Jul 31, 2007

Multiple sclerosis findings could help pinpoint cause

Gene hunters from the USA and Europe have located two genes that appear to increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis, studies released Sunday show.

The findings are widely expected to help scientists figure out what causes MS, a baffling disease of the central nervous system that afflicts about 350,000 people in the USA. The hope is that new knowledge will lead to the development of more targeted treatments, says Jonathan Haines, director of the Center for Human Genetics Research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

"We've been trying to identify the genetic basis of MS for a long time," Haines says. Researchers discovered one gene in the 1970s called HLA (human leukocyte antigen) that raises the risk of developing MS, and they knew that other genes probably play a role, he says.

But the intense search to find them has been disappointing — until now.

In the July 29 online edition of Nature Genetics, Haines and his colleagues pored over previous studies to identify genes that appeared to have a role in the disease. They then collected blood from more than 10,000 people, MS patients and healthy subjects alike.

Melbourne Health builds networked images database

One of Victoria's largest public health providers, Melbourne Health, is preparing to go live with an integrated medical images application that allows access to disparate data sources through one interface. The Molecular Medicine Informatics Model, or MMIM, project began as a way of integrating health research data collated by clinicians in different institutions. MMIM is also an IT platform that links heterogeneous data sources, according to Melbourne Health senior database administrator Naomi Rafael.

Data from sites in NSW, Canberra, and Victoria will also be integrated into MMIM when it comes online in a few months. "About half the images are brain scans and with about 45,000 consultations there are over seven million images," Rafael said. Melbourne Health had three basic requirements for the technology that would underpin MMIM. The first was the ability to store images, second was to extract image header information on demand, and third was it had to be "economically viable and sustainable".

Rafael searched for a possible solution and four possibilities. One was deemed to be too expensive and proprietary, while others were open source and only ran on Linux.

Ben Woodhead: Moving from tape to database

HOSPITALS across Australia are sitting on vast repositories of clinical information, from patient records to medical images, that clinicians and researchers are clamouring to get their hands on. In a bid to answer the call, public healthcare provider Melbourne Health has launched a project aimed at moving an archive of 7 million medical resonance images (MRIs) from data tapes and into a live environment.

Melbourne Health has hooked up with the $16 million Bio21:MMIM (Molecular Medicine Informatics Model) Project to complete the initiative, which has also caught the eye of database giant Oracle. "The program was prompted by some of the clinicians in neurosciences who are working with brain images," Bio21:MMIM senior database administrator and technical lead Naomi Rafael says.

"They found it would be very helpful to them to be able to have access to old images that were offline and stored on digital audio tapes in a library." Melbourne Health has collected MRI images on DATs since the mid-1990s and has about 7 million records from 30MB to 300MB stored on 1000 tapes. The huge volume of images poses a number of challenges and the organisations looked at several possible solutions, including a fully fledged picture-archiving and communication system (PACS), which is used by hospitals to manage x-rays, MRIs and other medical scans.

A PACS was ruled out as too expensive for the project, and other proposals were found to be too complicated. That led Melbourne Health and Rafael to Oracle's 10g database as the preferred choice. Oracle has since approached Melbourne Health to be a beta customer for its 11g release, due next month.

Melbourne Health has tested 11g on Linux with about 7000 MRI images and is now all but certain to go ahead with an 11g rollout when the final product is available. However, it is likely to take several months to load the 7 million images into the new database, and records will need to be duplicated with patient information removed for research purposes.

"We haven't done it on a volume level yet because we're waiting for the 11g general release before we implement in the total size of the number of images," Rafael says.

"It's not going to be something that can be done in a few hours. It's going to be over weeks or even perhaps months. "But because it's a research platform and not a patient service platform we have the time." Ms Rafael's comments came as Oracle cranked up the marketing engine for the launch of 11g.

Oracle Australia database business development senior manager Barry Matthews says the company expects universities and organisations with heavy multimedia requirements to be among the early adopters of the new platform.

Enterprises such as banks are likely to follow at a much later date.

Stable jobs can be hard to find despite the talent shortage

IF YOU are looking for work and keep missing out because of the number of "high-calibre applicants", don't take it personally. Despite the current skills shortage and for all the talk of there being a "war for talent", it is not the case everywhere.


Adaptability paid off for Jeanette Cameron (right, with Angela Hume). Picture: Richard Cisar-Wright

The good news for employers is that there are many people willing and able to work, should they look outside the square.

Skilled people who may find it hard to get jobs include the mature-aged, immigrants and women who have taken time out from the workforce to be carers. With people over the age of 50, or even from the mid-40s, the difficulties can be exacerbated by a perception that they could be difficult to manage, or lack the technological know-how to work in a modern setting. And it doesn't help that HR workers, the first point of contact for many potential employees, are often in their late 20s or early 30s.

There can also be a perception that parents wanting to return to work who have favoured part-time or flexible arrangements may not be committed to the job. However, employers are increasingly open to the idea of flexible hours, with some encouraging a healthy work/life balance as a way of keeping employees happy and productive.

Finding satisfying, full-time or stable employment can be hard. And although the economy is robust, people wanting a career change should be patient: employers are not necessarily less picky. In fact, some may draw out the recruiting process to get a person with the right "fit".

While there are high across-the-board levels of demand for workers, areas exist where there is actually a skills oversupply.

Change tack when tide's against you
FORMER IT worker Jeanette Cameron never had a problem getting a job until the company she was working for went bust. Cameron, 44, previously a business operations manager, says when applying for jobs she avoided putting her age on the CV. She says while no one at interviews told her why she did not get the jobs, in an industry that was largely young and male-dominated it seemed obvious she was being rejected because of age and gender.
It took Cameron almost a year to find work -- an unfamiliar experience for someone who had always secured any job she applied for, and who had also been headhunted.. "It just got me to the point where I thought, 'Will anybody want me?"'
During her unemployment Cameron had only considered positions in areas she had worked in before, until her Job Network caseworker suggested call centres -- an intake at GE Money was targeting the mature-aged.
GE adapted its standard recruitment process by working with the job-placement agency to offer interview training, including tips on how to answer behavioural questions, and created a more relaxed and informal interview style.
She got a job with GE last year and benefited from an adapted training and induction program in which successful candidates were given more time to learn new technologies.
Cameron, who has progressed from answering customer enquiries from the Melbourne headquarters to supervising new staff, loves her new job.
"It's quite interesting for me because I am now seeing it (financial services) from the other side," she says. "It's one of the friendliest places I have ever worked."
Vivienne Reiner

Senior industry analyst Mark Ganz from strategic business information provider IBISWorld says there are three key areas that are experiencing an oversupply: agriculture, wholesaling and various parts of manufacturing.

In agriculture, the effects of the drought are made worse by increasing automation. Wholesaling is struggling because there is a tendency these days for retailers to deal directly with manufacturers. In manufacturing, jobs are going overseas as companies shift plants to countries with cheaper labor costs.

But with a national unemployment rate of less than 5 per cent there are many opportunities in other areas, and the outlook is good for the next five years: "The picture is good for 95 per cent of the market."

It is an outlook the Minister for Workforce Participation, Sharman Stone, concedes. She advises employers struggling to fill vacancies that assistance is available across a range of special needs groups, including the spectrum of people with disabilities. And there are numerous links on dedicated government websites to specialist job-placement agencies as well as to tailored advice for both employers and job-seekers. Pre-employment training can be organised, and employers may access wage subsidies while new workers settle in: "There's an enormous amount of government support all trying to assist a business to move forward," Stone says.

Stone, who describes the employment landscape as lumpy, says there are 2.5 million people of working age on welfare, many of whom would make "very able employees".

Dale Simpson is executive director of career management consultancy EPR, which has worked with government and corporations, and also mentors executives who want a change of pace. Simpson has a positive outlook, saying there is still time to avoid a long-term skills shortage. "Certainly the information we are getting is it's more about a skills imbalance," Simpson says.

However, he says unless government, employers and individuals change their behaviour, the skills problems will remain. It is important for employers to focus more on retaining staff by offering attractive conditions and hiring people who will stay for a long time, Simpson says.

Mature-age workers fill a niche because they tend to have a low turnover rate and are often happy to downshift, so employers do not have to work so hard at offering career progression.

While it can take some time for organisations to change entrenched behaviour, job seekers can take matters in their own hands by ensuring they pursue a career that is right for them. But they have to do their research: "There are so many people out there that know they're skilled, but they have no idea where they can apply them (their skills)," Simpson says.

He warns that there is no set timetable for people wanting to move in a new direction. To increase the chances of success, Simpson suggests job-seekers work on skills such as networking, since most jobs are not advertised, and interview technique. People who try to prove to an employer that they are right for the job set up an adversarial situation. Instead, the interview should be approached like a conversation.


A world-class water gun

Just when you're starting to lose hope that the younger generation will ever amount to anything; just when you're asking yourself: ''Where are the leaders of tomorrow? Where is the next John Kennedy, the next John Wayne, the next John Denver, the next John LeMasters, who attended Pleasantville High School with me and was very good at math?''; just when you're starting to think that the most significant contributions that today's young people will make to society will be in the field of body-piercing; just when you're about to give up in total despair, some young person, when you least expect it, sends you a world-class water gun.

