News this Week

Science  31 Aug 2007:
Vol. 317, Issue 5842, pp. 1154

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    Texas Voters Asked to Approve $3 Billion Cancer Initiative

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    Cancer coalition. Flanked by cyclist Lance Armstrong and scientists, Texas Governor Rick Perry authorizes a $3 billion research fund.


    Texas is planning a biomedical research initiative fit for a state where everything is bigger: a $3 billion pot of money for its scientists to wage war against cancer. Legislation signed by Governor Rick Perry in June would create a cancer institute to manage the 10-year program, funded through state bonds. If voters approve the November ballot measure, the amount of money awarded annually will easily top the $226 million in grants that the state received last year from the National Cancer Institute (NCI).

    Proponents expect the initiative to put Texas atop the world of cancer research and boost the state's biotech industry. “We want to be leaders in an area in which Texas is already very, very strong,” says John Mendelsohn, president of the University of Texas (UT) M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which this year was designated the nation's number-one cancer treatment center by U.S. News & World Report and which receives half of all the NCI money flowing into the state. But those high expectations won't be met, say scientists, unless the new institute selects the highest-quality proposals to support. Success will depend on a “top-notch peer-review process,” says Alfred Gilman. Gilman is a Nobelist and dean of UT Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, another research powerhouse likely to benefit from the new grants program.

    Scientists outside the state are applauding the plan, which has been endorsed by a coalition that includes the Austin-based foundation run by cycling champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong. “I think it's a very smart move on the part of Texas,” says cancer biologist Webster Cavenee of the University of California, San Diego, who has watched California develop a similarly sized $3 billion initiative to fund human embryonic stem cell research. “It could be incredibly powerful, particularly if it were salted with a bunch of new people.” And there are few dissenters. “It is not a popular position to complain,” says Seth Chandler, a University of Houston law professor, who wonders whether it makes sense for the state to support cancer research, which, unlike stem cells, already receives substantial federal funding.

    A friend of former governor Ann Richards, Austin business executive Cathy Bonner, came up with the idea of a cancer research initiative after the popular Democrat died last year from esophageal cancer. Bonner says she was aware of California's stem cell initiative and thought “now's the time” to do something similar for cancer research, which she felt needed a “big vision” in a time of flat federal funding. She joined with Armstrong's foundation and other groups and pitched it to Perry. By May, the legislature had voted to convert the state's cancer-prevention agency into the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas and to give it authority to fund scientific research on “all types of cancer in humans.” Voters are being asked on 6 November to approve the sale of $3 billion in bonds to fund the institute, which would give priority to matching grants, those promising economic benefits, and collaborations. Up to 10% of the funds can be spent on prevention and 5% on facilities; the first grants would be awarded in 2010.

    “This will be an enormous boost for cancer research in Texas at a time when federal funding has been very tight,” says cancer biologist Jeffrey Rosen of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Mendelsohn hopes the money will encourage researchers to “do innovative things” in areas, such as nanotechnology, that are considered too risky for National Institutes of Health study sections and also attract new talent into the state.

    The one concern raised by some scientists involves the fund's grants review committee. The legislation stipulates that half of the 18 members represent Texas schools, although they are nonvoting members to avoid potential conflicts of interest. Legislators wanted the schools to “have input into the process,” says Ky Ash, a staffer for state representative Jim Keffer, the bill's House author.

    The nine voting members must be either a physician or another professional who treats cancer patients, or represent a cancer treatment center or cancer volunteer group. Bonner expects most to be Texans because “we want to draw upon the expertise we have here” and says reviewers could include “retired doctors” and researchers at private cancer facilities.

    That description makes some observers wonder about the panel's expertise. “You could end up with all of the voting members not really understanding much about research,” says Frances Sharples, a staff member at the National Academies. Several Texas scientists told Science they would much prefer that all reviewers live out of state. “There shouldn't be any Texans on the peer-review panel,” says Michael Kyba of UT Southwestern, a reviewer for stem cell research initiatives set up recently in Connecticut and New Jersey that, like California's, draw reviewers from outside the state. Several others expressed similar concerns about the money being allocated on a political rather than scientific basis. “I would be greatly saddened if 5 years from now we're at an impasse because El Paso wants a cancer research center,” says developmental biologist Luis Parada of UT Southwestern.

    Mendelsohn suggests that the panel could tap outside researchers as needed to ensure high-quality peer review. Cavenee isn't worried about the limitations, either. “It will work out,” he predicts.

    Doug Ulman, president of the Lance Armstrong Foundation, says supporters will publicize the ballot issue and that such initiatives “typically do pass.” Max Sherman, an emeritus political science professor at UT Austin, expects many to support it for a simple reason: Most families in Texas have been touched by cancer.


    Fermilab Proposes Way Station on the Road to the ILC

    1. Adrian Cho

    Facing an uncertain future, officials at the last dedicated particle physics lab in the United States have developed a backup plan in case their grand ambition to host a gargantuan international collider were seriously delayed.

    Under the plan, researchers at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Batavia, Illinois, would construct a proton accelerator using parts that meet all the design specifications for the proposed multibillion-dollar International Linear Collider (ILC). The proton source would feed neutrino experiments and searches for certain rare particle decays while serving as a test bed for the ILC, according to a draft report released by the lab's steering committee earlier this month. The more modest accelerator would still cost more than $500 million, and it faces competition from a Japanese lab.

    Fermilab officials stress that their primary goal is to land the ILC. But that 40-kilometer behemoth, expected to cost more than $10 billion (Science, 9 February, p. 746), would require an international agreement that could take many years to hash out. “If things that are beyond the control of physicists are not ready, it would be much better for physicists in the U.S. to build a machine that is aligned with the ILC and gives you some real physics opportunities,” says Fermilab Director Pier Oddone.

    Dubbed Project X, the proton source would keep the lab on the research forefront during the period between the shutdown of Fermilab's Tevatron Collider at the end of the decade and the start-up of the ILC. The Tevatron will soon be eclipsed by the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland, which will start smashing protons next year. Many physicists expect the LHC to blast out a slew of new particles. The ILC, which will collide electrons and antielectrons to make cleaner collisions, would be needed to study those particles in detail, researchers say.

    Physicists hope to start building the ILC as early as 2012 and finish it by 2019. But in March, Raymond Orbach, under secretary for science at the Department of Energy (DOE), warned that the ILC might not be completed until the mid-2020s or later (Science, 2 March, p. 1203). Orbach asked the community for proposals that could be pursued in the meantime, and Project X is a response to that call, says Young-Kee Kim, deputy director of Fermilab.

    Priorities. Fermilab would build the proton source only if ILC were delayed, Director Pier Oddone says.


