Developments to Watch
TINY BACTERIA MAY GIVE RISE TO KIDNEY STONES
NASTY MICROBES MAY BE THE SOURCE OF MORE MISERY THAN MEDICAL SCIENCE HAS REALIZED. A growing list of cancers has been linked to bacteria and viruses, as has atherosclerosis. Now, kidney stones may join the roster.
The culprit seems to be one of a newly discovered breed of microorganisms dubbed nanobacteria because they're extremely small. They're so tiny that they shouldn't even be alive, according to classical criteria, says their discoverer, Dr. E. Olavi Kajander, a researcher at the University of Kuopio in Finland. The nanobugs may have gone undetected until now for another reason, apart from their size: They hide inside tiny shells that they build around themselves. "The carbonate-apatite shells, or caves, really fascinated us," says Kajander.
Analysis of the shells revealed them to be strikingly similar in composition to the mineral clusters found in kidney stones and calcium deposits in blood vessels. So Kajander and microbiologist Neva Ciftcioglu dissected 30 human kidney stones. Sure enough, they found nanobacteria in every stone. And when they infected healthy human cells with the nanobacteria, the cells developed mineral deposits both inside and outside, according to a report that was published in the July 7 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Establishing a direct causal link will take more sleuthing. That's now under way, with help from NASA researchers. Kajander says he is confident he will soon be able to submit a paper proving that nanobacteria cause human kidney stones.Otis PortReturn to top
MAN'S BEST FRIEND--AND NO SCOOPER NEEDED
FOR SEVERAL YEARS, ENGINEERS AT SONY CORP. have been working on what they call the ultimate toy: a pet robot that can walk, lie down, and play games on command. At Sony's breeding ground for digital critters--a Tokyo lab known as "D21"--engineers developed a prototype (right) that made a splash at RoboCup '98, a robot event held in Paris in July.
Don't be fooled by appearances. This 2.8-pound robot looks like a puppy, but it packs a 64-bit central processing unit, 8 megabytes of memory, and a supersensitive camera "eye." Stick out your hand suddenly, and it will sit. More important, says Sony, the dogbot is reconfigurable, so the owner can swap out limbs, or even the head, and reprogram the entire instruction set.
Each module in the dogbot is "intelligent"--outfitted with its own motor and control chip. So a four-legged canine can be transformed into a two-wheeled rolling robot. Toshitada Doi, head of the D21 lab, anticipates a consumer market for kids sometime around the turn of the century. By then, dogbots could give real Rover a run for his money.Irene M. KuniiReturn to top
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FOR THE E.R., HELP IN A HEARTBEAT
HEART ATTACKS ARE SOMETIMES TOUGH TO DIAGNOSE. Studies reveal that as many as 5% of sufferers who show up in emergency rooms get misdiagnosed. Now, a Toronto company claims to have a diagnostic blood test that delivers nearly 100% accuracy in just 15 minutes. This summer, pending Food & Drug Administration approval, Spectral Diagnostics Inc. hopes to begin marketing a new generation of its Cardiac STATus test in the U.S. The handheld plastic device detects three proteins--myoglobin, troponin I, and CK-MB--that are sloughed off by the heart at different stages of a cardiac problem.
The test's chief virtues are speed, reliability, and simplicity, says Dr. Isser Dubinsky, chief of emergency medicine at Toronto Hospital, who has used predecessors of the new test. A technician puts in a few drops of blood: If the patient has had an attack, purplish lines appear on the device. STATus will sell for about $35 per test.Joseph WeberReturn to top