It also commands respect. At one point, two young men pulled up in a classic Bad Dude car -- low to the ground, windows tinted with what appeared to be roofing tar, sound system thumping out bass notes loud enough to affect the Earth's rotation. They stopped and got out, apparently intending to use the air compressor; but just then, Rob came around the front of my car, silver-coated, gold-helmeted, shooting a blast of water over the gas station roof. The Bad Dudes were clearly startled, although they recovered and tried to look extremely unimpressed, as if to say, ''Ho-hum, another Human Fire Hydrant.'' Then they coolly, but quickly, got back into their boombox car and thumped on out of there.

So we're talking about a powerful new technology here, and I've been pondering how it can best be used to benefit humanity in general, and I think I've figured out the ultimate use for The Ultimate Water Gun: Cigar Control.

As you know, cigars are now the ''in'' thing, with hip, fashionable, ''with-it'' sophisticates lighting up in restaurants and bars, apparently not realizing that, to the many, many people who don't care for cigars, it smells as though somebody has set an armpit on fire. (I am referring here to your cheaper cigar. Your more expensive cigar smells as though somebody has set a more expensive armpit on fire.)

Of course, polite cigar smokers (and there are many) refrain from lighting up where others will unwillingly smell their smoke. But there seems to be a growing group of people -- let's reach deep into our bag of euphemisms and call them ''jerks'' -- who seem to enjoy lighting up in public places; who talk loudly and proudly about their cigars, as if they truly believe that the rest of us are impressed with a person capable of emitting this level of stench.

So picture this: You're in a restaurant, and a jerk lights up, and suddenly all the food tastes like cigar. You're wishing that somebody (not you; you don't want any trouble) would tell this guy exactly what he can do with his cigar; just then-wham! -- the door bursts open, and there he is, his silver coat reflecting the candlelight -- the Cigar Avenger! His gold helmet turns slowly, scanning the room, and suddenly he squeezes his hand trigger and -- whooossh! -- the jerk is drenched from head to foot, with what looks like a wad of dead seaweed hanging limply from his clenched teeth.

As the surrounding diners break into applause, the jerk (he might be a lawyer) sputters: ``This restaurant has no policy against cigar smoking!''

And the Cigar Avenger calmly replies: ``This restaurant also has no policy against extinguishing cigars with a powerful stream of water from a helmet-mounted spray nozzle.''

And then, in a twinkle of silver, he is gone. Probably he is gone to get a hernia operation, because that thing is heavy.

Jul 30, 2007

The Ultimate Diagnostic Device

In April 1989, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an audacious goal. In a report titled A Strategic Plan for the Elimination of Tuberculosis in the United States, the CDC declared that by the end of the 20th century, the number of TB cases in the US would drop to 10,000 a year — down from 22,000 in 1985. And by 2010, the scourge would be eradicated from our shores. "A great nation such as ours can carry out this plan," the authors wrote with an enthusiasm unusual for the buttoned-up agency. "It is time to commit to a tuberculosis-free society!"

It was stirring rhetoric — but that's about all. Instead of falling, cases of TB initially shot up, reaching almost 27,000 in 1992. In 2000, instead of 10,000 cases nationwide, there were still nearly 17,000. The surprising trend, revealed in a 1999 assessment of the plan's failure, could be attributed to several factors. For one thing, the arrival of HIV created an immunity-compromised population acutely susceptible to infection. For another, state and local agencies, misreading the statistics and assuming TB was under control, scaled back their surveillance, screening, and treatment programs. Meanwhile, the CDC hadn't recognized the emergence of new strains of TB that proved impervious to courses of typical antibiotics.

All of these problems could have been addressed by better detection and diagnosis. But the CDC was slow to spot new risks and slower yet to bolster its network for monitoring infectious disease.

Almost 20 years after the CDC's plan, our inability to diagnose and track infectious disease quickly and accurately remains a serious problem. Take the case of Andrew Speaker, the Atlanta attorney with drug-resistant TB whose international odyssey was front-page news this past spring. Using conventional diagnostics, it took the CDC six months of repeated testing to diagnose Speaker with multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, or MDR TB. That lag meant he was wandering about, potentially exposing thousands to a deadly strain of TB untreatable with most antibiotics. Better diagnostics would spot such a risk earlier. What's more, the fact that Speaker was able to evade quarantine and then slip back into the country demonstrates the inadequacy of our surveillance network. Better diagnostics could improve screening at airports and border crossings. And though Speaker’s illness was a novelty in the US, MDR TB and the more deadly XDR TB (short for extensively drug-resistant) are despairingly common worldwide, with more than 400,000 new cases every year, according to the World Health Organization. Better diagnostics would give health authorities a weapon to stop that march. 1

The traditional way to do a quick diagnostic test for TB hasn't changed much since Robert Koch first identified the bacteria under his microscope in 1882. The technique, known as sputum microscopy, calls for sticking a piece of bloody phlegm under a microscope, adding a stain, and looking for the bacteria. That method takes only a few hours but misses about half of all cases. For a definitive diagnosis, labs still rely on the gold-standard technique: a culture. This was first developed by Julius Petri in 1877: Place the sputum in a dish, add nutrients, and let it sit for a few weeks. If there's TB, the sample will grow a colony of telltale bacteria. To use the terms of epidemiology, this method has 97 percent specificity (meaning it catches 97 percent of true negatives) and 80 percent sensitivity (meaning 20 percent of negative tests are actually true positives). Those figures are considered quite high, standing as benchmarks for any competing test.

Jul 26, 2007

Diesel is our future, says Ford chief

he Australian automotive industry's future is in diesel power, according to Ford Australia president Tom Gorman.

Addressing the Australian British Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne, Mr Gorman said the industry's ever-changing global market was often dictated by emerging technology and better fuels to address climate change.

Mr Gorman, who last week announced the axing of 600 jobs at his company's Geelong plant, said the environment was an obvious challenge and diesel engine development would play a crucial role.

"At the moment, the issue really is around CO2 more than anything and the big opportunity on a CO2 basis is diesel," he said.

"They are looking at a 20 per cent improvement of CO2 emissions but I think this is one of the issues ... that we just need to keep an eye on and see where diesels go from here."

Mr Gorman said the latest diesel technology produced first-rate performance.

"These are not old, industrial, loud and smelly, you're getting incredible low-end torque, there's great performance feel in the cars," Mr Gorman said.

"Plus a lot of people want to adopt the latest technology, so that's where the growth is coming on the car side at the moment."

Mr Gorman said there was the potential for diesel engines to be fitted in all Ford models.

Jul 25, 2007

Rapid response to pig disease

Vietnam must speed investigations into a pig disease that has struck 42 people killing two, the agriculture minister said, calling for urgent measures to contain the bacteria.

Cao Duc Phat told health officials at a meeting that initial assessments showed the disease caused by Streptococcus suis bacteria had spread in the country, the Vietnam Agriculture newspaper reported on Tuesday.

The bacteria emerged only recently in the country of 85 million people, infecting 22 people in the northern provinces followed by 20 in the southern region.

Animal health authorities nationwide should increase disease surveillance, work out treatment measures for pigs and publish information to raise public awareness, Phat said.

"Since the disease involving Streptococcus suis bacteria is directly related to human health and the development of the husbandry sector so we need to act urgently, without any delay," Phat was quoted as saying at the Monday meeting.

He urged officials to check if there were any links between the Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS) virus, also known as Lelystad virus that has infected more than 27,000 pigs in the central region, and the Streptococcus suis bacteria.

People catch the bacteria after coming into direct contact either by hand or eating pork from a sick pig, Nguyen Hong Ha deputy head of the National Institute for Infectious and Tropical Diseases, said in a Voice of Vietnam radio broadcast.

The bacteria causes rapid internal haemorrhage and high fever and can develop meningitis, septicaemia and endocarditis in the next stage leading to death or deafness if the victim survives.

Eating pig blood pudding -- a popular dish to go with rice wine in rural Vietnam areas -- is extremely dangerous due to high density of the bacteria in blood, Ha said.

"For the sake of the community and our future we should not try to sell (the sick pig), it must be destroyed," he said.

Jul 24, 2007

Toyota's ranks high in deadly car list

THE world's biggest study of the safety of used cars shows one-in-six older vehicles on Australian roads are potential death traps.

Monash University researchers examined data from 2.8 million vehicle crashes over 18 years, rating 279 vehicle types for how well they protected occupants and avoided injury to other road users, including pedestrians.

Road safety groups today used the new data to urge vehicle purchasers to check the safety performance of vehicles before buying their way into trouble.

The study found almost a third (77) vehicles failed the safety test, while the 48 vehicles were slated as "significantly worse than average", with the group dominated by light and small vehicles.

Occupants are 26 times more likely to die or be seriously injured in a Daihatsu Hi-Jet, built from 1982-1990 compared to the safest used car, a VW Passat built from 1998-2005.

