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SMC Heads-Up: Asteroid flyby, painkiller problems

SMC Heads-Up: Asteroid flyby, painkiller problems and first born health risks

Issue 218 15 - 21 February 2013

Asteroid flyby tomorrow

Saturday morning stargazers may catch a glimpse of the 45 metre asteroid called DA14 as it passes over New Zealand on its 'near miss' flight past Earth.

The asteroid, identified last year, will pass within 28,000km of Earth around 8.30am Saturday, NZT. The asteroid will pass closer to the planet than the orbit of some man-made satellites circling the Earth.

NASA's Near-Earth Object Program Office has emphatically stated they "can accurately predict the asteroid's path with the observations obtained, and it is therefore known that there is no chance that the asteroid might be on a collision course with Earth."

NASA has posted an animated projection of the flyby and further links here.

Carter Observatory programmes manager John Field told the Dominion Post that the asteroid will be visible to New Zealanders from 2am to sunrise on Saturday (16 Feb) through a telescope or a good pair of binoculars.

"It's pretty rare to see these, but now that we have better telescopes and more people hunting we're getting more reports than ever before," he said.

"Ten years ago, none of our telescopes could even spot them."

Auckland's Stardome astronomer Dr Grant Christie will be tracking the asteroid at Stardome from very early on Saturday morning.

You can follow the trajectory of DA14 in realtime on Saturday morning for yourself at NASATV .

On the science radar...

Metal mosh pit physics, Facebook break-up fail, Valentine's Day nebula and author Jonah Lehrer's ill-received mea culpa .

Heart, diabetes risks for first born

First-born children have greater difficulty absorbing sugars into the body and have higher daytime blood pressure than children who have older siblings, according to new research.

Led by Prof Wayne Cutfield from the Liggins Institute at the University of Auckland, researchers documented a 21 percent drop in sensitivity to insulin, the hormone which controls blood sugar levels, and slightly higher blood pressure among first-born children. These phenomena are known risk factors for conditions such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.

The findings were published this week in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism.

The authors theorise that the metabolic differences in younger siblings might be caused by physical changes in the mother's uterus during her first pregnancy. As a result of the changes, nutrient flow to the fetus tends to increase during subsequent pregnancies.

"Although birth order alone is not a predictor of metabolic or cardiovascular disease, being the first-born child in a family can contribute to a person's overall risk," Prof Cutfield said in a media release.

You can read more about the study and read a round-up of international coverage on the Science Media Centre website.

Painkiller use high despite risks

The anti-inflammatory drug diclofenac, sold as Voltaren in New Zealand, has come under fire internationally for being too widely used in place of other equally effective, yet safer options.

A study in this week's PLOS Medicine finds that the painkiller diclofenac (a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID)) is the most commonly used NSAID in 15 countries studied, including New Zealand, despite its known tendency to cause heart attacks and strokes in vulnerable patients. This risk is almost identical to that of Vioxx (rofecoxib), which was withdrawn from worldwide sales in 2004 because of cardiovascular risk.

The British and Canadian authors found that diclofenac sales or prescriptions were three times higher than that of safer alternative naproxen and say that evidence about the risks associated with diclofenac has translated poorly to clinical practice. They call for the drug to removed from essential medicines lists worldwide and marketing of the drug to stopped.

It is not the first time health experts have called for restrictions on the drug. Following the publication of a 2010 study highlighting diclofenac risks, Prof Valery Feigin from AUT recommended banning the drug.

"I would seriously not recommend that medication to anybody," he said to 3 News at the time.

You can read a round-up of national coverage on the Science Media Centre website.

Quoted: New Zealand Medical Journal

''Obviously proximity to other passengers may cause conflict and stigmatisation of the flatulating individual.''

- Dr Hans Christian Pommergaard and colleagues on the issue of flatulence on aeroplanes

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:

Horsemeat scandal: UK experts comment on the latest news regarding the meat contamination scandal in Europe.

In the news:

Firstborn health risks: NZ research finds first born children may have a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease than kids with older siblings.

Asteroid flyby visible: The DA14 asteroid will pass close to Earth this Saturday morning, and may be visible from New Zealand.

