Mar 29, 2007

Linda Geddes: Cancer therapy: When all else fails

Lawrence Burgh has a sober outlook on life. A 48-year-old physician whose career has centred on treating seriously ill patients, Burgh was diagnosed with cancer in December 2006. Yet despite his clinical experience, he has taken an extraordinary step to try to rid himself of his illness, a step many would consider to be a medical heresy.

Burgh is one of a growing number of patients who have been dosing themselves with a simple laboratory chemical that has never before been used to treat cancer in people. Most are doing so without the help of doctors, and none is enrolled in any systematic clinical trial of the substance. Instead, they are buying it over the internet, and sharing their experiences of it in online chatrooms. For them, the unlicensed, untested drug represents their last best chance of survival.

That's not the way cancer specialists see it. For them, the activities of Burgh and those like him are indicative of what could become a dangerous new trend, in which groups of seriously ill people get together online to discuss, source and try untested drugs whose safety and efficacy is uncertain.

The drug in this case, known as DCA, is a widely available chemical that cannot be patented. In basic laboratory tests and experiments in rats it has shown promise as an anti-cancer agent, but in people it may yet show side effects that could further damage the lives of people who take it. Scientists investigating the potential of DCA as a cancer treatment fear that any deaths or injury caused by its premature, unregulated use could damage their work - and the welfare of patients far into the future.

Burgh's quest to cure himself began last month, shortly after he was told the cancer in his thigh had spread to his lungs. "My prognosis is very poor," he says. "Standard chemotherapy would give me only a slim chance of survival at five years." So he turned to DCA, after reading about the promising lab experiments in New Scientist (20 January, p 13).

DCA, or dichloroacetic acid, is an analogue of acetic acid in which chlorine atoms replace two of the three hydrogen atoms on the methyl group. Because it is a corrosive acid, it must be "buffered" to damp down the acidity, and it is usually administered as sodium dichloroacetate.

In January, a study by Evangelos Michelakis and his colleagues at the department of medicine at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, suggested that DCA could shrink several types of tumour in rats, by exploiting a previously ignored metabolic pathway in the cell (see "How DCA could affect cancer"). "I was intrigued by the proposed mechanism," says Burgh (not his real name; this article uses a pseudonym to protect his privacy). "The biochemistry made sense to me. I subsequently read dozens of articles and abstracts on DCA before I decided I wanted to try it."

On 27 February, he self-administered his first dose, and for the next month took DCA twice a day, monitoring his blood and urine for signs of any problems, and visiting his oncologist, who was aware of what he was doing, once a week.

Because DCA is not an approved drug in the US, the UK or anywhere else, Burgh had to find his own supply. Using his contacts he obtained raw DCA, then asked a chemist friend to buffer it and check its purity.

Burgh is not alone in his attempts to procure the drug. Already, within weeks of Michelakis's paper being published, a substantial online community has grown up, largely centred on the website which declares itself to be a gateway for information on DCA. At least eight of the individuals who have posted contributions on the site's chatroom, including Burgh, claimed to be taking DCA or giving it to a close relative. By 21 March, the chatroom had 135 active members - most of them from the US, Canada, the UK and Australia - plus posts from numerous unregistered users, many swapping tips on how to get hold of DCA, how to prepare the chemical for human consumption, and what supplements they should be taking to minimise side effects.

"This is pretty much a new phenomenon," says Kate Law, director of clinical trials at research charity Cancer Research UK. "There has always been an industry for vulnerable people, but the magnitude of it has multiplied exponentially. The internet has changed the world for people who are looking for miracles."

Michelakis himself warns that people taking DCA could do themselves serious harm. The chemical is known to increase the risk of nerve damage in people who have been given it in clinical trials for other reasons. It may also cause liver damage and interact with existing anti-cancer drugs in unexpected ways. "Since many anti-cancer drugs are neurotoxic, these interactions could be fatal," Michelakis says. Worst of all, he says, if patients are taking DCA outside clinical trials, such damaging side effects may go unrecorded.
Desperate measures

Yet there are many desperate patients prepared to take this risk. Michelakis says his department gets thousands of emails from people saying they have nothing to lose, but that's not how he sees it. "Of course you've got something to lose," he says. "There are many cases of people being told 'you've only got a month to live', and a month later they're still alive. If you take DCA, it may not work, you could still have the cancer, and you'll be paralysed."

Despite such warnings, people are continuing to hunt down details of potential suppliers of DCA. "I have been getting three to four calls a day," says Steve Grossman, manager of J. E. Pierce Apothecary in Brookline, Massachusetts. "I've had calls from pretty much the whole of the northern hemisphere now, plus Africa, the Middle East and south-east Asia. Mostly it is people with end-stage cancer, who have already gone through everything medicine had for them." Grossman says he will not dispense DCA to anyone unless he sees a prescription from a doctor - and no one has yet provided one...

Mar 28, 2007

Tamara McLean: Pill users report more bizarre behaviour

HUNDREDS of Australians have reported bizarre behaviour, including one case of jumping off a high-rise balcony, after taking the popular sleeping pill Stilnox. A national medical hotline for adverse drug reactions has been swamped with more than 400 calls from people taking the controversial prescription medication.

Callers have reported unusual behaviour such as smoking, driving, painting, cooking and stabbing themselves while they were asleep. "We've had an unprecedented number of calls," said Dr Geraldine Moses, a pharmacist with the Adverse Medical Events Line.

The findings come after a spate of bizarre side-effects were made public last month, in which users reported gaining up to 20kg from regular binge-eating during the night. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), the national drugs regulator, is currently in discussions with sedative drug manufacturers about adding new warnings to packets.

Among the more recent complaints to the hotline, one Stilnox user reportedly drank half a bottle of whisky and plunged from a 12-storey balcony while asleep. A middle-aged woman had to have her leg amputated after falling over in the bathroom while she was on the medication. Dr Moses said she and other hotline workers had been shocked by both the volume of calls and the extent of the reactions.

