News this Week

Science  24 Jun 2011:
Vol. 332, Issue 6037, pp. 1058

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  1. Around the World

    1 - London
    U.K. Abandons DNA, Isotope Testing of Asylum Seekers
    2 - Panama
    Bad News for Central American Frogs
    3 - Arabian Peninsula, Israel, and Jordan
    Arabian Oryx Back From the Brink
    4 - Washington, D.C.
    Supreme Court Rejects ‘Nuisance’ Argument Against Plant Emissions
    5 - Kobe, Japan
    ‘K Computer’ Is Named Most Powerful


    U.K. Abandons DNA, Isotope Testing of Asylum Seekers

    The U.K. Border Agency (UKBA) has ended its widely scorned investigation into DNA and isotope testing of human tissues as a means to verify the nationality claims of asylum seekers (Science, 2 October 2009, p. 30). The Times broke the news 17 June, labeling the so-called Human Provenance Pilot Project an “expensive flop.” UKBA reportedly spent £190,000 on the effort.

    After geneticists pointed out in 2009 that DNA testing might reveal ancestry but could not prove nationality, UKBA suspended the pilot project, but later resumed taking tissue samples from asylum seekers on a voluntary basis. UKBA also said that any data collected during the pilot project would not be used in asylum decisions.

    The agency now says the pilot project ended in March, and it doesn't anticipate publishing the collected data or any evaluation of the effort.


    Bad News for Central American Frogs

    A fungal disease blamed for the disappearance of amphibians around the world is continuing its relentless march through Panama and has reached the border of one of Central America's largest remaining wilderness areas, according to the Smithsonian Institution.


    Doug Woodhams from the University of Zurich in Switzerland has found two infected frogs near the Darién province, where the local national park is a World Heritage site. In 2007, he found none. About 100 of Panama's 200 species of frogs call Darién home and half could disappear once the disease hits, says Brian Gratwicke, a biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia. Gratwicke says the park represents one of the last reservoirs to collect uninfected Panamanian frogs for the captive breeding program he runs.

    But Panama is not lost yet, cautions Karen Lips, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who has been tracking the disease's spread. Another recent survey found no signs of infection at the border between Columbia and Darién. “We know [the fungus] is on the move, but there are still healthy populations,” she points out.

    Arabian Peninsula, Israel, and Jordan

    Arabian Oryx Back From the Brink


    Almost 40 years ago, the last wild Arabian oryx (Oryx leucoryx), a large, cream-colored antelope with striking black horns, was shot by a hunter in the deserts of Oman. But last week, conservationists announced that the oryx, which may have led to the legend of the unicorn, has been successfully restored to its native habitat on the Arabian Peninsula. It's the first time that scientists have achieved such a remarkable turnaround for a species once declared extinct in the wild.

    Today, about 1000 wild oryx, descendents of animals bred in captivity, roam the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Jordan. The populations are not connected, however, nor are there corridors yet to link the scattered herds, some of which number less than 40 animals.

    Unregulated hunting and poaching led to the animals' original decline. “To the extent [that illegal hunting] is controlled, the population should grow fairly rapidly,” says Michael Hutchins, executive director of The Wildlife Society in Bethesda, Maryland.

    Washington, D.C.

    Supreme Court Rejects 'Nuisance' Argument Against Plant Emissions

    The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected the argument that utility companies can be sued to force them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions because those emissions constitute a threat to society. In an 8-0 ruling, the high court said 20 June that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency already has that authority under existing federal laws and that “there is no room for a parallel track” for a lawsuit alleging a common law violation.

    The case, American Electric Power v. Connecticut, was brought in 2004 by several states and conservation groups against five large utility companies whose fossil-fuel power plants generate 25% of U.S. emissions from such sources. A district court had dismissed the suit but an appellate court ruled that the plaintiffs had standing because of an old doctrine that pollutants constitute a public nuisance.

    Kobe, Japan

    'K Computer' Is Named Most Powerful

    Move over, China. Japan's “K Computer” is now the fastest supercomputer in the world. On 20 June, K was ranked number one in the TOP500 list of the world's supercomputers, performing three times as fast as its Chinese rival and the previous champion, Tianhe-1A.

    The TOP500 list is updated twice a year and ranks how quickly computers solve a standard mathematical equation. K, built by Fujitsu and located at the RIKEN Advanced Institute for Computational Science in Kobe, can perform 8.2 quadrillion calculations per second, equivalent to linking about 1 million desktop computers. That performance is still shy of the target kei, or 10 quadrillion, calculations for which the supercomputer was named. This is the first time Japan has topped the list since 2004.

  2. Newsmakers

    Zoghbi Wins Gruber Prize


    This year's Gruber Prize in Neuroscience goes to pediatric neurologist and geneticist Huda Zoghbi of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. The $500,000 award honors Zoghbi's pioneering work on the genetic and molecular mechanisms of several neurological disorders.

    In 1993, Zoghbi co-discovered a genetic defect responsible for spinocerebellar ataxia type 1, a neurodegenerative disorder that robs affected individuals of movement. Her laboratory reported another major breakthrough in 1999 when it discovered that mutations in the MECP2 gene cause Rett syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder that affects girls. More recently, Zoghbi's group has built on these findings with several important contributions to understanding the molecular mechanisms of these and other disorders.

    “What stands out about Dr. Zoghbi's discoveries is that the original inspiration for her science was her clinical observations—and her determination to ‘go to the bench’ to solve the mystery of the disorder,” said Carol Barnes, the neuroscientist who chaired the Gruber neuroscience selection committee.

    Ingenious Inventor


    Materials scientist, applied physicist, and entrepreneur John Rogers, 43, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has won the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for 2011. The award is given to a scientist whose inventions offer innovative solutions to real-world problems.