    As early as 1994, some physicists had proposed building a proton source at Fermilab. But the previous design, called the Proton Driver, was seen as competing with the ILC, and in 2005 Fermilab put it on a back burner. The Proton Driver would have used some parts designed for the ILC, but Project X will use more of them and will stick to exact ILC specifications, says Tor Raubenheimer, an accelerator physicist at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park, California. “So in doing Project X, you really do advance the ILC,” he says.

    Fermilab is not the only lab with plans for a proton source. The Japanese Proton Accelerator Research Complex in Tokai should power up next year, although in its first phase it won't pump out as many protons as Project X would. Project X will also be measured against other midrange projects already proposed to DOE, including a space mission with NASA to study dark energy; experiments at the proposed Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, which is seeking funding from the National Science Foundation; and perhaps an accelerator to produce particles called B mesons in copious amounts.

    Fermilab seeks $50 million over the next 3 years for research and development. Lab officials hope that DOE will come through with some money as soon as next year. The first step is a review by DOE's Particle Physics Project Prioritization Panel, which should weigh in next spring.


    Synthesis Mimics Natural Craftsmanship

    1. Robert F. Service

    When it comes to making complex molecules, microbes are nature's master craftsmen. But just how they manage to construct some of these compounds has long remained mysterious.

    Take a class of long, ladderlike toxins, such as those made by marine microbes called dinoflagellates that are responsible for fish-killing “red tides.” In 1985, Columbia University organic chemist Koji Nakanishi suggested that dinoflagellates create the compounds by launching a cascade of reactions that break apart a series of small molecular rings as the first step to adding successive rungs to the ladder. The trouble is that synthetic chemists have never managed to create these cascades in water, leaving them to wonder whether it's truly the way the dinoflagellates do it. But now things may be looking up for this old idea.

    On page 1189 of this issue, a team led by Tim Jamison, a synthetic organic chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, reports that it produced just the sort of cascade that Nakanishi proposed. What's more, the MIT researchers found that the reaction actually works better in water—suggesting that waterborne marine microbes may build their deadly toxins in a similar way. “It's really a terrific result,” says Eric Jacobsen, a synthetic organic chemist at Harvard University. The new work may make it far easier for chemists to craft new families of ladderlike compounds, some of which have shown promise for treating conditions such as cystic fibrosis.

    Although complex, the ladderlike compounds have a recurring theme. Each is made up of a chain of small rings containing carbon and oxygen atoms. Some intersperse the occasional large ring or add different chemical appendages. After working out the structure of some of these compounds, Nakanishi proposed that dinoflagellates may create them by launching a series—or cascade—of reactions that open small ring compounds called epoxides, each of which contains an oxygen atom bound to two carbons. If the resulting compounds are put together right, the complex three-dimensional arrangement of bonds in the molecules would be in the right place and orientation. “It offers a simple way to explain a lot of complexity,” Jamison says.

    But there's a slight problem. When epoxide rings open, they tend to form one of two compounds. One, abbreviated THP, has just the right structure to become incorporated in a ladderlike compound; the other one, THF, doesn't. When chemists run their ring-opening reactions in organic solvents, they always get too much of the unwanted THF. They can bond additional groups to each epoxide to force it to react the way they want. But it appears nature doesn't do it that way.

    Assembly required. Marine microbes may use water to catalyze the conversion of chemical precursors (top) into toxins such as gymnocin-A (above).


    Intrigued by this puzzle, Jamison and his graduate student Ivan Vilotijevic dove in. After extensive work, they found a small ring-containing compound that, when placed in solution, seems to hold epoxides in just the right orientation to allow water to trigger the reaction. Not only does the reaction churn out THP, but that THP then primes another epoxide to break open and incorporate it into a growing chain. “It's so simple, and it opens up a lot of fundamental mechanistic questions about what water is doing,” Jacobsen says.

    The finding was heartening, Jamison says, because it suggests that dinoflagellates likely do something similar. In any case, Jamison and others say that the new reaction should make it much easier to create new ladderlike compounds that could pave the way for novel drugs.


    Judge Orders More Timely U.S. Reports

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Data drought? The White House is ordered to speed up its assessment of climate-change impacts.


    A U.S. federal judge has rejected the Bush Administration's sluggish approach to reporting the results of its $1.7 billion climate-research effort. But even researchers critical of the government's climate-science program say it's a hollow victory for those seeking meaningful information on how global change affects the nation.

    Last year, environmental groups led by the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Arizona, sued the Administration, claiming that it had ignored a 1990 law that calls for “an assessment” of climate-change research every 4 years that “integrates, evaluates, and interprets” the latest research and describes its impact on the country. Noting that the government is nearly 3 years late in delivering such an assessment and 1 year late on a related mandatory research plan, Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California rejected the Bush Administration's argument that the deadlines were flexible enough to allow the delays. “The defendants have not adhered to the text of the statute or its mandates,” Armstrong wrote in her 21 August ruling, adding that the research plan should be released in March 2008 and the assessment in May.

    Not surprisingly, the Administration and its opponents interpreted the decision quite differently. The White House science office says the new deadlines are “consistent with the Administration's current plans,” although it is considering an appeal. But Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Representative Jay Inslee (D-WA) say the ruling shows that officials have been “illegally suppressing” scientific facts and “crippling this country's ability to respond to the global warming threat.”

    At the same time, the judge did not address the planned form of the Administration's analysis, an issue on which she said Congress has not “clearly dictated.” In 2000, the Clinton Administration summarized hundreds of studies on possible climate impacts in a 600-page report based on years of consultation with hundreds of scientists and local officials. In the place of this single, integrated report, the Bush Administration's interagency Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) has opted to write 21 shorter reports on various aspects of climate change, six of which it says fulfill the law's requirement. The first report was issued last year; a second one came out in June.

    Richard Moss, who ran the climate change office under Bush until 2006, called it “unfortunate” that the ruling criticized the timing of the reports but failed to force CCSP to integrate its findings. “The Administration should be held to a higher standard than just what a judge finds follows the letter of the law,” says Moss, adding that Americans deserve a “full soup-to-nuts national assessment” of how climate change will impact them. A bill that would force such an integrated approach passed the House of Representatives last month and is pending in the Senate.


    U.S. Announces Recovery Plan for a Ghost Bird

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Find them. That's the top priority in the effort to save the ivory-billed woodpecker, outlined in a draft plan last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). But many critics fear that the charismatic bird is already extinct and worry that the $27 million plan will mean less money for conserving other endangered species.

