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Why NASA Is Waxing Euphoric


The space shuttles of the future may blast off with a new type of rocket fuel that is safe, efficient, environmentally friendly--and a lot like candle wax. Current rocket fuel is not only expensive but also hazardous to transport, so rockets must be fueled at the factory. The new paraffin-based fuel is more stable and can be trucked to the launch site. In addition, the combustion of paraffin fuel releases only carbon dioxide and water, whereas conventional rocket fuel produces a variety of toxic gases, including hydrogen chloride.

The paraffin fuel is the result of a two-year collaboration between scientists at Stanford University and the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., where the space agency is testing the fuel. Stanford professor Brian J. Cantwell says the hybrid fuel may permit NASA to develop rockets that could be shut down and restarted, whereas current rockets cannot be shut off after ignition. "One design concept being considered is a new hybrid booster rocket that is able to fly back to the launch site" for refueling, he says. "This new fuel could significantly impact the future of space transportation." Most of the improvements in cancer treatment in recent years have involved novel drug therapies. But Italian doctors are showing that surgery can play a role that is just as revolutionary. A team of 50 physicians and scientists at San Matteo Hospital in Pavia removed a man's cancerous liver and whisked it to a nearby nuclear facility, where they blasted it with radiation for 11 minutes. Less than 35 minutes after the organ was removed, the doctors reinserted it, and the patient was on his way to recovery.

The 49-year-old Roman patient, Pasquale Toso, had been given a prognosis of only a month to live after colon cancer spread to his liver. The liver was riddled with more than 14 tumors that proved resistant to chemotherapy. A year after the December, 2001, procedure, Aris Zonta, a professor at the University of Pavia, says Toso's liver appears to have healed.

Zonta spent 15 years developing his technique. By removing the liver, the doctors were able to deliver a much higher and uniform dose of radiation than if the organ had remained in the body. There are now six other liver-cancer patients awaiting approval to undergo the surgery. Although it's still too early to judge the long-term success of the operation, Zonta says that in time, it could be applied to other transplantable organs, such as the lungs, pancreas, and kidneys. It's no fun visiting a clinic or hospital every time you need a blood test. But millions of people suffering from cancer and other debilitating diseases depend on such routine tests to keep track of their condition. To make their lives easier, NEC (NIPNY), Motorola (MOT), and other chipmakers are developing biochips that will enable patients to conduct their own blood test in a few minutes without leaving home.

The latest announcement comes from NEC researchers, who have developed an analysis system comprising two devices, each the size of a stick of chewing gum. One part filters blood to separate out plasma; the other sorts large molecules from smaller ones in the plasma by means of microscopic pillars etched on the surface of silicon.

For now, NEC is testing the system to identify DNA. Next, the system will begin sorting blood proteins to check for signs of diabetes, high cholesterol, and cancer. NEC says its biochip will give a reading in several minutes, at a cost of about $20 per chip. "Pond scum" may soon conjure up something besides an insult. Researchers have found a way to use algae commonly found on stagnant water to grow an antibody that attacks the herpes simplex virus. If the technique pans out, it could lead to a cheap, fast way to produce any number of life-saving drugs on a large scale.

Antibodies--bits of protein produced by immune-system cells--have been engineered by biotech companies to treat a range of diseases. The breakthrough cancer drugs Herceptin and Rituxan are both antibodies. But the current manufacturing techniques--multistep fermentation processes using mammalian cells--are extremely complex and expensive, limiting the availability of some of these drugs.

Scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., say that the single-cell green algae they engineered to produce their anti-herpes protein might get around these manufacturing issues. As reported in the Jan. 8 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a gene that is responsible for producing the antibody is inserted into the alga genome, and its product is then purified out. Scripps scientist Stephen Mayfield says the process is much cheaper and faster than current methods.


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