"The drug has been around for almost 10 years and the reactions would have been happening the whole time but obviously people didn't know where to report them," she said. Recent media coverage of the hotline raised its profile and contributed to the increased number of people calling with their concerns. Dr Moses urged users to avoid taking the full 10mg dosage and instead just pop half a pill to limit side-effects.

Meanwhile, the Australian drug reactions committee has met and made several undisclosed recommendations regarding the drug, manufactured by pharmaceutical company Sanofi Aventis. A TGA spokeswoman said these would be referred to a parent committee and then passed on to the TGA for final decision-making regarding any regulatory changes.

"It's a bit early to report any potential action by the TGA," she said.

"In the meantime, the TGA is currently in discussion with sponsors of sedative medicines regarding changes to the wording of their product information as a result of recent concerns regarding adverse reactions."

Mar 27, 2007

Mark Henderson: The shady past of wolves in sheep’s cloning

The world’s first cloned wolves have been created in South Korea, using the same technique that enabled British scientists to create Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal.

The wolves are the work of a team once led by Woo Suk Hwang, the disgraced South Korean scientist who faked human stem-cell research. Although the two female wolves were born in October 2005, veterinary scientists at Seoul National University announced their achievement only yesterday after independent DNA tests finally verified their claims.

Professor Byung Chun Lee, who led the group, was a close colleague of Professor Hwang, who falsely claimed to have cloned human embryos and derived stem cells. Professor Lee was disciplined by his university and is still facing fraud charges over the affair. Professor Hwang was sacked, and has been accused of fraud, embezzlement and breaches of bioethics laws. The wolf cloning project was started before Professor Hwang’s faked work came to light, and he is still named as an author on a paper that will report the success in Cloning and Stem Cells.

The journal required firm DNA evidence that the wolves were clones before it agreed to accept the paper. Professor Lee said: “Normally, scientific periodicals would not ask for mito-chondrial DNA verification but we needed to produce it due to previous problems.” He did not produce this evidence at the press conference held to parade the cloned wolves.

Snuwolf and Snuwolffy, named after the abbreviation for Seoul National University, were born on October 18 and October 26, 2005, at about the same time as serious doubts were starting to emerge about the probity of the Hwang team. “They were the world’s first cloned wolves but we decided to disclose our achievement today,” said Nam Shik Shin, another member of the cloning team. “They are healthy and growing well.”

In the experiment, DNA from adult cells from a female wolf bred in a zoo outside Seoul were placed into 251 eggs taken from female dogs, from which the genetic material had been removed. These were then implanted into 12 surrogate mothers, all captive wolves. Two live wolf pups were born, to different surrogate mothers.

The technique was fundamentally the same as the one used to create Dolly the sheep. Professor Lee said that cloning may help to preserve threatened species. Wolves of the breed cloned are extinct in the wild, and only ten are known to survive in captivity.

“In the case of animals on the brink of extinction, it’s hard to preserve them even with artificial insemination and in vitro fertilisation methods as their number is so small,” he said. “The nuclear transplantation technology used in this case could be a way to restore the endangered species.”

Professor Lee’s group also pioneered the cloning of dogs and in December reported the birth of three cloned Afghan hounds, which were named Bona, Peace and Hope.

The announcement came as South Korea took its first tentative steps back into human cloning and stem-cell research, after suspending much of the work being carried out after the Hwang fraud. On Friday the Government lifted a moratorium on human cloning work that had stood for a year.

How to ctrl, alt, delete $48 billion

Perhaps you know that sinking feeling when a single keystroke accidentally destroys hours of work. Now imagine wiping out a disk drive containing information for an account worth $US38 billion ($A48 billion).

That's what happened to a computer technician reformatting a disk drive at the Alaska Department of Revenue. While doing routine maintenance work, the technician accidentally deleted applicant information for an oil-funded account - one of Alaska residents' biggest perks - and mistakenly reformatted the backup drive, as well.

There was still hope, until the department discovered its third line of defence, backup tapes, were unreadable.

"Nobody panicked, but we instantly went into planning for the worst-case scenario," said Permanent Fund Dividend Division Director Amy Skow. The July computer foul-up, which wiped out dividend distribution information for the fund, would end up costing the department more than $200,000 ($A250,000).

Over the next few days, as the department, the division and consultants from Microsoft and Dell laboured to retrieve the data, it became obvious the worst-case scenario was at hand.

Nine months worth of applicant information for the yearly payout from the Alaska Permanent Fund was gone: some 800,000 electronic images that had been painstakingly scanned into the system months earlier, the 2006 paper applications that people had either mailed in or filed over the counter, and supporting documentation such as birth certificates and proof of residence.

And the only backup was the paperwork itself - stored in more than 300 cardboard boxes.

"We had to bring that paper back to the scanning room, and send it through again, and quality control it, and then you have to have a way to link that paper to that person's file," Skow said.

Half a dozen seasonal workers came back to assist the regular division staff, and about 70 people working overtime and weekends re-entered all the lost data by the end of August.

"They were just ready, willing and able to chip in and, in fact, we needed all of them to chip in to get all the paperwork rescanned in a timely manner so that we could meet our obligations to the public," Skow said.

Last October and November, the department met its obligation to the public. A majority of the estimated 600,000 payments for last year's $US1106.96 individual dividends went out on schedule, including those for 28,000 applicants who were still under review when the computer disaster struck.

Former Revenue Commissioner Bill Corbus said no one was ever blamed for the incident.

"Everybody felt very bad about it and we all learned a lesson. There was no witch hunt," Corbus said.

According to department staff, they now have a proven and regularly tested backup and restore procedure.

The department is asking lawmakers to approve a supplemental budget request for $US220,700 to cover the excess costs incurred during the six-week recovery effort, including about $US128,400 in overtime and $US71,800 for computer consultants.

