Archive for January 25th, 2012|Daily archive page

Republicans move to revive Keystone XL pipeline

HumanEvents

Republican lawmakers are working to strip President Barack Obama of his authority to approve the Keystone XL Pipeline in a last ditch effort to bring Canadian oil to the U.S.

“What irritates me and a lot of people concerned about the economy is the president made a political decision to throw away 25,000 jobs,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (La.).

After 40 months of reviews, studies and delays by the Obama administration that came under increasing pressure by the environmental community to stop the project, the president on Jan. 18 denied TransCanada its needed permit, saying the State Department needed more time to review the pipeline’s route.

“We fought WWII in less time than it’s taken to evaluate this project,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas). “This is an insult to the American people to say you need more time.”

The lawmakers made those comments during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing last week on proposed legislation authored by Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), who says Obama is making needless excuses to delay the project past the presidential election to appease his supporters.

The Wednesday hearing was briefly disrupted after Democrats accused Republicans of supporting the project to benefit campaign contributors. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) called the hearing a “fishing expedition to help industry get what they want and the American public be damned in the process.”

Republicans fired back, citing recently published reports that indicate killing the pipeline would be financially beneficial to billionaire Warren Buffett, a strong supporter of President Obama. Buffett’s holdings include Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC, the railroad company that would transport oil through the region in the absence of the new pipeline.

Any mention of the Keystone Pipeline was noticeably absent from Obama’s State of the Union Address on Jan. 24, which also drew criticism from Republicans.

“If the president is serious about creating high-paying jobs and getting this economy moving again, he will focus his efforts on cutting the burdensome regulations that are hampering our economy and stopping energy production and domestic manufacturing throughout America and put Americans to work,” said Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska).

Added Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.): “I agree with the president that we should increase American energy production, but this administration’s defining energy policy decisions have been taxpayer-funded subsidies for pet renewable projects like Solyndra and the rejection of the Keystone Pipeline. That’s not going to cut it. He will need to do better than campaign speeches to make America competitive globally and increase our energy security.”

Terry’s bill, the North American Energy Access Act, would shift authority for the permitting process from Obama and Hillary Clinton’s State Department to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Clinton was invited to testify at the hearing, but declined to attend.

Kerri-Ann Jones, assistant secretary of State at the department’s Bureau of Oceans and International Environment and Scientific Affairs, appeared in Clinton’s stead. It’s that agency’s responsibility to make the recommendation to the president to approve or reject the project, and the president is only supposed to discard a proposal that does not serve the national interest.

Jones told the panel that Obama did not exert any influence in the State Department’s decision to recommend the project be rejected.

“That decision was based on the fact that the exact route of the pipeline has yet to be identified in critical areas,” Jones said. “As a result, there are unresolved concerns for a full range of issues, including energy security, foreign policy, economic effects, health, safety, and environmental impacts, among other considerations.”

Terry’s bill, Jones said, would not resolve any of their lingering concerns and would instead create unrealistic time constraints and produce an automatic mandate.

“The legislation raises serious questions about existing legal authorities, questions the continuing force of much of the federal and all of the state and local environmental and land use management authority over the pipeline, and overrides foreign policy and national security considerations implicated by a cross border permit, which are properly assessed by the State Department,” Jones said.

But lawmakers said new options are obviously needed to ensure a more timely review of this and future pipeline projects.

“Canada is rapidly increasing its oil production, and if the U.S. foolishly refuses to be a customer for these new supplies, Canada will build a pipeline to the Pacific coast and the oil will be exported to China and other overseas buyers,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R. –MI), committee chairman.

Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), who chaired the hearing, said Obama’s decision is unacceptable and needs to be corrected.

“The phrase ‘national interest’ should be somewhat simple to understand,” Whitfield said. “If the nation is plagued by persistent unemployment and a private company is willing to spend $7 billion to construct an infrastructure project, putting (thousands of) people to work – that sounds like something that serves the national interest.”

