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A 49-year-old hippopotamus named Bulgy may hold the key to the next generation of sunscreens. Christopher Viney, a professor at the new University of California at Merced, has spent the past year collecting and scrutinizing sweat from the 6,500-pound mammal, which lives at the Chaffee Zoo in Fresno, Calif. Viney hopes that as Bulgy perspires, he'll also inspire new ideas in the fight against cancer-causing ultraviolet rays.
Hippo sweat, it turns out, is a marvel of skin protection. In addition to preventing sunburn, the red gelatin-like ooze seems to ward off insects. And even though hippos sustain scrapes and bruises as they aggressively defend their territories, the wounds rarely get infected -- suggesting their sweat might also be a powerful antibiotic.
Viney is preparing a paper describing the molecular structure of hippo sweat. Bulgy is waiting for his next skin-care consulting gig. A new breed of backpack can convert the motion of walking into electric power. Designed to help soldiers and emergency responders keep their radios going longer and ease their load at the same time, the suspended load backpack (SLB) has a rigid frame, like those on hiking packs. But the bag itself is fastened to springs and slides along a track. As you walk, the load rises and falls a few inches, driving an assemblage of gears connected to a generator. The power output increases with the weight of the pack and the speed of the walker, says Larry Rome, a biologist at the University of Pennsylvania who led the SLB's development. When worn by a walker moving at a steady clip, carrying 40 to 80 lbs., the pack puts out up to 7.4 watts -- plenty to power a head lamp, phone, and global positioning system device. The spring-based design also reduces the peak effort needed to carry a given load. With patents pending, Rome plans to start licensing the design by next year.
The illustration on the right shows how the pack works. To its left there's a close-up of the electricity-generating hardware. The green-toothed rack moves up and down, causing the gear mounted on the electrical generator to turn.
Windows users: Watch a video of the backpack in action It might be the latest example of thinking outside the box, or bag in this case -- specifically trash bags. They are made from polyethylene, a plastic that is cheap, tough, and keeps bad smells inside. But NASA is flipping that around: The same material might keep radiation outside a spaceship.
Because trash-bag film is too flimsy for a spaceship, NASA researchers Raj Kaul and Nasser Barghouty began adding "secret spices" to polyethylene. The best result so far is called RFX1. The material is not only stiff but also three times stronger than aluminum -- and 2.6 times lighter. More important to astronauts on future missions to Mars and other long space flights, the material might reduce the risk of developing cancer because it blocks solar radiation and cosmic rays better than aluminum.
RFX1 is just for starters. Among other shortcomings, it may not hold up under prolonged exposure to the searing, 450F heat of the sun in space. So look for an RFX2. -- A team of scientists led by the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia has discovered a natural chemical in virgin olive oil that reduces inflammation. The substance -- named oleocanthal and described in the Sept. 1 issue of the journal Nature -- inhibits the pain-causing Cox-1 and Cox-2 enzymes. Further research into how the chemical works might yield alternatives to Cox-2 inhibitors such as Vioxx and other drugs that have been sidelined by safety issues.
-- A drug being tested to treat cancer may also help fight a rare genetic disorder that causes premature aging. The disease, called progeria, strikes one in 4 million babies, prompting their cells to age so rapidly that patients rarely live past the age of 12. There are no treatments. On Aug. 19 scientists from the National Institutes of Health announced that a class of experimental drugs called farnesyltransferase inhibitors (FTIs) not only block some cancer-causing proteins but also reverse aging in skin cells taken from progeria patients. If the researchers can validate their discovery in mice, they may launch human studies in 2006.