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SCIENCE IN THE NEWS - January 7, 2003: Developments in 2002 - 2003-01-06



This is Sarah Long.


And this is Bob Doughty with the Special English program SCIENCE IN THE NEWS. Today, we tell about some of the major science stories of the year two-thousand-two. We tell about hormone replacement research, an ancient burial box, a genetic map of rice, the spread of the disease AIDS and the smallpox vaccine debate.



Last year, American government researchers halted a national women’s health study because they found harmful effects from hormone replacement therapy, or H-R-T.

Women’s bodies stop producing the hormone estrogen at about the age of fifty. This period of life is called menopause. Until now, medical experts believed that taking the hormone estrogen could protect older women from health problems like heart disease. Recent studies have disagreed, however.

The latest study was the largest ever carried out to investigate the effects of H-R-T on healthy older women.

The study involved more than sixteen-thousand women between the ages of fifty and seventy-nine. Half of the women took a pill containing the hormones estrogen and progestin. The others took an inactive substance.

After five years, the women taking the hormones were twenty-six percent more likely to develop breast cancer than the others. The hormones also increased the chances of heart attacks by twenty-nine percent and strokes by forty-one percent.

The hormone treatment was also found to reduce the number of broken bones and colon cancers. But officials at the National Institutes of Health decided to stop the study three years early because they believed the hormones were doing more harm than good.

The researchers said more testing is needed to see if other kinds of hormone replacement therapy have similar effects.



History and religious experts were excited last year about the discovery of an ancient box that might be the oldest historic evidence of Jesus. The box reportedly held the bones of a man said to the brother of Jesus, called James.

The burial box belongs to a private collector in Israel. It contains a message written in the ancient Aramaic language. It says “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

An expert on ancient languages, Andre Lemaire, examined the box and wrote a study about it. He said the box was evidence of Jesus. But other experts have questioned his findings. They say the box is real and is two-thousand years old. They also say that the first part of the writing is real. But they say that the writing that means “brother of Jesus” was placed on the box at a later time and is not even in the Aramaic language.

The experts do not think the dispute will be settled until the Israeli government carries out a more complete examination.



Another major science story from last year involved efforts to identify all the genes found in rice. In April, two teams of scientists published separate reports about the genetic information for rice plants. It was the first time scientists had mapped the genes of an important crop.

The scientists say this genetic information could lead to improved kinds of rice and better rice production in developing countries. They also expect the information to be useful in improving other grains, such as corn and wheat.

Rice feeds more than half the people in the world. But weather conditions, disease and insects can restrict its production. That may change because of efforts by the two scientific teams.

One group was led by Jun Yu of the Beijing Genomics Institute in China and the University of Washington in Seattle. The scientists studied the rice most commonly grown in China, called indica rice. They said they have identified more than ninety percent of the genes in indica rice.

The other scientists work for the Syngenta Company based in Switzerland. They did the research at the company’s Torrey Mesa Research Institute in La Jolla, California. They created a map of a short-grain rice grown in warm areas of the world, called japonica. Syngenta says its map is more than ninety-nine percent complete and ninety-nine percent correct.

One expert said the rice genome could prove to be more important in the next few years than the human genome because more people depend on rice than any other crop.



Another important science story last year involved the increase in the number of people suffering from the disease AIDS.

A United Nations report estimated that forty-two-million people are infected with the AIDS virus, also called H-I-V. Nearly thirty-nine-million of those infected are adults. More than nineteen-million of them are women.

U-N officials said many women were infected with H-I-V by having sex with infected men. Studies have found that H-I-V passes more easily from men to women than from women to men.

The main reason for the rise in infected women is the AIDS crisis in southern Africa. Fifty-eight percent of infected adults there are women. The report says this is one cause for the drop in agricultural production in several African countries. Women do much of the work on family farms in parts of Africa. U-N officials say more than fourteen-million people are at risk of starvation in six African countries. They are Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The U-N also reported rising infection rates among women in North Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean Sea area. The report shows that Eastern Europe and Central Asia have the world’s fastest growing population of people with H-I-V.

In Asia and the Pacific Ocean area, more than seven-million people now have H-I-V. More than one-million people in China are infected. And almost four-million have the AIDS virus in India.

The United Nations says the fight against AIDS needs at least ten-thousand-million dollars a year by two-thousand-five. The spending now is three-thousand-million dollars a year.



Another top science story last year was the debate about the vaccine medicine to prevent the disease smallpox. Smallpox is caused by the variola virus. It spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Smallpox can damage the brain and other body organs. It kills about thirty percent of the people who get it. There is no treatment. The vaccine ended the threat of smallpox around the world in nineteen-seventy-seven. But now, American officials fear that terrorists may have the virus and could use it in a biological attack.

In December, President Bush announced a plan to protect the American people from smallpox. The plan will first give the vaccine to those serving in the military forces, health care workers and emergency workers. The vaccine would then be offered to the public in two-thousand-four. Experts say each person would decide if he or she wants the vaccine.

However, the smallpox vaccine can be dangerous. It can even kill. The vaccine is a live virus similar to the one that causes smallpox. The vaccine can spread throughout a person’s body and cause infection.

Records from the nineteen-sixties show that one or two people died for every one-million people who received the vaccine. Nine others suffered brain infections and more than one-hundred people developed severe skin infections. Hundreds of other people developed other health problems.

Medical experts believe that even more people would suffer such reactions today. This is because many more people have weakened body defense systems against disease. These include cancer patients who have been treated with chemotherapy drugs, people infected with the AIDS virus and those with skin diseases like eczema. Doctors say the current smallpox vaccine has not been tested on children and may not be safe for them.

Many health professionals have criticized President Bush’s decision to offer the vaccine to the public. They say the threat of becoming sick from the vaccine is greater than that from the disease unless a real terrorist attack takes place.



This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by George Grow, Cynthia Kirk, Nancy Steinbach and Caty Weaver. It was produced by George Grow. This is Bob Doughty.


And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.