Virgin Galactic unveils designs for new spacecraft
Plans for a new commercial suborbital spacecraft were presented this week by Virgin Galactic, the space tourism arm of Virgin Atlantic, and Scaled Composites, maker of the first privately funded manned spacecraft. Sir Richard Branson and Burt Rutan, the heads of the respective organizations, revealed models, artists' conceptions and construction photos of the eight-seat SpaceShipTwo, designed to carry six paying passengers to the edge of space for four and a half minutes of weightless awe. The Associated Press reports that 200 customers have already paid $200,000 apiece to reserve a ride, and Branson has set aside two seats for his elderly parents. The companies said they hope to begin test flights this summer, just a year after one of the craft's experimental engines exploded during a routine ground test, killing three employees. (Virgin Galactic)
Ares 1 theme song: I fall to pieces?
In other news of future spaceships, NASA says that the Ares 1 launcher, set to replace the aging shuttle program and carry astronauts to the moon by 2020, could shake itself to the point of failure if built according to current design specs. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Associated Press (AP) and questioning by NASA Watch, the agency disclosed that gas vortices from the rocket's primary solid-fuel engine could rattle the craft violently during the first few minutes of launch—to the detriment of the astronauts at the top of the stack. The AP noted that the problem is par for the course when designing new solid-fuel rockets. (Associated Press; NASA Watch)
Bone marrow switcheroo protects transplanted kidneys, liver
Three reports this week suggest that the key to transplanting organs without fear of rejection may be to throw in a bit of bone marrow. In two cases, researchers deliberately damaged the bone marrow of kidney transplant recipients to get rid of immune cells, which normally attack new organs that they view as foreign bodies. Ordinarily, transplant patients must take immunosuppressant drugs—which themselves can cause kidney damage—to keep the cellular soldiers at bay. In an effort to spare patients a lifetime on antirejection medications, researchers replaced the damaged bone marrow cells with those of the organ donor—in effect also transplanting the donors' immune systems. In one study, four of five kidney transplant patients successfully quit taking their drugs for two to five years; one of the transplant patients in a second study has thrived for more than two years without immune suppressants. The third experiment was accidental: A 15-year-old Australian girl has survived six years without antirejection drugs since receiving a slice of the liver of a boy who died of a brain injury. Apparently, his blood-forming stem cells stowed away in the liver and took over her bone marrow, changing her blood type in the process. (The New England Journal of Medicine; Massachusetts General Hospital; Reuters)
For diabetes, weight-loss surgery heavy favorite over dieting
Newly diagnosed diabetes patients, who are advised to shed 10 percent of their body weight for good, might want to consider gastric bypass surgery. A new study of 60 obese diabetics found that after two years, those who received bypass surgery (to reduce stomach size) lost an average of 21 percent of their body weight, and 73 percent of them (22 individuals) became symptom-free. Those given standard diet and exercise counseling lost a mere 2 percent of body weight and achieved remission in 13 percent of cases (four people). (JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association)