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Businessweek Archives

Now, Surgeons Can Nip And Tuck In 3 D

Developments to Watch


IT HAS THE SMOOTH CURVES of a dashboard from a 1950s sedan, with seven placid eyes staring back at you. But those eyes are really camera lenses hitched to a laptop computer and modem. Together, the lenses take highly detailed, full-color digital pictures in 3-D that can guide plastic surgeons with greater precision than two-dimensional images. The contraption, dubbed Virtuoso, will be unveiled in March by Pittsburgh startup Visual Interface Inc., headed by Carnegie Mellon University professor Jon A. Webb, who developed the 3-D system with a student, Larry Zitnick.

In addition to selling the $15,000 camera, Webb's company will "develop" the pictures, most likely through an Internet connection to the surgeons. What the doctor gets back, a few minutes after E-mailing the raw data, is a 3-D model that can be rotated or tilted, this way and that, to measure not only surface distances but also tissue volumes. This, says Webb, will help plastic surgeons do a better job of modeling replacement breasts following mastectomies. Volume calculations are also crucial for the latest rage in plastic surgery: liposuction.By Stephen Baker EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


IT IS ONE OF THE MOST daunting scourges hospitals face--a bacterial infection in the bloodstream. Called sepsis, it can set in after surgery, traumatic accidents, or pneumonia. It kills 175,000 Americans a year, since doctors lack sufficient drugs to defeat it.

Pharmaceutical companies are readying new antibiotics, but other novel approaches could offer faster relief. Molecular biologist Roger A. Sabbadini at San Diego State University recently discovered how the infection leads to the destruction of heart tissue, which is the culprit in most sepsis deaths. In the December issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation, he argues that the infection causes heart cells to commit suicide--a process called apoptosis.

The theory has received a warm reception from other heart experts. "It's an exciting new development that could lead to a new type of therapy," says Dr. Robert L. Engler, associate chief of staff for research and a sepsis authority at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in La Jolla, Calif.

Sabbadini studied a hormone called tumor necrosis factor alpha, or TNFa. The hormone attaches to heart cells during septic-shock episodes, but its function was previously unclear. When Sabbadini exposed cultures of rodent heart cells to it, TNFa initiated the cells' natural self-destruct program, shredding the cells' DNA. Sabbadini is now running tests to see if a protease inhibitor, similar to those used to combat the AIDS virus, will block the actions of an enzyme that contributes to apoptosis and thus protect the heart cells. Leaning on Sabbadini's work, giant Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. is looking at apoptosis as a place to intervene against sepsis-related heart damage.By David Graham EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


IT'S COMFORTING TO KNOW most states have enhanced their phone networks so that when you dial 911, your exact whereabouts are instantly relayed to an emergency dispatcher. Cell phones are a different story. This became woefully clear in early January, when a South Dakota woman who got lost in a storm was trapped in her snowbound car for 40 hours. She could talk to her rescuers over her car phone but not explain where she was.

To prevent such misadventures, the Federal Communications Commission now insists that cell-phone operators come up with a way to geographically pinpoint wireless 911 calls by October, 2001. Associated Group Inc. in Bala-Cynwyd, Pa., has a clever solution, called TruePosition. Their plan calls for adding a special receiver to thousands of cell sites around the country to give 911 calls special treatment.

Instead of being handled by one base station, as with ordinary cell-phone calls today, each 911 call would be automatically picked up by three or more towers. Ultraprecise atomic clocks at each site would track the time it takes for the call to reach TruePosition receivers. Computers at call-processing centers would then triangulate the data arriving at the towers at different times and create an electronic map for the dispatcher. Associated Group says the technology has been tested and could be installed nationwide well in advance of the FCC's 2001 deadline.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top

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