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Soon You Could Send A Text Or Call A Car With A Click Of Your Heels

Popular Science News - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 08:35

Ruby slippers Alyssa L. Miller

In the future, getting out of a sticky situation might be as easy as clicking your heels together. Design firm iStrategyLabs just unveiled a prototype system called Dorothy (yeah, that Dorothy) that will fasten to people’s shoes, allowing them to click their heels and end up safely back home in Kansas. 

Well, kind of. Here's how it works: the Dorothy prototype is actually two parts, a small bluetooth capable gadget called the ruby, which attaches to your shoe, and a smartphone app that the ruby communicates with. Via the app, you can decide whether clicking your heels together a set number of times will call your phone from a fake contact number (getting you out of a boring meeting or a bad date) or send a text to predetermined contacts with your exact location (a nice safety backup for unsafe situations).  

One of the most widely touted features of Dorothy, the ability to summon an Uber with the click of your heels, is still in the works, but Dorothy's creators hope that the app will eventually be able to do a lot more, including (according to their blog post) "automatically order your favorite pizza".

The prototype is small, comparable to a mini chocolate bar, but the designers hope to reduce that dramatically, so that it can be installed in the insoles of shoes. 

These Real-Life Alien Worlds Could Become Humanity's New Home In 'Interstellar'

Popular Science News - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 08:09

Artist's conception of exoplanet Gliese 667 Cc's surface. ESO/L. Calçada

In the upcoming film, Interstellar, a group of heroes blasts off from a dying Earth to search for a new home for humanity. For reasons that aren’t explained in the trailer, the solar system (including Mars) apparently cannot help. Instead, the extraplanetary explorers must seek out Earth 2.0 in another star system.

“There are twelve potentially habitable worlds within our reach,” promises one of the Interstellar trailers. Setting aside the fact that we currently have no handy wormhole or any other way of reaching other star systems: If the Sun were to explode next week, and humanity had to evacuate the solar system, where should we go?

It is entirely plausible (and even expected) that exoplanets are out there that are just as hospitable as Earth. Scientists think there could be 40 billion Earth-sized habitable worlds in the Milky Way alone. Several have already been detected.

Scientists rate the potential habitability of a planet by several different measures. One is the planet’s location in the habitable zone—the so-called “Goldilocks region” around a star where it would be not too hot and not too cold for liquid water to form on a planet’s surface. Another measure is the Earth Similarity Index, which compares the planet’s radius, density, and surface temperature to that of Earth.

“I think that in the big scheme of things, the idea that we’ll someday have to escape the solar system to continue surviving is irrefutable,” says Lee Billings, author of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars. “But that’s a long time in the future, and we probably shouldn’t be too eager to abandon our home planet without very good reasons.”

So where should we go? That’s a tough question to answer, says Billings. Scientists haven’t yet spotted the perfect home-away-from-home for Earthlings. And in the past, we would have answered the question wrong. At various points in time, three different exoplanets orbiting the dwarf star Gliese 581—Gliese 581c, 581d, and 581g—were considered the most potentially habitable planets out there. But it turned out that 581c is probably too hot and gassy to be habitable, and 581d and 581g don’t even exist. If we had launched explorers to those planets, Billings points out, they would travel for hundreds of years and find nothing at the other end.

The other problem is that most of the potentially habitable exoplanets so far have been spotted around dim stars called M-dwarfs. Since M-dwarfs give off less heat than our Sun, the planets around them have to be closer to the star in order to have liquid water—too close for comfort, according to some scientists. Any planets in orbit in the habitable zone of an M-dwarf would be at risk for devastating solar flares and tidal locking—where one side of the planet continually faces the star, similar to Earth's moon, potentially resulting in a hot side and a freezing cold side.

“Most of the planets we’ve found so far are borderline cases,” says Billings. “We don’t know enough about them to know what their environments are like, and in some cases we don’t even know for sure that they exist.”