Painkiller overused: Diclofenac (Voltaren) is the most commonly used drug of its kind in 15 countries, despite cardiovascular risks.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

Neptune is coming... - Aitana Forcen and Helen Bostock take part in a quirky ritual as they pass latitude 60°S on the way to Antarctica.

Field Work - Antartic Voyage

Darwin and New Zealand - On Charles Darwin's birthday, David Winter reflects on the "grumpy" biologist's visit to 1835 New Zealand.

The Atavism

Looking the wrong way: legal ivory market not linked to illegal - Brendan Moyle hilights the importance of differentiating legitimate ivory supply chains from African poached ivory.

Chthonic Wildlife Ramblings

An Alternative View on Antibiotics - Michael Edmonds is unimpressed by the latest offerings of the New Zealand "Journal" of Natural Medicine.

Molecular Matters

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

More to manuka than methylglyoxal: New research into the infection-fighting properties of New Zealand's manuka honey has shown that the compound methylglyoxal (MGO) plays a role in inhibiting bacteria, but even when this is chemically removed, the honey still retains antibacterial properties.


Human drugs impacting fish:
Trace quantities of mood-altering pharmaceutical drugs excreted from humans and flushed downstream in wastewater are affecting fish behaviour and ecosystems in unexpected ways, according to evidence from a new study. The Swedish researchers dosed wild perch with an anti-anxiety drug at levels already found in local waterways, and observed increased anti-social and risk-taking behaviours in the fish.


Folic acid lowers autism risk:
New Norwegian research has found that mothers who take folic acid supplements in early pregnancy have a 40% reduced risk of having children with autistic disorders compared with mothers who do not take folic acid. An accompanying editorial warns that while the results are robust, such a claim is "provocative" and must be confirmed in future studies.


Experts slam anti-inflammatory: Despite carrying significant cardiovascular risks, the anti-inflammatory painkiller Diclofenac (sold as Voltaren) is prescribed three time more often that the safer, yet equally effective, naproxen. An analysis of sales data from 15 countries, including New Zealand, found that evidence about the risks associated with diclofenac has translated poorly to clinical practice. An accompanying perspective article backs the authors calls to end advertising of the drug and change guidelines.

PLOS Medicine

Airplane 'turbulence': In an unusual 'viewpoint' article in the New Zealand Medical Journal, a team of Danish and British gastroenterologists highlight the trade-offs of flatulence on airplanes. Holding back flatus on an airplane may cause significant discomfort, note the authors, whereas releasing flatus potentially presents social complications. The authors suggest that one solution may be embedding odour-neutralising active charcoal in airplane seats.

New Zealand Medical Journal

'Sixth sense' given to rats: Researchers have given rats the ability to "feel" infrared light, normally invisible to them, by fitting them with an infrared detector wired to microscopic electrodes implanted in the part of the brain that processes touch. The achievement represents the first time a brain-machine interface has augmented a sense in adult animals, say the researchers.


Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Census going out: Statistics Minister Maurice Williamson says more than 7,000 census collectors will from tomorrow start delivering census forms to every home. An online option for completing form will be included this year.

Upcoming sci-tech events

The Invisible World: Images of Nanotechnology - Exhibition 8-23 February, Auckland.

Rock Art from an International Perspective - Public Seminar and film screening from Prof Jean Clottes (France) - 15 February, Christchurch; 17, Wellington; 24, Auckland.

The nervous motion between art, narrative and science - Public lecture by Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann - 16 February, Auckland.

"The Inspiration of Paul Callaghan" - Callaghan Symposium - 18 & 19 February, Wellington.

Multicore World 2013 - Technology conference - 19 & 20 February, Wellington.

Cities and sudden change - BIG DATA discussion panel with Kim Hill - 14 February, Wellington.

Communicating and using evidence in policy formation: the use and misuse of science - Lecture by Professor Sir Peter Gluckman - 21 February, Wellington.

Time, Einstein and the coolest stuff in the universe... - Public lecture from Dr William D Phillips (US) - 21 February, Dunedin.

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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