Turning Sewage Into Drinking Water Gains Appeal As Drought Lingers

Turning Sewage Into Drinking Water Gains Appeal As Drought Lingers

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — It’s a technology with the potential to ease California’s colossal thirst and insulate millions from the parched whims of Mother Nature, experts say.

But there’s just one problem — the “yuck factor.”

As a fourth year of drought continues to drain aquifers and reservoirs, California water managers and environmentalists are urging adoption of a polarizing water recycling policy known as direct potable reuse.

Unlike nonpotable reuse — in which treated sewage is used to irrigate crops, parks or golf courses — direct potable reuse takes treated sewage effluent and purifies it so it can be used as drinking water.

It’s a concept that might cause some consumers to wince, but it has been used for decades in Windhoek, Namibia — where evaporation rates exceed annual rainfall — and more recently in drought-stricken Texas cities, including Big Spring and Wichita Falls.

In California, however, similar plans have run into heavy opposition.

Los Angeles opponents coined the derisive phrase “toilet to tap” in 2000 before torpedoing a plan to filter purified sewage water into an underground reservoir _ a technique called indirect potable reuse.

In 1994, a San Diego editorial cartoonist framed debate over a similar proposal by drawing a dog drinking from a toilet bowl while a man ordered the canine to “Move over.”

Despite those defeats, proponents say the time has finally arrived for Californians to accept direct potable reuse as a partial solution to their growing water insecurity. With Gov. Jerry Brown ordering an unprecedented 25 percent cut in urban water usage because of drought, the solution makes particular sense for large coastal cities such as Los Angeles, they say.

Instead of flushing hundreds of billions of gallons of treated sewage into the Pacific Ocean each year, as they do now, coastal cites can capture that effluent, clean it and convert it to drinking water.

“That water is discharged into the ocean and lost forever,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. “Yet it’s probably the single largest source of water supply for California over the next quarter-century.”

The advocates’ hunch that severe drought has changed long-held attitudes on potable reuse may be on the mark.

Recently, a leader in the effort to stop the Los Angeles project more than a decade ago said he still opposed it but might consider a new plan if officials made a solid case for it. He said one of the reasons he opposed the original plan was that “incompetent” officials failed to explain their rationale to residents in the first place.

“You know, toilet to tap might be the only answer at this point,” said Van Nuys activist Donald Schultz. “I don’t support it, but we’re running out of options. In fact, we may have already run out of options.”

To be sure, it will be years, or even a decade, before direct potable reuse systems begin operation in California — if ever.

One reason for this is that there is no regulatory framework for the approval of such a system. Currently, a panel of experts is preparing a report to the Legislature on the feasibility of creating such rules. That report is due in 2016.

Potable reuse advocates insist the public’s distaste for the concept is based on ignorance. They note that more than 200 wastewater treatment plants already discharge effluent into the Colorado River, which is a primary source of drinking water for Southern California.

“That’s what I call de facto potable reuse,” said George Tchobanoglous, a water treatment expert and professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis.

In an economic analysis last year, Tchobanoglous estimated that by 2020, potable reuse could yield up to 1.1 million acre-feet of water annually — somewhat less than the 1.3 million acre-feet of water the governor hopes to save through mandatory reductions, and enough to supply 8 million Californians, or one-fifth of the state’s projected population.

In potable reuse systems, effluent from a wastewater treatment plant is sent to an advanced treatment facility, where it undergoes a three-step purification process.

First, the water is passed through a microfilter that blocks particles, protozoans or bacteria that are larger than 1/300th the thickness of a human hair. Next, it undergoes even finer filtration in the form of reverse osmosis, in which water is forced through a membrane that blocks fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, viruses and salts. In the third step, ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide are used to break down any pathogens or organic compounds that escaped the first two steps.

The result is a purified substance that is cleaner than most bottled waters, according to WateReuse California, a group that advocates for water reuse and desalination. However, it is still sent to a traditional water treatment plant, where it is blended with other sources of water, processed and pumped to household taps.

In an indirect potable reuse system, the water is placed in an “environmental buffer,” such as an underground aquifer or surface water reservoir, where it is stored for a period of time before getting processed in a traditional water treatment plant. It is this type of system that was defeated in Los Angeles.

Although potable reuse advocates say opposition is often driven by a visceral response to the process, the so-called yuck factor, those who opposed the Los Angeles project said recently that they did so for a variety of reasons, including cost and the potential long-term effects of the trace quantities of drug compounds, hormones and personal care products found in wastewater and surface water.

“Personally I would not drink water that has been recycled through the toilet to tap process,” said Steven Oppenheimer, a biology professor at Cal State Northridge. However, Oppenheimer said he would use such water for irrigation, and even household cleaning and bathing.

The presence of so-called contaminants of emerging concern may prove to be one of the main barriers to direct potable reuse. Because of limited scientific knowledge, these compounds are unregulated, meaning that there are no government-prescribed methods for monitoring or removing them.

Tchobanoglous and others insist these substances exist in such small quantities that they don’t pose a significant issue.

To some, the contaminant issue argues in favor of using indirect potable reuse systems.

Such a system has been operating since 2008 in Orange County, where purified water is pumped into an aquifer and held for six months before being used as drinking water. Also, after its first failed attempt at establishing an indirect potable reuse system, San Diego approved a second demonstration project years later. It recently won approval to store treated water in an open reservoir as part of a pilot program.

Allison Chan, an environmental engineer who has studied the issue of why some potable reuse projects succeeded while others failed, said that an active public outreach campaign, as well as a crucial need for water, were key factors in projects that won approval.

Chan said that although education and outreach generally increased support for potable reuse programs, it also had the effect of hardening perceptions. In other words, supporters became even more supportive, while opponents became even more opposed.

Said Chan: “This just goes to show how the yuck factor can stick with some people.”

Photo: Trees and receding water rings are left behind from the receding waters of Pine Flat Reservoir in Sanger, Calif., last fall. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Doorstep Visits Change Attitudes On Gay Marriage

Doorstep Visits Change Attitudes On Gay Marriage

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — A single conversation with a gay or lesbian door-to-door canvasser had the ability to change attitudes on same-sex marriage in neighborhoods that overwhelmingly opposed such unions, according to new research.

In a study conducted in Los Angeles County and published Thursday in the journal Science, researchers found that when openly gay canvassers lobbied a household resident about same-sex marriage, the resident was more likely to form a lasting and favorable opinion of gay marriage than if the canvasser was heterosexual.

The doorstep conversations also had a measurable “spillover effect,” in which some household residents who did not speak with the gay canvasser also formed a positive opinion of gay marriage, researchers said.

