Developments to Watch
Prostate Cancer: Foiling a Good Gene's Evil Twin
THE VAST MAJORITY OF PROSTATE CANCERS APPEAR TO BE LINKED TO A COMMON GENETIC process--a discovery that holds promise of curing cancer by reversing the process. The previously unsuspected relationship between tumors and one specific genetic process turned up in research at Johns Hopkins University.
Called gene switching, the process occurs when some members of a particular group of genes switch on while other members shut down. Gene switching is commonplace during the development of embryos, but the Hopkins scientists believe that their study, reported in the March issue of Nature Medicine, marks the first time that gene switching has been definitively linked to cancer.
When the Hopkins team compared gene activity in normal and malignant prostate cells, they found that a gene called pp32 was switched on in normal cells but usually switched off in cancer cells. Previous studies had revealed that pp32 helps prevent cells from turning malignant. Now it's clear that close relatives of this gene act like evil twins and encourage tumor growth, says Dr. Shrihari S. Kadkol, a pathologist. Moreover, adds Dr. Gary R. Pasternack, the molecular pathologist who leads the work, the same sort of gene-switching pattern has also been spotted in breast cancer patients.
If the findings are confirmed, they might lead to drugs that would treat prostate cancer by reversing the gene-switching process. Pasternack expects that uncovering the trigger for the switching eventually can lead to a method of restoring pp32's tumor-blocking role.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top
Make Way for Robo-Cod
JURASSIC PARK FEATURED LONG-EXTINCT DINOSAURS THAT CAME TO LIFE. Soon, an aquarium near you might feature the sequel: ancient fish. Researchers at Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. have spent four years and $1 million developing robots with scales. These robots swim just like the real thing, complete with undulating fins. They swim to an underwater ballet orchestrated by computer and broadcast by radio transmitters. Two models are now showing their moves--a 5.5-pound sea bream and an 88-pound coelacanth--and sea creatures from the Cambrian period are in the works.
Mitsubishi has struck a deal with one amusement park. But applications may reach far beyond entertainment. Pound for pound, fish use one-third less energy than propeller-driven objects. So, artificial fins may improve ship design, says researcher Yuuzi Terada. And the technology may also yield robots that can locate sunken ships and study marine ecology.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top
It's a Rocket! It's a Chopper? It's Both
IT LOOKS LIKE A HUGE TRAFFIC CONE THAT HAS SPROUTED A PALM TREE. But the 63-foot-tall Roton is a hybrid rocket-helicopter that Rotary Rocket Co. hopes will slash the cost of putting satellites into orbit--by as much as 90%. A helicopter for space may not be as improbable as it sounds. NASA's chief engineer, Daniel Mulville, was on hand when the Roton was unveiled on Mar. 1 in Mojave, Calif., and he voiced his support.
This first Roton prototype will begin atmospheric test flights within weeks, using just its helicopter engine. If these trials go well, a rocket system will be added and tested--with the goal of a commercial launch no later than 2001. First, though, the Redwood City (Calif.) company needs to raise more than $100 million. So far, Rotary Rocket has tapped investors for $30 million, including $1 million from author Tom Clancy, who wants to be among the early tourists to venture into space.
Providing space jaunts for the price of a Concorde flight has long been a dream of Gary C. Hudson, Rotary Rocket's founder. To make it happen, he has created a lightweight vehicle that will use whirling rockets to climb into orbit, then descend for a soft touchdown by unfolding helicopter blades.
Roton's 72 rockets whirl like a fireworks wheel to create centrifugal force. That pushes fuel into the rockets and eliminates the need for the heavy and expensive turbo-pumps otherwise required. Chucking the pumps boosts Roton's payload capacity to roughly 7,000 pounds. If Hudson pulls it off, space experts predict his upstart company will grab a good share of the 2,100 satellites scheduled for launch from now to 2008.EDITED BY OTIS PORTReturn to top