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Science And Technology Update The HIndu

An unscientific report on ‘mitigating’ EM radiation effects

The document hardly has any scientific basis, uses scary language and is riddled with questionable claims

On March 27, 2014, the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) uploaded a draft document titled “Guidelines for mitigation of the effects of electromagnetic radiations in built places” on its website (accessed on April 15). The document hardly has any scientific basis.
The document uses scary language, too. “Electromagnetic radiations are energy waves having time varying electric and magnetic fields at right angles to each other and form the most pervasive and prominent man-made hazard in today’s environment. These can also be termed as electromagnetic pollutants exposing human beings to greater health risks.”

“The electromagnetic fields of vast array of frequencies and magnitude so caused in the vicinity of human habitat may result into irreversible bodily changes which may be damaging and sometimes fatal too,” the booklet states. The document abounds with such statements.
The World Health Organisation has classified radiofrequency electromagnetic radiation as a possible group 2b carcinogen. This 2b group contains possible carcinogens with weaker evidence.
The authors of the booklet do not know that in June 2011, shortly after the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified electromagnetic radiation under 2b group, WHO stated thus: “A large number of studies have been performed over the last two decades to assess whether mobile phones pose a potential health risk. To date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use.”
The booklet lists loss of memory, fatigue, dizziness, ringing in the ears, long reaction time heart palpitation, and cancer etc as health risks from electromagnetic radiation. Responsible agencies such as WHO and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) of the United Kingdom, among others, do not support the conclusion that EM radiation causes such effects.
The document has four chapters; chapters 3 and 4, titled Guidelines and Other Suggestions and Measures respectively are riddled with questionable claims.
In chapter 3, the authors have listed laptops, computers, transformers, light sources, Server room etc to appreciate “dangers” of electromagnetic radiation and prescribed safe distances, a few feet to a few tens of feet, for them.
The report states that this data comes from onsite experience and from measurement with an instrument called Lecher Antenna.
Chapter 4 describes the so called ‘Geopathic Stress Radiations (GSR)’ emanating from the magnetic core of the earth and claims that geopathic stress causes health problems such as resistance to treatment, feeling run down and exhausted, depression etc and cancer in some cases (http://www.geopathicstress.ie/effects-of-geopathic-stress.html).
Such theories come from followers of some concepts, beliefs and unconventional practices. Any one reading this ref 5, in the CPWD booklet may realise that the guidelines are on shaky ground!
The Guidelines quotes Baron Gustav von Pohl of Germany who during 1930s claimed that 95 per cent of all cancer cases have connections to Geopathic Stress Radiations to highlight the need for surveying building sites for GSR!
Relying on this unfounded observation, the CPWD booklet wants that “new buildings to be surveyed for Geopathic Stress Radiations and locations of people and services to be planned in a manner that these are not located on them.” The authors suggest that the entire area should be checked for the presence of GSR by a trained engineer by scanning it by a “Lecher Antenna.”
The inter departmental committee consisting of officers from CPWD, Town and Country Planning Organization (Ministry of Urban Development), Bureau of Indian Standards and Dr Umesh Chandra Garga, Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, New Delhi and Shri Ajay Poddar, M/s Syenergy Environics Ltd, New Delhi among others formulated the guidelines.
Shri Ajay Poddar is the Managing Director of Syenergy Environics Ltd, the web page of which states that “the endeavours of the company are focused in one direction — to correct the negative radiations and enhance the positivity in the environment.”
The company has developed a product called Enviro chip; the chip is effective in guarding people and devices (mobile phone, Wi-Fi systems, computers and laptops etc) against harmful electronic radiation, the company claims.
Besides other claims, its website carries news items titled “Earth's radiation and its effect on people,” “Using of Lecher Antenna,” “A guardian chip for your health and gizmos,” among othersThe report does not contain a disclosure of conflict of interest.
The CPWD booklet is simple; it uses no complex jargon or jarring colour combination. It is eminently readable as it is, at 27 pages, of the right size. The value, if any, of the document just ends there.

Indigenous malaria vaccine shows promise in mice studies

In this 2005 photo made available by the University of Notre Dame via the CDC, an Anopheles funestus mosquito takes a blood meal from a human host.
APIn this 2005 photo made available by the University of Notre Dame via the CDC, an Anopheles funestus mosquito takes a blood meal from a human host.

