Tech billionaire donates $250m for cancer ‘moonshot’

WASHINGTON (AFP): Tech billionaire Sean Parker announced Wednesday a $250 million grant to fund research aimed at breakthroughs in cancer treatment through immunotherapy. Parker, the founder of music-sharing service Napster and an early investor and executive at Facebook, will create a center for immunotherapy - which aims to use the body’s immune system to fight the disease - collaborating with six US-based cancer research institutions. “We are at an inflection point in cancer research and now is the time to maximize immunotherapy’s unique potential to transform all cancers into manageable diseases, saving millions of lives,” said Parker, who last year created the Parker Foundation.

“We believe that the creation of a new funding and research model can overcome many of the obstacles that currently prevent research breakthroughs. Working closely with our scientists and more than 30 industry partners, the Parker Institute is positioned to broadly disseminate discoveries and, most importantly, more rapidly deliver treatments to patients.”

The new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy will work with over 40 laboratories and more than 300 researchers and immunologists. All the research and intellectual property will be shared, “enabling all researchers to have immediate access to a broad swath of core discoveries,” according to a statement.

The center will be headed by University of California-San Francisco scientist Jeffrey Bluestone, who was named to a panel to help guide the “moonshot” cancer initiative announced this year by Vice President Joe Biden.

“Immunotherapy represents a fundamentally new, breakthrough treatment paradigm in the fight against cancer,” Bluestone said.

“It harnesses the body’s own powerful immune system to mobilize its highly refined disease-fighting arsenal to engage and eliminate the cancer cells.”

Bluestone was the founder and served for 10 years as director of the Immune Tolerance Network, a multicenter clinical immunology research program.

Partners in the project in addition to UCSF include the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Stanford Medicine, UCLA, the University of Pennsylvania and The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Parker and his wife Alexandra were holding a gala event in Los Angeles to mark the launch.

The event is to “unveil and celebrate a new philanthropic venture and recognize the heroes who, over the last decades, have brought us to this turning point in the war on cancer,” a statement from the foundation said.

Attendees expected include entertainment stars such as Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Sean Penn and Ron Howard, as well as tech industry leaders such as Jack Dorsey of Twitter, Anne Wojcicki of Google and Laurene Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs.

The event was to feature a musical performance by John Legend and “a surprise guest.”

Facebook brings ‘chat bots’ to Messenger

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP): Facebook on Tuesday extended its reach beyond online socializing by building artificial-intelligence powered “bots” into its Messenger application to allow businesses to have software engage in lifelike text exchanges. The move announced at the leading online social network’s annual developers conference in San Francisco came as the number of monthly users of Messenger topped 900 million and the Silicon Valley company works to stay in tune with mobile Internet lifestyles. “We think you should be able to text message a business like you would a friend, and get a quick response,” Facebook co-founder and chief Mark Zuckerberg said as he announced that developers can build bots that could even be better than real people at natural language text conversations.

Bots are software infused with the ability to “learn” from conversations, getting better at figuring out what people are telling them and how best to respond.

The bots could help Facebook over time monetize its messaging applications and get a start on what some see as a new way of interacting with the digital world, potentially shortcutting mobile applications and sidestepping search.

“Our goal with artificial intelligence is to build systems that are better than people at perception - seeing, hearing, language and so on,” Zuckerberg said while laying out a long-term vision for Facebook.

A look at the number and types of services that titans such as Facebook, Google and Apple have rolled out in the last couple of years, it appears the companies are “trying to dominate the customers’ mobile moments,” Forrester analyst Julie Ask told AFP.

Artificial intelligence is already used in Messenger to recognize faces in pictures, suggesting recipients for messages and for filtering out spam texts.

“Soon, we are going to be able to do even more,” Zuckerberg said.

He promised a future in which Facebook AI would be able to understand what is in pictures, video or news articles and use insights to recommend content members of the social network might like.

Bot-building capabilities will be in a test mode with Facebook approving creations before they are released, according to vice president of messaging products David Marcus.

Some of the latest tools include one for the creation of “high-end, self-learning bots,” along with ways for them to be brought to people’s attention at Messenger, Marcus said.

