Monday, February 20, 2012
It sounds like something out of a sci-fi movie: A patient visits a doctor's office and, after a brief surgical procedure, walks away with a microchip under her skin that delivers medication in precisely timed and measured doses.
That scenario doesn't seem so futuristic anymore. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced today that they have successfully completed the first trial of a drug-releasing microchip in humans.
The results were published on the website of the journal Science Translational Medicine.
The pacemaker-sized microchip devices, which were implanted near the waistline of seven 60-something women in Denmark, worked as intended, releasing up to 19 daily doses of an osteoporosis drug that ordinarily requires injections. The implants proved safe, and tests revealed that they delivered the medication as effectively as once-a-day shots.
Health.com: How to fight osteoporosis
The devices won't be ready for mainstream use for at least another four years. But the researchers say the technology will ultimately enable people who take injectable drugs for conditions such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis to swap their needles for microchips.
Other drugs that could potentially be delivered in this manner include chemotherapy, fertility hormones, and vaccines, they say.
"It's almost like 'Star Trek,' but now it's coming to life," says study coauthor Robert Langer, Jr., Sc.D., an institute professor at MIT's Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Langer, a chemical engineer, came up with the idea for the drug-delivery device about 15 years ago, while watching a TV show on how microchips are made in the computer industry.
Langer and his colleagues at MIT worked on the idea throughout the 1990s, and published the first paper on their research in 1999. That same year, Langer cofounded a privately held company, MicroCHIPS, Inc., to license the technology from MIT and commercialize the device.
Health.com: Injecting yourself 101
Here's how it works: Microchips containing tiny reservoirs of concentrated, freeze-dried medication are secured to the surface of a titanium housing, which also contains a wireless transmitter that communicates with a small portable computer. A surgeon implants the device via a one-inch incision, in an outpatient procedure requiring local anesthesia only.
Each reservoir on the microchip holds a single dose of medication and is sealed by a thin metal membrane. When instructed by the computer, the implant sends an electrical current through a membrane and melts it, allowing body fluids to flow into the reservoir and the powdered drug to diffuse into the body. (The melted metal resolidifies on the chip and is not released.)
In the recently completed trial, the microchips were loaded with Forteo (teriparatide), a drug used to build bone mass in postmenopausal women with osteoporosis. The study participants carried the implants for a total of 103 days, and received medication on 20 of those days. Overall, the devices successfully released 94% of the doses as planned.
Health.com: 11 foods for healthy bones
One implant malfunctioned due to a faulty microchip circuit, but the researchers caught the problem thanks to the wireless transmitter, says Robert Farra, the president and CEO of MicroCHIPS.
"The on-board diagnostics allowed us to identify right away...that the drug could not be released," Farra says. "There were no safety concerns to the patient and we decided not to include [her] in the study, as our study objective was on safety and efficacy."
The study participants were reportedly untroubled by the device. "They found the implants pretty much acceptable," Farra says. "They could not feel the device once it was implanted, and they all indicated they would be willing to repeat the procedure."
The fact that several of the women said they forgot about the implant once their incision healed is a "good sign," says John T. Watson, Ph.D., a professor of bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego. Watson adds, however, that the microchip system may not be for everyone.
The quality of life of people who take injectable medications "varies very broadly," says Watson, who coauthored an editorial accompanying the study. "Some people say 'I just don't want an incision' -- so they could opt out easily and elect another approach. On the other hand, there would be some people who would say 'I want this' because [they] want it to be forgettable, sort of like a pacemaker."
Health.com: Prescription drugs that lead double lives
More research and fine-tuning will be needed before the device can even be tested in full-fledged clinical trials, Watson says. The researchers need to establish that it's durable and reliable, for instance.
Langer and his colleagues say their implants could be used for brief stretches of 30 to 90 days (to administer pain medication after an injury, say), or for periods of up to a year.
"We think 365 doses is very manageable with the design that we're working on," says Farra, noting that MicroCHIPS is currently developing a one-year Forteo implant.