The vaccine candidate appeared to prime the immune system of the mice against the disease

Indian scientists experimenting with a novel vaccine candidate against malaria say they have found “promising results” in mice, with “80 to 85 per cent efficacy” observed in a dozen animals they recently vaccinated.
The new vaccine candidate, created by a team at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), contains live malaria sporozoites (an immature stage of the parasitePlasmodium berghei) with an important genetic modification. The researchers knocked out a gene that produces “heme,” a molecule central to the pathogen’s survival. The vaccine targets the pathogen as it enters the liver, the first destination in the host.
Modus operandi
INSA Senior Scientist, Department of Biochemistry, IISc, G. Padmanabhan, who leads the research at P.N. Rangarajan’s laboratory in the Department of Biochemistry, said that the vaccine candidate appeared to prime the immune system of the mice against the disease, most likely by kickstarting a T cell immune response.
These results are, however, yet to be published, he said.
“We need to repeat the experiment in a few more animals to confirm our results first,” said Viswanathan Arun Nagaraj, a Ramanujan Fellow IISc, and part of the team working on the vaccine. They will next conduct safety trials on their animal models, he added.
The premise of the vaccine — containing mutant, inactivated sporozoites (or genetically attenuated sporozoites) — draws from two critical discoveries made earlier by the same team. The first discovery, made 20 years ago, was that the parasite can produce its own “heme” to sustain itself (although it also draws the molecule from the host’s haemoglobin when the parasite finally colonises in the host’s blood stream).
Second breakthrough
In 2013, the team made its second breakthrough when it identified all the heme-producing genes and found that the parasite’s ability to manufacture heme on its own was essential in its earliest “human stage” — when it enters the host’s liver.
“Inactivating the sporozoites is always the main challenge while researching a malaria vaccine,” Prof. Padmanabhan said. By knocking out one of the heme-producing genes — ALA synthase gene — the researchers essentially created a parasite that was no longer capable of surviving in the liver, let alone being released in exponential numbers into the host’s bloodstream where it manifests as malaria.
“The heme-biosynthetic pathway could be a target for antimalarial therapies in the mosquito and liver stages of infection. The knockout parasite could also be tested for its potential as a genetically attenuated sporozoite vaccine,” Dr. Nagaraj and coauthors had anticipated in a paper published inPLoS Pathogens journal last year.
A vaccine against malaria has been a longstanding research problem especially because drugs have proved inadequate against the parasite that often develops resistance, Dr. Nagaraj said. “Only recently did we have reports from Cambodia of the parasite developing resistance to artemisinin, the most important anti-malaria drug. The parasites are developing resistance to even combination drugs.”
Among the vaccine candidates under various stages of trial around the world is the RTS,S vaccine based on a protein from the malaria sporozoite, which has shown a 30 to 50 per cent efficacy in human trials. Another vaccine being tested uses attenuated irradiated (weakened) sporozoites.
According to the WHO, malaria infected 207 million people across the world in 2012 and killed 627,000 people; nearly 80 per cent of the deaths were of children under five years of age.

Hypoxia at high altitude linked to insulin resistance

The study took place on Mt. Everest

A research, which took place on Mount Everest, assessed the mechanisms by which low oxygen levels in the body — known as hypoxia — are linked to the development of insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance is when cells fail to respond to insulin in the body. Insulin enables the body to regulate sugar levels. Too much sugar can be toxic and leads to type II diabetes.
Increased levels
The research found that several markers of insulin resistance were increased following sustained exposure (6-8 weeks) to hypoxia at high altitude and that this change was related to increased blood levels of markers of inflammation and oxidative stress.
In the study, 24 people travelled to Mount Everest and underwent assessments of glucose control, body weight changes and inflammation biomarkers at Everest Base Camp, which is at an altitude of 5,300m.
Half the group remained at Base Camp while the other half climbed the mountain to a maximum of 8,848m. Measurements were taken in each group at week six and week eight of the trek.
The aim was to increase understanding of critically ill patients. The team also made the first ever measurement of the level of oxygen in human blood at 8,400m, on the balcony of Everest.
This is the centrepiece of an extensive and continuing programme of research into hypoxia and human performance at extreme altitude, aimed at improving the care of the critically ill and other patients where hypoxia is a fundamental problem.
The most recent experiment by the same team, Xtreme Everest 2, took place in spring 2013.
The research has been published in journal PLoS ONE.