The vehicles to avoid in the used car lot include the:
# Mitsubishi Cordia 1983-1987;
# Ford Falcon XE/XF 1982-1988;
# Mitsubishi Starwagon/L300 1983-1986;
# Toyota Tarago 1983-1989; and the,
# Toyota Hiace/Liteace 1982-1995.

SIM '100-point checks' get police thumbs up

The NSW Police Commissioner, Ken Moroney, has called for security checks on buying a SIM card to be as tight as those around opening a bank account. Moroney said that SIM card purchases should be subject to the same 100-point check as bank accounts, where applicants are required to produce identification such as a passport or a birth certificate, in order to help the police trace any criminal activity later associated with the mobile number.

The idea was first proposed at the a meeting of the joint committee on the Australian Crime Commission into the impact of serious organised crime last month, where Moroney told the committee he believes the 100-point check would aid policing. "It seems that their acquisition, purchase and distribution [is] so [easy] and could be equally as regulated in terms of providing an appropriate means of identification, in terms of the acquisition," Moroney told the ABC, adding that criminal gangs can change their SIM cards several times a day.

In last month's committee hearing, Elizabeth Foulger, Manager, Intelligence, at the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission said that SIMs are regularly registered by users in false names as some SIM card sellers do not require identification to activate an account. Foulger added some such resellers have links to organised crime rings.

Poetic license, with no rhyme or reason

Recently, I got a very nice computer-generated letter from an outfit called The National Library of Poetry.

''Dear Dave,'' the letter begins. ''Over the past year or so, we have been reviewing the thousands of poems submitted to us, as well as examining the poetic accomplishments of people whose poetry has been featured in various anthologies released by other poetry publishers. After an exhaustive examination of this poetic artistry, The National Library of Poetry has decided to publish a collection of new poems written by THE BEST POETS we have encountered. ''I am pleased to tell you, Dave, that you have been selected to appear in this special edition: ''Best Poems of 1995.'' ... The poem which you will submit for this edition has been accepted for publication sight unseen on the basis of your previous poetic accomplishments.''

You talk about feeling honored. It's not every day that a person who does not, technically, write poetry is selected as one of the top poets for a year that has not, technically, occurred yet.

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking. You're thinking, 'Dave, you wienerhead, they don't really think you're a leading poet. They got your name from some mailing list, and they'll publish any drivel you send in because what they REALLY want to do is throw a book together and then sell it to a bunch of pathetic loser wanna-be 'poets' for some absurdly inflated price like $50.''

Well, that just shows how much YOU know. Because it turns out that ''Best Poems of 1995'' is now available at a special pre-publication discount price of just $49.95. But listen to what you get: You get ''a superb collection of over 3,000 poems on every topic,'' as well as ''an heirloom quality publication'' with ''imported French marbleized covers.''

I called the number listed on The National Library of Poetry letterhead; a pleasant-sounding woman answered, and I asked her which specific poetic accomplishments of mine the judges had reviewed before selecting me as one of the Best Poets.

''Um,'' she said, ''we don't have that available right now. All that information is closed in a backup file system.''

I frankly have had very few poetic accomplishments. I once thought about writing poems for a line of thoughtful greeting cards, but I finished only one, which went:

''Thinking of you

''At this special time

''And hoping your organ

''Removal went fine.''

Of course, I have to produce an entirely new poem for ''Best Poems of 1995.'' I asked the woman at The National Library of Poetry if there were any special literary criteria involved; she said the only one was that the poem had to be, quote, ''20 lines or less.''

I was happy to hear that. If there's one thing I hate, it's a long poem. And if there's another thing I hate, it's a poem wherein the poet refuses to tell you what the hell he's talking about. For example, when I was an English major in college, we spent weeks trying to get a handle on an extremely dense poem called ''The Waste Land'' by T.S. Eliot, only to conclude, after endless droning hours of classroom discussion, that the poem was expressing angst about the modern era. I felt like calling Eliot up and saying, 'Listen, T.S., the next time you want to express angst, just EXPRESS it, OK? Just say 'Yo! I'm feeling some angst over here!' ''

I believe that if some of your former big-name poets such as Homer and Milton (neither of whom, to my knowledge, was invited to be in ''Best Poems of 1995'') had observed The National Library of Poetry's 20-line limit, their careers would be in a lot better shape today.

Anyway, I wrote a poem for ''Best Poems of 1995.'' I call it, simply, ''Love.'' Here it is:

''O love is a feeling that makes a person strive

''To crank out one of the Best Poems of 1995;

''Love is what made Lassie the farm dog run back to the farmhouse to alert little Timmy's farm family whenever little Timmy fell into a dangerous farm pit;

''Love is a feeling that will not go away, like a fungus in your armpit;

''So the bottom line is that there will always be lovers

''Wishing to express their love in an heirloom quality book with imported French marbleized covers;

''Which, at $49.95 a pop multiplied by 3,000 poets

''Works out to gross literary revenues of roughly $150,000, so it's

''A good bet that whoever thought up the idea of publishing this book

''Doesn't care whether this last line rhymes.''

I sent this poem in to the folks at The National Library of Poetry.

And T.S., if you send something in, for God's sake, keep it simple.

Jul 23, 2007

The Complete Map Of Web 2.0

The folks over at design company iA have created a really cool map of Web 2.0 companies using the look and feel of a Japanese subway map. Train lines have been converted into site categories and each locale is accompanied by a slick little weather forecast icon.

Interestingly, the areas saddled with stormy weather icons are Yahoo and MSN. I love this piece of work and I wish it were on a t-shirt so I could buy it. Right now there are several versions available online including interactive, downloadable gifs and screensavers.

Killer compounds in toothpaste. Fish laced with antibiotics and bacteria.

DEADLY chemicals in pet food. Killer compounds in toothpaste. Fish laced with antibiotics and bacteria. Cheap, tainted food exports from China have triggered a worldwide scare that has not been allayed by the execution of Zheng Xiaoyu, the former head of the communist country's food and drug administration, for taking about $1 million in bribes to approve new drugs, including substandard medicine blamed for several deaths. Zheng's execution signals a major crackdown by China on its chaotic food and drug industries following a spate of scandals from fake drugs to chemically tainted food.

Fears over Chinese products began last year after dozens of deaths in Panama were linked to medicine contaminated with diethylene glycol, a chemical used in antifreeze that can cause kidney failure, paralysis and death. Overseas regulators came down hard, particularly in the US where the bulk of cases have come to light. In the past 12 months the US Food and Drug Administration has rejected 1901 shipments of food and cosmetics from China.

Quarantine officials in the US have been given orders to seek and destroy tainted foods, and importers are required to get tough with their Chinese suppliers. US President George W. Bush moved to ease fears, saying: "I've called together key members of my cabinet to review the procedures in place, the regulations in place, the practice in place to make sure that our food supply remains the safest in the world."

In Australia, imports of cheap Chinese foodstuffs have skyrocketed. China is one of the top five food exporters to Australia, and figures supplied by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show that imports have grown 263 per cent in just six years - up from $133 million in 2000 to almost $450million last year. In 2006 China shipped $288 billion in merchandise to the US.

At the top of the Australian list are crustaceans, followed by cereal, fruit juice, preserved vegetables and confectionary. They are largely cheap top-ups to products usually supplied by now drought-stricken fruit and vegetable farmers or aquaculturists unable to meet local demand for prawns.

So far, Australian regulators have demanded the national recall of only one product from China, toothpaste containing diethylene glycol.

The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service says no Chinese imports have been confiscated since the food safety scares emerged in the US and other nations.

That sense of calm extends to the government regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand, which gives AQIS its riding orders.

According to FSANZ spokeswoman Lydia Bookman it's a given that any food from any source sold in Australia is safe. Part of the reason for such confidence is that regulators and inspectors have been monitoring pests and diseases for decades. It's all part of the effort to maintain the nation's high "phyto-security" standards and protect the environment and agricultural industries from foreign pests and microbes.

AQIS visually inspects imported foods and checks that labelling requirements are met. Categories of food nominated by FSANZ are tested, depending on the potential risk they pose to consumers.

All consignments of high-risk foods, such as raw prawns, are initially inspected and sampled for testing. Once five consecutive consignments have passed inspection, the rate of inspection and testing is reduced to 25 per cent of consignments from that source. After 20 consecutive consignments have been given the green light, the rate is reduced to just 5 per cent of consignments from that supplier. If a supplier has a clean record, and contaminates are detected, 100 per cent of its shipments will again be tested.

Foods designated as less hazardous by FSANZ are tested randomly at rates of 10 per cent and 5 per cent of consignments, depending on the product.

But according to University of Tasmania microbiologist Tom Ross the existing system does not provide 100 per cent certainty that imported foods on grocery shelves are safe to eat. "It's a trade-off," says Ross, formerly deputy director of the Australian Food Safety Centre of Excellence. "It could be completely safe, but the product would probably cost much more."

One wrinkle is that batches of food in a shipment may not be uniformly contaminated. That's especially so if a product is tainted by disease-causing microbes such as salmonella or E.coli. Products contaminated with toxic chemicals such as DEG are more likely to be uniformly affected and are thus more likely to be picked up by testing a smaller portion of a consignment.