The money would come from the permanent fund earnings, the money earmarked for the dividends. That means recipients could find their next cheque docked by about US37 cents.

Night of the living roach

Today I wish to present further evidence that the scientific community has completely lost its mind.

Exhibit A is an article that appeared recently on the front page of The New York Times (motto: ``Even We Don't Read The Whole Thing''). The article concerns a scientist named Dr. Raul J. Cano, who got hold of a bee that died 30 million years ago and was preserved in amber. Now here is the difference between a scientist and a sane lay person such as yourself: If YOU came across a bee that had been dead for 30 million years, your natural, common-sense reaction would be to stomp on it, just in case, then maybe use it as part of a prank involving a salad bar. But that was not Dr. Cano's scientific reaction. His reaction-and remember, this story comes from The New York Times, which never makes anything up-was to extract some really old dead germs from the bee's stomach AND BRING THEM BACK TO LIFE.

Yes. Does this make ANY sense to you? I mean, don't we already have ENOUGH live germs in this world, causing disease, B.O. and really implausible movies starring Dustin Hoffman? Do we lay persons not spend billions of dollars per year on antibiotics, Listerine, Right Guard and Ty-D-Bol for the specific purpose of KILLING germs?

According to The Times, the scientific community is all excited about Dr. Cano's revived bee-stomach germs. Apparently the scientific community has never seen ''The Mummy,'' ''Frankenstein,'' ''Night of the Living Dead Bacteria'' or any of the numerous other reputable motion pictures depicting the bad things that inevitably happen when some fool brings a dead organism back to life. You wait. One of these nights, Dr. Cano's germs are going to escape from their petri dishes and start creeping forward, zombie-like, with their little bacterial arms sticking straight out in front of them, and heaven help the laboratory security guard who stands in their way. (''What's wrong, Bob?'' ``I don't know! I have the weirdest feeling something's trying to eat my toe!'')

At this point you are saying, ``OK, so this one scientist is perhaps a few ice cubes short of a tray. But he's probably just an isolated example.''

You wish. I have here another New York Times story, sent in by many alert readers, concerning scientists who have figured out how to -- get ready -- GROW EXTRA EYES ON FLIES. Yes. The story states that, by messing around with genes, the scientists have produced flies with ''as many as 14 eyes apiece'' in various locations -- ``on their wings, on their legs, on the tips of their antennae.''

On behalf of normal humans everywhere, let me just say: Great! Just what we need! Flies that can see EVEN BETTER! As I write these words, I am unwillingly sharing my lunch with a regular, non-improved fly, which is having no trouble whatsoever seeing well enough to keep an eye on me while it walks around on my peanut-butter sandwich. Whenever I try to whap it, the fly instantly zooms out of reach, buzzing its wings to communicate, in fly language, the concept of ``neener neener.''

Not that it would do me any good to kill it; Dr. Raul J. Cano would probably just bring it back to life.

Speaking of insects, I have here a column from the spring issue of American Entomologist magazine, sent in by alert reader Jackie Simons and written by May Berenbaum, who discusses a University of Illinois entomology professor who has -- you are not going to believe this, but I'm going to tell you anyway -- ``pioneered the design and use of artificial limbs for cockroaches.''

Naturally, I had to call this professor, whose name is Fred Delcomyn. He freely admitted to me that he has, indeed, fitted cockroaches with tiny artificial limbs made from toothpicks. He's trying to figure out exactly how cockroaches move -- in stark contrast to us normal, non-scientist, sane people, who would like to figure out exactly how to make cockroaches STOP moving, so we could hit them with hammers.

But here's the truly alarming thing: Delcomyn, as part of his research, wants to BUILD A ROBOT COCKROACH. In fact, he has already built one that's a foot-and-a-half long (''not too big, compared to your Florida roaches,'' he noted, correctly). But his plan is to build a bigger one, a robot cockroach that will be FOUR FEET LONG.

When will these scientists ever learn? We know what's going to happen! We've seen this movie! Everything will be fine at first, with the robot roach doing exactly what the scientists want it to. But then one night, after the scientists have left the laboratory, there will be a lightning storm, and extra electricity will flow into the roach, and it will COME TO LIFE ON ITS OWN -- FrankenRoach! -- and escape and terrorize the community, smashing its way into supermarkets, skittering past terrified, screaming shoppers, seizing entire display racks of Hostess Twinkies.

Oh sure, eventually the Army will come up with a way to stop it, possibly by constructing a 50-foot-tall can of Raid. But do we really want to put ourselves through this? Why must scientists continue to mess with the natural order of things? Why do we need to create giant cockroaches? We already have the O.J. Simpson defense team! If you are as concerned about these issues as I am, I urge you to take action TODAY in the form of doubling your medication dosage. Also you are welcome to this sandwich.

Mar 25, 2007

Sue Blackmore: Homeopathy is bunkum

A group of brave doctors has tried, again, to stop our precious NHS resources being spent on quackery. Oh yes, I'll get in trouble for saying "quackery"; I'll be told that alternative therapists are not quacks, that they are all kind, caring, open-minded people who help the sick and fight against the oppression of closed-minded scientists who don't understand the holistic nature of these truly spiritual human beings.

But these poor doctors will have it worse. They will get hate mail from people who claim to be more loving and caring than them; they will be called "arrogant" by people who "just know" that homeopathy works; they will be threatened and ridiculed by people whose children have been "saved" from the horrors of modern medicine by a homeopathic remedy that their hardhearted doctor denied them on the NHS; and they will be questioned by reporters who are nervous about siding with the unfashionable, commonsense practice of actually testing whether a medicine works or not.

How do I know? Because it all happened to me during my 30 years of tackling paranormal and alternative claims. And little has changed. Indeed, the fact that mountains of negative evidence are simply ignored was one of the reasons I finally got out. You can only bang your head against true believers for so long. And being told you are arrogant, closed-minded, unspiritual and heartless when all you are doing is trying to find out the truth eventually gets you down.

