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Will Chips Make Pills and Shots Obsolete?


As long as pills and injections remain the standard methods of delivering drugs, patient compliance is likely to be a problem. People afflicted with diabetes, cancer, or AIDS would certainly appreciate an easier way.

John T. Santini Jr., president and chief scientific officer of MicroCHIPS Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., says that within five years, he may be ready to market an appealing option for some types of drugs. The company is revving up development of a small but smart drug-delivery device. It's a chip packaged in titanium, about the size of a quarter, that would be implanted in the body, probably near the abdomen. It contains 400 wells that hold concentrated drug dosages, along with a microprocessor and a battery that can last a year. The chip would be programmed to release medication when a patient needs it by dissolving a microscopic gold electrode that caps each well.

The advantage this method has over other implants and medical patches is that it can deliver more than one drug at different intervals. That would be especially useful for cancer patients, who often take several types of chemotherapy.

Down the road, drug doses might be customized for patients and timed to attack a cancer cell at a precise moment in the cell cycle, says Philip C. Smith, director of drug-delivery systems at GlaxoSmithKline PLC. Hormones could be delivered in periodic bursts to mimic the body's production rather than in steady flows. And the chip need not be removed if the schedule changes: The patient or doctor could reprogram it using a handheld wireless device. An anticancer compound under investigation at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine shows promise in an unexpected arena: obesity. Biologist Francis P. Kuhajda and his colleagues report that the drug, called C75, strongly reduces appetite in mice--and brings additional benefits. When animals produce fat, Kuhajda says, they also produce a molecule called malonyl-CoA that inhibits the burning of fat for fuel. It does this by blocking an enzyme, CPT1, that serves as a kind of gatekeeper, allowing fat to enter the cells' mitochondria. When mice are given C75, their levels of malonyl-CoA skyrocket, which ought to signal that they'll store more fat. But instead, Kuhajda notes, CPT1 performs better than ever, and the mice actually burn fat more quickly than control animals do. Kuhajda's team is working with a Hopkins spin-off, FASgen Inc., to separate the anti-obesity effects from the anticancer effects. And they are starting to test a second generation of anti-obesity molecules on mice. The arrest of a suspected al Qaeda operative thought to be planning a "dirty bomb" attack highlights the terrifying risk posed by such radioactive explosives. At the Systems Management & Production Laboratory, on the University of Alabama's Huntsville campus, Director Gary A. Maddux was one step ahead. In the wake of September 11, he concluded that first responders would need new tools to assess the contamination caused by such a bomb. The result is ALARM--Automatic Large Area Radiation Mapper--a handheld device that helps rescuers quickly define the area of greatest risk.

Maddux realized that by knowing where it's hottest, emergency personnel could cut their own risk, evacuate those at greatest peril, and isolate the most dangerous areas. To create ALARM, Maddux's team cobbled together off-the-shelf hardware--a PDA, a global-positioning system plug-in card, and a compact geiger counter--into a prototype able to record radiation levels as rescuers probe a bomb site. The resulting coordinates, he adds, can be used to rapidly construct a perimeter map of radiation intensity.

Having received a thumbs up for a unit tested by the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, Maddux now wants to pass the design on to a manufacturer, gratis. "You develop it because it's needed, but you hope it's never used," he says. -- Using conventional microscopes, Steven Finkbeiner was unable to fully monitor neurons ravaged by Huntington's disease. So the researcher at the Gladstone Institute of Neurological Disease invented a better scope. Fitted with robotic controls and homegrown software, the device, for the first time, has enabled Finkbeiner to precisely track individual cells over a period of days or weeks while repeatedly transporting the cell cultures in and out of the incubator.

-- Before scientists are able to bestow on humans the salamander-like ability to regenerate limbs, they must learn a lot more about the genes that regulate growth. Toshihiko Ogura may have elucidated one small piece of the puzzle. By implanting in chick embryos so-called TBX genes associated with the growth of fingers and toes, Ogura and his team at the Nara Institute of Science & Technology in Japan were able to add new bones to the second and third toes of the developing chicks.

-- How big is the promise of agricultural biotech? The National Center for Food & Agricultural Policy, a research organization backed partly by agribusiness, recently reviewed 40 case studies of 27 crops. It concluded that the use of biotech could help increase yearly food production in the U.S. by 7 million tons and add $2.5 billion to farm income while slashing pesticide use by 81,500 tons.


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