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The Chip War Moves to Terahertz Terrain

Typically, the annual International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) provides glimpses of new chip technologies that will pump up the electronics industry over the next several years. At this year's early December gathering in Washington, it was clear that the rivalry between Advanced Micro Devices and Intel remains a technology driver that's not about to let up.

Both AMD and Intel (INTC) unveiled designs for future transistors a mere 15 nanometers wide at the internal switch, or "gate." STMicroelectronics (STM) was a close runner-up, at 16 nm. That's less than a fourth the size of the smallest switches now produced. These teensy critters should hit the market around 2009 on microprocessors containing more than a billion transistors--a twentyfold increase--and switch at terahertz speeds, or trillions of times a second. Intel grabbed headlines last month by claiming its 15-nm transistor could switch at a record 2.6 THz. But AMD boasted at IEDM that its version can hit 3.3 THz, or 30 times faster than today's hottest devices.

How much faster can transistors go? A lot, according to IBM (IBM): not just a few terahertz, but perhaps as much as 30 THz. Researchers predict that by around 2016, switches will shrivel to 9 nm, then hit physical limits. Beyond that, transistors can get no smaller, because they will contain only about 30 silicon atoms. But at IEDM, Big Blue uncorked a concept that it believes may circumvent that limit: transistors that have stacked gates. These may go on racking up higher speeds into the 2020s. A drug developed at the Weizmann Institute of Science may open paths to treating Type 1 diabetes. About 15% of diabetics suffer from this condition, which typically reduces life expectancy by 15 years. Reporting in the Nov. 24 issue of Lancet, researchers at Weizmann and Jerusalem's Hadassah Hospital say that in clinical tests, the new drug, called DiaPep277, arrested the progression of diabetes by stopping the immune system from destroying insulin-producing pancreatic cells.

Dr. Felix Mor, an immune-system expert at Rabin Medical Center near Tel Aviv, terms the findings "very important," especially because in early trials, the drug seems to prevent the disease in healthy people genetically disposed to get it. It's the first drug to mitigate the immune system's attack on pancreatic cells, claims Peptor, the Rehovot company with marketing rights for the drug. After a final trial next year, it plans to apply for Food & Drug Administration approval in 2004. A biotech company that's using the population of Iceland as its research lab has found a gene linked to rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a chronic autoimmune disease of the joints. It is the fourth such announcement since September by deCODE Genetics Inc. in Reykjavik, which holds exclusive rights to a medical database of almost all the citizens of Iceland. Earlier, it reported mapping genes associated with obesity, anxiety, and Parkinson's disease.

Iceland is something of a genetic mother lode, boasting probably the world's most homogeneous populations. Most residents can trace their ancestors back to Vikings who settled the country 1,000 years ago. In 1999, Iceland licensed its medical records to deCODE for 12 years.

To find the RA gene, deCODE first screened some 2,500 Icelanders from about 100 families for variations in a group of immune-system genes already known to increase the risk of developing RA. Researchers then scanned the whole genome of those Icelanders with the disease and found another gene on chromosome 3 closely linked to RA. deCODE CEO and founder Kari Stefansson says that an individual with both related genes has a 40% greater chance of developing RA than those without either gene. -- Despite mounting evidence that the oceans' fish stocks are shrinking to perilous levels, the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported steady increases in fish catches during the 1990s. The FAO data were wrong. China's reports to the agency were grossly inflated by officials whose promotions were, until recently, based on the size of China's catch--which is dropping, not growing. The discrepancy was uncovered by researchers at the University of British Columbia.

-- Blasting cancer with sound waves may soon be a safer, cheaper alternative to surgery. In clinical trials at University Hospitals of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University, radio-frequency energy delivered through a needle inserted into a tumor cooked it to death. The technique killed the tumors in 10 of 11 patients. A similar treatment for prostate cancer has been developed by Focus Surgery in Indianapolis.

-- Spread by mosquitoes, malaria kills millions of people each year. This deadly scourge might be stopped if scientists could pinpoint the precise combinations of chemicals that attract the insects. A team led by biologist Laurence J. Zwiebel at Vanderbilt University has taken a step in that direction, isolating key genes that govern how mosquitoes sniff out their victims. That understanding should lead to better repellents--or irresistible lures for lethal traps.

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