We know that homeopathy doesn't work. We know this because (unlike those of some treatments) the claims it makes are straightforward and testable. Traditional homeopathy claims that if you choose the right remedy for that particular person and give it at the right dilution (usually diluted so much that it is nothing but water), then the person will get better. In hundreds of experiments, this claim has been disproved (among them the famous "remembering-water" experiment James Randi showed to be fraudulent and repeated for television).

The opposition has recently become more sophisticated, with the claim that conventional double-blind testing is not appropriate for alternative therapies. We heard a version of this on BBC Radio 4's Today programme from the wonderfully articulate, 93-year-old Jane Gilcrest, who said it was "difficult to collect data" because it was hard to prove the effectiveness of a therapy "based on people, not on symptoms".

Don't be fooled by this claim: the double-blind design works perfectly well for people, not symptoms. Take 100 people suffering from anything you like, as long as their state of deterioration or recovery can be measured. Then let the best homeopaths do whatever it takes to choose the right treatment for each one. They can spend hours or days questioning them; they can explore their symptoms in any detail they like; they can do anything it takes (other than give them real medicine, of course).

Now divide the group in half (ideally with roughly equal types of illness, age, sex and so on in each of the resulting two groups); give the people in one group whatever the homeopaths advised for each of them on the basis of their personalised, holistic appraisal; take the other 50 and give them someone else's bottle of specially chosen dilute solution (it won't do them any harm: it's only water). And here's the critical point (the double-blind): don't tell either the homeopaths or the patients whether they are receiving their own treatment or someone else's. Now what happens?

We know what happens: it makes no difference. Experiments of this kind have been done again and again. The people given the wrong homeopathic solution get better just as often as the people upon whom time and effort was lovingly lavished to choose exactly the right subtle combination of spiritually attuned dilutions for their individual situation.

Homeopathy is bunkum; the time and effort are not. And there's the rub. Please, please let's use NHS money to provide more time for doctors instead of treatments we know don't work. If there is any money to spare on holistic practices and on caring for the whole patient, not just the symptoms, then let's give it to real nurses and doctors who use real medicine that actually works. Then they, too, will be able to lavish time and effort on their individual patients and bring about better medicine and a better NHS.

Mar 22, 2007

Keep it Down

Japanese hobbyists who want some quiet time but don't have the budget to renovate their homes are looking at other options. Yamaha, the world's largest manufacturer of musical instruments, began selling soundproof rooms for existing homes back in 2004. The standard size unit (1.4 m. wide, 1.8 m. deep, 2 m. high) goes for $3,700.

Building Blocks

Back in 2002, Japan approved the use of aluminum as a construction material (rather than just an exterior siding). Sensing an opportunity, a factory automation company called SUS launched a new business offering cube-like aluminum frames called “tsubomi” that can be arranged into stand-alone homes or used as attachments to existing abodes. A 27 cu.m. (952 cu. ft.) attachment costs $17,000, and can be assembled in a single day.

Hiroko Tashiro: Japan: Micro-Homes in the Big City

Small has always been beautiful in Japan, whether you think of the mini-component audio systems the country pioneered in the 1970s, its cultural love affair with miniaturized potted plants known as bonsai, or the current rage for small-engine mini-cars. Now you can add to the list the current home-design craze: ultra-compact micro-homes on plots so small they could fit into the garage space of your typical, sprawling McMansion in the U.S.

Living small is in, especially among younger Japanese with modest budgets who no longer want to cope with the grueling commutes by train from far-off suburbs outside Tokyo as their parents did. Demand for ultra-compact homes, known as kyo-sho-jutaku in Japanese, is likely a small portion right now of the $1.2 billion Japanese currently spend on homes designed by architects.
Staying Close to Top Schools

But architects, home design magazines, and even some major Japanese companies are starting to take notice of the trend. It is being driven by the surprising fact that, despite Japan's already astronomical (by international standards) land prices, the four prefectures that comprise the Tokyo metropolitan area are among the fastest-growing nationally.

Suitable land for housing in Tokyo is incredibly scarce, however. So some families are hiring architects to build the tiniest homes imaginable to live closer to the cultural amenities and excellent school systems available in Tokyo. "Recently, an increasing number of people, especially in their 30s and early 40s, desire to live in central Tokyo," says Shigeru Kimura, an independent real estate agent who specializes in micro-homes. "And more people are thinking of how to live on a small plot of land."

Scandal brews over China tea-for-urine samples

A group of Chinese reporters came up with a novel idea to test how greedy local hospitals were -- pass off tea as urine samples and submit the drink for tests.

The results: six out of 10 hospitals in Hangzhou, the capital of the rich coastal province of Zhejiang, visited by the reporters over a two-day period this month concluded that the patients' urinal tracts were infected.

Five of the hospitals prescribed medication costing up to 400 yuan ($50), the online edition of the semi-official China News Service ( said in a report seen on Wednesday. Of the hospitals, four were state-owned.

"It makes one shiver all over even though it's not cold," the China News Service said after its reporters and colleagues from Zhejiang Television tested the hospitals.
Reuters Pictures

The Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper said in a commentary on Wednesday: "Healthy people are diagnosed with diseases. Small ailments are said to be serious problems. Patients have become automatic teller machines for the hospitals."

The failure of health reforms and rising costs of medical care have sparked social discontent and become flashpoints for unrest in the world's most populous nation, where millions cannot afford to consult doctors or buy medicine.

Health Minister Gao Qiang has accused greedy hospitals of charging excessive fees and prescribing unnecessary and expensive medication.

Market reforms in the past two decades have cut off state subsidies to many hospitals and left the health care system in need of life support.

State media have reported patients committing suicide because they cannot afford exorbitant medical costs.

