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See Inside January 2008

Updates... Whatever happened to?

Dimmed Hopes--Vioxx Settlement--Prion Holes--Nukes and No Nukes

Vioxx Payout
Merck appears to have closed the chapter on Vioxx, as the pharmaceutical giant agreed to pay $4.85 billion to plaintiffs. Clinical trials had revealed that the painkiller raised the risk of heart attack and stroke [see  “Avoiding Another Vioxx”; SciAm, February 2005]. But Merck won most of the trials to reach juries, because plaintiffs’ lawyers had a hard time linking any particular problem with the drug itself. The settlement, which represents a bit less than Merck’s expected 2007 earnings, is much smaller than the $25 billion some analysts had expected Merck would have to pay.

Prion Disease without Prions?
Abnormal proteins known as prions play an essential role in the development of brain-destroying diseases that affect cows, deer and humans, among other mammals. Tests for these illnesses look for an enzyme-resistant form of the prion [see “Shoot This Deer”; SciAm, June 2003, and “Detecting Mad Cow Disease”; SciAm, July 2004]. But looking for that version may miss some cases. In a study published online October 8 by the Journal of Biological Chemistry, researchers found that mice that died of a “mad cow” infection failed to show any of the enzyme-resistant, misfolded prions. The results hint that other states of the prion may be the cause of infection or that prions are a by-product of an infection triggered by some other, as yet unidentified pathogen.

The Not New Thing
Physicist Sidney Drell and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George P. Shultz have all endorsed a  “world free of nuclear weapons” and urged governments to work “energetically on the actions required to achieve that goal” [see “A Need for New Warheads?”; SciAm, November 2007]. In a recent letter to senators, however, they wrote that development of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) “should certainly go ahead.”

The two points evidently do not contradict each other. “I never said kill RRW,” Drell says. In the course of changing the world to what we want it to be, “we have to maintain the [nuclear warhead] stockpile as safe and reliable.” The stockpile includes the warheads (above) on the MX missile.

Drell’s endorsement rests on several assumptions, he notes: that RRW is not a weapon for new applications, that it does not drain funds from the successful maintenance of existing weapons and that it would not violate nonproliferation treaties. Although experts wonder whether the RRW can be certified as reliable without testing, Drell insists that “no new testing is absolutely critical” to help ensure U.S. integrity concerning test bans and nonproliferation.
—David Biello

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