News this Week

Science  15 Aug 2003:
Vol. 301, Issue 5635, pp. 900

    Universities Hit by New Round of Cuts; More Bad News Ahead

    1. Erik Stokstad

    Entomologist Timothy Paine can only look on with frustration as a bark beetle infestation of record proportions devastates forests in Southern California. Although his department at the University of California (UC), Riverside, has plenty of federal research funds, Paine has nobody available to test ways of combating the outbreak because state-funded researchers have been laid off or transferred to projects supported by other sources. “It's really reduced our ability to respond,” he says.


    Budget cuts will hamper integrated pest management and other agricultural research at the University of California.


    The cause of Paine's frustration is a new, belt-tightening budget for 2003–04 approved on 2 August by the governor. It was precipitated by a moribund economy that generated a record $38 billion deficit, which also led voters to make Governor Gray Davis the target of a 7 October recall election. The $99 billion state budget has forced university administrators to draw up plans to raise tuition by 30%, slash outreach and other programs, and shrink the number of faculty and support-staff positions. “It's going to start really hurting us,” says Barry Klein, vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Davis, which is expecting to lose 72 faculty slots and 28 staff positions over the next 3 years.

    All told, the legislature chopped $410 million from the $2.9 billion in state funding for the nine-campus UC system. One piece is a $10.8 million reduction to a $259 million general research fund, which is used by campuses for administrative and technical support. That cut comes on the heels of an $18 million midyear reduction, which in turn followed a 10% cut in last year's budget (Science, 20 December 2002, p. 2305).

    Even harder hit is cooperative extension, which provides technological outreach to farmers and also funds applied research at three campuses. The legislature excised $12.2 million, a 25% cut that follows a 5% cut last year. Although campuses won't receive their numbers until later this month, UC Davis administrators anticipated the bad news with their announcement last week of expected staff reductions.

    Charles Kennel, director of UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was even quicker off the mark, imposing cuts last year that have spurred scientists to raise 25% more in external funding. Kennel also persuaded officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to look for additional partners for the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigation, which would save Scripps about $950,000 a year. “The glass is half-full on this,” he says.

    The picture doesn't appear as rosy to researchers at UC Riverside, which on 1 August eliminated 18 of 135 technical research slots funded by the state. Although many of those staff members have been shifted to soft money, assistant dean Cynthia Giorgio says, “we've simply bought time till that money runs out.” The moves deprive labs of in-house expertise and the flexibility to respond to emergencies, say scientists.

    Despite their best efforts, UC administrators know that a projected $8 billion state budget shortfall for next year likely means more bad news. “Our anxiety is the unknown of the next fiscal year,” says Thomas Kaiser, an assistant dean for administration at UC Davis. His concern is echoed by Craig Moritz, director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley, who grimly recalls that a 20% cut in research funds during the early 1990s was never restored. “It's a one-way road of declining state investment in infrastructure,” he says.


    House Wants More Bidders for Lab Contracts

    1. David Malakoff

    It's hard to oppose competition. But some scientists say that a congressional plan to force the Department of Energy (DOE) to take bids for the job of managing four of its national labs isn't such a great idea.

    On 31 July the House of Representatives approved a 2004 DOE spending bill that would put up for grabs the contracts to manage any DOE lab that has been operated by the same institution for more than 50 years. The little-noticed provision would apply to the Lawrence Livermore, Argonne, Ames, and Lawrence Berkeley laboratories. Backers say the measure would ensure that the government gets the strongest science at the best price. But critics say that competition could be counterproductive. “Dictating competitive bidding for its own sake … is a step in the wrong direction,” says Paul Fleury, dean of engineering at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, and a former national laboratory administrator.

    The proposal, which now goes before the Senate, is the latest twist in a long-running controversy over how the government should manage DOE's 16 national laboratories. The labs range from sprawling nuclear weapons centers to specialized research accelerators. All are operated for the government by universities or private firms. But some longtime contractors have come under fire for management scandals, which critics say have been exacerbated by the government's practice of routinely renewing contracts rather than holding a competition.

    View this table:

    For instance, the University of California (UC) has taken heat for security and financial lapses at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which the university has run since 1943. Earlier this year, DOE took the unprecedented step of deciding to compete the $1.8-billion-a-year Los Alamos contract when the current deal expires in 2005 (Science, 9 May, p. 876). The university hasn't decided whether to enter the contest.

    House members led by Representative David Hobson (R-OH) want DOE to do more. The biggest target is UC's 51-year-old nonprofit deal to run the $1.2-billion-per-year Livermore weapons lab in California, also the site of several major management controversies. “This provision is really aimed at Livermore; the [critics] want the UC out,” says one House aide.

    But the provision also snags less controversial labs. The University of Chicago, for instance, has won good grades from the government for managing the $500-million-a-year Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago. So has Iowa State University, which manages the $30-million-per-year Ames National Laboratory on its campus. And DOE recently said it would extend UC's 56-year-old contract to operate the $442-million-a-year Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

    Competing such contracts makes little financial sense, say critics, and it could damage morale. Whereas the weapons labs may warrant closer scrutiny, DOE should compete science lab contracts “only if [it] has good reason to replace an incumbent,” says Fleury, who has testified before Congress on the issue. The bidding process alone can cost millions of dollars, he and others note, and an academic lab located on its current manager's campus, such as Ames, is not attractive to an outside party. “There are no obvious benefits,” says Ames Director Thomas Barton.

    Such views may come up during negotiations between the House and Senate on a final version of the spending bill. One possible compromise: urging DOE to compete its lab contracts but allowing the department to extend deals that it decides are good enough.


    Democrats Accuse Bush of Letting Politics Distort Science

    1. David Malakoff

    A senior Democrat in the House of Representatives has set up a Web site to highlight what he calls the Bush Administration's manipulation of science to advance its policies. But the White House says that it is Representative Henry Waxman (D-CA) who is playing politics.

    The president's reaction to research findings and scientific advice that run counter to his views on everything from public health and the environment to sex education and defense policy has been a sore point for many scientists since Bush took office (Science, 18 April, p. 403). Specific charges include stacking government advisory panels with scientists with ties to industry or strong religious views, trimming evidence for global warming from reports and Web pages, and gagging government scientists from discussing controversial results. Administration officials and some independent observers have dismissed the complaints as sour grapes from their political opponents, saying the moves simply reflect the normal process of a new regime putting its stamp on government.

    Not so, says the new 40-page report from the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Government Reform, on which Waxman is the senior Democrat. “These actions go far beyond the typical shifts in policy that occur with a change in the political party occupying the White House,” they conclude, citing nearly two dozen instances where, they claim, “the Administration has manipulated the scientific process and distorted or suppressed scientific findings.”

    For instance, it charges Administration officials with changing social science criteria to make “abstinence-only” sex education programs appear more effective, selectively citing data to make missile defense systems seem closer to reality, and withholding comments from Fish and Wildlife Service biologists who were critical of proposed changes to wetlands protection rules. Such tinkering benefits “important supporters of the president, including social conservatives and powerful industry groups,” conclude the authors. The Web site ( seeks comments from the public on “the state of scientific integrity in the Bush Administration.”

    Political statements.

    Rep. Henry Waxman (top) accuses the Bush Administration of tampering with the scientific process.


    The White House hasn't responded to the report's specifics. But aides note that Waxman is a liberal Democrat who is well known for bashing the Administration. “I'm hard-pressed to believe anyone would consider Congressman Waxman an objective arbiter of scientific fact,” White House spokesperson Adam Levine told The Washington Post.


    NIH Plans New Grants for Innovative Minds

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    The National Institutes of Health (NIH) hopes to shed its reputation for playing it safe by doling out no-strings-attached grants to a handful of exceptionally creative researchers. The program, which is planned for the fiscal year beginning in October, is meant to address long-standing concerns that the NIH peer-review system discriminates against unconventional ideas with high potential payoff.

