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Science & Technology

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Science & Technology

From Diana J. Choyce
Apr 09 - 15, 2001

There are always interesting things going on in the world of science. Some border on the downright silly, while others speak of a future man has only dreamed. Man's curiosity of the world around him has lead to the most amazing discoveries. That same curiosity has also lead to some dismal failures. But one thing is certain, man will continue to pry, prod, and dig for the answers to every question that arise from his creative mind. Here are some news items that give one cause to ponder the future.

After genetically altering mice so they stopped producing a certain enzyme, Salih Wakil, a biochemist at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, found the mutant mice weighed up to 15 per cent less than normal mice and carried up to 50 per cent less fat. And that, adds Wakil, was after the altered mice had eaten "to their hearts' content" up to 40 per cent more. "This could be good news for the couch potato guys," says Wakil. "They can sit on the couch and eat fries and not worry about putting on a paunch." Sound too good to be true? Scientists say caution is in order since the experiment was performed only once and only in mice. "There seems to be a lot of interest in finding a quick cure to obesity," says Neil Ruderman, a physiologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston who reviewed the study. "But whether this can lead to a safe and effective drugs we can't yet know." Wakil's team is now researching compounds that could be placed in a pill to block the expression or secretion of ACC2. The pill would first be tried in mice, then in Primates such as monkeys. Wakil expects such a pill could be available to people within five years if the research goes according to plan. (ABC News).

A groundbreaking new surgical procedure is showing remarkable promise in relieving severe bone disease and the pain associated with it. By applying a new genetically engineered puttylike protein to the diseased area, surgeons are succeeding in getting the patient's body to grow new bone right where it's needed. The procedure is still in the early stages of testing but has proven safe and effective in 19 patients with degenerative spondylolisthesis, a painful back and leg problem caused when a vertebra in the spine degenerates and slips over another vertebra. The new bone spackling procedure fuses the diseased vertebrae, thereby helping to alleviate intense pain and other symptoms of the condition. The procedure should also work well for people with fractures and spine deformities and can potentially be used anywhere surgeons need to stabilize a body segment that moves. "Bone genetic protein is one of the great hopes of modern orthopedic surgery and spinal surgery," says Edward N. Hanley, MD, chair of the department of orthopedic surgery at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C. "People have been waiting with bated breath for this. If the right protein and the right dose can be arrived at and if it works as well as it did in other models this will greatly transform how we do spinal surgery," he tells WebMD. "It means no more bone grafts, improved healing rates it will revolutionize spine surgery as we know it." "This is likely to be one of the most actively accepted procedures ever by surgeons and patients," says Alexander R. Vaccaro, MD, the first surgeon to conduct the special surgery. "It will dramatically improve a person's chance of healing." (webmd.com).

An anticancer extract derived from the spine of the dogfish shark appears to double the survival time for patients suffering from deadly kidney cancer giving patients who have exhausted all other options an extra 8 months of life. "This new data is also very encouraging," said Dr. Ronald Bukowski, director of experimental therapeutics program at the Cleveland Clinic Cancer Center and one of the principal investigators who studied the drug, Neovastat, produced by Aeterna Laboratories Inc., Quebec City, Canada. In the study, presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research in New Orleans, La., researchers said that patients who received a higher dose of Neovastat survived for an average of 16.3 months, compared to 7.1 months for patients who received a lower dose of the drug. "The average life expectancy for a person with renal cell cancer who is progressing after exhausting all options is about eight months," said Dr. William Li, MD, president of the Angiogenisis Foundation and a faculty member at both Harvard and Tufts universities, Boston. "The Neovastat study is among the first anti-angiogenesis reports where scientists have shown a statistically significant survival benefit," Li said. "Survival benefit is the Holy Grail of cancer treatment." (Environmental News Network Inc).

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison are developing a device that will allow people to "see" the world with their tongues. They say the tongue is an effective portal to the brain because of its sensitivity, and electrical impulses created by a camera and a computer can allow users to sense objects in space, as impulses from working eyes do naturally. "Initially, when you first start training on it, you feel everything on the skin [or the tongue]," says Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita, a professor of rehabilitation medicine and biomedical engineering at the University of Wisconsin. "But after about 10 hours, you forget about the skin and feel everything in space." After being trained with the device, subjects are able to sense their surroundings and react to them automatically, Bach-y-Rita says. New users tell him the array of electric stimulators on the tongue feels "like bubbly water, or champagne bubbles," though the sensation fades into the subconscious as users become accustomed to it. (ABC News).