S. Louis Bridges, M.D., the director of clinical immunology and rheumatology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in Alabama, says microchip devices could be a boon for people -- such as rheumatoid arthritis patients -- who require regular injections or intravenous infusions.
Health.com: Alternative therapies for rheumatoid arthritis
"Patients tend to do OK, but there are some that absolutely hate [injections]," Bridges says. Some patients complain that the medicine burns, and some experience so-called injection site reactions in which the surrounding skin becomes red and swollen, he explains.
Patient comfort and convenience aren't the only potential benefits of microchips, Farra says. The automatic dosing ensures that people receive the medication exactly as prescribed, so doctors and patients don't have to worry about skipped or inconsistent doses, he says.
A New Testament professor is setting the world of Bible scholarship on fire with his claim that newly discovered fragments of early Christian writings could include a first-century version of the Gospel of Mark, from the same century in which Jesus and the apostles lived.
Daniel B. Wallace of the Dallas Theological Seminary made the stunning announcement during a Feb. 1 debate with Bart Ehrman at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill on whether we have the wording of the original New Testament today.
“If this Mark fragment is confirmed as from the first century, what a thrill it will be to have a manuscript that is dated within the lifetime of many of the original followers of Jesus!” Wallace said. “Not only this, but this manuscript would have been written before the New Testament was completed.”
Wallace says seven New Testament fragments written on papyrus had recently been discovered – six of them probably from the second century and one of them probably from the first. He expects further details to be published “in about a year.”
“These manuscripts now increase our holdings as follows: we have as many as eighteen New Testament manuscripts (all fragmentary, more or less) from the second century and one from the first. Altogether, more than 40 percent of all New Testament verses are found in these manuscripts. But the most interesting thing is the first-century fragment.
“It was dated by one of the world’s leading paleographers. He said he was ‘certain’ that it was from the first century. If this is true, it would be the oldest fragment of the New Testament known to exist. Up until now, no one has discovered any first-century manuscripts of the New Testament. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament has been P52, a small fragment from John’s Gospel, dated to the first half of the second century. It was discovered in 1934.”
Wallace’s interest is focused on the portion from Mark’s Gospel.
“Before the discovery of this fragment, the oldest manuscript that had Mark in it was P45, from the early third century. This new fragment would predate that by 100 to 150 years.”
Craig A. Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, says the find may indeed be of very great importance.
“If authenticity and early date are confirmed, this fragment of the Gospel of Mark could be very significant and show how well preserved the text of the New Testament really is. We all await its publication,” Evans told the Christian Post.
“Any find that gets us a quarter-century or so closer to the time the original gospels were written would be highly significant, even sensational,” Andreas Kostenberger, senior professor of New Testament and biblical theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological in Wake Forest, N.C., told Baptist Press.
“Of course, in part the significance of the discovery depends on the size of the fragment, not to mention the verification of the date. There have been previous reports of discoveries of early Mark or other gospel manuscripts that did not check out at closer scrutiny, so it is certainly appropriate to maintain scholarly caution until the full data are known and available to public scrutiny. For example, some scholars got burned when they prematurely accepted so-called ‘Secret Mark,’ which turned out to be a forgery.”
When asked about the trustworthiness of what Mark really wrote if we don’t possess an actual original copy of his manuscript, Kostenberger said, “The fact is that the earliest manuscripts of all or parts of Mark that we do have show remarkable consistency and stability. And none of the minor variations between different manuscripts affect any major doctrine of Christianity at all.
“Of course, there is no way to prove positively one way or another what might have happened during the period between the original writing of Mark and the first available copies. Knowing what we do know about the care with which ancient Jews as well as early Christians took to preserve the original wording of what they believed to be authoritative and sacred writings – in fact, the very words of God – inspires a high degree of confidence. First the apostles, and then those after them carefully guarded the reliability of the eyewitness testimony to Jesus contained in the four canonical gospels.”
An ancient royal garden has come back into bloom in a way, as scientists have reconstructed what it would've looked like some 2,500 years ago in the kingdom of the biblical Judah.
