% RDA) depending on cut.

#10: Peanuts

Ever popular peanuts are a great source of zinc, just watch your portions! 100 grams of oil roasted peanuts will provide 6.6mg of zinc, or 44% of the RDA. The same amount of dry roasted peanuts will provide half as much at 3.3mg per 100 gram serving or 22% RDA.

Goodbye Chicken Soup

Photo Credit: Arlan Rosenbloom

A 67-year-old man who has Laron-type dwarfism with his daughter, 5, and sons, 7 and 10.

Arlan Rosenbloom

A 32-year-old community leader and artist who has the rare dwarfism condition, with his bride, 17.

The New York Times, February 17, 2011, by Nicholas Wade  —  People living in remote villages in Ecuador have a mutation that some biologists say may throw light on human longevity and ways to increase it.

The villagers are very small, generally less than three and a half feet tall, and have a rare condition known as Laron syndrome or Laron-type dwarfism. They are probably the descendants of conversos, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 1490s but were nonetheless persecuted in the Inquisition. They are also almost completely free of two age-related diseases, cancer and diabetes.

A group of 99 villagers with Laron syndrome has been studied for 24 years by Dr. Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, an Ecuadorean physician and diabetes specialist. He discovered them when traveling on horseback to a roadless mountain village. Most such villages are inhabited by Indians, but these were Europeans, with Spanish surnames typical of conversos.

As Dr. Guevara-Aguirre accumulated health data on his patients, he noticed a remarkable pattern: though cancer was frequent among people who did not have the Laron mutation, those who did have it almost never got cancer. And they never developed diabetes, even though many were obese, which often brings on the condition.

“I discovered the population in 1987,” Dr. Guevara-Aguirre said in an interview from Ecuador. “In 1994, I noticed these patients were not having cancer, compared with their relatives. People told me they are too few people to make any assumption. People said, ‘You have to wait 10 years,’ so I waited. No one believed me until I got to Valter Longo in 2005.”

Valter D. Longo, a researcher on aging at the University of Southern California, saw the patients as providing an opportunity to explore in people the genetic mutations that researchers had found could make laboratory animals live much longer than usual.

The Laron patients have a mutation in the gene that makes the receptor for growth hormone. The receptor is a protein embedded in the membrane of cells. Its outside region is recognized by growth hormone circulating through the body; the inside region sends signals through the cell when growth hormone triggers the receptor.

The Laron patients’ mutation means that their growth hormone receptor lacks the last eight units of its exterior region, so it cannot react to growth hormone. In normal children, growth hormone makes the cells of the liver churn out another hormone, called insulinlike growth factor, or IGF-1, and this hormone makes the children grow. If the Laron patients are given doses of IGF-1 before puberty, they can grow to fairly normal height.

This is where the physiology of the Laron patients links up with the longevity studies that researchers have been pursuing with laboratory animals. IGF-1 is part of an ancient signaling pathway that exists in the laboratory roundworm as well as in people. The gene that makes the receptor for IGF-1 in the roundworm is called DAF-2. And worms in which this gene is knocked out live twice as long as normal.

The Laron patients have the equivalent defect — their cells make very little IGF-1, so very little IGF-1 signaling takes place, just as in the DAF-2-ablated worms. So the Laron patients might be expected to live much longer.

Because of their striking freedom from cancer and diabetes, they probably could live much longer if they did not have a much higher than usual death rate from causes unrelated to age, like alcoholism and accidents.

Dr. Longo said he believed that having very low levels of IGF-1 was the critical feature of the Laron patients’ freedom from age-related diseases. In collaboration with Dr. Guevara-Aguirre, he exposed human cells growing in a laboratory dish to serum from the Laron patients. The cells were then damaged with a chemical that disrupts their DNA. The Laron serum had two significant effects, the two physicians reported on Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine.

First, the serum protected the cells from genetic damage. Second, it spurred the cells that were damaged to destroy themselves, a mechanism the body uses to prevent damaged cells from becoming cancerous. Both these effects were reversed when small amounts of IGF-1 were added to the serum.

Dr. Longo said that some level of IGF-1 was necessary to protect against heart disease, but that lowering the level might be beneficial. A drug that does this is already on the market for treatment of acromegaly, a thickening of the bones caused by excessive growth hormone. “Our underlying hypothesis is that this drug would prolong life span,” Dr. Longo said. He said he was not taking the drug, called pegvisomant or Somavert, which is very hard to obtain.

A strain of mice bred by John Kopchick of Ohio University has a defect in the growth hormone receptor gene, just as do the Laron patients, and lives 40 percent longer than usual.

Dr. Longo said that his report had first been submitted to Science, a better-known journal, which turned down the paper because of an adverse report from one reviewer.

Andrzej Bartke, a gerontology expert at Southern Illinois University, said that the new result was “very important” and that the authors had done a fine job in following the patients and generating high-quality data. “This fits in with what we are learning from studies in animals about the relationship of growth hormone to aging, because both cancer and diabetes are related to aging,” Dr. Bartke said.

