Scientific American May 2011
The Latest in Science News
Sustainability: 7 Radical Energy Solutions (p 38)
Radical energy solutions such as heat engines that use shape-memory alloys to produce extra power for cars and machinery, or solar gasoline--a concentration of hydrogen produced from sunlight and carbon dioxide from the air--are long-shot technologies that could drastically change the energy game. In this month's Scientific American, the editors look at seven unlikely energy technology solutions that have received substantial government or private funding, which, if successful, could significantly improve energy security and efficiency.
A third idea proposed would also deal with the hazardous waste of spent nuclear fuel. Some scientists propose creating power sources and electricity by igniting fusion reactions with lasers that trigger nuclear fission that can consume spent nuclear fuel. As the editors note, "The projects we profile here are leading examples of the payoffs that are possible--if, of course, the inventors manage to overcome daunting hurdles to bringing practical, mass-produced and affordable technologies to fruition."
Agenda: Dr. No Money (p 10)
Progress in scientific research is hindered because scientists spend too much of their time trying to raise money for their work. As the editors write in this month's Scientific Scientific American, this time would be better spent with scientists actively participating in experiments critical to solving problems ranging from diseases to climate change. "A vicious cycle has developed. With more and more people applying for each grant, an individual's chances of winning decrease, so scientists must submit ever more proposals to stay even."
In the U.S., most scientists finance their laboratories, and at times their own salaries, through grants from government agencies and private foundations. This is a time intensive process: in 2007 university faculty members spent about 40 percent of their research time on the red tape of fundraising. One solution to this crisis, the editors note, are private supporters such as Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which distributes $500 million dollars annually, with little red tape, to almost 400 researchers.
The present state of research funding is not sustainable. To encourage young scientists to continue on their scientific pursuits, we must strip away the grant application time sink and the stringent rules and regulations and allow for these individuals to do what they are good at: scientific pursuits.
Science of Health: Beyond Mammograms (p 32)
Mammography, which has been used to detect tumors since the 1970s, has many limitations. In this month's Scientific Scientific American Nancy Shute examines some of the experimental techniques that could one day supplement or even supplant mammography.
There are 40,000 deaths from breast cancer annually in the U.S. and early detection of malignant growths is crucial to saving lives. Mammograms miss up to 20 percent of tumors and about one in ten of them produce false positives. "We desperately need better breast cancer screening tools," says Otis Webb Brawley of the Scientific American Cancer Society.
Two other imaging techniques_magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and ultrasound_are often used to supplement mammography to detect breast cancer but are not yet reliable enough to be used alone for screening and researchers are seeking better solutions. One, magnetic resonance elastography, combines an age-old method (feeling for lumps) with low frequency sound waves and MRI to detect stiffness in the breast_an early warning sign of tumors. Better still would be a test that could detect chemical markers from a patient's blood or breath indicating the presence of breast cancer, but research in this area is still in the early stages.
The perfect breast cancer detection tool should identify most or all_and only_the people who have the disease, says David Dershaw, a radiologist. "It needs to be reasonably non-invasive, tolerable and acceptable to people." It also has to be inexpensive and widely available. So far, nothing under study fits this bill better than mammography.
Medicine: Fast Track to Vaccines (p 66)
Systems biology, an emerging field of research, could make the development and testing of vaccines faster and more efficient. This new field could help us develop and test effective vaccines against AIDS, tuberculosis and other killer diseases, writes Alan Aderem in this month's Scientific Scientific American.
The problem with traditional methods of vaccine development is that they depend on a great deal of trial and error: researchers develop a compound they think should cause an immune response in the body and then test it on thousands of people, hoping to see a positive change. However, this process can be costly and slow.
Systems biology provides better methods of drug discovery: research teams can measure changes in genetic activity, protein levels and cellular behavior of the immune system in response to a potential vaccine. Powerful computers analyze the resulting data to develop molecular profiles of those responses. By comparing these profiles with the ideal profile that should be generated by a wholly protective immune response, investigators can quickly home in on and improve the most promising vaccine formulas.
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