Lab Report: Health, Science and Medicine

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STEM CELLS

A Setback for Stem Cells

Stem-cell research took two giant steps backward when a federal judge ruled that the Obama Administration's expanded funding for the field violates a 1996 law that prohibits using taxpayer dollars for studies in which human embryos are harmed or destroyed. The White House is appealing the decision, but the ruling has forced the National Institutes of Health to halt new grant approvals for studies of embryonic stem cells.

Until this ruling, both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations had assumed that the law applied only to the creation of embryonic stem (ES) cells, which requires the destruction of human embryos, and not to studying the cells once they're generated. In 2001, Bush restricted government funding to two dozen or so existing cell lines. Last year, Obama expanded that number.

ES cells could be coaxed into becoming healthy replacements for damaged ones in diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's. The latest ruling is a severe threat to that work, in part because federal dollars represent the largest source of financial support for the field. If the White House appeal fails, Congress could step in to change the 1996 law.

TOBACCO

Don't Smoke at Me

Smokers know that lighting up can put them at greater risk for cancer and other lung diseases. But the latest research shows that they may also be putting those who inhale their secondhand smoke at greater risk of the same ills than we ever knew.

Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College and Cornell University in New York City have documented the first evidence of genetic changes in the airway cells of nonsmokers exposed to secondhand cigarette smoke. In a study of 121 volunteers who provided samples of their airway cells for genetic testing, the scientists found that 11% of the genes known to respond to cigarette smoke in these cells were active in both the smokers and the nonsmokers, suggesting that similar changes might be occurring in both groups.

While it's not yet clear what these changes mean, the researchers speculate they could signal the molecular beginnings of lung disease or lung cancer. "When you look at the biology, there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco smoke," says the study's lead author, Dr. Ronald Crystal. That's particularly worrisome since previous studies have hinted that such genetic alterations may not be reversible in smokers even after they kick the habit. Still, says Crystal, the study should bolster efforts to ban smoking in public spaces and even encourage family members to give up the habit in the home.

FROM THE LABS

Sparking Spuds

We boil them, mash them, bake them and even make them into hash. So why not zap potatoes with a jolt of electricity? When Japanese researchers did just that, they found that the current boosted the antioxidant levels of the tubers, potentially providing a new way to make them more nutritious. The electricity seems to mimic environmental stresses that normally push the potato plant to produce antioxidants and prevent oxidative damage to its cells.

Diabetes and Dementia

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