Republicans are considering several options to move this or other legislation to push Keystone through what has been an obstructionist session of Congress, and may attach it as a rider to other must-have measures supported by Democrats.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told Politico he would consider any “reasonable proposals” but that he does not consider the Keystone Pipeline to be reasonable.

“If we want to wean ourselves from foreign oil, why would we allow a pipeline to be built for 1,700 miles to manufacture petroleum products to be shipped overseas?” Reid said. “That’s the purpose of this.”

Republicans say that with two million miles of pipelines already crisscrossing the U.S., Reid’s argument is worthless.

Reid already faces opposition from within his own ranks led by Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Baucus says he is rounding up support from his fellow Democrats to bring new backing for the pipeline.

“It’s time to move forward on the jobs and energy security our nation deserves, and I’ll keep fighting tooth and nail until that happens,” Baucus said.

Microwave popcorn bag chemicals ruin vaccine efficacy

MSNBC

A group of compounds used in a variety of products, including water-resistant clothing and microwave popcorn, may prevent childhood vaccinations from working properly, a new study says.

In the study, children who had higher concentrations of these compounds, called perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), in their blood had lower immune responses to diphtheria and tetanus vaccinations. An insufficient immune response to a vaccination can mean a child is actually vulnerable to catching a disease even though they’ve been vaccinated against it.

Indeed, the levels of antibodies in the blood of some children exposed to PFCs indicated they were not protected against these diseases by age 7.

“When we take our kids to the doctor’s office to get their shots, we expect that the vaccines are going to work,” said study researcher Dr. Philippe Grandjean, of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston. “What we found was that there was an increasing risk that they didn’t work if the kids had been exposed to the PFCs,” Grandjean said.

The study is provocative, but the findings are not of immediate public health concern, said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Despite the link found in this study, vaccines have largely protected the public against diphtheria and tetanus over the same period of time that PFCs have accumulated in the environment, Schaffner said.

“These are illnesses that have been virtually eliminated from children,” in the United States, Schaffner said.

However, Schaffner said investigations into the link between vaccines’ effectiveness and PFCs, along with other potential environmental hazards, should continue.

The study will be published tomorrow (Jan. 25) in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

PFCs have thousands of uses in manufacturing, and most people have the compounds in their bodies, Grandjean said. They are slow to break down and persist for many years in the environment.

Studies in animals have suggested PFCs may lower the body’s immune response, but their impact on people’s health is unclear.

Grandjean and colleagues analyzed data from 587 children living in the Faroe Islands, in the northern Atlantic Ocean between Scotland and Iceland. These islands were chosen because their inhabitants frequently consume seafood, which is associated with increased exposure to PFCs. Still, overall,levels of PFCs in this area are similar to those found in other countries, including the United States, Grandjean said.

The researchers measured levels of PFCs in the blood of 5-year-old children, and tested the children’s  immune response to tetanus and diphtheria vaccinations at ages 5 and 7. The kids received complete vaccinations against these diseases, including a booster shot at age 5.

Homeless Navy veteran receives full military burial

MSNBC

The burial of a homeless Navy veteran at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland was the 1,000th in a national program that provides military honors to homeless and indigent vets.

Petty Naval Officer 2nd Class Stevenson L. Roy died of natural causes on Dec. 16, when it was discovered that he had served during the Vietnam War.

The Oregonian reported no family members could be found, so the funeral was handled by the Lincoln Memorial Funeral Home through the Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program.

The program provided Roy with a full military burial, complete with a 21-gun salute, missing-man procession by the Patriot Guard motorcycle riders, and presentation of the flag by the Oregon Honor Guard.

Since Roy had no widow, children, siblings, or other relatives, the honor guard presented the folded flag to 12-year-old Nick Henry because he is a member of the Civil Air Patrol and his mother is an executive at Lincoln Memorial Funeral Home, which conducted the service, reported OregonLive.com.