But there’s good news too: “The nearest Earth 2.0 is probably only a dozen light-years away or less,” Billings says. “I think we’re on the cusp of finding it, and there are lots out there, but we don’t have a bona fide, true-blue planet like Earth yet.”

Click on the gallery to see the top contenders so far. 

Stunning Images of an Alien Comet Passing Mars [Slide Show]

Scientific American News - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 08:00
Orbiters and rovers deliver the first up-close look at a once-in-a-lifetime interplanetary encounter

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Simply Shining a Light Can Reveal the Brain’s Structure

Scientific American News - Fri, 10/24/2014 - 07:00
This blog is the fifth in a series of guest posts on technology and the brain to celebrate Scientific American Mind’s 10-year anniversary.

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Japan Warns of Increased Activity at Volcano near Nuclear Plant

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 23:58
A volcano in southern Japan located roughly 64 km from a nuclear plant was showing signs of increased activity that could possibly lead to a small-scale eruption

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Hurricane Gonzalo's Damages in Bermuda Estimated at Least $200M

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 18:40
Gonzalo caused between $200 million and $400 million in insured losses over the weekend on Bermuda, according to a Boston-based catastrophe modeling company

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Indian Vultures Are Dying for Some Good News

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 17:46
When a species experiences catastrophic population declines as high as 99.9 percent, any bit of good news is cause for celebration—even if the news isn’t exactly great.

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U.S. Charges South Africans in Illegal Rhino Hunting Case

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 17:35
A South African company has been indicted in Alabama for selling illegal rhinoceros hunts to Americans and secretly trafficking in the endangered animals’ horns

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Why Liberia Needs Help NOW To Prevent 98,000 Ebola Cases

Popular Science News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 17:30

Ebola ward in Lagos, Nigeria. CDC Global via Flickr CC By 2.0

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is growing exponentially. The latest reports suggest that at least 9,915 people have been infected, and 4,555 have died. And this is just the beginning. Previously, the CDC estimated that a startling 1.4 million West Africans could be infected by January.  

The outbreak is already considered to be out of control, and according to a paper published today in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the window of opportunity to avoid a total catastrophe is closing. They calculated that sending aid immediately to Montserrado, Liberia, could prevent up to 98,000 cases of Ebola. However, if the international community stalls for another two weeks, the same amount of aid would prevent 54,000 deaths at best.

The reason why comes down to some pretty simple math. (Don’t worry, you won’t need a calculator.)

The study authors -- epidemiologists from Yale as well as Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare -- charted the spread of Ebola between June 14 and September 23 in Montserrado, a county in Liberia that has been one of the hardest-hit by the virus. The researchers used that growth rate to forecast how many new cases could be expected in the coming months. The model predicts a worst-case scenario of 170,000 new cases and 90,000 deaths in Montserrado by December 15.

Next, they estimated the impact various types of aid could have in preventing those new cases. Anti-Ebola measures include building treatment centers to care for the sick, identifying and monitoring people who’ve come in contact with Ebola patients, and distributing kits that help people set up at-home isolation wards for when hospital beds are not available.

Up to now, the U.S. has pledged the largest amount of Ebola aid, setting up 17 treatment centers that will isolate and treat 1,700 patients in total. Unfortunately, the researchers found that this level of aid is “woefully inadequate”.

To avert the worst of the epidemic, Montserrado would need nearly three times that amount of aid—setting up 4,800 new beds, while also scaling up contact tracing by five times its current levels and distributing home isolation kits. And that’s just to prevent 98,000 cases in Montserrado; it’s not enough to stop the outbreak in its tracks, and it doesn’t include the rest of Liberia, or Guinea or Sierra Leone where the outbreak is also raging.

To prevent those 98,000 cases, the aid would need to be sent by October 31, according to the researchers. To wait until November 15 would mean that the same amount of aid could only prevent 54,000 cases at best. The same aid, if it had been sent on October 15, could have prevented 137,000 cases.

