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Nature's Antidote To Nerve Gas


Human blood has a protein that can sop up nerve gases, rendering them harmless, but the levels are too low to save people who are exposed. Two research teams, both backed by the Defense Dept., are testing bulk-produced quantities of these bio-scavengers as vaccines or post-poisoning antidotes.

DynPort Vaccine is in the lead. The Frederick (Md.) unit of Computer Sciences began clinical trials in January, injecting 20 adult volunteers with butyrylcholinesterase, a protein derived from plasma (BAX).

PharAthene of Annapolis, Md., is producing a recombinant version of the protein in the milk of transgenic goats. It aims to move to human trials in 2008.

Researchers at North-western University say that they have discovered a way to get around resistance to standard malaria treatments—one that won't require the development of an expensive new drug. Propranolol, a 40-year-old medicine for high blood pressure, stops the parasites that cause malaria from hijacking the red blood cells they use to proliferate.

Malaria strikes 350 million to 500 million people each year and kills 1 million to 2 million. There is no vaccine for the disease, and the mosquito-borne parasite becomes resistant to drugs because its molecular structure can mutate quickly.

A research team led by Dr. Kasturi Haldar decided that instead of attacking the parasite directly, they would block its entry into blood cells. Working with mice, they discovered that the beta-blocker propranolol caused red blood cells to reject the parasite. Left exposed, the parasites in propranolol-treated animals could be killed with one-tenth the amount of antimalarial medicine

The ideal solar cell would convert all the energy in a ray of light into electricity. In practice, photovoltaics like those on rooftops capture less than 20%.

With the help of a solar concentrator, a record of 40.7% has been set, however, by scientists at Spectrolab, a subsidiary of Boeing. The supercells rely on a special multilayered structure. Each slice captures a different bit of light's energy spectrum. In place of silicon, the material used to make most solar cells, Spectrolab uses costlier gallium arsenide. But since it's deposited in superthin layers, costs shouldn't be high.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that the breakthrough could lead to systems priced at $3 per watt, about half today's rate, delivering power at 8 cents to 10 cents per kwh.

— A region of the brain called the insula, which regulates feelings, plays a key role in smoking addiction. If it's damaged, even longtime smokers lose the urge to light up, according to doctors from the University of Iowa and the University of Southern California. They stumbled on this discovery when a man who had been smoking 40 cigarettes a day suffered a stroke and quit without effort. They then studied 69 smokers with brain damage; of the 19 with damaged insulas, 13 quit smoking.

— Cauliflower isn't just good for you—it may be good for other vegetables. Scientists at the Agriculture Dept. say they've isolated an orange cauliflower gene that promotes high beta-carotene accumulation in plant tissues. Biologist Li Li of the department's Plant, Soil & Nutrition unit is trying to use the gene to induce high levels of beta-carotene in other food crops. The human body uses this substance to make vitamin A, which is essential for eye health and the immune system. Vitamin A deficiency affects 250 million children worldwide and is the leading cause of childhood blindness.


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