Engineering to a T

Photo: CytomatrixHematopoietic T cells (HTCs) are lymphocytes (white blood cells) that ward off viruses and help prevent the growth of cancer cells. Researchers have also long known that the cells are useful in therapies against aggressive diseases and in aiding distressed immune systems.

The thymus gland produces our T cells, and efforts to replicate the production of T cells in labs have not worked terribly well. It's suspected that the problem is that growing T cells in layers within petri dishes doesn't come close to mimicking the three-dimensional aspects of a real, living organ. Now a Woburn, Mass., company, Cytomatrix, has engineered a 3-D matrix—an artificial thymus—that works similarly to the actual gland. Using a special, porous metal-carbon material, Cytomatrix has constructed a “biocompatible cell growth scaffold, Cellfoam . . . that will enable the culture, manipulation and storage of cells.”

T cells evolve from progenitor cells, and the matrix allows this process to occur nearly as efficiently as in nature. To grow T cells, Cytomatrix—which is working on the project in conjunction with Massachusetts General Hospital—gathers progenitor cells from skin biopsies. We each produce millions of T cells that attack foreign antigens that enter our bodies, and eventually some of the cells specialize in repelling only very specific ones. The artificial thymus attempts to produce a broad range of T cells that can be effective against a variety of ailments; researchers then attempt to select particular cells to respond to specific dangers, like HIV or hepatitis or cancer cells.

Another possible use of the engineered gland will be to train human bodies to not reject transplant tissue. “The cells can be re-engineered to become tolerant to transplants,” says Mark J. Pykett, president of Cytomatrix. This process involves first killing off all natural T cells within the recipient, then reintroducing new ones formed from the progenitor cells of both the recipient and donor. The recolonized cells then accept tissue from both parties.

The artificial thymus remains in the research and development stage, but Cytomatrix hopes to begin clinical trials within a couple of years.

A Prized Web Site

Nobel e-MuseumIn 1958, British researcher Frederick Sanger won the Nobel Prize for chemistry for detailing the structure of proteins, especially the insulin molecule. Fast-forward 43 years and now high-school and college students will be able to virtually recreate the experiment Sanger used to discover protein sequencing.

Simulations of some of the world's most famous experiments will soon be a part of the Nobel e-Museum (www.nobel.se), which is operated online by the Nobel Foundation of Sweden. The foundation annually awards prizes for outstanding contributions to the sciences, literature, and peace. The e-Museum opened last year, and currently offers 7,000 pages of information and 3,000 photos to tell the stories of Nobel laureates and describe their works.

But beginning in May, in this the Centenary of the prizes, the e-Museum experience will be expanded and become more interactive. The virtual lab is part of the Wallenberg Young Scholars' Program, which will use audio, video, 3-D virtual reality, graphics, games, text, and databases to keep young minds entertained while they learn. “The younger generations are growing up using computer games, so they'll find it easy to access this information,” says Nils Ringertz, director.

Nobel e-MuseumBack in the electronic lab, another groundbreaking experiment students can follow is that of Archer Martin and Richard Synge. They invented partition chromatography, the separation of substances from complex mixtures, a process that earned them a prize for chemistry in 1952. As students do the work, they'll be ably assisted by Virtual Eva, an “avatar” who will offer help and advice. Another education program, Science & Technology, will highlight major, basic research discoveries in medicine and biology and show how they were turned into practical applications.

“The e-Museum really is a museum, because information is stored there, but it's also a learning tool,” Ringertz says. Yeah, and it sounds like fun, too.

Battle Over Online Filters

Three years ago, civil liberties groups successfully fought a law in Loudoun County, Va., that required public libraries to install filtering software on computers to block out pornographic material. Now, the same groups are planning to fight another filtering law—this one passed by Congress late last year and signed by ex-President Clinton.

The Children's Internet Protection Act says that public schools and libraries that receive federal subsidies to provide Internet connections must install blocking software to filter out obscene material and child pornography. The People for the American Way Foundation is joining with the American Library Association to challenge the law in federal court, probably in Philadelphia. The American Civil Liberties Union is also planning a legal assault on the act. It's likely the courts will consolidate the suits, however.

The act would let software companies set “legal standards,” claims Larry Ottinger, senior staff attorney at American Way, and only a judge can decide what constitutes illegal material and what's merely offensive. “That's the false illusion the law gives,” he says. Moreover, Ottinger says, filtering software vastly over-blocks and deprives the public of legal information. In Loudoun County, it was found that the software used there barred people from the Quakers' Web page and from a Beanie Babies Web site, and often blocked medical terms, like prostate cancer. It was found that 67 percent of the sites blocked should not have been.

Ottinger argues that adults using public computers in libraries should have the same choices as those using them at home, and that parents should decide if they want filters on the computers their children use. Loudoun County now uses a voluntary system that lets parents decide if their children must use restricted computers. “This [federal] law does not give an option to the libraries,” he maintains. Ottinger says that despite a few nasty anecdotes, there's little evidence that there is widespread use of library computers by pedophiles.

Because schools function at times in a somewhat parental capacity, the civil libertarians may not contest that part of the law that requires filters on school computers. “That is more of a strategic decision,” Ottinger says.

Backers of the law say that libraries and schools can opt out by not taking the Internet subsidies, called E-rate funds. But few schools and libraries can afford IT programs without some kind of federal assistance. In addition to the Loudoun Country decision, the courts have not looked favorably on other efforts to restrict online information.

Opponents of this new act are hoping that legal trend continues, so that libraries can keep their E-rates while leaving their computers unfettered.

MORE BRIEFINGS