CREATING CARTILAGE IN THE LAB
Cartilage is a particularly useful tissue. Tough but flexible,
it's a key component of our noses, ears, and joints. But once damaged,
it's hard to fix. Unlike skin, it cannot regenerate itself. So today's
technology requires invasive surgery and metal or plastic replacements
that aren't as effective as the real thing. But researchers at Johns
Hopkins University are having success in getting stem cells to grow
into a cartilage-like living tissue. So far, the tests have used goats,
but the Baltimore scientists are confident the technology will also
work in humans.
Led by Jennifer Elisseeff, a biomedical engineer, the
Johns Hopkins team mixes the stem cells with nutrients within a polymer.
The resulting viscous liquid is injected into the damaged area. An ultraviolet
light or visible laser is then used to turn the liquid into a hydrogel,
which acts as a scaffold as the stem cells grow into tissue. Only the
areas hit by the light form a gel, so surgeons can shape the scaffold
And there appears to be no threat that the tissue will
continue to grow. "Early tissue engineering research showed how
tissue that is produced maintains the shape of the scaffold,"
Elisseeff says. "If anything, we tend to have the problem of the
engineered tissue being smaller than the scaffold." The researchers
are also developing hydrogels that will degrade once the tissue is formed.
If the technology works in humans, it could help patients
avoid major surgery for repairing joint injuries. Scientists are excited
about stem cell research because the cells renew themselves and are
metamorphosized into a variety of tissues. Elisseeff's research uses
adult cells, thus sidestepping the ethical debate over use of stem cells
culled from human embryos and fetuses. It also means patients in need
of cartilage or bone repairs could donate their own stem cells for the
procedure, minimizing the chances for infection or tissue rejection.
WOMEN BACK ON THE JOB IN AFGHANISTAN
Even before the recent military action to oust Afghanistan's
Taliban regime, which harbored the al-Qaeda terrorist organization,
the country's infrastructure was a mess. Years of fighting to evict
Soviet occupation troops, followed by years of civil war, left Afghanistan
in devastation and sorely in need of engineers to work on water, sanitation,
and public health projects. But during the Taliban years, one critical
resource was left untapped: women engineers. The ultraconservative Islamic
government banned women from the workplace and from higher education.
That's now changing. Earlier this year, 100 female civil engineers graduated
from a two-month refresher course at Kabul University to update their
skills. "The women had received a good education and qualified
as engineers before the Taliban," explains Zahra Akkerhuys, press
officer for the charity Oxfam Great Britain, which co-sponsored the
project with Oxfam Germany and German Technical Cooperation. The course
was run by a team of four European engineers, who drew up a course plan
after discussions with their women students. It focused on such skills
as civil and water engineering, project management, interview techniques,
and public health and sanitation. Noted Women's Affairs Minister Habiba
Sorabi, "It's a great pleasure to see all our sisters ready to
participate in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, ready to work as engineers
together with their brothers."
BRITISH BRAWL OVER INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
GREAT BRITAIN—Whose research is it, anyway? That's
the question being debated at Britain's Cambridge University. Technology
born in the university's labs has been credited with creating what's
called the Cambridge Phenomenon, a spate of high-technology companies
clustered in the flat fenlands of Cambridgeshire. For 80 years, school
policy gave academics 100 percent control over whatever intellectual
property they generated. But Cambridge is proposing a new policy that,
if adopted, would, as of January 2003, equally split patent profits
between the faculty member, his or her department, and the university.
Academics would also lose control over who the inventions were sold
to. Cambridge officials argue the policy is no different from those
found at most leading U.K. universities. The school claims it's not
seizing ideas or property, nor is it diluting the rewards due inventors.
Indeed, it says, the current policy is so unfocused that many potentially
profitable patents fail to be commercially exploited.
But Ross Anderson, a Cambridge computer scientist who
specializes in security, fears the new policy will pull the plug on
the Cambridge Phenomenon by obliterating the monetary motives that underpin
it. Other faculty critics dislike the notion that their research could
be sold to companies of which they disapprove. Anderson further argues
that academic freedom and efforts to recruit and retain faculty will
be harmed by the policy. Cambridge academics may not pursue commercially
promising research or might take it elsewhere if they feel they're not
going to be adequately compensated, he reasons. "The incentives
that led to the creation of hundreds of high-tech companies in the area
will be destroyed. It seems that civil servants view us not as the goose
that lays the golden egg, but as a nail that sticks out and needs to
be hammered down."
FASTER THAN FAST
In the world of supercomputers, speed is of the essence.
And the current world champ is the Earth Simulator in Yokohama, Japan,
which models terrestrial climate and plate tectonics. Since 1993, computer
scientist Jack Dongarra at the University of Tennessee, with colleagues
at Germany's University of Mannheim, has published a twice-yearly list
of the world's 500 fastest supercomputers (www.top500.org).