    Ivorybills (Campephilus principalis) were on the original federal list of endangered species in 1967. The last confirmed sightings of the large woodpeckers were in Louisiana in 1944. But in 2005, a team led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology announced that it had evidence that at least one male was alive and flapping in Arkansas, a stunning claim that has since attracted vigorous skepticism (Science, 17 August, p. 888). Right after the announcement, FWS convened experts to figure out how to help the species bounce back.

    The 182-page plan offers a detailed list of activities, many of which FWS is already either conducting or funding. The main task is to expand the search for the birds, now done mainly by a few academics, volunteers, and state wildlife agencies. Also high on the list are characterizing its habitat and developing computer models to project a healthy population size. These efforts, plus managing habitat, would cost $27.8 million over 5 years.

    That price tag, in an era of scarce resources, makes some biologists shudder. “We put other species more at risk by focusing on a bird we can't find,” says Louis Bevier, an ornithologist and research associate at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. FWS estimates it will have spent $1.1 million this year on the ivorybills, compared with a median expenditure in 2004 of $5500 per threatened or endangered species.

    Chris Elphick of the University of Connecticut, Storrs, says the recovery plan gives short shrift to those who question the recent sightings in Arkansas. But FWS's Laurie Fenwood, who coordinates the recovery effort, says that the evidence was strong enough to compel the agency to act.

    The plan is open for public comment until 22 October and will be reviewed by The Wildlife Society, a nonprofit scientific group in Bethesda, Maryland. A final version of the plan should be ready next year. And don't accuse FWS bureaucrats of negative thinking: If all goes well, the report says, the ivory-billed woodpecker could come off the endangered species list in 2075.


    New Misconduct Rules Aim to Minister to an Ailing System

    1. Elizabeth Finkel*
    1. Elizabeth Finkel writes from Melbourne, Australia.

    MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA— Four years ago, a divisive series of investigations into the alleged scientific misconduct of a University of New South Wales immunologist bared what many scientists saw as a flawed system for handling such allegations. An external committee found the researcher, Bruce Hall, guilty of misconduct, but he retained his position after the university found him guilty of a lesser charge of academic misconduct (Science, 16 January 2004, p. 298). The case convinced the country's granting agencies and the community that changes were needed. The result, out this week, is a new code of research conduct.

    “The code is a response to the train wreck of the Hall affair,” says University of Sydney immunologist Robert Loblay. Warwick Anderson, chief executive officer of Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council in Canberra, which co-authored the new code, says it's meant to eliminate confusion over who should deal with alleged misconduct without being too prescriptive. “If there's a system everyone understands, things should work better,” he asserts, adding that researchers should regard it as “a manual for good self-regulation.”

    The first part of the code lays down the rules of the road for professional duties such as mentoring students, handling questions about data and authorship, and interacting with industry. Part B offers a road map for when things go south. In the event of a “reasonable suspicion that research misconduct has occurred,” according to the code, a potential whistleblower should report concerns to a designated university official. That official, typically a deputy vice-chancellor of research, would then choose an appropriate response, anything from declining to pursue the matter if the facts do not support the allegations to convening an external investigative panel. It's up to the university to mete out any punishment; funding repercussions rest with the appropriate granting agency.

    The new code, unlike the current one adopted in 1997, covers work funded by the Australian Research Council as well as the health and medical council, extending its reach to all areas of basic research. It also removes scientific misconduct from a list of offenses, such as sexual harassment or embezzlement, that fall within an institution's enterprise bargaining agreement. That's an important change, as the bargaining agreement requires all problems to be handled by the accused person's immediate supervisor. In the Hall case, that was the dean of medicine, a person seen as potentially biased given that a finding of misconduct could damage the medical school.

    Leaving the investigation in the hands of the home institution poses “an inherent and glaring conflict of interest” for institutions that fear adverse publicity, says Martin Van Der Weyden, editor of The Medical Journal of Australia. Loblay says that the accused would also benefit from the establishment of an external body to oversee investigations. “Hall had no one to complain to,” he notes. Loblay and others believe that Australia needs an independent body like the U.S. Office of Research Integrity, and Anderson says “we are about to start exploring that.”

    Academic honor. Australia's new code of conduct provides a road map for researchers.


    In the meantime, one of those who initially accused Hall of misconduct is skeptical that the new code will make any difference. Juchuan Chen, a postdoc in Hall's lab who eventually took his concerns to the Australian media, says that the 4 years he spent on the case caused him to fall irretrievably behind in his research area and also ruined his reputation. “No one wants to hire a whistleblower,” he says.

    The new code will go into effect over several years as universities negotiate new 5-year workplace agreements with employee unions.


    In Their Prime, and Dying of Cancer

    1. Jennifer Couzin

    Survival in young adults with cancer shows little change across decades. Why is that, and how can the disease be pushed back?


    The numbers stared Bethany Hartung bleakly in the face. Cancer survival rates in older adults and children had inched up an average of 1% or 2% each year over 2 decades, the graph showed. But for teenagers and young adults like her, the prospects for survival had barely budged.

    Remembering the moment she came across those statistics, “I was just kind of amazed,” said Hartung, 21, in a telephone conversation from her family's home outside Portland, Oregon, 5 days before she died of leukemia. She had endured two relapses and nearly 3 years of grueling treatment, including a bone marrow transplant. When that failed to help, she was offered a spot in an experimental phase I study of a toxic therapy that she believed had little chance of beating back the disease. Hartung declined. “It was pretty much an easy decision,” she said. Instead, she entered hospice care at home and died on 24 June, 2 weeks before her 22nd birthday.

    According to data on age and risk, Hartung's chances would have been far better had she been diagnosed at 9 instead of at 19. Reversing her particular disease, acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), is one of the great cancer success stories of the 20th century. In 1970, roughly 80% of children with the disease died; today, 80% will survive. But that heartening figure takes a dive in older teenagers and young adults, for whom 5-year survival hovers around 50%. No one knows exactly why.

    Grim news, for some. From 1975 to 1999, the chance of surviving cancer for 5 years slowly improved in older adults and children but not for those in between.


    The mystery extends well beyond ALL. Breast cancer, colon cancer, bone tumors, certain lymphomas, and Ewing sarcoma, which attacks bone and soft tissue, are all likelier to kill 15- to 39-year-olds than those in many other age groups. Adolescents and young adults (AYAs) with cancer once had better prospects than children and older adults. But their survival rates have been virtually frozen since about 1975.

    The possible explanations are many and much debated. One is that therapies are not being designed for them because AYAs are poorly represented in clinical trials. Diagnosis often comes later, perhaps because of their aura of invincibility. In the United States, this cohort is less likely than other groups to have health insurance. Finally, their treatments may not be aggressive enough.

    Some oncologists offer an altogether different explanation. “My own personal belief is that one part of this must be the distinctive biologies” of the patients or their tumors, says Michael Caligiuri, director of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center in Columbus. He admits that laboratory proof is lacking, however.