The Dignity Memorial Homeless Veterans Burial Program began in 2000 and is one of several efforts by the Dignity Memorial network to honor and support our nation’s veterans and active military.

According to the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, approximately 130,000 veterans in the United States experience homelessness in a given year.

They need to start in the White House

Obama announces financial crimes unit

President Obama announced a new unit devoted to major financial crimes as he offered tough words for Wall Street during his State of the Union address.

The unit will be staffed by “highly trained investigators” and charged with tracking “large-scale fraud.” Obama argued Tuesday night that financial firms currently have little to fear for violating the law, and pressed Congress to beef up penalties for financial wrongdoing.

“Some financial firms violate major anti-fraud laws because there’s no real penalty for being a repeat offender,” he said, according to prepared remarks. “That’s bad for consumers, and it’s bad for the vast majority of bankers and financial service professionals who do the right thing. So pass legislation that makes the penalties for fraud count.”

Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairwoman Mary Schapiro asked Congress in November to significantly increase the penalties it can dish out for violations of financial laws. The SEC has recently come under criticism for not requiring individuals and entities settling with the agency to have to admit guilt to put charges to rest.

The president also announced that Attorney General Eric Holder has been charge with establishing a special team of federal prosecutors and state attorneys general devoted to investigating abusive mortgage lending and the packaging of risky mortgages that contributed to the financial crisis.

The announcement came during a stretch of his annual address where the president offered pointed criticism of Wall Street while touting the Dodd-Frank financial reform law aimed at curbing the bad behavior that enabled the financial crisis.

“I will not go back to the days when Wall Street was allowed to play by its own set of rules,” he said as he ran down a number of major provisions of the Wall Street overhaul.

“If you’re a big bank or financial institution, you are no longer allowed to make risky bets with your customers’ deposits,” he said. “You’re required to write out a ‘living will’ that details exactly how you’ll pay the bills if you fail — because the rest of us aren’t bailing you out ever again.”

He also used the speech as an opportunity to tout his recently appointed director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Richard Cordray.

Obama ignored a Senate pro forma session to recess appoint Cordray to the position, after GOP senators blocked the nominee. The controversial move led to strong criticism from Republicans and business groups that opposed the bureau, who also suggested the appointment would be challenged in court.

Race Matters

InsideHigherEd

WASHINGTON — The Department of Education has acknowledged using flawed data in a study on the impact of race on student loan repayment rates, having omitted black students from its calculation. The analysis was conducted during the debate over gainful employment regulations, in response to complaints that the rules would hurt colleges that enroll relatively high percentages of minority students.

Department officials disclosed the error in a December court filing, which is part of the ongoing legal challenge to gainful employment by the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, the primary for-profit trade group. That lawsuit appears to have led to the mistake’s discovery.

The Obama administration designed the federal rules in an attempt to ensure that most programs at for-profit colleges and certificate and vocational programs at nonprofit institutions prepare students for "gainful employment." For programs to be eligible for federal financial aid, they must adhere to benchmarks related to student loan repayment and debt-to-income ratios.

The original analysis was included in the introduction section of the final rules, which were issued last June. It asserted that the “percentage of the students that are members of a minority group explains 1 percent of the total variance in repayment rates” at for-profit institutions. The low figure, the department concluded at the time, meant the racial composition of students was not a statistically significant contributor to how an institution stacks up on loan repayments. The percentage of lower-income students an institution enrolled was a better measure.

But by failing to count black students, the study understated the impact of race: the actual variance is 20 percent over all, the department said in the December filing.

Eduardo Ochoa, the department’s assistant secretary for postsecondary education, described the mistake in that filing, but said accurate figures would have had no impact on the final regulations.

A subsequently corrected analysis “does not justify altering the regulations,” Ochoa said, because “factors other than student demographics account for the success or failure of institutional repayment rates.”

The for-profit association, however, said in a January court filing that the mistake is fundamental and validates concerns aired by scores of public commenters that for-profits were unfairly targeted by gainful employment regulations.