To rank them, Dongarra uses the Linpack benchmark—he feeds each
computer a set of linear equations and sees how quickly it can solve
them. The Earth Simulator, built by NEC, can perform 35.86 trillion
calculations per second, or 35.86 teraflops. That amazing speed allowed
it to zoom past the former number one, the ASCI White at the Lawrence
Livermore National Laboratory in California, which has a speed of 7.23
teraflops. The Japanese machine is five times faster than the ASCI White,
now at No.2 Indeed, so fast is the NEC computer that it's speedier than
the combined operating speeds of the next 12 computers on the list.
IBM has five computers in the top 10 and Hewlett-Packard has three,
while NEC and Intel have one each. Eight of the top 10 are in the United
States. But then again, those eight put together are still slower than
the reigning champ from Japan.
WORLD'S FASTEST COMPUTERS
Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Calif.
Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center, Pa.
France's Atomic Energy Commission
National Energy Research Scientific
Computing Center, Calif.
Los Alamos National Laboratory, N.M.
Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Calif.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tenn.
Lawrence Livermore National Lab, Calif.
IBM pSeries 690 Turbo
U.S. Army Research Lab, Md.
Next time you're about to dig into a platter of steaming mussels in
garlic butter, you might want to first give thanks for the potential
medical breakthrough that the tasty little molluscs have spawned. Mussels
are very efficient at clinging to hard surfaces. That's because they
excrete a glue that works even in salt water—an environment that
renders most glues useless. Researchers believe that a synthesized version
of that glue could be used as an internal adhesive by surgeons. Doctors
use glues to patch up external incisions, but they would be toxic if
They're not much different from household glues, but a glue that works
inside the body could be used to not only close internal wounds but
repair smashed bones. Chemical engineers at Holland's Delft University
of Technology have finally figured out the mussel glue's physics. The
key is a protein named Mefp-1 that needs a certain amount of oxygen
and a low-acidic environment to work. Lead researcher Mieke C. van der
Leeden is now working with polymer experts to invent a synthesized version
of mussel glue in the lab. It's difficult work because the solution
involves volatile amino acids. Researchers must also ensure that the
bioengineered glue can last for an average of eight weeks to allow for
full healing. Moreover, it must be biodegradable. And forget about harvesting
mussels and extracting the glue on a commercial basis. Obtaining a mere
milligram of glue would require a small mountain of mussels. That could
jeopardize the world's mussel population. And make a lot seafood aficionados
BIG TIMES IN SMALLVILLE
ZURICH—When countries as conservative as Switzerland start tossing
big bucks at nanotechnology, it's clear that it has become a serious
area of research.
Earlier this year the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) opened
a $19 million micro- and nanotechnology laboratory. The new facility—called
FIRST-Lab, for Frontiers in Research, Space, and Time—took ETH's
far-flung nanotech facilities and put them under one roof. It also provides
scientists and engineers cutting-edge equipment and the type of pristine
labs needed for nano-research. FIRST-Lab has a number of "clean
rooms" in which there are fewer than 300 dust particles in each
cubic meter of air. The facility takes a multidisciplinary approach,
as well. Professors from a variety of departments will work there, including
those from physics, mechanical and process engineering, information
technology, electrical engineering, and materials science.
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of nanoparticles or the addition
of them to other materials to improve them. For instance, shorter laser
pulses permit fiber-optic cables to handle more data; smaller but more
powerful chips will provide drastic improvement in medical technology
and car production; new ways of processing information can be developed
using quantum mechanics principles. Nanotechnology also may revolutionize
energy. One possibility is helping to transform coal into liquid fuels,
including diesel and gasoline.
This big trend in all things small has motivated governments to start
spending heavily on nanotech research and development. The European
Commission just earmarked $1.27 billion for upcoming nanotech research.
Five years ago, the United States was spending $432 million on nanotechnology
R&D; this year the estimated expenditure is around $600 million.
Welcome to the N-generation.
WHAT HAVE I DONE WITH IVAN?
Congress wants the nation's 74,000 institutions of higher learning
to keep better track of their foreign students in the wake of last year's
terror attacks. And the schools agree that's a good idea. But they are
not happy with the January 30, 2003, deadline set by the U.S. Immigration
and Naturalization Service to have its new computerized system for tracking
foreign students fully operational. Sevis—which stands for Student
and Exchange Visitor Information System—should help schools keep
closer tabs on international students. But it's a new database and as
of late September, the INS was only just readying a test platform.
Currently, schools fill out visa-eligibility forms, called I-20 and
send them to students, who take them to a U.S. consular officer in their
countries to obtain a visa stamp. The I-20s are then handed to INS officers
at the port of entry when the students arrive. They're then shipped
to a processing center and the information is tapped into the INS database.