    Efforts to address this controversial idea are heating up. Researchers are beginning to assemble tissue banks dedicated to young adult tumors and looking for clues in the literature. This fall, after years of planning, one of the first clinical trials limited to 16- to 29-year-olds will examine the age group's lagging survival in ALL. And in the past 2 years, the Lance Armstrong Foundation in Austin, Texas, has poured nearly $2 million into the field and begun to reverse what is seen as years of neglect of AYA patients, whose U.S. ranks grow by nearly 70,000 each year.

    “You see two patients who come in with what the pathologist tells you is the same disease, and you see drastically different outcomes” depending on age, says Caligiuri. “The onus is upon us to sort it out.”

    Fighter. Bethany Hartung (center), 21, celebrates Christmas last year with her older sisters. She died in June of leukemia.


    Knowledge gulf

    Assembling the jigsaw puzzle will demand an alliance that extends across the boundaries of age—a rarity in medicine. “Biology doesn't change on a dime on the day of the 18th birthday,” says Karen Albritton, who directs the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. But the health-care and biomedical research enterprises act as though it does.

    Albritton has experienced this cultural divide firsthand. From her residency days, she knew she did not want to choose between treating children or adults. But she recalls doctors telling her that working in both camps “would be combining things that don't combine.”

    That thinking is reflected in the paucity of data on the AYA crowd. In children, “we have great tissue banking for leukemia,” says Leonard Sender, who directs adolescent and young adult cancer programs at Children's Hospital of Orange County and at the University of California, Irvine. “As soon as you go to 18, 19, 21,” he says, the samples are “totally falling off.”

    Clinical trials, meanwhile, rarely include older teenagers and young adults. Roughly 30% to 50% of child cancer patients under 15 participate in clinical trials, whereas for adolescents and young adults the number hovers around 1% or 2%. (The comparable figure for adults 40 and up is about 3% to 5%.) Some trials have age limits that keep older teens from enrolling. Others are based at children's hospitals, where few young adults are treated.

    Take Ewing sarcoma, which strikes bone and soft tissue. One large Ewing's trial of a new chemotherapy combination published in 2003 and led by oncologist Holcombe Grier at Children's Hospital Boston included 518 patients. Fifty were 18 or older. More than double that number were under 10. The average age at diagnosis with Ewing's, however, is about 15.

    “We don't really have a focus on whether the treatments that we know work in children work in older age groups,” says Australian oncologist David Thomas. Thomas directs the adolescent and young adult cancer program at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Australia, as well as the hospital's sarcoma genomics and genetics laboratory. Frustration shades his words as he talks about how poorly AYA cancers are understood. Even the most rigorously designed clinical trial will not detect AYA-specific differences in drug response or tumor biology, says Thomas, if only a tenth of participants are from this age group.

    Data on young adults are also scarce because relatively few trials focus on the predominant tumors in this group: sarcomas, melanomas, thyroid cancer, gonadal tumors such as testicular cancer, and lymphomas. Some melanoma trials, which Sender notes already include few patients under 30, are ramping down because of tight federal budgets.

    Before researchers began studying AYA patients with cancer, there was little awareness that survival rates were stagnant. Some studies did suggest that young adults with certain cancers, like sarcomas, were at a survival disadvantage compared with children—but it wasn't clear why. Albritton notes that she had treated older patients whose oncologists, unaccustomed to a cancer such as Ewing sarcoma that's more familiar to pediatricians, sometimes omitted chemotherapy. And a 2003 German study suggested that AYAs with Ewing's fare better in pediatric centers. Grier's clinical trial underscored that biology might also be key. Although the focus of Grier's trial was a new chemotherapy regimen in Ewing sarcoma, it contained some startling statistics. Treatment was standardized, yet the 5-year survival rate for children under 10 was 70%, compared with 60% for 10- to 17-year-olds and 44% for those 18 years and older. “We don't have any understanding” of why this occurs, says Albritton.

    Behind the numbers

    Several forces galvanized the cancer research community to dig deeper into AYA cancers. The first was a persistent campaign by W. Archie Bleyer. Trained as a pediatric oncologist, Bleyer worked for many years at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston before moving to St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon. Bleyer compiled and publicized the stagnant AYA survival statistics that astonished oncologists. Says Caligiuri of Ohio State University: “You look at [the numbers] and go, 'Oh my god, what is wrong here?'”

    A second factor was an expanding advocacy community, led by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Founded by the Tour de France champion who beat metastatic testicular cancer, the foundation joined with the National Cancer Institute to issue a set of “research and care imperatives” in 2006 and in May published a strategic plan for boosting AYA survival. The Lance Armstrong effort, called the LIVESTRONG Young Adult Alliance, is now led by 39-year-old Ewing sarcoma survivor Heidi Adams, who runs the advocacy group Planet Cancer, and oncologist Brandon Hayes-Lattin of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, who exhausted his arsenal trying to save Hartung. It will hold its second annual meeting in Austin in November.

    Albritton, Bleyer, and many others are donating their time to one of its first projects, a literature search for clues about tumor biology. For example, a mention of young adults in a paper might prompt a call to the authors for additional data. “If there was a big breast cancer study but it lumped all the ages together, we go back to authors and say, 'Can you look at this by age?'” says Albritton.

    Seeking answers. Oncologist Karen Albritton wants to know why 20-somethings with sarcomas fare worse than children.


    Oncologists are also beginning to collect young-adult tumor samples that could be examined for chromosomal mutations and other characteristics. Sender, for example, hopes to gather melanoma samples, and Albritton is hunting for colorectal cancers in young adults. She has coaxed her Dana-Farber colleague, cancer geneticist Ronald DePinho, into analyzing the samples. DePinho believes that “there must be something intrinsically wrong with the cancer cells or the host” that makes young adults with colorectal cancer resistant to treatment.

    Researchers believe their work could extend beyond AYAs. Just as findings in retinoblastoma, a rare pediatric eye cancer, opened the door to an entire cohort of tumor-suppressor genes, “sometimes the most interesting stuff is at the edges,” says Albritton.

    A few AYA tumor types have already yielded intriguing patterns. Preliminary data suggest that in Ewing sarcoma, tumors actually form in different parts of the body depending on age: in the extremities among younger patients and in the pelvic region in older ones, where the tumors are more difficult to remove surgically.

    At the molecular level, there's growing evidence of a “mixing” of adult and pediatric patterns. In gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST), a cancer of the intestinal tract that is most common after age 40, a team at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City 2 years ago described differences in a small sample of children, young adults, and older adults. Young-adult samples, they found, tended to blend qualities of both pediatric GIST, which usually lacks a classic gene mutation, and the adult form.