Jul 20, 2007

Flaxseed fights prostate cancer

Prostate cancer patients may be better off taking flaxseed supplements, suggests a study led by Duke University Medical Center researchers who discovered that a diet supplemented with grounded flaxseed significantly slowed growth of cancerous cells in prostate tumors.

Flaxseed is often touted for its rich amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which are believed to provide a range of health benefits including possible inhibition of cancer cell growth.

The researchers early found that flaxseed, which looks just like sesame seed, when used with a low fat diet, is effective in halting prostate cancer growth. They believe that this health food may be able to interrupt a series of events that otherwise lead cells to divide irregularly and become cancerous.

"Our previous studies in animals and in humans had shown a correlation between flaxseed supplementation and slowed tumor growth, but the participants in those studies had taken flaxseed in conjunction with a low-fat diet," said Wendy Demark-Wahnefried, Ph.D., an author of the study, from Duke's School of Nursing. "For this study, we demonstrated that it is flaxseed that primarily offers the protective benefit."

In the current study, Dr. Demark-Wahnefried and team started assigning four types of diets to four groups of patients with prostate cancer at least 3 weeks prior to their receiving surgery to remove their prostate cancer.

One group of men were assigned 30 grams of flaxseed daily, one flaxseed plus a diet with less than 20 percent fat, one a low fat diet and one a control diet without any intervention. Each group consisted of about 40 prostate cancer patients.

Men who were assigned flaxseed mixed the supplement in drinks or sprinkle it on food such as yogurt, depending upon how they like to use it. Flaxseed is grounded as unprocessed flaxseed can not be digested because of an indigestible seed coat.

Prostate cancer once removed was subject to microscopic examination to determine how quickly the cancer cells had multiplied. Then the growth rates were compared to that before supplementation when patients started the dietary regimen.

Rosalie Marion Bliss: Berries Boost Brain Power

As 77 million baby boomers face retirement, many are reaching for foods high in antioxidants, hoping to slow the diminished function that often occurs with aging. New findings reported by Agricultural Research Service (ARS)-funded scientists suggest they may be on the right track.

Laboratory animals that were fed berry extracts—and then treated to accelerate the aging process—were protected from damage to brain function, the researchers report. ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s chief scientific research agency.

Psychologist Barbara Shukitt-Hale, neuroscientist James Joseph and psychologist Amanda Carey of the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston conducted the research in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. The study, which has been published online, will also appear in an upcoming print issue of Neurobiology of Aging.

Three groups—20 rats in each—were studied for about three months. The control group was fed a standard diet of grain-based chow. A second group was fed chow with blueberry extract equal to one cup daily in humans. A third group was fed chow with strawberry extract equal to one pint daily in humans. After two months on the diets, half of the rats in each group were treated to induce the normal losses in learning and motor skills that often come with aging.

Compared to the aged control rats, the aged-but-supplemented rats were much better able to find—and in some cases remember—the location of an underwater platform.

In addition, the aged control rats had lower levels of dopamine release than the nonaged control rats. But these decreases in dopamine release were not seen in the strawberry- and blueberry-supplemented groups, whether aged or not.

The new findings add to a lineup of research studies published during the past eight years showing reduced, or in some cases reversed, declines in brain function among rats whose diets were supplemented with either blueberry, cranberry or strawberry extracts or Concord grape juice.

Jul 19, 2007

People lie about what they eat

Think sticking to a diet is hard? Try studying one. Everyone is interested in whether different foods or nutrients affect our odds of getting diseases like cancer or of developing risk factors for those diseases, such as too much weight or high blood pressure. But there are many barriers to studying dietary change, which is why we still have no easy answers to the question of what, exactly, we should eat to be at our healthiest. It's also why you can be forgiven for often feeling whipsawed by headlines: Is coffee good or bad? What about alcohol, garlic, or chocolate?

This week researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that breast cancer survivors who cram their diets with fruits and vegetables are no more likely to escape a recurrence than women who stick to the usual five-a-day recommendation. Does that mean fruits and vegetables don't protect against cancer? No—just that in this specific group of women with breast cancer, the extra greens and additional apples didn't seem to help.

We asked researchers to explain why studies involving dietary changes are so hard to do—and what consumers should keep in mind when they read about them. Here's what the experts said:

You can't lock people in a room. Most diet studies take place in the real world. That means study subjects are keeping diaries of what they eat as they go rather than having their intake strictly controlled by someone else. You can give them meal advice, counseling, and how-to books up to their ears, but at the end of the day, they are on their own when it comes to what they put in their mouths. It's easier to get people to add something—like garlic, in the form of tasty sandwich spreads, or dark chocolate—than to take something away; no wonder a recent study comparing low-fat and low-carb diet plans found that almost no one was sticking to them by the end.

People lie about what they eat. In studies focusing on diet, including the recent study on breast cancer recurrence, the amount of calories subjects reported eating would have caused them to lose far more weight than they actually did lose. The misreporting isn't necessarily vicious, but the inaccuracies add up. Say you're phoned about your daily intake on a day when it was someone's birthday at work and you had a slice of cake. You may not report it, thinking that a typical day wouldn't include the cake...forgetting yesterday's "special occasion" piece of pizza, and the Big Gulp of the day before. Or, despite the portion size guides you get, you characterize your bagel from the deli as a 4-ounce standard serving when a 4-ounce bagel hasn't been sighted in any major city for a decade.

Running Linux From a USB Flash Drive: Pure Heaven

I still have SimplyMepis installed on the Dell Inspiron, and around this time I discovered that the Mepis Assistant offered a tick-the-box installation on a flash drive. I rubbed my eyes and followed the few simple steps: insert Live CD, plug in USB stick, wait 10 seconds while Mepis mounts it, tick the box to copy the ISO to the flash drive.

10 minutes later I had a full Mepis system on the 2gb Cruzer Micro. It booted up about as fast as it did from the hard drive, and everything worked perfectly. Why hadn’t I found this option when I checked with Google at the beginning of this journey? You have to ask the Oracle the right questions, that’s why I hadn’t.

Sadly, this piece of heaven was illusory. It was perfectly formed but it wasn’t much use since I couldn’t work out how to keep my personal settings or docs on the flash drive. Nor could I find any help on the Help menu or the Mepis forums. Here I had the perfect distro on my flash drive at last, fast and fully functional and somehow frozen in aspic.

I couldn’t fight them any more. One of Gizmo’s readers had pointed me to FlashPC, a place that ships a number of Linux distros pre-installed on flash drives. I checked it out and found that they weren’t shipping the latest versions. As I wondered whether that mattered, I felt guilty about trying to get into heaven through the backdoor by bribing the delivery man.

Several of Gizmos readers had praised Puppy Linux for its clever tricks, which included running on a flash drive. Puppy wouldn’t run on the old Thinkpad but, after spinning the liveCD on the Dell for a few minutes, he rounded up a pale blue desktop full of icons and gave me a pleased woof-woof. He deserved a treat because he got the widescreen right away where bigger dogs had failed, even with me throwing them extra bones.

Chillies 'kill' cancer

New research claims that spicy chilli peppers can help kill cancer cells, inducing apoptosis and causing them to "commit suicide".

The team from University of California, Los Angeles, (UCLA) and the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute found that tumours in mice with prostate cancer were a fifth of the size of their compatriots when fed capsaicin, the active "spicy" chemical in chillies.

Writing in the journal Cancer Research, study author Dr Soren Lehmann said that "capsaicin had a profound anti-proliferative effect on human prostate cancer cells in culture".

The researchers claim that giving a human the weekly equivalent of three to eight habanera peppers – the hottest known peppers – would slow development of prostate cells and kill others.

Prostate cancer is the most common malignancy in men in the US and is said to be responsible for 221,000 deaths worldwide each year and 10,000 in Britain alone.

While the report's authors claim that eating equivalent of 120 jalapeno peppers every week would be good for men, others are more sceptical.

Chris Hiley, head of research at the Prostate Cancer Charity in the UK, said that while she found the research "interesting", she warned against men eating too many chilli peppers until there was a way to extract capsaicin.

"We caution men with prostate cancer in the UK against upping their weekly intake of the hottest known chillies," she said.

"High intake of hot chillies has been linked with stomach cancers in the populations of India and Mexico."

The charity's advice until there was further research was that men should cut down on fatty foods, eat less red meat and take in more fruit and vegetables.

Unfortunately for men looking to follow this advice and increase their chilli intake, the most popular dishes containing chillies, such as jalfrezi or chilli con carne, are often high in fats and red meat.track

Hot peppers torch cancer cells, study finds

Capsaicin, the pungent ingredient that gives hot peppers their kick, causes prostate cancer cells to self-destruct, a finding that opens the possibility of a new treatment for the most common cancer in Canadian men. Reporting today in the journal Cancer Research, scientists from the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center at the University of California at Los Angeles found the pepper extract enhances apoptosis, a kind of cellular suicide, in prostate tumours.

