News briefing: 27 August 2009

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    Stem cells: Restrictions on human embryonic stem-cell research in Japan were relaxed on 21 August, after updated government guidelines came into effect. But some scientists fear the new rules have come too late to regain lost ground in the field. For more, see page 1068.

    Nuclear monitoring: Iran last week allowed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency to visit a heavy-water nuclear reactor near the city of Arak, and agreed to changes that will ease monitoring at a uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz. The country last year withdrew access to the 40-megawatt Arak reactor, which is currently under construction and could enter operation as early as 2014. When completed, it will burn uranium fuel, producing electricity and a range of nuclear isotopes, including plutonium. Iran denies that the reactor has a military purpose.

    Chemical regulation: The costs of complying with European Union legislation on chemical safety (REACH) are much greater than thought, according to a study released by toxicologists. Industry may have to spend €9.5 billion (US$13.6 billion) on toxicity testing — six times more than expected — and the number of animals used in the tests could rise by 20 times to 54 million. The chemical industry challenged the numbers as worst-case estimates. For more, see pages 1065 and 1080.

    Pandemic flu: People infected with the H1N1 swine flu virus who are otherwise healthy should not routinely be given antiviral drugs, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned last week. Its recommendations are at odds with current practice in many countries, where oseltamivir (Tamiflu) is routinely given out to all those suspected of having contracted H1N1. Although those with "uncomplicated illness" should not get oseltamivir or zanamivir (Relenza), the WHO did recommend giving drugs to those presenting with severe illness, to children under five and to pregnant women (see

    Renewable energy: On 20 August, Australia's parliament approved laws that require the country to produce 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 — up from around 8% today. The renewable-energy target is expected to spur billions of dollars of investment in wind, solar and hydroelectric power, although methane waste gas from coal mining was also classified as a renewable-energy source under the bill. The measures were delinked from a broader legislative package, defeated on 12 August, that proposed a cap-and-trade scheme to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from industry (see Nature 458, 554–555; 2009).


    Fraud trial: After almost three-and-a-half years, the trial of Korean stem-cell researcher Woo Suk Hwang may be drawing to a close. On 24 August, in a final evidence hearing, prosecutors requested a four-year prison term for Hwang, who is charged with fraud, embezzlement of state funds and violation of the country's bioethics law. His papers claiming that he had created cloned human embryonic stem cells were shown to be fabrications in January 2006. A court decision is expected in mid-October.


    South Korea's first space rocket (click to enlarge). Credit: JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

    South Korea's first space rocket: (see image, right). It may have been watched by millions, but the launch of South Korea's first space rocket on 25 August was only a 'partial success', according to the country's science ministry. The two-stage Naro-1 blasted off from Naro Space Center, some 485 kilometres south of Seoul but, as Nature went to press, it had failed to put its observation satellite into its intended orbit. A second rocket launch from South Korean territory is planned for spring 2010.

    Research voyage: A US research vessel left Oregon on 22 August for Canadian waters to conduct seismic studies imaging seafloor structures, after a Canadian court declined to halt the cruise. As Nature went to press, environmental groups seeking to block the use of air guns during the tests (see Nature 460, 939; 2009) were expected to return to court on 25 August to try to divert the RV Marcus Langseth from her mission.


    Stem cells: Six months after giving it the green light, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) halted plans for the world's first clinical trial of a therapy generated from human embryonic stem cells. The product's manufacturer, Geron in Menlo Park, California, had hoped to start human testing of its potential treatment for spinal-cord injury this summer (see Nature 457, 516; 2009). Geron says the hold order came after it submitted additional data from studies testing dose escalation, and from investigations of the product's use for other neurodegenerative diseases. It added that it was working closely with the FDA to review the data.

    Drug development: Eli Lilly abandoned development of its osteoporosis drug arzoxifene, after results from an advanced clinical trial suggested it did not offer sufficient benefit over currently available treatments. The company, headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana, had hoped arzoxifene would be a successor to its blockbuster osteoporosis treatment raloxifene (Evista), which will lose its patent protections by 2014. Meanwhile, Amgen, of Thousand Oaks, California, has received more positive news for its new-mode-of-action osteoporosis treatment, denosumab. The monoclonal antibody gained recommendations from an advisory committee at the Food and Drug Administration on 14 August, and awaits full approval.

