SCIENCE IN THE NEWS #2131 - Digest

By StaffThis is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long with SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, a VOA Special English program about recent developments in science. Today, we tell about a campaign to develop a vaccine to prevent the disease meningitis in Africa. We tell about traditional medicines. And we tell about a gene treatment for the disease hemophilia.

For years, scientists believed it was possible to develop a vaccine to prevent the deadly disease meningitis in Africa. However, it costs a great deal of money for drug companies to research and test such a vaccine. Recently the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave seventy-million dollars for a project to develop a vaccine to end meningitis in southern Africa.

The World Health Organization and a health technology company in Seattle, Washington, will work with drug companies on the ten-year project. Scientists hope to develop, test and provide a vaccine to countries in southern Africa.The development of vaccines usually is influenced by market competition. Such research is profitable when demand for the vaccines is great and rich countries are willing to pay for the drugs. In very poor countries, however, the market for medicines is very small. Poor countries do not have enough money to pay for costly vaccines. As a result, most drug companies do not usually invest in this kind of research because it is not profitable.Meningitis is an infection of the brain caused by a bacterium. The disease is most common among young people. Babies are most at risk. People with the disease often die within days. Signs of meningitis include high fever and the expulsion of food through the mouth.

The disease can be treated with antibiotic drugs. But even when treated, at least ten percent of the victims die. Another ten percent suffer nerve damage. Or they lose the use of their arms or legs. As many as fifty percent of all cases result in death if meningitis is not treated at all.More than seven-hundred-thousand cases of meningitis were reported in Africa between Nineteen-Eighty-Eight and Nineteen-Ninety-Seven. More than one-hundred-thousand deaths were reported in the area hardest hit by the disease. This area extends from Ethiopia to Gambia.

The largest recorded meningitis epidemic was in Nineteen-Ninety-Six. More than two-hundred-thousand cases of the disease and twenty-thousand deaths were reported.Patty Stonesifer is an official with the Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The foundation was started by Bill Gates, the head of the Microsoft Corporation, and his wife Melinda. The foundation's goal is to improve the health of people in developing countries.

Mizz Stonesifer says she hopes the foundation's latest gift will lead to other vaccines or treatments for disease in the world's poorest countries. She says the meningitis vaccine research program could become an example for future health projects.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))For hundreds of years, people have used traditional medicine to heal the sick. Traditional healers use medical information and customs they learned from their ancestors. For example, they use plants to cure many kinds of medical problems. The World Health Organization says populations in developing countries still depend on it today. In China, for example, the W-H-O says up to fifty percent of the total medicine used is traditional medicine from plants.

During the last ten years, traditional medicine has also grown popular in industrial countries. The W-H-O reports that one-third of all adults in the United States have used some form of traditional medicine.Plants with medical qualities are the oldest known health-care products. Traditional healers have known this for centuries. But now, drug companies in industrial countries are starting to create modern medicines using traditional plants. This has created legal fights over who should have ownership rights, or patents, to the drugs. Patents are legal agreements that governments give to inventors of products. Patents guarantee that inventors control the right to make, use, and sell their products for a period of time.

Traditional healers argue that drug companies are using plants known for years to have medical qualities. They say their ancestors discovered the value of the plants, not researchers from drug companies. Legal cases over the rights to patents are increasing.For example, Zimbabwe is trying to block an American patent given to Swiss researchers. In Nineteen-Ninety-Five, the Swiss reportedly signed an agreement with Zimbabwe. The agreement permitted Swiss researchers to study thousands of plants used by traditional healers, including the snake-bean tree. A Swiss scientist later discovered that the outer part of the snake-bean tree kills an organism called a fungus.

Now Zimbabwean government officials say the scientist patented the local plant illegally. Native healers in Zimbabwe want a share in the profits from any medicines made from the snake-bean tree. They also want recognition of their traditional knowledge.In another case in Nineteen-Ninety-Seven, the United States government withdrew a patent given to the University of Mississippi Medical Center. Scientists were using the plant turmeric to treat wounds. Researchers in India requested that the patent be withdrawn. They said the use of turmeric was not new. They said women in India have used it for many years to heal wounds.

Experts say these disputes about drug patents are common because international agreements on patents are conflicting.For example, the Nineteen-Ninety-Two Convention on Biological Diversity supports developing countries. This document says that countries producing genetic resources and traditional knowledge upon which research is based should share in any financial gains from the research. However, a Nineteen-Ninety-Four World Trade Organization agreement protects the property rights of whoever seeks the patent first. Often these are big drug companies from industrial countries.

Recent W-T-O negotiations in Geneva, Switzerland, aimed to solve this conflict. However, officials say the negotiations will take years. Experts say more legal cases over patents are likely until an agreement is reached.

((MUSIC BRIDGE))American researchers report limited success using gene therapy to treat the genetic blood disease hemophilia. Hemophilia results when a gene fails to produce the protein needed for the blood to clot, or change from a liquid to a solid. In almost all cases, the defective gene is passed from parents to male children. People with hemophilia suffer uncontrolled bleeding. Patients can be treated with the missing clotting substance. They generally can lead normal lives.

Scientists say gene therapy may be a possible way to cure hemophilia in the future. Gene therapy places a good copy of a gene into a cell that needs it. The new gene helps the body operate normally. For people with hemophilia, this means that clotting genes placed in the body would result in blood cells that clot normally.Researchers consider hemophilia the best disease for gene therapy because it is caused by a single defective gene. Also, only a small increase in the missing clotting substance could provide good results. Scientists at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts carried out the experiment. They tested gene therapy in six patients with severe hemophilia.

First, they removed skin cells from the patients' arms. The researchers grew the cells in the laboratory. They added copies of the needed gene taken from healthy people. Then they created hundreds of millions of genetically changed cells. They placed these cells into the patients' stomachs.

After four months, the amount of blood clotting substance in the blood increased in four of the six patients. However, ten months later, the clotting substance was no longer in the patients' blood. It is not clear if the implanted cells died or the added genes stopped working.

This SCIENCE IN THE NEWS program was written by Jill Moss and Nancy Steinbach. It was produced by Caty Weaver. This is Bob Doughty.And this is Sarah Long. Join us again next week for more news about science in Special English on the Voice of America.

Voice of America Special English