    Looking for mavericks.

    NIH's Elvira Ehrenfeld wants to give a few top researchers free rein to pursue new ideas.


    The Director's Innovator Awards are part of a package of initiatives being planned by NIH Director Elias Zerhouni for NIH's 27 institutes and centers. The awards would go to people rather than projects, a departure from traditional NIH peer review, which uses panels to select which research to fund. “There is a tendency to give very good scores to projects that are guaranteed to work,” says Elvira Ehrenfeld, director of NIH's Center for Scientific Review. “It is clear that we are losing groundbreaking proposals simply because of the conservatism built into the system. … It's just too risky not to do this.” The proposal was first reported by Science and Government Report, a Washington, D.C.-based newsletter.

    In June, an NIH task force led by Ehrenfeld and alternative medicine center chief Stephen Straus heard from a 15-member panel on ways to fund high-risk, high-impact research. The outside experts came up with three ideas: a program like one at the Department of Defense that funds high-risk research; a program led by NIH that would assemble teams to solve specific problems; and awards to outstanding researchers based on their track record. The last item seemed easiest to implement quickly, Ehrenfeld says.

    Panel member Gerald Rubin, vice president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in Chevy Chase, Maryland, notes that HHMI already follows such a model by allowing top-notch investigators to follow their instincts. “HHMI has done this experiment. It works,” says Rubin, who compares the strategy to investing in both high-risk stocks and safe bonds. Like HHMI's program, the Innovator Awards won't target any particular age group, says Ehrenfeld. She says it differs from NIH's Merit Awards, which are given to investigators whose grant proposals have consistently scored well. The Merit Awards, which essentially allow recipients to bypass full peer review for several years to continue work in a specific area, “are not necessarily innovative,” says Ehrenfeld, who once had one herself.

    NIH is still working out details of the new awards, including how to select the recipients and monitor their progress. Ehrenfeld says “there are some models out there” for picking the winners. For instance, HHMI solicits nominations from institutions, as does the W. M. Keck Foundation, which began a program 5 years ago that is aimed at young investigators. Another approach is self-nomination.

    It's not yet clear how much money will be devoted to the Innovator Awards. Some members of the outside panel felt that 5% of NIH's budget “would be about the right percentage,” says Rubin. But Ehrenfeld says that initial funding will likely be modest and will depend on NIH's 2004 budget, which is still before Congress. NIH doesn't expect to cut existing programs to pay for the awards, she says. The awards should “not supplant what we do but add to it.”

    One recipient of the Keck prizes says that the funding—$1 million over 5 years—“has changed my life.” Milton Werner, a 40-year-old structural biologist at Rockefeller University in New York City, says that NIH rejected his proposal four times because of its “unorthodox approach” to understanding biochemical signaling in cells. His research combines molecular studies, mouse work, and spectroscopy. The Keck award, made in 2000, has allowed him and his group to “validate” their ideas, he says, opening the door to subsequent NIH funding.

    Ehrenfeld says the details of the new awards will be part of a broader management document due out next month (Science, 27 September 2002, p. 2197). The plan, called a road map, is meant to spell out Zerhouni's vision of how to increase the $27 billion NIH's impact on research and health care.


    Roiled by Smuggling Charge, Egypt Dig to Continue

    1. Barbara Casassus*
    1. Barbara Casassus is a freelance writer in Paris.

    PARIS—A member of a prominent French archaeological team working in the Egyptian city of Alexandria was arrested last week on suspicion of trying to smuggle antiquities out of the country. Egyptian authorities are allowing the digs to continue until an inquiry reveals whether the objects came from the Alexandria excavations. The authorities “have made a distinction between an individual and the mission and have asked us to continue with our work,” archaeologist Jean-Yves Empereur, who directs the digs, told Science. “It is a great relief.”

    Architect Stéphane Rousseau, who has worked with Empereur's team since 1998, is alleged to have tried to export items including 144 coins, most of them bronze; five pottery Ushebtis, or statues accompanying the pharaohs after death; two Greco-Roman clay statuettes of the mythical god Horus; and three clay lamps. The items—some of them fake—were probably bought on the black market, says Sabry Abdel-Aziz, head of the Egyptology and Greco-Roman department at the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Cairo, who adds that Rousseau told the police he had bought the objects in a market.

    Empereur—a research director at the French basic research agency CNRS, who has worked in Alexandria for 27 years—set up the Centre d'Études Alexandrines in 1990 to save the Egyptian port city's heritage before urban spread destroys it. “We are the only rescue archaeology team working in Alexandria,” he says. Discoveries include a lighthouse, the Caesareum temple, and a necropolis with more than 40 collective tombs built in 300 B.C. and used until A.D. 700.

    Abdel-Aziz said no decision has yet been made about the longer-term future of Empereur's mission, but he expects it will be allowed to continue. “No mission can be blamed for the behavior of one individual,” he says.

  6. CHINA

    Scientists Urged to Share Large, Costly Instruments

    1. Ding Yimin*
    1. With reporting by Jeffrey Mervis in Washington, D.C. Ding Yimin writes for China Features in Beijing.

    BEIJING—China's burgeoning support for research has given its scientists a taste for the latest research tools. But their growing appetite is eating up the country's science budget. So last month the government launched an effort to crack down on redundant purchases and encourage the sharing of costly facilities and instrumentation.

    Cooperation among Chinese research institutions has been sporadic since the loosening of the planned economy 2 decades ago. Lack of collaboration in the early months of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, for example, may have prevented China from being the first to identify the culprit virus (Science, 18 July, p. 294).

    To help push institutions into collaborating, the government has formed a joint committee, involving 16 organizations that fund research, to rationalize access to science facilities. The panel made its debut on 23 July. “We have almost completed a survey on research facilities and lab equipment that are worth over 500,000 yuan [$60,000] each,” says Yu Haiying of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). “Then we will publish an online directory of this equipment and encourage people and institutes to use them. The equipment was all bought by the taxpayers, and the state should grant equal access to every research institute.”

    Data sharing.

    China wants institutions to coordinate purchases of costly instruments such as this environmental satellite dish.


    To make their case, Chinese officials cite the proliferation of high-tech satellite dishes needed to download and disseminate data from Earth-monitoring satellites launched by NASA in December 1999 and May 2002. Although the environmental data are invaluable to anyone needing up-to-the-minute information on everything from forest fires to red tides, the equipment to process information from the moderate-resolution imaging spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor aboard each satellite costs about $300,000. At that price, most countries have opted for a centrally managed system: Australia has purchased three MODIS receivers to cover the continent, for example, and there are nine government stations spread across the United States, from Alaska to Florida.

    But not China. Beijing alone is home to eight MODIS stations, each lapping up the same 1.5 gigabytes of data streaming down every 90 minutes from the polar-orbiting Terra and Aqua satellites. MOST officials say there are 29 MODIS stations across the country, operated by a hodgepodge of research institutes and organizations that can't—or won't—rely on the kindness of colleagues for the information they need.

    Some scientists see the stations as a necessary cost of doing business. “Each industry or department needs its own research facilities, just as each family has its own TV set instead of sharing one among several families,” says Liu Jianqiang, vice general engineer of the National Center of Satellite Ocean Applications, which fought hard to obtain its own MODIS system. But others see the reforms as a positive step. Better coordination “can save money, time, and energy by letting scientists ask for data from other institutes,” says Li Xiaowen, director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Remote Sensing Applications, which has a MODIS station in Beijing.