    Distinctive? Scientists are wondering whether lymphoblastic leukemia (top) and colon cancer manifest differently in older teens and young adults than in other ages.


    Rhabdomyosarcoma, which attacks soft tissue and is most common in children, shifts from an embryonic form in younger patients to an alveolar form in older ones. The distinction refers to the cells' genetics and appearance and where they congregate. Like many other pediatric cancers, rhabdomyosarcoma has a worse outcome in older patients, say oncologists.

    Thomas is one of the few to focus on the AYA patient's biology. His recently completed study of 14,000 young Australians with various cancers revealed marked gender differences in AYAs. Young women over 15 were 80% more likely to survive than males if they had Ewing sarcoma, 40% more likely to survive if they had osteosarcoma, a bone cancer, and 50% more likely to survive with ALL. In youngsters under 15, gender did not seem linked to survival.

    As far as he could tell, possible differences in male behavior—such as being less compliant in therapy—played no role, and Thomas concluded that the key to gender differences is puberty. For example, adolescent and young adult women have a higher percentage of body fat than males, which may affect the distribution of chemotherapy drugs; there may also be differences in drug metabolism. Thomas wonders whether the effective dose reaching tumors is higher for young females than for males. “Until we understand the biological differences” of the patient and the tumor, “we are not treating these cancers optimally,” says Bleyer.

    That's been evident since 2000, when Wendy Stock, director of the leukemia program at the University of Chicago in Illinois, presented new findings at a cancer meeting. She and a Chicago colleague, pediatric oncologist James Nachman, examined ALL trials conducted over the last 10 years by two cancer cooperative groups, one pediatric and one adult. Children, who can tolerate more intensive treatment, received a different chemotherapy regimen than adults, as is standard. Some AYAs were treated as children, some as adults, depending on which cooperative group they'd fallen into. Stock and Nachman examined the survival of 16- to 21-year-olds and found that those with ALL who enrolled in adult trials had a survival rate of 38%, about the same as older individuals. In the pediatric trials, their survival rate was 68%.

    “Honestly, it was such a tremendous shock to us,” says Stock. Researchers in France, Germany, and Italy subsequently reviewed their own ALL trials and encountered a nearly identical survival gap.

    Oncologists floated several possible explanations, none reassuring. One is that they had been treating AYAs as though their bodies, and even their leukemia, were “adult” when really they were pediatric and ought to have received the regimen given to children. Another possibility is that the pediatricians, who encounter ALL more often than any other cancer, simply do a better job of treating it.

    To learn more, Richard Larson, an oncologist who oversees clinical research in hematologic malignancies at the University of Chicago, is running an ALL clinical trial funded by the National Cancer Institute. It aims to enroll 300 16- to 29-year-olds starting this fall. Patients will be treated on a pediatric protocol by adult oncologists and will be compared with 16- to 21-year-olds with ALL in a separate ongoing trial who are receiving the same treatment from pediatricians. The key question, says Larson, is whether the survival rate can be linked to differences in a doctor's age-based specialty. The study is the first anyone can recall that focuses exclusively on young adults.

    Meanwhile, the Stock and Nachman review has raised another troubling question: Have oncologists been under-treating adults across the board? With that in mind, Dana-Farber physicians are now experimenting with treating even adults up to age 50 with leukemia on a pediatric regimen.

    Still debated is whether altering treatment will by itself erase the ALL survival gap. Sender believes that it's unlikely to be as simple as switching 30-year-olds to a pediatric regimen because “the leukemia has changed” fundamentally in these patients. Hartung's family will be raising funds to help uncover answers she did not live to see. Says her mother, Toni: “Her cause has become ours now.”


    Asian Powers Shoot for the Moon With Orbiting Research Missions

    1. Dennis Normile,
    2. Pallava Bagla

    They may not be in a space race, but China, India, and Japan are vying to make their marks on planetary science with first-time lunar missions

    Over the moon. From left, China's Wu Ji, Japan's Manabu Kato, and India's G. Madhavan Nair are excited about upcoming lunar science missions.


    TOKYO AND NEW DELHI— If the moon shines more brightly on Asia in the next few years, it may be because three Asian powers are using a trio of spacecraft to shed some scientific light on the lunar surface. Barring last-minute glitches, Japan will launch its Selene mission on 13 September. China's Chang'e 1 is expected to go up within a few weeks of that launch, and India aims to follow in April with Chandrayaan-I.

    Lunar scientists are cheering the science-driven missions, which promise the most detailed look at the moon since NASA's Apollo program. The results could help resolve outstanding questions about the moon's hazy origins and evolution and prepare for possible crewed landings. And although most data will be shared with European and U.S. colleagues, Asian scientists will be spearheading the analyses. “It's a good chance for Asian scientists” to make a mark in lunar studies, says Hitoshi Mizutani, a planetary scientist who led Selene's development until retiring 2 years ago from the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS) in Sagamihara, Japan.

    Lawrence Taylor, a self-proclaimed “lunatic” at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, who is participating in India's mission, calls the upcoming season “an exciting time.” He notes that NASA will be launching its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in late 2008. “The more enthusiasm we can generate [about lunar research], the better off we are.”

    For China, the moon mission is an opportunity to “make more contributions” to worldwide space efforts, says Wu Ji, a remote-sensing specialist at the Center for Space Science and Applied Research in Beijing. An indigenous space program is critical to India's future, notes G. Madhavan Nair, chair of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO); this month, ISRO opened the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology at Thiruvananthapuram, which will admit 120 students a year. Two decades from now, when space travel may become as routine as air travel today, Nair says, “we don't want to be buying tickets on other people's space vehicles.”

    On the science front, Selene's main aim is to provide the last word on the magma ocean hypothesis, a leading theory for how the moon formed, says Manabu Kato, an ISAS planetary scientist. The hypothesis holds that the early moon's surface was a molten mass several hundred kilometers thick that formed a crust as it cooled. This conception “is the best fit” for the characteristics of the 400 kilograms of moon rock samples that Apollo astronauts hauled back, Kato says. But those samples all came from mid-latitudes of the near side.

    The long-delayed $458 million Selene, now also called Kaguya after a nationwide naming contest, will train 15 remote-sensing instruments on the moon from a distance of 100 km to determine the distribution of elements and minerals over the entire surface and to elucidate the moon's tectonic history. Putting all the observations together should reveal whether the magma ocean hypothesis holds up.

    Surface mapping is a priority of the three missions. Scientists wonder whether most of the moon's craters were gouged in a brief period several hundred million years after the moon's formation, or whether the impacts tapered off over a much longer period. The extent and timing of the bombardment will provide clues to conditions of the early solar system. Three-dimensional surface imaging, which will help answer this question, is a key objective of Chang'e 1, which will orbit the moon for 12 months at a height of 200 km.

