Developments to Watch
How Genes Can Tailor a Patient's Drug Regimen
One of the most important results of the human genome sequencing project will be the ability to identify specific genetic variations that indicate whether a particular person will respond to a particular drug. With this knowledge, doctors will be able to personalize a patient's treatment regimen.
Now, in a report in the Sept. 12 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team of researchers from the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and Genaissance Pharmaceuticals Inc. describes a key step toward tailoring treatments for asthma. The scientists monitored the lung function of 121 asthmatics before and after taking the drug albuterol. They correlated this information with actual sequence variations in the gene that albuterol is designed to block. In all, the researchers identified 13 sequence differences, or single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), that could be combined in 8,192 different ways. Of these, 12 combinations were deemed medically relevant. The upshot: Doctors could determine that one-third of the patients would not be appropriate candidates for treatment with albuterol.
Genaissance CEO Gualberto Ruano says the company is expanding its asthma trial to look at variations in additional asthma-causing genes. It will also start looking at heart disease, diabetes, and schizophrenia.By Ellen Licking; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top
Beyond Shoplifting Prevention
Imagine using bumblebees to sniff out unexploded land mines. That's the promise of so-called radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, used today for such prosaic jobs as the electronic tags stuck on clothes to keep them from being shoplifted. RFID is already showing up in places other than anti-theft tags at T.J. Maxx. It's used, for instance, in automated fare-collection systems that let motorists whiz through tollbooths. But now, improvements pioneered by the Energy Dept.'s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Wash., could dramatically expand the use of RFID in commercial and industrial settings.
Today's RFID tags have short ranges--typically 10 to 20 feet--and can be larger than a Triscuit. New devices from Pacific Northwest Lab have ranges up to hundreds of feet and can be as small as a grain of rice. The lab has cooked up a dozen potential applications. One project already under way puts tags in the brakes of F-16 jets to alert maintenance workers to dangerous overheating. Others range from tracking inventory in warehouses to strapping miniature tags onto bees trained to locate land mines. The lab is in negotiations with unnamed private companies to use its RFID technology and expects to announce deals within a few months. Commercial products using super-RFID could show up in 2001.By Andy Reinhardt; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top
Edging Closer to Gene Therapy's Holy Grail
The biggest problem in gene therapy--treating disease by adding new genes--has been getting the new genes to go to the right place in the body. That's why scientists have been struggling for years to design gene delivery vehicles that can zip through the blood and home in on just cancer cells, for instance, or on the defective lung cells in cystic fibrosis patients. Targeted gene delivery "has been the holy grail for gene therapy," says pioneer W. French Anderson, director of the Gene Therapy Laboratories at the University of Southern California.
Anderson's team hasn't nabbed the prize yet, but it's getting a lot closer. A group at USC led by Frederick L. Hall and Dr. Maria Gordon has added a collagen-binding substance to the outer envelope of the modified virus used in many gene-therapy experiments. Since the body makes collagen in response to cancerous growths or other injuries, this so-called viral vector will drop out of the bloodstream in the vicinity of the cancer. Once nearby, the virus will then deliver its load--in this case, a gene that blocks cell division--to the cancer cells themselves. Anderson says the team has just gotten Food & Drug Administration clearance for human trials for metastatic cancer in the liver, starting as early as next spring.By John Carey; Edited by Neil GrossReturn to top