That’s because every West African who contracts Ebola infects two people, on average. Then each of those two cases infects two more people, and so on, making the outbreak grow exponentially. Delivering aid sooner rather than later interrupts the exponential growth curve, preventing more cases in the long run.

“The key take-home message for readers is this: we have no time to waste,” epidemiology David Fisman, from the University of Toronto, wrote in a commentary. “The urgency of timely intervention in the Ebola epidemic cannot be overstated.” 

Ebola predictions This graph shows the number of Ebola cases that could be averted by building new treatment centers (ETCs) and increasing contact tracing (on a scale of 0 to 4B, 0= baseline, 4B=200%) in Montserrado, Liberia. The graph shows that deploying aid on October 31 (shown in black) can save thousands more lives than deploying the same aid on November 15 (blue). Click to enlarge. J.A. Lewnard et al./Lancet Infectious Diseases

It's unclear whether the predictions made for Montserrado could be extrapolated for the rest of Ebola-stricken West Africa. The region has been one of the hardest-hit, accounting for 1,600 cases and 1,000 deaths. But because 90 percent of Montserrado residents live in the capital of Monrovia, study author Joseph Lewnard explained in an email that controlling the epidemic there (and in other urban centers, such as Conakry and Freetown) could be more straightforward than in rural areas:

For instance, Lofa county in northern Liberia (where the first cases were observed) may present additional logistical challenges since villages are remote and inadequately served by roads and telecommunications infrastructure. It's not totally certain that the same interventions could scale to the (much smaller) population of a county like that, where the relative isolation of small rural communities and difficulty of traversing poor roads (especially because this is the rainy season) can make it very hard to identify cases, get them to treatment centers, or perform safe burials in a timely manner. Likewise, since the population and number of cases is smaller in Lofa county, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to infer the number of beds, etc. required based on our findings from Montserrado.

Lewnard also added that since September 23, Montserrado increased their number of hospital beds to 620 and scaled-up their distribution of protection kits, so the worst-case scenario is less likely now.  

Nevertheless, the study paints a bleak picture of the situation in West Africa. One ray of hope is in the form of two experimental vaccines, which will begin trials in West Africa in January. But unless those vaccines prove to be safe and effective, treatment centers and contact tracing will be the best bet in the fight against Ebola during the coming year.

Fisman, in his commentary, points out that ultimately, the international community will help itself by helping West Africa. CDC director Tom Friedan appears to agree:

We can’t get to zero risk in U.S. until we stop the #Ebola epidemic at its source in Liberia, Sierra Leone & Guinea.

— Dr. Tom Frieden (@DrFriedenCDC) October 22, 2014

The Ebola Outbreak: Hopeful News from the Front Lines

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 16:42
The coverage of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa by U.S. media has often seemed unremittingly grim. So it was with some trepidation that I boarded a plane for Sierra Leone.

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What Makes a Hospital “Ebola Ready”?

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:47
How New York City’s Bellevue Hospital prepared to treat a potential Ebola patient

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Can Robots Help Fight Ebola?

Popular Science News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:30

Helping Hand Takao Someya Group/University of Tokyo

Engineers make disaster-response robots precisely because robots are able to work in situations that are too dangerous for humans. Now the humans have got a new idea: Perhaps robots could carry off waste from Ebola patients, or bury the bodies of people who have died from Ebola in West Africa. Roboticizing such tasks would keep people from having to touch bodies when they're most infectious.

Working with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, robot engineers will meet early next month to talk about whether they could repurpose existing machines for these tasks and more, Computerworld reports. The engineers will talk about how robots can work in both West African clinics and U.S. ones. The proposition faces many challenges, which Computerworld outlines. It may turn out that today's robots aren't sophisticated enough to help out in this Ebola outbreak at all—we'll see.