The longest-lived mouse on record is one studied by Dr. Bartke. It had a defect in its growth hormone receptor gene, just as do the Laron patients. “It missed its fifth birthday by a week,” he said. The mouse lived twice as long as usual and won Dr. Bartke a prize presented by the Methuselah Foundation (which rewards developments in life-extension therapies) in 2003.

Dr. Guevara-Aguirre said he had been struggling to get sufficient IGF-1 to treat 30 of his patients before they reached puberty, at which point it will be too late. He said his group of Laron patients, the largest in the world, had provided essential data for drug companies making IGF-1, and he chided the companies for not reciprocating by providing the drug for his patients.

Dr. Arlan Rosenbloom, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Florida who has worked with Dr. Guevara-Aguirre, took a similar position. “Considering that the drug companies needed the initial studies to determine dosage and efficacy, it seems ironic that we should have so much difficulty getting the drug,” he said.

Ownership of the drug has passed through several companies’ hands, so any initial obligation may have been weakened. Dr. Guevara-Aguirre also said he believed that the government of Ecuador should do more to help get the drug for his patients.

Dr. Harry Ostrer, a geneticist at New York University who is exploring the Laron patients’ degree of Sephardic ancestry, said that he had seen several of Dr. Guevara-Aguirre’s patients in Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and that they were “remarkably youthful in appearance.”

The New York Times, February 17, 2011, by John Markoff, YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. —

Two “Jeopardy!” champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, competed against a computer named Watson, which proved adept at buzzing in quickly.

In the end, the humans on “Jeopardy!” surrendered meekly.

Facing certain defeat at the hands of a room-size I.B.M. computer on Wednesday evening, Ken Jennings, famous for winning 74 games in a row on the TV quiz show, acknowledged the obvious. “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords,” he wrote on his video screen, borrowing a line from a “Simpsons” episode.

From now on, if the answer is “the computer champion on “Jeopardy!,” the question will be, “What is Watson?”

For I.B.M., the showdown was not merely a well-publicized stunt and a $1 million prize, but proof that the company has taken a big step toward a world in which intelligent machines will understand and respond to humans, and perhaps inevitably, replace some of them.

Watson, specifically, is a “question answering machine” of a type that artificial intelligence researchers have struggled with for decades — a computer akin to the one on “Star Trek” that can understand questions posed in natural language and answer them.

Watson showed itself to be imperfect, but researchers at I.B.M. and other companies are already developing uses for Watson’s technologies that could have significant impact on the way doctors practice and consumers buy products.

“Cast your mind back 20 years and who would have thought this was possible?” said Edward Feigenbaum, a Stanford University computer scientist and a pioneer in the field.

In its “Jeopardy!” project, I.B.M. researchers were tackling a game that requires not only encyclopedic recall, but the ability to untangle convoluted and often opaque statements, a modicum of luck, and quick, strategic button pressing.

The contest, which was taped in January here at the company’s T. J. Watson Research Laboratory before an audience of I.B.M. executives and company clients, played out in three televised episodes concluding Wednesday. At the end of the first day, Watson was in a tie with Brad Rutter, another ace human player, at $5,000 each, with Mr. Jennings trailing with $2,000.

But on the second day, Watson went on a tear. By night’s end, Watson had a commanding lead with a total of $35,734, compared with Mr. Rutter’s $10,400 and Mr. Jennings’ $4,800.

But victory was not cemented until late in the third match, when Watson was in Nonfiction. “Same category for $1,200” it said in a manufactured tenor, and lucked into a Daily Double. Mr. Jennings grimaced.

Even later in the match, however, had Mr. Jennings won another key Daily Double it might have come down to Final Jeopardy, I.B.M. researchers acknowledged.

The final tally was $77,147 to Mr. Jennings’ $24,000 and Mr. Rutter’s $21,600.

More than anything, the contest was a vindication for the academic field of computer science, which began with great promise in the 1960s with the vision of creating a thinking machine and which became the laughingstock of Silicon Valley in the 1980s, when a series of heavily funded start-up companies went bankrupt.

Despite its intellectual prowess, Watson was by no means omniscient. On Tuesday evening during Final Jeopardy, the category was U.S. Cities and the clue was: “Its largest airport is named for a World War II hero; its second largest for a World War II battle.”

Watson drew guffaws from many in the television audience when it responded “What is Toronto?????”

The string of question marks indicated that the system had very low confidence in its response, I.B.M. researchers said, but because it was Final Jeopardy, it was forced to give a response. The machine did not suffer much damage. It had wagered just $947 on its result.

“We failed to deeply understand what was going on there,” said David Ferrucci, an I.B.M. researcher who led the development of Watson. “The reality is that there’s lots of data where the title is U.S. cities and the answers are countries, European cities, people, mayors. Even though it says U.S. cities, we had very little confidence that that’s the distinguishing feature.”

The researchers also acknowledged that the machine had benefited from the “buzzer factor.”