Their reconstruction, which relied on analyses of excavated pollen, reveals a paradise of exotic plants.
The luxurious garden had been discovered at Ramat Rahel, an archaeological site located high above the modern city of Jerusalem, about midway between the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. This site was inhabited since the last century of the Kingdom of Judah (seventh century B.C.) until the early Muslim reign in Palestine (10th century), a period that saw many wars and exchanges of power, with the garden evolving under each civilization.
Since excavators discovered the garden, they could only imagine its leafy, flowery inhabitants. That is until now.
The garden relied on an advanced irrigation system, which collected rainwater and distributed it using artsy water installations, including pools, underground channels, tunnels and gutters.
These water installations ended up being the key to the team's new discovery; the researchers found grains of pollen that likely got trapped in plaster when the installations were renovated and the plaster still wet. The result was preserved pollen grains.
In samples dating back to the Persian period (between the fifth and sixth centuries B.C.), the team found grains from local fruit trees, ornamentals and imported trees from distant lands.
"This is a very unique pollen assemblage," study researcher Dafna Langgut, a pollen expert at Tel Aviv University, said in a statement.
For instance, they found evidence of willow and poplar trees, which would have required irrigation to survive in the garden. They also found pollen associated with ornamentals, such as myrtle and water lilies; native fruit trees, including grape vine, common fig and olive; and imported citron, Persian walnut, cedar of Lebanon and birch trees. The researchers think the ruling Persian authorities likely imported these exotics from remote parts of the empire to flaunt their power.
The team suggests these imported plants had a lasting impact on the region and Judaism, said Oded Lipschits of Tel Aviv University. Take the citron tree. It made its first appearance in Israel in this garden, and since has worked its way into Jewish tradition. The citron, or etrog, is one of the four species of plants used at Sukkot, a biblical holiday.
The Alaska Volcano Observatory has raised the alert level for Kanaga Volcano in the remote Aleutian Islands.
Scientists on Saturday said possible explosive activity and a likely ash cloud indicate new unrest at the volcano, leading it to raise the volcano alert level from normal to advisory.
The observatory says volcanic tremor was detected at about 6:23 a.m. Saturday. The unrest indicates a possibility for sudden explosions of ash to occur at any time, and ash clouds exceeding 20,000 feet above sea level may develop.
Ash clouds above 20,000 feet from Alaska volcanoes are a threat to trans-Pacific air carriers.
Kanaga Volcano is located about 1,215 miles southwest of Anchorage in the western Aleutian Islands.
Iran and the West are now competing over who is getting more stressed: Europe that feared on Wednesday that Iran was about to cut the oil line, or Iran, which has been consistently busy uncovering new technologies.
In one example, the Iranian website Mashreq claimed that the recently launched Navid-class satellite was able to take detailed photographs of the nuclear reactor in Dimona as well as "sensitive sites, air forces bases, and various areas of Tel Aviv."
Iran also displayed its ability to produce its own nuclear fuel on Wednesday, thus claiming to release itself from a dependence on the West, displaying its fuel rod before the IAEA inspectors. Later, Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi said that Iran was about to christen a new base geared at launching satellites as heavy as one ton and that the base would be equipped and operational within the year.
On the economic level, while the West is trying to prove the sanctions are working, Iran announced it is upgrading its trade ties with India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran says it is about to sign a deal with Iraq and Syria which will include cooperation in the energy sector, and plans to construct one of the largest power plants in the Middle East. The Islamic Republic is also working to renew negotiations with the UN Security Council. According to Turkish sources, the talks are scheduled to begin later this month in Istanbul, hosted by the Turks.
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Iran seems busier with pre-elections political struggles on the domestic front than with the next round of sanctions. In light of the liberal parties' expected boycott of the elections on March 2, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei announced that "the people will deal the enemy a great blow by showing up en mass at the polling stations." According to Khamenei, the "enemy" is trying to undermine the regime's legitimacy by encouraging a low turnout of voters.