    Not surprisingly, companies that make the MODIS receivers don't think that a centralized system is such a good idea. “It's easy for people to say that there should be fewer systems,” says Scott Kuehn of Sea Space Corp. in Poway, California, which makes ground stations for a variety of remote-sensing satellites. “But you need an adequate [computing and communications] infrastructure to make [data sharing] work properly. And that may not exist outside Beijing. You also need to overcome cultural barriers. In general, people just don't like to share.”

    Chinese leaders hope that the new panel will not only help them stretch research budgets but also lead to a more equitable distribution of resources. “The reform should break the monopoly on large equipment and facilities by some well-funded research organizations,” says MOST's Yu, “and allow for fairer competition among different institutes.” The result, says Yu, would be a better research climate for everybody.


    Fifty Years of Deformed Frogs

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    SAVANNAH, GEORGIA—A rash of multilegged frogs across the country that first raised alarm 8 years ago reflects a phenomenon that has been under way for decades, according to a study reported here on 5 August at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America. Researchers who examined preserved amphibian specimens from several U.S. states found that the same culprit— parasites—also explains malformations reported more than 50 years ago.

    Twisted legacy.

    A parasite that distorts frogs' limbs (inset) has been linked to historical malformations, including a 1954 outbreak in Ohio.


    After Minnesota schoolchildren began finding frogs with extra and missing hind legs in 1995, scientists began an intensive research effort to explore three possible causes: parasites, pesticides, or ultraviolet light. A team led by ecologist Pieter Johnson found that only a trematode called Ribeiroia that burrows into tadpoles' limbs seems to cause the range of malformations seen in the field (Science, 30 April 1999, pp. 731 and 802), although subsequent studies suggest that chemicals may make frogs more vulnerable to the worm. Reports of multilegged amphibians aren't new; they go back to the early 1700s. Johnson, now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and co-workers in California, Kansas, and Montana wondered if parasites could explain some of these earlier malformations, too.

    To find out, Johnson's team tracked down preserved specimens from several ponds in seven states, from California to Mississippi, where multilegged frogs or salamanders were reported between 1946 and 1988. This task took “about 350 phone calls” to museums and collectors, Johnson says. When they dissected the pickled amphibians, the researchers found Ribeiroia cysts in specimens from six of nine ponds.

    Johnson's team also visited the ponds and found that three still had plenty of misshapen amphibians and parasites. The bottom line: “Mass malformations are not a new phenomenon,” says Johnson. But that doesn't mean that the ill-formed frogs aren't worth worrying about. At some of the ponds, species reported earlier have disappeared, possibly because the malformations made them vulnerable to predators. And the incidence seems to be rising: The scientists have found 50 hot spots for malformed amphibians in the past 5 years, far more than the nine historical accounts they dug up. Although they didn't find pesticides at the ponds they studied, Johnson thinks that nutrient runoff from cow pastures and farmers' fields may be spurring populations of the snails that host the parasites. The study will appear in the December issue of Conservation Biology.

    “It's good detective work,” says amphibian ecologist John Fauth of the University of Central Florida in Orlando.


    Drought Portends Mosquito Misery

    1. Jocelyn Kaiser

    SAVANNAH, GEORGIA—A rainy year means more mosquitoes, right? Not quite, suggests a study reported here on 5 August at the meeting of the Ecological Society of America. The research found that because dry weather knocks out key mosquito predators and competitors, last year's drought—not this year's rainfall—may best predict mosquito outbreaks in wetlands.

    Lifting the lid.

    Experiments suggest that when drought kills predators such as this backswimmer larva, mosquito populations take off.


    The idea for the research came to Jonathan Chase of Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and his wife Tiffany Knight, now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida in Gainesville, after a pond they were studying in Pennsylvania dried up during a drought. The next year when the pond filled again, the number of mosquito larvae skyrocketed. To explore what was happening, the two ecologists surveyed about 30 ponds of three types: permanent, semipermanent, and temporary. In permanent ponds, they found few mosquito larvae but plenty of fish, water beetles, and other critters that feed on mosquito larvae. Mosquitoes were also scarce in ponds that dried up every year, in this case because the ponds were rife with competition: zooplankton, snails, and tadpoles that compete with the mosquito larvae for algae and other food.

    But in ponds that were usually full but dried out after a drought in 1999, mosquito larvae burgeoned the next year, Chase reported. The reason, he and Knight suspect, is that the drought killed both predators and competitors, which in these ponds aren't adapted to dry spells. The team found the same pattern when they created artificial wetlands: 1.5-meter-wide tanks filled with soil and water that they stocked with mosquito larvae and other organisms found in the natural ponds. After waiting 3 years to allow the communities to stabilize, the researchers slowly drained some tanks to create a drought. Mosquito larvae numbers the next year boomed compared with tanks that were drained each year or kept full.

    The team has found that drought the previous year correlates much better than the current year's rainfall with mosquito abundance in some cities, such as Winnipeg, Canada. Although Chase and Knight studied only two species of mosquitoes (Anopheles quadrimaculatus and Culex pipiens) that breed in wetlands, others have suggested that drought also plays a role in outbreaks of mosquitoes that breed in tree holes, such as the Asian tiger mosquito, notes Steven Juliano of Illinois State University, Normal. “A few people have thought about it, but nobody's done [this] systematic effort,” he says.


    Possible Role for Environmental Copper in Alzheimer's Disease

    1. Jean Marx

    A small protein called β amyloid appears to cause much of the devastating brain degeneration of Alzheimer's disease. But it has accomplices, likely including copper ions and cholesterol (Science, 19 October 2001, p. 508). New results link the two, suggesting that a combination of low levels of copper ions in drinking water and a high-cholesterol diet somehow promotes an Alzheimer-like pathology in rabbits.

    Skeptics wonder.

    Are copper-induced plaques in rabbits akin to Alzheimer's pathology?


    Alzheimer's experts caution that much more work will be needed to determine whether the findings apply to human disease. They say that the rabbit pathology imperfectly mirrors what's found in Alzheimer's, for instance. But if the results hold up, they could have implications for preventing the disease. People may need to reduce not only their blood cholesterol levels but also their consumption of copper-containing drinking water.

    The work, which comes from pathologist Larry Sparks of the Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Arizona, and behavioral scientist Bernard Schreurs of West Virginia University in Morgantown, is the outgrowth of a serendipitous finding reported last year. While at the University of Kentucky Chandler Medical Center in Lexington, Sparks had shown that feeding high-cholesterol diets to New Zealand white rabbits caused increased β-amyloid accumulation in their brain neurons and the formation of structures resembling the senile plaques of Alzheimer's brains. The same thing happened with animals maintained at another institute in Phoenix. But at Sun Health, the diet had much less effect.

    That set off an extensive search that ended when Sparks noticed that Sun Health animals drank distilled water, whereas at the other facilities they had been given ordinary tap water. Analysis of the labs' water samples pointed to copper ion content as the key factor.

    In the current work, reported online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sparks and Schreurs directly tested the effects of low levels of copper ions on β-amyloid production. They spiked distilled water with copper sulfate at a concentration that was one-tenth the maximum allowed in drinking water by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

    Feeding rabbits a high-cholesterol diet and distilled water increased the number of β-amyloid-producing neurons compared with animals eating a normal diet, but the increase was 50% greater in animals that drank copper-containing water. The brain areas most affected, such as the hippocampus, show the greatest pathology in Alzheimer's. And plaque-like structures were common only in those animals that drank the copper-laced water and ate a high-cholesterol diet. Moreover, those animals performed much more poorly on a complex learning task than the other rabbits did.

    Still, other Alzheimer's researchers aren't so sure that the brain changes reflect the true pathology of the disease. Ashley Bush of Harvard Medical School in Boston has proposed that β amyloid helps keep the brain from accumulating toxic amounts of copper; he thinks this system may become disregulated later in life, leading to abnormal β-amyloid deposition and Alzheimer's. Bush says that the rabbit neurons may have turned up their β-amyloid production as part of a normal response aimed at fending off the copper ions.