“The department’s error demolishes its decision to reject commenters’ concerns about the relationship between its regulations and race and educational opportunity,” the association said. “This error, by itself, requires that the regulations be vacated.”

Monday's Federal Register contained the department’s correction, which noted that the final regulations remain unchanged.

"We've known for a long time that race and poverty are linked," Justin Hamilton, a department spokesman, said in a written statement. "But the data shows that demography is not destiny and can't be used as a reliable indicator for predicting loan defaults, most especially at for-profit colleges."

The publicly acknowledged mistake is certain to fuel claims by for-profits and their advocates here that the sector is being picked on by lawmakers and politically motivated regulators. They point to what they see as a pattern of flawed data or other information being used by the department, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions and, perhaps most notably, the Government Accountability Office.

Critics of for-profits, however, say the industry has pored over language in federal documents to look for procedural mistakes in an effort to undermine legitimate concerns about their practices.

Last April, the Education Department said it had made an error in tabulating draft loan default rates that reflected poorly on for-profits, having improperly included loans that defaulted up to three months after the three-year period that was being measured.

Ochoa, in his statement, said Pell recipient rates remain more significant in the corrected analysis. Pell rates explain 23 percent of the variance while minority enrollment accounts for 20 percent, he said.

However, the association said in its filing that the department’s revised figures show that race is a significant predictor of loan repayment rates. “The public policy consequences of the department’s error are clear — schools that enroll a higher percentage of minority students are more likely to fail the department’s repayment test.”

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct erroneous references to statistics and to add a comment from the Department of Education.)

Why Mitch Daniels Should Enter the Race: The Real Conservative Alternative

RonRadosh

Any viewer who stayed tuned after our campaigner-in-chief’s SOTU speech last night had the opportunity to watch the GOP response by Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana. The feeling of many Republicans and conservatives, including myself, is an instant one: why isn’t this man a candidate for the presidency? Evidently, judging from this new website, many people feel the same way.

Republican responses to a presidential SOTU speech can be career killers for politicians who hope at some time to run for the executive office. Remember the disastrous appearance by Bobby Jindal of Louisiana a few years back? But those who saw President Obama’s lengthy, boring, and uninspiring faux populist presentation could see a strong contrast from the Indiana governor. As the full text of his speech shows, Daniels touched upon the important themes that our president completely ignored. Daniels said:

In three short years, an unprecedented explosion of spending, with borrowed money, has added trillions to an already unaffordable national debt. And yet, the President has put us on a course to make it radically worse in the years ahead. The federal government now spends one of every four dollars in the entire economy; it borrows one of every three dollars it spends. No nation, no entity, large or small, public or private, can thrive, or survive intact, with debts as huge as ours.

The President’s grand experiment in trickle-down government has held back rather than sped economic recovery. He seems to sincerely believe we can build a middle class out of government jobs paid for with borrowed dollars. In fact, it works the other way: a government as big and bossy as this one is maintained on the backs of the middle class, and those who hope to join it.

Mitch Daniels excels in making conservative principles and ideas coherent and understandable to everyday Americans. He does not come off as condescending or hectoring, but rather, as a man who wants a good and strong America, and who realizes that the decades of crony capitalism and stale reactionary liberalism have had their day.

Rather than seeking to pit have-nots against haves, or the so-called 99 percent against the greedy evil 1 percent, Daniels makes this cogent argument:

As Republicans our first concern is for those waiting tonight to begin or resume the climb up life’s ladder. We do not accept that ours will ever be a nation of haves and have nots; we must always be a nation of haves and soon to haves.

He holds out a political and economic future in which all have the ability and access to climb the ladder to success; rather than to demand a redistribution of wealth from the elite to the many that would drag down the economy and make our country another Greece in the near future.

