New clues about MS, and an Rx for brain injuries

-- Another reason to quit: Smokers are at greater risk of developing multiple sclerosis. Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway, reporting in the journal Neurology, examined 22,312 adults and found 87 cases of MS. Smokers were almost twice as likely to develop the disease as people who never took up the habit. Each year MS hits over 400,000 Americans, causing symptoms that can range from blurry vision to seizures.

-- MS was also the topic of a report from scientists at the State University of New York at Buffalo. They found that the mental and motor skills impairment caused by the illness is linked to iron deposits deep in the brain's neurons. MS has long been thought to damage the white matter between the neurons.

-- A synthetic form of cannabis called Dexanabinol won fast-track status from the Food & Drug Administration as potentially the first drug for traumatic brain injury. The ruling guarantees that the drug will be reviewed within six months of an application. Developed by Pharmos Corp. (PARS) of Iselin, N.J., Dexanabinol could reduce brain damage in the hours after injury. Decades ago, scientists learned that mild pulses of electricity can induce bone cells to grow more bone. So if a little zap can help heal fractures, might it also prod hair follicles to keep making hair? The outlook is promising -- particularly for cancer patients likely to lose hair during chemotherapy.

Since 1987, Vancouver (B.C.)-based Current Technology has been working on a device that sends electrical pulses through hair follicles. It's modestly effective at boosting hair growth -- about the same as topical drugs such as Minoxidil. But doctors in New Zealand got more striking results when they used CTC's device on women undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer. Twelve of 13 women didn't experience the usual hair loss from the cancer drugs, making it easier for them to cope with the other side effects of chemotherapy, reports lead investigator Dr. Timothy Meakin. A new search engine has the potential to steal Google's thunder. The developers of "Dipsie" claim that when it goes live next July, the program will search 10 billion Web pages, triple the number Google searches.

There's an appetite for better results. Independent studies show that 50% of consumer searches don't find the desired information. That's largely because the specialized programs used by most search engines sniff out mostly "static" Web pages. The majority of the Net's newest information, however, is in "dynamic" sites featuring sound, video, or material customized to a surfer's request. Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ), for example, adds thousands of custom pages to its site each year, and Dipsie execs claim their engine will connect users better than rivals.

What's Dipsie's secret? All search engines use algebra to prioritize relevant items. Dipsie adds language-based, or semantic, analysis to the equation, sensing content and context. So it can figure out whether "cat" means a cute critter or Caterpillar (CAT). This improves the odds for spot-on results. Counterfeiters can fake labels, but they can't copy DNA. With that in mind, Los Angeles-based Applied DNA Sciences is marketing a copy-proof ink containing an unusual ingredient: engineered DNA strands that are impossible to replicate. "[DNA is] the most complicated password on earth," says Julia Hunter, Applied DNA's director.

Each batch of genetic material is unique, custom made by splicing together bits of DNA from different plants. These delicate molecules are then wrapped in resilient membranes, which can protect them for more than 100 years. Since the compound is neither corrosive nor toxic, it can be applied directly to all kinds of products, used in printed labels, embedded in tiny sensors, and even sprayed on food. Inspectors can then read the marker by swiping it with a special reagent that changes color in the presence of this particular type of genetic material.

The Commerce Dept. is trying out the technology to authenticate American-made textiles. In the future, contends Hunter, everyone from fashion designers to electronics manufacturers similarly could be marking their brands using nature's own code.

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