These are extremely important elections, as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is hoping to leave behind a political legacy that will continue his policies (he is barred from serving as president again unless he waits a term). Along with Ahmadinejad's aspirations, there is also a struggle taking place in the last few months between his supports and the movements supporting Khamenei, while the liberal movements, who advocate a change in the regime, are being pushed aside. To further ensure that the opposition does not undermine the elections, the government has been trying to prevent the opposition from rallying by cutting off Internet access, monitoring the Internet, slowing down surfing speed and penetrating email and Twitter accounts of those deemed "suspects."
Yet while Iran wishes to prove that the sanctions do not harm its nuclear program and technological development, there is no doubt that its economic situation has deteriorated over the last year. Iran's currency has lost over half its value in less than three months, while conversely, prices have risen. It is very difficult to obtain raw materials for factories, and the government is now asking some subsidized industries to give up governmental aid.
On the other hand, Iranian economists point to the fact that a similar crisis took place in the mid-90s, when the currency's value also dropped by 50 percent. Iran's citizens, they say, adjusted to the situation rather quickly. At the same time, economists and parliament members prefer to blame Ahmadinejad's government for its failed economic policy – which has emptied the treasury's reserves – than to point their finger at the sanctions.
And yet Iran has foreign currency reserves worth about 120 billion dollars and approximately 907 tons of gold, while its foreign debt amounts to between 12 and 22 million dollars (depending on who you ask). Although the budget Ahmadinejad submitted to the parliament included certain cuts of 6.5 percent, he has also declared he intends to increase the development sector's budget by 20 percent. The most important aspect of that budget is that it calculated oil prices at 85 dollars per barrel, while today a barrel is worth more than 110 dollars. These discrepancies may translate into significant profit for the state, and may give Iran room to maneuver if hit with more sanctions.
In light of this economic data, it seems that despite the pressure being felt by the middle class these days – a class that does not support the president anyway – it is doubtful that the current scope of sanctions can change the government's policies, especially during an election year.
Israel can still take some comfort in a survey conducted by the American Pew Research Center, which found that 39 percent of Americans think the U.S. should help Israel take action against Iran (meaning a military strike). According to the poll, most of the Americans (62 percent) who support military action against Iran are Republicans, while a third who oppose such action are Democrats and Independents. If President Barack Obama takes these numbers seriously, it is unlikely that Israel will be given a green light to attack Iran during his term.
Italian police said on Friday they had seized about $6 trillion of fake U.S. Treasury bonds in Switzerland, and issued arrest warrants for eight people accused of international fraud and other financial crimes.
The operation, co-ordinated by prosecutors from the southern Italian city of Potenza, was carried out by Italian and Swiss authorities after a year-long investigation, an Italian police source said.
The fake securities, more than a third of U.S. national debt, were seized in January from a Swiss trust company where they were held in three large trunks.
The eight alleged fraudsters are accused of counterfeiting bonds, credit card forgery, and usury in the Italian regions of Lombardy, Piedmont, Lazio and Basilicata, police said.
The Swiss Federal Prosecutor’s office said Zurich state prosecutors had worked on the investigation at the request of the Italian prosecutor. The Swiss handed over their findings in July of last year.
In 2009, Italian financial police seized $742 billion of fake U.S. bearer bonds in the northern Italian town of Chiasso, near the Swiss border.
North Korea's military has warned South Koreans living on islands near disputed Yellow Sea waters to evacuate the area to avoid possibly being shelled. Pyongyang is threatening retaliation if shells fired during the South's planned naval exercises Monday cross into the North's territorial waters.
A Sunday radio broadcast carried a message from North Korea's military with an unusual “open notice” to those residing on five South Korean-held islands: leave by nine a.m. Monday to avoid possibly being shelled.
That, according to the announcement, is when South Korea is to begin a maritime firing exercise. The notice was aired on radio broadcasts from Pyongyang and was also carried by the North's official news agency (KCNA).
The announcer, reading the statement attributed to a regional military command, says there will be an immediate and merciless counter-attack if even a “single column of water” is monitored in North Korean waters during the drill.