    Bush further notes that the plaque-like structures seen in the animals are not surrounded by deteriorating nerve endings, as is commonly observed in Alzheimer's plaques. Sparks responds that because the experiments lasted only 8 weeks, there may not have been enough time for that to have happened.

    Researchers would like to assess the effects of copper on widely used mouse models of Alzheimer's. Epidemiological studies might reveal whether there are any links between copper in the water and human Alzheimer's. Marcelle Morrison-Bogorad of the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland, describes the work of Sparks and Schreurs as “fascinating.” But she adds, “It's far too early to get anyone upset” about copper in tap water. In other words, don't tear out your copper plumbing yet.


    One Nuclear Leap to Mars?

    1. Richard Stone

    The Columbia accident may have persuaded many that human space flight is too risky, but Russian space scientists say it's time to be bold as they press ahead with plans for a voyage to the Red Planet

    SEMIPALATINSK TEST SITE, KAZAKHSTAN—In the early 1960s, Pentagon brass pored over surveillance photos with grim fascination. The Soviet Union appeared to be building an underground facility in the heart of a remote and well-guarded atomic weapons testing range in northeastern Kazakhstan, a place no spy could get near. Glimpses of giant metal spheres and high-tech equipment trucked to the site suggested a sophisticated operation. Although opinion was divided, one camp in the U.S. intelligence community concluded that it was watching a top-secret effort to build a “death ray,” a particle-beam gun for shooting down American missiles.

    Looks can deceive.

    During the Cold War, the IVG-1M reactor at the Baikal-1 complex tested novel fuels for a nuclear rocket engine.


    After the Cold War ended, Western officials learned the truth, which turned out to be even more far-fetched than the fabled death ray: The Soviets were attempting to build a nuclear engine to propel cosmonauts to Mars. But the Soviet dream, to trump America's moon landing, died along with the Eastern Bloc.

    More than a decade later, Russia is fanning the embers. At a meeting* in June in Moscow, Russian space scientists unveiled preliminary plans to transport people to Mars, including the likeliest propulsion systems for getting there and measures to protect astronauts from overexposure to cosmic rays and the ill effects of microgravity during a 2-year journey to the Red Planet and back.

    The timing wasn't exactly propitious. The loss of the space shuttle Columbia had already raised questions about the value of human space flight and focused attention on the ballooning costs of the current space megaproject, the international space station (ISS). And Russia's chronic problems in coming up with its contributions to the ISS don't augur well for an even more ambitious encore. Nevertheless, experts at all of Russia's major space institutes and rocket-design centers are involved in the planning for a crewed Mars mission, and they have even penciled in a tentative launch date: 8 May 2018. “Our next project will certainly be the Mars mission,” predicts people-on-Mars paladin Leonid Gorshkov of Energia, the Moscow-based maker of many of Russia's crewed spacecraft and the Mir space station. “We've progressed quite a long way in the planning.”

    Fission frisson.

    NASA's latest vision of a nuclear-propelled spacecraft.


    Gorshkov and his Russian colleagues claim that such a mission could be pulled off for anywhere from $14 billion to $20 billion. But many Western experts think that's pure fantasy. They peg the adventure nearer to the ISS's $100 billion price tag. Even if the Russian space community could get to Mars on a shoestring, it knows it can't go it alone. “We need to consolidate all the forces in space research,” says Anatoly Koroteev, director of the Russian Aviation and Space Agency's Keldysh Research Center in Moscow.

    One enthusiast, astrogeologist James Rice of Arizona State University in Tempe, says “there are no insurmountable technical showstoppers to sending astronauts to Mars.” The chief scientific rationale is that astronauts trained in field geology would be able to roam the surface of Mars, hunting for clues to whether the planet harbors life and undertaking other survey work that crewless landers and sample-return missions could not accomplish. “Mars is a geological wonderland,” says Ruslan Kuzmin of the Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry in Moscow.

    But there are plenty of challenges, the biggest of which may be convincing the public and legislators that a human voyage is worth the cost and the risk. Many scientists just don't see the urgency. “Don't get me wrong, I would be at the front of the queue to go on a manned mission to Mars,” says Martin Sweeting, director of the Surrey Space Centre in the U.K. “However, we do not need to incur the enormous additional expense of a manned flight to Mars just yet when unmanned exploratory robots can be sent at a tiny fraction of the cost to do the essential exploration—and then humans can follow 50 to 100 years later when we have more capable technologies.”

    Still, Russia's concerted efforts to plan one of the grandest scientific adventures of all time have prompted other countries to take a serious look at what it would take to pull it off. “For the first time, Europe is analyzing a possible scenario for human exploration of Mars,” says Franco Ongaro, head of advanced concepts and studies at the European Space Agency (ESA), which envisions a launch no earlier than 2025.

    NASA also is eager to lay the technical groundwork, if not test the political waters. John Mankins, acting assistant associate administrator for advanced systems at NASA, argues that the mission will be feasible only after scientists develop the “right tools” to achieve a deeper understanding of the physiological effects of long-duration space flight and of the martian environment itself. “We believe these are challenges that can be met,” he says, “but it will take a lot of work to get there.”

    Back to the future

    Out on the arid Kazakh steppe, it's easy to see why this facility, known as Baikal-1, gave Cold Warriors the shivers. From the outside it's inscrutable: Entry is through a plain white wooden door set in an artificial knoll. Inside a murky foyer, a soldier toting a Kalashnikov guards a meter-thick, 10-ton steel blast door. Stepping through this portal is like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland into a warren of control rooms and offices linked by brightly lit, lime-green tunnels. The longest tunnel of all, its walls seeming to converge into the distance, separates the nuclear beast from its human masters. Shoes squeak as white-coated scientists walk this linoleum-floored green mile to the cavernous halls housing Baikal's exotic reactors.

    In the late 1950s, the Soviet Union and the United States launched military programs to develop nuclear reactors for lifting rockets into space and propelling spacecraft on exploratory missions. Mars was an obvious target—particularly for the Soviet Union, where the Red Planet had long been a source of fascination. Alexei Tolstoi's popular 1923 novel Aelita described a Soviet expedition to establish a communist colony on Mars, and “Forward to Mars!” was a popular slogan at the time. “Such an expedition seemed very real back then,” says Gorshkov.

    A nuclear engine was thought necessary because of the amount of energy needed to get a long-haul spacecraft out of near-Earth orbit, then out of martian orbit for the return trip. In 1959, Sergei Korolev, founder of the Soviet space program, pulled together top experts to start laying plans for a human Mars mission. The task force quickly grasped that the mission would need a stupendous rocket to lift an interplanetary spacecraft, dubbed the TMK, into low-Earth orbit. Designers drafted plans for the N-1, a 123-meter-tall nuclear rocket that would do the job.

    Cold War fission.

    Soviet space czar Sergei Korolev (with famed cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin), began laying serious plans for a crewed Mars mission in 1959. The U.S. Space Nuclear Propulsion Office prepares a “cold flow” experiment with a nuclear rocket engine assembly, minus any fissile material, at its test bed in Jackass Flats, Nevada, in December 1967.


    During the 1960s moon race, the superpowers forged ahead with fission engine programs and other nuclear technologies. Soviet hopes to land on the moon faded after three successive failed launches of a redesigned N-1. “The whole enterprise was too expensive for our country even in those times,” says Mars expert Vasily Moroz of the Space Research Institute in Moscow. After Apollo 11, the Soviet Union redoubled its efforts toward a Mars mission. The TMK was shelved after it became apparent that a more logical approach was to assemble a Mars spacecraft in orbit, à la Mir. According to current Russian plans, such a ship, once assembled, could weigh as much as 600 tons, or about six payloads of Energia's current heavy-lift rocket.