“If you want to build more complex bots, you can now use our bot engine,” Marcus told a packed audience of developers.

“You feed it samples of conversation, and it’s better over time. You can build your bot today.”

The list of partners launching Messenger bots included Business Insider, which said it will use the technology to deliver news stories to people in real-time.

“We are excited about this new offering because we know that messaging apps are exploding in popularity,” Business Insider said in a story at its website announcing the move.

Cloud computing star Salesforce planned to use the platform to help businesses have “deeper, more personalized and one-to-one customer journeys within the chat experience,” said Salesforce president and chief product officer Alex Dayon.

Zuckerberg laid out a future for Facebook that, aside from Messenger, included ramping up live video streaming and diving into virtual reality. “We think we are at the edge of the golden age of video,” Zuckerberg said.

Facebook opened its Live platform to allow developers to stream video content from their applications to audiences at the social network.

Zuckerberg demonstrated with a drone that flew over those seated, streaming live video to Facebook while he spoke.

Messenger and Live will be built out further in coming years, along with virtual reality technology at Facebook-owned Oculus, according to Zuckerberg.

When his daughter takes her first steps, Zuckerberg said he planned to record it in 360-degree video so family and friends can experience it in virtual reality as if they were there for the moment.

At one point, Zuckerberg’s comments took on a political tone, with the Facebook chief maintaining that the mission to connect the world is more important than ever given rhetoric about building walls and fearing those who are different.

“If the world starts to turn inward, then our community will have to work even harder to bring people together,” Zuckerberg said. “Instead of building walls, we can build bridges,” he added, in an apparent reference to the fiery rhetoric of Donald Trump.

Vegetable fat not the route to a healthy heart

PARIS (AFP): Replacing animal fat in the human diet with vegetable oil seems not to lower heart disease risk, and might even boost it, according to a study published Wednesday that challenges a cornerstone of dietary advice. Switching from saturated to unsaturated Omega-6 fats did result in lower blood cholesterol in a trial with nearly 10,000 participants, it said, but not the expected reduction in heart disease deaths. In fact, those with a greater reduction in cholesterol “had a higher rather than a lower risk of death,” according to the research published by The medical journal BMJ. For 50-odd years, animal fat in meat, butter, cheese and cream has been the bad boy of the diet world - blamed for boosting artery-clogging cholesterol linked to heart disease and stroke.

In 1961, the American Hearth Association recommended vegetable oils replace saturated fats - a position it still holds even as some research has started to challenge that hypothesis.

The World Health Organization also advises that saturated fats should comprise less than 10 percent of total energy intake.

For decades now, the world has viewed full-fat milk and bacon with suspicion and replaced pork with chicken, and butter with plant-based margarines and cooking oils.

But in the past few years, researchers have started poking holes in the “fat is bad” hypothesis.

The new study, led by Christopher Ramsden at the National Institutes of Health, re-analysed data from a randomised controlled trial conducted 45 years ago with 9,423 residents of state mental hospitals and nursing home in Minnesota.

This is a type of experiment - generally considered highly reliable - in which people are randomly divided into groups to receive, or not, the treatment being studied.

Part of the Minnesota group had their intake of saturated fat replaced with corn oil, while the rest ate a diet high in animal fat.

“As expected, the diet enriched with linoleic acid (a fatty acid found in plant oils) lowered cholesterol levels,” said a statement by The BMJ.

But “this did not translate to improved survival. In fact, participants who had greater reduction in blood cholesterol had higher, rather than lower, risk of death.”

The team also looked at other randomised controlled trials, and found no evidence anywhere to support the hypothesis that vegetable oils curb heart disease.

“The benefits of choosing polyunsaturated fat over saturated fat seem a little less certain than we thought,” Lennert Veerman, a lecturer at the University of Queensland School of Public Health commented on the study.

Further research is needed, he added, to determine whether all Omega-6 type fats provide similar results. “While we wait for further clarification, we should continue to eat more fish, fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” Veerman wrote.

In January, updated US dietary guidelines reiterated that saturated fats should make up less than 10 percent of a day’s food intake - a recommendation that now “will be under increased scrutiny”, according to Veerman.