Mar 21, 2007

Judge tosses out Google PageRank lawsuit

A US judge has thrown out a lawsuit challenging the fairness of how web search leader Google calculates the popularity of websites in determining search results, court papers show.

In a ruling issued on Friday that came to light on Tuesday, Judge Jeremy Fogel of the US District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed a lawsuit against Google by parenting information site KinderStart.

The judge also imposed yet-to-be-determined sanctions on KinderStart legal counsel Gregory Yu for making unsupported allegations against Google.

KinderStart sued Google in March 2006 alleging the internet company had defamed the site by cutting it from its web search ranking system.

The ranking system, called PageRank, is an algorithm which weighs up the relative importance of links to a site from other sites and assigns a numerical rating out of ten - ten being the highest PageRank.

This then determines how visible a website is in a generic search. The higher the PageRank, the more likely a link to the website will be found when the search result is returned.

KinderStart, which features links to information about raising children, accused Google of violations of antitrust, free speech, unfair competition and defamation and libel laws.

In its suit, the company argued its site's sudden demotion in March 2005 to a "zero" ranking in Google's search system had severely harmed its business.

KinderStart had sought class action status on behalf of what is said were many other sites that suffered the same fate as Google fine-tunes website rankings in search results.

A whiff of polycarbonate and a pirate's cache is uncovered

Sniffer dogs in Malaysia have uncovered a cache of about one million pirated game and movie discs with a street value of roughly $US3 million., film industry officials said on Tuesday.

The fake DVDs were hidden along with replicating machines and other tools on four floors of an office building in the southern city of Johor Baru, neighbouring Singapore.

The find was the first major success for Lucky and Flo, two female black Labradors deployed last week as part of Malaysia's

battle on illegal recordings of music and movies, said Neil Gane, an official of the Motion Picture Association.

"Lucky and Flo were able to sniff under the doors - all the doors were locked, and many of them had metal grilles," Gane told Reuters.

"If they smelt polycarbonate, they would sit down. Then the officials used metal grinders and boltcutters to open the doors."

Malaysia, which figures on a U.S. watchlist on piracy, has dramatically stepped up efforts to rein in copyright pirates as it negotiates a free-trade pact with the United States.

The dogs are being given a month's trial by Malaysian officials in a joint effort with the Motion Picture Association, which groups six major Hollywood film companies.

Gerald Weissmann: Homeopathy: Holmes, Hogwarts, and the Prince of Wales

In May 2006, Prince Charles addressed the World Health Assembly in Geneva to argue for homeopathy and its kindred therapies. He urged a return to remedies "rooted in ancient traditions that intuitively understood the need to maintain balance and harmony with our minds, bodies and the natural world." He complained about modern biomedicine: "It seems to be that in our ceaseless rush to modernize, many tried and tested methods which have shown themselves be effective have been cast aside as old-fashioned or irrelevant to today’s needs." News flashed around the world: "CHARLES AT WAR WITH DOCTORS." (3) The Prince of Wales, whose oddball habit of "talking to plants" is widely mocked (4) , has been at war with medical science for some time. In 1985, he caused a stir by warning the British Medical Association that "the whole imposing edifice of modern medicine, for all its breathtaking successes is, like the celebrated Tower of Pisa, slightly off balance." Last year, he funded a commission headed by a bank executive as lacking in scientific credentials as the Prince himself, to "look at the effectiveness, especially from a financial point of view, of integrated healthcare." (6) The commission claimed that up to 480 million pounds could be cut from the prescription drugs bill of Britain’s National Health Service if 10% of primary care physicians offered homeopathy as an alternative to standard drugs. Of course, had 20% of the docs offered rose water to their patients, Britain could have saved a billion pounds.

British science struck back. Anticipating Prince Charles’s sermon in Geneva, thirteen of Britain’s most eminent physicians and scientists issued a widely quoted "Open Letter: Use of ‘Alternative’ Medicine in the NHS" (7) . The letter expressed concern over "ways in which unproven or disproved treatments are being encouraged for general use in Britain’s National Health Service." The signatories, who included three Fellows of the Royal Society, one Nobel Laureate (Sir James Black, FRS) and the son of another (Professor Gustav Born, FRS), cited the overt promotion of homeopathy by the NHS, including its official website. The Open Letter warned that "it would be highly irresponsible to embrace any medicine as though it were a matter of principle." Their position was supported by an extensive meta-analysis of the efficacy of homeopathy in The Lancet which documented that homeopathic regimens were no better than placebo for a wide variety of ailments (8) . The Open Letter also concluded that homeopathy "is an implausible treatment for which over a dozen systematic reviews have failed to produce convincing evidence of effectiveness." They should know: Sir James’s highly effective beta-blockers and H2 antagonists have kept more humans alive than any integrated crystal therapist, and if Gustav Born hadn’t worked out platelet aggregation, we’d have missed the aspirin effect in heart disease.

As for the Prince’s "financial point of view," Professor Michael Baum, another of the signatories, noted that Britain had spent 20 million pounds refurbishing the Royal Homeopathic Hospital. Had that sum of money been spent on making available herceptin and aromatase inhibitors, it could saved 600 lives a year in one health district alone (3) .

Prince Charles was unfazed—on the day the Open Letter was published, he stopped at St Tydfil’s Hospital in South Wales to watch alterative medicine at work. He accepted a "spiritual" crystal, as if he were Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of Hogwarts School, accepting the Philosopher’s Stone. Unlike Dumbledore, however, who only professed witchcraft and wizardry, Prince Charles called up every form of "integrative therapy" against Alzheimer’s disease (9) . One notes that when Prince Charles and other fans of unproven or disproved medical practices use terms such as "integrated therapy" or "alternative medicine," they’re following the lead of creationists who hide under the term "intelligent design"—these are all convenient slogans that permit the credulous to con the gullible.

