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Businessweek Archives

Cloth That Clobbers Germs

Developments to Watch


SOMETIMES THE KITCHEN SEEMS LIKE A war zone. Raw chicken could leave salmonella smears on the cutting board, and lethal germs might be dripping from the raspberries. No wonder business is booming at Microban Products Co. in Huntersville, N.C. Since 1990, it has been supplying manufacturers of hospital gear with antimicrobial chemical additives. Mixed into synthetic fibers in protective clothing or bedcovers, these pellet-encased additives kill bacteria and fungi on contact. The pellets stay embedded in finished materials, impervious to repeated washing, according to product testers at North American Science Associates Inc., Kennesaw, Ga.

Now Microban is expanding into the home, supplying the pellets to manufacturers of kitchen cutting boards, pillows, sheets, bathroom towels, and mops. Toymaker Hasbro Inc. is test-marketing children's high chairs with Microban additives molded into the food tray. The treatment adds about $10 to the price of a $70 high chair, according to Hasbro. Toys may be next, says the company. One nice feature: Bugs don't seem to build up resistance to these chemicals, which are also widely used in antibacterial soaps and deodorants. And testers at Gibraltar Labs Inc. in Fairfield, N.J., say a battery of tests uncovered no indication of toxicity for humans.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


IN THE FILM TOTAL RECALL, Arnold Schwarzenegger's memory implants seemed pretty far-fetched. But were they? After analyzing the latest trends in neurological and semiconductor research, scientists at British Telecommunications PLC have concluded that in about 30 years, it will be possible to capture data representing all of a human being's sensory experiences on a single tiny chip implanted in the brain.

This feat will be possible thanks to advanced circuit-printing techniques such as X-ray lithography, which will drastically shrink circuits on memory chips. By 2025, predicts Christopher S. Winter, research group leader at BT Laboratories, one chip will store some 10 terabytes of information, roughly 1 million times as many bits as today's state-of-the-art chips. Sensory data would be captured via a series of biological probes tapping electrical impulses from about 1 million of the brain's optical, auditory, olfactory, touch, and taste nerves.

Collecting thoughts or emotions may prove to be impossible. But storing pure sensory data is feasible, Winter says, because the firing of neurons is already a binary, "on/off" phenomenon akin to digital electronics. If such chips were ever developed, applications would literally boggle the mind. People could access an implanted chip to relive experiences, or they might extract and wire it to a computer so that memories could be displayed on a screen. In theory, chips could even be transplanted from one person's brain to another's.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS By Heidi DawleyReturn to top


THE U.S. BIOTECH INDUSTRY HAS PRODUCED FEW BLOCKbusters like Amgen Inc.'s erythropoietin (EPO), a multibillion-dollar anemia drug. But EPO suffers from a common problem: It's a large molecule that is destroyed by digestion and must be injected rather than swallowed as a pill.

In the July 26 issue of Science, researchers at R.W. Johnson Pharmaceutical Research Institute, Affymax, and Scripps describe a possible solution. Using combinatorial chemistry--a technique for shuffling molecular building blocks to create thousands of drug candidates--they produced a protein fragment, or peptide, that mimics the larger EPO molecule but is just one-fifteenth its size. The scientists used the new compound to understand exactly how the chemical binds to--and turns on--the body's EPO receptor. This peptide won't replace EPO, the authors caution. In its current form, it would neither bind strongly to the receptor nor survive digestion. But sturdier varieties could come soon.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS By John CareyReturn to top

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