The experiment was modeled after public outreach campaigns conducted by the Los Angeles LGBT Center in voting precincts that overwhelmingly supported Proposition 8, the 2008 state ballot measure that repealed same-sex marriage.

The finding is unusual in that many previous studies have found that active canvassing or political advertising do little to alter firmly held opinions. In fact, researchers were so skeptical of their results the first time that they re-ran the experiment and duplicated their initial results.

“I was totally surprised that it worked at all,” said lead author Michael LaCour, a UCLA doctoral candidate in political science.

“A lot of time we find in social science that most things don’t work, they don’t change people’s minds. But we found that a single conversation was able to change voters’ minds up to a year later.”

LaCour conducted the study with Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University.

In all, 9,507 residences were involved in the experiment. Of the 41 canvassers, 22 were gay and 19 were straight.

Residents were randomly assigned to one of three different groups: a treatment group, in which they were lobbied on same-sex marriage; a placebo group, in which recycling was discussed instead of gay marriage; and a control group where nobody was canvassed.

The face-to-face meetings lasted roughly 20 minutes, according to researchers. Gay marriage canvassers would follow a specific script in which they asked residents to name the benefits of marriage. If the canvasser was gay, they would then inform the resident and say they wanted to experience the same benefits. Straight canvassers on the other hand said they were hoping that a close relative who was gay could enjoy the benefits of marriage.

Researchers said that immediately after the canvassing experiment, follow-up surveys showed an 8 percent increase in favorable opinions of same-sex marriage — up from an initial acceptance rate of 38 percent.

The researchers followed up a year later to find out whether the positive opinions had gained ground or diminished.

LaCour said that in cases where the canvasser was gay or lesbian, positive opinions on same-sex marriage had increased a total of 14 percent above baseline. In comparison, the positive opinion rate among the control and placebo groups had fallen to 3 percent above the baseline rate.

The researchers also noted that some of the residents’ housemates also expressed favorable opinions even though they had not spoken with the canvasser. Researchers said this suggested a spillover effect, in which they were influenced by second-hand exposure to the lobbying visit.

“It’s interesting that the effects had the same initial impact whether its a gay or straight person, but that the effect is lasting when its a gay person,” LaCour said. “You forget the message but you remember the messenger.”

The field experiment was conducted in 2013, during the month leading up to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that effectively overturned Proposition 8.

LaCour said that there was no difference in effect when researchers accounted for race or gender. However he said there was a slightly more positive effect when a gay canvasser was initially perceived as being straight.

“There seems to be something powerful about a counter-stereotypical person advocating,” LaCour said.

AFP Photo/George Frey

FDA Panel Considers Lifting Ban On Blood Donations By Gay Men

FDA Panel Considers Lifting Ban On Blood Donations By Gay Men

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

A U.S. Food and Drug Administration panel has begun to consider whether to overturn a long-standing ban against accepting blood donations from gay men.

On Thursday, the FDA’s Advisory Committee on Blood and Tissue Safety and Availability heard testimony from advocates who say that the lifetime ban is discriminatory and that technological advances have made it obsolete.

“The ban on gay and bisexual men … was enacted in 1985 and focuses on sexual orientation more than the risk and science itself,” said Caleb Laieski, a 19-year-old gay activist who has sued the FDA to overturn the ban.

“A recent study by the American Red Cross estimates that lifting the blood donation ban could be used to help save the lives of more than 1.8 million people,” Laieski told the group.

The ban in the United States applies to any prospective male blood donor who has had sex with another man since 1977, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., the FDA explains on its website.

The FDA said the ban was necessary because gay and bisexual men are at an increased risk for HIV, hepatitis B and other infections that can be transmitted via blood transfusion.

“HIV tests currently in use are highly accurate, but still cannot detect HIV 100 percent of the time,” the FDA states on its site. “It is estimated that the HIV risk from a unit of blood has been reduced to about 1 per 2 million in the USA, almost exclusively from so-called ‘window’ period donations.”

The window period exists very early after infection, when viral levels are too low to be detected by current methods. “For this reason, a person could test negative, even when they are actually HIV positive and infectious,” the FDA says.

Other industrialized countries, including Australia, Britain, France, Italy and Japan, have overturned similar bans on blood donation. Instead of barring gay and bisexual men for life, some of the countries allow them to donate blood if they have not had sex with another man in the last 12 months.

Laieski is not alone in opposing the U.S. ban. Last year, the American Medical Association voted to oppose the FDA policy, calling it “discriminatory and not based on sound science.”

In addition, three groups that supply nearly all of the nation’s blood — the American Red Cross, AABB and America’s Blood Centers — have long advocated ending the prohibition.

AFP Photo/Romeo Gacad

California Orders Quarantine For Workers Who Had Contact With Ebola

California Orders Quarantine For Workers Who Had Contact With Ebola

By Monte Morin and Adolfo Flores, Los Angeles Times (MCT)

California’s top health officer has ordered a 21-day home quarantine for all returning medical workers or travelers who have had contact with a confirmed case of Ebola in West Africa, and invoked the possibility of imprisonment and fines if the restrictions are disobeyed.

The order, issued Wednesday by California Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ron Chapman, is the latest in a series of measures issued by state governments in response to widespread — and some say unwarranted — public fear.

Mandatory quarantines in New York and New Jersey have sparked criticism from international health groups, who say that they lack any basis in science and will merely discourage health care workers from volunteering to help fight the deadly epidemic in West Africa. Proponents, though, say that the regulations are necessary to safeguard public health.

On Wednesday, California health officials insisted that even though the order provides for unspecified penalties, the measure was not a rigid, mandatory quarantine.

Instead, county health agencies will assess the threat to public health posed by each individual and “tailor an appropriate level of quarantine as needed,” state officials said in a press statement. The order was described as a “flexible, case-by-case approach.”

“Not everyone who has been to an Ebola-affected area would be considered high risk,” Chapman said. “This order will allow local health officers to determine, for those coming into California, who is most at risk for developing this disease, and to contain any potential spread of infectious disease by responding to those risks appropriately.”

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health confirmed Wednesday that it had received the order and would determine quarantine requirements based on directions from the state and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

County health officials also said they were keeping track of medical personnel working overseas.

“Our Department is in constant communication with local agencies that coordinate ‘on-the-ground’ medical support in West Africa, and we will work with them to identify, in advance, any returning individuals to whom this order may apply,” officials said in a statement.

In an example of modified restrictions, San Mateo County health officials said Wednesday that Dr. Colin Bucks, a Stanford School of Medicine professor who recently returned from work in Liberia, has been directed to stay away from work and away from close contact with others for 21 days. However, he has been allowed “limited activity outside of his home, such as jogging alone,” a health department statement said.