“If blood cholesterol values are not a reliable indicator of risk of cardiovascular disease, then a careful review of the evidence that underpins dietary recommendations is warranted,” he wrote in The BMJ.

Other experts stressed there was an established link between high cholesterol and the risk of heart attack or stroke.

“More research and longer studies are needed to assesses whether or not eating less saturated fat can reduce your risk of cardiovascular death,” said Jeremy Pearson of the British Heart Foundation.

Luxury or bust for foreign automakers in Japan

TOKYO (AFP): Tokyo businessman Randal Furudera isn’t about to swap his German-made BMW M5 for a “boring” Japanese car, although he’ll give them some grudging respect for their ho-hum dependability. Deep-pocketed buyers like Furudera are driving sales in Japan of high-end foreign brands, which dominate the niche sector in a car market long seen as all but shuttered to overseas automakers.

“Most Japanese cars these days are sort of becoming moving appliances,” the 54-year-old told AFP. “They’re very reliable, they’re good quality, they never break and all that, but they’re not very interesting to drive.” Mid-range foreign vehicles are a rare sight on Japanese streets, but it isn’t hard to spot a Porsche zipping around the capital or a nouveau riche billionaire behind the wheel of a half-a-million dollar Lamborghini.

Sales of the Italian sportscar in Japan doubled to about 300 vehicles in 2015 from a year earlier.

The jump comes as US car giant Ford announced in January it was quitting the country, blaming the “closed” market, after it sold fewer than 5,000 cars in 2015.

Less than six percent of the more than five million vehicles sold last year in Japan - the world’s number three car market - were made by foreign automakers.

US auto unions have blasted what they say are non-tariff barriers that shut the door on a sector already dominated by eight domestic carmakers, including Toyota, Nissan and Honda.

In 2013, former Ford boss Alan Mulally accused Tokyo of manipulating the yen’s sharp decline to gain a trade advantage for domestic firms, which sell millions of vehicles overseas, including top markets China and the United States.

The imbalance hasn’t gone unnoticed by bombastic US Republican party frontrunner Donald Trump.

“When did we beat Japan at anything?” Trump said in a speech last summer to announce his run for the presidency.

“They send their cars over by the millions, and what do we do? When was the last time you saw a Chevrolet in Tokyo? It doesn’t exist, folks.”

Trump is not far off - Chevrolet and Cadillac maker General Motors sold a puny 1,600 vehicles in Japan last year.

But it’s a different story for prestige foreign brands, whose success didn’t come without a fight.

They had to “overcome stereotypes like Western cars break down easily or they’re expensive to repair”, said Miki Kurosu, communications director for BMW Japan, which sold about 46,000 vehicles last year, along with 21,000 Minis.

Japan’s luxury car market has remained frothy despite a years-long downturn in the economy, while a stock market rally in recent years has also helped buoy sales.

Nissan considered selling its high-end Infiniti brand at home, as Honda did with Acura. But those plans were scrapped owing to foreign automakers’ dominance in the market.

Meanwhile, rival Toyota has struggled to score big with its Lexus in Japan, although sales have been on an upswing lately.

“Lexus is a bit behind. They had great ambitions when they launched the brand (at home) in 2005, but have not achieved their goals,” said Yoshiaki Kawano, an auto analyst at IHS Automotive.

German brands have slick marketing campaigns and a top-notch image in Japan, and rich drivers rarely switch brands so domestic automakers were late to the party.

“There is quite a bit of prestige attached to certainly the three main German brands,” said Furudera.

Foreign brands tend to focus on the driving experience, rather than just passenger comfort, added the car enthusiast.

In Japanese cars, “(passengers) are probably enjoying it more than the drivers - watching DVDs, getting a massage from their chairs - but the driver is not enjoying it that much”, Furudera said.

“In a German car, the driver gains the most - that’s kind of the big difference.”

While he may consider buying a Lexus down the road, it’s not likely to happen any time soon.

“I wouldn’t say never, but for now I think BMW still has the edge in terms of driving experience.”