Mar 20, 2007

Fruit juice doubles risk of obesity

PRIMARY schoolchildren who regularly consume juice and other fruit drinks are about twice as likely to be overweight or obese.

And the more juice children drink, the more likely they will be too fat, a Victorian study shows.

Conducted by researchers at Deakin University, the study shows that juice and other fruit drinks, including cordial, are a bigger problem than soft drink in childhood obesity.

A one-day snapshot showed that about 75 per cent of children drink at least one glass of juice and 25 per cent drink more than three glasses, while only 16 per cent consume soft drink.

"Soft drinks aren't really the issue in primary school children — it's fruit juice and drinks," study author Andrea Sanigorski said. "For kids up to about 12 years of age, parents may limit soft drinks but they may not be aware that fruit juice and drinks can be bad for their health as well."

The results are based on a survey of the diets of almost 2200 Victorian children.

Parents were asked what their children usually ate and drank, and what they had consumed the previous day.

The study found no link between weight and consumption of fast foods and packaged snacks. However, the link to fruit drinks, which contain some nutrients and vitamins, but are high in sugars, was stark.

Compared to the children who had not had any juice or fruit drinks the previous day, those who had two or three serves were 1.7 times more likely to be overweight or obese. Those who had more than four glasses were 2.1 times more likely to be too fat.

"It doesn't fill you up, you drink it often between meals and it just adds sugar to your diet. You have to question why children need it," Dr Sanigorski said. "But they are marketed as drinks for kids — I don't blame the parents."

Dr Suzy Honisett, manager of the Victorian Government's child health program, Kids Go For Your Life, said many parents and carers wrongly believed juice and fruit drinks were a healthy alternative to soft drinks.

"We are certainly aware of the issues around soft drinks and their role in childhood overweight and obesity, but fruit juice has slipped under the radar," she said.

"It is easy to believe that fruit juice is natural, healthy and full of vitamins (but) it contains concentrated sugars."

Concern is also growing over the impact of sugary drinks on children's teeth.

Fiona Preston, the health promotion manager at Dental Health Services Victoria, said reports were increasing of preschool children having their baby teeth removed because of decay, caused largely by sweet drinks including fruit juice.

"Fruit juice, fruit drinks and cordials are all as bad as each other because they all have high concentrations of sugar in them — whether it's natural or artificial it's still sugar. Particularly with young children, we suggest they should only be drinking water or milk," she said.

Mar 15, 2007

Label Change for All Sleep Disorder Drug Products

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has requested that all manufacturers of sedative-hypnotic drug products, a class of drugs used to induce and/or maintain sleep, strengthen their product labeling to include stronger language concerning potential risks. These risks include severe allergic reactions and complex sleep-related behaviors, which may include sleep-driving. Sleep driving is defined as driving while not fully awake after ingestion of a sedative-hypnotic product, with no memory of the event.

"There are a number of prescription sleep aids available that are well-tolerated and effective for many people," said Steven Galson, M.D., MPH, director of FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. "However, after reviewing the available post-marketing adverse event information for these products, FDA concluded that labeling changes are necessary to inform health care providers and consumers about risks."

In December 2006, FDA sent letters to manufacturers of products approved for the treatment of sleep disorders requesting that the whole class of drugs revise product labeling to include warnings about the following potential adverse events:

  • Anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction) and angioedema (severe facial swelling), which can occur as early as the first time the product is taken.
  • Complex sleep-related behaviors which may include sleep-driving, making phone calls, and preparing and eating food (while asleep).

FDA has been working with the product manufacturers over the past three months to update labeling, notify health care providers and inform consumers of these risks.

Along with the labeling revisions, FDA has requested that each product manufacturer send letters to health care providers to notify them about the new warnings. Manufacturers will begin sending these letters to providers starting this week.

In addition, FDA has requested that manufacturers of sedative-hypnotic products develop Patient Medication Guides for the products to inform consumers about risks and advise them of potential precautions that can be taken. Patient Medication Guides are handouts given to patients, families and caregivers when a medicine is dispensed. The guides will contain FDA-approved information such as proper use and the recommendation to avoid ingesting alcohol and/or other central nervous system depressants. When these Medication Guides are available, patients being treated with sleep medications should read the information before taking the product and talk to their doctors if they have questions or concerns. Patients should not discontinue the use of these medications without first consulting their health care provider.

Although all sedative-hypnotic products have these risks, there may be differences among products in how often they occur. For this reason, FDA has recommended that the drug manufacturers conduct clinical studies to investigate the frequency with which sleep-driving and other complex behaviors occur in association with individual drug products.

The medications that are the focus of the revised labeling include the following 13 products:

Ambien/Ambien CR (Sanofi Aventis)
Butisol Sodium (Medpointe Pharm HLC)
Carbrital (Parke-Davis)
Dalmane (Valeant Pharm)
Doral (Questcor Pharms)
Halcion (Pharmacia & Upjohn)
Lunesta (Sepracor)
Placidyl (Abbott)
Prosom (Abbott)
Restoril (Tyco Healthcare)
Rozerem (Takeda)
Seconal (Lilly)
Sonata (King Pharmaceuticals)

For more information on the sedative hypnotic products and sleep disorders, visit;

Mar 13, 2007

Google ordered to disclose users' identities

A US court in Dallas has issued a subpoena to Google, seeing information about the identity of the person or people responsible for uploading one video to YouTube and two to Google Video. The company behind the case is Magnolia Pictures, which is asserting distribution rights to horror movie "The Host", which was uploaded to Google Video ahead of its release this week.

Recent similar actions involving Google include News Corp's hunt for the people that posted episodes of "24" and "The Simpsons" on YouTube. And last year, at Magnolia's request a court ordered Google to remove "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room" from Google Video. Google officials have made no comment, other than to confirm the company has received the subpoena. In his blog, Magnolia co-owner Mark Cuban likened Google to the RIAA.

