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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scientists Pull Genetic Tail to Curtail Cancer

>An innovative researcher followed a hunch and encouraged activity in an important cellular tumor-suppressor by grabbing it by the tail.

Inside human cancer cells, the important tumor-suppressing protein often seems to play hooky, lolling around in cellular broth instead of muscling its way out to the cells' membranes, where it can prevent cancer growth. This delinquency puzzled scientists for a long time, until a cell biologist in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine felt compelled to genetically grab the protein by the tail and then watched as it got back to work at tamping down disease.

"It was curious that when we removed its tail, the protein suddenly was unhindered and moved out to the membrane and became active," says Meghdad Rahdar, a graduate student in pharmacology.

The discovery, published Dec. 15 online at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, represents a potential new approach to cancer therapy, according to Peter Devreotes, Ph.D., professor and director of cell biology at Johns Hopkins.

"A long-term goal is to find a drug that does the equivalent of our bit of genetic engineering," he says.

The flexible tail contains a cluster of four amino acids ‹ the building blocks of proteins ‹ that regulate this tumor suppressor known as PTEN. When chemically modified, these amino acids act to ³glue² the tail back to the body of PTEN and prevent the attachment of PTEN to the membrane. By genetically removing PTEN's tail, or manipulating the cluster of four amino acids so that they cannot be modified, the researchers persuaded PTEN to move to the cell membrane where it goes about its tumor-suppressing business of degrading a molecular signal called PIP3 that causes errant cell growth.

"As far as I know, I haven't seen anyone activate a tumor suppressor, but we seem to have done it genetically," Rahdar says.

While genetically engineering cancer cells in the human body is neither practical nor safe, manipulating such unbinding of PTEN with drugs is a viable alternative to guard against cell overgrowth, the hallmark of cancer, the Hopkins scientists say.

In many tumors, PTEN is simply not present. In others, it's there, but a key enzyme that produces PIP3 is over-activated. The Hopkins team already has shown the first evidence that adding the modified PTEN to cells that lack PTEN not only restores normal enzyme levels but ramps up PTEN activity and quells the cell growth signal.

The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

In addition to Rahdar and Devreotes, authors on the paper are Takanari Inoue, Tobias Meyer, Jin Zhang and Francisca Vazquez, all of Johns Hopkins.

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Exercise Is Healthy Option for Kids With Developmental Disabilities

Newswise — Group exercise programs, treadmill training and horseback riding can be healthy choices for children with developmental disabilities. With these kinds of activities, children with disorders such as autism, mental retardation and cerebral palsy can improve their coordination and aerobic fitness.

The findings are encouraging, since studies show that children with developmental disabilities tend to be less fit than their peers. In many cases, the children lack the resources and community support that would encourage them to be more active, Johnson said.

Children and adults with disabilities "can ill afford to have a downturn in health and yet when told by their doctor to exercise or lose weight, they are rarely ‹ if ever ‹ given the resources or knowledge to do so," said James Rimmer, Ph.D., director of the National Center on Physical Activity and Disability.

However, "parents may be more likely to provide their children with opportunities for physical activity if the specific potential benefits for their children are proven," said Johnson, whose review appears in the January-February issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

Johnson analyzed 14 studies and three other evidence reviews to determine how youth with developmental disabilities might benefit from physical activity. The strongest evidence of benefits came from studies of group exercise, therapeutic horseback riding and treadmill workouts. Skiing and swimming programs might also be beneficial, but the evidence from those programs was not as strong, she concluded.

As other studies have suggested, however, the children all found "some level of enjoyment, satisfaction or physical benefit from the activities," Johnson said.

Only two studies reported any problems with the exercise programs, including one study of children with severe cerebral palsy where therapeutic horseback riding raised some heart rates above the healthy levels recommended for all children by the American Heart Association.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developmental disabilities affect nearly 17 percent of children un

American Journal of Health Promotion: Call (248) 682-0707 or visit

Johnson CC. The benefits of physical activity for youth with developmental disabilities: a systematic review. Am J Health Promo, 23(3), 2009.

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Grape Seed Extract Kills Laboratory Leukemia Cells, Proving Value of Natural Compounds

An extract from grape seeds forces laboratory leukemia cells to commit cell suicide. Within 24 hours of exposure to the naturally occurring compound, 76 percent of leukemia cells had died. The grape seed extract that led to cell death, or apoptosis, by activating JNK, a protein that regulates the apoptotic pathway.

"These results could have implications for the incorporation of agents such as grape seed extract into prevention or treatment of hematological malignancies and possibly other cancers," said the study's lead author, Xianglin Shi, Ph.D., professor in the Graduate Center for Toxicology at the University of Kentucky.

"What everyone seeks is an agent that has an effect on cancer cells but leaves normal cells alone, and this shows that grape seed extract fits into this category," he said.

Shi adds, however, that the research is not far enough along to suggest that people should eat grapes, grape seeds, or grape skin in excess to stave off cancer. "This is very promising research, but it is too early to say this is chemo-protective."

Hematological cancers ­ leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma ­ accounted for an estimated 118,310 new cancer cases and almost 54,000 deaths in 2006, ranking these cancers as the fourth leading cause of cancer incidence and death in the U.S.

Given that epidemiological evidence shows that eating vegetables and fruits helps prevent cancer development, Shi and his colleagues have been studying chemicals known as proanthocyanidins in fruits that contribute to this effect. Shi has found that apple peel extract contains these flavonoids, which have antioxidant activity, and which cause apoptosis in several cancer cell lines but not in normal cells. Based on those studies, and findings from other researchers that grape seed extract reduces breast tumors in rats and skin tumors in mice, they looked at the effect of the compound in leukemia cells.

Using a commercially available grape seed extract, Shi exposed leukemia cells to the extract in different doses and found the marked effect in causing apoptosis in these cells at one of the higher doses.

They also discovered that the extract does not affect normal cells, although they don¹t know why.

The researchers then used pharmacologic and genetic approaches to determine how the extract induced apoptosis. They found that the extract strongly activated the JNK pathway, which then led to up-regulation of Cip/p21, which controls the cell cycle.

They checked this finding by using an agent that inhibited JNK, and found that the extract was ineffective. Using a genetic approach ­ silencing the JNK gene ­ also disarmed grape seed extract's lethal attack in leukemia cells.

"This is a natural compound that appears to have relatively important properties" Shi said.

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Statins May Decrease Incidence of Delirium After Cardiac Surgery

Newswise — The use of cholesterol-lowering statins before cardiac surgery decreases the odds of postoperative delirium in elderly patients. Previous studies have demonstrated that statins decrease the incidence of morbidity and mortality after cardiac and major non-cardiac surgery. Statins have also been shown to be protective in central nervous system injury.

But this new study could be the first to provide proof of a link between statin use in cardiac surgery and a decrease in delirium. Such findings could be a boon to physicians who are dealing with an aging population known to be more susceptible to post-surgical delirium, a confounding condition that is not well understood.

