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Of Insulin And Catcher's Mitts

-- Boys of Summer, beware: Despite improvements in catcher's mitts used in professional baseball, players' hands are still not adequately protected from injury. Orthopedic specialists at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., examined the hands of 36 players on four minor league teams and found greater signs of hand damage in catchers than in other players, even though 89% of them used improved mitts with extra padding. The researchers, reporting in The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, called for further study into glove design.

-- Diabetics have long been waiting for a time when their daily injections could be replaced with inhaled insulin, which has been in development at several companies for years. In the past safety and efficacy never quite measured up. Now, the Food & Drug Administration is poised to rule on the first inhaled product to come under review, probably in October. Exubera, co-developed by Pfizer (PFE), Sanofi-Aventis (SNY), and Nektar Therapeutics, is likely to get a boost from a study published in the July issue of Diabetes Care, led by the University of Miami, which found that inhaled insulin before meals worked just as well in 328 trial patients with Type 1 diabetes as getting a shot before eating -- and the side effects were no worse.

A promising tactic in biotech called RNA interference may succeed where gardeners over the centuries have failed -- creating blue roses that grow "naturally" on the bush. Although more than 25,000 rose varieties exist, growers have never been able to create blue ones, other than by dying them, because rose petals lack the gene that codes for delphinidin, the enzyme that produces blue pigment in flowers. An Australian company, Florigene, says its RNA-i technique has produced lavender roses, and the company's bioengineers are closing in on blue ones.

Florigene, which is 98.5% owned by Suntory of Japan, first tried splicing blue genes from petunias into roses, but powerful red and orange enzymes drowned out delphinidin. Florigene then used RNA interference to silence the enzymes that compete with delphinidin. Florigene says it could be selling blue roses within three years.

A new report about a controversial drug called GDNF that Amgen (AMGN) has been testing against Parkinson's disease indicates that it may promote the regrowth of destroyed nerve fibers. If so, this would be the first time any treatment has reversed neuronal loss in Parkinson's.

The report, appearing in the July issue of Nature Medicine, is bound to fuel an ongoing debate over the drug, which Amgen withdrew from tests last year amid safety concerns. That lead to a lawsuit by patients seeking to continue the trial.

The article describes a 62-year-old British patient who was treated with GDNF, a growth agent the brain uses to produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. He received injections on one side of his brain over four years and then died of an unrelated heart attack. When doctors compared the two sides of his brain, they found new nerve fibers containing dopamine on the treated side. Amgen says the finding is "an important addition to our understanding" of GDNF. It is continuing pre-clinical tests -- but not human ones.

Coal from the Eastern U.S. has a high energy content but also lots of pollution-creating sulfur. Cheaper Western coal has far less sulfur, requiring fewer pollution controls, but it has more moisture-laden spaces -- giving it a lower energy content. Theodore Venners, CEO of KFx (KFX) in Denver, thinks he can get the best of both.

Venners' company is building a plant in Gillette, Wyo., that will put coal from the Powder River Basin into big kettles, heat it to 450F, and then squeeze it with 550 pounds per square inch of pressure. That drives out most of the moisture and shrinks the coal. The process also removes some sulfur and up to 85% of mercury. The resulting coal can help utilities and industries meet strict sulfur- and mercury-emissions rules more cheaply while also allowing power plants and boilers to run more efficiently because of the higher energy content.

Venners figures he can make money by buying Western coal for $6 per ton and selling his processed version at the price of Eastern coal -- which is 10 times more.

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