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    Friday, March 6, 2009

    Reuters - Common ingredient offers AIDS protection

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    Common ingredient offers AIDS protection

    Wednesday, Mar 04, 2009 10:46PM UTC

    By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor

    WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A cheap ingredient used in ice cream, cosmetics and found in breast milk helps protect monkeys against infection with a virus similar to AIDS and might work to protect women against the virus, researchers reported on Wednesday.

    The compound, called glycerol monolaurate, or GML, appears to stop inflammation and helps keep away the cells the AIDS virus usually infects, the researchers said.

    While it does not provide 100 percent protection, it might greatly reduce a woman's risk of being infected, and she could use it privately and without hurting her chances of pregnancy, the researchers reported in the journal Nature.

    And it costs pennies a dose, Ashley Haase and Pat Schlievert of the University of Minnesota reported.

    "For years, people have used the compound as an emulsifying agent in a variety of foods ... it is in breast milk," Schlievert told reporters in a telephone briefing.

    GML is being considered as an additive to tampons because it interferes with bacteria, particularly those that can cause a potentially fatal infection called toxic shock syndrome.

    If it can be shown to work safely in women, GML might provide the first easy route to a microbicide -- a gel or a cream that women could use vaginally to protect themselves from infection with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, which causes AIDS.

    HIV infects 33 million people globally and has killed 25 million. It is transmitted sexually, in blood and breast milk. In Africa, it is most commonly passed during heterosexual contact.


    AIDS experts say many victims are married women whose husbands will not use condoms and who are often trying to have children. They need a safe and private way to protect themselves.

    A microbicide (pronounced my-CROW-buh-side) might also protect men who have sex with men.

    Haase and Schlievert's team tested GML, carried in KY jelly, in macaque monkeys. They put the gel into the vaginas of the monkeys and then applied SIV, a monkey version of HIV.

    Four out of five monkeys never became infected and tests showed GML affected the immune response.

    HIV is particularly hard to fight because it infects the very immune cells the body uses to attack a virus. When HIV infects an area such as the vagina, the CD4 T-cells rush to defend against it. The body sends out signaling chemicals called cytokines to call in more T-cells.

    HIV can then infect them all and spread through the body.

    GML appears to stop the cytokine call for help and stops so many T-cells from rushing to the area, Haase and Schlievert said. This in turn reduces the opportunity for HIV to take hold.

    "This result represents a highly encouraging new lead in the search for an effective microbicide to prevent HIV transmission that meets the criteria of safety, affordability and efficacy," they wrote.

    Even if it was only 60 percent effective, such a gel could prevent 2.5 million HIV cases over three years, they said.

    They said they plan to study their gel in more monkeys for longer periods of time to ensure the gel is not simply delaying infection rather than preventing it.

    (Editing by Will Dunham)

    CNN - Spacecraft to blast off in search of 'Earths'

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    Spacecraft to blast off in search of 'Earths'

    Calling it a mission that may fundamentally change humanity's view of itself, NASA on Friday prepared to launch a telescope that will search our corner of the Milky Way galaxy for Earth-like planets.

    The Kepler spacecraft is scheduled to blast into space on top of a Delta II rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida just before 11 p.m. ET.

    "This is a historical mission. It's not just a science mission," NASA Associate Administrator Ed Weiler said during a pre-launch news conference.

    "It really attacks some very basic human questions that have been part of our genetic code since that first man or woman looked up in the sky and asked the question: Are we alone?"

    Kepler contains a special telescope that will stare at 100,000 stars in the Cygnus-Lyra region of the Milky Way for more than three years as it trails Earth's orbit around the Sun.

    The spacecraft will look for tiny dips in a star's brightness, which can mean an orbiting planet is passing in front of it -- an event called a transit.

    The instrument is so precise that it can register changes in brightness of 20 parts per million in stars that are thousands of light years away.

    "Being able to make that kind of a sensitive measurement over a very large number of stars was extremely challenging," Kepler project manager James Fanson said.

    "So we're very proud of the vehicle we have built. This is a crowning achievement for NASA and a monumental step in our search for other worlds around other stars."

    Are we alone?

    The $600 million mission is named after Johannes Kepler, a 17th-century German astronomer who was the first to correctly explain planetary motion. His discoveries combined with modern technology may soon help to answer whether we are alone in the universe or whether Earth-like worlds inhabited by some type of life are common.

    "We won't find E.T., but we might find E.T.'s home," said William Borucki, science principal investigator for the Kepler mission.

    About 330 "exoplanets" -- those circling sun-like stars outside the solar system -- have been discovered since the first was confirmed in 1995.

    Most are gas giants like Jupiter, but some have been classified as "super earths," or worlds several times the mass of our planet, said Alan Boss, an astronomer with the Carnegie Institution who serves on the Kepler Science Council. They are too hot to support life, he added, calling them "steam worlds."

    Europe's COROT space telescope caused a stir last month when it spotted the smallest terrestrial exoplanet ever found. With a diameter less than twice that of Earth, the planet orbits very close to its star and has temperatures up to 1,500° Celsius (more than 2,700° Fahrenheit), according to the European Space Agency. It may be rocky and covered in lava.

    Scientists have marveled how strange some of the alien worlds are.

    "The density of these planets has been astounding," Borucki said. "We're finding planets that float like a piece of foam on water, [with] very, very low densities. We're finding some planets where the densities are heavier than that of lead."

    The Kepler telescope, however, is seeking something much more familiar: Earth-like planets with rocky surfaces, orbiting in their stars' habitable, or "Goldilocks," zones -- not too hot or too cold, but just right for liquid water to exist.

    Quest for a 'pale blue dot'

    Once Kepler spots a planet, scientists will be able to calculate its size, mass, orbital period, distance from star and surface temperature, Boss said. He called the mission a "step one" that will tell astronomers how hard it is to find nearby habitable worlds.

    "Once we know how many there really are ... then NASA will be able to build space telescopes that can actually go out and take a picture of that nearby 'Earth' and measure the elements and compounds in its atmosphere of the planet and give us some hint as to whether or not it's got life," Boss said.

    Boss believes that there may be 100 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way, or one for every sun-type star in the galaxy. He said scientists should know by 2013 -- the end of Kepler's mission -- whether life in the universe could be widespread.

    The 20-year goal is to someday take a picture of a pale blue dot orbiting a nearby star, said Debra Fischer, an astronomy professor at San Francisco State University, during a NASA news conference.

    Boss called it a potentially unprecedented time of discovery for scientists.

    "Sometimes, people call this the golden age of astronomy. I think it's more like the platinum age of astronomy. It's beyond gold," Boss said. White House Names First Chief Information Officer

    The New York Times E-mail This
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      | March 05, 2009
    The Caucus:  White House Names First Chief Information Officer
    Vivek Kundra, 34, the chief technology officer for the District of Columbia, will be expected to oversee a push by the federal government to expand uses of cutting-edge technology.

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