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Coming Soon: A Flu Vaccine For All Seasons?


Biotech startup NexBio Inc. has a plan to avoid flu-vaccine shortages such as the one that left so many Americans unprotected this year. Animal trials and other studies demonstrate that NexBio's experimental drug Fludase could be effective against most influenza strains, including avian flu. If its "prevent-all" vaccine proves viable, the development could attract other pharmaceutical companies that have shunned flu research due to the costly requirement of cooking up customized vaccines every year. Only two major flu vaccine makers supply the U.S. market.

Fludase's formulation is designed to disrupt the virus' normal life cycle. The vaccine blocks a key receptor on cells in the air passages of an animal that inhales the virus. Without the receptor, the microbe can't ensconce itself, replicate, and spread.

NexBio says the vaccine is stable enough to be stockpiled for several years. That matters to the U.S. government, which is funding the startup with biodefense grants and hopes to create stores of vaccines to guard against the threat of pandemics and potential bioterrorism attacks. NexBio intends to start human clinical trials this year.

Corrections and Clarifications

The NexBio drug described in "Coming Soon: A Flu Vaccine For All Seasons" (Developments to Watch, Jan. 24) doesn't block a receptor on cells, as stated. It removes the receptor.

Today's camera lenses share a basic flaw. Because the lenses are curved, images become unfocused at the edges. To correct the blurriness, high-quality cameras use up to eight lenses -- a costly fix. Now, inspired by octopus eyes, scientists have achieved supersharp focus with a single, cheaper plastic lens.

The sea creatures have evolved a lens structure several times stronger than a human's. Octopus lenses are made of many thin layers of varying densities. As light moves from one layer to another, it bends and focuses. Following this model, Eric Baer, a polymer scientist at Case Western Reserve University, and a team from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington stacked up hundreds of thousands of superthin plastic sheets of varying densities. The result is a defect-free lens thin enough to fit onto small cameras, surgical devices, and other compact gizmos. Baer now plans to create a flexible, zoomable version. With several parties interested in licensing his invention, Baer thinks it could be on sale within five years.

Students born abroad fill most of the seats in graduate-level science and engineering programs in the U.S. Yet last fall, enrollments of new and returning foreign students at most major grad centers fell. The trend confirms fears that foreign students are shunning the U.S., partly because of September 11-related visa hassles and a growing sense that the U.S. is less hospitable to foreign students.

Economists are trying to quantify the economic effects of this falloff. A study by researchers at University of Colorado at Boulder and the World Bank finds that a 10% rise in foreign grad students in the U.S. would bump up patent applications by 3.3%. Notably, patents granted to universities would grow by 6% and to non-university bodies by 4%.

It follows that a shrinking number of foreign-born science PhD and engineering degree candidates could lead to fewer new patents. That's bad news for an innovation-driven economy.

-- Mobile robot workers have already rolled into hospital wards. But where early medi-bots were little more than orderlies -- shuttling records, samples, and drugs around the hospital -- the next generation will do more to save lives. Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center is the latest of a handful of institutions to install a fridge-sized robot that can prepare up to 300 custom-mixed syringes every hour. Made by ForHealth Technologies, the $700,000-plus system uses bar-code tracking, machine vision, and weight-based quality checks. This should help slash the incidence of medication errors. Just don't ask it for advice.

-- The Environmental Protection Agency's beleaguered Superfund program was dealt another blow last month. On Dec. 13 the U.S. Supreme Court nixed the right of companies that voluntarily clean up toxic wastes on acquired sites to sue previous owners and polluters for a share of the costs. That ruling left open the possibility for similar suits under another part of the Superfund Act. But experts say the decision will mean fewer voluntary cleanups, especially on sites deemed a low priority by the EPA.


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