The team injected prostate cancer cells into mice and treated one group with a dose of capsaicin that was the equivalent of giving 400 milligrams of capsaicin three times a week to a 170-pound man, or about eight fresh habanero peppers, the hottest on the market. After one to two months of treatment, the tumours in the treated mice were about one-fifth the size of the tumours in the non-treated rodents. "The tumours shrank, while, in the non-treated, they just grow," said Dr. Soren Lehmann, a visiting scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the UCLA School of Medicine. The pepper component "had a strong, anti-proliferate effect on the prostate cancer cells in the mice."

It also kept human prostate cancer cells from reproducing in lab dishes. "These results suggest capsaicin may have a role for the management of prostate cancer patients," even for men who don't respond to hormone therapy, the researchers report.

An estimated 20,500 men in Canada will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year, and 4,300 will die of it.

The active ingredient in pepper spray, capsaicin has been used in food additives and drugs for years. Scientists discovered the compound's pain-numbing effect in the 1980s; capsaicin-containing creams and skin patches are used to treat arthritis and post-shingles pain. The extract also helps vasomotor rhinitis, or nasal congestion.

It also churns out endorphins, which is why humans are thought to like hot foods: a moment of pain, followed by endorphin bliss, similar to a "runner's high."

Fraud and profit lurk in Food labeling law

Thanks to "kibbles 'n bits of poison" Chinese food scares, a labeling law stalled since its passage five years ago may finally take effect.

The Country of Origin Labeling Law requires meat and perishable foods to carry labels saying where they're from. It doesn't seem like a terribly onerous burden -- indeed, one might say that knowing where your food comes from is a common-sense part of civilized life -- but grocery stores and the meatpacking industry refused to cooperate.

On their side, reports the Associated Press, were Republican -- especially Texan -- lawmakers, who repeatedly delayed the law's implementation. But with a Democratic majority and a nation suddenly concerned about the origins of their food, that's about to change.

Ironically, the law would actually be good for the American livestock industry. Among its most ardent proponents was Alaskan senator and environmental grinch Ted Stevens, who understood that labeling Alaskan seafood was a way of promoting it -- and the same goes for other American meats.

Related Wired coverage of the fight over biotech food and drink labeling here and here. The bottom line: some people think you don't have a right to know where your food comes from. But the law won't always be on their side.

Jeremy Laurance: Vitamin C 'does not protect against the common cold'

t is essential for protecting cells and absorbing iron from food but it cannot cure a cold, even when taken in mega-doses.

Vitamin C is the most widely promoted supplement against colds and flu, but its protective effect is a myth, according to new research.

A review of 30 studies involving a total of 11,000 people has found no evidence that, for the average person, taking extra Vitamin C can stop sneezes, sniffles and coughs.

The only people who may benefit from swallowing supplements of the vitamin are those who endure extreme physical stress, including soldiers, skiers and marathon runners.

They were half as likely to catch a cold if they took daily Vitamin C, the researchers from Australia and Finland found. For the rest, buying the supplements was not worth the effort or expense.

Professor Harri Hemila, from the Department of Public Health at the University of Helsinki, said: "It doesn't make sense to take vitamin C 365 days a year to lessen the chance of catching a cold."

The new analysis appears in the latest issue of The Cochrane Library, which is published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international organisation that evaluates medical research.

Scientists pooled information from studies spanning several decades, which looked at the effect of taking daily supplements of at least 200mg of vitamin C. This kind of "meta-analysis" is often more sensitive than a stand-alone study and is considered better able to spot subtle trends.

Controversy has surrounded the protective effects of vitamin C since its discovery in the 1930s.

The belief that vitamin C can cure the common cold took hold in the 1970s, largely thanks to the American Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr Linus Pauling, who championed the vitamin.

His book, Vitamin C and the Common Cold, encouraged people to take large vitamin C doses of 1,000 mg daily. The current recommended daily allowance of vitamin C is only 60mg. Just one 220ml glass of orange juice contains more than that - about 97mg.

Jul 18, 2007

Watch out for RoboCrooks

Technology such as cloned part-robot humans used by organised crime gangs pose the greatest future challenge to police, along with online scamming, Australian Federal Police (AFP) Commissioner Mick Keelty says.

Mr Keelty said the police force would have to use experts from the private sector to fight tech-savvy organised criminals, because it lacked the necessary skills.

Technology-enabled crime was "a new area that's growing exponentially", he warned yesterday.

A feature of serious organised criminal networks was their ability to be flexible and quickly adopt new techniques, and police forces would have to move quickly to keep up.

"And I think a lot of those skills don't exist in policing today," Mr Keelty told a parliamentary inquiry into the future impact of organised crime in Canberra.

"A lot of those skills will have to be imported into policing and probably exist more so in the private sector."

Mr Keelty said it was hard to estimate how much money the AFP would need to combat technology-based crime.

But he identified the use of robotics and cloning as future challenges.

EU Paves Way for GMO Potato

The European Commission is set to approve the cultivation of a genetically modified variety of potato, following a stalemate among EU member states. Brussels argues the product is safe despite some NGOs claiming the opposite. EU farm ministers failed on Monday (14 July) to agree on the large-scale cultivation of GM potato Amflora, developed by German chemicals giant BASF. Germany, UK and Sweden reportedly supported the authorisation while Austria, Ireland and Italy led the camp of its opponents. Several countries, including France, abstained.

The split among the countries and their incapability to reach a qualified majority means the decision will be passed on to the European Commission. Barbara Helfferich, the commission's spokeswoman for environment, said on Monday the EU executive would support the go-ahead for the controversial potato with the formal approval likely in the "coming months". It has been analyzed and it is safe," she insisted, referring to the opinion of the European Food Safety Authority which had stated the GM potato is safe for cultivation. The product is intended for use in industrial processes, such as making paper. But its producer also called for the approval to use it in food and animal feed.

In Freeman Dyson's Biotech Utopia, Say Goodbye to Darwinian Evolution

Futurist extraordinaire Freeman Dyson bets that within fifty years, biotechnology will suffuse everyday life just as computer technology does now.

It's not a new vision, but Dyson sketches it well, moving from the everyday (DIY genetic engineering for pigeon fanciers and schoolchildren) to green industrial:

Green technology could replace most of our existing chemical industries and a large part of our mining and manufacturing industries. Genetically engineered earthworms could extract common metals such as aluminum and titanium from clay, and genetically engineered seaweed could extract magnesium or gold from seawater. Green technology could also achieve more extensive recycling of waste products and worn-out machines, with great benefit to the environment. An economic system based on green technology could come much closer to the goal of sustainability, using sunlight instead of fossil fuels as the primary source of energy. New species of termite could be engineered to chew up derelict automobiles instead of houses, and new species of tree could be engineered to convert carbon dioxide and sunlight into liquid fuels instead of cellulose.

How humanity gets to there from here -- where, outside of agriculture, a handful of medicines and a scattering of expensive reproductive technologies, biotechnology hasn't amounted to a whole lot -- is a tricky matter, though.

Dyson notes that "genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations." Quite right. But there's other obstacles to biotech than popularity: there's also the matter of understanding living systems well enough for the kids to mess with them.

The reductionist physics and the reductionist molecular biology of the twentieth century will continue to be important in the twenty-first century, but they will not be dominant. [...] The reductionist physics and the reductionist molecular biology of the twentieth century will continue to be important in the twenty-first century, but they will not be dominant.

Dyson couches his vision in an irksome bit of biohistorical justification: until about three billion years ago, horizontal gene transfer was the rule rather than the exception; then Darwinian evolution took over, with its stark lines and brutal competition; and now, thanks to human-engineered gene swapping and the primacy of culture rather, that's coming to an end.

We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

Um, sure. "As it was in the beginning...." But the rest of Dyson's dream is appealing and engaging enough to forgive him this bit of quasi-religious mysticism. After all, what good futurist isn't a mystic, too?

Jul 17, 2007

Poor people choose to eat badly, say experts

NUTRITIONAL standards among low earners are not linked to income, according to a new survey. The finding by the government's Food Standards Agency's contradicts the assumption that low earners have a significantly worse diet because they cannot afford to buy healthy food. The respondents' diet choices were not linked to their income, their access to food stores nor their cooking skills, the FSA said.

Instead, consumers in this group were simply choosing not to eat as healthily as they should, the watchdog found. But its study of nearly 4,000 low-income respondents revealed alarmingly high levels of obesity and low levels of exercise. Overall, they had higher levels of smoking and alcohol consumption and lower levels of physical activity than the population as a whole.

Negative 'Girl Talk' May Trigger Misery

Such are the findings of a study released Sunday, in which researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that "co-rumination" -- in other words, excessively discussing problems with close friends -- appears to increase anxiety and depression in young and adolescent girls. Boys of the same age, on the other hand, appeared to be immune to these effects. The study appears in the July issue of the American Psychological Association (APA) journal Developmental Psychology.

"We used to really worry about kids who don't have friends," said lead study author Amanda Rose, associate professor of psychology at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "That makes sense; we still should worry about them. But we usually feel good about kids who have friends whom they can talk to. "It is important that parents and professionals not ignore the possibility that girls with close friends are still at risk for depression and anxiety."

