In principle, terahertz radiation—which lies between the microwave and infrared segments of the electromagnetic spectrum—could help people safely peer through flesh, plastic, fabrics and ceramics to detect anomalies, from tumors to bombs, for medical or security applications. But for decades, so-called t-ray devices were impractical outside the lab because they were fragile and because they weighed 45 kilograms (100 pounds) or more. Yet after just a few months of work, Brian Schulkin of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute created a rugged t-ray imager dubbed the “Mini-Z” that is less than 2.3 kilograms (five pounds) in weight and can fit in a briefcase. A prototype detected flaws purposely embedded in samples of foam used to insulate the space shuttle. Schulkin next plans to develop a handheld t-ray device.
—Charles Q. Choi
A few hardcover textbooks in a school backpack are enough to cause muscle strain. Lawrence C. Rome of the University of Pennsylvania and of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., and his colleagues have developed a backpack suspension system that minimizes stress on its wearer. As people walk, they typically bob up and down by several centimeters, which causes a pack to swing up and down. A 2.3-kilogram (five-pound) laptop slams down with 3.7 kilograms (eight pounds) of force when walking and as much as 6.9 kilograms (15 pounds) when running. Using pulleys and bungee cords, the new backpack damps this motion by half or more. In effect, the pack feels about a fifth lighter.
One version even generates electricity—more than seven watts, enough to recharge phones. Rome has set up a company, Lightning Packs, to develop the idea.
Better Sleep Aid
About nine years ago researchers discovered that the sudden spells of sleepiness called narcolepsy were caused by a deficit of a brain peptide called orexin. Actelion Pharmaceuticals in Allschwil, Switzerland, used this knowledge to create a type of sleeping pill that works by blocking two orexin receptors. Drug tests have shown that the compound known as ACT-078573 induces sleep in both animals and humans.
The debilitating parasitic illness known as schistosomiasis infects roughly 200 million people worldwide, making it second only to malaria in importance for public health. Currently just one drug, praziquantel, commonly treats the chronic disease, raising fears that the parasite could evolve resistance against it. Now Conor R. Caffrey of the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues have found a new drug that can kill the blood flukes that cause the ailment. They investigated the drug K11777, which interferes with the flukes’ digestive enzymes, and discovered that it could eliminate the parasites in lab mice.
If effective in humans, K11777 could work in tandem with praziquantel, with the former taking care of early-stage illnesses and the latter killing later-stage infections.
—Charles Q. Choi
Bird Flu Research for All
Until recently, laboratories doing bird flu research often kept their findings private, with access to many avian influenza gene sequences confined to just 15 facilities globally, potentially hindering them from doing research that could provide new insight into the virus. Instead of entering her avian influenza findings into this database, Ilaria Capua of Vialle University in Padua, Italy, disclosed the results of her studies in the publicly accessible GenBank and boldly rallied her colleagues to follow.
Her efforts helped to pave the way for the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data, a consortium through which findings can be freely shared while giving credit to researchers involved.
—Charles Q. Choi