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A Way to Test Drugs on Fetuses--without the Fetus


Premature labor is the most common complication of pregnancy, affecting 1 in 10 expectant mothers. Despite major advances in neonatal care, studies indicate that preemies are more likely to suffer debilitating heart and respiratory conditions, as well as learning disabilities, than their full-term counterparts.

To date, doctors have had to rely on just a handful of medicines to stop preterm labor. That's because pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to test novel compounds that potentially could harm the mother or child.

But what if you could test the drugs in a bioengineered placenta, outside the body? Douglas A. Kniss, a researcher at Ohio State University, is doing just that. He has coaxed individual placental cells to proliferate and form a three-dimensional structure whose cells have finger-like projections. These cells produce hormones characteristic of a normal placenta, nurtured by a blood-like broth that flows through the tissue carrying nutrients and oxygen.

Kniss's research, which is being patented, could have a profound impact on the medical treatment of all expectant mothers, not just those at risk for preterm labor. "Clinicians prescribe drugs based on a lack of evidence of problems, not proof that they are actually safe," he says. As consumers get pickier about what they eat, food processors are finding themselves in a jam: How can they guarantee that the products they're selling are truly organic, say, or not genetically modified? Leave it to us, say execs at Deere & Co. (DE) Working with two partners, the farm-equipment leader plans to help food companies seamlessly track crops they've contracted to buy, from farmers' fields to their loading docks.

The service is based on the global positioning satellite technology that Deere already offers on its machinery. Data on what seeds are planted where and which fields have been sprayed with pesticides are precisely mapped and then uploaded, real-time, to a secure Web site run by a Deere affiliate, VantagePoint Network LLC. Subscribing food companies can access this info anytime they like. In addition, CropVerifeye.com LLC, another Deere partner, will send auditors into fields and barns to spot-test corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops for chemicals or genetic modifications.

Deere's service is free to farmers, but will cost processors about $3.50 an acre. The nerd look may be in, but even the most fashion-conscious diva is likely to cringe at the thought of donning Adaptive Eyecare Ltd.'s novel glasses, called AdSpecs. That is, until she finds out what they can do. In minutes, the wearer can adjust the lenses to fit her prescription. Studies by Adaptive Eyecare show that the optical quality of these adjustable lenses is as good--or better--than that of traditional eyeglasses. And since the specs can be mass-produced at one location, they cost only a few dollars to make. That would be a real boon to people in developing countries who lack money for prescription lenses.

The AdSpecs' lenses, which are the brainchild of Oxford University physicist Joshua D. Silver, are made of mylar and filled with silicone oil. Customizing the lenses to a person's eyesight is done by adding or withdrawing a small amount of oil via a syringe on either side of the frame, thus changing the curvature of the lenses. Once the prescription is adjusted, the syringes are removed and thrown away.

Silver estimates his AdSpecs can be produced for about $5 a pop. He says the company will begin shipping first-generation versions to developing countries in the next three to six months. More fashionable next-generation models will be available in about a year. -- Europe's Framework program, the blueprint for European Commission spending on research and innovation since the mid-1980s, could be getting a healthy 17% boost, to $16.5 billion. That's the figure on the table for the next four-year plan, which kicks off in 2003. In addition to accelerating online collaborations among university and industrial researchers, the EC wants to translate more university research into products in areas like biotechnology, nanotechnology, and aeronautics.

-- Tina M. Nenoff of Sandia National Laboratories and researchers from four other institutions have developed a "water softener" for radioactive dumps. Their concoction is a trap that admits only specific molecules--just like the tiny sponges in water softeners that sop up metals in tap water. When these cages were tailored to admit strontium-90, the micro-sponges snared 99.8% of the noxious ions. If the microcages are then heated to 500C, they collapse and seal the strontium inside, ready for burial.

-- It's a standing joke among scientists: Fusion power was always more than a decade off--and it still is. But now a team of European physicists led by Sandra Chapman at Britain's University of Warwick claims to have discovered what may be the key to producing inexhaustible energy by fusing hydrogen atoms from seawater. The group is constructing the first computer model that can simulate fusion's so-called H mode. That's when the superhot plasma gathers itself into a stable sunlike furnace--a fireball that should be easier to contain within the magnetic force fields of special reactors, such as tokamaks. Details will appear in the Mar. 19 issue of Physical Review Letters.


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