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Businessweek Archives

Making Sex Safe From Disease

Developments to Watch


AMERICA IS IN THE MIDST OF an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, and other bugs strike some 10 to 12 million people each year. One in five adults now has herpes, for instance. And a new study in the Sept. 10 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine shows that fully 9.2% of 13,204 female U.S. Army recruits tested were infected with chlamydia, a disease that can lead to infertility.

The frontline defense against STDs is the condom. But studies show that condoms are only about two-thirds successful in preventing disease transmission--and rates of use in the general population never exceed 50%. As an alternative, a number of companies are developing antimicrobial salves that women can smear in the vagina before sex that would kill any bacteria or viruses that their partners may harbor.

Furthest along, microbe experts say, is Empyrean Bioscience Inc. in Phoenix. The company is testing a gel containing two substances, otoxynol-9 and benzylkonium chloride, which can block everything from HIV and herpes to chlamydia and syphilis by disrupting cell membranes. It acts like a soap, attacking the organisms without affecting human cells. So far, studies in women show that the product can be used with little irritation.

Full-scale National Institutes of Health-run phase-III clinical trials are scheduled to begin this fall. They will involve Duke University students and other women from both North Carolina and South Carolina.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNSTReturn to top


RED LIGHTS FLASHED AND BELLS CLANGED when U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson carried a briefcase into a new checkpoint at Moscow's Sheremetyevo-1 Airport on Sept. 2--and that's bad news for terrorists. Richardson was testing a system designed to prevent bomb-grade materials from being smuggled out of Russia.

The briefcase contained only radioactive cesium-137, used in medicine. But pirated plutonium and uranium from Russia have turned up in Europe on a handful of occasions since 1991. To clamp down on illegal nuclear traffic, the U.S. will spend $6 million to help the cash-strapped Russian government install 16 radiation checkpoints in Moscow's two airports and link all the monitors to a central alarm system. Aspect Scientific & Industrial Center in Dubna, Russia, builds the monitors, and Los Alamos National Laboratory helped design the alarm system, slated to be operational next year.

Securing Moscow's airports is just for openers. The Energy Dept.'s labs are working with Russia's customs agency to lock up other gateways. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, for example, is overseeing the installation of nuclear detectors on the docks at Caspian Sea ports, opposite Iran. Then there's the work Energy is doing to help block the theft of nuclear materials from military facilities and weapons labs. Energy expects to cough up close to $1 billion to halt nuclear smuggling by 2002.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNSTReturn to top


ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, HARVARD UNIVERSITY CHEMIST George Whitesides had a brainstorm. Because polymers can be constructed with chemical arms able to selectively grab onto other molecules, why not design an indigestible version that can rid the stomach of unwanted substances? Like fat, for instance.

The idea spawned GelTex Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Waltham, Mass., which by yearend hopes to win Food & Drug Administration approval for its first product: a polymer that grabs onto phosphate in the gut, then is excreted. That's vital for patients whose kidneys can no longer remove phosphate from the blood.

Next in the pipeline is a polymer that grabs onto cholesterol-raising bile acids in the stomach. In current clinical trials, small amounts of the polymer have caused cholesterol levels to drop by 20%, says GelTex President and CEO Mark Skaletsky. Now, GelTex is developing a polymer that can latch onto fat. It wouldn't be ready for several years, but if GelTex succeeds, it may be possible to have your cake and skip the fat, too.EDITED BY CATHERINE ARNSTReturn to top

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