Democrats want to depict Republicans as a party and conservatives as a group of people who want to push Grandma off a cliff. As a grandfather a few times over myself, I know that the prescriptions of liberalism would bankrupt our whole country, and push us collectively off to a dark future. I too want a better future for my grandchildren, and that means addressing our debt and instituting policies that would save the fabric of our social order, while at the same time providing a real and manageable safety net for those who really need it. As Daniels points out,

we must unite to save the safety net. Medicare and Social Security have served us well, and that must continue. But after half and three quarters of a century respectively, it’s not surprising that they need some repairs. We can preserve them unchanged and untouched for those now in or near retirement, but we must fashion a new, affordable safety net so future Americans are protected, too.

With that explanation, he cuts through in one fell swoop the false charge that conservatives are enemies of the poor and the needy, and want to abandon them entirely to the vicissitudes of the free market. His answer is to stop giving the wealthy social benefits they do not need, reserving the programs for those who actually do. It is not to take their wealth from them and supposedly give it out en masse, a step which in reality would do little to address our nation’s problems.

The truth, as Daniels went on, is that Republicans “alone have passed bills to reduce borrowing, reform entitlements, and encourage new job creation, only to be shot down time and time again by the President and his Democratic Senate allies.” He and we stand for a pro-jobs, pro-growth economic policy, the kind that the blue-collar working-class (that the Democrats have abandoned) understand and will support. If we fail to do this, he concludes accurately, “there will never be enough public revenue to pay for our safety net, national security, or whatever size government we decide to have.”

The question is: Why cannot the current crop of proclaimed candidates have the ability and the wherewithal to make this case so cogently and in a way that does not seem threatening to independents and swing voters? Let us face the truth. If nominated, Newt Gingrich will be Obama’s greatest gift, producing a majority for Obama that in a normal political climate should be an easy defeat for him and victory for the Republican Party in 2012. As Ryan Mauro points out in Frontpagemag.com, the polls show Romney outperforming Gingrich in every major swing state — precisely those that have to be won if Obama is to be defeated. He concludes:

If the election were held today between Obama and Romney, the president would win with 301 electoral votes. If Obama ran against Gingrich, he’d be re-elected with 357 electoral votes. Based on the polls today, it is undeniable that Romney is much more electable.

In a similar vein, the editors of National Review write that,

Gingrich as nominee would have to train his fire on Obama, who will be able to fight back as John King could not. Nor will the public at large be as impressed by Gingrich’s willingness to attack Obama as a clueless radical as Republicans are. (If voters decide in 2012 to reward the most slashing or sardonic debater before them with the presidency, it will be a first.) When Republicans found themselves in tight spots during the Reagan presidency, they waited for their leader to give a speech to show them the way forward and rally the troops. When Gingrich was Speaker, Republicans never sought him to intervene in legislative debates to turn the tide.

The main point as to why Gingrich is so vulnerable, they argue, is that “only Gingrich has never been elected to office from anything larger than a congressional district; only Gingrich has never had to reach beyond the Republican base vote to win an election.” The only constant in his lengthy decades-long career is that “Gingrich has never been popular. Polls have never shown more than 43 percent of the public viewing him favorably at any point in his career. Gingrich backers say that he is inspiring. What he mostly seems to inspire is opposition.”

The NR team is correct. Newt Gingrich’s high votes are the result of a Republican unrepresentative base that wants a bloody fight and a shouting match — one that in fact will not occur in the two scheduled presidential forums, whose character is determined by the administration’s committee, and which will be anything but the model of a Lincoln-Douglas debate that Gingrich continually promises.

Gingrich also falsely continually compares himself to Ronald Reagan, with whom he says he worked to overthrow the Soviet empire, among other things. But as Elliott Abrams points out in a devastating review of where Gingrich actually stood when Reagan was president, more often than not Gingrich levied dangerous and false charges against Reagan, when he was developing a policy that actually led to the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse.