Psychology experts grappled over exactly how the findings should be interpreted. Alan Kazdin, professor of child psychiatry at Yale University and former president of the APA, said the findings point to certain warning signs for parents. "A little bit of talking about problems is fine, but much focus on trauma, injury and problems can incubate -- increase or exacerbate -- their effect," he said. "Sensitizing parents to this and having professionals sensitize parents and teachers to this would be helpful." ...

"It should be noted that this is shows a co-occurrence of two behaviors... and not a causal relationship," said Dr. Chris Okiishi, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. "In other words, this study does not show that one causes the other -- just that they occurred at the same time." And Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and a professor at Emory University's School of Medicine, said there are benefits to communicating concerns with friends that go beyond depression and anxiety. "Just because it makes us feel depressed, it isn't all bad," she said. "We wouldn't keep doing it if it just made us feel bad."

Rebecca Smith: MMR panic doctor 'was dishonest in research'

The doctor who first sparked safety fears over the MMR vaccine was accused yesterday of acting dishonestly and unethically in compiling his research. Dr Andrew Wakefield and his co-authors face allegations of serious professional misconduct over the way they researched a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella jab. The study was later published in The Lancet and public confidence in the triple jab plummeted.

At the opening of their hearing at the General Medical Council (GMC) in London yesterday, the panel heard how Dr Wakefield allegedly paid children £5 to take their blood at his son's fifth birthday party. He later joked about taking the samples. He told the Mind Institute in California that he intended to do it again. It was alleged that he showed "callous disregard for the distress and pain" he knew or ought to have known the children might suffer as a result of his actions.

Dr Wakefield, who resigned from the Royal Free Hospital, north London, over the row, could be struck off the medical register along with his co-authors Prof John Walker-Smith and Prof Simon Murch. Parents who claim their children were damaged by the vaccine held a demonstration outside the GMC, waving placards and singing their support for the doctor.

The Legal Aid Board provided Dr Wakefield with £50,000 for research to support legal action by parents who believed their children were harmed by MMR, it was claimed.

The 50-year-old, who now lives in Texas, appeared before the GMC fitness to practise panel in central London to hear the catalogue of disciplinary charges against him.

His wife Carmel accompanied him on the first day of the hearing, which is expected to last several months.

The three, who deny serious professional misconduct, published a paper in The Lancet in February 1998 suggesting there could be a link between the triple jab, bowel disease and autism.

It led to fewer parents immunising their children and a row over whether the former prime minister Tony Blair had had his son Leo vaccinated.

The central allegations against the doctors relate to investigations for their study on 12 youngsters with bowel disorders carried out between 1996 and 1998.

At the time, all three were employed at the Royal Free Hospital's medical school in London, with honorary clinical contracts at the Royal Free.

Raising Your HDL Levels

While it has been known for a number of years that high HDL cholesterol levels (the "good" cholesterol) seem to confer some degree of protection from heart disease, until relatively recently almost all the attention in the "cholesterol wars" has been focused on lowering total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels (the "bad" cholesterol.) Click here for a quick review of cholesterol and triglycerides.

It was not until the last few years that low HDL cholesterol levels have been recognized as an independent risk factor for heart disease. That is, even if their total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels are normal, people with reduced levels of HDL have an increased risk of early coronary artery disease. (HDL levels, to be considered "normal," should be at least 35 - 40 mg/DL.)

Why is HDL cholesterol protective? It appears that it’s not the cholesterol itself that is good, it’s the "vehicle." The HDL molecule is a complex molecule consisting of protein, lipids, and cholesterol. The HDL molecule, it appears, “scours” the walls of blood vessels, and cleans out excess cholesterol. If this is the case, the cholesterol being carried by HDL (that is, the “good” HDL cholesterol) is actually “bad” cholesterol that has just been removed from blood vessels, and is being transported back to the liver for further processing.

Even recognizing the fact that low HDL cholesterol levels are bad, doctors still tend to emphasize that their patients must reduce the bad cholesterol, and tend to neglect helping them raise the good cholesterol. This is a shame, since many people with normal or near normal total cholesterol levels have reduced HDL levels - and are therefore still at increased risk for heart disease.

Who needs to increase their HDL levels?

Anyone whose HDL level is below 40 mg/DL should consider taking steps to increase their HDL. This is the case even if total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels are within the normal range.

What measures can be used to increase HDL levels?

Aerobic exercise. Many people don't like to hear it, but regular aerobic exercise (any exercise, such as walking, jogging or bike riding, that raises your heart rate for 20 - 30 minutes at a time) increases the HDL levels.

Lose weight. Obesity results not only in increased LDL cholesterol, but also in reduced HDL cholesterol. If you are overweight, reducing your weight should increase your HDL levels.

Stop smoking. If you smoke, giving up tobacco will result in an increase in HDL levels. (This is the only advantage I can think of that smokers have over non-smokers - it gives them something else to do that will raise their HDL.)

Cut out the trans fatty acids. Trans fatty acids are currently present in many of your favorite prepared foods - anything in which the nutrition label reads "partially hydrogenated vegetable oils" - so eliminating them from the diet is not a trivial task. But trans fatty acids not only increase LDL cholesterol levels, they also reduce HDL cholesterol levels. Removing them from your diet will almost certainly result in a measurable increase in HDL levels. Click here for a quick and easy review of trans fatty acids and the heart.

Alcohol. With apologies to the American Heart Association, which discourages doctors from telling their patients about the advantages of alcohol: one or two drinks per day can significantly increase HDL levels. More than one or two drinks per day, one hastens to add, can lead to substantial health problems including heart failure - and there are individuals who will develop such problems even when limiting their alcohol intake to one or two drinks per day. Click here for a quick and easy review of alcohol and the heart.

Increase the monounsaturated fats in your diet. Monounsaturated fats such as canola oil, avocado oil, or olive oil and in the fats found in peanut butter can increase HDL cholesterol levels without increasing the total cholesterol.

Add soluble fiber to your diet. Soluble fibers are found in oats, fruits, vegetables, and legumes, and result in both a reduction in LDL cholesterol and an increase HDL cholesterol. For best results, at least two servings a day should be used.

Polio scare raises biosecurity concerns

When a Pakistani student who had travelled on a flight from Bangkok to Melbourne tested positive for polio it set alarm bells ringing and uncovered some big biosecurity shortfalls in Australia's system.

Doctors say the young man is recovering, but health authorities are still unable to contact dozens of people who travelled on Thai Air's flight 999 to Melbourne and who may have been exposed to the virus.

The failure to track down potentially infected people has prompted questions about Australia's ability to manage other more serious diseases.

Victoria's chief health officer Dr John Carnie says many gave incomplete details on the card they were asked to fill in when they arrived in Melbourne.

"If you just have an email address or an international phone number, and then working through time zones, it's just very difficult," Dr Carnie said.

Health authorities are not too concerned about the risk of other people on the flight contracting polio because it is not easily transmitted.

But other viral infections could enter the country in the same way and pose a much bigger threat.

"This recent episode with the polio case from Pakistan is demonstrating the difficulties that we would have in actually identifying and rapidly tracking down all the contacts of someone who had an infectious disease," said Tony Stewart, a medical epidemiologist with the Burnett Institute's Centre for International Health.

Boosting HDL is ‘good for the mind’

BOOSTING levels of good cholesterol might help protect against Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study of older Australians.

Dementia researchers in Perth have found people with higher levels of the so-called good cholesterol, HDL, tend to have lower levels of a small protein strongly linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

The finding, presented at an international neuroscience conference in Melbourne, suggests raising HDL levels — most effective through exercise, and consuming red wine and dark chocolate — might help protect against dementia.

It is not understood what causes Alzheimer’s howeever research suggests genetics, environment and lifestyle factors come together to trigger oxidative stress and build up of a protein called beta amyloid, and, ultimately, death of brain cells.

Previous studies have shown a link between cardiovascular disease and dementia and work has begun to explain it.

Scientists at Edith Cowan University enlisted 200 people aged over 50 with normal cognitive function, to find relationships between levels of the protein and cholesterol levels.

“What we found was that the more of the good cholesterol, the lower the levels of the protein were in the blood,” researcher Dr Kristyn Bates said.

“It seems from this that these people may be at lower risk of developing the disease in the future.”

Based on these results, the researchers believe that high-density lipoproteins (HDL), which work by clearing cholesterol from the body, might also be able to clear beta amyloid from the brain.

The research also showed that people with higher levels of heart clogging triglycerides were more likely to have raised levels of the Alzheimer’s protein.

Dr Bates and her team also conducted learning and memory tests on participants and found other patterns between physical statistics and dementia risk.

Jul 16, 2007

Emotion-Recognition Software Knows What Makes You Smile

A computer program that reads human expressions may bring an about-face in marketing. Dutch researchers using the software recently for a consumer test project seconded what wise men have always known: Sweets are the surest way to make a woman smile. Some 300 women in six European countries were filmed as they ate five foods: vanilla ice cream, chocolate, cereal bars, yogurt and apples. Not surprisingly, ice cream and chocolate produced the most happy expressions across the Old Continent.

