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Businessweek Archives

Drug Labels That Speak To You

Developments to Watch

Drug Labels That Speak to You

For seniors and visually impaired people, the fine print on a prescription drug bottle can be difficult to read--even potentially deadly. Now, help is on the way. En-Vision America Inc., a startup in Normal, Ill., has devised a system called ScripTalk that converts a label's printed directions into spoken words. The gadget will be tested at the U.S. Veterans Administration hospital in Hines, Ill. If all goes well, En-Vision expects to have ScripTalk on the market early next year.

The system has two basic components. One is a "smart" label containing a memory chip about 0.1 in. square. This chip can hold 2,000 bits of data, or roughly 250 characters. The second is a portable electronic reader for converting the stored text into artificial speech. When the two come within an inch of each other, a radio signal from the reader activates the chip to transmit its contents.

A special printer designed by Zebra Technologies Corp. (ZBRA) of Vernon Hills, Ill., is used to print and encode the labels. The aditional costs are expected to be less than $1 a label, which would be added to the cost of a prescription, says David B. Raistrick, vice-president of En-Vision. The reading device will run about $250.By Ellen Licking; Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

The Key to Cleaner Fuel Cells? It's in the Water

Fuel-cell-powered cars and trucks promise to relegate today's pollution-belching engines to the scrap heap. Bigger fuel cells could do the same for coal-fired power plants and industrial furnaces. To get the maximum environmental benefit, though, fuel cells should be fed hydrogen fuel, not gasoline, natural gas, or the other alternatives used by most of the fuel cells now on the market or under development. Chemically converting hydrogen into electricity with a fuel cell produces no pollution, only water.

Unfortunately, there's scant infrastructure for distributing hydrogen, so it isn't practical for cars. But suppose the gas could be produced locally, on demand, from ordinary water. Splitting water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen has long been possible--just not economical. Now, a small Israeli-German-Japanese research team led by Stuart Licht, a professor of chemistry at the Technion-Israel-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, is closing in on what could be a commercially feasible way to tap water for its hydrogen--by using sunlight.

Licht's team reports in the Sept. 14 issue of the Journal of Physical Chemistry B that it has developed a system based on a photovoltaic device, or solar cell, that is 18.3% efficient at splitting water molecules. That's a 50% improvement over the previous best--and might be on the threshold of being viable for the corner filling station. But if 18.3% won't do the trick, the researchers believe further refinements could substantially boost the efficiency of their water-splitter, perhaps to as much as 31%.Edited by Otis PortReturn to top

Couch Potatoes Will Love This Protein

Some genetically altered mice in St. Louis are living out the fantasy of many weight-challenged people: The animals can eat as much fatty food and sweets as they like, do no exercise, and stay slim. The secret is an unusual protein produced in their muscles.

Normally, eating generates a chemical called ATP that provides energy to muscles. Without exercise, ATP instead turns to making and storing fat. But researchers led by Dr. Clay F. Semenkovich, a professor at Washington University School of Medicine, reported in Nature Medicine that they inserted a gene in the mice to produce "uncoupling protein-1" in the animals' muscles. This protein converts the energy from food into heat instead of ATP--in essence mimicking the effects of exercise.

Remarkably, say the researchers, the mice did not overheat. "Somehow, the uncoupling protein used up the excess energy without raising body temperature," says Semenkovich. Next, the research team will look into whether such gene-tinkering can reverse obesity in already diseased animals, a strategy that may eventually be helpful to humans. Speed the day.By Catherine ArnstReturn to top

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