Of course, some hospitals do have a few simple robots already. There are telepresence robots, which let doctors check on patients from afar. That may be especially helpful for Ebola cases in the U.S., where few physicians have encountered the virus before. In both the U.S. and abroad, telepresence may make isolation and quarantine less lonely, and isolated folks more likely to stick to the rules. Earlier this month, there was a bit of coverage about a hospital "robot" that sends out powerful UV light to decontaminate rooms, although we would call it more of a wheeled machine. It doesn't move on its own and it doesn't seem to be able to take very sophisticated commands.

Defense One reports on more complex robots that may work for Ebola aid, including a robot, built for the Tokyo Fire Department in 2008, that's designed to carry bodies. It's unclear whether that robot will be useful, however. It depends on whether the friends and family of those who died would feel okay with it handling their loved ones. Engineers attending the workshops in November will focus on listening to what people on the ground say they need, Texas A&M computer scientist Robin Murphy told Computerworld. It sounds like they'll have a lot to talk about.


Cancer Cells Can "Infect" Normal Neighbors

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 15:29
Genetic material shed by tumors can get dumped into healthy cells and transform them

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First Privately Funded Moon Mission Launched Today

Popular Science News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 14:23

To The Moon davejdoe vis Flickr CC by 2.0

The first privately funded lunar mission launched today. The mission involves sending a 31-pound spacecraft called 4M, fitted with an antenna, small computer, and radiation sensor, on a Chinese rocket to Earth's satellite. Funded by private company LuxSpace, the craft will fly by the moon transmitting a signal back to Earth that can be picked up by amateur radio enthusiasts. The project is hitchhiking on a Chinese rocket transporting China's latest lunar spacecraft, which is also scheduled to fly by the moon -- another step in their moon exploration program.

4M began broadcasting exactly 77.8 minutes after it's launch at 1:59 PM Eastern Daylight Time. LuxSpace is hosting a contest to see who can recieve the most messages from the private payload before the mission ends (You can compete either as an individual or as a team.). The messages sent from the payload will be sequences of tones broadcast at different frequencies. Even if you don't want to participate in the contest, you can track the mission's progress online. 

The mission is scheduled to last for eight days, but it could go on for longer. "The secondary power supply of 4M comprises solar cells and would extend the mission life to keep 4M operational in an orbital region where few spacecraft have been before," LuxSpace system engineer Hubert Moser told "Nevertheless, this secondary power supply (therefore, life of 4M) depends strongly on the attitude of the last stage of the launcher, i.e. the availability of sunlight."   

4M stands for the Manfred Memorial Moon Mission, named in honor of Manfred Fuchs, who founded the company OHB, the parent company of LuxSpace. The payload was relatively inexpensive too; the entire cost of the mission is less than six figures

The Black Hole in Interstellar Looks Amazingly Realistic

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 14:16
Wired has a fun piece about physicist and black-hole guru Kip Thorne's work on the film Interstellar, which comes out November 7. We've known the premise of the film for a long time: Earth is a...

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The Hobbit: 10 Years Later

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 13:08
In October 2004 paleontologists announced a new human species called Homo floresiensis. Ever since then debate has raged on whether it truly is a new species or merely a diseased Homo sapiens

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Movies Made Inside a Living Cell [VIDEO]

Scientific American News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 13:01
A new microscope can show chromosomes moving within a cell or tiny changes in a growing embryo.

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New Microscope Makes Gorgeous 3-D Movies Of Living Cells

Popular Science News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 13:01

Protist T. thermophila, Imaged with a Lattice Light-Sheet Microscope Click here to enlarge. Betzig Lab, HHMI

There's a new microscope in town and the images it produces are stunning. An international team of engineers and biologists is announcing it's made a microscope that's able to see phenomena such as single proteins diffusing through thickly-packed cells, and the movement of the fibers that pull cells apart when they divide. Everything remains alive and active under the microscope.

"The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and the complexity of living systems," the team wrote in a paper, published online today, that describes the microscope. In other words, biology is beautiful.

