Science News Digest
This is SCIENCE IN THE NEWS, in VOA Special English. I'm Bob Doughty. And I'm Sarah Long. First this week: saying goodbye to a young voice against muscular dystrophy.
Then, a related report on the scientific interest in a small child with big muscles; he has earned the name "Superboy."
And, learn how some American schools are trying to help students control their weight.
Last week, in the American state of Maryland, more than a thousand people attended the funeral of a local poet. The mourners included former President Jimmy Carter. Oprah Winfrey of television talk-show fame was also there; the poet had appeared on her show.
They all gathered to say goodbye to Mattie Stepanek. He was thirteen years old. In his short life, he wrote five books of poetry. Three became national best sellers. In all, his books have sold more than one million copies.
But Mattie Stepanek also became known for his work to support the Muscular Dystrophy Association. This group looks for ways to cure forty disorders. These all weaken the muscles that hold together the bones of the body.
More than one million children are affected in the United States alone. Mattie Stepanek was one of them. He had a rare form of muscular dystrophy, called autonomic mitochondrial myopathy. This genetic disorder made his muscles extremely weak. It attacked his heart rate, breathing, blood pressure and ability to process food.
He died on June twenty-second at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
The same disease that killed Mattie also killed all three of his brothers. His mother, Jeni, has an adult form.
Mattie Stepanek began to write poetry at age three, after one of his brothers died. A small publishing company printed two-hundred copies of his collected poems in two-thousand-one. The book was called "Heartsongs." Before long, people across the country wanted copies.
Mattie made public appearances and was in the media. But he spent a lot of his time in hospitals. He used a wheelchair he named "Slick." And he had to be connected to feeding and breathing devices.
We might think of his life as terribly sad, but Mattie did not appear to. He told people that his purpose in life was to bring peace to the world. And he got to meet another peacemaker, Jimmy Carter. They wrote to each other for three years.
At the funeral last week, the former president called Mattie the "most extraordinary person" he has ever known. A flag of the United Nations covered the boy's coffin.
Mattie Stepanek also recorded his poems. Listen now as he reads from one called "About Things that Matter."
"A person by my name and being existed With a strong spirit and an eternal mindset To become a peacemaker for all By sharing the things that really matter."
The same week that Mattie Stepanek died, there was news that might offer some promise for people with muscular dystrophy.
Medical researchers reported on the case of a healthy but unusual little boy in Germany. At birth, he was not nearly as soft as most newborns. The medical team immediately saw the big muscles on his body. But the doctors and nurses were more concerned about his health. His arms and legs made sudden movements that were not usual for a baby.
The team at Charite University Medical Center in Berlin called on Markus Schuelke, a brain specialist who works with children. Doctor Schuelke examined the baby. But tests did not show anything wrong with the baby's brain.
The boy appeared perfectly healthy. And, within a few months, his legs and arms moved normally. No one could explain the large and well-developed muscles, however.
Doctor Schuelke and several other scientists did blood tests on the boy for the next four-and-a-half years. Se-Jin Lee was one of the first researchers whom Doctor Schuelke asked about the case. Doctor Lee teaches molecular biology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Several years ago, he led a study of a protein that limits muscle growth. The protein is called myostatin.
In that study, the researchers created a group of mice with damaged myostatin genes. The mice developed two times the muscle mass as a group of mice with normal genes. Other scientists later proved that abnormal myostatin genes produce a kind of extra strong cattle. These cows are called Belgian Blues.
Scientists involved in the study of myostatin developed a theory. They thought a lack of the protein would affect humans in the same way as other animals. But no scientist could prove it. Until now.
Markus Schuelke, Se-Jin Lee and other doctors reported their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine. They say the boy from Germany is the first human found with such a case.
They say both copies of his myostatin gene, one from his mother and one from his father, are abnormal. As a result the gene does not produce myostatin. And the scientists say the little boy is very strong. At four-and-a-half, he could hold two three-kilogram hand weights with his arms extended out to his sides.
The scientists also tested the boy's mother. She had been a professional athlete. They say she too appeared muscular, but not as much as her son. The report says the doctors did not know who the father was. But several members of the family were reported to be unusually strong.
Researchers at the drug company Wyeth also took part in the study. Wyeth is testing a drug to block myostatin production. The company hopes this might serve as a treatment for one kind of muscular dystrophy.
The doctor will continue to study the so-called "Superboy." They say he is healthy. And they say he seems like other kids his age -- in every way but one.
We have talked a lot lately about the increasing numbers of overweight people around the world. Today we are going talk just about young people. In the United States, for example, the government says almost one-third are overweight or close to it. That is a national average. A recent study in Arkansas found that forty percent of public school children there are overweight or obese -- severely overweight.
Being overweight increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other problems.
American health experts say most children these days do not get enough physical activity, either in school or at home. But many schools are trying to do something about the obesity problem.
In the northwest, schools in Spokane, Washington, have a fitness and wellness program for all students. It starts early and continues through high school. The program teaches children to exercise and care for their health.
On the other side of the country, education officials in Virginia are considering several measures to improve student health. One is to offer physical education classes daily to more students. Another is to measure student health, then report the findings to the parents, like in Arkansas.
That southern state has become the first in the country to require yearly weight examinations for all schoolchildren. Parents will receive yearly reports on their children's body-mass index. This number shows weight in relation to height.
In recent years, a lot of schools have added food and drink machines to help raise money for education. But now schools are under pressure to remove the machines or limit sales of unhealthy foods.
Some schools have given students devices to measure how much they walk each day. And a new private school is to open in September in California. The Academy of the Sierras says its goal is to help obese students lose weight and improve their health.
SCIENCE IN THE NEWS was written by Jerilyn Watson and Caty Weaver, who was also our producer. 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.