Developments to Watch
Bubbles vs. Bugs in Your Tap Water
Water so pure and clean you'll swear it's from an alpine spring may soon be available from your kitchen faucet. ALAB, a research and design company in Pittsford, N.Y., has developed and patented a technology that, for pennies a gallon, can make even New Jersey water taste like Evian.
W. Allan Burris, an ALAB researcher, has devised a way to miniaturize ozone purification, the detoxification process used by most municipal water-treatment facilities. Ozone, a form of oxygen, is a powerful disinfectant that kills bacteria and viruses, thus improving the taste of the water. Until ALAB's device, such treatments were large-scale enterprises requiring costly ozone generators as big as railroad box cars. But Burris and his colleagues devised a way to shrink the technology so it fits in a device the size of a food processor.
The ALAB generator, which has a 15-year lifespan, works by pumping a dense column of tiny ozone bubbles through a one-gallon tank of water. The bubbles quickly dissolve, killing any germs present. Burris plans on developing several ozone generators that will retail from $80 to $300. And best of all, there won't be any messy filters to change.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top
Extra Arms for Heart Surgeons
If early tests pan out, A new endoscopic procedure might one day make open-heart surgery significantly safer and less invasive than it is now. Dr. Ralph Damiano Jr. and a team of Pennsylvania State University physicians are testing a robotic system developed by Computer Motion Inc. The system is dexterous enough to remove a vessel from a patient's chest wall and sew it into the heart, where it routes blood around blocked arteries. In contrast to traditional bypass surgery, where the chest cavity is cut open and the rib cage spread apart, the robotic procedure requires only three small incisions, each about the width of a pencil. For the patient, that means only a few tiny scars and a much faster and less painful recovery time. So far, Damiano has successfully used the technique to treat 17 people.
In the Penn State procedure, three robotic arms hold the video camera and the long, tube-like instruments required in endoscopic surgeries. At a computer console roughly 10 feet from the operating table, the surgeon manipulates a panel of instruments as if directly operating on the patient. The computer takes this information and feeds it to the robotic arms, which precisely replicate the surgeon's motions. Because the computer digitizes the movements, any hand tremors or jerks are transformed into the smooth, continuous movements necessary for such a delicate procedure. Although it will be several years before this robotic technology is widely available, Damiano is confident that it will someday revolutionize heart surgery. "It will let us do operations that today are beyond the limits of human dexterity," he says.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top
The Next Taxol?
Supergen, a small pharmaceutical company in San Ramon, Calif., is in the final stages of testing a powerful new drug called rubitecan for pancreatic cancer, a disease that currently has no effective treatment. So potent is the drug that physicians are already calling it the next Taxol, a cancer drug with more than $1 billion in worldwide sales annually.
About 600 patients with advanced pancreatic cancer, which kills 30,000 Americans annually, are being treated with rubitecan. Early studies show that the drug, which can be taken orally, has few side-effects and appears to work against the most aggressive tumors. Even patients who failed to respond to radiation began improving once they started on rubitecan. In one trial, for instance, doctors found that the pancreatic tumors of two-thirds of the patients shrank or ceased to grow after just eight weeks on the drug.
The active ingredient in rubitecan belongs to a class of drugs first isolated from a Chinese flowering tree called Camptotheca acuminata. These so-called camptothecins inhibit a key enzyme required for cell division. Because cancer cells grow and divide so rapidly, they are much more sensitive to camptothecins than normal cells. SuperGen is now testing to see if rubitecan is effective in killing other cancers, including those of the lung and breast. The company hopes to begin marketing the drug sometime in 2001.Edited by Ellen LickingReturn to top