    Hot off the press.

    In NASA's 400-kilowatt uranium engine, dozens of niobium-zirconium heat rods wick power from a uranium nitride core. For now researchers are mimicking the heat of fission using resistance heaters so they can test the reactor's components.


    The amount of thrust necessary to get to Mars and back called for a revolutionary new engine design, and Baikal-1 was built to develop it. “It was anticipated to be highly dangerous work,” says the facility's chief engineer, Aleksander Kolbaenkov. The effort involved testing new forms of nuclear fuel, such as carbides of plutonium and uranium, which could generate extremely high temperatures and deliver maximum power. “The fuel included many technical innovations,” says Oleg Pivovarov, director of the Institute of Atomic Energy of Kazakhstan's National Nuclear Center, which runs Baikal. The exotic materials and an explosive coolant, liquid hydrogen, were a perilous combination. Whenever the reactor was fired up, “nobody was allowed to be on site,” says Kolbaenkov. The risky work paid off, and in 1978 the team began testing an engine prototype called IRGIT.

    The rival U.S. nuclear engine program never got as far. But as the Cold War wound down, NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Energy tried to move the technology forward with a decade-long, $500 million program to develop a multimegawatt reactor. After critical internal reviews, the program was killed in 1993—before a reactor was even tested—in part to funnel cash to the shuttle program.

    In 1987 the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, pitched the idea of joining forces on a Mars mission to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, says Gorshkov, who helped brief Gorbachev, “Reagan showed no interest in this problem.” Since 1992, Baikal-1 has had virtually no funding to fine-tune IRGIT. “These tests were never completed because of the Soviet collapse,” Kolbaenkov says.

    On a uranium wing and a prayer

    While the Baikal team is itching to rev its nuclear engines again, currently it is NASA that is spearheading the resurrection. Researchers at the agency's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, working closely with Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, are carrying out a project called the Safe Affordable Fission Engine (SAFE) to test the components of a 400-kilowatt uranium engine. As one of the R&D jewels of NASA's new Prometheus program for solar system exploration (Science, 28 March, p. 1969), SAFE aims to develop fission engines for a variety of long-haul missions to any point in the solar system, from robotic sample returns to human voyages. NASA and its partners are proceeding cautiously. SAFE is like “the DC-9, being a first step toward developing modern, high-performance jets,” says project scientist Michael Houts, a nuclear engineer at Marshall.

    To get astronauts to Mars, however, the SAFE team would have to scale up to a much more powerful reactor, one generating at least 10 megawatts. Houts thinks that such a reactor could be commissioned by 2020; the Russians and the Kazakhs hope to soon switch into overdrive to get IRGIT or a successor ready as an option for a 2018 launch.

    Even the most zealous nuclear enthusiasts realize that the idea of astronauts straddling a nuclear reactor for 2 years may not be the most salable option. Fresh uranium fuel is weakly radioactive, so an accident on launch would disperse little fallout. But as the uranium fissions, radioactive daughter isotopes such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 will accumulate and pose a risk. Houts points out, however, that even a modestly shielded core after shutdown would expose astronauts to radiation doses that are similar to what they would already be receiving from cosmic rays.

    Stars in his eyes.

    In an experiment aboard Mir, cosmonaut Sergey Avdeev wears a mask fitted with LEDs as a silicon detector tracks particles that trigger light flashes in his visual field.


    Still, the psychological “Chornobyl effect” has researchers casting for alternatives in case nuclear propulsion proves unpalatable. One option that Russian scientists have been pushing since 1988 is thin-film solar arrays, advanced versions of conventional photovoltaic cells that were tested on Mir 5 years ago. The amorphous silicon arrays, just 20 micrometers thick, could deliver 15 megawatts for electrical rocket engines that have a proven track record in orbit. More futuristic approaches range from antimatter engines—a NASA favorite—to extremely powerful lasers, to be based on Earth, the moon, and Mars, that would nudge spacecraft along.

    A perilous voyage

    Finding the right technology to get to Mars is one thing. Getting there safely is quite another. There are two paramount safety concerns: how to prevent cosmic rays from frying the astronauts' DNA and how to prevent their muscles, bones, and cardiovascular systems from deteriorating.

    For the most part, the radiation threat is predictable. The longer people are in space, the more cosmic rays they are exposed to and the more their DNA is corrupted and the greater their odds are of developing cancer. Tackling this issue is, in part, a straightforward engineering problem: ensuring that the spacecraft's walls are clad with adequate shielding to block the brunt of the cosmic rays and energized particles from the sun impinging on the ship. Another element is to plan a voyage when solar activity is ebbing, reducing the threat from solar flares and coronal mass ejections. That has some Russian planners eyeing the May 2018 launch. “We can't miss this favorable opportunity,” pleads Vitaly Semyonov, the chief planner of a crewed Mars mission at the Keldysh Research Center, who notes that the next auspicious launch window, taking into account both the solar cycle and the proximity of the orbit of Earth and Mars, would be 2032.

    No chance of parole.

    Concordia station in Antarctica serves as an analog of the confinement aboard a Mars-bound spacecraft. It will host psychological studies on its winter inhabitants beginning in 2006.


    But space medical experts are also worried about a less understood effect of cosmic rays: light flashes apparently triggered when certain types of charged particles, such as helium nuclei, sizzle cells in the retina. Apollo 11 astronauts were the first to report seeing the sporadic flashes. “They were often reported after the astronauts closed their eyes and before drifting off to sleep,” says physicist Alexander Popov of the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute. Popov, who is part of a team that studied light flashes extensively in the Mir cosmonauts, says he worries about the potential cumulative effects over a longer-duration mission. The big unknown: whether 2 years of such flashes would degrade vision or otherwise damage the central nervous system.

    Just as serious is the spell that microgravity puts on the body. It doesn't take long for the effects of weightlessness to take hold. After only 12 days in orbit on Soyuz-18, cosmonauts “could do nothing” when they returned to Earth, says Adilia Kotovskaya of the Institute for Biomedical Problems (IBMP). “They said their legs were like fins.” With some 500 people venturing into space over 4 decades, says IBMP Director Anatoly Grigoriev, spacefaring nations have devised sufficient measures to keep muscles toned, such as having astronauts work out on treadmills or fancy stationary bicycles called ergometers.

    But experts don't yet know how to prevent the erosion of cardiovascular fitness and bone tissue. “These are the most critical issues for long-duration space flight,” says Kotovskaya. Adds Grigoriev, “We still don't understand why the body can't synthesize bone tissue in space.” And although a spell on the space station can be followed by some Earth-bound rest and relaxation to rebuild bone mass, travelers to Mars need to be fit when they arrive. Russian planners are considering shock tactics. “We must create artificial gravity to prevent them from adapting to weightlessness,” says Kotovskaya. During the long flight, astronauts would take turns spinning in a centrifuge that would accelerate their bodies up to 8g. Kotovskaya's team is conducting ground-based tests of a short-arm centrifuge.

    Array of light.

    Energia's conception of a solar array spacecraft that the company says could get astronauts to Mars if nuclear propulsion is not an option.


    Besides keeping prospective martianauts physically fit, planners will have to prevent psychological meltdowns as well. ESA is going to probe this issue by observing the 16 or so hardy individuals who spend the long, dark winter at Europe's new inland Antarctic research station, Concordia. “As one of the most isolated places on Earth, Concordia will replicate aspects of a mission to Mars,” says ESA's Oliver Angerer, manager of a research program expected to begin in 2006. Like on a long space voyage, “it would be simply impossible to mount an emergency rescue at Concordia” for 9 months of the year, he notes. The station will also be a test bed for medical-monitoring and water-recycling technologies for a human mission.

