Monthly Archives: August 2008

Tonight We Have The Stars at LaVaSa

Do not worry if you have built your castles in the air. They are where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
-Henry David Thoreau

I came. I saw. I was mesmerized. I decided to settle down. I made my retirement plans. I made my castles in the air. I leased out my future home from Lavasa Corporation. I will now utilize the rest of my life in putting the foundations to my dreams at Lavasa. With a playground that covers the whole valley, outdoors that start right at your doorstep, chances are you will run out of excuses to live life at Lavasa. Nature trails that zigzag across the hills, offer a perfect recreational activity for nature lovers. Parks at Lavasa offer countless relaxation and leisure activities for its residents. For those of you following my Lavasa Life, let me today write about the night-life at Lavasa. 

How good is the night sky over your house? How well can you see the stars? How many stars can you see from your house? If you really want to see the beauty of the night sky, drive down to Lavasa. Many factors determine how well you can see the night sky. Natural weather patterns have an obvious effect. But even when clouds are not seen, high haze, which may well be invisible to you, can obscure many stars. Humidity causes air to scatter light, reducing the contrast between the “black” sky and the stars, making fainter stars harder to see and stars close together difficult to distinguish. What you might see as three stars on a clear, dark night may look like only one with high levels of humidity in the air. But by far the biggest thief of the night sky is light pollution. Light pollution won’t cause physical or mental health problems. It won’t give you cancer, but it is a cancer on the beauty of the night sky. It robs us of a natural treasure. City-folks, you don’t know what you are missing. I did not too till I saw the night sky at Lavasa. It was one of those rare clear-sky nights during the monsoons at Lavasa (I think the most beautiful season of the year at Lavasa).

The International Dark-Sky Association ( www.darksky.org) defines light pollution as “any adverse effect of manmade light. It is often used to denote urban sky glow.” The association describes several types of light pollution, including glare, light trespass and energy waste. All forms of light pollution deal with light going to places where it is not needed or wanted. Some forms of light pollution, while intended to make you safer at night, actually do more harm than good. Environmental sensitivity is one of the driving factors in the development of Lavasa. Modern technologies merged with time tested ideas have been deployed to maintain the natural settings of the environment. The Environment Management Plan (EMP) addresses several initiatives to protect and enhance the green cover. As far as I know, only 12% of the total area of 25,000 hectares will be developed. The remainder will be left as it is. Presently Ekaant -the Lodge is the only tourist recreational facility at Dasve. You see small clusters of lights at night from Ekaant in villages comprising of 15-20 tenements. The only other lights seen in the valley are the street lamps over the road made on the Warasgaon Dam.

The long, warm nights of August provide some dazzling sights. The Milky Way arcs high overhead, adding a soft glow to the dark sky — but only if you are away from pesky city lights. The constellations Sagittarius and Scorpius are at their best, anchoring the southern end of the Milky Way. Jupiter points the way to Sagittarius. Mars and Saturn drop from sight in the glare of sunset, where Venus and Mercury already lurk. That leaves Jupiter as the only naked-eye planet easily visible for most of the month. if you have a telescope, this is the place to see the stars at night, especially on a warm dry night at Lavasa.

The lights bring out the character of Ekaant. Strong, Silent, Handsome & Eternal. Look at the pictures. I fell in love all over again, once again:) with the stars & the night-lights of Lavasa. I had some friends writing to me from Israel asking if they can buy a retreat at Lavasa. Must remember to forward their enquiries to Nathan & colleagues. I wish these visionaries had started this project in the 70s. Anyways my children and their children will enjoy the fruits of people who are shaping the future modern India. 

The greatest use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.
-William James 

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Alcohol abuse in women linked to fertility problems

Researchers studying Australian groups of twins have established a link between heavy alcohol use and delayed pregnancy, in findings to be published in the journal ‘Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research’.

Mary Waldron, assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine and corresponding author of the research, wrote that this was the first study to look at the affect of alcohol on fertility. Both men and women were studied, but alcohol was found to have more effect on women’s fertility, with incidents expected to increase due to the higher rates of alcohol abuse currently seen in the young female population.

Some experts voiced caution, as the correlation between alcohol abuse and later onset of pregnancy could relate to the fact that alcoholic women have more relationship issues which cause them to have children later, rather than the effect of alcohol on fertility. However, other experts still stressed the fact that even small amounts of alcohol could affect fertility, because reproductive hormones rely on cholesterol made by the liver. Steve Hillier, Professor of Reproductive Endocrinology, University of Edinburgh, urged that the study results be treated cautiously, but that, ‘if nothing else they are valuable in alerting us to the potentially deleterious impact of alcohol abuse on the female reproductive system’.

The study authors have warned women to consider the impact alcohol might have on their efforts to conceive, and that women attempting to become pregnant should consider not drinking at all. Mary Waldron cautioned, ‘young women who drink alcohol may want to consider the long-term consequences for later childbearing. If drinking continues to increase to levels of problem use, their opportunity to have children may be impaired’.