A software application to aid farmers

It is easy to think of applications for visually challenged people in the context of “text-to-speech” software (TTS), but now there is an application which uses TTS to help out farmers. The Sandesh Pathak application, developed jointly by C-DAC Mumbai, IIT-Madras, IIIT Hyderabad, IIT Kharagpur, and C-DAC Thiruvananthapuram will enable SMS messages to be read out loud, for the benefit of farmers who may have difficulty in reading.
“It is usable by people who cannot read. A large population of farmers belongs to this category. So when they receive an SMS message either containing agriculture-related advice or some other thing, this app will read aloud the content,” says Pranaw Kumar, Senior Technical Officer, C-DAC, Mumbai who has been involved in developing this software.
The app which is available for download from the Appstore of the Mobile Seva Project of government of India, is an Indian language SMS Reader. It takes the received SMS message as input and reads it out aloud. It supports five Indian languages — Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarathi and Telugu. It also has options to select the language and speed of the voice as normal, slow, slower, fast and faster.
It uses the text-to-speech synthesis systems developed by the Indian Language TTS Consortium. To make it especially useful for farmers, “the TTS engines of all these languages have been tested on the agriculture domain-related texts and fine-tuned accordingly,” he says.
The app is part of the project launched by the Indian Government to help farmers read messages which may be of the following types: advice to solve farming problems — insect, disease, fertilizer or weed management; information on weather — such as forecasts; and updates on latest technology — for improving yield and much more.
It is also possible that the text message may contain words in different languages, for example botanical names of plants or fertiliser names. Would the software be able to tackle this?
Pranaw Kumar says, “If the names have been transliterated in the language of the text it is possible for the app to read it out, but currently it is not equipped to read out messages which are bilingual. However, efforts are on to improve it to a version which has bilingual capacity.”
In Phase two, where the plan is to include more languages, more institutes have been roped in — IIT Guwahati, IIT Mandi, SSN College Chennai, DA-IICT Ahmedabad, University of Guwahati and IISc, Bangalore. Work is on to make the app bilingual and to develop it in 13 languages, including Malayalam, Kannada, Rajasthani, Assamese, Manipuri, Odia and Bodo and also 13 flavours of English (with regional accents).
These Indian Language TTS systems have been developed under the Indian Language TTS Consortium which is led by IIT-Madras, under the leadership of Prof. Hema Murthy. C-DAC Mumbai is also a member of this collaboration.

An experiment proves that small farming is economically feasible

NEW ATTRACTION: The project is supported by Christian Aid with technical support from Change Alliance.
Special ArrangementNEW ATTRACTION: The project is supported by Christian Aid with technical support from Change Alliance.