Under Sevis, the schools will fill out e-versions of the I-20s, then
zap them to the INS for review. The INS will give each registrant a
bar code and file number and send it back to the school. The school
will print a hard copy, then mail that to the student. Moreover, under
current regulations, the schools are not required to keep track of such
things as students' private addresses, whether they switch majors, or
where their financial aid is coming from. That will change under Sevis.
The INS shrugs off complaints that the January 30 deadline is too
much of an imposition. Not all students need to be registered by then,
it says, only current students who change their status or those registering
for the spring term if it starts before January 30. The rest don't need
to be put into the system until the next term.
But Catheryn D. Cotten, director of Duke University's international
office, says the INS is missing the point. For some schools, like those
on a quarterly system, the next term could come as early as April. Moreover,
she says, the additional information the new system requires will mean
culling from many databases. "It's going to hit some schools very
hard," says Cotten, who's regarded as an expert on Sevis. Moreover,
she adds, the INS isn't taking into account the likelihood that Sevis,
like all new computer systems, will inevitably have snags that will
s "Batch submissions require a lot of trial and error,"
Cotten says. It would be best to slowly test the system by initially
submitting I-20s by the handful, not in batches of hundreds or thousands.
But Congress told the Justice Department, of which the INS is a unit,
that it wanted "full implementation" by January 30. The
schools are pushing for a definition of "full implementation"
to mean that all schools are enrolled and online, but not required to
have students registered. Cotten argues the feds should give colleges
a year to fully register all foreign students if they want the job done
properly. "This push to do it all at once will not give us what
we need for national security."
FOILING TERRORISM BY READING PALMS
TOKYO—The spread of electronic commerce and new focus on homeland
security have raised the capital of the emerging field of biometrics,
which seeks to convert our idiosyncratic biological traits into personal
ID cards. These biosecurity devices typically zero in on fingerprints,
irises, or retinas, distinct facial features, handwriting, or hand geometry.
Now a Japanese electronics company offers a new wrinkle on the art of
palm reading—it has launched a device that it claims can distinguish
people by the pattern of their blood veins.
Fujitsu Laboratories says the web of veins branching through each
palm remains unchanged, except for size, throughout a person's lifetime.
The vein pattern is unique not only to each individual but even to each
hand. As with other security systems, palm reading involves registering
the user portrait in a database; in this case, a square chunk of the
web pattern from the center of the user's palm. At the checkpoint, the
user is authenticated by throwing an infrared light on his palm, which
renders the veins black and allows the program to look for a match among
the patterns in its memory.
The firm has built a prototype computer mouse equipped with the palm
vein reader, which it says worked in an experiment on about 700 people.
Envisioned uses include not only guarding access to PCs and proprietary
sales or technical information but also protecting other electronic
devices and secure facilities and checking attendance.
Biometric devices, for all their Hollywood glamour, are notoriously
easy to foil, even by rank amateurs. Fujitsu said it turned to vein
reading in an attempt to augment its existing array of fingerprint,
voice, facial, and other ID devices. Requiring users to pony up not
just an index finger or an eyeball but many distinguishing physical
features, the company contends, boosts the odds of reducing identity
SELLING EDUCATION HARD
AUSTRALIA— Cheap, cheesy, corny? Maybe, but some Australian schools
have taken to using catchy slogans to woo foreign students to their
campuses. Overseas students are big business down under. They pumped
almost $2 billion (in U.S. dollars) into the country's economy in 2000,
and the number from overseas has increased since then. Last year, just
over 188,000 foreign students were registered with Australian education
providers, with some 40,000 of them enrolled either online or at satellite
campuses the schools operate in other countries.
And phrases such as "Think, learn, lead" and "Are
you ready?" may be helping to drive the numbers higher. The University
of Southern Queensland has latched on to "WWWStudy" with
the three Ws standing for what you want, where you want it, and when
you want it. "It's a powerful and popular marketing device that
tells people what we're about—since the majority of our students
are off-campus and many study online," says school spokesman John
Austin. Southern Queensland has a strong engineering program and offers
the country's only agricultural engineering degree.
Marketing departments say that first impressions are vital, making
that kind of advertising necessary. But critics of the practice—who
are mostly from top-ranked universities—are dismissive. Among
those shunning slogans is prestigious Monash University, which has one
of the nation's best-regarded engineering program. "We don't need
a slogan,"says Meredith Jackson, executive director of marketing
Australian universities spend huge sums on advertising in Asia and
farther afield. Singapore, Hong Kong, and Indonesia are their three
biggest sources of students, but there has been impressive growth from
countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and the Czech Republic.
Jackson acknowledges that slogans may be a necessary evil for schools
that need to position themselves, but still regards them as "cheesy".
Besides that, she questions whether an all-purpose phrase has the same
appeal to potential engineering students as it would to, say, business
Still, she acknowledges that slogans are here to stay.