Bucks must also take his temperature and contact county health officers twice a day.

The Ebola virus is transmitted via bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat and vomit, and people are only infectious when they have begun to show symptoms of the disease, such as fever and diarrhea.

The incubation period for the virus is three weeks, meaning that if someone hasn’t shown symptoms in 21 days, it is nearly certain that they are not infected.

The California order applies only to people who have traveled to an Ebola-affected area, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and who have also come into contact with a confirmed case.

Chapman said the department realized that California was home to many medical workers who have volunteered to work in West Africa, and that the order should not discourage them.

“Health care workers who go to Ebola-affected countries to treat patients are great humanitarians,” Chapman said. “They will be treated with respect and dignity when they come home as these important public health actions are taken.”

The CDC recommends restricting the movement of quarantine subjects and barring them from public transportation only if they are considered to be asymptomatic, but high risk. A person at high risk has been exposed to the body fluids of a sick person while not wearing protective gear, or has been stuck with a needle or sharp object that might be contaminated.

Thomas Tighe, chief executive officer of the Santa Barbara-based medical aid group Direct Relief, said he welcomed the order. The organization supplies personal protective gear and other medical supplies to hospitals and Ebola treatment centers in West Africa.

“It’s been an open question,” Tighe said. “A lot of people ask us ‘What happens when I get back from Africa?’ It’s great to see them attempt to clarify things.”
Epidemiologist Ralph Frerichs, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles’ School of Public Health, said he too was glad to see formal action taken on a quarantine that could also be modified depending on the situation.

“I like having the 21-day quarantine. I like starting with that hard point,” Frerichs said. “This doesn’t mean someone has to be put into a jail somewhere, or put in their house with no opportunity for leaving. It’s a common sense thing.”

Frerichs said a quarantine was important because a test for the virus might not be positive in the early stages of the illness, when the number of viral particles in the body was still relatively small.

“People often say that the medical personnel going off to Africa are doing God’s work,” Frerichs said. “I don’t discount that they’re doing very important work and that it’s selfless. The problem is, whether a person is very great or very bad doesn’t make a difference to the virus.”

Times staff writer Joseph Serna contributed to this report.

Photo: Amy The Nurse via Flickr

Another Ebola Challenge: Disposing Of Medical Waste

Another Ebola Challenge: Disposing Of Medical Waste

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

A single Ebola patient treated in a U.S. hospital will generate eight 55-gallon barrels of medical waste each day.
Protective gloves, gowns, masks and booties are donned and doffed by all who approach the patient’s bedside and then discarded. Disposable medical instruments, packaging, bed linens, cups, plates, tissues, towels, pillowcases, and anything that is used to clean up after the patient must be thrown away.
Even curtains, privacy screens, and mattresses eventually must be treated as contaminated medical waste and disposed of.
Dealing with this collection of pathogen-filled debris without triggering new infections is a legal and logistical challenge for every U.S. hospital now preparing for a potential visit by the virus.
In California and other states, it is an even worse waste-management nightmare.
While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend autoclaving (a form of sterilizing) or incinerating the waste as a surefire means of destroying the microbes, burning infected waste is effectively prohibited in California, and banned in several other states.
“Storage, transportation, and disposal of this waste will be a major problem,” California Hospital Association President C. Duane Dauner warned U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., in a letter last week.
Even some states that normally permit incineration are throwing up barriers to Ebola waste.
In Missouri, the state attorney general has sought to bar Ebola-contaminated debris from a St. Louis incinerator operated by Stericycle Inc., the nation’s largest medical waste disposal company.
Due to restrictions on burning, California hospital representatives say their only option appears to be trucking the waste over public highways and incinerating it in another state — a prospect that makes some environmental advocates uneasy.
Under federal transportation guidelines, the material would be designated a Class A infectious substance, or one that is capable of causing death or permanent disability, and would require special approval from the Department of Transportation, hospital representatives say.
“These are some pretty big issues and they need some quick attention,” said Jennifer Bayer, spokeswoman for the Hospital Association of Southern California.
“We fully expect that it’s coming our way,” Bayer said of the virus. “Not to create any sort of scare, but just given the makeup of our population and the hub that we are. It’s very likely.”
The Ebola virus is essentially a string of genetic material wrapped in a protein jacket. It cannot survive a 1,500-degree scorching within an incinerator, or the prolonged, pressurized steam of an autoclave.
“The Ebola virus itself is not particularly hardy,” CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said under questioning on Capitol Hill recently. “It’s killed by bleach, by autoclaving, by a variety of chemicals.”
However, CDC guidelines note that “chemical inactivation” has yet to be standardized and could trigger worker safety regulations.
California health officials recently tried to reassure residents that the state’s private and public hospitals were up to the task and were actively training for the possible arrival of Ebola.
“Ebola does not pose a significant public health risk to California communities at the present time,” said Dr. Gil Chavez, an epidemiologist and deputy director at the California Department of Public Health. “Let me tell you why: Current scientific evidence specifies that people cannot get Ebola through the air, foo,d or water. … The Ebola virus does not survive more than a few hours on impervious surfaces.”
It was unclear whether California officials viewed the waste issue as a potential problem.
Although a third of the state’s private hospitals and “a few” of its public hospitals reported to Boxer’s office that there would be problems complying with the CDC’s incineration recommendation, and others, a state public health official told reporters he was not aware of any conflicts.
Dr. David Perrott, chief medical officer for the California Hospital Association, said there was also confusion about whether infected human waste could be flushed down the toilet.
“Here’s what we’ve heard from the CDC: It’s OK,” Perrott said. “But then we’ve heard from some sources, that maybe we need to sterilize it somehow and then flush it down the toilet or you have to check with local authorities. It sounds maybe a little gross, but there is a real question about what to do with that waste.”
Dr. Thomas Ksiazek, a professor of microbiology and immunology of the University of Texas Medical Branch, has said he believes there’s been a lot of overreaction on the topic of Ebola medical waste.
“There are other ways to deal with the waste; autoclaving would be chief among them,” Ksiazek said. “The problem is, most hospitals don’t use it for most disposable items. They’re quite happy to bag them up and send them to a regular medical disposal company.”
But Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said incineration is simple and effective, and should be available to hospitals to help dispose of the mountain of waste.
Hershkowitz said states began to crack down on medical waste incineration years ago because many materials that did not need to be burned were being sent to combustors and were emitting dangerous pollutants.
In this case of Ebola medical waste, he said California should reconsider its restrictions.
“There’s no pollutant that’s going to come out of a waste incinerator that’s more dangerous than the Ebola virus,” Hershkowitz said. “When you’re dealing with pathogenic and biological hazards, sometimes the safest thing to do is combustion.”