    Russia has a similar endurance test in mind. IBMP plans to confine six cosmonauts for 500 days beginning next year in three space station modules on the institute grounds. To assess whether cultural differences might amplify any frictions, researchers may invite foreign astronauts to take part. “One of the biggest challenges [of a Mars mission] will be sociological,” says someone with experience, former Mir cosmonaut Sergey Avdeev.

    Seeing red

    Although ESA and NASA experts generally agree that Russia's aim for a crewed Mars mission before 2020 is technically feasible, they are not in such a hurry. ESA is setting its sights first on getting to the moon. “We think the moon will be a very important intermediate step,” says Ongaro, who says ESA hopes to team up with partners on a crewed moon mission between 2020 and 2025. As a run-up to a crewed Mars adventure, ESA hopes to mount a series of sample-return missions to Mars between 2011 and 2017. “If we can't bring back a few rocks, then we shouldn't send people,” says Ongaro. ESA is eyeing 2033 as “the best opportunity,” he says, for a crewed mission. Some Russian experts acknowledge that's a more realistic timetable. “My feeling is that the world is still not ready” for the mission, says the Space Research Institute's Moroz.

    NASA's aspirations are more nebulous. In the wake of the Columbia disaster, the agency is undergoing an internal review of its priorities. In human space exploration, the completion and operation of the ISS is expected to be affirmed as the agency's top priority. But laying the groundwork for Mars could become a more visible part of the ISS's raison d'être. “We should see the space station as a step along the way,” says Ongaro.

    Russia, meanwhile, will continue to push the early launch. “Up until now we're on schedule” for 2018, says Semyonov, thanks to crucial funding from the International Science and Technology Center, a Moscow-based organization that supports nonproliferation projects and has paid the lion's share of Russia's mission planning. But the Russian government has been hard pressed to come up with meager financial contributions to the ISS; a Mars mission would be a much bigger investment. “One doesn't see Russia coming up with those funds in the near future,” Ongaro says.

    But political imperatives can change rapidly. Perhaps one of the spacecraft now on the way to the Red Planet will discover something “compelling or bizarre that would shake people into thinking, ‘We need to go now,’” says Rice of Arizona State. Or perhaps governments will conclude that Mars should be terraformed to serve as a kind of Noah's Ark for the human race in the event of a cataclysmic asteroid strike, says Moroz. If so, the Russian planners are practically halfway there.

    • *“Systems and Technologies for the Future Exploration and Development of Space,” 9 to 11 June, sponsored by the International Science and Technology Centre and the International Academy of Astronautics.


    Electronic Textiles Charge Ahead

    1. Robert F. Service

    Clothes may soon change color on command, give you a checkup, and communicate by Wi-Fi, say researchers striving to give fabrics a dose of dyed-in-the-wool smarts

    Computer geeks aren't much for setting fashion trends. You know the stereotypes: clothes rumpled from sleeping on a departmental lounge sofa, a pizza stain here and there. But in yet another example that life loves a good twist of irony, a growing cadre of computer, electronics, and textile researchers are poised to revolutionize the fashion world, and perhaps at the same time the fields of communication, medicine, advertising, and even warfare. The rumpled-shirt crowd is looking to give the decidedly low-tech world of textiles a good dressing up, electrifying everything from jackets and T-shirts to advertising displays and carpets with electronic sensors, processing chips, and displays.

    Wall of sound.

    Textile-based sensor nets could enable army units to triangulate the location of opposing forces.


    The first results are already on store shelves, such as a snowboarding jacket designed to play MP3 music files with the help of controls stitched onto the sleeve. But most applications in the emerging field of electronic textiles are still being wired up. A Georgia company, for example, is creating a shirt designed to monitor a patient's vital signs and alert a doctor by means of a wireless signal at the first sign of trouble. The U.S. military is looking into fabric-based sensor nets for help in identifying the approach of enemy tanks and other vehicles. And a German computer chip company is creating carpets capable of detecting intruders and fire.

    “The number of potential applications for e-textiles is tremendous,” says Sungmee Park, an e-textile designer at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta. Major electronics and materials companies such as Philips, DuPont, and Foster-Miller are flocking to the field. One DuPont survey estimated that in 5 years, e-textiles designed to monitor patients' medical conditions could pull in anywhere from $100 million to $1 billion.

    But discounting the hype and bandwagon effect that follow any new technology, many experts caution that ironing the bugs out of advanced e-textile applications will likely take some time. Researchers must find ways to integrate flexible wires into clothing; link them to electronics that can withstand bending, twisting, and stretching; and power the whole ensemble. Only then will geek chic become truly prêt-à-porter.

    Power suit

    Inventors began integrating electronics and textiles about 80 years ago, when doctors pushed rudimentary electric blankets to encourage tuberculosis patients to sleep outside in fresh air. The blankets were little more than a resistive heating coil stitched between twin sheets of fabric. Modern e-textiles, by contrast, weave conductive threads right into fabrics themselves, making them often indistinguishable from traditional fabrics.

    So far, applications have ranged from the mundane to the gimmicky. In an update of the old idea, Robert Rix, a British inventor, has turned out a line of carbon-based textiles called Gorix, now incorporated in everything from scuba diving suits to car seat covers, that carry a small electric current throughout the fabric where the power is converted to heat. SOFTswitch, based in West Yorkshire, U.K., manufactures a foldable touch-sensitive fabric keyboard and mouse that can connect to a personal digital assistant (PDA) and cell phone. Among other showpiece projects, Margaret Orth and colleagues at International Fashion Machines in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have designed a “firefly” dress wired with 50 light-emitting diodes, and electronic tablecloths that let dinner guests play Jeopardy.

    Snow tunes.

    A ski jacket wired with an MP3 player and controls on the sleeve means no more fumbling with gloves.


    The loudest buzz in the field centers on e-textiles that sense and report on their surroundings. In 1996, for example, Park and Georgia Tech textile engineer Sundaresan Jayaraman launched the field of medical textiles by incorporating current-carrying fibers into fabrics to power electronic sensors that monitor the wearer's breathing, temperature, and heartbeat. The pair created what Jayaraman calls a wearable motherboard, a wired shirt into which off-the-shelf monitors can be plugged in and later unplugged so the shirt can be washed. In 2000, Georgia Tech licensed the technology to a company called Sensatex for commercialization.

    Sensatex is now developing its medical monitoring SmartShirt, which can relay information wirelessly to doctors. The wearable monitors could also help emergency officials track the health of firefighters and other emergency crews and give personal trainers a way to monitor the condition of top athletes, Jayaraman says. Although cheap wristwatch-style heart rate monitors already exist, Jayaraman says that shirt-based monitors will be far more versatile, capable of working with a wide variety of sensors that can track body temperature, oxygen, and perhaps someday even blood glucose levels.

    Like earlier emerging technologies, sensor-studded e-textiles could find their first niches in combat. According to Robert Kinney, the director for individual protection at the Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts, the U.S. military is evaluating wearable sensors to monitor soldiers in the field and to help medics conduct battlefield triage. Other military labs hope to adapt e-textiles for remote sensing. Under contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) in Blacksburg and the University of Southern California, for example, have been developing an acoustic sensor fabric designed to pinpoint the location of enemy vehicles. With copper wires and a network of microphones woven inside, the sensor fabric is designed to compute the difference in time of arrival of a sound to different sensors in the network. A processing chip can then triangulate the origin of the signal. The use of e-textiles, says Virginia Tech electrical and computer engineer Tom Martin, could allow the military to incorporate fixed-sensor networks into everything from tents to parachutes.