    The star attraction of the $100 million Chandrayaan-I mission, meanwhile, is a probe that will plummet to the surface, snapping high-resolution images and measuring the sparse lunar atmosphere before crashing. The moon impactor is in part a technology test bed for future missions, says Madan Lal, deputy director of the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre in Thiruvananthapuram, India.

    Chinese researchers have been pushing for a lunar exploration program since the early 1990s, says Wu. But the government's priority was putting a person in space. In 2004, with the crewed program established, the center got a green light for three lunar missions. Chang'e 1, a $264 million effort, will be followed by a robotic lander in about 5 years and later by a sample-return mission.

    India also sees Chandrayaan-I as a steppingstone. ISRO is planning a rover mission in 2010, with a crewed effort possibly coming a decade later. China and Japan both developed the hardware on their own, whereas India collaborated with the United States and four European nations. Although Selene has no hardware from abroad, researchers from 15 countries are on the scientific teams and there is a data-sharing agreement with India. Wu says China didn't have time to find international collaborators, whereas India's Nair says he reached out for partners “to derive maximum scientific knowledge about the moon.”

    Many foreign scientists were glad to link arms with their Indian colleagues. “There are no opportunities [in Europe] to fly to the moon at present,” says Stas Barabash of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, who worked with colleagues at the Vikram center on a Chandrayaan-I sensor for imaging magnetic anomalies and surface composition. Similarly, NASA has no firm plans for anything after LRO. So with three probes ready to go and more being planned, Asia is offering scientists their best view of the moon.


    Murder in Mesopotamia?

    1. Andrew Lawler

    Recent finds in Syria provide persuasive evidence that northern Mesopotamia rivaled the south in the race to build cities—and that it attracted enemies

    Trench warfare. Workers excavate the 6000-year-old mass burial beside Tell Majnuna, which lies in the background.


    Braving a trench filled with rat poison, archaeologists in Syria have found the remains of dozens of youths killed in a fierce confrontation nearly 6000 years ago—as well as evidence that the celebrating victors feasted heartily on beef in the aftermath. The researchers expect to find many more victims next year when excavations resume on a site that offers a rare window into violent conflict at a critical period of prehistory.

    The surprising discovery is at the ancient site named Tell Brak, which scholars now believe was one of the world's earliest cities (Science, 9 June 2006, p. 1458). The 40-meter-high mound, located within sight of the Iraqi border in northeastern Syria, has been continuously excavated for more than 30 years but is only now revealing its surprising size and sophistication at this early age. Two papers published this week in Antiquity and Science lay out the case for a sprawling urban center in the 5th and 4th millennia B.C.E. rivaling contemporary settlements in southern Mesopotamia, long considered the undisputed birthplace of humanity's first cities.

    A third paper—slated to be published this fall in the journal Iraq—will detail the mass burials at Tell Majnuna, half a kilometer north of the main tell at Brak. Local workers expanding a grain-storage facility last year were using bulldozers to cut into Majnuna—which means “crazy” in Arabic—and dig trenches, which they filled with rat poison to protect the grain. University of Edinburgh, U.K., archaeologist Philip Karsgaard investigated and spotted several layers of bone; this spring, Brak field director Augusta McMahon won permission from the landowner to excavate the site.

    The first mass burial pit, on the western edge of the mound, has so far revealed the bones of at least 34 young to middle-aged adults, but only a small portion has been excavated. “There could be hundreds and potentially thousands,” says McMahon, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge, U.K. At least two skulls show signs of injuries that may have been the cause of death. The absence of feet and hand bones and the fact that many of the skulls apparently rolled off when the bodies were tossed into the pit hints that they were left to decompose before burial. On top of the skeletons was a mass of pottery, mostly vessels for serving and eating, and cow bones—evidence of a large feast.

    Skull and bones. Jumbled burial at Majnuna may hold many more skeletons yet to be unearthed.

    A second mass burial pit is a dozen meters away, on the slope of the small mound, and appears to be from the same time. At least 28 individuals—also mostly youthful—were found in this burial, which includes clusters of long bones that may have been carried there by the armload. As in the first pit, there is a mass of pottery and cow bones, and fingers, hands, and feet are mostly absent.

    A third area on the other side of the mound revealed a thick layer of ash more than 1 meter deep. It has yielded 13 skeletons of adults ranging in age from 20 to 45 and two children. Unlike the ones in the mass burials, these bodies appear to have been laid to rest carefully. The ages again hint at a violent death, but the pottery may come from a slightly later era; radiocarbon analysis results are not yet available, and McMahon says that all three areas have been only partly excavated.

    McMahon says the site contains clear evidence of a violent confrontation. But she doesn't know whether the victors were defending or attacking Brak, or whether the feast commemorated victory or defeat. “We need at least another season to understand what happened,” says Joan Oates, a Cambridge University archaeologist and Brak project director who began working on the site in the 1970s with her husband, David, who died in 2004.

    From the pottery, Oates estimates that the Majnuna incident took place around 3800 B.C.E. She says Brak appears to have survived the confrontation and to have been destroyed 2 centuries later. After that event, influence from southern Mesopotamia begins to appear, and by 3400 B.C.E., southern pottery dominates the archaeological record.

    Something similar took place at the nearby site of Hamoukar. Archaeologists from Syria and the University of Chicago in Illinois recently found evidence of a fierce battle at Hamoukar during the same period as the destruction of Brak, including hundreds of sling bullets, although archaeologists disagree whether they were actual weapons or had another use. In the past season, the Hamoukar excavators found a half-dozen burials from the period with a mix of genders and ages, although no obvious signs of violence are present. They also found a sling bullet lodged in a plastered wall, additional evidence that the bullets were weapons, says University of Chicago dig co-director Clemens Reichel. After the battle, residents appear to have lived as temporary squatters amid the ruins; not long after, as at Brak, southern pottery appears. Both Oates and Reichel say this transition marks the demise of an independent northern Mesopotamian urban culture.

    There are few examples of mass burials in the prehistoric Near East. The most dramatic is a pit found in 1997 at Domuztepe in central Turkey, containing the remains of nearly 40 people along with cattle, sheep, and goat bones, dating to 5700 to 5600 B.C.E. The victims, both male and female, range from infants to the elderly; numerous skulls show signs of fractures, and some skulls were chopped off. The human bones also show signs of burning, says dig co-director Elizabeth Carter of the University of California, Los Angeles, and cannibalism has not been ruled out.