"The RIAA has always taken the route of intimidation. It has used its financial muscle to go after individuals they know can't fight them. They used the law to put entrepreneurs out of business and scare kids, parents and even grandparents."

How does that relate to Google?

"Google is doing the exact same thing. They aren't suing individuals and trying to collect money from them. Instead they are pushing the cost of doing business legally on copyright owners, 99pct of whom are tiny and can't afford to protect themselves."

Cuban's observation that "They [Google] feel they have the legal right to tell every person who makes a living based on their creative efforts that they have to do business the Gootube way and if you don't like it, sue us," was similar to comments subsequently made by Microsoft counsel Thomas Rubin in a speech to the Association of American Publishers:

"Google takes the position that everything may be freely copied unless the copyright owner notifies Google and tells it to stop... Since YouTube's inception, television companies, movie studios and record labels have all complained that the site knowingly tolerates piracy. In the face of YouTube's refusal to take any effective action, copyright owners have now been forced to resort to litigation. And Google has yet to come up with a plan to restrain the massive infringements on YouTube."

Is computer science dead?

IT professionals are too good at their jobs and now no one needs them. Lia Timson looks at the future of CSci. CHATHRA WICKRAMASINGHE has just completed a four-year honours degree in computer science. You would think her family would be proud. But they didn't want her to do it.

"My family and friends were saying, 'You will not get a job.' They said if I got one I was going to be a programmer's secretary, not a programmer," she says. "But I stuck with it. I wanted to prove to myself that I could really do it. "And I did it," she says excitedly on her first paid lunchbreak. She struck an IT graduate position in software programming at Centrelink in Canberra.

But such stories may become rare because some say computer science as a vocation is dying. In a recent article on the British Computer Society's website, computer science lecturer Neil McBride from De Montfort University in Leicester says there's a crisis in university computer science departments.

Dr McBride says the arrival of high-level tools means vastly complex applications for business, science and leisure can be created without the coding, logic or discrete mathematics skills taught at universities. Of course, the lack of IT students may be a hangover from the tech wreck.

Ms Wickramasinghe's course mate at Victoria's La Trobe University, Binh Nguyen, accepted a PhD offer to research artificial intelligence in gaming. He transferred from a commerce and science degree at Monash University to follow a path focused on IT. "Before we finished our degree, we heard many people talking about how few opportunities there were and how hard (the job market) was," Mr Nguyen says.

"Then, when we graduated, people were talking about how there were job offers. A large number of my friends have all been offered really good jobs in the industry."

He chose computer science because it allows him "to take my thoughts and create something that works".

While Ms Wickramasinghe, Mr Nguyen and their classmates have benefited from their persistence, hundreds of undergraduates are ignoring computing as a career, despite Australia's increasing dependence on technology, a national IT staff shortage and society's infatuation with gadgets.

The broad trend is drifting down. Tertiary enrolments are at a seven-year low at NSW universities - with a similar downturn recorded in Victoria and Queensland - regardless of institutions' efforts to attract students and some isolated increases in this year's intake.

Heads of IT schools blame the decline on the dotcom bust and the reluctance of parents to picture an IT future for their children.

Mar 11, 2007

Frozen food danger for children

WORLD-first research by Melbourne experts has found that frozen food may be the cause of a dramatic rise in immune disorders in children. Studies reveal a bacteria that thrives in freezing temperatures is present in almost half of Victoria's cases of childhood chronic inflammatory bowel disease. Murdoch Children's Research Institute and Royal Children's Hospital experts proved Mycobacterium avium paratuberculosis is present in the digestive system in about half of newly diagnosed cases of Crohn's disease.

It is also found in cattle and it is the first time it has been linked to Crohn's disease in children. More than 45,000 Australians diagnosed with the incurable disease and the youngest patient is only two. The breakthrough research could relieve sufferers, who have difficulty eating and can have weight loss, diarrhoea, fatigue and stunted growth. “The worldwide increase in Crohn's disease far exceeds anything that can be explained by a genetic predisposition alone,” RCH head of gastroenterology Dr Tony Catto-Smith said.

“We know the bug is present in our environment. And 41 of the 100 CD cases have the bug present in blood, and biopsy suggests some form of association. Whether this bacteria is the trigger is unknown, though.”

Mar 7, 2007

Voice biometrics replaces ID check at AHM

Health insurer Australian Health Management deployed a biometric voice recognition system that has enabled the firm's customers to avoid any authentication-related questions which usually precede an account query or claim.

AHM, which has 128,000 members and is Australia's eighth largest insurer, has been using the voice recognition system for three months and the company claims that both customers and call centre agents are happier because they no longer need to go through the laborious authentication process, which requires the customer to recite their name, date of birth, address and more.

Customers who have registered to use the system simply say their ID number to the voice recognition system, which then automatically puts the caller through to an agent, according to Melinda Charlesworth, operations manager at AHM.

"When [registered members] call, they just say their membership number and then they are put through to an agent. The agent sees their membership number, sees if they are verified or not and knows who they are speaking to," said Charlesworth at a luncheon in Sydney yesterday.

Another benefit of the system is that it also relieves the call centre agent from having to ask repetitive and annoying questions every time.

"The agents love it because they are not having to say, 'before we start, can I have your date of birth etc'. instead it's, 'hello Mr Jones, how can I help you'," said Charlesworth.

The voice recognition system was developed by VeCommerce, an Australian company that was acquired by call centre operator Salmat last year for just under AU$30 million.

According to VeCommerce, the technology is already being used within military and governmental departments as well as by organisations such as betting firm UNiTAB and financial services giant Suncorp.

VeCommerce managing director Paul Magee admitted that voice recognition solutions have not been implemented very well in the past. However, he claims that if they are used for the correct purpose they can prove extremely useful.

Mar 4, 2007

Did Stillnox kill this man?