Researchers chose women -- who tend to be more expressive than men -- at universities, shopping malls and city centers to test foods at face value. Cameras first recorded volunteers noshing, then participants provided a "posed" version of the expression they felt to give a more emphatic face for comparison. Marketers increasingly use technology to determine what gives consumers bliss. Food and consumer goods giant Unilever, which used brain scans to demonstrate why we all scream for ice cream, hired software developers Theo Gevers and Nicu Sebe from the science department of the University of Amsterdam to run the European tests after reading about their experimental work deciphering the Mona Lisa's smile.

"We know ice cream is a real pleasure food; we turned to technology to back that up," said Mandy Mistlin, consumer scientist at Unilever UK. The software may eventually be used to test reduced-fat and -calorie ice creams to see if they maintain the "pleasure principle," she added. The software, or others like it, may put a new face on market surveys. For professor Deborah Small of The Wharton School, who recently examined the effects of facial expressions in charity ad campaigns, excitement surrounding these technologies is considerable. The real test, she says, is whether they can become sophisticated enough to predict our responses.

But how does software analyze emotion? When we smile, frown or grimace, thousands of tiny facial muscles are at work. Emotion-recognition software, or ERS, creates a 3-D face map, pinpointing 12 key trigger areas like eye and mouth corners.

Then a face-tracking algorithm matches the movements to six basic expression patterns, corresponding to anger, sadness, fear, surprise, disgust and happiness, or a mixture of them. The ERS used in the taste test is a kissing cousin to programs created by MIT and Carnegie Mellon. Unlike those projects, the Dutch software, which works in real time and runs on a standard PC and webcam, is built with commercial applications in mind.

"I was happy when the testing was over," said Gevers. "Using the software on people eating was a challenge, something we would not have done in an academic lab. We didn't know precisely how well it would work, but it did." Gevers cited cultural differences (poker-faced Germans, stiff-lipped Brits) as another obstacle overcome during market research. Not surprisingly, the software registered fewer smiley faces for healthy foods. Apples produced 87 percent neutral expressions, with Italians and Swedes registering disappointment when eating them; yogurt didn't fare much better, evoking "sad" expressions for 28 percent of Europeans.

"It's true to a certain extent that we are hard-wired to get pleasure from sweet foods," said psychologist Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center. "But you can learn to enjoy what's good for you, bearing in mind the distinction between liking and wanting."

Katrin Bennhold: In France, 'liberté' comes with two wheels

A cluster of sweaty bodies pedaled up the Champs-Élysées on Sunday, their eyes firmly fixed on the Arc de Triomphe, as onlookers cheered from the sidelines. This was not the leading squad of the Tour de France racing toward the finish line. This was a group of Californian tourists testing Paris's new large-scale communal bike program hours after it was inaugurated. "I'm never taking the subway again," beamed Justin Hill, a 47-year-old real estate broker from Santa Barbara, glancing back over his shoulder at the outline of the Louvre at the distant bottom of the French capital's best-known avenue.

The sight of the hefty gray bike frames with metal baskets on the handlebars may soon become familiar. More than 10,600 bikes on 750 self-service docking stations became available Sunday in an inexpensive program that provides access in eight languages.

With the number to grow to 20,600 by the end of the year, the scope of this initiative - dubbed Vélib', a name that fuses the terms "vélo" (bike) and "liberté" (freedom) - is by far the most ambitious in the world. It is the latest in a string of European efforts to reduce the number of cars in city centers and give people incentives to choose more eco-friendly modes of transport. "This is about revolutionizing urban culture," said Pierre Aidenbaum, mayor of Paris's third district, which has the highest share of bikes per inhabitant and which opened 15 docking stations Sunday. "For a long time cars were associated with freedom of movement and flexibility. What we want to show people is that in many ways bikes fulfill this role much more today."

The idea is simple: You can pick up a bike from any docking station in Paris - they are installed at 300-meter, about 1,000-foot, intervals and clustered at popular sights and transport hubs - and park it at any other station. You can book your pass at either a station or online; all you need is a bank card. A day pass costs €1, about $1.40; a weekly pass, €5; and a yearly subscription €29, with no additional charges as long as each bike ride does not exceed 30 minutes. (Thereafter, a surcharge of €1 for the first additional half hour, €2 for the second half hour and €4 for each half hour after that is incurred to ensure that as many bikes as possible stay in the rotation.)

Moreover, the program could bring about €30 million in rental receipts into public coffers, city hall officials say. The advertiser JC Decaux is paying for the docking stations, the bikes and their maintenance, in exchange for exclusive use of 1,628 urban billboards.

Vélib' is the brain child of Paris's mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, a Socialist and longtime green campaigner who has pledged to double the number of cycle lanes in the French capital by 2008 and reduce car traffic by 40 percent by 2020. Since he took office in 2001, Delanoë has built almost 200 kilometers, or 125 miles, of additional cycle paths, ripping up car lanes and earning him accusations from drivers of aggravating congestion in the city.

Unhappy past? Forget about it!

US Researchers have confirmed what common wisdom has long held — that people can suppress emotionally troubling memories — and said that they have sketched out how the brain accomplishes this.

They said their findings might lead to a way to help patients with post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety to gain control of debilitating memories.

“You’re shutting down parts of the brain that are responsible for supporting memories,” Brendan Depue, a neuroscience doctoral student at the University of Colorado who worked on the study, said. He said his team discovered the brain’s emotional center is also shut down.

For their study, Depue and colleagues taught 18 adult volunteers to associate pictures of human faces with pictures of car crashes or wounded soldiers. They were then shown each face a dozen times and asked to either remember or forget the troubling image associated with each one. When they worked to block a particular negative image, then looked at the face one last time, they could no longer name its troubling pair in about half of the trials, Depue and his colleagues reported in Friday’s issue of Science.

The researchers used a brain imaging method called functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or MRI, which shows the brain’s activity in real time, to track what was going on in the brain. They got usable data on 16 people.

In the test, parts of each volunteer’s prefrontal cortex — the brain’s control center for complex thoughts and actions — were activated.

This seemed to direct a decrease of activity in the visual cortex, where images are usually processed. The hippocampus, where memories are formed and retrieved, and amygdala, the emotion hub, were later also deactivated.

The research is still far from being translated to the psychiatrist’s office, Depue and others acknowledged.

The good oil on Alzheimer's

THE "good" cholesterol that helps to fight heart disease may also be a defence against Alzheimer's disease, according to new Australian research.

The team from Edith Cowan University and the McCusker Foundation for Alzheimer's Disease Research has been running a study in Perth for eight years, looking into links between good cholesterol, or high-density lipoproteins (HDL), and the degenerative brain disorder.

The study, involving a total of 200 people with normal cognitive functions, tested their memory and other skills with the aim of establishing a relationship between HDL and chemicals called beta-amyloids, which are linked with Alzheimer's.

Previous studies had shown that HDL was capable of removing damaging cholesterol, reducing the risk of heart disease.

Co-ordinator Kristyn Bates from the school of exercise, biomedical and health science at Edith Cowan University, presented a snapshot of results to the World Congress of Neuroscience in Melbourne on Saturday.

The full research is in preparation for international publication before the end of the year, but Dr Bates said the study showed that people with more HDL, lower body fat and greater bone density had better results on the cognitive tests that were a pointer for Alzheimer's.

"The good cholesterol can work in clearing these Alzheimer's proteins out of the body, so the more you have of HDL, the less likely you are to get beta-amyloid in your blood," Dr Bates said.

"We think this could reduce the risk of getting Alzheimer's, so the message seems to be that what's good for the heart is also good for the brain."

Jul 15, 2007

How Tomatoes Flunked the FDA's Anticancer Test

The FDA won't rule out the possibility that tomatoes are cancer-fighters, but it considers the evidence supporting that claim to be exceedingly flimsy.
Action Points

* Explain to interested patients that companies wishing to claim their food products prevent disease must have approval from the FDA.

* Note that this analysis explains the process by which some cancer-fighting claims for lycopene and tomatoes were rejected and others partly accepted.

Eighteen months after the agency refused a request from food companies to allow them to make unfettered claims that both fresh and cooked tomatoes have anti-malignancy properties, and that lycopene, the anti-oxidant in the fruit, is responsible, the FDA has explained its thinking.

If granted, food companies would have been able to advertise that everything from the tomato sauce on pizza to lycopene capsules from a health food store prevented a range of cancers, Claudine Kavanaugh, Ph.D., of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition here, and colleagues wrote in the July 10 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute.

But after a painstaking analysis of 145 studies, the agency concluded there's no scientific evidence of any cancer-fighting benefit from lycopene and only limited evidence for any benefit from tomatoes themselves. (See FDA Tomato Ruling May Make Pizza a Health Food)

All of the 81 observational studies of lycopene and cancer were rejected as failing to meet the scientific standards for a claim of a cancer prevention benefit, Dr. Kavanaugh and colleagues said.

But tomatoes themselves, whether fresh or cooked, fared better. Of the 64 studies of tomatoes and various forms of cancer, only 25 were rejected outright.