AFP Photo/Seyllou

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Scientists Study Evolutionary Roots Of Lethal Combat Among Chimpanzees

Scientists Study Evolutionary Roots Of Lethal Combat Among Chimpanzees

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

The killings are often swift and brutal: An overwhelming force of chimpanzees will pin their fellow primate to the ground as dozens of attackers commence to biting, punching, kicking, and ripping at the victim’s body.

“They’ll tear off pieces of the body, often the genitalia, and sometimes they’ll rip the throat out. It’s really horrific, the sorts of damage they do,” said Michael Wilson, a University of Minnesota evolutionary anthropologist who has studied chimps in the wild.

Researchers have long debated the reasons as to why our closest living animal cousins would exercise deadly violence against their own kind — including many helpless infants.

One school of thought argues that violence among Pan troglodytes is the result of human encroachment on chimpanzee habitat. Feeding by researchers — a now discontinued practice — poaching, deforestation, and other human activities have prompted desperate and uncharacteristic behavior they argue.

But the opposite, and perhaps darker, point of view holds that all this bloodshed is an adaptive survival strategy that predates the arrival of Homo sapiens.

By slaying chimps from competing groups, the killers may in fact expand their territory, and in the process increase their access to food and mates.

In a paper published Wednesday in the journal Nature, Wilson and his colleagues studied 152 cases of lethal aggression among noncaptive chimpanzees and concluded that humans had little to do with sparking the mayhem.

The authors noted, among other findings, that the most chimp-on-chimp violence occurred at a site that was relatively undisturbed by humans — Uganda’s Kibale National Park — while little to no violence occurred at a site in Guinea that was most heavily impacted by humans.

“We conclude that patterns of lethal aggression in Pan show little correlation with human impacts, but are instead better explained by the adaptive hypothesis that killing is a means to eliminate rivals when the costs of killing are low,” the authors wrote.

Humans and chimpanzees shared a common ancestor roughly 7 million years ago. Because of this, researchers have scrutinized chimpanzee behavior in hopes of gleaning insights into man’s own use of violence, and particularly his proclivity for warfare.

“Because chimpanzees are so closely related to us, it raises the possibility that maybe these patterns are something that we share because we share them from our common ancestor,” Wilson said.

Wilson said that while it’s been argued that human warfare is the result of a number of factors occurring in the relatively recent past — the advent of agriculture, the development of weapons, and the formation of ideologies — chimpanzee behavior would suggest warfare has “a long evolutionary history.”

Authors collected decades’ worth of data from roughly a dozen chimpanzee research sites throughout Africa, collecting eyewitness reports of chimp killings as well as forensic data on suspected slayings.

“It surprised me to learn how many killings there really were,” Wilson said.

It didn’t take long for the researchers to identify some specific patterns.

“Male chimpanzees killed more often than females, and killed mainly male victims,” authors wrote. “Attackers most frequently killed unweaned infants; victims were mainly members of other communities (and thus unlikely to be close kin); and … killings typically occurred when attackers had an overwhelming numerical advantage.”

What type of number advantage are we talking? The average was five attackers to one victim, but in some instances, as many as 32 attackers would pile onto one hapless victim, researchers found.

“These results should finally put an end to the idea that lethal aggression in chimpanzees is a non-adaptive by-product of anthropogenic influences — but they will probably not be enough to convince everyone,” wrote Joan Silk, an evolutionary anthropologist at Arizona State University, in an accompanying News & Views piece.

However, Silk cautioned people against jumping to conclusions about what the research says about man. “Humans are not destined to be warlike because chimpanzees sometimes kill their neighbors,” she wrote.

Interestingly, researchers found that even though chimpanzees could be very violent, closely related bonobos, Pan paniscus, were far more easygoing. They could document only one suspected bonobo killing.

Wilson said that though chimpanzee killings could be brutal, they were relatively rare. Most conflicts between competing male-related communities involved groups of chimpanzees shouting at each other from great distances, and one of the groups eventually deciding to move on.

Photo: emeybee via Flickr

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What Can Fido Teach Us About Jealousy?

What Can Fido Teach Us About Jealousy?

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

Jealousy is such a powerful emotion that at least one study has characterized it as the third leading cause of non-accidental homicide in all cultures. Is it possible that this universal green-eyed monster evolved as a survival mechanism?

In a study published this week in the journal Plos One, researchers at the University of California, San Diego experimented with dogs to see whether they, like humans, were hard-wired for jealousy.

If so, the researchers suggested that human and canine jealousy might exist for similar “primordial” reasons.

Although many dog owners will attest to bouts of canine jealousy — even evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin suspected the creatures were capable of such emotion — few have tried to prove it scientifically, according to psychology professor Christine Harris and researcher Caroline Prouvost, the study’s authors.

In an experiment, the authors took 36 dogs of various breeds — along with their owners — and observed the dogs’ behavior as their masters interacted with three non-living objects. One object was a children’s book, which they read aloud; another object was a plastic Jack-o’-lantern pail; and the third was a mechanical stuffed dog that emitted a bark when the owner pressed a button.

The authors based their experiment on several studies that examined whether human infants are capable of jealousy. The studies, which concluded that infants were probably capable of jealousy, involved experiments in which their mothers showed attention to a life-like doll instead of their child, and other objects. The infants were reportedly more likely to respond with “negative” behavior if their mother diverted her attention to the doll.

In the dog experiment, authors instructed the dog owners to push the bark button on the stuffed dog’s head, and then speak to it sweetly, while ignoring their own dog. After that, they showed attention to the pumpkin pail, and read the children’s book, while also ignoring their dog.

Researchers said that the dogs were far more likely to act aggressively when their owners spoke to the stuffed dog than when they paid attention to the other objects. One-fourth of the dogs snapped at the stuffed dog, while only one dog snapped at the pail or the book. The dogs were also more likely to push or touch their owners as they interacted with the mechanical dog, and tried to get in between the owner and the stuffed dog more frequently than the other objects. Whining also occurred more frequently with the stuffed dog, authors wrote.

“The data present a strong case that domestic dogs have a form of jealousy,” the authors wrote in Wednesday’s study.

The researchers said that although the vast majority of studies that examine jealousy in humans focus on jealousy within romantic relationships, their findings suggest a deeper cause.

“One possibility is that jealousy evolved in species that have multiple dependent young that concurrently compete for parental resources such as food, attention, care, and affection,” the authors wrote.

