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News Bytes of the Week—Lunar Landscape, HDTV-Style

Merck settles Vioxx suit, Mothra meets Robocop and more…

Man in the moon: Will high-def exaggerate my crags?
The first ever high-definition video images of the lunar surface were released this week by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation). Sponsored by the two organizations, the HDTV-equipped spacecraft Kaguya entered lunar orbit last month and went on to shoot a combined eight minutes of crisp video (available here) from a distance of around 60 miles (100 kilometers), offering a panoramic view of the moon's northern topography. (JAXA)

Moth brain controls robot
Science fluttered closer this week to the flame of ultimate knowledge as researchers revealed they had wired a six-inch-tall wheeled robot to follow the gaze of a moth. Trapped more like a firefly in a bot-mounted plastic tube, the insect's furtive eye movements were conveyed to its machine slave via an electrode that pricked a single neuron in its visual system. The cyber moth joins the esteemed ranks of simple organisms hitched to robots, including slime mold, a detached eel brain and the cockroach. (Los Angeles Times)

Fake paper fools global warming naysayers
The man-made-global-warming-is-a-hoax crowd latched onto a study this week in the Journal of Geoclimatic Studies by researchers at the University of Arizona's Department of Climatology, who reported that soil bacteria around the Atlantic and Pacific oceans belch more than 300 times the carbon dioxide released by all fossil fuel emission, strongly implying that humans are not to blame for climate change. Slight problem, however: the cited journal, department and study authors don't exist. (The University of Arizona apparently does). British climate blogger David Thorpe admitted online to having designed the bogus journal site as a joke, but insisted he did not write the faux paper, which has since been pulled from the Web—though it remains on Google's servers. Said Thorpe: "I designed the site because I was asked to by someone who knew I would be sympathetic to the joke. I appreciate it looks as though I wrote it. I even wish I had written it, because it's very funny. But I didn't." (paper, Thorpe's admission)

The skinny on fat: Too little is more dangerous than too much
Overweight people are at no greater risk than normal-weight folks of dying from heart disease or cancer and are actually less likely to fall prey to some other causes of death, such as accidents and Alzheimer's, according to freshly analyzed data on 2.3 million adults 25 years and older as of 2004. In fact, it's the underweight among us who are more likely to succumb to cancer, federal statisticians report in JAMA The Journal of the American Medical Association, possibly because the scrawny lack the fat stores to ride out tough times. Hoping to prevent this deep-fried bombshell from going straight to the love handles of public opinion, physicians told Reuters that extra pounds can lead to obesity, which the study linked to increased death from diabetes, kidney or heart disease as well as some cancers. (JAMA, Reuters)

Merck pays billions to settle Vioxx suit
Culminating years of legal wrangling, drug giant Merck today agreed to pay a whopping $4.85 billion to bring an end to thousands of lawsuits claiming that its painkiller Vioxx caused severe and, in some cases, fatal injury to users. The agreement, believed to be the biggest drug settlement ever, comes three years after Vioxx was pulled off the market after researchers determined that it doubled the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Lawsuits were filed by some 47,000 victims and family members of patients and there were about 265 potential class action suits pending. Teams of lawyers for both sides reportedly huddled more than 50 times in eight states and haggled by phone hundreds of more times before finally cutting the historic deal. "I'm very happy with it," Chris Seeger, one of the six plaintiff lawyers who helped hammer out the settlement told the Associated Press. "It's a tremendous way to resolve this litigation." Litigants may qualify if they filed claims by Thursday and can show medical proof that they suffered heart attack or stroke, received at least 30 Vioxx pills, and that they took the tabs within two weeks of injury. (AP)

Eight-limbed girl has four limbs removed
A two-year-old Indian girl regained consciousness, smiled and wiggled her toes today following massive surgery Wednesday to remove an extra set of limbs budding from her lower spine. A team of more than 30 surgeons worked a full 24 hours to remove the vestiges of a so-called parasitic twin from young Lakshmi, named after the four-armed Hindu goddess. Her doctors, who also had to reconstruct her pelvis and transplant a kidney taken from her fused twin, told the Associated Press that Lakshmi would eventually be able to walk, possibly after additional surgery for clubfeet. (AP)

New Jersey voters nix stem cell funding; Oregon rejects cigarette tax hike
Voters in New Jersey this week rejected a plan to borrow $450 million over 10 years to finance what would have been one of the nation's most ambitious public efforts to fund stem cell research. Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine had campaigned aggressively for the measure, pumping $200,000 of his own money into TV spots pushing it. He and other supporters argued unsuccessfully that the move would pave the way to cures for conditions such as spinal cord injuries and sickle-cell anemia as well as degenerative disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. He also said the bill would attract leading scientists and research firms to the state. But the measure faced potent opposition from antiabortion activists, the Catholic church and fiscal conservatives, because it would pay for research on discarded human embryos and increase the state's debt. Several other states have stepped up to the plate in the wake of federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Among them: California allocated $3 billion; Connecticut, $100 million; Illinois, $10 million; and Maryland has awarded $15 million in grants for stem cell research. In another health ballot initiative this week, Oregon voters said "no" to a cigarette tax hike to fund health insurance for some 100,000 kids in the state who currently are not covered. The measure would have added 84.5 cents per pack of smokes, bringing the cost to $2.02 a pop. The defeat was blamed on heavy lobbying by tobacco giants against the measure; the companies reportedly dropped a hefty $12 million on the effort, outspending supporters by a four-to-one-margin. (New York Times, United Press International)

Not a Toy: Toy that turns into drug is recalled
Child's play? Hardly. Yet another popular toy made in China was recalled this week, this one after scientists discovered that it contained a chemical that the human body turns into the potentially deadly date rape drug "fantasy" when ingested. The award-winning craft toy, Bindeez (known as Aqua Dots in the U.S.)—manufactured by Australian company Moose Enterprises—was recalled after three Australian children over a period of 10 days were hospitalized after chomping on the toy's beads. The toy, a staple in many playrooms, consists of brightly colored beads that are linked to create different shapes like miniature ponies, ducks and daisies. They are sprayed with water to fix them. In issuing the voluntary recall, the company said that without its knowledge, harmless, nontoxic glue had been replaced with a chemical that the body metabolizes into gamma hydroxy butyrate (GHB)—aka "grievous bodily harm"—which can cause seizures and other serious, life-threatening symptoms. The Australian government said it was probing whether the switch was deliberate. Moose spokesperson Christie Nicholas told Melbourne's The Age that none of the incidents produced any long-term damage. "When used as intended and clearly instructed, the product is safe," she said. "However, if misused and swallowed it may have adverse results and cause [a] child to become ill." She said that a foul-tasting ingredient would be added to the beads when they return to store shelves to stave off would-be munchers. (The Age)

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