Pigs: Man’s New Best Friend?

Cross-posted from Mother Jones.

Last week, Mother Jones’ Hannah Levintova reported on breast milk-producing cows in Argentina. Now researchers in Japan believe human organ-growing pigs could prove biomedicine’s next big thing. A team at the University of Tokyo implanted a kind of adult stem cell from rats into the embryos of mice genetically bred to be unable to grow their own pancreas. Lo and behold, by the time the mice matured, they possessed fully-developed pancreases formed primarily from the transferred cells.

The researchers are confident that the same methods can be applied to pigs and humans, whose comparable scales and genomic similarities have long made porcine valves a leading option for heart disease sufferers. The techniques employed with the rats and mice, they believe, could yield an abundant new source of human donor organs. In that scenario, a patient’s stem cells would be injected into a pig embryo. Once developed over the course of a pig’s roughly 16-week gestation period, the organs could be transplanted back into the patient. As a bonus, using a patient’s own cells would likely help reduce the risk of rejection.

Agricultural Research Service/Wikimedia Commons


Although the research has yet to make a big splash among American scientists, Bill Murphy, associate director of the Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine Centerat the University of Wisconsin, is optimistic about its implications. Until now, it’s been “difficult to envision creating certain organs outside the body,” says Murphy, “so creating these complex organs inside the body of a host has the potential to address that critical challenge.”

That said, Murphy cautions that the vision is a ways from becoming reality. There’s no guarantee that the techniques employed on rats and mice are transferrable to pigs and humans. In addition, the transplants could trigger immune responses if the organs contain remnants of animal tissue.

Even if the science does pan out, Murphy says it’s likely to be at least a decade before you can go claim your very own pig-bred heart. Until then, well, you can stick to thinking of our porcine friends merely as the delicious breakfast meat on the buffet table—by which point you might just need that new heart after all.


Golf Summit: High Hopes for a Violence-free Affair

Cross posted from Mother Jones.

President Obama and Speaker Boehner are all set for their much-anticipated golf summit tomorrow. In addition to golfing, they’ll reportedly be getting down to some serious business, mixing in discussions on the debt ceiling and spending cuts with their handicaps. The odds that anything concrete will come of their time on the links appears remote, though just maybe it will help cool some of the personal tensions that have boiled up between them from time to time. Boehner, for one, views golf as a great bonding exercise. “Playing golf with someone is a great way to really get to know someone. You start trying to hit that little white ball. You can’t be somebody that you’re not because all of you shows up,” he told 60 Minutes in December.

Whether or not Obama and Boehner emerge from their outing any chummier, hopes should at least be high that the two can comport themselves with slightly more class than Bolivian president Evo Morales, whose “friendly” soccer match last year pitting the president and his allies against a team led by a former political friend turned adversary yielded this priceless footage. (And yes, that guy is President Morales.)

Nevada Rolls the Dice on Public Health

Cross-posted from Mother Jones.

In 2006, the Nevada Clean Indoor Air Act passed with 54 percent support. The law prohibited smoking in movie theaters, government buildings, bars and taverns that serve food, and indoor areas within restaurants (although notably not casinos). Since then, its popularity has surged. According to a February poll by the American Lung Association, 83 percent of Nevada voters now support the act. Yet last week, the Nevada Senate approved a bill that rolls back core components. For example, it permits smoking in stand-alone bars that serve food, so long as they don’t allow minors inside. The new legislation now awaits Republican Governor Brian Sandoval’s signature.

Why would state legislators want to gut such an overwhelmingly popular bill? Simple, says Amy Beaulieu, the director of Tobacco Control Policy for the American Lung Association in Nevada: “It’s money and lobbyists.” Powerful lobbies like the Nevada Tavern Owners Association and the Nevada Resort Association have thrown their weight behind beating back the Clean Indoor Air Act. And as Beaulieu explains, “These taverns are not like Joe’s Corner… Our taverns and bars are all tied to the gaming industry.”

In Nevada, it’s the gaming industry that more often than not calls the shots. The state’s casinos took in nearly $10.5 billion last year; lesiure and hospitality account for more than a quarter of all civilian jobs. Casinos’ gaming areas were exempted from the 2006 act because its authors viewed the gaming industry as too powerful to take on just yet. But the casinos’ employees have suffered mightily from exposure to second-hand smoke. A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health study released in 2009 found significant increases in levels of the environmental tobacco smoke biomarker NNAL in casino workers’ urine over the course of their eight-hour work shifts, revealing exposure to airborne carcinogens. These workers complained of respiratory difficulties, eye symptoms, headache, nausea, and dizziness.

Meanwhile, the Clean Indoor Air Act has been an overall boon for public health (and revenues) in Nevada. Researchers at the University of Nevada, Reno, have just published a study finding that since implementation of the act, decreases in hospital admissions for stroke and myocardial events have saved Medicaid and Medicare payers some $1.5 million and $11.5 million, respectively.

While the new bill revising the Clean Indoor Air Act might not appear too radical on its face, it’s almost certain to have significant consequences. For one thing, employees at bars that reintroduce smoking will once again be forced to inhale the same carcinogens as casino dealers. Moreover, the 21 and up restriction is unlikely to have any real effect. Amy Beaulieu points out that the provision is entirely unenforceable, with law enforcement authorities having already indicated they have no intention of starting to write tickets to underage bar patrons. Even the bill’s backers have conceded that the restriction could be fairly easily circumvented.