Of Daniels, Bill Kristol says somewhat with tongue-in-cheek, “if Mitch Daniels’s effective tax rate is 30 percent rather than 15 percent, and if he was never paid $1.6 million by Freddie Mac, he can be the next president.” To put it another way, Daniels does not have the negatives for the general electorate of both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Yes, Daniels is not running, and for personal reasons, he decided long ago not to enter the race. I understand that there are family considerations. But if this election is so critical for our future as conservatives argue, a candidate with a chance to defeat Obama should put country ahead of family. Daniels is a man who has both private sector and government experience, is popular with Democrats and independents, and has won elections from the votes of both these groups in Indiana.

Let me relate one episode I personally witnessed when Daniels spoke. Some months ago, when his book was published, Daniels appeared as a guest on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I happened to be in the audience for the taping that day, and Stewart — whose entire program is half an hour — interviewed Daniels for more than one hour. The segment did not air, and was posted instead on the program’s website. I was greatly impressed by the calm manner in which Daniels spoke to and explained his conservative views to Stewart, who, as we all know, is a bona fide left-liberal in his personal views.

After the taping, Stewart did something I think is rather unusual. He came back out to the audience, and said something like : “Isn’t Mitch Daniels the real thing? Isn’t he terrific? Why can’t other Republicans be like him?” He also speculated on how different it might be if Daniels entered the race himself, and noted that one outspoken audience member (not me) made her voice known before the taping about how she wanted him to run, and how she supported him strongly. Stewart even mentioned that to Daniels during the taping, and he did so again in his post-show remarks.

If the liberal Jon Stewart can be impressed by Mitch Daniels, even though he disagrees with his prescriptions, and can listen to him and judge his arguments without rancor, that says something to me about Daniels’ wide appeal. He too has made money in his life, but he does not come off as the stereotype of the rich capitalist in a top hat that the Obama team will use to beat Mitt Romney over the head if he wins the nomination.

That is not Romney’s fault. He is a good man, and in the absence of another candidate, I am strongly backing him. But he makes the kind of comments (the $10,000 bet and $400,000 a year in speaker’s fees is not much) that enables his opponents to easily paint him as an out-of-touch elitist who is far removed from the common man and his concerns.

In the meantime, if Gingrich does win the nomination, the bloodletting between Newt and Mitt through the primary season will weaken his candidacy, and the Republican Party will make Gingrich the equivalent of the Democratic Party’s candidacy of George McGovern in 1972.

So I support those who hope for a brokered convention, at which time neither Mitt nor Newt will have enough votes to win on a first ballot, and the Republican Party can turn to someone else with a real chance to win against Barack Obama. At this point, I think, that candidate is Mitch Daniels.

See video of Mitch Daniels’ rebuttal here.

First Hints That Stem Cells Can Help Patients Get Better

NPR

Two women losing their sight to progressive forms of blindness may have regained some vision while participating in an experiment testing a treatment made from human embryonic stem cells, researchers reported today.

The report marks the first time that scientists have produced direct evidence that human embryonic stem cells may have helped a patient. The cells had only previously been tested in the laboratory or in animals.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am about this,” said Steven D. Schwartz, a professor of ophthalmalogy at UCLA’s Jules Stein Eye Institute leading the research. “For these patients, the impact is enormous.”

Schwartz and his colleagues stressed that the findings are extremely preliminary and it’s far too early to know anything for sure. The patients could continue to improve, or their vision could deteriorate again, he said. Many more patients will be needed to be treated for far longer to know whether the therapy is really safe and responsible for any improvement.

 

“My job is to decrease suffering, and if we overstate this and raise hopes falsely and then it doesn’t work out, it will hurt people rather than help them,” Schwartz said.

But the findings could mark an important milestone for the field of human embryonic stem cells, and so-called regenerative medicine, Schwartz and others said.

“In the landmark paper by Schwartz and colleagues, the potential to use human embryonic derived cells with a therapeutic effect in patients is now finally realized,” wrote Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Insitute of the Wake Forest School of Medicine in a commentary accompanying the report in the journal The Lancet.

