Science Agenda: Fresh Fruit, Hold the Insulin

The latest news from Scientific American 17 Apriil 2012

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---Summaries of newsworthy articles:

Science Agenda: Fresh Fruit, Hold the Insulin

The Science of Health: Return of the Clap

Future Health Special Report: Tomorrow’s Medicine

Meteorology: A Better Eye on the Storm


Science Agenda: Fresh Fruit, Hold the Insulin (p12)

In order to instill healthier eating habits in the U.S., it is essential to revise the antiquated agriculture and farm subsidies policies, the Editors write in the Science Agenda column published this month in Scientific American.

The almost $300-billion Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, dubbed the “farm bill”—which determines how much funding agricultural operations receive in subsidies and crop insurance programs—is up for renewal this year. Eight decades ago, the first precursor to this bill was meant to be temporary lifeline for farmers during the Great Depression. Today the farm bill gives $4.9 billion a year in automatic payments to farmers of commodity crops, such as corn and soy, which helps to drive down the price of these crops and products created from them, even though these crops are “as profitable as ever.” Meanwhile fruits and vegetables are still listed as “specialty crops” and receive almost none of these supports.

The problem, the Editors note, is that corn and corn-derived products are common staples in many processed foods, which means that these unhealthy dietary options are cheaper than much healthier fruit and vegetable options. With conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis—all strongly correlated to extra weight gain—draining nearly $150 billion in medical bills each year, what is needed is clear: “Any new farm bill should at the very least remove the current perverse incentives for people to eat unhealthily.”

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The Science of Health: Return of the Clap (p 30)

Resistance to the last class of drugs to work effectively against the sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea may be growing, Maryn McKenna reports in Scientific American. This month’s “The Science of Health” looks at the issue and suggests that educating physicians and patients may be key in preventing resistant strains of the disease from spreading.

Gonorrhea is one of the most reported infectious diseases in the U.S, with more than 600,000 new cases a year, and the first major sexually transmitted disease to edge towards the realm of the untreatable. Currently, only one class of drugs used to treat the disease, cephalosporins, remains effective against it. U.S. health experts, however, have noticed strains of gonorrhea, originating from Asia, that show signs of resistance against cephalosporins. The worry is that this resistance will grow and spread further across populations.

McKenna suggests that current medical practices may be making the spread of this resistance worse. Current practice is to retreat patients if symptoms return, but serial retreating only makes the resistant bacteria stronger. Meanwhile patients may have passed infection and resistant germs in the belief that the first dose of antibiotics had been effective.

She recognizes that public health campaigns have improved STD detection with quick tests of urine samples both inside and outside the clinic but notes that such tests reveal nothing about resistance—something which is becoming just as important.

Despite intermittent successes, the development of vaccines against gonorrhea are still decades away. McKenna suggests that, in the meantime, efforts to educate physicians and patients, track resistant strains and develop new treatments must be carefully targeted and well coordinated with one another. Otherwise, resistant gonorrhea infections will continue to grow in strength and spread across the world.

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Future Health Special Report: Tomorrow’s Medicine (p 42)

The leaps that biology, electronics and human genetics have made over the past few years are allowing scientists to develop new tools and methods for monitoring and improving human health. A special health report in this month’s Scientific American highlights promising medical developments, such as bionic eyes to restore vision or nanoparticles that find cancer in its earliest stages.

One advancement featured in the special report is the development of retinal implants. In 2008 scientists in Germany embedded a tiny chip—0.12 inch by 0.12 inch—in the retina of a blind man, providing him with the ability to distinguish basic shapes and outlines of people and objects. The technology for such synthetic photoreceptors is still in its infancy; the German implants had to be removed after three months because of the risk for skin infections. Even this limited success and the speed at which the technology is improving suggest that retinal implants could be more widely available in just a few years.

By 2016, the field of nanomedicine is projected to exceed $130 billion worldwide. Today tiny nanoparticles are being created that can search out and detect early stages of cancer, as well as locally administer cancer treatments. In one study, early results found that nanoparticles can pinpoint breast cancer tumors 100 times smaller than those seen in mammography studies, which may give patients and doctors much better chances of beating cancer.

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Meteorology: A Better Eye on the Storm (p 68)

New radar and satellite technologies, paired with better computer models running on faster supercomputers, will allow forecasters to better predict extreme weather events, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. Such advances can provide the public with more time to prepare and find shelter, Jane Lubchenco and Jack Hayes write in this month’s Scientific American.

Present-day weather forecasting technologies leave room for improvement, giving the public an average of 14 minutes of warning prior to the arrival of an extreme weather event, such as the 2011 Joplin, Mo., tornado. But as Lubchenco and Hayes discuss, there is now a more concerted effort to build a “weather-ready nation” through a combination of scientific brain power from various disciplines and new technological resources. For example, simply employing more sophisticated forms of radar could increase warning time by precious minutes and, when combined with planned advances in satellites and supercomputers, could identify the signs of extreme weather in advance, giving the public as much as an hour of warning time for tornadoes.

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Published: 17 Apr 2012

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