Peggy Peck: FDA Approves Bifocal LASIK Surgery

The FDA has approved a bifocal LASIK approach in which one eye will be treated for myopia and the other presbyopia. The new device, called CustomVue Monovision LASIK, will reduce the need for reading glasses for adults 40 and older who have laser in-situ keratomileusis surgery to correct distance vision, said Daniel Shultz, M.D., director of the FDA's Center for Devices and Radiological Health. The approval covers an eye mapping system using wavefront-guided treatments.

As part of the approval the FDA has requested a post marketing study following 500 patients for six months after surgery to characterize both quality-of-vision and quality-of-life issues associated with the procedure. The surgery is a procedure in which the surgeon cuts a flap in the outer layer of the cornea in order to remove a small amount of tissue. The flap is then replaced. The CustomVue device would correct all nearsightedness in the dominant eye and only part of the nearsightedness in the other eye. According to the FDA, patients considering the CustomVue Monovision LASIK surgery should first wear monovision contact lenses to determine whether they can tolerate having one eye under-corrected.

The surgery permanently changes the cornea, and side effects may include sensitivity to bright lights. These may be visual disturbances such as halos around lights and night-driving glare. Other potential side effects are double vision and visual fluctuation. The device is made by AMO/VISX Inc., of Santa Clara, Calif.

Turn back the clock and drink a pint of milk a day for health!

A pint of milk a day could be back in fashion again following the results of a new study which says dairy foods can protect against metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is a term for a range of medical disorders which are thought to increase the risk for cardiovascular disease. The syndrome which is sometimes called insulin resistance, impacts the body's metabolism by increasing cholesterol, blood glucose levels, body fat and blood pressure which in turn can lead to heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes.

Scientists at Cardiff University in Wales led by Professor Peter Elwood tracked the health of 2,400 men aged between 45 and 59 over a 25 year period; all the men filled in a food questionnaire, kept weekly food diaries, and recorded the amount of dairy products they ate. It appeared that the men who regularly drank milk and ate dairy products - such as yogurt and cheese - were significantly less likely to have the syndrome. The scientists found in fact that if the men had consumed a pint or more of milk every day they were 62 per cent less likely to have the syndrome- and 56 per cent less likely to have it if they regularly ate other dairy produce.

It appeared that the more dairy produce the men had consumed, the less likely were they to have the syndrome. Professor Elwood says though milk consumption has fallen in the UK during the past 25 years the data suggests that milk and dairy products 'fit well into a healthy eating pattern'." The study known as the Caerphilly Prospective Study found that around one in seven men (15 per cent) had metabolic syndrome at the start of the project and almost double the risk of coronary artery heart disease and four times the risk of diabetes of those without the syndrome.

This Week in the Very Obvious

Every day, the world of science brings news of some stunning breakthrough, or at least an unexpected insight. Promising drugs for deadly diseases, illuminated parts of the brain, physics-defying forms of matter, wondrous cellular structures, new planets, new species, new ideas: the cup of science runneth eternally over.

But for every cry of "Eureka! I've found it!" there are a hundred studies that elicit no more reaction than a simple, "Well, no duh." Yet in their own way, these are equally important: just because something is painfully obvious doesn't mean it'll be acknowledged until a scientific foot soldier demonstrates it in academic form.

So for all those uncelebrated researchers who provide the meat and potatoes at the banquet of science, who map their neighborhoods instead of the frontier, Wired Science brings you the first installment of No @#&!, Sherlock: This Week in Very Obvious.

According to University of Venice psychologists, people second-guess the mistakes of others differently than they second-guess their own. When lacking confidence and feeling desperate, report University of Southern California market researchers, people make irrational impulse purchases.

Continuing with the behavioral themes, the University of Washington's Taryn Lindhorst found that women who experience domestic violence have more trouble finding jobs. Meanwhile, Penn State psychologist Elizabeth Susman observed that kids who tend to stay up late don't get enough sleep, and are thus more likely to misbehave and get bad grades.

In the sports world, McGill University Health Center researchers say that wearing a helmet decreases soccer players' chances of being hurt when struck in the head by a ball. In another soccer study, physician Michael Gerhardt showed that regularly stretching before practice cuts down on groin injuries.

But even if you're not up for soccer, Mayo Clinic obesity expert James Levine reports that walking is good for you. Not that Americans are following his advice: Johns Hopkins public health experts note that obesity in the United States is still on the rise. And Harvard Medical School researchers showed that people who don't have health insurance require expensive medical care when untreated problems become critical.

Finally, Deakin University's Hayley Matic studied men taking erectile dysfunction drugs. Her verdict: the pills helped them have sex, but that didn't mean the sex was any good.

Jul 14, 2007

Spinning HRT

Once again, hormone replacement therapy started a decade or more past menopause has been found to increase the risk for cardiovascular and thromboembolic events, with no significant benefits in return. The 12-month follow-up results of the Women's International Study of Long Duration [O]estrogen After Menopause (WISDOM) trial, reported online in the BMJ, came on the fifth anniversary of the report from the Women's Health Initiative, the clinical trial with similar findings that dashed hopes that HRT could be cardioprotective in postmenopausal women.

"Data from WISDOM suggest that women starting or restarting combined estrogen and progestogen therapy an average of 14 years after menopause are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease and venous thromboembolism, at least in the early years of treatment," wrote Alastair H. MacLennan, M.D., of the University of Adelaide, and colleagues in Britain and New Zealand.

Enrollment in the WISDOM study, originally planned to include 23,000 women, was stopped after fewer than 5,700 had started treatment, following publication of the initial WHI results. Similarly, the two studies in WHI trial were also halted early because of an excess number of thromboembolic events, and no evidence of a protective cardiovascular benefit.

Jul 13, 2007

Lisa Nainggolan: HRT trial reveals test bias

Morbidity results of the WISDOM trial of HRT have finally been published, five years after the study was halted early following the cessation of the WHI study [1]. The data show that hormone-replacement therapy (HRT) increases cardiovascular and thromboembolic risk when started many years after menopause and are consistent with the findings of the WHI study, say Dr Madge R Vickers (former head, Medical Research Council, UK) and colleagues in the report, published online July 11, 2007 in BMJ. What we don't want is the wrong story coming out of this WISDOM publication—that is, that taking HRT in your 60s is dangerous. It's when you start taking it in your 60s and 70s that is dangerous.

Second author Dr Alastair H MacLennan (Women's and Children's Hospital, Adelaide, Australia) told heartwire: "What we don't want is the wrong story coming out of this WISDOM publication—that is, that taking HRT in your 60s is dangerous. It's when you start taking it in your 60s and 70s that is dangerous, not continuing to take it from your 50s. The second wrong story would be that HRT is dangerous for the 99% of women who start taking it around the menopause. They have very few risks at all, very few serious morbidities for starting and stopping before the age of 60, which is what most women do. We are just saying, 'Unfortunately, estrogen can't be started late in life to get a heart benefit.' "

MacLennan—an obstetrician and gynecologist—explained that the reason it took so long to get WISDOM published was "because it was government funded; the governments took away the funding after the trial was stopped, and we had to get statisticians to do the work on their weekends, for no money." He is incredibly frustrated that the team has been unable to publish a second WISDOM paper, on quality of life, simultaneously with this one. "That one is the good-news paper, it shows improved quality of life in these women, which is much more common than the occasional adverse reaction. We hope to publish this paper within a few months." WISDOM stopped just a year after it started

WISDOM was designed in 1989, around the same time as WHI, and was intending to recruit thousands of postmenopausal women from general practices in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. The objective was to assess the long-term risks and benefits of combined HRT (Prempo, Wyeth-Ayerst) vs placebo and estrogen-only therapy (Premarin, Wyeth-Ayerst) vs combined HRT. Ten years of treatment were planned. However, WISDOM was prematurely closed during recruitment, after a median follow-up of just 11.9 months, following the very public cessation of the WHI study.

MacLennan told heartwire that the investigators "had wanted to run a much longer study of younger women and not include older women, but the funders demanded that we recruit older women first and leave the younger women until later so that there were enough events." As it turned out, the mean age of women who had been recruited at the time the study was stopped was 62.8 years. Primary outcome measures were major cardiovascular disease, osteoporotic fractures, and breast cancer. Secondary outcomes were other cancers, death from all causes, cerebrovascular disease, dementia, and quality of life.

When combined HRT (n=2196) was compared with placebo (n=2189), there was a significant increase in the number of major cardiovascular events (seven with combined HRT vs zero in the placebo group, p=0.016). There was also a significant increase in venous thromboembolism (22 vs three, hazard ratio 7.36). There were no significant differences in numbers of breast or other cancers, cerebrovascular events, fractures, or overall deaths. In fact, there was "a remarkable reduction in osteoporotic fractures seen with HRT, even at one year, which was similar to that seen in WHI," MacLennan commented (40 fractures in combined HRT group vs 58 in placebo, HR 0.69). Comparison of combined HRT (n=815) vs estrogen therapy (n=826) outcomes revealed no significant differences.