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UPI NewsTrack Health and Science News

Biofuels boom could destroy rainforests

STANFORD, Calif., Feb. 19 (UPI) -- A U.S. researcher is warning the boom in the production of biofuels might lead tropical farmers to destroy rainforests to plant biofuel crops.

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Holly Gibbs, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment, said policies favoring biofuel crop production might actually contribute to, not slow, the process of climate change.

"If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances will be good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks," she said. "When trees are cut down to make room for new farmland, they are usually burned, sending their stored carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. That creates what's called a carbon debt," Gibbs said. "This is because the carbon lost from deforestation is much greater than the carbon saved from using the current-generation biofuels."

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She said such an environmental disaster could be imminent "without more thoughtful energy policies that consider potential ripple effects on tropical forests."

Gibbs analyzed satellite images collected between 1980 and 2000 in the first such detailed characterization of the pathways of agricultural expansion across the entire tropical region. Gibbs said she hopes her findings will contribute to prudent decisions about future biofuel policies and subsidies.

The research was presented last weekend in Chicago during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.


FDA: Psoriasis drug causes some deaths

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a health advisory Thursday concerning serious events, including death, caused by the psoriasis drug Raptiva.

The federal agency said it has received three confirmed, and one possible, reports of progressive multifocal leukoencephalopathy -- a rare brain infection -- in patients using Raptiva (efalizumab). Three of the patients have died. All four patients were treated with the drug for more than three years and none was receiving other treatments that suppress the immune system.

The FDA said it is reviewing the information to ensure the risks of Raptiva don't outweigh its benefits, that patients prescribed Raptiva are clearly informed of the signs and symptoms of PML and that healthcare professionals carefully monitor patients for the possible development of the brain infection that is caused by a virus that affects the central nervous system.

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Psoriasis is a chronic skin disease in which dry red patches covered with scales appears on the scalp, ears and genitalia.

Raptiva, manufactured by Genentech USA Inc., is a once-weekly injection approved for adults with moderate to severe plaque psoriasis.


An advance in MRI development is reported

ZURICH, Switzerland, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- A Swiss doctoral student has made a discovery that medical scientists say could revolutionize magnetic resonance imaging technology.

David Brunner of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Zurich said he has succeeded in exciting nuclear magnetic resonance imaging in the human body by propagating electromagnetic waves.

Brunner said he developed his theory of using propagating waves for MRI after a colleague took images of a hand and captured so-called fold-over artifacts that seemed to originate from outside the detector's field. Brunner said that meant signals were recorded not only from the target region but also from a considerable distance -- although the detector was supposed to be sensitive only to its immediate surroundings. That, he said, is only possible if the signals travel, that is, if they propagate as waves.

"The fact that MRI signals can be received with an antenna and across such large distances is remarkable; it's a paradigm shift," said Professor Klaas Prussmann, who led the project.

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"Unfortunately, the cost of the strong magnets is still substantial and the clinical benefits of very high fields first need to be proven in extensive studies," he said. But he said the technology holds promise not only for medical imaging but also other applications. For instance, he said it might be used to examine large numbers of material samples or small animals in parallel for high-throughput screening.

The research appears in the journal Nature.


FDA OKs deep brain stimulation for OCD

WASHINGTON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a humanitarian exemption for the first implantable device to treat severe obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The FDA said the Reclaim DBS Therapy device, manufactured by Medtronic Inc., delivers intermittent electrical therapy deep within the brain to suppress the symptoms associated with severe OCD. The device is intended to treat patients for whom more conservative therapies, such as medication and psychotherapy, aren't working.

The Reclaim system uses a small electrical generator to create electrical stimulation that blocks abnormal nerve signals in the brain, the FDA said. The battery-powered device is implanted near the abdomen or the collar bone and connected to four electrodes implanted in the brain. Two device systems may be implanted to stimulate both sides of the brain or one device may be implanted with two lead outputs.

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Officials said humanitarian exemptions facilitate the development of medical devices intended to treat or diagnose fewer than 4,000 people per year in the United States. Officials, however, cautioned the Reclaim device doesn't provide a cure and patients are likely to continue to have some mild to moderate impairment in functioning and continue to require medications.

OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by recurrent, unwanted thoughts or repetitive behaviors.

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