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Keeping Cockpit Controls out of Hijackers' Hands


Preventing a recurrence of the September 11 atrocities is the No. 1 priority for Theodore A. Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who specializes in security issues. Even today's tighter airport-security measures are "a half-assed job that's just not acceptable," he scoffs. And some proposed cures might be worse than the disease. For example, modifying the auto-pilot system so ground personnel could seize control of a plane may seem clever--until hacker-terrorists learn to hijack planes remotely.

Instead, Postol wants the autopilot changed so that cockpit controls work only when a plane is flying within its authorized air corridor. If a plane deviates from its flight path, the autopilot would take over and bring the plane back on course. In an emergency, a pilot could request a special code that would reroute the plane to the nearest airport--but nowhere else.

Postol also calls for video recording of the passenger cabin--viewable from the ground before any jet is ordered shot down. "You want to be absolutely sure that this terrible choice is not as bad as the alternative," he says. These steps will be costly, but the U.S. can no longer tolerate "all those potential missiles flying around with no control over them." Though the U.S. is rushing to make enough smallpox and anthrax vaccine to cope with a bioterror attack, those vaccines won't help against other germs. But a group of scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center has a possible solution: a quick way to crank out vaccines against new biothreats.

The basic idea: Inject different cocktails of genes from a bacterium or virus into different animals. Those genes, in turn, will cause the animals to make proteins. And the proteins will stimulate immune responses.

Scientists then infect each animal with the bacterium or virus--and see which creatures can fight off the germ. If the animals are protected, the researchers can figure out which protein did the trick. That protein becomes the basic material for an effective vaccine. Says Stephen A. Johnston, director of the university's Center for Biomedical Inventions: "Rather than trying to guess what bug a crazy person" might use, the method makes it possible to respond relatively quickly to deadly new threats. Program managers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which funded the work, hope it may be possible to make a vaccine for a new pathogen in days. Johnston estimates, however, that it would take nine months to a year for full development.

To prove the principle, Johnston has made a vaccine against chlamydia and another bug. Now, he's eager to try his hand at making smallpox and anthrax vaccines that don't have the side-effects of today's versions. The university has licensed the technology to Dallas startup Eliance Biotechnology for commercialization. Lights and reflectors are a cyclist's best nighttime defense. Still, many cyclists are struck by careless motorists. Three University of Florida engineers think they can cut down on such accidents with the help of electroluminescent strips. The one-pound system blinks for up to 30 hours on just three 9-volt batteries.

The glowing material isn't anything new, concedes assistant engineering professor Christopher Niezrecki, who came up with the bright idea. These low-temperature, light-emitting phosphorus compounds have been used for years in watches and plug-in night-lights. Niezrecki found a clever way to stretch the luminous strips and apply them to the bike frame and wheel rims. Together with undergraduates Gregory Yoder and Matthew Young, Niezrecki built a glowing blue prototype, which drew rave reviews at a recent Las Vegas trade show. Now, with a patent in the works, the university is looking for commercial partners to mass-produce the system for around $70 per bike. Studies in rats suggest that high doses of the drug Ritalin, used to treat attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cause brain changes like those produced by cocaine or amphetamines. "Our data suggest there are cellular reactions to Ritalin that last longer than the three or four hours it's working on ADHD symptoms," says Joan S. Baizer, a neuroscientist at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

She says the changes produced by Ritalin might be neutral--or even beneficial-- and children should not stop taking it. "I give my own children Ritalin," says Baizer, who reported her results on Nov. 11 at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego. "It's a very safe and effective drug."

Baizer says Ritalin alters the activity of a gene called c-fos, part of a system that controls other genes in neurons. The significance of this isn't clear, but it also occurs with cocaine and amphetamines, which, like Ritalin, are stimulants. There is, however, no evidence that Ritalin is addictive.

Ritalin's maker, Novartis (NVS), says controlled long-term studies haven't been done, but observations of children and young adults show no adverse effects.


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