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Businessweek Archives

Tapping The `Wet Wire' Within

Developments to Watch


MORE THAN A FEW OF THE thousands of computer executives at last week's Comdex computer trade show in Las Vegas probably shared the experience of spotting a familiar face, shaking hands, and then struggling to recall the name.

Anticipating such awkward moments, IBM was on hand to demonstrate its new Personal Area Network, or PAN. The prototype consists of a transmitter the size of a fat credit card and a slightly larger receiver. When two people with PANs shake hands, the physical contact completes an electric circuit. The transmitters then send enough data to create an electronic calling card on a computer screen. The current is only a billionth of an ampere--much less than a small static-electric shock. But it's enough to carry a stream of digital bits.

The new networks are the brainchild of Thomas Zimmerman, a researcher at Big Blue's Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., and Neil Gershenfeld, a professor at the Media Laboratory of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They figure that such PAN systems could help personal electronic devices communicate with each other. Using the bearer's body as a "wet wire," a PAN would let your pocket pager send a caller's phone number to a cell phone in your other pocket. Then you could hit one button to dial the number.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


MOST CANCER PATIENTS DON'T die from their initial tumors. Usually, it's the cancers' metastases to other organs that prove fatal. Now, scientists in California have engineered a sticky protein molecule that may provide some defense. In experiments with mice, the molecule appears to patrol the bloodstream, attaching to migrating cancer cells and encapsulating them before they become implanted at new sites.

Researchers from the Burnham Institute--a cancer research lab in La Jolla--injected the molecule, which they call superfibronectin, into mice with virulent tumors that typically spread to the lungs and lymph nodes. In a report in Nature Medicine, the researchers say the cancers' spread to the lungs was reduced by two-thirds, while metastases to the lymphatic system were completely eliminated. There were no apparent side effects in the animals, says Dr. Edward A. Sausville, associate director of the National Cancer Institute's Developmental Therapeutics Program. The NCI program will now collaborate with the California team on tests against ovarian tumors in mice.

Superfibronectin is an enhanced version of a natural protein, fibronectin, that acts as scaffolding for healthy cells while they form whole tissues and organs. Erkki Ruoslahti, a molecular biologist and president of the Burnham Institute, says superfibronectin is stickier than the original because it has more binding sites that can attach to receptors on tumor cells--but not to healthy cells. Burnham has licensed its technology to Tumorex, a San Diego biotech startup.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS By David GrahamReturn to top


IF YOU SHOULD WANT TO miniaturize the precision instruments used to monitor operations in a factory, getting help from a Swiss watchmaker might be a good idea. That's what Keithley Instruments Inc. in Cleveland figured when it decided to raise the standards for its line of quality-control systems. But Swiss expertise turned up right under its nose in nearby Solon, Ohio--home to Valtronic USA Inc., which helped engineer the Swatch.

Keithley's new instruments are the size of candy bars, not suitcases, and 50 times faster than before. They are small enough to snuggle up to manufacturing operations, or even get inside, to keep watch over such variables as size, torque, or strain. Keithley believes the technology is a major step toward more efficient, distributed-control systems for factories of all kinds.EDITED BY NEIL GROSS By Otis PortReturn to top

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