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Sci Tech

Take Two Sugar Pills and Call Me in the Morning

Ordinary folks typically believe what they want to believe, but scientists are supposed to base their conclusions on evidence. Would that it were so. According to a study in The Journal of the American Medical Assn., doctors frequently recommend some medical interventions long after they have been debunked by rigorous clinical trials.

A team from Greece's University of Ioannina looked at references in the medical literature to three treatments once widely recommended because of studies based on observations of population patterns: a 1993 survey that claimed major heart benefits from vitamin E; 1981 research indicating that beta carotene could help ward off cancer; and a 1996 survey linking estrogen to a lower risk of Alzheimer's disease. All were later disproved by double-blind, placebo-controlled trials, the gold standard of medical proof. Nevertheless, the majority of citations remained favorable years after the observational studies were shot down.

Vitamin E's heart benefits, for example, were definitively refuted in a large, U.S. government-funded trial published in 2000. In fact, Vitamin E might be dangerous to the heart. But the Greek researchers found that, in 2005, 50% of articles citing the original population study were still favorable. The authors concluded that "sometimes investigator beliefs in scientific circles may have similar psychological characteristics as the nonscientific beliefs observed in other areas of society." In other words, scientists can be just as pigheaded as the rest of us.

Breathe Deep Against Bacteria

Doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center have come up with an aerosol spray that one day may be able to shield humans from pathogens ranging from pneumonia bacteria to avian flu virus to bioweapons. When inhaled, the Aerosolized Lung Innate Immune Stimulant (Aliis) immediately triggers a strong local immune reaction. Mice given Aliis two hours before exposure to pneumonia bacteria had an 83% survival rate, and all of those treated 4 to 24 hours before exposure survived, while all the untreated mice died within days. The team got similar results testing the spray against bugs that cause bubonic plague and anthrax, as well as various molds and viruses. The doctors have formed a company, Pulmotect, to develop the spray, and hope to start human testing in mid-2009.

Of Hurricanes and Hidden Climate Perils

Meteorologists often draw a link between rising ocean temperatures and severe hurricanes in the Atlantic. The reality isn't so simple, say scientists at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The real trigger for more frequent, intense storms is a complex set of interactions involving ocean temperature, wind, and atmospheric moisture. Varying patterns may explain why climate change is playing out very differently in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Meanwhile, on land, a series of natural disasters in North America have left the atmosphere with an unusually high burden of heat-trapping carbon dioxide. A federal study found that a prolonged drought in 2002 left an estimated 360 million extra tons of gas in the atmosphere. The CO2, equal to a year's emissions from 200 million cars, would normally have been sopped up by plants. What's more, forests destroyed in Gulf states by 2005's Hurricane Katrina are releasing another 367 million tons of CO2 as the trees decompose.

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