Sharon Wilsnack, co-author of the study and professor of clinical neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences, warned that women already experiencing fertility problems should not use alcohol as a way to cope with the stress they might feel as a result of those problems. She said that, ‘alcohol would likely make the reproductive problems worse as well as carrying risks of possible alcohol abuse or dependence’.

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Sperm From Female Stem Cells

 

British scientists have created early-stage, human sperm from female stem cells, according to a news reportin New Scientist magazine. It is claimed that the research will pave the way for same sex couples to have children that are genetically their own. However, other scientists are sceptical that this procedure would ever be possible.
Professor Karim Nayernia at the University of Newcastle initially fertilised mice with sperm derived from embryonic stem cells (ESCs) in 2006, which gave rise to seven pups, six of which survived. In more recent work, he took human male stem cells from bone marrow and formed ‘spermatogonia’, primitive sperm cells that can form mature sperm cells by going through a process called meiosis. Nayernia has now apparently done the same using human female stem cells, work that has yet to be published.
The next stage in the process would be to make these primitive sperm cells undergo meiosis, which Nayernia claims he has started to do. The result could be that female eggs are fertilised by ‘female’ sperm, thereby eradicating the need for male gametes. However, Dr Robin Lovell-Badge, a stem cell expert at the National Institute of Medical Research in London, does not think the approach will work. He told the Telegraph newspaper that the ‘presence of two X chromosomes is incompatible with this. Moreover they need genes from the Y chromosome [from the male sperm] to go through meiosis. So they are at least double damned’. Safety issues have also been raised, since the mice pups in Nayernia’s initial study had health problems.
A Brazilian team of scientists lead by Dr Irina Kerkis at the Butantan Institute in Sao Paolo also claim to have made sperm and eggs from male mouse ESCs, and are currently starting to take the work into human cells. The research brings hope to people dealing with infertility, a problem that affects one in six couples, although scientists say the process is still in its infancy and treatments are a long way off.
There is also potential to use ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’, stem cells derived from human skin cells, as a starting point for the process. This could enable gay men to donate skin cells that would be used to create stem cells from which eggs could be formed. The eggs could then be fertilised using sperm from his partner, and placed in a surrogate mother.
Greg Aharonian, a patent analyst in the US, is trying to patent the technology behind ‘female’ sperm and ‘male’ eggs. A self-proclaimed ‘troublemaker’, he wants to undermine the argument that marriage should remain heterosexual because its main purpose is procreation.
The controversial developments have provoked mixed responses in the UK and US. Mike Judge from the Christian Institute faith group says that ‘children need male and a female role models’. Many religious groups still oppose gay marriage. Josephine Quintavalle, from the pro-life lobby group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, says: ‘we are looking at absurd solutions to very obscure situations and not addressing the main issue. Nobody is interested in looking at what is causing infertility – social reasons such as obesity, smoking and age’.

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A step towards three-parent babies?

 

Scientists at the University of Newcastle are developing a technique that they hope will enable women with a group of devastating hereditary illnesses – known as mitochondrial diseases – to have children without passing on their genetic disorders. Because the method involves sperm from one man and two eggs from different women it has been dubbed by the press as the creation of ‘three-parent’ embryos.
Mitochondria are tiny structures that provide cells with energy. Every cell in the body has between 1000 and 10,000 mitochondria. Whilst the vast majority of a cell’s DNA is contained inside its nucleus, a handful of genes are found in the mitochondria – just 37 genes out of around 25,000 genes in total. Mutations in mitochondrial genes cause a range of disorders that affect one person in every 6,500 and include fatal liver failure, stroke-like episodes, blindness, deafness, diabetes and forms of epilepsy and muscular dystrophy. Sperm do not contribute any mitochondria to the embryo (as they are all present within the tail, which falls off after fertilisation) and, consequently, children inherit all their mitochondrial genes from their mother.
The Newcastle researchers are working on a technique that takes the DNA from the nucleus of a newly-fertilised egg, and transplants it into an egg from another woman which has had all of its nuclear DNA removed. The resulting embryo would have mitochondria from one woman, but its remaining 25,000 or so genes would come from the mother and father who provided the fertilised egg. In this way, a mother could have a child without passing on her faulty mitochondrial genes.
The work is as yet unpublished, but at a recent scientific meeting of the researchers reported successful transplants in ten embryos, which were then grown in the laboratory for five days before they were destroyed. However, all these experiments were done by exchanging DNA between two ‘failed’ embryos left-over from IVF, which have abnormal amounts of nuclear DNA and so are inappropriate for implantation. It is not yet known if the technique will work with healthy embryos and eggs, although experiments in mice have been successful. Team leader Professor Patrick Chinnery said: ‘there are still a number of scientific issues we’ve got to resolve, in terms of efficiency, and in terms of whether we can do this in eggs rather than in other embryos’.