The broadcast says South Korea's government should not forget the lessons of November 23rd, 2010, when a fatal artillery barrage landed on Yeonpyeong island.
Seoul's semi-official Yonhap news agency quotes an unnamed official of the joint chiefs of staff as saying South Korea and the United States will proceed with a live-fire anti-submarine drill in the Yellow Sea Monday, despite the North's warning.
The official says North Korea was notified earlier Sunday of the annual routine exercise through South Korea's representative at the truce village of Panmunjom.
Analysts and U.S. military officers contacted by VOA News say North Korea's evacuation advisory to islanders is unusual. But they also note that threats of retaliation against South Korean military drills are common and not necessarily cause for any undue alarm.
North Korea also warned it will conduct a military retaliation if there are any acts of aggression during two upcoming joint U.S.-South Korean exercises, scheduled to begin February 27. South Korean and U.S. military officials have stressed those maneuvers are not a prelude to an attack, as Pyongyang has claimed.
The two Koreas have technically remained at war since 1953. That is when an armistice was signed halting a three-year civil war that involved U.S. and U.N. forces supporting the South Koreans and the Chinese military on the side of the North Koreans.
(Reuters) - Belgium-based SWIFT, which provides banks with a system for moving funds around the world, bowed to international pressure on Friday and said it was ready to block Iranian banks from using its network to transfer money.
Expelling Iranian banks from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication would shut down Tehran's main avenue to doing business with the rest of the world - an outcome the West believes is crucial to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
SWIFT, which has never cut off a country before, has been closely following efforts in the United States and the European Union to develop new sanctions targeting Iran that would directly affect EU-based financial institutions.
The United States and EU have already moved to sanction Iran's central bank.
"SWIFT stands ready to act and discontinue its services to sanctioned Iranian financial institutions as soon as it has clarity on EU legislation currently being drafted," the company said in an emailed statement.
The United States has been pushing the European Union to force SWIFT to evict the Iranian firms but it was unclear whether the EU would reach an agreement.
For one, SWIFT's home country, Belgium, does not think the global banking firm should be the only company of its kind required to comply with sanctions.
The Obama administration said it welcomed SWIFT's intention to stop transactions involving designated Iranian banks. "We will continue to be in contact with our EU partners to urge action on this issue," a U.S. Treasury official said.
SWIFT, with headquarters just outside the Belgian capital Brussels, is vital to international money flows, exchanging an average 18 million payment messages per day between banks and other financial institutions in 210 countries.
The United States and Europe accuse Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Iran maintains its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The United States recently enacted sanctions that would punish countries and institutions if they do not reduce their purchases of Iranian oil by mid-year.
The National Iranian American Council, an advocacy group, criticized efforts to expel Iranian firms from SWIFT.
"Kicking Iran out of SWIFT is both unprecedented and another dangerous step toward turning a financial war into a military conflict," said Reza Marashi, the council's research director.
Nineteen banks and 25 affiliated institutions from Iran sent and received some 2 million messages in 2010. They included banks the U.S. accuses of financing Iran's nuclear program or terrorism - Mellat, Post, Saderat and Sepah.
SWIFT, founded in 1973, said its decision reflected the extraordinary circumstances of international support for the intensification of sanctions against Iran.
The company said it had informed its regulators, the world's largest central banks, of its decision.
SWIFT's general counsel is slated to visit Washington next week to meet with lawmakers who have proposed new sanctions targeting its services.
Greece's future in the eurozone is the subject of a crucial meeting in Brussels later as violence erupted in Athens.
The so-called Eurogroup, made up of the 17 countries which use the single currency, will discuss whether the Greek government has done enough to trigger a second 130bn euro bailout.
In a sign of just how seriously the beleaguered nation is taking the gathering, Greek leader Lucas Papademos will accompany his finance minister Evangelos Venizelos.
Senior government sources told Sky News his presence there is in case "decisive decisions for the country need to be taken".
