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Filtering Out The Madness Before A Transfusion

Mad cow disease doesn't spread just when people eat tainted meat. Like similar brain-wasting diseases, it also can be transmitted via blood transfusions. Now, two outfits have invented filters that they say can make blood safe by screening out prions, the rogue proteins that cause such diseases.

A joint venture between Montreal's ProMetic Life Sciences and the American Red Cross has developed a resin imbued with chemical hooks that catch prions while letting essential components of blood pass through. In tests led by Dr. Robert G. Rohwer, a neurologist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, a group of hamsters remained infection-free after being exposed to prion-tainted blood that had been filtered. When control animals were exposed to unfiltered samples of the same blood, 14% became infected. France's MacoPharma hopes to sell the device in Britain, and Pall Corp. (PLL) in East Hills, N.Y., wants to launch its own filter in Europe.

In 1970, a patent was filed for an "X-Y position indicator for a display system." Neither the name nor the description -- a wooden shell with two metal wheels -- really captured the invention, the computer mouse, which is now ubiquitous and so simple that toddlers "get" it before they can talk.

Computer scientist Jeff Han and his team at New York University may have taken the next giant leap in user interfaces. Called "multi-touch interaction," it eliminates the mouse and keyboard and makes info displays much more intuitive. Han's team built a 36-by-27-inch flat screen whose pressure-sensitive surface can distinguish 10 or more fingers at once. It lets you pluck an object from deep inside a 3D space, pull it to the foreground, expand or shrink it, and merge it with other objects on the screen. You can call up a virtual keyboard, then brush it away when you're finished typing. The effect creates not a desktop but "an infinite landscape," says Han, who is in talks to commercialize the system. To see the prototype, Google "multi-touch interaction research."

Virulent streptococcus bacteria can quickly destroy large chunks of tissue in an infection dubbed "flesh-eating disease." Although rare -- such infections occur in about 4 in 100,000 people -- cases are increasing. The bug kills 20%-30% of its victims, even with antibiotics.

Why so deadly? Researchers at the University of California at San Diego have found at least part of the answer. Normally, the body is patrolled and protected by specialized immune system cells called neutrophils. These release nets made of DNA and other compounds that trap and kill invaders such as bacteria. But the flesh-eating streptococci have evolved a counterattack, the researchers discovered. The bacteria make an enzyme that dissolves the neutrophil's nets, allowing the bugs to escape the immune system. In mouse experiments, blocking this enzyme effectively treats the disease.

-- Future hybrid cars may benefit from more potent batteries. MIT researchers have unveiled a new lithium battery that can discharge and recharge fast enough to replace the less power-packed nickel metal hydride batteries used in today's hybrids. The invention should result in longer battery life, on the model of the lithium-ion batteries now used in cell phones and digital cameras. The batteries should also be cheaper to make and less vulnerable to the explosion problems that have dogged current lithium-ion power packs. Reported in Science (Feb. 17), the new recipe relies on a crystalline layering of lithium, nickel, manganese, and oxygen to speed up the flow of electrons to and from the material.

-- For patients recovering from colon surgery, chewing gum can help restore normal gut function quickly, a recent study suggests. Writing in February's Archives of Surgery, scientists at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital in California found that, of 34 patients who had undergone the removal of a section of large intestine, 17 who chewed sugarless gum following surgery left the hospital in 4.3 days, 2.5 days sooner, on average, than the control group. Doctors suspect that gum-chewing releases hormones that activate the digestive tract without stressing recovering tissue. recoveringtisssue.prematurely introducing more substantial food.

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