The cool thing about the new 'scope is that it's able to record both small features and swift movements. Normally those two qualities are trade-offs. If you want to make an instrument that sees in high resolution, it'll be slower, because it needs to take more measurements. In addition, powerful microscopes often pump tons of light radiation into the samples it images, killing living cells.

"The results provide a visceral reminder of the beauty and the complexity of living systems."

The new microscope, called a lattice light-sheet microscope, solves two problems at once by using one light beam that's divided into seven parts. Each seventh of a light beam covers its own portion of the sample, so users don't have to wait for a single light beam to sweep over the whole sample. The divided beam also ensures samples get a lesser dose of radiation than they normally would, although engineers didn't think of that when they first tested the divided-light idea.

"What was shocking to us was that by spreading the energy out across seven beams instead of one, the phototoxicity went way down," the microscope's lead engineer, Eric Betzig, said in a statement. (Betzig won a Nobel Prize this year for other advances in microscopy.) "What I learned from that experience is that while the total dose of light you put on the cell is important, what's far more important is the instantaneous power that you put on the cell," he said.

The light a lattice light-sheet microscope uses is also unusual. It uses a Bessel beam, which is a special kind of laser light that doesn't diffract, or splinter. (Learn more about that here.) The Bessel beam is arranged so that it makes a lattice of light—yep, like the top of a cherry pie—that's exceptionally thin. The thinness gives it its high spatial resolution.

Betzig and his colleagues made a Bessel-beam microscope in 2011, but recently improved the instrument by adding algorithms that fix blurry spots that used to appear in the microscope's images.

Okay, enough explanation. On to the images!

Here's a white blood cell squidging through a matrix of collagen fibers. (Pretty sure "squidging" is the scientific term for this.) Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Here's a series of images that show an immune-system cell, called a T cell, approaching a target cell for destruction. (T cell in orange, target in blue. The scale bar represents 4 micrometers.) Go, T cell, go! 

T Cell Approaches Target Over 200 Seconds Betzig Lab, HHMI. Click here to see this image larger.

Here's a closer look at that T cell from different angles. Look at that gaping maw. The scale bar here represents 5 micrometers.

T Cell Betzig Lab, HHMI. Click here to see this image larger.

A fruit fly embryo, imaged while it's developing. Weird. Please enable Javascript to watch this video

Lastly, a cell in the middle of dividing. The orange stuff is the cell's DNA, which it is now dividing into two portions. The short strands all around the DNA are fibers called microtubules, which help pull everything apart. The microtubules are color-coded by how fast they're moving. The red microtubules are the fastest, moving at a speedy 1.5 micrometers per second.

Cell in Anaphase Betzig Lab, HHMI

Scientists who want to use the new microscope can apply here. The microscope is housed at Janelia Farm, a private research campus in Virginia, and it's free to use. There are also new lattice light-sheet microscopes at Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco.

Scientists Retract Research On Dr. Oz-Endorsed Weight Loss Pill

Popular Science News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 12:23

Mehmet Oz Screenshot from

The scientists who published sham research on a useless weight loss supplement once called a "miracle pill" on the Dr. Oz Show have retracted their study.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of the daytime medical show, is an Ivy League-trained heart surgeon who rocketed to fame through the endorsement of Oprah Winfrey. Oz is considered one of the most influential celebrities in America, according to Forbes, and he uses his television show as a platform to promote supposedly healthy products to his fans. But he has come under fire recently for his habit of endorsing weight loss pseudo-drugs with no actual benefits. Plus, many of these drugs may encourage users to give up exercise.

The retracted study purported to validate the sale of Green Coffee Extract, which was once the subject of an entire episode of Oz's show. A federal agency called the research "hopelessly flawed." The retraction followed a $3.5 million Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settlement with Applied Food Sciences (AFS), a Texas company that hawked the phony pills. An FTC press release summed up the damning charges against the company and researchers:

AFS paid researchers in India to conduct a clinical trial on overweight adults to test whether Green Coffee Antioxidant (GCA), a dietary supplement containing green coffee extract, reduced body weight and body fat.