    Meanwhile, researchers at the Natick Soldier Center are pursuing a variety of nonsensing e-textile efforts. They are working to stitch communications antennas into vests worn by soldiers in hopes of eliminating the 3-meter wire antennas that can make a soldier carrying a radio an obvious target. In another project, researchers at WRONZ EuraLab in the United Kingdom have contracted to develop a soft fabric keypad on a jacket sleeve that can replace heavy, bulky communications keyboard controls for field units. And researchers at Konarka Technologies in Lowell, Massachusetts, are working with Natick to develop flexible solar cells that can be incorporated into tents and other fabrics to help power the burgeoning number of electronic gadgets soldiers now carry.

    Wired wear.

    Light-emitting diodes make “firefly dress” (top) sparkle like its namesake, and researchers hope that medical-monitoring shirts (bottom) will become lifesavers.


    Kinney says that military experts are counting on commercial interest to drive down manufacturing costs. Besides wearable music players, Orth and others say that e-textiles could find burgeoning demand in the areas of advertising, security systems, and even interior design. Orth, for example, has created color-changing electronic textiles that have been exhibited in private homes and the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York City. Orth's fabrics consist of thin metal wires wound into yarn coated with thermal chromic inks that change color when heated. When the juice is turned on, Orth's fabric swatches can make a rainbow of color combinations, changing from black to red or white to blue. Such chameleon materials hold enormous potential for interior designers and advertisers, Orth says, by making it possible to craft displays on everything from walls to carpets. German chipmaker Infineon Technologies is also developing carpets wired with sensors to detect pressure, vibration, and temperature for advanced security and fire detection systems.

    Beyond prototypes

    For all their promise, wired fabrics still face a bevy of technical and financial obstacles. Among the greatest technical hurdles is simply withstanding everyday wear and tear. “Particularly for military applications, durability will always be an issue,” Kinney says. In e-textiles, routine bending and stretching that cause normal fibers to fray and tear over time could break wires, causing a sensor or electrical connection to fail. As a result, e-fabrics must be carefully designed with redundant circuits. Orth favors using yarns spun to contain four or more ultrathin wires, so if one breaks the e-textile still functions. Other groups, she points out, prefer incorporating multiple flexible conductive polymer strands, although these often can't transmit as much current as metals.

    Chameleon cloth.

    When the juice is flowing, heat-activated thermal-chromic inks make patches of this “e-plaid” change color.

    CREDIT: 2003 IFM INC.

    Another challenge comes from the connectors that link wires, chips, and sensors. “None of those USB or pin connectors in the back of your computer were designed to be worn or thrown in a mud puddle,” Kinney says. As a result, he says, his team spends much of its time coming up with novel connectors able to work with clothing. One example, he says, is a plastic buckle that Natick researchers have designed that not only fastens garments together but also creates an electrical connection between metal pads on the buckle's two interlocking pieces.

    Such demonstrations are useful, Orth says. But she adds that the field will remain fragmented until there are common standards for e-textile wires, sensors, chips, and connections. “Every time we do something, it's got to be designed from scratch,” she says. That means that for the foreseeable future, electronic fabrics will likely remain expensive and therefore used for small niche applications. “This will never take off if we have to build a custom garment for every person,” Martin says. Jayaraman insists that modern textile manufacturing techniques will ultimately have little trouble in incorporating whatever wires and devices garmentmakers settle on. But to drive the commercial market, “we still need to find the killer app,” he says.

    Martial music?

    Keypads akin to this soft-fabric piano could help soldiers communicate.


    Perhaps the most fundamental hurdle for electronic textiles is power. Carpets and other fixed fabrics can plug into conventional outlets. But wired clothing and other mobile e-textiles will have to rely on batteries. For anyone who has lugged a laptop and its kilogram battery around an airport, the prospect of weighing down a lightweight parka isn't too appealing. “Batteries are a huge problem in wearable electronics,” says Orth.

    Fortunately, lighter power sources may be on the way. One is a slimmed-down version of the lithium batteries that now power everything from laptops to cell phones. One company, Infinite Power Solutions (IPS) in Golden, Colorado, is making lithium batteries just micrometers thick that are essentially painted on metal foils. Such batteries, says IPS marketing director Joe McDermott, could be incorporated into the lining of garments to power sensors and logic chips as well as on the surface of backpacks and other fabrics used in everyday life. Upon returning home, McDermott says, we may one day plug in our backpacks or even jackets much as we do with cell phones and PDAs today.

    Researchers at Littleton, Colorado-based ITN Energy Systems, the former parent company of IPS, hope to make future batteries even sleeker, incorporating them right into textiles themselves. The company is currently designing fiber-based batteries, each of which layers the traditional anode, cathode, and electrolyte right on top of a 100-micrometer-wide fiber that's incorporated into a textile. At this point, the ITN researchers have shown only a proof of concept that it's possible to layer the battery materials on curved fibers. And McDermott says that the team remains some 3 to 4 years from incorporating their PowerFibers into a working e-textile product. Still, he adds, the hope is that textilemakers will be able to weave fiber batteries into garments the same way that they add different colored threads today. McDermott says it's likely that battery fiber fabrics won't weigh any more than traditional textiles.

    Power patch.

    Current-generating materials layered atop individual fibers could pave the way for textile-based batteries.


    With so many hurdles ahead, your closets probably won't be bulging with e-textiles anytime soon. But most experts say their time is bound to come. “There is not a doubt in my mind you're going to see a continued miniaturization of the technology and its integration into fabrics,” Kinney says. “This is the future.”


    Riding the Biodefense Wave

    1. Martin Enserink

    An infectious disease researcher-turned-entrepreneur has turned a company on the verge of collapse into a profitable producer of biodefense vaccines

    CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS—About 5 years ago, Thomas Monath's career hit rock bottom. OraVax, the company he had struggled to build since 1992, was running out of money after its potential blockbuster drug for respiratory infections flunked a key clinical trial. By October 1998, the price of OraVax stock had dropped to a pitiful 25 cents; a few weeks later, NASDAQ delisted the company. With bankruptcy just around the corner, OraVax staff members were demoralized. “It was just so depressing,” Monath says. “It was awful.”

    But then a British company offered a shot at redemption. Peptide Therapeutics Group, equally unlucky in business but with more in the bank, bought OraVax for a mere $20 million. Rechristened Acambis, the new company went on to become the first big winner in the biodefense bonanza inspired by 11 September. In two deals worth $771 million, the U.S. government has picked Acambis for the critical task of producing smallpox vaccine for most of its citizens. Ten other countries have followed suit, and today, Acambis, which never turned a profit before the last quarter of 2002, is flush.

    By all accounts, Monath, as Acambis's chief scientific officer, has been key to that success. He turned the budding interest in biodefense to his advantage before many others did, and his scientific credentials and friends in high places helped his inexperienced company win an order for a product that has become a key element of U.S. national security.


    Monath's “keep it simple” approach has been key to Acambis's success.


    Monath, 63, who served as a government scientist for 25 years, says his roller-coaster ride in the corporate world has taught him at least one lesson: Stick with the easy stuff. OraVax had put its money on a promising but unproven approach, enlisting so-called mucosal immunity to prevent infections. The smallpox vaccine that Acambis is now making was a much safer bet, as are most other vaccines Acambis has under development. “They all meet Monath's principles,” he says. “They're not high-tech.”

    Muddy boots

    Running research for a biotech, even a hot one, can be mundane and at times boring. When Science shadowed Monath for a day recently, he sat through eight almost back-to-back, coffee-fueled meetings and teleconferences, devoted to details such as which quality-assurance tests had been completed for a vaccine or how many slides to show during a meeting with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Most scientists have no idea of the minutiae of getting a product to the market, Monath says.