Last week, the coalition government withstood a cross-party rebellion over a 3.3bn euro austerity package, which slashes 15,000 public sector jobs this year alone, cuts the minimum wage by 22% and trims spending from defence and health budgets.
A laser pointer shines on a policeman's face during Sunday's protests in Athens
However, even these measures were not considered to be enough by certain hardline countries within the eurozone, particularly those which have the strongest credit ratings in the EU.
Finland, Austria, the Netherlands and Germany asked for further assurances from Athens that the savage cuts will continue to be implemented after the general election, which is likely to be held this spring.
Political leaders signed letters to that effect last week, but not before Wednesday's meeting of the Eurogroup was cancelled, suggesting patience in Brussels was running low.
US Treasury secretary Tim Geithner said America would encourage the International Monetary Fund to support an agreement on Greek economic reform implementation.
On the weekend, another piece of the jigsaw required to release the bailout fell into place, although it still has to be signed off by the Eurogroup.
Negotiators for private holders of Greek debt, including banks and hedge funds, have agreed to take a massive loss on the bonds they hold in order to reduce the country's debt mountain.
In exchange, they will receive bonds of a lower value and cash sweeteners in a restructuring deal which has now been scheduled for between March 8 and 11.
That is just over a week before Greece has to service a bond redemption of 14.5bn euro. At the moment, it does not have the money.
More than 40 members of the ruling Greek coalition refused to back reforms
Failure to settle its debt would be considered a so-called credit event, where insurance policies - credit default swaps - would be triggered.
That could start a chain reaction similar to that seen after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008.
The fear for Mr Papademos is that some of the countries around the table today have decided a big enough buffer zone has been built around banks and countries exposed to Greek debt to withstand a default.
Meanwhile, amid a recent upsurge in violence in Athens, further scuffles occurred on Sunday evening as protesters engaged in running battles with riot police outside parliament.
On Tuesday, union members affiliated with the communist party are expected to hold their own protest rally and march to parliament.
A second regiment of the Teikovo Missile Division in central Russia will be fully equipped with Yars mobile ballistic missile systems in 2012, Strategic Missile Forces (SMF) spokesman Col. Vadim Koval said on Thursday.
Russia fully deployed the first Yars regiment consisting of three battalions in August 2011, and put two battalions of the second regiment on combat duty on December 27 last year.
“The deployment of the third battalion of the second regiment will complete the rearming of the Teikovo division with Yars systems,” Koval said.
Two regiments will consist of a total of 18 missile systems and several mobile command posts.
Two more missile divisions will start receiving the Yars systems in 2012. The Novosibirsk division (in Siberia) will receive mobile Yars systems, while the Kozelsk division (in central Russia) will be armed with the silo-based version of the system.
The Yars missile system is armed with the RS-24 intercontinental ballistic missile that has considerably better combat and operational capabilities than the Topol-M (SS-27 Stalin).
The SMF said last year that the Topol-M and RS-24 ballistic missiles would be the mainstay of the ground-based component of Russia's nuclear triad and would account for no less than 80% of the SMF's arsenal by 2016.
Russia would use nuclear weapons in response to any imminent threat to its national security, Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Nikolai Makarov said on Wednesday.
“We are certainly not planning to fight against the whole of NATO,” Makarov said in an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio, “but if there is a threat to the integrity of the Russian Federation, we have the right to use nuclear weapons, and we will.”
The general said Russia’s nuclear deterrent is the cornerstone of strategic stability and serious efforts are being taken by the Russian government to modernize the country’s nuclear triad.
The Russian Defense ministry is planning to acquire at least 10 Borey class strategic nuclear submarines, thoroughly modernize its fleet of Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers, and equip its Strategic Missile Forces with formidable Yars mobile ballistic missile systems.
Makarov also stressed the importance of maintaining highly-efficient, mobile conventional forces.
“Unfortunately, we are facing threats from a number of unstable states, where no nuclear weapons but well-trained, strong and mobile Armed Forces are required to resolve any conflict situation," Makarov said.
The Russian government has allocated 22 trillion rubles ($730 billion) on the state arms procurement program until 2020.