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Insulin-secreting cells produced by stem cells


Scientists in the US have derived insulin-producing cells from human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), and have successfully implanted them into mice. The achievement, reported last week in the journal Nature Biotechnology, could help push forward research into therapies for diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, and some forms of type 2 diabetes, are caused by a deficiency of pancreatic beta cells. These are cells that produce insulin, the hormone that helps control blood glucose levels, and are part of clusters of hormone-producing cells in the pancreas called the islets of Langerhans. The disease is characterised by a lack of insulin and subsequent misregulation of blood glucose, a condition that can be fatal. Diabetes is currently the seventh leading cause of death in the US, with 200,000 deaths reported per year.
The scientists at Novocell Inc. in San Diego, led by Dr Emmanuel E. Baetge, the chief scientific officer, derived immature precursor pancreatic beta cells from hESCs. They then implanted them into mice whose own beta cells had been destroyed by chemical treatment. After 90 days, the mice had switched the precursor cells into mature beta cells that produced insulin again, which helped control blood glucose. The implanted cells were said to be ‘functionally and morphologically similar’ to normal beta cells.Transplanting human islet cells into diabetic patients from donated pancreases has been proven to help treat the symptoms of diabetes, but this technique relies upon donations, of which there is not a consistent supply. There is also a risk of transplanting infected or contaminated cells. The new technology could provide a readily available and renewable bank of clean cells for treatment when the patient needed it.
The scientists say that there is a long way to go before this can be taken into humans. There are safety issues still apparent as some of the mice in the study developed tumours, called ‘teratomas’. Some critics are also concerned with whether the transplanted hESC derived cells would be destroyed by the recipient’s body, just as their own original beta cells were.Experts, however, are in no doubt that this is an exciting advancement. ‘This for the first time validates that you can use human embryonic stem cells to produce fully functional human islets’, says Dr Baetge.

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Viagra could harm sperm and reduce fertility

Two new studies have identified factors that could be causing a decline in male fertility. Research published in the journal Fertility and Sterility on the anti-impotence drug Viagra concluded that men taking the drug could be damaging their sperm and lowering their ability to conceive. Another study, published in the environmental journal the Ends Report, suggests that pollution from chemicals such as dioxin can lower a man’s sperm count.
The first study, led by Dr David Glenn at Queen’s University Belfast, , treated sperm in vitro with Viagra, and found treated sperm to be more active than untreated sperm, but also that the ‘acrosome’, which produces enzymes that help the sperm penetrate the egg, was damaged by the drug. Tests in mice showed that sperm treated with Viagra produced 40 per cent less embryos than untreated. Dr Glenn is concerned that the drug is being prescribed to couples seeking help for fertility problems, and says that ‘giving male partners something that could make the problem worse is scarcely the right approach’. He has also raised issues with younger males using the drug recreationally, who may be harming their chances of starting
a family in the future. The second study identified another factor thought to influence male fertility rates: pollution from chemicals such as dioxin, released through industrial processes and found in the atmosphere. A chemical explosion in Italy in 1976 exposed people to a cloud of highly toxic dioxin. A study 22 years later of male volunteers who were exposed found that men who were aged under nine at the time of the explosion had 43 per cent lower sperm counts than a control group. Men who were aged between ten and 17 when exposed, however, had sperm counts 62 per cent higher, and men who were over 17 were unaffected. The findings suggest that dioxin is a potential factor responsible for falling sperm counts, and also puts a question mark over other industrial chemicals.
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals are also thought to be affecting fertility rates. Three such chemicals have been investigated by scientists at the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark. When the chemicals were administered separately, they were harmless. Concurrent exposure, however, resulted in malformed sexual organs in the fetuses, showing potential cocktail effects of chemicals should be taken into account when investigating their effects on fertility rates. In Denmark, just under five per cent of boys are born with a certain malformation of their sexual organs. Meanwhile, new hope was given to infertile couples in Australia, where Menevit, the ‘first ever drug to for male infertility’, has been developed. It contains antioxidants and works by acting on free radicals that fragment sperm, the main cause of infertility. In a preliminary study of 60 infertile men, the rate of pregnancy was increased significantly, but larger clinical trials are required before the drug can be merited.

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Computer Assisted Semen Analysis (CASA)

The use of computer asisted semen analysis has advanced the ability to study and understand sperm function as it relates to human infertility. The major advances have been in the ability to more accurately determine sperm concentration (counts) and motility (movement). Generally, sperm are “looked” at by a computerized digitizing tablet through a microscope. The computer has been “taught” by the laboratory personnel what sperm look like, and how they move. When the computer then “sees” a sperm under the microscope, it is able to draw a digitized picture of each individual sperm, including the speed and path this sperm takes while moving under the microscope. A great deal has been learned about the normal and abnormal “micro”characteristics of sperm employing this method. The method is, however, not foolproof. The computer is only as intelligent as it’s programmer. Small changes in the computer program can alter the sperm calculations significantly. The computers must constantly be monitored and updated. In most laboratories, all grossly abnormal CASA assays are always verified by both a repeat analysis as well as with a “hands on” human second look opinion. We feel that any abnormal sperm count must be verified by a manual counting and assesment method.

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