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A Breakthrough in the Battle against Malaria


West Nile virus is making news, but malaria is far more deadly--it kills 2 million people a year. Recently, Louis Schofield, a researcher at Australia's Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, made a startling discovery that may lead to a vaccine. The parasite transferred by the mosquito's bite releases a toxin that seems to trigger the characteristic fevers and convulsions. This toxin molecule is so tiny that it often eludes detection by the immune system. That's why the disease is so deadly.

Schofield teamed up with Peter H. Seeberger, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemist, to create a synthetic version of the toxin--and attach it to a large protein. More than two-thirds of mice injected with this molecule survive malaria. In stark contrast, as the researchers report in the Aug. 15 issue of Nature, every mouse that did not get the synthetic molecule died. The researchers believe they'll be able to increase the survival rate. Tests on monkeys will be launched soon, and human trials may start in two years. In June, one of the worst fears of health-care workers was vividly realized. A patient in Lansing, Mich., became infected by a form of Staphylococcus aureus that sloughs off even vancomycin, the antibiotic of last resort against drug-resistant bacteria. The emergence of such superbugs, which experts have long predicted, poses a grave threat. But bigger bugs--insects--may provide new ammunition against the microbes.

A research group at Philadelphia's Wistar Institute has found a potential stinger in European fire bugs, Pyrrhocoris apterus. From these spotted-wing insects, a team led by Laszlo Otvos Jr. has derived a peptide, called pyrrhocoricin, that exploits a previously unknown mechanism to kill bacteria. The peptide binds to and disables a protein called DnaK, critical to life because it repairs other proteins in most bacteria. The Wistar team will also report in the European Journal of Biochemistry, a Web journal, that the peptide does not bind to either human or mouse versions of DnaK, suggesting that a drug based on the molecule should be safe to administer to humans. But proving that will require several years of further testing and clinical trials. Trains that zip between cities at 300 mph, using magnetic levitation (maglev) to fly on air, have been promised for years. But so far, only a few miles of expensive maglev track have been funded. Now, SRI International figures that a different application will reap richer rewards: moving parts and products within factories.

The Menlo Park (Calif.) company has developed a conveyor system that exploits so-called diamagnetic levitation. Many everyday objects, including water and wood, are weakly diamagnetic--that is, they're repelled by magnetic fields. When placed near powerful magnets, diamagnetic materials can be repelled to the point where they actually rise into the air. So SRI has engineered a maglev conveyor that can carry parts on a cushion of air, eliminating wheels and rollers. Conventional conveyors increasingly pose risks because, as friction wears them down, they give off tiny airborne particles that can contaminate drugs or gum up the delicate circuitry on computer chips.

Maglev conveyor systems could float a wide range of weights, according to senior research engineer Jon Heim. The first installation may soon be hauling 22-pound loads around a disk-drive factory. But this approach to magnetic levitation won't help with trains, he admits--it can't handle fast-moving objects. -- A big asteroid slamming into the earth could cause a global catastrophe--unless scientists develop a method of deflecting asteroids before they hit. The European Space Agency is funding development of a plan by Spain's Deimos Space. The Madrid company envisions launching two spacecraft. One would smash into some distant asteroid, and the other would measure the effects.

-- Researchers at IBM (IBM) and Nion Co. in Kirkland, Wash., have developed an electron microscope that sees things no other microscrope can, such as atoms deep inside semiconductor materials. The trick is adaptive optics--a system of 40 magnetic lenses that corrects for aberrations. The current model can resolve features as tiny as 0.75 Angstrom. That's smaller than an atom. IBM expects the next version to do better, perhaps 0.25 Angstrom.

-- Too bad Popeye didn't have a sweet tooth. Honey, it seems, provides as many good-for-you antioxidants as the leafy green stuff that many kids and grownups eat only grudgingly. The antioxidant content of honey also compares favorably with that of apples, bananas, oranges, and strawberries, according to an Aug. 19 report at the American Chemical Society's annual meeting by Nicki J. Engeseth, a food chemist at the University of Illinois.


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