"The underlying mechanism of delirium is unknown," said Dr. Katznelson. "However, identifying factors that can stop or provoke this condition may help to understand the disease better and create strategies to prevent it."

Delirium is a common complication after cardiac surgery associated with prolonged length of stay in the hospital, increased health costs and higher mortality. It has been estimated that about $6.9 billion of Medicare hospital expenditures are attributable to delirium, said Dr. Katznelson.

The incidence rate of delirium after cardiac surgery is thought to be in the range of 3-47 percent, but depends on several variables, including older age, preoperative depression and the complexity of the surgery, among others.

³Of the 1,059 patients we analyzed, 11.5 percent had delirium at any time during their cardiovascular intensive care stay,² said Dr. Katznelson. ³After adjusting for several variables in these patients, we found that the administration of statins had a statistically significant protective effect, reducing the odds of delirium by 46 percent.²

Dr. Katznelson¹s data offer very real evidence that statins may someday improve patient outcomes, but she cautioned that her findings will need to be confirmed with further clinical trials before statins can be used for the purpose of controlling delirium in cardiac surgery patients.

Anesthesiologists: Physicians providing the lifeline of modern medicine. Founded in 1905, the American Society of Anesthesiologists is an educational, research and scientific association with 43,000 members organized to raise and maintain the standards of the medical practice of anesthesiology and improve the care of the patient.

For more information visit the American Society of Anesthesiologists Web site at

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Risk Takers, Drug Abusers Driven by Decreased Ability to Process Dopamine

Newswise — For risk-takers and impulsive people, New Year's resolutions often include being more careful, spending more frugally and cutting back on dangerous behavior, such as drug use. But new research finds that novelty-seekers face an uphill battle in keeping their New Year's resolutions due to the way their brains process dopamine. Novelty-seekers have less of a particular type of dopamine receptor, which may lead them to seek out novel and exciting experiences such as spending lavishly, taking risks and partying like there's no tomorrow.

The research was published Dec. 31, 2008, in the Journal of Neuroscience.

The neurotransmitter dopamine is produced by a select group of cells in the brain. These dopamine-producing cells have receptors called autoreceptors that help limit dopamine release when these cells are stimulated.

"We've found that the density of these dopamine autoreceptors is inversely related to an individual's interest in and desire for novel experiences," David Zald, associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study, said. "The fewer available dopamine autoreceptors an individual has, the less they are able to regulate how much dopamine is released when these cells are engaged. Because of this, novelty and other potentially rewarding experiences that normally induce dopamine release will produce greater dopamine release in these individuals."

Dopamine has long been known to play an important role in how we experience rewards from a variety of natural sources, including food and sex, as well as from drugs such as cocaine and amphetamine. Previous research has shown that individuals differ in both their number of dopamine receptors and the amount of dopamine they produce, and that these differences may play a critical role in addiction. Zald and his colleagues set out to explore the connection between dopamine receptors and the novelty-seeking personality trait.

"Novelty-seeking personality traits are a major risk factor for the development of drug abuse and other unsafe behaviors," Zald and his colleagues wrote.

"Our research suggests that in high novelty-seeking individuals, the brain is less able to regulate dopamine, and this may lead these individuals to be particularly responsive to novel and rewarding situations that normally induce dopamine release," Zald said.

Previous research in rodents showed that some respond differently to novel environments. Those who explore novel environments more are also more likely to self-administer cocaine when given the chance. Dopamine neurons fire at a higher rate in these novelty-responsive rodents, and the animals also have weak autoreceptor control of their dopamine neurons. Zald and colleagues speculated that the same relationships would be seen in humans.

The researchers used positron emission topography to view the levels of dopamine receptors in 34 healthy humans who had taken a questionnaire that measured the novelty-seeking personality trait. The questionnaire measured things such as an individual's preference for and response to novelty, decision-making speed, a person's readiness to freely spend money, and the extent to which a person is spontaneous and unconstrained by rules and regulations. The higher the score, the more likely the person was to be a novelty seeker.

The researchers found that those that scored higher on the novelty-seeking scale had decreased dopamine autoreceptor availability compared to the subjects that scored lower.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse funded the research. Zald is a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development investigator and is a member of the Vanderbilt Center for Integrative and Cognitive Neuroscience. His Vanderbilt co-authors were Ronald Cowan, Ronald Baldwin, M. Sib Ansari, Rui Li, Evan Shelby, Clarence Smith, Maureen McHugo and Robert Kessler from the departments of Psychology, Psychiatry and Radiological Sciences. Patrizia Riccardi, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York, was also a co-author of the paper.

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Why Prostate Cancer Patients Fail Hormone Deprivation

Prostate cancer patients often take hormone deprivation therapy that causes tumors to shrink, sometimes dramatically. In some patients, this therapy gives them only a temporary fix, with tumors usually regaining their hold within a couple of years.

This therapy eventually fails because the androgen receptors on prostate cancer cells become overactive, leading them to survive and causing the tumor to grow aggressively.

In patients who no longer respond to this therapy, a critical differences in the hormone receptors on the prostate cancer cells could lead to a way to track disease progression, as well as new targets to fight prostate cancer.

"We may eventually be able to develop an assay to test for this androgen receptor variant, giving us a way to test which patients are good candidates for hormone deprivation therapy and providing a way to monitor disease progression in patients already on this therapy," Luo says.

The hormone deprivation therapy that prostate cancer patients often take gives them only a temporary fix, with tumors usually regaining their hold within a couple of years. Now, researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered critical differences in the hormone receptors on prostate cancer cells in patients who no longer respond to this therapy. The findings, reported in the Jan. 1 issue of Cancer Research, could lead to a way to track disease progression, as well as new targets to fight prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer cells rely on androgens, male hormones that include testosterone, to survive and grow, explains Jun Luo, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins' James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute. Since 1941, doctors have taken advantage of this dependency to battle prostate cancer by depriving patients of androgens, either by castration or chemical methods. For most patients, this hormone deprivation therapy causes tumors to shrink, sometimes dramatically. However, it's never a cure‹tumors eventually regrow into a stronger form, becoming resistant to this and other forms of treatment.

Seeking the reason why this therapy eventually fails, Luo and his colleagues at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the University of Washington and Puget Sound VA Medical Center looked to a key player: the androgen receptors on prostate cancer cells.

Using a large database, the researchers searched for variations of the nucleic acid RNA that prostate cells use to create androgen receptors, eventually identifying seven RNA sequences different from the "normal" androgen receptor already known to scientists. When they looked for these sequences in cells isolated from 124 prostate cancer patients, they found over-production of these outlaw variants in prostate cancer cells taken from patients whose disease had become resistant to hormone deprivation therapy. One variation‹known as AR-V7, was also prevalent in a select group of patients who had never taken hormone therapy, but whose cancer aggressively regrew after surgery to remove their tumors.

To see how androgen receptors made from AR-V7 differ from others, the researchers forced lab-grown prostate cancer cells to produce only the AR-V7 sequence. Unlike cells with other androgen receptors, those with only AR-V7 receptors acted as if they were continually receiving androgens‹turning on at least 20 genes that rely on androgens for activation‹even though no androgens were present.

The results suggest that hormone therapy might encourage prostate cancer cells to overproduce the AR-V7 receptors over time, leading them to survive and grow aggressively even without androgens, explains Luo. In some patients, he adds, AR-V7 receptors might already be prevalent even without hormone therapy, predisposing them to an already-aggressive form of prostate cancer that won't respond as well to hormone deprivation therapy.

"We may eventually be able to develop an assay to test for this androgen receptor variant, giving us a way to test which patients are good candidates for hormone deprivation therapy and providing a way to monitor disease progression in patients already on this therapy," Luo says.

Examining the differences between AR-V7 and other androgen receptor variants may also provide researchers with new ideas to develop prostate cancer-fighting pharmaceuticals, he adds.

Other researchers who contributed to this study include Rong Hu, Thomas A. Dunn, Shuanzeng Wei, Sumit Isharwal, Robert W. Veltri, Elizabeth Humphreys, Misop Han, Alan W. Partin, William B. Isaacs and G. Steven Bova, all of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; and Robert L. Vessella of the University of Washington and Puget Sound VA Medical Center.

This research was funded by a grant from the David H. Koch Foundation.

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Top Five Tips for Keeping Resolutions

Newswise — Each January 1, many of us resolve to alter ourselves in some way. We will give up smoking. We will eat healthier. We will be more patient. However by January 15, we've chucked it out the window. But all is not lost, says John O'Neill, LCSW, LCDC, CSAT, director of Addiction Services for The Menninger Clinic in Houston.

New Year's is the time we reflect on the past and prepare for the future, he said, but we can resolve to make positive changes at any time.

"This is the time we tend to generate new hope for the next year. As we reflect, we think about what needs to be different," O'Neill says. "The process of thinking about change is critical to developing actual change. It is a process that is helpful no matter what time of year."

Resolutions usually take the form of either starting something, e.g. start exercising, organizing, spending time with family; or stopping something, e.g. quit smoking, drinking, eating poorly. Before you commit to your resolution; however, first take a look at what is motivating you to change.

"Do you really want to make the change? We often resolve to change something that we truly have no intention of changing," says O'Neill. "This can serve to be counterproductive and provide us a sense of failure. It is important to consider what we need to do to change and evaluate how we will do it."

If you are ready to make the change devise a strategy that provides the best chance for success. O'Neill offers the following tips for setting and achieving resolutions:

1. When we resolve to change, it needs to come with a strategy to change. Simply saying you want to do something does not fuel the change. Consider the strategy and outline the process of change that is simple and realistic.

2. Keep resolutions to a minimum. Attempting to stop or start multiple things may serve to overwhelm you and prevent you from doing any of them. "It makes good sense to keep change simple and to tackle one major change at a time," O'Neill says. "Having multiple resolutions may be too much for the brain to process and may make change difficult."

3. Develop accountability partners. Lock in someone who will supports your change.

4. Appreciate the changes you are attempting and reward yourself throughout the process. If you are keeping goals simple, you can appreciate exercising more or better eating.

5. Attend to your stress. Many resolutions center around behaviors that are in place to cope with stress such as smoking, drinking or problematic eating. When we change the behaviors, we need a new plan to manage stress.

About The Menninger Clinic The Menninger Clinic is a nonprofit, international specialty psychiatric center, providing treatment, research and education. Founded in 1925 in Kansas, Menninger relocated to Houston in 2003 and is affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine. Since 1991, Menninger has been named among the top ten leading psychiatric hospitals in U.S.News & World Report's annual ranking of America's Best Hospitals. Menninger is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

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Medication Errors Common in Outpatient Cancer Treatment

A concerning number of cancer patients taking chemotherapy drugs, either in clinics or at home, were given the wrong dose or suffered from other mistakes in their medications. A recent study found medication errors in 7% of the adult and 19% of the child patients surveyed.

More disturbing still, about 40 percent of the medication errors in children had the potential to cause harm, and several children in the study actually had been harmed by the mistakes. In the adult patients, similar numbers had potential to harm or resulted in actual harm.

The errors included administration of incorrect medication doses due to confusion over conflicting orders and incorrect frequencies of administration. Some consequences of errors included patients being over-hydrated, and complaints of abdominal pain in patients taking narcotics without treatment for constipation. More than 70 percent of the errors in children occurred at home.

Seven percent of adults and 19 percent of children taking chemotherapy drugs in outpatient clinics or at home were given the wrong dose or experienced other mistakes involving their medications, according to a new study supported in part by HHS' Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality through its Centers for Education and Research on Therapeutics program.

Researchers analyzed data on nearly 1,300 patient visits at three adult oncology outpatient clinics and 117 visits at one pediatric facility between September 1, 2005 and May 31, 2006. The study, "Medication Errors among Adults and Children with Cancer in the Outpatient Setting," is in the January 1, 2009 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Of the 7 percent of medication errors involving adults, 55 had the potential to harm the patient and 11 did cause harm. The errors included administration of incorrect medication doses due to confusion over conflicting orders ­ one written at the time of diagnosis and the other on the day of administration. Some consequences of errors included patients being over-hydrated prior to administration of chemotherapy and complaints of abdominal pain in patients taking narcotics without treatment for constipation. More than 50 percent of errors involving adults were in clinic administration, 28 percent in ordering of medications, and 7 percent in use of the drugs in patients' homes.

About 40 percent of the 22 medication errors in children had the potential to cause harm and four children were harmed. Examples of pediatric errors included giving the wrong amount or the wrong number of times a day for home medicines because of confusion about instructions. In children more than 70 percent of the errors in children occurred at home.

According to the study's leader, Kathleen E. Walsh, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine and a Robert Wood Johnson Physician Faculty Scholars Award recipient, avoiding prewriting of chemotherapy orders in adults in outpatient clinics may have prevented many of the errors in the adults, whereas most of those involving children could have been avoided by better communication, training, and support for parents of children who use chemotherapy medications at home.

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Extremist Hackers Declare Cyber Propaganda War in Gaza Conflict

Newswise — This past weekend more than 300 Israeli Web sites were defaced in a period of 48 hours. In a string of defacements geared towards anti-Israeli propaganda, hackers replace the website's legitimate content with their own messages.

Gary Warner, University of Alabama at Birmingham's Director of Research in Computer Forensics, has some analysis of the Israel hacking incident, as well as tips for protecting your site from potentially getting hijacked by these mischievious hackers.

"As soon as Israel started bombing Gaza we began to look for signs of a cyber response," Warner said. "And we found it in the form of more than 300 Israeli Web sites that have been defaced with anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. messages."

Warner suggests the following to prevent a Web site from being used in the propaganda war.

  • Review Web pages regularly for unauthorized changes.
  • Search for products used on your Web site at the National Vulnerability Database to learn if they have known security holes.
  • Use a strong password and change it regularly.
  • Use a secure file transfer program to update your Website.
  • Consider having your Web site professionally tested for weaknesses

In a Web site "defacement" a hacker violates the security of a Web server and replaces the original content with his own message. Unlike phishing sites that attempt to defraud, the current round of defacements is strictly propaganda.

"As soon as Israel started bombing Gaza we began to look for signs of a cyber response," Warner said. "And we found it in the form of more than 300 Israeli Web sites that have been defaced with anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. messages.

"In the current situation, the hackers supporting Gaza clearly believe Israel and the U.S. are culpable," Warner said. "That means American Web masters may wish to be especially vigilant right now."

"We've seen this type of propaganda war before," Warner said. "The original cyber propaganda war was launched by Chinese hackers in May 2001 after the collision of a Chinese fighter jet with a U.S. Navy plane. Tens of thousands of U.S. Web sites were defaced by Chinese hackers blaming the U.S. for the incident."

More recently, Warner said, the technique has been adopted by radical Muslim hackers, beginning with the defacement of thousands of Danish and American Web sites in February 2006 after the publication of cartoons about the prophet Muhammad. Defacements were again reported against Israeli and U.S. Web sites after the bombardment of Lebanon by Israel in August of 2006.

PROTECT YOUR WEB SITE Each Web master should decide on an appropriate level of security for his or her own site. A hobbyist Web site may be able to get by with less security than a corporate Web site or a site used for financial transactions. However, Warner said, any site hosted in the United States is at risk in the current scenario. Warner suggests the following to prevent a Web site from being used in the propaganda war.

For more information, go to Warner's personal blog at

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Argentine Penguins Have Happy Feet

The Government of Argentina recently signed into law the establishment of a new coastal marine park in a wildlife-rich coastal region of South America. The Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society has succeeded in working with Argentina to protect this region's diverse ecosystem, which includes half a million penguins, several species of rare seabirds, and the region's only population of South American fur seals. It is the first protected area in Argentina specifically designed to safeguard not only onshore breeding colonies but also areas of ocean where wildlife feed at sea.

The Bronx Zoo-based Wildlife Conservation Society announced today that its efforts to protect a wildlife-rich coastal region in South America have paid off in the form of a new coastal marine park recently signed into law by the Government of Argentina.

The park, which became official earlier this month, protects half a million penguins along with several species of rare seabirds and the region's only population of South American fur seals. It is the first protected area in Argentina specifically designed to safeguard not only onshore breeding colonies but also areas of ocean where wildlife feed at sea.

The park's creation represents a joint effort by the National Parks Service of Argentina, Government of Chubut, Wildlife Conservation Society and its local partner Fundación Patagonia Natural with support from the United Nations Development Programme and the Global Environment Facility.

WCS researchers, working with Fundación Patagonia Natural, provided critical data of key wildlife to ensure that the park's boundaries would include both onshore areas and adjacent waters. Researchers found that the area was in need of protection from increasing pressures by commercial fishing and the oil industry.

"The park protects one of the most productive and extraordinary marine ecosystems on the planet," said Dr. Guillermo Harris, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Argentina Program. "The creation of this park comes in the nick of time for many species that are threatened by the region's fishing and energy industries."

Located in Golfo San Jorge in Chubut Province, some 1056 miles (1700 kilometers) south of Buenos Aires, the new protected area covers approximately 250 square miles (647 square kilometers) of coastal waters and nearby islands strung along almost 100 miles (160 kilometers) of shoreline.

The region serves as a nesting and feeding ground for some quarter million pairs of Magellanic penguin, estimated to represent 25 percent of the entire population in Patagonia. Its 50 small islands also support two nesting colonies of southern giant petrels that represent over 80 percent of its population on the entire Patagonian coast. Other denizens of this coastal oasis include the endangered Olrog's gull, the white-headed steamer duck, and almost one third of all imperial and rock cormorants of Argentina.

While the coastline is largely undeveloped, its wildlife has been increasingly threatened by commercial fishing nets, which can entangle birds as they feed. Oil pollution from tankers transporting petroleum from southern Patagonia to Buenos Aires, coupled with expanding offshore oil drilling, have also loomed as growing threats in recent years.

Mitsubishi Corporation Foundation for the Americas has provided funding for the creation of this unique coastal protected area and for WCS's multi-faceted efforts to safeguard coastal Patagonia, including the Sea & Sky program, which is committed to achieving long-term viability of the Patagonian Sea by integrating the best available science, building capacity and providing inspiration to promote local interest in ocean conservation.

WCS has been active in Patagonia since the 1960s, conducting studies for the conservation of southern right whales, Magellanic penguins, southern elephant seals, and other unique wildlife. WCS manages some 740,000 acres of wilderness on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, part of a major donation of land made by Goldman Sachs in 2004.

The Wildlife Conservation Society saves wildlife and wild places worldwide. We do so through science, global conservation, education and the management of the world's largest system of urban wildlife parks, led by the flagship Bronx Zoo. Together these activities change attitudes towards nature and help people imagine wildlife and humans living in harmony. WCS is committed to this mission because it is essential to the integrity of life on Earth. Visit:

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Burger King at Forefront of Viral Marketing with New Fragrance "Flame"

Newswise — Burger King’s marketing campaign of a new men’s fragrance “Flame” that has a partially clad “King” looking seductively while laying on a fur rug in front of a fireplace may be a bit on the creepy side but it shows that the hamburger chain is at the forefront of viral marketing, according to a University of New Hampshire communication professor.

“There is nothing new about linking food with romance in ads — especially desserts and diet food for women, beer for men — but the Flame campaign derives some of its humor by subverting this connection. The taste of the Whopper, rather than the promise of romantic connection, as spoofed by the King’s repulsive entreaties, is the real focus of desire in the ad,” says Josh Lauer, assistant professor of communication at UNH.

“It remains to be seen whether this ploy will be successful. Ultimately, the fragrance is beside the point. The publicity associated with the humor and absurdity of it is an end in itself. It demonstrates, once again, Burger King’s commitment to pushing the envelope in viral marketing,” Lauer says.

According to Lauer, Burger King’s latest marketing campaign of the Flame fragrance comes on the heels of its “Whopper Virgins” campaign, in which the Whopper is pitted against McDonald’s Big Mac in taste tests with fast-food naïfs in remote locations such as Thailand, Romania, and Greenland. The campaign generated significant controversy, with critics condemning its ethnocentrism and promotion of unhealthy Western food, but also lots of buzz.

As the second largest fast-food hamburger restaurant behind McDonald’s, Burger King is responding to intense competition. Earlier this year Burger King issued a mandate requiring its franchises to remain open until 2 a.m., an effort to attract late-night and after-party customers with the munchies.

“The Flame fragrance campaign is presumably aimed at younger male customers who enjoy the King character’s creepy irony as a corporate anti-mascot,” Lauer says.

Burger King has been at the forefront of online marketing innovation since the launch of its memorable 2004 Subservient Chicken website, Lauer says. This promotion invited online visitors to submit real-time commands to a seemingly live webcast of a person dressed in a low-budget chicken costume performing in their living room. (The chicken figure was actually pre-programmed to respond to hundreds of commands.) Burger King struck advertising gold again earlier this year with its Whopper Freakout campaign, which featured real customers reacting to (false) news that the Whopper had been discontinued.

“Both campaigns generated enormous interest in Burger King and an avalanche of hits at its sponsored website (as well as YouTube) to watch and share its message. The appeal of such promotions is that they cut through advertising clutter by offering novelty and entertainment rather than a conventional one-sided advertising message,” Lauer says.

More importantly, such promotions are viral — they are rapidly passed along from friend to friend online and encourage active participation in the marketing campaign, he says.

“In an ad-saturated environment, word-of-mouth promotion may be more persuasive because it is rooted in the trust and authenticity of real personal relationships. Even better than product placements, in which brands are embedded in entertainment content, word-of-mouth marketing inserts a brand directly into conversation among friends. Viral marketing campaigns are successful when they inspire thousands of positive, admiring conversations about one’s brand,” Lauer says.

Lauer holds a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication.

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"Smart" Surveillance System May Tag Suspicious or Lost People

Newswise — Engineers are developing a computerized surveillance system that, when completed, will attempt to recognize whether a person on the street is acting suspiciously or appears to be lost.

Intelligent video cameras, large video screens, and geo-referencing software are among the technologies that will soon be available to law enforcement and security agencies.

In the recent Proceedings of the 2008 IEEE Conference on Advanced Video and Signal Based Surveillance, James W. Davis and doctoral student Karthik Sankaranarayanan report that they've completed the first three phases of the project: they have one software algorithm that creates a wide-angle video panorama of a street scene, another that maps the panorama onto a high-resolution aerial image of the scene, and a method for actively tracking a selected target.

The ultimate goal is a networked system of “smart” video cameras that will let surveillance officers observe a wide area quickly and efficiently. Computers will carry much of the workload.

"In my lab, we've always tried to develop technologies that would improve officers' situational awareness, and now we want to give that same kind of awareness to computers," said Davis, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at Ohio State University.

The research isn't meant to gather specific information about individuals, he explained.

"In our research, we care what you do, not who you are. We aim to analyze and model the behavior patterns of people and vehicles moving through the scene, rather than attempting to determine the identity of people. We are trying to automatically learn what typical activity patterns exist in the monitored area, and then have the system look for atypical patterns that may signal a person of interest -- perhaps someone engaging in nefarious behavior or a person in need of help."

The first piece of software expands the small field of view that traditional pan-tilt-zoom security cameras offer.

When surveillance operators look through one of these video cameras, they get only a tiny image -- what some refer to as a "soda straw" view of the world. As they move the camera around, they can easily lose a sense of where they are looking within a larger context.

The Ohio State software takes a series of snapshots from every direction within a camera's field of view, and combines them into a seamless panorama.

Commercially available software can turn overlapping photographs into a flat panorama, Davis explained. But this new software creates a 360-degree high-resolution view of a camera's whole viewspace, as if someone were looking at the entire scene at once. The view resembles that of a large fish-eye lens.

The fish-eye view isn't a live video image; it takes a few minutes to produce. But once it's displayed on a computer screen, operators can click a mouse anywhere within it, and the camera will pan and tilt to that location for a live shot.

Or, they could draw a line on the screen, and the camera will orient along that particular route -- down a certain street, for instance. Davis and his team are also looking to add touch-screen capability to the system.

A second piece of software maps locations within the fish-eye view onto an aerial map of the scene, such as a detailed Google map. A computer can use this information to calculate where the viewspaces of all the security cameras in an area overlap. Then it can determine the geo-referenced coordinates -- latitude and longitude -- of each ground pixel in the panorama image.

In the third software component, the combination map/panorama is used for tracking. As a person walks across a scene, the computer can calculate exactly where the person is on the panorama and aerial map. That information can then be used to instruct a camera to follow him or her automatically using the camera’s pan-and-tilt control. With this system, it will be possible for the computer to “hand-off” the tracking task between cameras as the person moves in and out of view of different cameras.

"That's the advantage of linking all the cameras together in one system -- you could follow a person's trajectory seamlessly," Davis said.

His team is now working on the next step in the research: determining who should be followed.

The system won't rely on traditional profiling methods, he said. A person's race or sex or general appearance won't matter. What will matter is where the person goes, and what they do.

"If you're doing something strange, we want to be able to detect that, and figure out what's going on," he said.

To first determine what constitutes normal behavior, they plan to follow the paths of many people who walk through a particular scene over a long period of time. A line tracing each person's trajectory will be saved to a database.

"You can imagine that over a few months, you're going to start to pick up where people tend to go at certain times of day -- trends," he said.

People who stop in an unusual spot or leave behind an object like a package or book bag might be considered suspicious by law enforcement.

But Davis has always wanted to see if this technology could find lost or confused people. He suspects that it can, since he can easily pick out lost people himself, while he watches video footage from the experimental camera system that surrounds his building at Ohio State.

It never fails -- during the first week of fall quarter, as most students hurry directly to class, some will circle the space between buildings. They'll stop, maybe look around, and turn back and forth a lot.

"Humans can pick out a lost person really well," he said. "I believe you could build an algorithm that would also be able to do it."

He's now looking into the possibility of deploying a large test system around the state of Ohio using their research. Here law enforcement could link video cameras around the major cities, map video panoramas to publicly available aerial maps (such as those maintained by the Ohio Geographically Referenced Information Program), and use their software to provide a higher level of “location awareness” for surveillance.

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"Hobbit" Controversy Makes Top 100 Science Stories

Newswise — The December 2008 issue of Discover magazine included in its top 100 science stories of the year studies that back the “new species” theory of the 18,000-year-old hominid found on the Indonesian island of Flores in 2004. The discovery of Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the “the hobbit” because of its diminutive size and strikingly large feet, remains controversial and could lead to rewriting the story of human evolution. Stony Brook University paleoanthropologists William Jungers, Ph.D., and Susan Larson, Ph.D., are among the researchers who suggest the hobbit represents a different species of human.

In the a section titled “Smackdown Over Ancient ‘Hobbit’ Continues” – number 85 in the top 100 – Discover cites the findings of “Hobbit” researchers. Regarding the work of Dr. Jungers, the section notes that he “studied the foot of the hobbit and found it, true to its namesake, strikingly large relative to the size of the body, with very short big toes. Jungers argues that this foot structure links the hobbit to earlier hominids.”

Commenting on the significance of the hobbit foot and its distinction as part of a top science story of the year as described by Discovery, Dr. Jungers adds that “the hobbits are not tiny pathological humans, and this implies that we shared the earth with other human-like creatures until very recently.” He further explains that “together with other skeletal parts, the foot evidence indicates that either island dwarfing produced the hobbits from Asian Homo erectus, or that there was an earlier ‘Out of Africa’ migration of an ancient ancestor that resembled australopithecines in many respects.

Drs. Jungers, Distinguished Teaching Professor and Chair of the Department of Anatomical Sciences, and Larson, Professor of Anatomical Sciences, continue their research on the hobbit. Their anatomical findings on the foot, wrist, and shoulder of the Hobbit have appeared in scientific journals such as Science and the Journal of Human Evolution. Most recently, they have undertaken descriptions of all the postcranial material known for H. floresiensis, which are now available online in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Discover is one of the world’s leading popular science magazines. The content of the magazine includes topics in health and medicine, technology, the living world, and human origins. The citation of the Hobbit as a top science story of 2008 is online at

The Department of Anatomical Sciences is one of 25 departments within the Stony Brook University School of Medicine. The department includes graduate and doctoral programs in Anatomical Sciences. Fields of study include research on human evolutionary anatomy, morphology and vertebrate paleontology. Many faculty members in the department are also participants in an interdepartmental graduate program in anthropological sciences that is recognized worldwide for its faculty and research strengths in functional morphology and human evolution.

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Great Indian Ocean Earthquake of 2004 Set Off Tremors in San Andreas Fault

Newswise — In the last few years there has been a growing number of documented cases in which large earthquakes set off unfelt tremors in earthquake faults hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of miles away.

New research shows that the great Indian Ocean earthquake that struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra on the day after Christmas in 2004 set off such tremors nearly 9,000 miles away in the San Andreas fault at Parkfield, Calif.

"We found that an earthquake that happened halfway around the world could trigger a seismic signal in the San Andreas fault. It is a low-stress event and a new kind of seismic phenomenon," said Abhijit Ghosh, a University of Washington doctoral student in Earth and space sciences.

"Previous research has shown that this phenomenon, called non-volcanic tremor, was produced in the San Andreas fault in 2002 by the Denali earthquake in Alaska, but seeing this new evidence of tremor triggered by an event as distant as the Sumatra earthquake is really exciting," he said.

Ghosh is to present the findings next week (Dec. 17) in a poster at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco.

The Indian Ocean earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004, was measured at magnitude 9.2 and generated tsunami waves that killed a quarter-million people. It was not known, however, that an earthquake of even that magnitude could set off non-volcanic tremor so far away.

The San Andreas fault in the Parkfield region is one of the most studied seismic areas in the world. It experiences an earthquake of magnitude 6.0 on an average of every 22 years, so a variety of instruments have been deployed to record the seismic activity.

In this case, the scientists examined data from instruments placed in holes bored in the ground as part of the High-Resolution Seismic Network operated by the University of California, Berkeley, as well as information gathered by the Northern California Seismic Network operated by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Signals corresponding with non-volcanic tremor at precisely the time that seismic waves from the Indian Ocean earthquake were passing the Parkfield area were recorded on a number of instruments as far as 125 miles apart.

"It's fairly obvious. There's no question of this tremor being triggered by the seismic waves from Sumatra," Ghosh said.

Scientists have pondered whether non-volcanic tremor is related to actual slippage within an earthquake fault or is caused by the flow of fluids below the Earth's surface. Recent research supports the idea that tremor is caused by fault slippage.

"If the fault is slipping from tremor in one place, it means stress is building up elsewhere on the fault, and that could bring the other area a little closer to a big earthquake," Ghosh said.

Monitoring tremor could help to estimate how much stress has built up within a particular fault.

"If the fault is closer to failure, then even a small amount of added stress likely can produce tremor," he said. "If the fault is already at low stress, then even high-energy waves probably won't produce tremor."

The work adds to the understanding of non-volcanic tremor and what role it might play in releasing or shifting stress within an earthquake-producing fault.

"Our single-biggest finding is that very small stress can trigger tremor," Ghosh said. "Finding tremor can help to track evolution of stress in the fault over space and time, and therefore could have significant implications in seismic hazard analysis."

Co-authors of the poster are John Vidale, Kenneth Creager and Heidi Houston of the UW and Zhigang Peng of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Funding for the work came from the National Science Foundation.

For more information on the AGU poster, see

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Late Neandertals and Modern Human Contact in Southeastern Iberia

Newswise — It is widely accepted that Upper Paleolithic early modern humans spread westward across Europe about 42,000 years ago, variably displacing and absorbing Neandertal populations in the process.

However, Middle Paleolithic, presumably Neandertal, assemblages persisted for another 8,000 years in Iberia. It has been unclear whether these late Middle Paleolithic Iberian assemblages were made by Neandertals, and what the nature of those humans might have been.

New research, published Dec. 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is now shedding some light on what were probably the last Neandertals.

The research is based on a study of human fossils found during the past decade at the Sima de la Palomas, Murcia, Spain by Michael Walker, professor at Universidad de Murcia, and colleagues, and published by Michael Walker, Erik Trinkaus, professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis, and colleagues.

The human fossils from the upper levels of the Sima de las Palomas are anatomically clearly Neandertals, and they are now securely dated to 40,000 years ago. They therefore establish the late persistence of Neandertals in this southwestern cul-de-sac of Europe. This reinforces the conclusion that the Neandertals were not merely swept away by advancing modern humans. The behavioral differences between these human groups must have been more subtle than the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic technological contrasts might imply.

In addition, the Palomas Neandertals variably exhibit a series of modern human features rare or absent in earlier Neandertals. Either they were evolving on their own towards the modern human pattern, or more likely, they had contact with early modern humans around the Pyrenees. If the latter, it implies that the persistence of the Middle Paleolithic in Iberia was a matter of choice, and not cultural retardation.

From the Sima de las Palomas, other late Neandertal sites, and recent discoveries of the earliest modern humans across Europe, a complex picture is emerging of shifting contact between behaviorally similar, if culturally and biologically different, human populations. We are coming to see them all more as people, flexibly making a living through the changing human and natural landscapes of the Late Pleistocene.

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Cancer Drug Arouses Hope for Patients Suffering with Scleroderma

Newswise — A convergence of research has created a great deal of speculation on the far-reaching implications of Gleevec for patients suffering with the autoimmune disease scleroderma. Autoimmune diseases are developed when the body’s immune system attacks healthy cells and tissues, often resulting in devastating chronic pain and organ damage.

First, Novartis brought Gleevec to market in 2001. It was a product originally developed as a treatment for leukemia; but through clinical observations, it was found also to impede inflammation, a chronic symptom of autoimmune diseases such as systemic scleroderma.

Second, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco found evidence that Gleevec could reverse diabetes in mice by blocking a cell component called platelet-derived growth factor receptor (PDGFR). This receptor functions as part of a signaling system that regulates cell growth and inflammation.

Third, a research report in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that PDGFR is a significant factor in the development of scleroderma.

Today, Dr. Daniel Furst, a professor of rheumatology at the University of California at Los Angeles, is currently leading no less than five clinical studies into the safety and efficacy of utilizing Gleevec in the treatment of scleroderma. He believes that the ramifications of this research could have effects not only in scleroderma but amongst other autoimmune diseases.

“This research also helps understand systemic sclerosis and other forms of scleroderma as well as having implications for illnesses such as liver cirrhosis and chronic obstructive lung disease,” says, Dr. Furst. Virginia Ladd, President and Executive Director of the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association (AARDA), is encouraged by this sequence of events. “This is the first time that patients who suffer from scleroderma have a real possibility for an effective treatment. It is cause for hope for those involved in the fight against autoimmune diseases like scleroderma.”

There is currently no effective treatment for scleroderma. No drug currently can treat the problem at the cellular level however, doctors attempt to treat patients’ discomfort, by treating each symptom individually. Therefore, patients must deal with multiple specialists, multiple pills, and multiple side effects.

Kerri Connolly, Education Manager of the Scleroderma Foundation, a member of the National Coalition of Autoimmune Patient Groups is optimistic about the future, “…At this time, Scleroderma treatment is based only on symptoms/manifestations inflicted on the patients. We will still need time and patience since the "verdict" isn't out yet regarding Gleevec and its efficiency to treat Scleroderma. What this is showing is the progress the research community is making getting to the molecular level of the disease.”

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Artifacts, Documents Reveal Info About Those Columbus Met in Cuba

Newswise — Interpretations of a now defunct form of Spanish writing, in combination with a joint U.S.-Cuban archaeological effort, are granting researchers insight into the Cuban people who Christopher Columbus encountered on his first voyage to the “New World.”

During the two previous summers, an archaeological effort in eastern Cuba has recovered several thousand pottery and stone artifacts from the site of a former large native village, El Chorro de Maita. The effort is co-led by The University of Alabama and the Central-Eastern Department of Archaeology of the science ministry of Cuba and sponsored by the National Geographic Society. Roberto Valcarcel led the Cuban contingent.

Dr. Jim Knight, a UA professor of anthropology who set up and is advising the project, said the artifacts from the site, in combination with the research of documents archived in Spain, are shedding light on the early history of the Indians of Cuba.

“We should be able to put together a map of who was where – where the different towns and tribes were and which Spaniards were where and what they were up to,” Knight said. Handwritten documents originally produced by the early Spanish colonizers of Cuba recorded, as it were, some of the 16th-century “news of the day,” Knight said. On at least one occasion, a detailed inventory of the possessions of an early Spanish colonizer provides insight into 16th-century life. The researchers’ insight, however, doesn’t come without effort.

“It’s handwritten in a script that is barely recognizable as Spanish, even to a native speaker,” Knight said. Dr. John Worth, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of West Florida who is trained in interpreting the period’s writings, traveled to Spain to review the material and ordered relevant copies for further study. “Our hope is to correlate the documents with what we’re finding at the site,” Knight said.

The people Columbus encountered during his first voyage to northeastern Cuba in 1492 are known as Arawakan Indians. There is no concrete evidence, Knight said, that Columbus visited El Chorro de Maita, but this large village was occupied by Arawakans. There has been speculation since the 1940s, Knight said, that Columbus did visit the site. “That’s never been proven, but it’s in the right area,” he said.

The Arawakans of that day were of a similar level of sophistication, although quite different culturally, as the Mississippian Indians, their contemporaries, who lived at Moundville, some 13 miles south of Tuscaloosa and which Knight has studied for more than 30 years.

“They were chiefdoms, as were the inhabitants of Moundville,” Knight said. “And they were agriculturalists, but they primarily grew root crops instead of corn.”

Chiefdom is the name given to societies of the period that were headed by a chief, who would have unusual ritual, political or entrepreneurial skills. The societies were very hierarchical, with power concentrated within other kin leaders, who would then redistribute the resources to the others.

Artifacts recovered from the site, including evidence of the manufacturing of “idolillos,” or little idols, at portions of the site is among the evidence that the society had both elite and non-elite members, Knight said. The elite members of the group would have produced and worn these small, human-shaped figurines as part of a necklace. “They probably represent a god-figure, but we don’t know which god,” Knight said.

Working alongside the Cuban and U. S. professional archaeologists during the excavations were students from Syracuse and Penn State, and three students from The University of Alabama.

The project is a part of the UA Cuba Initiative, which provides opportunities for UA students to pursue their education under a special academic license granted by the U.S. government. Since 2002, UA has received academic travel licenses from the U.S. Department of the Treasury which permits travel to Cuba for specific academic activities.

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Science of Santa: How Santa Delivers All His Presents in One Night

Newswise — Don’t believe in Santa Claus? Cutting-edge science explains how Santa is able to deliver toys to good girls and boys around the world in one night.

If you’re skeptical of Santa’s abilities to deliver presents to millions of homes and children in just one night, North Carolina State University’s Dr. Larry Silverberg, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, can explain the science and engineering principles that allow the Jolly Old Elf to pull off the magical feat year after year.

With his cherubic smile and twinkling eyes, Santa may appear to be merely a jolly old soul, but he and his North Pole elves have a lot going on under the funny-looking hats, Silverberg says. Their advanced knowledge of electromagnetic waves, the space/time continuum, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and computer science easily trumps the know-how of contemporary scientists.

Silverberg says that Santa has a personal pipeline to children’s thoughts – via a listening antenna that combines technologies currently used in cell phones and EKGs – which informs him that Mary in Miami hopes for a surfboard, while Michael from Minneapolis wants a snowboard. A sophisticated signal processing system filters the data, giving Santa clues on who wants what, where children live, and even who’s been bad or good. Later, all this information will be processed in an onboard sleigh guidance system, which will provide Santa with the most efficient delivery route.

Silverberg adds that letters to Santa via snail mail still get the job done, however.

Silverberg is not so naïve as to think that Santa and his reindeer can travel approximately 200 million square miles – making stops in some 80 million homes – in one night. Instead, he posits that Santa uses his knowledge of the space/time continuum to form what Silverberg calls “relativity clouds.”

“Based on his advanced knowledge of the theory of relativity, Santa recognizes that time can be stretched like a rubber band, space can be squeezed like an orange and light can be bent,” Silverberg says. “Relativity clouds are controllable domains – rips in time – that allow him months to deliver presents while only a few minutes pass on Earth. The presents are truly delivered in a wink of an eye.”

With a detailed route prepared and his list checked twice through the onboard computer on the technologically advanced sleigh, Santa is ready to deliver presents. His reindeer – genetically bred to fly, balance on rooftops and see well in the dark – don’t actually pull a sleigh loaded down with toys. Instead, each house becomes Santa’s workshop as he utilizes a nano-toymaker to fabricate toys inside the children’s homes. The presents are grown on the spot, as the nano-toymaker creates – atom by atom – toys out of snow and soot, much like DNA can command the growth of organic material like tissues and body parts.

And there’s really no need for Santa to enter the house via chimney, although Silverberg says he enjoys doing that every so often. Rather, the same relativity cloud that allows Santa to deliver presents in what seems like a wink of an eye is also used to “morph” Santa into people’s homes.

Finally, many people wonder how Santa and the reindeer can eat all the food left out for them. Silverberg says they take just a nibble at each house. The remainder is either left in the house or placed in the sleigh’s built-in food dehydrator, where it is preserved for future consumption. It takes a long time to deliver all those presents, after all.

“This is our vision of Santa’s delivery method, given the human, physical and engineering constraints we face today,” Silverberg says. “Children shouldn’t put too much credence in the opinions of those who say it’s not possible to deliver presents all over the world in one night. It is possible, and it’s based on plausible science.”

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PS3s Help Astrophysicists Solve Black Hole Mystery

Newswise — Using only the computing power of 16 Sony Playstation 3 gaming consoles, scientists at The University of Alabama in Huntsville and the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, have solved a mystery about the speed at which vibrating black holes stop vibrating.

It may be the first time this kind of research has been conducted exclusively on a PS3 cluster: A related 2007 UMass Dartmouth/UAHuntsville project using a smaller PS3 cluster also used a "traditional" supercomputer to run its simulations.

The biggest advantage of the console cluster — the PS3 Gravity Grid — at UMass Dartmouth was the cost saving, said Dr. Lior Burko, an assistant physics professor at UAHuntsville. "If we had rented computing time from a supercomputer center it would have cost us about $5,000 to run our simulation one time. For this project we ran our simulation several dozens of times to test different parameters and circumstances, so you can see how much that would have cost us."

"You can build a cluster like this for perhaps $6,000, and then you can run the simulation as many times as you like at no additional cost."

"Science budgets have been significantly dropping over the last decade," said UMass Dartmount Physics Professor Gaurav Khanna, who built the PS3 cluster. "Here's a way that people can do science projects less expensively."

Khanna recently launched a website which includes step-by-step instructions for building a supercomputing PS3 cluster.

The PS3 cluster was well suited to this type of astrophysical research, which requires a large number of mathematical calculations but has low demands for RAM memory, Burko said. "Not every kind of job would be suitable for that system, but it is exactly the kind of computation that we did."

The current price for supercomputing time through a center like the National Science Foundation's TeraGrid or the Alabama Supercomputing Center is about $1 per CPU hour. Each PS3 has a powerful Cell processor. The 16-unit PS3 grid can complete a 5,000-CPU-hour (and $5,000) simulation run in about a day. That is a speed comparable to a rented supercomputer.

Published in the journal, "Classical and Quantum Gravity," the new research resolved a dispute over the speed at which black holes stop vibrating after they first form or are perturbed by something like swallowing some matter.

"Think of a bell," said Burko. "A bell rings, but eventually it gets quiet. The energy that goes out with the sound waves is energy that the bell is losing. A black hole does exactly that in gravitational waves instead of sound waves. A black hole that is wobbling is emitting gravitational waves. When those vibrations die down you get a quiet black hole."

(Most black holes are "quiet," which means the only things astronomers can measure are their mass and how fast they spin.)

Khanna and Burko used a high resolution computer simulation to "perturb" a simulated spinning black hole, then watched as it returned to its quiet state. They found that the speed at which black holes go quiet was the faster of the two competing theories.

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Scientists Isolate Genes That Made 1918 Flu Lethal

By mixing and matching a contemporary flu virus with the “Spanish flu” — a virus that killed between 20 and 50 million people 90 years ago in history’s most devastating outbreak of infectious disease — researchers have identified a set of three genes that helped underpin the extraordinary virulence of the 1918 virus.

Writing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison virologists Yoshihiro Kawaoka and Tokiko Watanabe identifies genes that gave the 1918 virus the capacity to reproduce in lung tissue, a hallmark of the pathogen that claimed more lives than all the battles of World War I combined.

“Conventional flu viruses replicate mainly in the upper respiratory tract: the mouth, nose and throat. The 1918 virus replicates in the upper respiratory tract, but also in the lungs,” causing primary pneumonia among its victims, says Kawaoka, an internationally recognized expert on influenza and a professor of pathobiological sciences in the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine. “We wanted to know why the 1918 flu caused severe pneumonia.”

Autopsies of 1918 flu victims often revealed fluid-filled lungs severely damaged by massive hemorrhaging. Scientists assumed that the ability of the virus to take over the lungs is associated with the pathogen’s high level of virulence, but the genes that conferred that ability were unknown.

Discovery of the complex and its role in orchestrating infection in the lungs is important because it could provide a way to quickly identify the potential virulence factors in new pandemic strains of influenza, Kawaoka says. The complex could also become a target for a new class of antiviral drugs, which is urgently needed as vaccines are unlikely to be produced fast enough at the outset of a pandemic to blunt its spread.

To find the gene or genes that enabled the virus to invade the lungs, Kawaoka and his group blended genetic elements from the 1918 flu virus with those of a currently circulating avian influenza virus and tested the variants on ferrets, an animal that mimics human flu infection.

For the most part, substituting single genes from the 1918 virus onto the template of a much more benign contemporary virus yielded agents that could only replicate in the upper respiratory tract. One exception, however, included a complex of three genes that, acting in concert with another key gene, allowed the virus to efficiently colonize lung cells and make RNA polymerase, a protein necessary for the virus to reproduce.

“The RNA polymerase is used to make new copies of the virus,” Kawaoka explains. Without the protein, the virus is unable to make new virus particles and spread infection to nearby cells.

In the late 1990s, scientists were able to recover genes from the 1918 virus by looking in the preserved lung tissue of some of the pandemic’s victims. Using the relic genes, Kawaoka’s group was able to generate viruses that carry different combinations of the 1918 virus and modern seasonal influenza virus.

When tested, most of the hybrid viruses only infected the nasal passages of ferrets and didn’t cause pneumonia. But one did infect the lungs, and it carried the RNA polymerase genes from the 1918 virus that allowed the virus to make the key step of synthesizing its proteins.

In 2004, Kawaoka and his team identified another key gene from the 1918 virus that enhanced the pathogen’s virulence in mice. That gene makes hemagglutinin, a protein found on the surface of the virus and that confers on viral particles the ability to attach to host cells.

“Here, I think we are talking about another mechanism,” Kawaoka says. The RNA polymerase is used to make copies of the virus once it has entered a host cell. The role of hemagglutinin is to help the virus gain access to cells.

In addition to the study’s lead authors, Watanabe and Kawaoka, co-authors of the new PNAS paper are Shinji Watanabe, Jin Hyun Kim and Masato Hatta, also of UW-Madison; and Kyoko Shinya of Kobe University. The work was funded by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology and by grants-in-aid from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare of Japan.

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