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Locking In Brand Loyalty

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MAKERS OF LAPTOPS, CELL PHONES, AND OTHER consumer gear want users to stick with their brands when they buy add-ons such as battery packs or expansion cards. It's a way to ensure quality, manufacturers say. It also lets them charge a premium for accessories.

Next month, their mission could get a lot easier, thanks to a new chip from EXEL Microelectronics Inc., a San Jose (Calif.) subsidiary of Japan's Rohm Co. EXEL's new chip uses the same "challenge-and-response" encryption tricks that Net surfers use to protect E-mail. When a new battery is plugged into an EXEL-protected cell phone, for example, an EXEL chip embedded in the battery performs an electronic "handshake" with a corresponding chip in the phone. In that handshake, the phone chip issues a random, 32-bit number to the battery chip, which combines that number with a longer, 64-bit "key," and bounces it back to the phone. If the new number doesn't match a similarly calculated number in the cell phone, the battery is rejected. Bad news for consumers, perhaps, but good news for manufacturers.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


WHEN ASSAULTED BY HEAT OR pathogens, most organisms produce "stress proteins"--mysterious molecules believed to be crucial in monitoring cell health and maintaining immune responses. Scientists are beginning to understand how they work and may soon harness them to fight AIDS, cancer, and some hereditary ailments.

In a report in the June 17 issue of the European Molecular Biology Organization's EMBO journal, Richard I. Morimoto, a molecular biologist at Northwestern University, reports that two stress proteins called HSP 90 and HSP 70 help to make sure that certain other proteins in a cell are folded into the proper configuration. Abnormalities in folding are implicated in such human ailments as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, the human analog of mad cow disease.

Morimoto's report complements an earlier announcement from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass. Collaborating with StressGen Biotechnologies Corp.--a biotech startup in Victoria, B.C.--Whitehead scientists injected mice with a genetically engineered vaccine made of stress proteins and purified HIV viral proteins. Later, when the mice were infected with whole HIV viruses, they were able to fight the infection.

StressGen wants to develop such mixed-protein vaccines for a variety of diseases. It is also developing cancer therapies. By injecting stress proteins into mouse tumors, StressGen scientists hope to make the animals' immune systems recognize and destroy the tumors.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


AMERICA IS SLOWLY WAKING UP FROM THE NIGHTmare on Elm Street--the onslaught of Dutch elm disease that began in the 1930s and wiped out 90% of American elms. After more than 20 years of effort, the U.S. Agriculture Dept.'s National Arboretum has identified two varieties of American elm that are unusually resistant.

The work was more high-patience than high-tech. Plant geneticist Alden M. Townsend (photo) and his since retired colleague, Lawrence R. Schreiber, took cuttings from healthy elms and grew thousands of trees, then injected them with the Ophiostoma ulmi fungus. The Valley Forge variety was first in resistance and New Harmony second, ahead of the popular Liberty that's distributed by the Elm Research Institute of Harrisville, N.H. (The institute says its elm has a longer record of success.)

Now it's elm lovers who must be patient. The trees won't hit nurseries until 1999 and won't reach full height until 2050. And we may never again see majestic rows of elms--it's bad practice to plant them close together because their roots graft and transmit diseases.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS $by By Peter CoyReturn to top

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