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Businessweek Archives

Nanotubes Fresh From The Oven

Developments to Watch

Nanotubes--Fresh from the Oven

Superfast semiconductors no larger than bacteria. Minuscule computers woven into your clothes. These wonders will be commonplace when science learns to manipulate tiny cylinders of carbon known as nanotubes.

Such molecules are 100 times as durable as steel and can conduct electricity without releasing heat. But they're fiendishly difficult to wire onto substrates such as silicon--an essential step in making electronic devices.

A possible solution comes from researcher Sumio Iijima and his colleagues at NEC Corp. and the Japan Science & Technology Corp. Iijima, who discovered carbon nano-tubes in 1991, bakes the cylinders directly onto silicon, titanium, and other metals in a vacuum at 900C. NEC hopes to test these hot-wired nanotubes as circuits in chips and as tiny cathodes that could be the basis of next-generation flat-panel displays.Edited by Neil Gross; By Irene M. KuniiReturn to top

Set Phasers on Crash

That death-ray gun in the old Buck Rogers comics suddenly doesn't seem so funny. Most equipment built with chips is vulnerable to beams of energy that overload the circuits with more juice than they can handle. And using recipes from the Internet, almost any garage-shop tinkerer can slap together a weapon that emits beams potent enough to zap a computer in an office across the street. Such a home-made ray gun proved lethal for two PCs during a Sept. 9 security conference in Arlington, Va. David Schriner, a retired Navy engineer, built a high-energy radio frequency (HERF) gun with $500 worth of parts found in retail stores, including a parabolic antenna and automotive ignition coils. When Schriner pointed the beam at the PCs in a demonstration, they crashed.

The military in Russia and elsewhere have much more potent HERF weapons. Conference organizer Winn Schwartau, a security consultant and president of Interpact Inc. in Seminole, Fla., warns that "any nut case or terrorist, working at home with a few hundred dollars, could cause serious harm." Several defenses are being studied, "but it's a bitch of a problem," he says. So, apart from "radiation-hardened" chips shielded by expensive coatings, don't expect a solution soon.Edited by Neil Gross; By Otis PortReturn to top

Teaching Cancer Cells How to Die

Most cancer treatments rely on slashing, burning, or poisoning to combat tumors. Such assaults must be tailored to the specific type of cancer, and they rarely target the fundamental processes that turn ordinary cells into killers. But a drug candidate called SAHA, developed at New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) and Columbia University, seems to be in a different class.

In test-tube and animal studies, SAHA prompted breast, prostate, and blood cancer cells to cease marauding and resume normal cell duties. Aspects of the drug's mechanism remain obscure. But in the Sept. 9 issue of Nature, a team of MSKCC biologists led by Nikola P. Pavletich and Michael S. Finnin published dramatic images of SAHA binding with its protein target (picture), shedding light on why SAHA might be so powerful.

Researchers believe the drug works by interfering with the activity of a key cellular enzyme. This enzyme normally keeps strands of DNA tightly coiled up so that genes along those strands can't perform tasks such as regulating cell growth. As a result, tumor cells seem to forget who they are and forsake normal protocols, which include naturally shutting down and dying after dividing a certain number of times. By blocking the enzyme, SAHA allows these genes to do their work. The drug may not fix the flaws that turn cells cancerous, says MSKCC President Paul A. Marks, "but it teaches cancer cells how to die." The center plans to begin human safety trials this fall.Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top

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