    Business watch

    Despite the economic crisis, countries are still installing solar capacity at a rapid rate, as the cost of solar panels plummeted in the first half of 2009 (see also Nature 460, 677; 2009 ).

    Prices of photovoltaic panels have dropped by almost 50% since September 2008, says Jenny Chase of New Energy Finance, a London-based global consultancy firm. The glut of cheap panels saw many solar companies reporting reduced revenues in the past financial quarter.


    Chase says that Italy, a relative newcomer to solar power, is likely to be the second largest installer of photovoltaics in 2010. And Germany's solar capacity, which far exceeds that of other countries, should continue to increase (see chart).

    Only Spain is slowing down. Generous feed-in tariffs, which guarantee a set price for each unit of electricity supplied by a solar provider, saw the country install 2.7 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2008; the Spanish government has now capped the amount of solar power eligible for this tariff at 0.5 gigawatts.

    As the recession continues to bite, venture-capital investment in solar companies has fallen. Analyst Dallas Kachan, managing director of Cleantech Group, headquartered in Brighton, Michigan, says that solar investment sank from a high of US$1.2 billion in the third quarter of 2008 to $115 million in the second quarter of 2009.


    Medical collaboration: The University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur signed a pact last week to develop allied research, teaching and medical programmes. The agreement also calls for a joint Indian–US medical centre in Kharagpur. India will fund the 300-bed facility, with UCSD collaborating on clinical care and research. Researchers will study drug development, bioengineering and imaging technologies at the two campuses. The chance to test therapies on different populations makes the collaboration particularly attractive for physicians.

    Isotope shortage: A nuclear reactor in Petten, the Netherlands, that supplies radioactive isotopes for use in medical imaging reopened last week after a month's scheduled maintenance — partly alleviating a global shortage of the isotopes (see Nature 460, 312–313; 2009). But the reactor is due to shut down again next March for six months of repairs. Canada's Chalk River, Ontario, reactor — whose closure precipitated the isotope crisis — will not reopen until 2010.

    Lawrence Deyton

    Tobacco regulation: Lawrence Deyton (pictured) was appointed to direct the new Center for Tobacco Products in Silver Spring, Maryland, part of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Deyton, who will start his new job on 14 September, is a physician at George Washington University's School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington DC, and a public health officer at the US Department of Veterans Affairs. He has also led research on allergy and infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health. The FDA won powers to regulate tobacco for the first time in its 103-year history under legislation passed by Congress in June (see Nature 459, 901; 2009).


    Mercury contamination: A quarter of fish sampled from 291 streams across the United States between 1998 and 2005 contained levels of mercury higher than those deemed safe for human consumption, according to a non-peer-reviewed report from the US Geological Survey (USGS). More than two-thirds contained levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency's level of concern for the protection of fish-eating mammals, says the USGS. Coal-fired power plants are the main source of mercury reaching US waterways.

    The week ahead

    29 August–1 September The European Molecular Biology Organization holds its first annual conference in Amsterdam.

    30 August–3 September The seventh World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences meets in Rome.

    31 August–4 September The World Meteorological Organization hosts the third World Climate Conference in Geneva.

    31 August The ten-person presidential panel deliberating NASA's future, chaired by Norman Augustine, is expected to publish its final report.

    1 September The UK Royal Society will release a report on climate geoengineering options — the first such review from a major scientific academy.

    Sound bites "We won't be correcting the atlas." Daniel Gutknecht, Swiss Federal Office of Topography The Swiss government last week approved expanding the country's border into Italy, because melting glaciers in the Alps have altered the watershed that marks the border. (AP)

    Number crunch 16.99 °C The average surface temperature of the world's oceans in June and July 2009 — the warmest measured since records began in 1880. (NOAA)

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    News briefing: 27 August 2009. Nature 460, 1062–1063 (2009) doi:10.1038/4601062a

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