    A late-3rd millennium B.C.E. site called Titris Höyük in south central Turkey includes 19 skulls of mostly young men, with evidence of blunt-force trauma, but these are carefully arranged in an oval basin, says archaeologist Guillermo Algaze of the University of California, San Diego. Third millennium B.C.E. Mesopotamian texts describe similar scenes; the famous Stele of Vultures, for example, boasts of a Sumerian king heaping up corpses of enemies and depicts vultures carrying off their severed heads. The theme of victors celebrating a feast after a battle also is found in inscriptions of the era, adds archaeologist Glenn Schwartz of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

    Brak was a thriving trade center and settlement both before and after the Majnuna incident. Working at the main mound in a deep cut, Oates and her colleagues recently unearthed evidence that the locals imported raw materials from hundreds of kilometers away and transformed them into manufactured goods in the 2 centuries or so before the mass burials. Researchers believe such a city might well have drawn the unwelcome eye of raiders or invaders.

    Although lacking the drama of a battle or massacre, Oates's discovery offers an important glimpse into the era just before writing and large-scale urbanization transformed the ancient Middle East. The excavators uncovered several connected rooms dating to about 3900 B.C.E. and containing large piles of obsidian—a valuable volcanic glass used for cutting tools and obtained from distant Anatolia—along with imported jasper, marble, serpentine, and diorite stones used for beads. Also present was a large chunk of raw bitumen—the gooey substance that comes from eastern Mesopotamia—as well as mother-of-pearl inlay from local mollusks. Spindle whorls used for weaving wool littered the site, and a cache of 50 clay balls—either weapons or blanks for stamping ownership seals—lay in a corner of one room, its perishable container long decayed. “This is not household industry but a much larger institution,” says Oates. “And evidence for industrial-based manufacture using imported raw material doesn't exist anywhere else” at or before this period, she adds.

    The most unusual find was a chalice with a white marble base and black obsidian bowl held together at its seam with bitumen. The upper rim once contained another material, possibly gold, which was removed in antiquity. “We've not seen anything like this before,” says Reichel. Found amid other coarser pottery, the drinking vessel, along with a stamp seal showing a lion being caught in a net—a classic Near Eastern symbol of royalty—suggests a well-stratified society in late 5th millennium Brak, adds Oates.

    Drink up. This unique stone chalice was found in Brak's main tell.

    An earlier building in the trench, which dates to about 4000 B.C.E., included large numbers of grinding stones, big ovens, basalt pounders, carefully crafted stone and bone tools, flint and obsidian blades, mother-of-pearl inlay, and clay spindle whorls. A street paved with pottery shards runs along the western side of the complex and to the city's northern gate. Part of the building and its street entrance remain buried under the high tell. The finds show an extraordinary continuity in manufacturing in a single area over a long period of time, Oates adds.

    Brak's activity was not confined to the main tell. A close examination of the surrounding area reveals settlement in the period of 4200 to 3900 B.C.E. extending over an astonishing 55 hectares, an order of magnitude larger than other settlements of the time. During the first half of the 4th millennium B.C.E., Brak had more than doubled in size and its population density also increased. Only one city in southern Mesopotamia—Uruk—was likely larger in this era. And unlike Uruk, which was densely populated primarily in the center, early Brak appears to have featured various clusters of neighborhoods separated by open space. This more dispersed pattern, says Harvard University archaeologist Jason Ur in his report this week in Science (p. 1188), could show the existence of a less hierarchical social system than among the southerners.

    The triple series of finds at the Brak dig, which is sponsored by the British School of Archaeology in Iraq, the British Academy, and Cambridge University's McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, has drawn the rapt attention of other scholars. “It's absolutely unique and fantastic,” says Algaze. “It is now clear that northern Mesopotamia is not the backwater people used to believe,” adds Schwartz. With war in Iraq preventing exploration of the alluvial soil of the south, researchers are content to keep looking north for data on how the first urban centers coalesced.


    Doing Battle With the Green Monster of Taihu Lake

    1. Lucie Guo*
    1. Lucie Guo is a freelance writer based in Boston.

    In attempting to subdue a vicious algal bloom, scientists aim to restore the health of a major lake in China and hone strategies for heading off toxic soups elsewhere

    Pea soup. Hans Paerl samples cyanobacteria in ailing Taihu Lake.


    TAIHU LAKE, CHINA— As the motorboat glides through a carpet of fetid algae, Hans Paerl leans over the side and scoops up some of the tea-green muck with a plastic sampling bottle. In early June, a bloom of cyanobacteria, also called blue-green algae, fanned out across Taihu, China's third-largest lake. The growth was unchecked when a team led by Paerl, a cyanobacteria expert at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, arrived last month to help colleagues at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology combat the foul bloom.

    Much is at stake. Taihu, fed by the Yangtze River, helps irrigate millions of hectares of grains and cotton in a lush agricultural region between Shanghai and Nanjing. When it's healthy, the lake also provides drinking water for more than 2 million people, and it sustains one of China's most important fisheries for crabs, carp, and eels. The bloom that has turned Taihu into a toxic nightmare shows no signs of abating and may last until winter, experts say.

    The ecological drama has far-reaching consequences. “It's safe to say that it's a pretty serious problem, and not just in China,” says Paerl. At one time a villain largely confined to small lakes, algal blooms have of late gotten serious footholds in larger water bodies. Paerl warns that lakes such as Victoria in Africa and Erie and Okeechobee in the United States could be on the brink of becoming perennial algal soups.

    That could pose a grave health risk. Some cyanobacteria, such as Microcystis aeruginosa, make toxins that can damage the liver, intestines, and nervous system. “Toxic cyanobacteria in drinking-water supplies pose a direct threat to public health,” says Brett Neilan of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Microcystis causes symptoms including diarrhea and liver failure. Reining in the algae at Taihu, Neilan says, could help prevent disasters elsewhere.

    It wasn't long ago that Taihu enjoyed a cleaner reputation. A popular 1980s song, “Taihu Beauty,” boasted of “white sails above the water, green reeds along the water, fish and shrimp below the water.” Back then, says Paerl, Taihu rarely suffered blooms. Now they arrive like clockwork every summer, forcing locals to resort to bottled drinking water.

    The root cause of Taihu's ills is an accumulation of nutrient-rich sewage and agricultural runoff in the shallow lake. That resulted in severe eutrophication: a surfeit of minerals and organic nutrients that nourishes algal growth. Unusually hot, dry conditions in early summer appear to have been the spark that ignited this year's bloom.

    After the bloom reached nightmarish proportions 2 months ago, cleanup crews skimmed more than 6000 tons of algae from the lake and laid a polyvinyl chloride barrier to prevent algae from getting swept into pipes that funnel water to a drinking-water plant. But some organisms still seep through, says Qin Boqiang of the institute in Nanjing, and currents cannot flush away algae in water enclosed by the barrier.