“It is easy to imagine the advantages that might be gained by a young animal that is not only alert to interactions between siblings and parents, but also motivated to interpose itself in such interactions.”

Photo via WikiCommons

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HIV Establishes Viral Reservoirs With Surprising Speed

HIV Establishes Viral Reservoirs With Surprising Speed

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

In a sobering discovery, researchers say that rapid treatment of HIV-like infections in monkeys failed to prevent the establishment of persistent viral reservoirs in as little as three days.
The study, published Sunday in the journal Nature, comes on the heels of news that the so-called Mississippi Baby — a child once considered functionally cured of HIV due to antiretroviral drug treatment hours after her birth — had in fact been infected with the virus all along.

While researchers had begun to hope that there was a window in which the virus could be prevented from establishing a permanent foothold within its host, that possibility now seems much less likely.

“We show that the viral reservoir can be seeded substantially earlier than previously recognized,” wrote lead study author and Harvard Medical School virologist James Whitney, and colleagues.
HIV attacks CD4 white blood cells — critical components of the body’s immune system. The virus then uses the cells to manufacture copies of itself, destroying the blood cell in the process, and steadily eroding the body’s internal defenses.

However, in some cases, the virus will lay dormant within a white blood cell, only to begin reproducing itself at a later date. The virus cannot be killed in this dormant state — either by the body’s immune system or by antiretroviral drugs — and this latent reservoir of infection has proved to be the biggest obstacle to finding a cure.

In the latest study, researchers infected 20 adult rhesus monkeys with simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV, the simian equivalent of HIV, the disease that causes AIDS.

Some of the monkeys were treated with a cocktail of antiretroviral drugs three days after infection, yet prior to when the virus could be detected in the monkeys’ bloodstream. Other monkeys received the drug treatment at seven, 10, and 14 days after infection, when evidence of the illness could be detected.

In each case, antiretroviral therapy was stopped after 24 weeks. While researchers had hoped the virus would not reappear in the monkeys that were treated in three days, it in fact rebounded in all of the animals.

The researchers, however, did note that it took about three weeks for the virus to rebound in the monkeys that received drug treatment after three days, where it took only one or two weeks in the other monkeys.

In an accompanying News & Views article, Kai Deng and Dr. Robert Siliciano, both HIV researchers at Johns Hopkins University Medical School, noted that further research was needed to confirm the study’s results.

“Substantial differences exist between SIV infection in rhesus macaques and HIV-1 infection in humans,” the pair wrote.

Nonetheless, they called the paper’s findings “striking,” as they argued that still newer medical approaches are needed to eradicate HIV.

Photo via WikiCommons

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Smoking May Increase Suicide Risk, Study Says

Smoking May Increase Suicide Risk, Study Says

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — It’s well-known that cigarettes are bad for your health, but does smoking make you more likely to kill yourself too?
In a paper published this week in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, authors argued that smoking and suicide may be more closely related than previously thought.

The researchers analyzed suicide rates in states that aggressively implemented anti-smoking policies from 1990 to 2004 and compared them to suicide rates in states that had more relaxed policies.

Those states that imposed cigarette excise taxes and smoke-free air regulations had lower adjusted suicide rates than did states with fewer anti-smoking initiatives, authors wrote.

“There does seem to be a substantial reduction in the risk for suicide after these policies are implemented,” said lead study author Richard Grucza, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

“For every dollar in excise taxes there was actually a 10 percent decrease in the relative risk for suicide,” Grucza told Washington University BioMed Radio. “The smoke-free air policies were also very strongly associated with reduced suicide risk.”

Study authors said that states with lower taxes on cigarettes and more lax policies on public smoking had suicide rates that were up to 6 percent greater than the national average.

This is not the first study to document a correlation between cigarette smoking and suicide, but it is among the first to suggest smoking and nicotine may be specific factors.

Up until now, researchers believed smoking coincided with suicide because people with psychiatric problems or substance abuse problems were more likely to smoke as well as to commit suicide.

“Markedly elevated rates of smoking are found among people with anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug dependence, schizophrenia, and other diagnoses, in both clinical and general studies,” authors wrote. “However, it is also possible that smoking is not merely a marker for psychiatric disorders, but rather directly increases the risk for such disorders, which in turn increases the risk for suicide.”

Grucza said that the imposition of anti-smoking rules presented the researchers with a naturally occurring experiment. However, the authors did note that there were limitations on their research.

In particular, they said that since they considered state-imposed anti-smoking efforts only, their research would not account for local-level policies aimed at smoking behavior.

“While further studies may be required to establish a compelling weight of evidence, this study provides strong epidemiological support in its favor of the proposition that smoking is a casual risk factor for suicide,” authors wrote.

Photo: DucDigital via Flickr

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Ticks May Have Carried Lyme Disease For More Than 15 Million Years

Ticks May Have Carried Lyme Disease For More Than 15 Million Years

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A tiny tick trapped in a droplet of amber more than 15 million years ago appears to have been infected with a bacteria similar to the one that causes Lyme disease in humans, according to new research.

In a paper published recently in the journal Historical Biology, one of the world’s leading experts on amber-preserved specimens found a multitude of corkscrew-like bacteria in the belly of a young Ambylomma tick.

The bacteria, according to study author George Poinar Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at Oregon State University, appeared very similar to bacteria of the Borrelia genus, a species of which causes Lyme disease.

The larval tick was one of four that was trapped in drops of tree resin 15 million to 20 million years ago in what is now the Dominican Republic, according to the author.

“The time of death of organisms in resin occurs immediately after entombment and tissue preservation begins instantly,” Poinar wrote.

Over time, the resin hardened into amber and was buried beneath successive layers of earth, as well as plant and animal matter. The specimens were discovered in the modern age by miners who tunnel for amber fossils.

Poinar said that only one of the four ticks appeared to be infected with the bacteria, suggesting that it either inherited the bacteria from its mother or obtained it from an animal it had seized on for a blood meal.

Although the tick’s insides showed no signs of blood, Poinar said it was possible the animal knocked it away moments after it was infected.

Lyme disease, which causes a variety of symptoms, including headaches, joint pain, fever and fatigue, has only been recognized by medical experts in the last few decades.

However, Poinar argues that ticks have been harboring a variety of bacteria that are harmful to humans and other hosts for millions of years.

In another recent paper published in the journal Cretaceous Research, Poinar examined fossil ticks from Myanmar and observed microbes similar to Rickettsia bacteria, which cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever. That amber-encased tick was estimated to be between 97 million and 110 million years old.

“It’s likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease,” Poinar told OSU science writer David Stauth.