Loch Ness monster find turns out to be film prop

LONDON (AFP): A marine robot deployed in the waters of Scotland’s Loch Ness has found the remains of a monster but it turned out to be a prop from a movie shot in 1970. The robot, belonging to Norwegian offshore oil company Kongsberg Maritime, is drawing up the first high-resolution map of the 230-metre (755-feet) deep lake in a project named “Operation Groundtruth”. “Although it is the shape of Nessie, it is not the remains of the monster that has mystified the world for 80 years,” Scottish tourism agency VisitScotland, which is backing the project, said on Wednesday. The agency’s statement said “Nessie found” with an asterisk at the bottom reading “replica model”. The blurry object with a long neck was a 30-foot (9.15-metre) long model of the monster made for the film “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”, directed by Billy Wilder.

“It is thought the model sank after its humps were removed (the buoyancy was in the humps) never to be seen again,” VisitScotland said in a statement.

The monster was actually a submarine in the film. The mapping is being carried out by a robot called “Munin”, which resembles a missile-shaped drone.

It also found a 27-foot long shipwreck, which is still being investigated, and worked out that there is no “Nessie trench” in the loch bed in which a creature could be hiding, as previously believed.

“The vehicle is providing insight to the loch’s depths as never before imagined. Finding Nessie was, of course, an unexpected bonus,” Craig Wallace, a Kongsberg Maritime engineer, said in a statement.

Previous discoveries made in Loch Ness include a crashed World War II bomber plane, a 100-year-old fishing boat and the remains of a speedboat used in a 1952 speed record attempt which killed its pilot.

The lake has been notoriously difficult to survey due to its depth and steeply sloping side walls.

VisitScotland estimates the revenue generated by tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of “Nessie” at £60 million (76 million euros, $85 million) a year.

Pay up or leave, British village tells park joggers

LONDON (AFP): A local authority in Britain has told a joggers’ group to start paying for the upkeep of the park they use for weekly organised runs or stay away, sparking outrage from British champion runner Paula Radcliffe.

“We have had operational issues affecting other park users. This has caused some friction,” a representative of Stoke Gifford parish council, a suburb of Bristol in southwest England, told AFP on Wednesday. The council on Tuesday voted six to four in favour of a motion giving “parkrun”, an organisation which stages free weekly five-kilometre (three-mile) timed runs worldwide, until May 28 to start paying.

“What we’ve asked parkrun to do is to contribute to the upkeep,” said the council representative, adding that the runs had expanded from around 60 people a week a few years ago to 300-400 people including many people from outside the village.

Parkrun’s chief operating officer Tom Williams said the decision was unprecedented, adding: “We are extremely disappointed.”

“Parkrun has had unprecedented success in engaging the least active and encouraging them to exercise regularly,” he said in a statement.

“Imposing a charge at one event is something that contradicts our founding principles and would set a precedent that threatens our future,” he added.

Radcliffe, who is the current holder of the women’s marathon world record, said on Twitter: “Am totally against this short sighted decision”.

An online petition on Change.org asking the council to change its mind gathered more than 20,000 signatures.

Octopus makes great escape from NZ aquarium

WELLINGTON (AFP): An octopus the size of a rugby ball made an audacious escape through a narrow pipe at New Zealand’s National Aquarium, reports said, with the “great escape artist” returning to the ocean.

“Inky” the male octopus, given to the Napier aquarium two years ago after being rescued from a crayfish pot, made a dash for freedom by slipping through a small gap in his enclosure, sliding across a wet floor and squeezing through a 150-millimetre-diameter (5.9 inches) pipe, Fairfax New Zealand reported Tuesday. “Octopus are really intelligent animals, very inquisitive, and they also tend to explore whenever they get the chance,” aquarium manager Rob Yarrell told MediaWorks’ Newshub Wednesday.

“Giving him just a little gap was enough for him to get out and we noticed the wet trail across to one of our drains.”

The reports did not state when Inky made his getaway, reportedly the first-ever at the aquarium. “They are great escape artists,” Yarrell told the New Zealand Herald, saying staff would be closely watching the remaining octopus in the enclosure.

While Inky was the size of a rugby ball he could stretch to extremes and squeeze through tiny spaces, Yarrell said. “As long as its mouth can fit,” he told Fairfax. “Their bodies are squishy but they have a beak, like a parrot.”