    Simply “cleaning out the algae” will not solve the problem, says Qin. He emphasizes the need to reduce nutrients, especially phosphorus and nitrogen, in the agricultural runoff and sewage. Paerl and Qin are conducting experiments to determine how much nutrient concentrations must fall to arrest a bloom. They also hope to unravel the dynamics of bloom formation. “The reason we developed this collaborative effort is that we have similar problems in the United States,” says Paerl. “We thought, 'Why not combine our expertise?'”

    Other researchers are probing the molecular biology of cyanobacteria toxins. With global temperatures rising, warmer surface water leads to less mixing, which favors the growth of toxic cyanobacteria. Deciphering the toxins' biological role and how the environment influences their production may suggest strategies for making blooms less venomous, Neilan says.

    Cyanobacteria have a long history of acquiring remarkable adaptations, such as nitrogen fixation and gas vesicles that keep them afloat and enable them to outcompete diatoms and green algae for light and nutrients. They can lie dormant in extreme conditions—surviving droughts and freezing—then roar to life when conditions improve. Cyanobacteria are “very tough,” Paerl says. “They're the cockroaches of lakes.”

    To control Taihu's little green pests, the government in the nearby city of Wuxi crafted an aggressive recovery strategy. The plan promulgates tough emissions standards for phosphorus and nitrogen for factories near Taihu and requires the installation of facilities that remove nutrients from sewage. Nutrientrich agricultural runoff would be stemmed by banning chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and detergents that contain phosphorus or nitrogen. The amount of clean water pumped from Taihu is projected to reach 1 million tons per day by the end of 2008, and industries in Wuxi must meet a water-recycling rate of 78% by 2010.

    “There's no doubt that Taihu is going to be a challenge,” says Paerl. Degradation of the lake's water quality was a slow-motion train wreck that played out over several decades. It may take many more years to banish the blooms and bring back the Taihu Beauty of yore.


    Scientists Seeking New Homes for Orbiting Climate Sensors

    1. Eli Kintisch

    Attempts to resurrect five sensors grounded by cost overruns on a suite of polar-orbiting satellites are confronting harsh budget realities

    Free the NPOESS Five. That's the message from U.S. climate scientists hoping to find a way into space for five sensors stripped last year from plans for a multibillion-dollar satellite system (Science, 16 June 2006, p. 1580). An upcoming report lays out their preferences for salvaging the sensors, which are innocent victims of massive cost overruns in the $11 billion National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS). But those choices—essentially, sticking the sensors back onto NPOESS or flying them on separate missions—are running up against tight budgets and a government decision to emphasize short-term monitoring for military and civilian weather forecasts over long-term measurements of global climate.

    Conceived in 1994, the six-satellite NPOESS was envisioned as a joint military-civilian effort to provide weather and climate observations. But after $5 billion in cost over runs, a mandatory Pentagon review determined last year that weather forecasting would come first and that it could only afford four satellites over the next decade. The decision bumped five devices relevant to climate studies—an ocean altimetry sensor, ozone and aerosol sensors, and solar and terrestrial irradiation-detecting instruments (see chart).

    Scientists complained about the resulting gaps in the climate record. So the two civilian partners—NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—asked a panel of the National Academies' National Research Council (NRC) to review the agencies' options. The panel's report is expected shortly. Before its suggestions can be adopted, however, they will need to overcome fiscal and political realities beyond the scientists' control.

    For starters, the triple alliance was supposed to make it easier to launch sensors that might not pass muster with an individual agency. But each partner has only so much to spend, and the overruns have taken their toll. “The more [money that agencies] use on the original project, the less you have for this additional effort,” says NOAA atmospheric physicist W. Paul Menzel.

    Despite tight budgets, NASA and NOAA officials have rough plans for launching additional satellites in 2014 and 2020. But the $1.1 billion cost per launch is said to be distasteful to White House officials, who declined comment. A third option—getting the data from Navy satellites or from foreign partners—depends on their ability to deliver high-quality data.

    View this table:

    A bird in hand. The CERES radiation sensor, already built, could stand in for ERBS, one of the five canceled sensors.

    Although it removed the sensors, the Defense Department didn't shrink the size of each NPOESS satellite. That leaves “empty seats on the bus,” says Menzel. But getting a ticket to ride has so far proven difficult. In January, a joint NOAA/NASA team suggested restoring some sensors to the first full NPOESS craft, dubbed Charlie 1, to be launched in 2013. But NPOESS managers later “froze” the plans to reduce the potential for technical glitches. White House officials may ask the managers to revisit that decision, because adding payloads to existing missions would be much less expensive than flying additional missions.

    Scientists say that one of the sensors, the Ocean Altimeter, would actually be more valuable if flown on another satellite. (Climate researchers interested in altimetry were “never happy about being on NPOESS,” says NOAA's Jeffrey Privette.) A higher and, therefore, more stable orbit would allow the instrument to take more accurate measurements of the minuscule increases in sea level. Scientists are now huddling with the Navy on a possible standalone altimetry satellite mission for 2013 or later, although the Pentagon's less stringent weather requirements may make it indifferent to pleas for greater accuracy.

    Getting into space as soon as possible is crucial for one of the bumped instruments. The Total Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS) measures the total solar radiation bathing Earth, as well as the strength of various portions of the sun's rays, to help scientists monitor trends in the sun's output. A NASA satellite began collecting those data in 2003, but Privette says he sees little chance of avoiding a gap between 2010 and 2014. The problem is complicated by the need for overlapping missions to calibrate the sensitive instruments.

    Hitchhiking onboard other crafts could be the answer for other sensors. The Aerosol Polarimeter Sensor might fly on Glory, a NASA craft set for launch next year whose solar-radiation sensor should maintain the continuity of TSIS's measurement record. And instead of the planned Earth Radiation Budget Sensor, which tracks energy radiated back from Earth, officials could deploy the already-built CERES on a 2010 NPOESS test mission.

    The NRC report will also review the status of sensors still on the flight schedule. Reducing the fleet of satellites from six to four, for example, means that each spot on Earth will be covered twice rather than three times a day. The loss of a midday view means the Visible/Infrared Imager/Radiometer Suite won't see midmorning fog or clouds. That's unfortunate, as a big part of its mission is to document cloud patterns. A more limited scanner on a European weather mission launched last year is helping to fill the midday gap.

    Privette has learned to cope with the steady stream of requests from scientists to influence payload plans. “Everybody wants something,” he notes. But the uncertainties surrounding NPOESS may require him to fine-tune those coping skills.