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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - Nobel Prizes in Science  / Americans face limited flu vaccine / Melting ice in Antarctica / How to build a supercomputer? - 2004-10-11


Broadcast: October 12, 2004

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VOICE ONE:

This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And I’m Sarah Long. This week: the Nobel Prize winners for science…melting ice in Antarctica…and more about an award-winning supercomputer.

VOICE ONE:

But first, news about a vaccine to protect against the disease influenza…

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The United States will have limited supplies of vaccine to prevent influenza this winter. As a result, American officials are urging healthy adults to delay getting the vaccine or not get one at all this flu season.

The officials say the limited supplies should go first to people most at risk from influenza. High-risk groups include children age six to twenty-three months and anyone sixty-five years of age and older. They also include pregnant women and people with long-term medical conditions. Officials say health workers and persons caring for babies also need flu vaccine injections.

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There will be no flu vaccine this year from a company that provides half the supply used in the United States. The company, Chiron, makes its vaccine in Liverpool, England. Last week, British officials suspended its production permit for three months. American health officials say the British action was unexpected.

Chiron had announced in September that some of its flu vaccine failed company inspections for purity. But Chiron also said it expected to be able to release its supplies by early October. Now the company says it will not be able to release any of its product this flu season.

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Chicken eggs are used in the process to make flu vaccine. Chiron is one of two companies that supply the vaccine used in flu shots in the United States. There have been limited supplies before, but nothing like this. The head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a long-term solution is needed. Doctor Julie Gerberding says this would end the situation of an undependable supply from year to year.

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Health experts in the United States are criticizing the Food and Drug Administration after the worldwide withdrawal of a popular medicine. The criticism comes five years after the F.D.A. approved the drug Vioxx for treating pain. The maker of Vioxx, Merck and Company, announced last month that it has stopped selling the drug. Merck said a long-term study suggested that people who used Vioxx had an increased risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The drug company paid for the study itself. Two thousand six hundred people were observed for eighteen months. Merck organized the study to find out if Vioxx was helpful in preventing cancer growths in the colon. But, the study discovered something else. It found that heart attacks were almost two times as common among Vioxx users than among those who did not take the drug.

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The Food and Drug Administration approved Vioxx in nineteen-ninety-nine. The following year, Merck gave the federal agency results of a study on the drug’s safety. It found that patients taking Vioxx had an increased risk of health problems, such as heart attacks and strokes. Two years ago, the F. D. A. ordered Merck to include warnings with the drug.

Vioxx is among a group of drugs called Cox-Two non-steroidal anti-inflammatories. They grew in popularity among pain sufferers because they are supposed to cause fewer stomach problems than other medicines. Worldwide sales of Vioxx were worth two thousand five-hundred million dollars last year.

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New studies show that glaciers on two sides of Antarctica are getting thinner and moving faster. The changes might mean that seawater levels could continually rise for hundreds of years. Three teams of investigators carried out separate studies of the Antarctic glaciers. The teams used satellites and airplanes to observe the thick ice covering the continent.

One area studied is along the Antarctic Peninsula, just south of the Atlantic Ocean. The other area faces the Pacific Ocean. It involves the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the Amundsen Sea. In each place, floating ice formations called ice shelves were connected to the coastline. Or, they were connected to the sea bottom. The ice shelves were in front of the glaciers.

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The studies examined what happened after these ice shelves broke up. Scientists report that the shelves seemingly released large pieces of inland ice. The freed ice is now flowing faster toward the coast. There it will melt and raise the sea level.

The scientists say warming conditions on Antarctica caused some of the changes. Yet not all areas of the continent are getting warmer. Some areas are cooling. Still, the studies show that enough coastal air and waters have warmed to produce the changed conditions.

Some of the scientists say the sea level will rise about six-tenths of a meter by two thousand one hundred. That is within estimates made by a worldwide committee studying the warming of Earth’s atmosphere. But, that amount already threatens the future of areas below sea level.

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Theodore Scambos of the University of Colorado says he believes Antarctica reacts fast to climate warming. Temperatures there have risen as much as two-point-five degrees Celsius in the past sixty years. That is said to be one of the fastest rates in the world. Mister Scambos was among the research scientists from American universities who studied the Antarctic glaciers. They say more warming could cause additional ice to fall into the sea. Scientists from the American space agency took part in the studies. So did researchers from the Institute of Antarctica in Argentina and the Center of Scientific Studies in Chile.

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VOICE ONE:

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced winners of the Nobel Prizes for science last week. This year, three Americans will share the Nobel Prize for Physics. David Gross, David Politzer and Frank Wilczak are being recognized for their studies of quarks, the smallest building blocks of nature.

Three scientists will share the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. They are Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko, both of Israel, and American Irwin Rose. The Royal Swedish Academy says the three men provided important findings about the normal process of protein destruction in cells.

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The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine will be given to two Americans. Richard Axel and Linda Buck studied the sense of smell. They were recognized for their discovery of a large family of genes and receptors in the nose that are linked to the genes.

The two Americans found that three percent of all human genes are responsible for the sense of smell. Their work helped explained how animals recognize and remember about ten thousand different smells.

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Supercomputers are extremely powerful. They are mostly for scientific and engineering work. If you ever decide to build a supercomputer, you can get some ideas from how it was done at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. Virginia Tech students, teachers, and others linked together one thousand one hundred personal computers. They used the Macintosh G-five made by Apple Computer.

This year, they rebuilt the machine with a new server computer from Apple, the Xserve G-five. This is expected to make the supercomputer even stronger. It was already the most powerful computer at any university, and the third most powerful in the world.

In all, almost two hundred people worked to build the supercomputer last year at the school in Blacksburg, Virginia. Team members worked seven days a week and up to twenty hours a day.

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The team designed and built the supercomputer in three months. They named it System X. It cost a little more than five million dollars to build. Other top supercomputers had cost at least ten times more.

The team members tested the computer each time they finished part of it. On September twenty-third, two thousand-three, they turned on the complete system for the first time. They learned that their new computer could solve ten million million mathematical problems every second.

Physicists at Virginia Tech are using System X to design new electronic systems controlled by single atoms. Chemists and biologists use System X in studies of molecules.

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VOICE ONE:

SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Paul Thompson, Jeri Watson, Caty Weaver and Avi Arditti. Cynthia Kirk was our producer. This is Bob Doughty.

VOICE TWO:

And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about Science in Special English on VOA.

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