Developments to Watch
SWEETHEART, GET ME REWIND
JOURNALISTS MAY NOT NEED TO JUGGLE NOTEBOOKS AND tape recorders much longer. Lisa Stifelman, a 30-year-old graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, has merged the two in a digital audio notebook. This device eliminates the need to play back or transcribe long interviews or lectures. You simply take notes as usual, while a chip-based recorder captures the sound. When you're finished, tap an audio scroll bar next to any hard-to-read portion of your notes or touch a particular word, and the notebook will replay its recording at that spot.
Developed with support from AT&T, the National Science Foundation, and others, the notebook consists of a magazine-size wooden board fitted with a speaker and microphone. It holds a pad of 5 1/2-inch by 9-inch paper, which lies above a grid of sensors that synchronize the writing with the audio taping. Bar codes on the paper tell the chip what page you're looking at. And the digital pen tells it where you are on the page. Stifelman figures the device would also appeal to travelers who want to preserve sounds in their journals, along with their thoughts.By Scott Lafee EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
SHEDDING LIGHT ON DRUGS
BIG SCIENCE CAN BEAR unexpected fruit. In the early 1980s, physicist John G. Rushbrooke was looking for the top quark at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) outside Geneva. There he became interested in the light-channeling properties of dense bundles of optical fibers. That led him to create a different kind of imaging device that needs no lens. Now it's poised to give a boost to combinatorial chemistry, a way to make and screen thousands of drugs fast.
Here's how it works: Scientists mix minuscule amounts of computer-designed drug candidates with fluorescent dyes and place them in rows of tiny "dimples" on a plastic tray the size of a file card. The drugs are then combined with biological targets--for example, viruses or bacteria, and the trays are placed on a box containing fiber bundles. If a drug attacks the bugs, the dye gives off a faint glow, which the optical fibers can pick up.
Rushbrooke says researchers can now screen a thousand compounds per minute--a hundredfold increase in speed compared with other methods. His company, Cambridge Imaging in Cambridge, England, has licensed the technology to Packard Instrument Co., a Meriden (Conn.) instrument maker that will provide prototypes to Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Glaxo, Merck, and other drug outfits.By Susan Jackson EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top
BETTER PICTURES OF LUNGS AND BRAINS
MRI, OR MAGNETIC RESONANCE imaging, works because atoms spin like a child's top. If you place a person in an external magnetic field, some of the body's spinning hydrogen atoms will line up--a process called polarization. That's the first step toward making sharp pictures of the body.
However, MRI has limitations. Only a tiny fraction of the hydrogen atoms in the body can be polarized. And organs such as the lungs, which contain little water--hence little hydrogen--can't be imaged in this fashion.
Now, an improvement in MRI is emerging from research on so-called noble gases such as helium, argon, and xenon. Using lasers, a Princeton University team led by physicists Will Happer and Gordon Cates was able to polarize virtually all of the atoms in samples of two such gases. Working with colleagues at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Duke University, they showed that standard MRI produces much sharper pictures of mouse lungs when the animals have inhaled polarized helium or xenon. And because xenon is soluble in blood, the technology should be applicable to other hard-to-image parts of the body, including the brain.
Ironically, Happer didn't set out to improve medical imaging but to probe basic science. The U.S. Air Force funded him in hopes of building a better gyroscope. That never materialized, but MRI is on a fast track. The research team has launched a company called Magnetic Imaging Technologies Inc. in Research Triangle Park, N.C., to commercialize their ideas.By John Carey EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top