A MAN who fell 30 metres to his death from a high-rise unit balcony had been taking the controversial sleeping pill Stilnox.

Jonathon William Mark died on February 17 after tumbling from the balcony of his 12th-floor unit at North Sydney.

Police from Harbourside command said Mr Mark, 37, had been prescribed the drug, which has been linked to a range of unsettling side effects in Australian patients, including binge eating and bizarre behaviour. His death was not being treated as suicide, police said.

On the night of February 16, Mr Mark - a passionate snowboarder and traveller who married late last year - was out with friends.

Early the next morning, his wife, Sara, left him sleeping and went shopping.

Police said a witness is reported to have seen Mr Mark climbing onto the balcony railing after 7am. The witness shouted for him to get down. After initially clambering down Mr Mark climbed up again. It is believed he fell about 7.30am.

A police spokesman said investigators were not drawing any conclusions about Mr Mark's behaviour in the moments before his death. He said the link with Stilnox was being investigated. The night out might also have provided contributing factors.

It would be up to the coroner to determine the primary cause of death.

Mr Mark's death was preceded by a Therapeutic Goods Administration report of 16 cases of odd behaviour from people sleepwalking after taking Stilnox.

Last month, the Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee's bulletin to all Australian doctors issued a reminder warning of the "bizarre sleep-related effects" of the drug.

The committee received two reports suggesting patients might have driven while asleep, while some patients experienced hallucinations and memory loss.

One patient gained 23 kilograms over seven months while taking Stilnox. She was discovered eating in front of an open refrigerator while asleep. Another patient "woke with a paintbrush in her hand after painting the front door while asleep".

On Friday, the pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis, which released Stilnox in Australia, declined to comment as Mr Mark's death was under police investigation.

Last month, Sanofi-Aventis's Australia-New Zealand medical director, Gordon Hirsch, told ABC Radio hallucinations, memory loss and sleepwalking were known side effects of Stilnox and were highlighted in the product information leaflet.

"Hallucinations and memory loss, for example, are uncommon so they would occur in less than one in 1000 people taking the drug and sleepwalking, for example, is reported as rare, so that would occur in less than 1 per cent of patients," Mr Hirsch said.

"And to date, the numbers of patients that have reported side effects while using Stilnox in Australia are well within these figures."

Mar 2, 2007

Google: Click fraud costs us $1 billion a year

Google today unveiled more details about the percentage of click fraud on its network and what it plans to do to combat it.

Overall, Google said on its Adwords blog that invalid clicks represent less than 10 percent of all clicks. However, that percentage can add up.

"At Google’s current revenue rate, every percentage point of invalid clicks we throw out represents over $100 million/year in potential revenue foregone," said Google. Add it up and Google forgoes roughly $1 billion in revenue due to click fraud.

In its blog, Google argues that its real time click fraud filters catch most abuses as a way to optimize ROI on ads. That means complaints from advertisers about click fraud are "misunderstandings" in many cases.

Mar 1, 2007

Mark Coultan: Let's shout * # to those who evade phone calls

HILLARY CLINTON rang me recently. She wanted money. Apart from the fact that I'm not an American citizen, or a voter, I thought I should tell her that there are strict rules about accepting campaign contributions from foreigners. Unfortunately, she didn't seem to be listening. Which wasn't surprising, considering it was a recording.

My mobile phone service provider rang the other day. It was a very pleasant-sounding woman's voice, (they are almost always a woman's voice) reminding me that I hadn't paid the bill. Would I like to pay it now? She would wait for me while I got my credit card details. Just press 1.

Yes, I said. "Please enter the last four digits of the primary account holder's social security number," she said. I did. She said she didn't recognise them, please hold while a customer service representative comes on the line.

When a man's voice - a real man's voice - came on the line, he asked for my name and account number. I told him that he had rung me, so he should know who I am.

Companies have become very adept at using technology to ring you. But it's a different matter when you ring them.

America has become a country of computer voices, of endless, dead-end phone trees and, in the drive for cost reduction, customer service hell.

America invented the service economy, then quietly abolished it. Somewhere in the middle of the internet revolution the telephone has become a one-way communications device.

If you happen to get a switchboard operator, they act more like bodyguards than receptionists. As they put you through, they will warn you that the person you want to speak to is not there (this actually means they are there, but won't answer the phone.) Instead, you get the voicemail, which suggests that you can email them.

Search the websites of big companies and you will be lucky to find a phone number. The "contact us" menu will give you an email prompt. If there is a number it will be for sales, not customer service.

Companies are actively dissuading people from ringing. While waiting for someone to pick up, you get messages such as: "You can access our website to answer most questions."

Phone trees have become so bad that they have spawned a whole new service industry; companies that will negotiate the phone tree for you and ring you back when they get the right person. There are also websites that list the shortcuts to get you to a human being. Companies have become awake to this and change their phone trees regularly. You know the message: "Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed."

Stephen Withers : Web 2.0 Trojan hits forums and web mail

A variant of the Mespam Trojan (aka SpamToo-U) is being distributed via the botnet created by the Storm (aka Peacomm) worm. Because the new malware operates at a very low level - the malicious links are added just before Windows sends outgoing packets to the network - there is no obvious sign of what's happening on the infected computer.

Affected services include the widely used VBulletin and phpBB forum software plus web mail by AOL, Bellsouth, EarthLink, FastMail, Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo and other popular providers. Mespam also sends malicious links in instant messages via AOL Instant Messenger, Google Talk and Yahoo Messenger.

"It will become a real threat in the future if the bad guys behind Mespam and Peacomm add code to spread over other popular Web channels (e.g. injecting malicious content while posting on YouTube, Myspace, RSS feed, or while using Google Office on the Web)," wrote Symantec's Elia Florio. At the time of Symantec's analysis, the malicious URLs all pointed to 'online postcard' sites, but the links and messages can easily be changed by the attackers.