The FTC charges that the study’s lead investigator repeatedly altered the weights and other key measurements of the subjects, changed the length of the trial, and misstated which subjects were taking the placebo or GCA during the trial. When the lead investigator was unable to get the study published, the FTC says that AFS hired researchers Joe Vinson and Bryan Burnham at the University of Scranton to rewrite it. Despite receiving conflicting data, Vinson, Burnham, and AFS never verified the authenticity of the information used in the study, according to the complaint.

Despite the study’s flaws, AFS used it to falsely claim that GCA caused consumers to lose 17.7 pounds, 10.5 percent of body weight, and 16 percent of body fat with or without diet and exercise, in 22 weeks, the complaint alleges.

The Dr. Oz Show has since removed nearly any hint of support for Green Coffee Extract from its website, including the full episode devoted to its benefits and Oz's own study of its effects. But a Washington Post report details what was said:

"You may think magic is make believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they found a magic weight loss cure for every body type," Oz exclaimed in the Green Coffee Extract episode of his show. "This miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight. This is very exciting and it's breaking news."

Oz touted the "staggering newly released study" that showed participants lost an "astounding" amount of fat and weight … by doing absolutely nothing except taking the supplement.

Now, all that remains of those wild claims in the online land of Oz is a short statement that comes up in search -- but appears nowhere on the home page. (Also not found on his home page: his congressional testimony on weight loss fraud.)

In prior seasons, we covered Green Coffee Extract and its potential as a useful tool for weight loss. Recently the authors of the peer reviewed research paper on which our coverage had been partially based formally retracted their study. While this sometimes happens in scientific research, it indicates that further study is needed regarding any potential benefits of Green Coffee Extract.

The implication, as Abby Phillips notes at the Post, is that this is just another example of science taking a wrong turn and then righting itself. But serious scientists rigorously double-check their own work, and correct themselves when they get it wrong

Oz has the prestigious background to tell good science from quackery. Hopefuly his program will take advantage of that asset in the future.

Autonomous Cars May Change Our Lives In Unexpected Ways

Popular Science News - Thu, 10/23/2014 - 11:00

One of the test vehicles for Google's Self-Driving Car project.


In the future, we may not be dealing with the hassles and frustrations that come with driving cars everyday. Autonomous automobiles can make our lives better! But are cars that drive by themselves all that it's cracked up to be?

The advertising agency Sparks & Honey has compiled a mess of data and research on autonomous cars into a report entitled "Driving Disrupted: Driverless Cars Change Everything." Besides the obvious things such as being safer for travel and freeing up time for other pursuits, there are some surprising things that will emerge in a world with intelligent cars.

Car Sharing

Pointing to an MIT study, the report states that whole cities could adopt a car-sharing program, not unlike bike sharing, which may make car ownership obsolete.

Entertainment on the Go

Beyond having extra time to work or read or do other hobbies, the report imagines autonomous cars as a place where the owner entertains a group of friends or colleagues, almost like a moving bar. And who knows where such drunkenness and debauchery will go...

Vehicles of Vice

And that means that bar-like autonomous cars could become the go-to place for illicit activities. Whether it is casual sexual encounters or drug use, the privacy and luxury of such cars could bring a spike in such activities.

We'll Need A New Source Of Municipal Income

With fewer traffic violations, cities and towns will have to find new ways to ticket its citizens to earn revenue or the penalties for existing violations will become more harsh. So you may want to reconsider your stance on jaywalking.

We'll Need A New Source Of Organs

Whether it is through growing them in the labs or through a form of 3-D printing, according to the report, artificial organs for health care will be in high demand because less traffic accidents means fewer natural organ donations.

You can view a slideshow of the report.

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