Monday, February 12, 2007


Predictions are cheap so let's have a positive one!

Climate change will boost the global economy and dominate financial markets over the next 25 years, a leading investment bank has predicted. In a new report, Barclays Capital challenges the conventional wisdom that global warming will have a devastating impact on economic growth. It believes the need to increase energy capacity by 50 per cent by 2035, while simultaneously reducing dependence on hydrocarbons, will spark an "energy revolution" reminiscent of the technology revolution which led to the boom. "If ever the time were ripe for such an energy revolution, it is now," said Tim Bond, global head of asset allocation at Barclays Capital, and author of the report. "And like all historical adoptions of general purpose technologies, the process should prove immensely stimulative to economic growth."

Mr Bond says that those who couch the climate change debate in terms of the cost to growth are underestimating the impact of an energy revolution. Last year's Stern Review concluded that if temperatures rise by five degrees celsius, up to 10 per cent of global output could be lost. "All of the historical changes in energy supply - from dung to wood to coal to oil - were stimulative for the economy concerned. Every major technological change was accompanied or followed by faster economic growth." he said. Like every revolution, there will be winners and losers, with the energy sector set to reap the biggest rewards.


Hope for asthma sufferers

Scientists appear to have found the cold-fighting protein that asthmatics lack - thus potentially saving many lives

About one child in eight in the UK has asthma, and one adult in twelve. For most of them the cold season is misery. Common cold viruses trigger about 85 per cent of asthma attacks in children, and 60 per cent of those in adults, so picking up a winter bug isn't just annoying, it can be life-threatening. "A cold is never just a cold," says Jackie Fielding, the mother of Michael, who has had a 16-year struggle with acute asthma brought on by viruses. "It's his worst enemy."

What if you could stop people with asthma reacting so badly to cold and flu viruses? It could transform millions of lives at a stroke. A London researcher believes that he may have found the key to doing just that. On February 19, at a Body&Soul-sponsored event, Professor Sebastian Johnson, one of the UK's leading asthma specialists, will describe new research that, for the first time, explains exactly why people with asthma are so susceptible to bad, attack-inducing colds. It paves the way for new drugs that could prevent cold-induced acute attacks within five years, and bring relief to families such as the Fieldings.

It's all to do with a virus-fighting protein. Johnson has discovered that this protein is singularly lacking in people with asthma. For his research, at Imperial College London, he examined cells from the lungs of volunteers with and without asthma after they had been deliberately infected with the same cold virus. He found that the lung cells of the people with asthma produced half the usual levels of a type of interferon, a protein generated by the immune system to neutralise viruses. This means that when they get a cold, they simply can't fight it off and it gets worse and worse, making their airways more inflamed, and causing a full-blown asthma attack.

Having identified the missing protein, Johnson is working with drug companies to find a way of replacing it in asthmatics and making them as good at fighting off infection as the rest of the population. "These are exciting findings and have opened up new avenues of asthma treatment that haven't been thought of before," says Johnson, who is a professor of respiratory medicine, and investigator with the Medical Research Council's Centre in Allergic Mechanisms of Asthma at Imperial College London.

His discovery follows 18 years of research, prompted by the simple question: why do people with asthma react so badly when they get a cold? His earlier studies - looking at spouses of asthmatics infected with exactly the same germs - demonstrated that viruses persisted in the system of people with asthma longer, replicating more, going deeper into the respiratory tract and causing more damage than in the rest of the population.

His latest experiments used new techniques of molecular analysis to test cells from the lungs of volunteers with and without asthma, and found in the asthma group low levels of infection-fighting lambda interferon proteins. Exactly why people with asthma have such low levels is still a mystery. According to Johnson, one explanation could be that the process of allergic inflammation in asthma itself suppresses the protein. Another is that people with asthma have a defect in the signalling pathway that leads to the release of the protein, a defect that could be linked to the reasons people develop asthma in the first place. "We know that those who have very low exposure to infections in childhood seem to be more likely to develop asthma," says Johnson. "And it could be that because of this low exposure they never develop the immune responses they should." This would fit with the so-called "hygiene hypothesis", a theory that allergies arise because we do not condition our immune system by exposing it to germs early in life.

What he's hoping is that simply replacing the deficient protein will provide the answer for asthma sufferers. A similar protein called interferon beta is already used to treat multiple sclerosis and some types of leukaemia, but in large doses by injection. Asthma sufferers would need much lower doses fed into the respiratory tract by inhaler. "I'm working with one drug company on this," says Johnson. "If the results look good, and we're really lucky, it could be available in four years." Asthma UK, which supported the research, says Johnson's research is a "break-through in understanding" and the British Lung Foundation says it will be "invaluable in improving the treatment of people with asthma".

So how does Johnson feel about being behind such a significant medical step forward? "It's been a gradual process of discovery since 1989, and I got excited at each stage. The problem is that each discovery leads to new questions, and you just want to answer those." Having provided some answers about virus infections, there's another puzzling question to be worked on, this time concerning bacteria. Johnson's analysis of samples from 114 schoolchildren suggested that the bacterium chlamydia (a different type from the one involved in sexual infections) is also involved in acute asthma attacks.

The bacteria sit in most of our lungs causing low-level mischief but, in people with asthma, it seems to burst into activity once a cold virus takes hold. Perfecting antibiotic drugs that could target this bacteria could substantially reduce the severity of asthma attacks, and Johnson believes that he's found a drug that could help people to recover three days faster. The results of early trials were published in the New England Journal of Medicine last year. "I will feel I've made a major contribution when I see the treatments on the shelf," he says.


UK: MPs seek special exemption from freedom of information laws: "MPs are pressing for a special exemption from new powers that they brought in seven years ago in a popular attempt to open up government to public scrutiny. A private members' Bill introduced by a former Tory whip and considered by a Commons committee today will stop the public from using the Freedom of Information Act to find out how their MPs run their private offices. David Maclean's Bill, believed to have the support of prominent Labour ministers as well as the Leader of the Commons, Jack Straw, is the latest attempt to neuter Labour's much-trumpeted right-to-know legislation. It is the second attack on the new powers in four months. In October, ministers proposed new measures that would dramatically curb the access-to-information powers. They include proposals to restrict the number of requests made by the media and make it easier to refuse requests on grounds of cost."

In gun-banned Britain surgeons need skills from a war zone: "Dr Tunji Lasoye is woken by the telephone. It is after 2am and within seconds he must decide whether the young man shot in South London minutes earlier requires his help. "If it's a single shooting, probably they will deal with it fine," he says. In that case, over the phone from his home in Thamesmead, he directs operations at King's College Hospital Accident and Emergency Department. If the young man has been shot a number of times, or if several people have been shot, Dr Lasoye will immediately drive to the hospital, in Denmark Hill. He is the lead A&E clinician at King's and in the past five years has become an expert on gunshot wounds. "There are times when it's pretty quiet," he said. "Then you will have unfortunate times like this week when you have three or four in succession." This week in South London there have been four shootings and a fatal stabbing. James Smarrt-Ford, 16, was shot dead while ice-skating, Michael Dosunmu, 15, was in his bedroom when he was killed in what is thought to have been a case of mistaken identity. There were 505 "gun-enabled crimes" in Lambeth and Southwark in 2006. Although not all were shootings, guns were used by criminals at least once a day in the hospital's catchment area.... Next month in a big laboratory in Central London, not far from where Mrs Cope's son was shot, 20 surgeons, mainly from British hospitals, will get a crash course in dealing with bullet wounds from 20 top surgeons, mainly from America."

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