Scientists say the oldest case of tick-related disease belongs to Otzi the Tyrolean iceman. The ancient European died in the Alps about 5,300 years ago — under what appear to be a variety of trying circumstances — and his mummified remains were discovered by hikers in 1991.

“Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease,” Poinar said.

Photo: Lance Nix via Flickr

Hungry For A Helping Of Test Tube Meat? Maybe You Should Be

Hungry For A Helping Of Test Tube Meat? Maybe You Should Be

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

If the notion of biting into a hamburger made from lab-cultured stem cells doesn’t make your mouth water, perhaps your brain can find it appetizing.

That’s the view of two Dutch professors who argue that meat grown in enormous test tubes, or bioreactors, can provide an ever more prosperous world with a plentiful, environmentally friendly and humane source of protein.

Cultured meat, they say, is the food of the future.

“Rising global demand for meat will result in increased environmental pollution, energy consumption and animal suffering,” the Wageningen University professors wrote Tuesday in the journal Trends in Biotechnology.

“As large parts of the world become more prosperous, the global consumption of meat is expected to rise enormously in the coming decades,” they wrote.

This growing demand for meat necessitates a “protein transition,” according to bioethicist Cor van der Weele and bioprocessing engineer Johannes Tramper. This transition will probably involve substituting some vegetable products for meat, keeping fewer animals on factory farms and possibly eating insects.

The authors envision a day when “every village” maintains a cultured meat facility in which muscle stem cells from pigs, cows, chicken, fish or any other animal are allowed to grow and reproduce in 5,200-gallon processing tanks.

The reproducing cells are suspended in a growth medium that provides them with nutrition, while mechanical paddles agitate the solution.

When the cell population reaches the desired density — perhaps in a month, the authors say — an enzyme and binding protein are added to the solution. At that point, the agitation stops and the tissue cells form small clumps and settle to the bottom of the tank.

Finally, the authors say, the tank is drained of the growing medium and the remaining “meat slurry” is pressed into a mincemeat-type cake and sold.

If the idea sounds far-fetched, consider the 2003 art project in which cultured frog meat was served as the cell-donor frog looked on, van der Weele says.

“A tentative life-cycle analysis estimated that if cultured meat can be grown on a medium of algae, energy use will not be reduced dramatically, but greenhouse-gas emissions, land use and water use will: by more than 90 percent compared to European beef,” the authors wrote.

The system envisioned by the authors would be capable of producing roughly 28 tons of meat a year, assuming there was no waste, and could feed more than 2,500 people in that time, they said.

Of course, there are some very real economic and technological hurdles facing in vitro meat. The cost of the growth medium would directly affect the cost of the meat product, and producers would have to establish robust, continuous stem cell lines.

And then, of course, there’s the issue of whether people want to eat it.

“The cells have to be concentrated to minced-meat density and structured into a texture that is appetizing and with good mouth feel,” the authors wrote.

“Although the potential advantages of cultured meat are clear, they do not guarantee that people will want to eat it,” they wrote.

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Study: Married Couples Have More DNA In Common Than Random Pairs Of People

Study: Married Couples Have More DNA In Common Than Random Pairs Of People

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

A study of white married couples in the U.S. — the majority of who were born in the 1930s — concluded that spouses are more genetically similar to each other than they are to random individuals.

In a paper published Monday in the journal PNAS, a team of social and behavior scientists investigated the statistical likelihood that people will marry someone with a similar genotype.

“It is well established that individuals are more similar to their spouses than other individuals on important traits, such as education level,” wrote lead study author Benjamin Domingue, a behavioral science researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and his colleagues.

“The genetic similarity, or lack thereof, between spouses is less well understood,” authors wrote.

Study authors based their conclusion on data from 9,429 non-Hispanic white individuals in the ongoing Health and Retirement Study, which is sponsored by the National Institute on Aging.

The sample included 825 spousal pairs who were all born between 1920 and 1970. Fifty-nine percent were born during the 1930s, authors wrote.

Research also included the comparison of 1.7 million single nucleotide polymorphisms — the point at which a sequence of DNA differs between individuals.

Study authors said that while they did find that married couples were more genetically similar than randomly generated pairs of people in the same population, this similarity was just one-third the magnitude of educational similarity between spouses.

Study authors noted that their research was limited by the fact it focused on opposite-sex, non-Hispanic white couples within the United States, and said they encouraged further research.

“The results represented here only represent a first step in understanding the ways in which humans may assortively mate with respect to their genome,” authors wrote.

 AFP Photo/Ho

More Than 4 Percent Of Death Row Inmates Wrongly Convicted, Study Says

More Than 4 Percent Of Death Row Inmates Wrongly Convicted, Study Says

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — A new study argues that more than 4 percent of all defendants who have been sentenced to death — and who remain under threat of execution — are probably innocent.

In a paper published this week in the journal PNAS, a team of researchers statistically examined the cases of 7,482 death row convictions from 1973 to 2004.

Using a so-called survival analysis mathematical model, study authors estimated that if all death-sentence defendants remained under sentence of death indefinitely, at least 4.1 percent would be exonerated.

By the same token, authors concluded that although the number of innocent people who have been executed was “comparatively low,” the percentage of innocent people who have had their death sentences commuted to life is even greater.

“The great majority of innocent defendants who are convicted of capital murder in the United States are neither executed nor exonerated,” Samuel Gross, a law professor at the University of Michigan Law School, wrote with his colleagues Monday. “They are sentenced, or resentenced to prison for life, and then forgotten.”

Gross, whose colleagues included biostatisticians from the American College of Radiology and the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, said the differing rates had to do with the unique workings of the U.S. justice system.

Specifically, the cases of defendants actively awaiting execution on death row receive the most intense scrutiny of all criminal convictions. Prisoners who have had their sentences reduced to life in prison receive much less scrutiny, authors argued.

“The threat of execution is the engine that drives the process of exonerating innocent death row prisoners, and it is likely that this process becomes more painstaking as inmates approach their execution dates,” authors wrote.

“Courts and executive officials explicitly recognize that it is appropriate to take the possibility of innocence into account in deciding whether to reverse a conviction for procedural error or commute a death sentence to life imprisonment. … As a result, those who are resentenced to punishments less than death are more likely to be innocent than those who remain on death row.”

In the time period examined, authors wrote that 943 people had been executed, or roughly 13 percent of the 7,482 death sentences imposed.

By contrast, 117, or roughly 2 percent, were exonerated. An additional 2,675, or roughly 36 percent of the total, had their sentences commuted. (The number of people who died on death row but who were not executed was 298, or 4 percent.)