    The bland gray rooms where he spends most of his time couldn't be more different from the African villages where Monath earned his stripes as a young scientist. Fresh from Harvard Medical School, he joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1968. He investigated yellow fever outbreaks in Nigeria for several years; in Sierra Leone, he tracked down the animal reservoir for the Lassa virus, which causes a deadly hemorrhagic disease that had recently been discovered. “Those were probably the most important experiences of my life,” he says.

    Monath went on to lead the CDC's lab for vector-borne diseases in Fort Collins, Colorado, from 1974 to 1988. He then became an Army colonel and was named chief of virology at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Fort Detrick, Maryland, where he worked on the development of vaccines and antivirals for insect-borne viruses and hemorrhagic fevers.

    He joined OraVax 4 years later in part because few vaccines or drugs ever seemed to make it out of the viscous government bureaucracy. “We never really controlled or prevented a disease,” he says. Producing vaccines commercially might do just that. And he couldn't quibble with the remuneration; Monath now makes $280,000 a year and holds Acambis stock and options worth $2.5 million, according to a company spokesperson.

    Although some in his generation saw his departure to the world of quarterly results and Securities and Exchange Commission filings as a defection, Monath, who last year won the prestigious Walter Reed Medal, doesn't seem to have lost stature as a virologist. “When I think of Tom, I still see a clinician-virologist with mud on his boots,” says David Franz, a former USAMRIID commander who is now at the Southern Research Institute in Frederick, Maryland. Monath is also well liked for his modest demeanor, ability to listen, and willingness to help others. “He's really a super guy,” says C. J. Peters, a friend of Monath and director of the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Infectious Diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

    None of those qualities helped prevent the downward slide of OraVax, which had been founded by immunologists Marian Neutra and Jean-Pierre Kraehenbuhl 2 years before Monath joined it. Their idea was to harness immunoglobulin A (IgA) antibodies, which are produced in the membranes that line the mouth, nose, lungs, and gut and form the entryways into the body for most pathogens. “It was a great idea,” Monath says. “The problem is that it didn't work very well.” For instance, 7 years of work on a vaccine against Helicobacter pylori, the cause of ulcers, still hasn't resulted in success.

    The failed treatment for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) that doomed OraVax was also based on IgA antibodies—in this case, administered in once-daily nose drops. RSV causes common and occasionally fatal infections in infants, and HNK20, as the product was called, had done well in mice and monkey experiments. But the trial, carried out among 614 infants in four countries in the Southern Hemisphere, failed to show that it reduced the risk of hospitalization, the key outcome. In retrospect, Monath says the dose was probably too low; OraVax was in such a hurry to score that it didn't have time for more pilot studies. (A product based on a similar approach made $667 million last year for MedImmune, a Rockville, Maryland, company.)

    As the company's financial situation was unraveling, Monath refocused research onto the more familiar areas of insect-borne viruses and biodefense. In 1997, OraVax had licensed a technique, developed by Thomas Chambers of Saint Louis University in Missouri, that Monath wanted to use to develop a series of new travel vaccines. Dubbed ChimeriVax, it's based on a widely used live yellow fever vaccine called 17D, whose so-called envelope gene has been replaced with that of other members of its family, the flaviviruses. A ChimeriVax vaccine against Japanese encephalitis could enter phase III clinical trials next year; next in the pipeline is a vaccine against all four strains of dengue, a debilitating disease that's on the rise throughout the tropics.

    So when a rather obscure flavivirus suddenly surfaced in New York City in the summer of 1999—West Nile—Acambis was ideally positioned to work on a vaccine. (There are even Web sites suggesting that Monath planted the virus himself.) In 2000, Acambis received a $3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to start work on a West Nile vaccine; today, the candidate is almost ready for its first clinical trials. As the disease becomes entrenched across the country—more than 4000 cases were reported last year—Acambis is looking at a potential moneymaker. Monath hopes that the vaccine becomes standard for elderly people in high-risk areas, much like flu shots.

    So far, the only product that's making money for Acambis—and lots of it—is the smallpox vaccine. Monath got interested in biodefense as a market in the late 1990s. At the time, smallpox eradication champion D. A. Henderson and others were warning loudly against the risk of a bioterrorist attack, and the government had begun to take notice. Initially, Acambis had hoped to produce vaccines for the military, but in 1998, talks between the company and DynPort, the Army's main vaccine contractor, broke down.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) decided it wanted its own vaccine to protect civilians. In 2000, it ordered 40 million doses of its own—at the time, deemed enough to deal with an attack—to be delivered by 2006. To the surprise of many, it picked Acambis, one of the companies that had developed a plan to produce a new vaccine. Then came 11 September, and everything changed. Within a few weeks, the government upped its order to 54 million doses. And in November 2001, it decided to purchase another 155 million doses. Again, Acambis, whose stock price doubled in the 3 months after the attack, won the contract.

    One-stop smallpox shopping

    The new smallpox vaccine is essentially the same as the one used for decades to control the disease in the United States, a strain of the vaccinia virus called New York City Board of Health. But instead of a mixture of viruses harvested from the skin of calves, the Acambis vaccine is a single clone, produced in a cell culture. Churning out the staggering amount was too much for the small company, so it teamed up with Baxter, an international company, which produced the smallpox vaccine in a plant near Vienna, Austria. (The entire batch was finished last May, 5 months short of the original deadline, but it has not yet been delivered to the government pending resolution of a labeling issue.)

    Monath says Acambis couldn't have won the huge contract if its proposal hadn't been competitive, but he concedes that his long tenure with CDC and USAMRIID and close friendship with many key officials in the small biodefense arena gave him an edge. “I grew up with many of these people,” he says. “I feel very confident calling up D. A. Henderson or Phil Russell,” two of HHS's top bioterrorism advisers. At least some of his competitors don't think Monath has an unfair advantage. Says Franklin Top, MedImmune's medical director and a former director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, “Those guys are picking his brain too. That's just the way it goes.”

    But Monath's networking did lead to allegations of impropriety: In 2001, The New York Times reported that Monath had not disclosed his own interests when he served on a panel that advised President Bill Clinton to ramp up biodefense vaccine production. Monath says the allegations are false, but even so, says Peters, “that hurt his reputation,” although there was no commercial fallout.

    Acambis is now trying to develop a milder version of the smallpox vaccine, called modified vaccinia Ankara (MVA), for those at increased risk of side effects. It has also partnered with Cangene in Winnipeg, Canada, to sell that company's antibody treatment for vaccinia's side effects. (With the three products combined, Acambis hopes to offer anxious governments one-stop shopping.)

    But success in the biotech world can be fickle, and competition is intense. Acambis has yet to show that it is more than a one-hit wonder, says Ken Trbovic, a biotech analyst and vice president at C. E. Unterberg, Towbin in New York City. For instance, another company, Bavarian Nordic, is also developing MVA and is confident that it has an edge. Both companies won a $9 million NIH development contract earlier this year, and both hope to win the main prize: a contract to produce 30 million doses of MVA.

    The ChimeriVax vaccines face another potential wrinkle. The yellow fever vaccine that the technology uses had always been considered extremely safe, but in the past few years, there have been a handful of serious, sometimes fatal, cases of a yellow fever-like disease among travelers who received the vaccine. The causes are unknown; a U.S. advisory panel, of which Monath is a member, is monitoring the situation closely. Monath believes that Acambis's vaccines are less likely to have this problem, because their envelope protein, which determines where a virus can attack, is different from the one in the old vaccine. But it's a concern nonetheless.

    For the moment, however, Acambis is basking in its success; the smallpox money will enable it to keep going for a while without the stress of the OraVax days. And nature itself may create the next business opportunity. Like many other companies, Acambis is already working on a vaccine for severe acute respiratory syndrome, and Monath says he wouldn't be surprised to see yellow fever reemerge in the United States; the right mosquito species are already here. Says Monath: “I think West Nile was just a lesson.”

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