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Bio Warfare's New Recruits

Developments to Watch


VACCINES COULD PROTECT SOLDIERS AGAINST INSIDIOUSLY altered strains of anthrax and other microbes. But the vaccines must be deployed quickly. With today's tools, it could take scientists months to culture some virulent new strain, choose a protein target, purify it, and incorporate it into a vaccine.

Help in speeding that process may come from tiny Siga Pharmaceuticals Inc. in New York City, which recently received an $800,000 grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for vaccine development. Siga's technique involves attaching foreign proteins such as antigens and antitoxins to harmless bacteria that normally inhabit mucous membranes of the mouth and nasal passage--the primary gateways to infection. This method of attaching proteins is the product of 30 years of research at Rockefeller University by Siga's co-founder Vincent A. Fischetti--head of Rockefeller's bacterial pathogenesis lab--and by his partner, Oregon State University biologist Dennis E. Hruby.

Ultimately, within a week of identifying a pathogen on a battlefield, scientists should be able to select an appropriate host bacterium in the nose or mouth and rejigger its genes. The host could then secrete an antigen in the soldier's tissues to prompt an immune response in case of a viral attack. Or the bugs could be forced to secrete enzymes that would break down botulin or other toxins.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


ON JAN. 1, THE FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION dictated that cereals, breads, and pasta should contain at least 140 micrograms of folic acid per serving to protect against birth defects. It was a good idea, except for one thing: The level of folic acid may be too low.

The consumption of folic acid, found in grains and in leafy green vegetables such as spinach, has been linked to lower rates of spina bifida and other birth defects. An Apr. 9 study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported that folic acid might also lower blood levels of homocysteine, a substance linked to heart disease. But the study, done at the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center, found that homocysteine levels fell only in those subjects who consumed 400 micrograms of folic acid a day in their fortified cereal. That is double what most Americans actually get.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top


INSTEAD OF SCREENING thousands of chemical compounds at random to find drugs, pharmaceutical companies often use a technique called rational drug design to create them from scratch. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, materials scientists are taking the same tack.

In the Apr. 16 issue of Nature, a group of MIT professors describe the invention of a lightweight and inexpensive cathode for lithium-ion batteries, which could replace a pricey lithium-cobalt compound that's widely used today. Instead of testing thousands of possible replacements, the MIT team calculated the optimum characteristics for the cathode--one of two electrodes in a battery that combine to create a current. Then the scientists concocted a cobalt-alumin- um mixture to fit the bill.

The professors have licensed the new cathode to Pacific Lithium Ltd., an Auckland, New Zealand, supplier of high-grade lithium. The company plans to market the cathode in late 1998. And it could reduce battery prices by 25%, says Pacific Lithium CEO Robin T. Johannink. But that's just for starters. The MIT team has licensed Pacific Lithium a second cathode design, for which patents are pending. Gerbrand Ceder, principal author of the Nature paper, won't identify the second compound. But he says it will bring further reductions in battery weight and price. Next year, the same scientists may have an even bigger announcement. They're working on a whole new concept for light, flexible lithium batteries that don't require any liquid electrolytes.EDITED BY NEIL GROSSReturn to top

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