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News Bytes of the Week--Showy send-off for stealth fighter

Cancer-causing agent in "organic" soaps, Digital patients, Deadly wheat fungus and more...



USAF

Secret's out: U.S. Air Force stealth flies into the sunset
The F-117A Nighthawk—the original stealth fighter aircraft, which made its first test flight in 1981—may have been developed in secrecy, but the U.S. Air Force gave the radar-defying combat craft a very public send-off this week at Ohio's Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. A ceremony held to bid adieu to the aging fighter concluded with a flashy flyby of one of the retiring jets, its giant underbelly painted red, white and blue. The Air Force says that it would rather spend its funding on the next generation of aircraft, including the B-2 Spirit, F-22 Raptor and soon-to-be-fielded F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. These new planes are more adept and less expensive to fly and maintain than the retiring F-117A, according to the Air Force. The old Nighthawks will be placed in storage at an airfield in the Tonopah Test Range in Nevada, where the jets flew in total secrecy and only at night until November 1988. The Cold War–era Nighthawks, nearly completely covered with a radar absorbing material, were sent into action in 1989's brief skirmish in Panama and again in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm, where they flew nearly 1,300 sorties over Iraq and Kuwait (2 percent of the total combat missions), striking 40 percent of the most highly defended, strategic targets. No teary farewell speeches at this retirement party, though; the once mighty aircraft will shortly have their wings and tails clipped and then be stored in protective hangars. Sorry, conspiracy theorists, there are no plans to stash them in Area 51.
(Air Force)

"Organic" soaps contain cancer-causing chemical
So much for "natural" or "organic" being healthier. Consumers of pricey, so-called organic and natural products may have had the gut feeling they were being duped for some time, but now there's proof. A new study by the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association proved that 47 of 100 "natural" or "organic" soaps, shampoos and cleaning products contain 1,4-dioxane—a by-product of chemical soap softeners. The cancer-causing compound can be avoided—by using coconut or other plant oils in lieu of the chemicals—but at a cost. "We need standards," study author David Steinberg told the Los Angeles Times. "Consumers walk into a health food store or natural product supermarket with the expectation that the produce they purchase will be natural or safer than what they could purchase at the drugstore or supermarket." The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates cosmetics, has said that levels such as those detected here do not pose a risk, though manufacturers are urged to reduce them as much as possible. And there is no standard for what constitutes "natural" or "organic" in personal care products.
(Organic Consumers Association; Los Angeles Times)


Will doctors one day be able to test drugs on digital patients?
University College London scientists recently reported in the Journal of the American Chemical Society that they used supercomputing power to create "virtual physiological humans" (VPH) to serve as test subjects for the new HIV drug saquinavir (designed to block one of the virus's key proteins). Their goal: to one day be able to create a unique VPH for each HIV patient on which doctors could test different meds to determine their potential effects (on the organs, tissues and cells of real patients) and use the info to tailor the best treatments. Needless to say, such a move would be a dramatic improvement over today's testing methods, which largely involve trial and error because doctors have no way to match the drugs to the profile of the virus as it changes in individual patients. The human body is so complex that the scientists say they had to tap into several supercomputers running off national computer networks comprising both the U.K.'s National Grid Service and the U.S. TeraGrid to summon enough juice for the task. No word on when this testing method might be available for everyday use, though it's unlikely it will be anytime soon.
(Journal of the American Chemical Society)

Wheat fungus threatens billions with starvation
A wheat fungus first identified in Uganda in 1999 has spread to the wheat growing regions of Iran, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The wheat stem rust fungus could infect as much as 80 percent of wheat crops in central Asia and the Indian subcontinent in the near future, as it is carried by wind over vast distances. "The fungus is spreading rapidly and could seriously lower wheat production in countries at direct risk," said Shivaji Pandey, director of the FAO's Plant Production and Protection Division. With bread and other cereal prices already at record highs, the threat of famine is real. Scientists are racing to breed a strain of fungus-resistant wheat but none has yet been discovered despite concerns over the disease's steady spread since it was first discovered. Developing such resistant strains can take years.
(FAO release; Telegraph)

EPA nixes science again, this time on ozone
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this week tightened its standards for acceptable levels of ozone pollution but only from 80  to 75 parts per billion. Ground level ozone, or smog, caused by the exhaust from vehicle tailpipes and other emissions damages the heart and lungs. EPA scientists had recommended that the standard be set at 60 ppb, but President Bush intervened to ensure that the ozone limit was set no lower than 75 ppb despite previous EPA statements on the pollutant's harmful effects. According to a memo obtained by The Washington Post, government lawyers including U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement have warned the White House that the new rules contradict the EPA's past testimony to the Supreme Court and raise other legal issues.
(The Washington Post; EPA; New standard)

Of mice and men: Unsung Microsoft co-founder on quest to map human, mouse brains
Coming to you free online: a navigable genetic map of the human brain. Many people might be surprised to learn that Bill Gates wasn't the only one behind the  Microsoft mega-empire.   And now his decidedly less prominent co-founder, Paul Allen, is embarking on a new four-year project to create a digital map of gene activity in different parts of the human brain that will be available free of charge to anyone online. Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle plan to a map a composite of the brains of six or seven recently deceased mentally healthy people. Allen envisions the map as a tool designed to help researchers improve their understanding of complex brain disorders, potentially paving the way for new therapies down the road. The institute also announced plans to create an atlas of a developing mouse brain and the mouse spinal cord.
(MSNBC)


Painkillers, diet drug may also affect memory and learning

A new study in Neuron says that a new class of painkillers may dull memory as well as pain. The finding may also have implications for the diet drug rimonabant, sold as Acomplia in Europe, which targets the same brain receptor (TRPV1). Study author Julie Kauer, a Brown University pharmacologist, says that when researchers blocked TRPV1 receptors in rat brain tissue, the connections between neurons weakened, which is a condition associated with memory and learning difficulties. Scientists previously believed that TRPV1 was only implicated in pain, but Kauer says the new research indicates that it may have broader functions; in addition to memory and learning, she speculates that it may also be responsible for psychiatric disruptions (such as suicidal thoughts and depression) that have been linked to Acomplia. The diet drug has not been approved for use in the U.S., and chances are this new information won't help on that score.
(Reuters)

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