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Businessweek Archives

`Training' Cells To Fight Cancer And Other Diseases

Developments to Watch


DENDRITIC CELLS ARE THE pacesetters of the human immune system--they regulate the activity of immune cells in lymph nodes. Now, these white blood cells may be harnessed as the building blocks for potent therapeutic cancer vaccines.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) are "training" dendritic cells to target specific tumors afflicting individual patients. The researchers are able to do that by culturing the cells with synthetic peptides that mimic a protein from a patient's tumor. When the altered dendritic cells are then injected into the patient, they activate the T-cells and other disease fighters to attack tumor cells throughout the body. "Our goal is to create a less toxic and more effective therapy," says surgical oncologist Michael T. Lotze.

Limited human trials at Pittsburgh's Cancer Institute clearly show promise. In the most dramatic cases, melanoma tumors disappeared in two patients. In studies involving mice, dendritic cells trained with melanoma or lung carcinoma cells resulted in vaccines that prevented tumors from growing in healthy mice--and shrunk the tumors in 80% of mice with cancer.

UPMC recently received $10 million from the National Cancer Institute to expand its dendritic-cell research. Other Medical Center researchers hope dendritic cells can boost the immune system's response to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and human trials aimed at HIV are scheduled to begin this fall.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


AFTER ORVILLE AND WILBUR Wright made aviation history at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, their feat initially met with widespread disbelief. Today, a plan to commemorate that flight in 2003 is also raising eyebrows.

Engineers at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., want to emulate the Wrights's achievement--by launching the first plane on Mars. The estimated tab: $48 million.

The Ames team, led by Lawrence G. Lemke, chief of advanced projects, has already designed a robot plane and dubbed it Kitty Hawk. It would be carried to the Red Planet like the Mars Rover but launched in the air, as its spacecraft parachutes through the atmosphere. Kitty Hawk would carry cameras and sensors like those used on Earth for aerial surveys and mapping mineral deposits--and relay images far more detailed than those from satellites. The main target is Valles Marineris, a canyon more than 100 times bigger than the Grand Canyon whose formation has so far defied geological explanation. Images from the flight's final minutes would be even more detailed, because Kitty Hawk would glide to a crash after three hours and 1,000 miles.

Kitty Hawk is among some two dozen ideas now competing for $300 million so-called Discovery mission funding. NASA expects to pick the winners next May.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top


HUNGRY MOLECULES INHABITING PORES IN MINUSCULE CERAMIC beads could soon be cleaning up vast amounts of contaminated soil and water. Researchers avbt the Energy Dept.'s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNL) in Richland, Wash., believe the beads may be the best pollution fighter yet.

Ounce for ounce, the ceramic beads can gobble up more mercury or lead than anything else, says PNL scientist Jun Liu. It's hard to imagine, he explains, but a tablespoon sprinkled on a hazardous-waste site would act like a "sponge" with a surface area as big as a football field. And the molecules can be tailored for industrial chores, such as extracting precious metals from wastewater at mines and metal-finishing plants.

The technology is called SAMMS--for self-assembled monolayers on mesoporous supports. The drawing shows a hexagonal section of porous surface. In the closeup on top, a molecule with oxygen, carbon, and hydrogen atoms (red, gray, and white, respectively) ends in a thiol group (yellow) that has latched onto a mercury ion (blue).

PNL is working with Mobil Corp., which developed the process that stuffs the ceramic pores with molecules. And 3M is working on ways to embed beads in conventional membrane filters. Next year, PNL expects to launch SAMMS demonstration projects for metal finishing and mining.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top

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