Scientists discovered human embryonic stem cells in 1998. Many researchers believe they could revolutionize medicine because they can morph into virtually any type of cell in the body. That means they could potentially provide cells to treat many diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and spinal cord injuries.

But the field has been the focus of intense debate and controversy because human embryos are often destroyed to obtain the cells. Critics consider any research on human embryos, and especially the destruction of human embryos, to be immoral.

The Food and Drug Administration has only approved two studies testing any therapies made from human embryonic stem cells in people. The first involved patients who were partially paralyzed by spinal cord injuries. But that experiment was discontinued soon after it began last year when Geron, the company sponsoring the research, announced it was diverting funds to other projects.

The blindness study, which is being sponsored by Advanced Cell Technology, will involve 24 patients suffering from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, which is the leading cause of pediatric blindness, and dry age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in the developed world.

Scientists used embryonic stem cells to create retinal pigment epithelium cells in the laboratory. RPE cells are lost in a variety of eye conditions, including Stargardt’s and macular degeneration.

In July, Schwartz and his colleagues injected about 50,000 RPE cells made from stem cells into the right eye of Sue Freeman, 78, of Laguna Beach, Calif., who had lost most of her vision to macular degeneration.

Because of the disease, she could no longer recognize faces, read, cook or even go outside on her own. But within six weeks of the procedure, Freeman started to notice she could see landscapes better. Tests showed she could read more letters on an eye chart. Soon, she was making her own breakfast again and even has gone shopping alone.

“One day, I looked down and I could see my watch,” she said. “I probably hadn’t seen it in about a year and a half or two. And I could see. So that was exciting for me. And I remember saying, ‘Oh my goodness. I can see my watch. I can actually tell time.’ “

Schwartz and his colleagues are somewhat baffled by Freeman’s improvement, especially since she initially reported being able to see better with both eyes, including the one that wasn’t treated.

That made them suspect that something else may be causing the seeming improvement, such as the anti-rejection drugs she was taking or the placebo effect. But they have since become more confident her improvement is indeed being caused by the cells.

They are even more confident about the improvement by the second patient, who asked not to be identified to protect her privacy. She’s a woman in her 50s who works as a graphic artist and started losing her sight in her 20s because of Stargardt’s. When doctors examine her eye, they can actually see the transplanted cells thriving.

Sue Freeman, at her home in Laguna Beach, Calif., had suffered from macular degeneration. "One day, I looked down and I could see my watch," she said. "I probably hadn't seen it in about a year and a half or two. And I could see. So that was exciting for me. And I remember saying, 'Oh my goodness. I can see my watch. I can actually tell time."

Sue Freeman, at her home in Laguna Beach, Calif., had suffered from macular degeneration. “One day, I looked down and I could see my watch,” she said. “I probably hadn’t seen it in about a year and a half or two. And I could see. So that was exciting for me. And I remember saying, ‘Oh my goodness. I can see my watch. I can actually tell time.”

The blindness study, which is being sponsored by Advanced Cell Technology, will involve 24 patients suffering from Stargardt’s macular dystrophy, which is the leading cause of pediatric blindness, and dry age-related macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness in the developed world.

Scientists used embryonic stem cells to create retinal pigment epithelium cells in the laboratory. RPE cells are lost in a variety of eye conditions, including Stargardt’s and macular degeneration.

In July, Schwartz and his colleagues injected about 50,000 RPE cells made from stem cells into the right eye of Sue Freeman, 78, of Laguna Beach, Calif., who had lost most of her vision to macular degeneration.

Because of the disease, she could no longer recognize faces, read, cook or even go outside on her own. But within six weeks of the procedure, Freeman started to notice she could see landscapes better. Tests showed she could read more letters on an eye chart. Soon, she was making her own breakfast again and even has gone shopping alone.

“One day, I looked down and I could see my watch,” she said. “I probably hadn’t seen it in about a year and a half or two. And I could see. So that was exciting for me. And I remember saying, ‘Oh my goodness. I can see my watch. I can actually tell time.’ “

Schwartz and his colleagues are somewhat baffled by Freeman’s improvement, especially since she initially reported being able to see better with both eyes, including the one that wasn’t treated.

