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A Superfund Site Helps Fight Cancer


The poisonous waters of a huge toxic lake in Butte, Mont., may turn out to be the mother lode for disease-fighting compounds. The Berkeley Pit Lake, part of the nation's largest Superfund site, was a mile-wide open-pit copper mine before it was abandoned in 1982. It is now filled with 30 billion gallons of metal-contaminated, acidic water that is deadly to most aquatic life. But scientists from Montana Tech of the University of Montana, also in Butte, have discovered in its dark waters a number of microorganisms called extremophiles that could be the basis of new drugs.

The team, led by chemist Andrea A. Stierle, reports in the July 7 issue of the Journal of Organic Chemistry that one such extremophile, a species of Penicillium fungi, exudes an acid that is active against ovarian cancer cells isolated in test tubes. Stierle's team earlier discovered microbial substances that proved effective against lung cancer cells in test tubes, and blocked nerve cell receptors that can cause migraine headaches. The research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The first estimate of the worldwide costs of Alzheimer's disease, made by Sweden's Karolinska Institute, puts the total at $248 billion this year, which it says is more than the gross domestic product of all but 18 of the world's 216 countries. Researchers are hoping to lessen this burden by coming up with ways to detect and treat the disease in its earliest stages.

Currently, Alzheimer's can be diagnosed only at an advanced stage. Studying mice genetically engineered to develop the condition, a team from Harvard Medical School discovered last year that the plaque that collects in Alzheimer's-afflicted brains also accumulates in the eyes.

At a recent medical meeting, the Harvard team reported that an infrared light beamed into the eyes of Alzheimer's mice could detect this plaque at 10 months, long before it could be found in the brain or eye by conventional methods.

You're at a dinner party, dessert is on the table, and coffee is being passed around. You want some, but you'd prefer to avoid the caffeine, and decaf just doesn't taste the same. Now, DeCaf Co., a privately held startup in San Francisco, has a novel solution. The company has developed a stirring stick that draws the caffeine out of a cup of coffee, tea, or soda.

The sticks make use of a technology called molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs). These polymers behave like synthetic antibodies, attracting the caffeine molecules and pulling them out of the liquid. When one of these sticks, which look something like tongue depressors, is swizzled in coffee, it can remove up to 70% of the caffeine, says DeCaf. The longer you stir, the more caffeine comes out.

DeCaf CEO Mel Stuckey says he hopes to license the product to a food or beverage giant. The company is in the process of getting its method verified by the Food & Drug Administration.

-- Scientific meetings are not exactly the most fashion-forward events. But the biotech community tried to counteract the geekster look of at least one such confab, the recent World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology & Bioprocessing in Toronto, by putting on an haute couture fashion show. The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) showcased dresses made from Ingeo, the first fiber spun from corn syrup. Introduced by Cargill three years ago, Ingeo is a biodegradable polyester made from renewable crop sources, unlike petroleum-based polyesters.

-- Foreign objects get left in patients' bodies in one out of every 10,000 surgical operations, and two-thirds of those objects are sponges. To guard against such mishaps, doctors at Stanford University tested a handheld scanner that can detect sponges tagged with radio frequency identification chips. In trials with eight consenting patients, the scanner detected all of the sponges that were purposely left behind. They reported the results in the July issue of Archives of Surgery.


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