As for claims by industry lobbies that the Clean Indoor Air Act is strangling business, they simply don’t hold water. A fact check by the Reno Gazette-Journal notes that Nevadan restaurants and bars have fared significantly better over the past year than other sectors of the state’s recession-ravaged economy. According to that same American Lung Association poll, half of Nevadans rate going out as more enjoyable now that restaurants and other social places are smoke-free versus four percent who responded less enjoyable. And who knows? With Vegas billing itself as increasingly family-friendly, even the casinos might benefit from a slightly less smoky scene.

And so, even as the evidence continues to pour in about the dangers of second-hand smoke and the health benefits of indoor smoking regulations, Nevada looks set to roll the dice on something that should never be gambled: its citizens’ health.

World Cup: 5 Ways to Survive the Summer After

Cross-posted from Mother Jones.

The summer after a World Cup is always rough for diehards of the beautiful game, and now ’tis the season of the soccer fan’s discontent. The major European leagues are out of commission until August, there are no World Cup or Euro Cup games to snag, and sports headlines are dominated by tales of shady dealings and FIFA president Sepp Blatter’s unparalleled narcissism.

Never fear, fellow fanatics! Below, 5 ways to survive the trying months ahead.

1. Learn to love Major League Soccer.

You no longer have to head abroad to find high-quality soccer in a rip-roaring atmosphere. America’s own Major League Soccer, now in its 16th season, has come a long way since the days when games were played in three-quarters empty football stadiums to the sound of “Charge!” blaring from the PA system. Bolstered by an influx of young talent and intimate, soccer-specific stadiums, MLS today offers a legit fan experience, replete with singing, chanting, and even some good old fashioned rowdiness.

2. Check out the international options.

No World Cup, no Euro Cup, no sweat. There’s plenty of international competition out there to get you through the next couple months. The Gold Cup, North and Central America’s regional championship, is underway in venues across the country. Its South American equivalent, the Copa America, runs from July 1 to 24, providing yet another opportunity to drool over the bedazzling artistry of Argentine genius Lionel Messi. And the U-17 World Cup—where stars like Cesc Fabregas and Landon Donovan first announced their arrival on the world stage—begins June 18 in Mexico. (For TV listings, click here.)

3. Watch the Women’s World Cup.

The Women’s World Cup, which kicks off June 26, is underrated. This year the US enters as one of the favorites, alongside Brazil and host Germany. Keep an eye out for Brazil’s Marta; she’s been named the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year five years running. All 32 games from Germany will air live on either ESPN or ESPN2.

4. Read these two books.

An ungodly number of books exploring the intersection of soccer and politics, economics, sex—you name it—have been written in the past decade or so. Some of them are bound to be good, right? Try the gold standard in soccer lit, Simon Kuper’s 1994 classic, Football Against the Enemy. It’s the heady result of a nine-month, 22-country trek—during which Kuper discovered a Ukrainian club that exported nuclear missile parts and plumbed the depths of Dutch fans’ anger toward Germany almost a half-century after World War II. For something a little lighter, try Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s hilarious and horrifying memoir of his obsession with Arsenal Football Club.

5. Watch the hilarity that is FIFA.

If theater of the absurd is your kind of humor, sit back and enjoy the train wreck that is the sport’s global governing body. The most recent crisis stems from bribery accusations leveled against two FIFA executives. An ethics committee is now investigating. Sepp Blatter, who originally denied that there might be any corruption in FIFA, has since done a 180, unilaterally announcing on Monday the creation of a “commission of the wise” to clean up the organization’s image, consisting of former Dutch star Johan Cruyff, the Spanish opera singer Plácido Domingo, and—wait for it—Henry Kissinger.

Death Threats for Australian Climate Scientists

Cross-posted from Mother Jones.

Australian climate scientists are paying a steep price for their work, as opponents of Australia’s proposed tax on carbon emissions have embraced an attack the messenger strategy. More than 30 researchers told the Canberra Times that they have received emails “threatening violence, sexual assault, public smear campaigns and attacks on family members.” In response, several universities are reported to have moved targeted researchers into more secure buildings.

American scientists are all too familiar with this type of intimidation. As Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard noted in April, leading climate change experts have been subjected to a constant barrage of threats and abuse. Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, has been labeled a “terrorist” and “killer,” among other epithets. The vitriol climaxed in the months after the so-called “Climategate” scandal broke in late 2009. Emails to scientists, later obtained by the Guardian, suggested that they “go gargle razor blades” and repeatedly referred to them as Nazis.

The media and even elected officials have vigorously fanned the flames, portraying mainstream climate scientists as conniving frauds and potential criminals. A report released in February 2010 by the minority staff of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, led by notorious climate change denier James Inhofe, claimed that the emails exchanged among the scientists at the heart of Climategate “display unethical, and possibly illegal, behavior” by those involved. Even though Climategate turned out to be much ado about nothing, a number of the scientists profiled unsurprisingly found themselves on the receiving end of the most virulent hate mail.

In response to the latest developments in Australia, Professor Margaret Sheil, CEO of the Australian Research Council, warned that the harassment of scientists threatens to have a chilling effect on continuing climate research: “It may prevent or reduce the involvement of key scientists in the public debate to which they are making a vital contribution. In the longer term, it may affect the choices made by post-docs and research students in pursuing climate change science.” Carbon taxes or not, surely that’s something our warming planet can’t afford.