Science  31 Jul 1998:
Vol. 281, Issue 5377, pp. 625
  1. Green Light for Antisense Drug

    After a decade of fencing with skeptics, drug developers soon hope to celebrate the launch of the first “antisense” DNA drug to hit the market.

    Called fomivirsen, the compound deploys a mirror-image copy of viral DNA to block replication of cytomegalovirus. The virus causes retinitis, an eye infection leading to blindness that mainly afflicts AIDS patients. The drug won a thumbs-up last week from a Food and Drug Administration advisory committee, and the way is now clear for FDA approval. Although fomivirsen (or Vitravene) must be injected directly into the eye, its developer, Isis Pharmaceuticals of Carlsbad, California, says it has a big advantage over some antiviral drugs: Targeted locally, it causes only mild side effects such as increased pressure and inflammation.

    Even antisense critic Arthur Krieg of the University of Iowa, Iowa City, calls the FDA panel vote “a landmark event.” Five years ago, “the conventional wisdom was that antisense was a fraud,” he says. “Isis deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing sense to the antisense field.”

  2. Reform for Italian Concorsi

    Observers are eager to see how Italian universities adapt to new rules for recruiting professors that eliminate a notorious system widely viewed as not only inefficient but rife with cronyism and nepotism.

    Under the old “megaconcorsi,” thousands of applications for academic posts landed at the Science Ministry in Rome every few years, taking years to process. The system “represented the Kafkaesque culmination of the triumph of bureaucracy,” says astronomer Margherita Hack of Rome's Accademia dei Lincei.

    Under the measure approved by the Senate on 1 July, each university will run its own concorsi. Critics say the reform is far from ideal: Although university panels must be dominated by outsiders, their selection “remains fully exposed to systematic manipulation by the academic superpower groups,” asserts Aldo Massullo, a member of the Senate's Education Commission. Massullo notes that the reform also fails to address an underlying problem: An Italian academic post means tenure for life, with no standards for quality or productivity.

  3. India Telescope Cuts Phone Deal

    An 11th-hour agreement was expected to be signed this week to prevent a global mobile phone system from interfering with India's new $17 million Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), an array of 40 huge antennas near Pune. Iridium India Telecom, a Motorola subsidiary, is planning on 23 September to start up a system that will send satellite transmissions to a gateway only 80 km from the telescope (Science, 28 November 1997, p. 1569). Now, astronomer Govind Swarup, the “father” of GMRT, says, “we have arrived at an agreement with Iridium”—details yet to come—to avoid interference from emissions in the 1610-MHz band, a frequency important for probing star-forming regions.

  4. Selling Once-Secret, Once-Soviet Science

    Russia's beleaguered nuclear scientists are about to get help from a new program to get them into commercially productive research. Announced 24 July in Moscow by Vice President Al Gore and Russia Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) aims to boost U.S. private-sector investment in the once-top-secret cities.

    Times are tough in these towns. Last week, scientists in Sarov, 400 km east of Moscow, struck for a day to protest months of unpaid wages. And some researchers, it is believed, have resorted to aiding Iran's missile program. To get scientists more positively engaged, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has sunk $30 million this year into applied research in science cities. But the problem is so great, says Janet Hauber, NCI manager at DOE, that “we don't think that model will respond quickly enough.” Under the NCI, U.S. investment will be sought for projects at three nuclear cities—Sarov, Snezhinsk, and Zheleznogorsk. There's no new government money for the initiative, says Hauber, but hopes are that there will be enough private sector enthusiasm to expand it to seven more cities.

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