That made them suspect that something else may be causing the seeming improvement, such as the anti-rejection drugs she was taking or the placebo effect. But they have since become more confident her improvement is indeed being caused by the cells.

They are even more confident about the improvement by the second patient, who asked not to be identified to protect her privacy. She’s a woman in her 50s who works as a graphic artist and started losing her sight in her 20s because of Stargardt’s. When doctors examine her eye, they can actually see the transplanted cells thriving.

“I sort of like woke up one morning and did realize that, ‘Wow, you know, there is a difference between the two eyes now — they only worked on the left eye,” she said. “On the other side of the room I have some hand-carved furniture there. And I could actually see the detail on the carving, you know, on the other side of the room there, on things that I couldn’t see from that distance before.”

She has since begun working much more easily, doing routine chores around the house and even riding a bike again.

“It was pretty amazing. I was like kind of looking at everything new again, just sort of going around and first not believing it but then really looking and, you know, realizing that I definitely had more sight in that eye,” she said.

Now, Schwartz and his colleagues stress that the study was designed primarily to determine whether the cells were safe, and not to determine whether they might actually help patients. For this study, patients received very low doses, and their vision had been so damaged that no one thought the cells could help them.

Schwartz treated a third patient on Tuesday, and doctors in London began treating Stargardt’s patients there on behalf of the company. Much more research is needed, they stress.

“It’s just far too early to make any conclusions,” said Robert Lanza, the company’s chief scientific officer.

But if the findings are confirmed, Lanza said they would mark an important, long-awaited step.

“I think this is a turning point. It’s been 13 years since the discovery of human embryonic stem cells,” Lanza said. “We’ve been reading about this. It’s been one of the hottest topics of biology. And this is the first report of the effects of these cells actually transplanted into a human patient. So it’s been a long time in the works.”

Professor Departs Stanford U., Hoping to Teach 500,000 Students at Online Start-Up

Chronicle

The Stanford University professor who taught an online artificial intelligence course to more than 160,000 students has abandoned his position to aim for an even bigger audience.

Sebastian Thrun, a research professor of computer science at Stanford, revealed today that he has departed the institution to found Udacity, a start-up offering low-cost online classes. He made the surprising announcement during a presentation at the Digital – Life – Design conference in Munich, Germany. The development was first reported earlier today by Reuters.

During his talk, Mr. Thrun explored the origins of his popular online course at Stanford, which initially featured videos produced with nothing more than “a camera, a pen and a napkin.” Despite the low production quality, many of the 200 Stanford students taking the course in the classroom flocked to the videos because they could absorb the lectures at their own pace. Eventually, the 200 students taking the course in person dwindled to a group of 30. Meanwhile, the course’s popularity exploded online, drawing students from around the world. The experience taught the professor that he could craft a course with the interactive tools of the Web that recreated the intimacy of one-on-one tutoring, he said.

Mr. Thrun told the crowd his move was motivated in part by teaching practices that evolved too slowly to be effective. During the era when universities were born, “the lecture was the most effective way to convey information. We had the industrialization, we had the invention of celluloid, of digitial media, and, miraculously, professors today teach exactly the same way they taught a thousand years ago,” he said.

He concluded by telling the crowd that he couldn’t continue teaching in a traditional setting. “Having done this, I can’t teach at Stanford again,” he said.

One of Udacity’s first offerings will be a seven-week course called “Building a Search Engine.” It will be taught by David Evans, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Virginia and a Udacity partner. Mr. Thrun said it is designed to teach students with no prior programming experience how to build a search engine like Google. He hopes 500,000 students will enroll.

Teaching the course at Stanford, Mr. Thrun said, showed him the potential of digital education, which turned out to be a drug that he could not ignore.

“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill,” he said. “And you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your 20 students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.”

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