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In the Waiting Room

To repair faulty heart valves, doctors no longer have to crack open a person's chest. Surgeons now do their job through a small 2.5-inch incision. But one day, doctors will be able to mend or replace valves without any chest opening at all. The idea: thread a catheter up the femoral artery from the groin or through another blood vessel. Packaged inside the catheter is either a new heart valve or a tiny system for repairing leaky valves. Patients would be able to have the procedure in the catheter lab instead of the operating room -- saving on costs and speeding recovery.

At least eight companies are developing the new cardiac technology, including giant Edwards Lifesciences (EW) and startup Percutaneous Valve Technologies. In one of Edwards' experimental products, the catheter delivers a new aortic valve and pushes aside the old one; in another, a tiny needle and thread stitches together a leaky mitral valve.

The new techniques were first tested on animals and have been tried on a small number of people, mainly in Europe. "It's still very early days," says prominent heart-valve surgeon Dr. Delos M. "Toby" Cosgrove of the Cleveland Clinic -- and the approach has to prove that it's as safe and effective as the current surgery. But he adds: "This is really seminal work, and over time we will see this become a reality." While toying around with water balloons, a manager at Boeing (BA) may have found a better way to fight wildfires. His brainchild: a 26-sided container about the size of a beachball. Made of plastic, it holds six gallons and could be dropped by the pallet load from C-17 cargo planes.

Today, small planes or helicopters are typically used to fight forest fires. They swoop in as low as 150 feet, which can put flight crews in danger. Even then, a fire's intense heat and winds can reduce the effectiveness of water or chemical foams before they hit the ground.

Boeing's water bomblets would get around those shortcomings, says inventor William Cleary. Stacked 12 to a pallet, they could be dropped accurately from 1,000 feet or more. Like water balloons, they would burst on impact. A single C-17 could carry 2,800 containers -- as much as 100 helicopter deliveries. Boeing plans to field-test Cleary's concept later this year. Science is a step closer to the day when stem cells might treat diseases. In the October issue of Nature Biotechnology, researchers report curing a Parkinson's-like illness in mice using dopamine nerve cells cloned from stem cells taken from the animals' tails. Dopamine-producing cells, which play a key role in cognition and movement, are destroyed by Parkinson's disease.

The research team, led by Dr. Lorenz Studer of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, reported in 2001 that it could generate unlimited numbers of dopamine neurons from mouse stem cells, but the method didn't work for all animals. With refinement, their culturing technique now works for any animal -- and can create neurons specific to different types of brain tissue, including serotonin cells and the so-called GABA cells involved in a range of neurological diseases.

In the case of the brain-damaged mice, some cloned cells were transplanted back into the donor animals, correcting the Parkinson's-like dopamine deficiency. -- Sunglasses with a tiny, unobtrusive digital camera housed in the frame have been created by researchers at Hewlett-Packard Co.'s laboratory in Bristol, England. Many futurists predict that people will soon be recording almost every waking moment in their lives. The big problem, though, is organizing this flood of images so that a person can recall specific events months or years later. HP is tackling that, too -- with software that automatically annotates the images.

-- Chromobacterium violaceum is a bacterium that floats along the R?o Negro River in the Amazon rainforest. While it can cause fatal infections, the microbe may also be an important new source of medicines and plastics, according to the 100-odd scientists of the Brazil National Genome Project. They have just deciphered the bacterium's genetic code, and preliminary studies indicate that its genes hold potential for fighting cancer and synthesizing acids that could be a raw material for new plastics. The gene products may also act as natural insecticides and pollution eaters. Details are to appear in a future issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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