Thottiankulam village on the Sevaiyur-Tuticorin highway in Virudhunagar district is bone dry all through the year. Farmers, mostly small and marginal, have either left the place seeking work in towns or have moved to other vocations.
In the midst of the vast expanse of empty fields dotted with palm trees here and there, a small patch of greenery catches attention. A group of people are busy tending to the green patch of vegetables, all grown organically.
Short term
The green patch which has been attracting a number of visitors driving on the highway has been made possible by an organisation called Saal (Sustainable Agro Alliance Limited) in Madurai, which has been encouraging struggling small farmers to take up short-term vegetable cultivation.
This programme, supported by an organisation called Christian Aid with technical support from Change Alliance, is fast proving to be a significant intervention in terms of gathering adequate and robust evidences to confirm that small-holder agriculture is feasible.
“The key mantra behind successful production lies in creating better environment. The first step in this process is to focus on the soil and not on plants. A healthy soil gives good yield. And in our system we take care to conduct soil analysis, enrichment using cow dung, cow urine, and humus obtained from dried leaves, agriculture wastages etc to make the barren land productive,” says Mr. B. Jeyabala Murugan, Chief Executive Officer, Saal.
The next step revolves around building an immune system for the plants. The seeds and seedlings are treated with good fungicides and bacteria to form a layer around the roots. This protective layer bestows immunity against soil borne diseases.
Border crops, inter crops, trap crops and multi cropping are also taken up. Farmers are taught to prepare herbal pest repellent using locally available materials.
All about arithmatic
“Our organic process is all about maths. We can predict yield as long as we follow the guidelines for vegetable variety, field size and plant population. It guides us to achieve desired production,” says Mr. S.Henry Joe, Operations Officer.
The final step is helping in marketing the produce. Effective marketing is the ultimate step for success in any agriculture work. With all the hard work done in the farm, if the produce is not fetching the due price then everything is a waste. Saal has facilitated some innovative, transparent and reliable market access to the growers.
High demand
“Local production, local consumption is our motto and our value chain process encompasses farmers, consumers and traders. Our pricing policy is based on a mix of conventional and niche market segments to increase consumption and thereby achieve higher demand, which help operate supply chain efficiently,” says Mr. John Suresh Kumar, Senior Programme Officer.
Already in three adjoining districts the organisation has established a supply chain for organic vegetables. The balancing of supply and demand is done through an online programme to track, trace and synchronise production and marketing and communication strategy
“We provide the farmers with live education in the farm, offer them bio inputs in initial stages of process, provide expert guidance in their field and attend to emergency situations. Those who have adopted this process have noticed that their plants are not only immune to diseases, they are better tolerant to changing weather conditions. The plants are better drought tolerant (could survive for more than seven days without water.),” explains Mr. John.
Shelf life
The life of the vegetable crops has extended significantly — say, from four to eight weeks — and they are able to get yield continuously. This extended vegetable yield has helped earn more income through better pricing in the market.
The small patch of organic greenery has also been seeing a number of insect activities and visits by birds, butterflies, and bees, creating a sort of biodiversity in the region.
The farm, on day-to-day basis, is managed by a supervisor, farm manager and six trained farmers. Presently more than 120 organic vegetable growers from Madurai, Virudhunagar and Dindigul districts are part of a similar programme and 100 more are expected to join soon.

New Hepatitis C drug, a big boon for domestic players

The World Health Organization estimates that 150 million people globally are chronic HCV patients

The spread of Hepatitis C virus (HCV) has long been a cause for concern in developing countries as the liver disease, if untreated, can cause liver cirrhosis and liver cancer and has a high mortality rate.
But a break-through drug by U.S. pharmaceutical giant, Gilead, with its sofosbuvir (brandname Sovaldi), is offering succour with a very high cure rate. It is a direct-acting antiviral (DAA) administered orally and is considered a breakthrough as existing treatment is injection-based and has severe side effects. Treatment time is reduced from 24-48 weeks to 12 weeks without side effects.
It is available in select markets. It was launched at $84,000 per patient in the U.S., $50,000 in France and $34,000 in the U.K.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 150 million people globally are chronic HCV patients and it claims 500,000 lives annually. The highest patient count is in China (29.7 million), India (18.2 million), Egypt (11.8 million) and Indonesia (9.43 million).
Leena Menghaney, Access Campaign India Coordinator, MSF (Doctors without Borders), told this correspondent that sofosbuvir in combination with existing drugs had a 90 per cent cure rate.
It is believed that India, “the generic pharmaceutical capital of the world” can once again come to the rescue. India first earned the above sobriquet in the late 1990s when it supplied generic versions of high-priced AIDS drugs to patients in sub-Saharan Africa at a fraction of then prevailing prices.
Gilead is reportedly already talking to Indian generic manufacturers to licence them to sell sofosbuvir in about 60 countries. But major markets where the disease is prevalent are excluded from the voluntary licence, said Ms Menghaney.
“They offered it to some Non-government organizations (NGOs) here at $1,000 per patient. In India, though, the public sector does not provide that service and the price is way too high”.
There are worries about a patent being granted in India as once granted, generic makers are bound by it. Outfits like Delhi Network of Positive People (DNP+) and Initiatives for Medicine and Access to Knowledge (I-Mak) filed pre-grant opposition to the patent here.
Sofosbuvir can be produced generically in India and marketed at very affordable prices. Produced generically, experts feel it can cost as low as $130 per patient and the opportunity would be huge for Indian manufacturers.

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