Study authors wrote that the most charged question regarding capital punishment was how many innocent defendants have been executed.

“We cannot estimate that number directly but we believe it is comparatively low,” authors wrote. “If the rate were the same as our estimate for false death sentences, the number of innocents executed in the United States in the past 35 years would be more than 50. We do not believe this has happened.

“Our data and the experience of practitioners in the field both indicate that the criminal justice system goes to far greater lengths to avoid executing innocent defendants than to prevent them from remaining in prison indefinitely.”

Casey Konstantín via Flickr.com

Scientists Report Another Embryonic Cloning Success

Scientists Report Another Embryonic Cloning Success

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Scientists have taken skin cells from a woman suffering from Type 1 diabetes, reprogrammed them into embryonic stem cells, and then converted those cells into insulin-producing cells in mice, according to a new study.

The announcement, which comes soon after another stem cell success involving therapeutic cloning, was published Monday in the journal Nature.

“This advance brings us a significant step closer to the development of cell replacement therapies,” said senior study author Dieter Egli, a researcher at the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

Embryonic stem cells, or pluripotent cells, are cells that can reproduce endlessly and transform themselves into any type of human tissue. Researchers hope that the cells will one day be used to create transplant tissues that will not be rejected by the patient’s body, because they carry their own DNA.

Egli and his colleagues used a cloning technique known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT — a process similar to the one used to clone “Dolly” the sheep in 1996.

The process involves removing the nucleus from a human egg cell, replacing it with the nucleus from a foreign “donor” cell, and then allowing the egg to divide and develop for a period of days. The developing embryo will contain a mass of pluripotent cells, which are removed and used to create a line of reproducing cells.

If the cloned embryo were implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother — an act scientists consider unethical for a number of reasons — it could possibly develop into a baby.

Up until now, the stem cell field has relied on a very different method of pluripotent cell production called induced pluripotency. The process is viewed as being much easier than SCNT, because it does not involve the controversial use of human egg cells, which are also difficult to obtain.

At a news conference, Egli told reporters that the SCNT process was becoming increasingly refined and should be viewed as a reliable source of pluripotent cells.

“For me this is the way to go,” Egli said. “This is about reprogramming a patient’s own cells, with their own genotype, with their own DNA that are immunologically matched to them and no one else, essentially. I think this is going to become a reality.”

Egli and his colleagues used donor skin cells from a 32-year-old woman who has had Type 1 diabetes since she was 10 years old.

In Type 1 diabetes, a patient’s pancreas stops producing insulin. In healthy individuals, that hormone allows glucose to enter cells and be used to produce energy.

The pancreatic cells that produce insulin are called beta cells, and researchers set out to demonstrate that their pluripotent cells could become beta cells.

After harvesting pluripotent cells from the cloned embryos, they were then transplanted into mice. The mice suffered from weak immune systems, so that their bodies would not reject the human stem cells.

Study authors said the human stem cells gave rise to both nerve cells and beta cells within the mice.

While the study is encouraging, it remains unclear when similar stem cells can be implanted into humans.

Egli said the process has yet to be perfected in mice, and that he and his colleagues were now working on this. The problem, he said, was that when the beta cells were created, other cells also appeared.

“One of the main obstacles that still hold back this field is that we cannot make one and only that one cell type, without any other contaminating cells,” Egli said. “So learning how to better control that, and perhaps eliminate that, is going to be key.”

Like other researchers, Egli and his colleagues found that eggs from younger women — age 21 to 26 — were most likely to produce usable embryos.

They also found that they had more luck cloning embryos when they delayed cell division after introducing the donor nucleus.

While other researchers have used caffeine to delay cell division, a trick they have dubbed “the Starbucks effect,” Egli said he and his colleagues had better luck using histone deacetylase inhibitors, which essentially block the activity of certain enzymes.

“It is entirely possible that the caffeine has a beneficial effect, but it’s not the magic factor that makes or breaks this method,” Egli said.

Photo: UC Irvine via Flickr

Hear Me Now? Gene Therapy Improves ‘Bionic Ear’ Technology

Hear Me Now? Gene Therapy Improves ‘Bionic Ear’ Technology

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

A procedure that uses a series of electric jolts to inject lab-designed DNA molecules into cells of the inner ear may help to regrow auditory nerves in people with profound hearing loss, according to researchers.

In a paper published Wednesday in Science Translational Medicine, Australian researchers said they used tiny electrodes and gene therapy to regenerate nerve cells in chemically deafened guinea pigs.

The procedure, they said, may one day improve the functioning of human cochlear implants — electronic devices that provide hearing sensations to the deaf.

“People with cochlear implants do well with understanding speech, but their perception of pitch can be poor, so they often miss out on the joy of music,” said senior author Gary Housley, a professor of neuroscience at the University of South Wales.

“Ultimately we hope that after further research, people who depend on cochlear implant devices will be able to enjoy a broader dynamic and tonal range of sound,” Housley said in a prepared statement.

Housley and his colleagues studied the procedure on guinea pigs because the structure of their inner ear is similar to that of humans.

The cochlea is shaped like a snail’s shell, and is filled with a multitude of tiny hair cells that move in response to sound vibrations. Those vibrations are then converted into electrical nerve impulses that are carried to the brain.

If the hair cells are lost or damaged due to age, genetics, chemical poisoning or loud noise, they will not grow back. In some people who are profoundly deaf, an electrode may be implanted within the cochlea that can stimulate some nerve cells.

While cochlear implants help roughly 300,000 patients throughout the world to detect and interpret speech, researchers believe they can be improved if nerve cells are encouraged to grow closer to the electrode. In this latest study, Housley and his colleagues set out to stimulate growth in spiral ganglion neurons in guinea pigs.

Study authors believed they could do this by causing inner ear cells to produce neurotrophins, proteins that control the development, maintenance and function of nerve cells.

Researchers injected short, ring-like sections of DNA, or plasmids, into the animal’s ears, in order to drive the expression of so-called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, as well as fluorescent marker genes. The scientists then used electrodes similar to cochlear implants to send between 4 and 100 volts of electricity into the animal’s cochlea.

When cells are exposed to electric current, it causes their membranes to become extremely permeable, allowing the injected plasmids to enter the cell and direct production of the necessary proteins. This technique is known as close field electroporation, or CFE.

Study authors said that they observed regrowth of nerve cells in the ears of guinea pigs that underwent the electric pulse treatment, while those who did not showed no nerve growth.

When researchers tested the deafened guinea pigs two weeks later, they found that their cochlear implants were able to stimulate the new nerve cells and trigger a response in their brain.