Both Mr. Jennings and Mr. Rutter are accomplished at anticipating the light that signals it is possible to “buzz in,” and can sometimes get in with virtually zero lag time. The danger is to buzz too early, in which case the contestant is penalized and “locked out” for roughly a quarter of a second.

Watson, on the other hand, does not anticipate the light, but has a weighted scheme that allows it, when it is highly confident, to buzz in as quickly as 10 milliseconds, making it very hard for humans to beat. When it was less confident, it buzzed more slowly. In the second round, Watson beat the others to the buzzer in 24 out of 30 Double Jeopardy questions.

“It sort of wants to get beaten when it doesn’t have high confidence,” Dr. Ferrucci said. “It doesn’t want to look stupid.”

Both human players said that Watson’s button pushing skill was not necessarily an unfair advantage. “I beat Watson a couple of times,” Mr. Rutter said.

When Watson did buzz in, it made the most of it. Showing the ability to parse language, it responded to, “A recent best seller by Muriel Barbery is called ‘This of the Hedgehog,’ ” with “What is Elegance?”

It showed its facility with medical diagnosis. With the answer: “You just need a nap. You don’t have this sleep disorder that can make sufferers nod off while standing up,” Watson replied, “What is narcolepsy?”

The coup de grâce came with the answer, “William Wilkenson’s ‘An Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia’ inspired this author’s most famous novel.” Mr. Jennings wrote, correctly, Bram Stoker, but realized he could not catch up with Watson’s winnings and wrote out his surrender.

Both players took the contest and its outcome philosophically.

“I had a great time and I would do it again in a heartbeat,” said Mr. Jennings. “It’s not about the results; this is about being part of the future.”

For I.B.M., the future will happen very quickly, company executives said. On Thursday it plans to announce that it will collaborate with Columbia University and the University of Maryland to create a physician’s assistant service that will allow doctors to query a cybernetic assistant. The company also plans to work with Nuance Communications Inc. to add voice recognition to the physician’s assistant, possibly making the service available in as little as 18 months.

“I have been in medical education for 40 years and we’re still a very memory-based curriculum,” said Dr. Herbert Chase, a professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University who is working with I.B.M. on the physician’s assistant. “The power of Watson- like tools will cause us to reconsider what it is we want students to do.”

I.B.M. executives also said they are in discussions with a major consumer electronics retailer to develop a version of Watson, named after I.B.M.’s founder, Thomas J. Watson, that would be able to interact with consumers on a variety of subjects like buying decisions and technical support.

Dr. Ferrucci sees none of the fears that have been expressed by theorists and science fiction writers about the potential of computers to usurp humans.

“People ask me if this is HAL,” he said, referring to the computer in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “HAL’s not the focus, the focus is on the computer on ‘Star Trek,’ where you have this intelligent information seek dialog, where you can ask follow-up questions and the computer can look at all the evidence and tries to ask follow-up questions. That’s very cool.”

Image: Wikimedia commons, Published 16th February 2011 01:58 PM GMT

It’s 2029. You are ready to present your latest data at a major international conference in Paris. You’re nervous, but prepared. In the past, attending such a conference would have meant boarding a plane, accompanied by a grad student or post doc, with whom you’d also likely enjoy the cafes and museums of Paris, perhaps making a day trip to visit Monet’s gardens in Giverny. But those days are over. You will be attending the conference and making your presentation from your office computer because high fuel prices have made air travel unaffordable for all except the elite.

Your research program has also been circumscribed. Two decades ago, you had a far flung program with international projects, exploring basic biological principles. Now your research, close to home and on a shoe string budget, addresses topics strongly influenced by direct needs of society.

All of these changes were a long time coming. With the industrial revolution came massive increases in fossil fuel use, dramatic economic and population growth, and widespread environmental degradation, all of which growing evidence suggests is not sustainable. By the end of the 20th century, about half of ultimately recoverable conventional oil reserves had been used, with the remaining trillion barrels of conventional oil likely lasting just three decades. And though renewable energy sources will clearly play a role in providing energy in the future, they simply cannot provide fuels in the quantities needed to offset the decline in oil production.

But while the most hyperbolic doomsayers posit catastrophic scenarios of oil shortage, global conflict, and severe deprivation, the truth is that long before society downsizes in the face of energy scarcity, climate change, resource depletion, and population growth, the way science is done and the role of research in society will likely change drastically.

One of the main ways that the average scientist will feel the effects of oil shortages will be as everyone does: by an enormous inflation in the cost of doing business. Most scientific research is expensive not just in terms of dollars, but also in terms of energy. On average, for each dollar researchers spend today, the energy equivalent of about a cup of oil is used. A $1 million grant can consume the equivalent of about 1,100 barrels of oil. In the future, the same amount of dollars will buy significantly less research, and scientists will have to become much more efficient and inventive in doing research.

Far flung research projects, particularly common among ecologists and other natural scientists, will also become much less affordable. Trips to distant scientific meetings will also become prohibitively expensive. Electronic conferencing will become the norm.   To finish reading this article, click here……………

Read more: Opinion: When the wells run dry – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences