Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fight Over Biotech Beets

Back in 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted an environmental assessment of sugar beets that had been genetically engineered to resist the herbicide Roundup. They concluded that the new beets would have “no significant impact” on the environment, and therefore a full environmental impact statement would not be required. With that ruling, the beets were approved for widespread planting.

The new beets have been popular with farmers, and plantings have soared. But watchdog groups like the Center for Food Safety are not convinced that the Department of Agriculture should have approved the new beets so quickly. They have challenged the Department of Agriculture in court, and recently they won the first round; a Federal District Court judge in San Francisco has ruled that the Agriculture Department should have done an environmental impact statement before approving the beets for widespread planting. The judge in the case will decide on the correct course of action next month. But the plaintiffs have already said they would ask for a total ban on the biotech beets, according to an article in the New York Times this week.

Most consumers don’t seem to care; sugar is sugar.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Dwindling Arctic Sea Ice

The summer of 2009 marked an historic first; the first time that ships traveled from Asia to Europe via the Arctic Ocean. A short route from Europe to Asia has been the dream of sailors since Columbus set sail for Southeast Asia from Europe over 500 years ago. Two ships completed the first trip via the Arctic route in September of 2009, according to a news article on the Web site of the German shipping company, Beluga Shipping GmbH.

In 2009 there was only a short window of opportunity before sea ice closed the route again for the year. But in 30 years the trans-Arctic shipping season could last for three months or more. The new Arctic route cuts nearly 40% off the distance traveled via the usual more southerly routes through either the Suez canal or the Panama canal.

Global warming, dwindling sea ice; good for shipping, bad for polar bears.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Glucose Monitoring Devices are Inaccurate

Most diabetic patients measure their blood glucose level on a regular basis, as part of a daily regimen to try to maintain their blood glucose within normal limits. Many diabetics rely on home glucose monitors that are relatively cheap and easy to use - trouble is, they’re not very accurate. For example, one study reported that five different popular home glucose monitors gave readings that were different by as much as 30%.

Consumers probably are not aware that the devices can be this inaccurate. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is understandably concerned, and it’s pressuring the international organization that sets standards for the devices to tighten up the standards - or else the FDA may do it for them.

But this raises an interesting dilemma. Re-engineering and manufacturing the devices would make them more accurate, but it could also increase their price – at least, that’s the manufacturer’s arguments against new standards for accuracy. And if an increase in price caused some people to stop using them altogether, have we really gained anything? There’s always a trade-off; always a choice to be made…..

Friday, September 11, 2009

Treating "pre-osteoporosis"

First the definition of “overweight” was changed, making 35 million more Americans overweight overnight. Then normal blood pressure was redefined, and everyone just above it became “pre-hypertensive”. And now, millions of women with a bone density just slightly below normal (for a 30-year-old!) are being told they have a condition called “pre-osteoporosis”, or “osteopenia”. This is like telling a middle-aged woman she has a skin disease because her skin is not as smooth as her daughter’s. In fact, a woman’s bone density normally declines with age – its just part of the aging process. Bone density declines very slowly after 30 but before menopause, and then accelerates after menopause.

The pharmaceutical industry helped to define osteopenia, and it also has the pills to treat it. Call me a skeptic, but I’m guessing they had an interest in seeing a lot of women diagnosed with the condition. Some doctors are suggesting that the drugs used to treat osteopenia are being over-marketed to younger post-menopausal women who may still be at relatively low risk for bone fractures. They argue that the benefits of the drugs used to treat osteopenia are exaggerated and the risks generally are downplayed. If you're still young, consult your physician before taking drugs to treat osteopenia. Otherwise you could be trying to treat a problem that you don’t really have yet.

REFERENCE: P. Alonso-Coello, et al. Drugs for pre-osteoporosis – prevention or disease-mongering? British Medical Journal 336:126-129, 2008.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Is She a Woman?

After 18-yr-old South African Caster Semenya turned in the fastest time of the year in a women’s 800-meter event in 2009, track and track and field’s governing body ordered an investigation into her gender. They're demanding “proof” that she’s actually a female, so they’ve assembled a committee tell them. Let's see, now, a geneticist, an endocrinologist, a gynecologist, and a psychologist are getting together to determine the sex of…

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s not. Legitimate physiological and anatomical “gender confusion” can be caused by sex hormone imbalances, tissue unresponsiveness to sex hormones, genes that don’t turn on properly during fetal development, or even sex-determining genes located on the wrong chromosome (in rare cases, an XY male can develop the characteristics of a female).

Sports federations should develop rules that allow gender determination (for the purposes of sports competition) before an athletic event, not afterwards, in the public eye. One can only wonder about the emotional damage about to be done to young Caster Semenya.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Strategies Against Superbugs

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are cropping up everywhere. There hasn’t been a major breakthrough in the development of antibiotics since the 1960s. Are we losing the battle against antibiotic-resistant bacteria?

There aren’t any new weapons in the arsenal just yet, but some scientists remain optimistic. According to a recent article in Scientific American, strategies currently under development include: 1) developing “narrow spectrum” antibiotics that target just one bacterial species at a time, 2) preventing pathogenic bacteria from causing disease in humans without actually killing them, 3) searching among bacterial species for antibiotics that bacteria use against each other in nature, and 4) genetically modifying antibiotic-producing bacteria so that they can be grown easily in culture.

We’ll probably never win against the bacteria, but we can keep trying to stay one step ahead.

REFERENCE: C.T Walsh and M.A. Fishbach. New Ways to Squash Superbugs. Scientific American pp. 44-51, July, 2009.