While the study showed positive results in a short period of time, some questions remain about its effectiveness. Study authors observed a reduction in BDNF expression over three to six weeks.

Nevertheless, study authors said the electroporation techinque for gene therapy held promise for treating a variety of conditions.

“The development of electrode array-based CFE gene delivery may not only improve the hearing of cochlear implant recipients but also find broader therapeutic applications, such as in conjunction with deep brain stimulation, which uses electrode arrays similar to cochlear implant, to treat a range of neurological disorders, from Parkinson’s disease to psychiatric disorders.”

Photo: Menage a Moi via Flickr

A Leap For Stem Cells

A Leap For Stem Cells

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES—Scientists have replicated one of the most significant accomplishments in stem cell research by creating human embryos that were clones of two men.

The lab-engineered embryos were harvested within days and used to create lines of infinitely reproducing embryonic stem cells, which are capable of growing into any type of human tissue.

The work, reported Thursday in the journal Cell Stem Cell, comes 11 months after researchers in Oregon said they had produced the world’s first human embryo clones and used them to make stem cells. Their study, published in Cell, aroused skepticism after critics pointed out multiple errors and duplicated images.

In addition, the entire effort to clone human embryos and then dismantle them in the name of science troubles some people on moral grounds.

The scientists in Oregon and the authors of the new report acknowledged that the clones they created could develop into babies if implanted in surrogate wombs. But like others in the field, they have said reproductive cloning would be unethical and irresponsible.

The process used to create cloned embryos is called somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT. It involves removing the nucleus from an egg cell and replacing it with a nucleus from a cell of the person to be cloned. The same method was used to create Dolly the sheep in 1996, along with numerous animals from other species.

Human cloning was a particular challenge, in part because scientists had trouble getting enough donor eggs to carry out their experiments. Some scientists said SCNT in humans would be impossible.

Dr. Robert Lanza, the chief scientific officer for Advanced Cell Technology Inc. in Marlborough, Mass., has been working on SCNT off and on for about 15 years. He and his colleagues finally achieved success with a modified version of the recipe used by the Oregon team and skin cells donated by two men who were 35 and 75.

After swapping out the nucleus in the egg cell, both groups used caffeine to delay the onset of cell division — a technique that has been called “the Starbucks effect.” But instead of waiting 30 minutes to prompt cell division, as was done in the Oregon experiment, Lanza and his team waited two hours.

It remains unclear exactly how the egg causes the cells in previously mature tissues — in this case, skin — to transform into a more versatile, pluripotent state.

But Lanza and his colleagues said their experiments revealed that some eggs were better at it than others. Researchers used 49 eggs from three women, though eggs from only two of them produced results.

“The magic is in the egg,” Lanza said.

Experts who were not involved in the experiments said the achievement was significant because it offered clear confirmation that so-called therapeutic cloning is possible with human cells. Given the field’s history of fraudulent claims, such confirmation was valuable, said stem cell researcher Sean Morrison, director of the Children’s Medical Center Research Institute at UT Southwestern.

“This makes it clear that it is possible to succeed,” Morrison said.

In 2005, South Korean researcher Woo Suk Hwang claimed to have created cloned human embryos, but those experiments were later shown to be fabricated.

It took another eight years for cell biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov to create the first cloned human embryo and resulting stem cells in a laboratory at Oregon Health & Science University.

“My team is very pleased that our results … are reproducible,” Mitalipov said.

Pluripotent stem cells have become increasingly valuable in medical research. By using them to grow tissue cells involved in diseases, scientists can study them directly rather than relying on mice or other animals as proxies. Scientists are trying to use them to grow replacement tissues for treating diabetes, heart disease and a form of age-related blindness called macular degeneration, among other conditions.

But coaxing normal tissue cells to revert to an embryonic state is challenging. The use of human egg cells complicates the process even further, due in part to their limited availability.

In the years that Lanza spent working on therapeutic cloning, many of his colleagues shifted their focus to a method that uses viruses and other compounds to rewind a cell to an earlier, more flexible state of development. The researcher who first developed these induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, won a Nobel Prize for the work.

With so much momentum behind iPS cells, it’s unlikely that the new study will prompt many researchers to return their focus to SCNT, said Dr. Arnold Kriegstein, director of the Developmental and Stem Cell Biology Program at UCSF School of Medicine.

“With the iPS technology, almost any molecular biology lab can create stem cell lines using simply skin cells, or even blood cells,” said Kriegstein, who wasn’t involved in the cloning studies.

Lanza said that most stem cell scientists have “jumped on the iPS bandwagon,” but he argued that stem cells created by SCNT could still play a vital role in regenerative medicine.

He envisions a day when multiple lines of stem cells are kept in banks and made available to patients based on their biological similarity, much the way blood and donor organs are now handled.

©afp.com / Spencer Platt

FDA Approves Device To Treat Migraine Headaches

FDA Approves Device To Treat Migraine Headaches

By Monte Morin, Los Angeles Times

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved the marketing of an electronic medical device intended to treat migraine headaches.

In an announcement released Tuesday, officials said the transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation, or TENS, device was the first ever to receive such approval.

The device, which will be marketed under the name Cefaly, is manufactured by Cefaly Technology of Belgium.

“Cefaly provides an alternative to medication for migraine prevention,” read a prepared statement from Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation at the FDA’s Center for Device and Radiological Health. “This may help patients who cannot tolerate current migraine medications for preventing migraines or treating attacks.”

Migraine headaches affect roughly 10 percent of the population and are characterized by intense, throbbing head pain. Migraines can last for just a few hours or as long as several days and are often accompanied by nausea and extreme sensitivity to light and noise. According to the National Institutes of Health, they are three times more common in women than in men.

The FDA described Cefaly as a “portable, battery-powered, prescription device that resembles a plastic headband worn across the forehead and atop the ears.”

The device uses a self-adhesive electrode to apply electrical current to the skin, which can be felt as a tingling sensation. The manufacturer says the current stimulates the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for facial sensations and has been linked to migraines.

A Belgian clinical study found that the device did not completely prevent migraines, nor did it reduce the intensity of those that did occur. However it did reduce the number of days each month that migraine sufferers experienced attacks compared with patients who received only a placebo, the FDA said in its release.

The clinical study involved 67 patients who suffered more than two migraine headaches a month.

Also, a patient satisfaction survey of more than 2,300 users of the device in France and Belgium suggested that just over half of them were satisfied with the product and were willing to continue use.

Complaints included “dislike of the feeling and not wanting to continue using the device, sleepiness during the treatment session, and headache after the treatment session,” the FDA announcement said.

Photo: Jugbo via Flickr