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Science & Technology
In the news of science

 Apr 30 - May 06, 2001

The world of science is limited only by man's curiosity and creativity. Each and every day new inventions and discoveries are announced. Here are this month's news items of interest.

Wavegen, a company in Inverness, Scotland, has commissioned the world's first commercial wave-power station, a device they built into the rocky west coast of the Scottish island Islay. It generates a peak power of 500 kilowatts (kW), enough to run about 400 island homes. The opening of the plant, named Limpet, stems from a dream that dates back at least 2 centuries. That's when two French inventors filed the first known patent for a scheme to harness ocean waves to run a machine. Even Thomson and others at Wavegen admit, however, that the small power plant they've built is far from the ultimate realization of that dream. Although Limpet now supplies power to the local electric grid, it can't yet beat the prices of other renewable or conventional energy sources. Wavegen expects to generate a kilowatt-hour of electricity for 7 to 8 cents, whereas fossil fuel and nuclear plants yield the same energy for about 5 cents. Nonetheless, wave-energy developers take heart that their projected generation cost has already dropped to about half of what it was for wind energy at an equivalent developmental stage. ( Science News Online).

A new innovation being used to procure organs for transplant was introduced in February at the New England Medical Center in Boston. The donation program, known as "Hope Through Sharing". Dr. Michael Angelis, a transplant surgeon at the hospital, told Reuters Health that "if a transplant donor is not blood-compatible with a relative awaiting transplant, then they could donate to a matched person at the top of the cadaver kidney waiting list, and the relative would then move to that position.'' He added that "it does not affect the waiting times for other people, so it is really a win-win situation.'' "In this region there are about 4,000 people on the kidney transplant waiting list,'' Angelis said. "The waiting times, especially for O-blood types, are 3 to 4 years,'' he pointed out. "The program gives more and more people the opportunity to be an organ donor.'' "So far, we have done two cases through the program,'' Angelis said." "In the first case, a mother was unable to donate a kidney to her 13-year-old son.'' The boy underwent kidney transplantation a few weeks after her donation. Otherwise, he would have probably spent 2 years on dialysis awaiting transplantation, Angelis noted. In the second case, a women donated her kidney and advanced her husband's position on the waiting list. He is currently awaiting transplantation. "Before offering this program to patients and their relatives, it is important to determine that the recipient will, in fact, be able to receive a transplant,'' Angelis emphasized. The relatives of patients who are unlikely to receive or benefit from a transplant should be discouraged from entering the program, he said. (Reuters News).

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center have been able to grow nerve cells, or neurons, by stretching them and offering a new means of bridging damaged areas of the nervous system. Using a motorized device to slowly pull connected neurons away from each other, the Penn researchers have discovered that the connecting nerve fibers, called axons, grow longer in response to the strain. In addition, the researchers have grown these elongated nerve fibers directly on a dissolvable membrane, ready-made for transplant. "Most studies have examined axon growth in terms of how axons sprout from one neuron and connect to another. But there is an equally important form of axon growth that has been overlooked, the growth of axons in terms of the growth of the entire organism," said Douglas Smith, MD, lead researcher on the project and associate professor in the Penn Department of Neurosurgery. "In a way, stretching is akin to how nerve cells grow in developing children, as they get taller their axons get longer." As with all strategies to bridge nerve damage, Smith hopes that the neuron's own innate ability to connect will allow transplantable axon bridges to rewire damaged nervous tissue. In addition to spinal cord repair, Smith conceives of using the elongated axon cultures as a bridge for other types of neural injuries affecting long axon tracts, including optic nerve damage and peripheral nerve damage. "The idea itself may seem like a stretch," said Smith, "but we are only at the beginning of learning what we can do with this concept." (Greg Lester - Uniscience).

This item would appear to prove that capitalism is alive and well, even in Russia. The U.S. space agency has agreed to allow American millionaire Dennis Tito aboard the International Space Station next week. Tito, 60, a wealthy space buff, is believed to be paying Russia $20 million for the trip. NASA has expressed safety concerns about Tito's flight, saying the Californian is not adequately trained and might prove a distraction to the crew. The deal reached would essentially mean neither Tito nor his family would sue NASA if anything went wrong, and it would require he pay for anything he broke. NASA spokeswoman Kirsten Larson told Reuters the partners of the International Space Station were discussing ways to resolve the issue and reach a consensus. The partners include U.S., Russian, European, Canadian and Japanese space agencies. "Until all the partners have signed off on a joint position, I can't comment on what specific outcomes there will be,'' Larson said. "We're all talking about it we're all working toward a consensus on the issue,'' she said. (Reuters News).

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