    Rogers's inventions tend to be hybrids that blend biology, electronics, nanomaterials, and optics. They include a photovoltaic technology that uses tiny ball lenses to focus sunlight onto solar cells. Rogers and colleagues are developing this technology, which produces a highly efficient conversion of sunlight to electrical energy, through Semprius, a company they launched in 2006.

    Rogers launched another company, mc10, in 2008 to commercialize his designs for “stretchable electronics,” silicon-and-rubber medical devices that can curve and twist to map the electrical properties of the heart or the folds of the human brain.

    Rogers, who also directs the National Science Foundation's Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center, holds 80 patents or patent applications. “This prize is kind of a recognition of the collective set,” he says.

    “John Rogers takes the cross section of scientific and technological development for practical application to a new level,” said Michael J. Cima, the faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “The work is striking in its novelty and marketability.”

    Middle Schoolers Awarded Prize for Patent

    Six Iowa Girl Scouts have been awarded $20,000 from the X PRIZE Foundation to help obtain a patent on their original design for a prosthetic hand device. The middle schoolers, ages 11 to 13, invented the device as part of an international biomedical engineering challenge sponsored by the FIRST LEGO League (FLL).

    This year's contest was the first competition with a monetary prize incentive in FLL's 11-year history. There were 179 submissions from 56 countries. At the award ceremony 16 June in Washington, D.C., FIRST Founder Dean Kamen said “the really big idea here is spreading the idea that young kids … can be, even at their age, a big part of solving the world's problems.”


    The winners were inspired by 3-year-old Danielle Fairchild from Georgia, who was born without fingers on her dominant hand. After connecting with Danielle's mother through an Internet support group, the team designed a prototype of the device, dubbed BOB-1. Their winning design, according to Kamen, was selected based on its simplicity and resourcefulness, and has already allowed the toddler to write for the first time.

  3. Random Sample

    By the Numbers

    $547.9 million — Amount NASA plans to pay to help cover the costs of closing out the space shuttle program and paying off pensions of United Space Alliance's 11,000 workers and retirees.

    704 — Number of brain injuries in Asterix comics, according to a study in Acta Neurochirurgica.

    25 — Number of academic institutions, including the top five neuroscience programs in the United States, that have formed research collaborations with brain teaser Web site Lumosity.

    Mercury Reveals Some Surprises


    The solar system's innermost planet may look like a dead ringer for Earth's moon, but the scientists getting the closest look ever at Mercury want you to know one thing: Mercury is not like the moon or any of the other rocky planets—Earth, Mars, or Venus. At a NASA press conference 16 June, researchers outlined several distinctive mercurian aspects gleaned from the MESSENGER spacecraft's first 3 months in orbit around Mercury. Perhaps the most fundamental is the abundance of elements on Mercury's surface that can be easily boiled out of hot rock, including sulfur and potassium. That volatile-rich rock rules out the possibility that an Earth-size Mercury had its outer parts blasted away by a nascent sun. With all systems go, MESSENGER has 9 months left in its planned mission.

    Aaand They're Off!


    Cell biologists and racing enthusiasts, heads up! There is still a week left to enter the First World Cell Race, which pits hundreds of types of cells against each other to find out which are the fastest.

    Cell biologists Matthieu Piel and Ana-Maria Lennon-Duménil of Institut Curie in Paris and physicist Manuel Théry of the French Atomic Energy Research Center in Grenoble, France, dreamed up the race at last year's annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology. “We thought it would be nice to see which was the fastest of all cells,” Piel says.

    The trio has designed “racetracks” coated with a substrate to which the cells attach. Through the end of July, participants may submit cell cultures to one of six laboratories around the world, which will film the cells' progress throughout July and August. The cells that migrate the fastest along 100 micrometers of track will be declared the winner.

    In addition to fun, the race offers a chance to compare the cells' migration strategies under identical conditions and create a sort of global library of cell migration strategies, Théry says. All of the race data will be posted on a public Web site for cell migration researchers.

    Two types of speedy cells—metastatic cells (cancer cells that have spread) and white blood cells—have especially good odds, creating a natural “good versus evil” rivalry, Piel says. But the wide-open field, which includes mutant cells and cells with knocked out genes, could well pave the way for a dark horse. Even if your cells aren't the fastest, it's important to enter the race, Piel says: “People only seem to want to participate if they think their cells have a chance to win.” For more information, check out

  4. Technology

    Getting There

    1. Robert F. Service

    Better batteries paved the way for half-decent electric cars. Making improved versions viable for the mass market will depend on a suite of advanced battery technologies now in labs around the globe.

    Old idea.

    From Thomas Edison's 1895 model (left) to today's three-wheeler by Aptera Motors, electric cars have been limited by their batteries.


    RICHLAND, WASHINGTON—Yet-Ming Chiang is at it again. In 2001, Chiang, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, came up with a way to dramatically boost the conductivity of a possible new electrode material for lithium-ion batteries. Chiang helped launch a new company called A123 Systems that continues to push ahead with plans to use its improved lithium-ion cells to power millions of electric cars. But A123's batteries, along with all the other lithium-ion cells on the market, are still less than ideal for powering cars. They're expensive and can carry a car only 160 kilometers on a charge. One limitation is that only about half the material in today's lithium-ion batteries actually stores and delivers electricity. The rest is there to control the chemical reactions inside it and ensure that the batteries charge and discharge safely. That's important, of course, but it frustrates batterymakers. “I've been saying for years we need to get past that,” Chiang says.

    Now he's on his way. Last month, Chiang and his colleagues reported in Advanced Energy Materials that they've created a new battery design called a semisolid flow cell that's like a battery with a fuel tank. Like today's batteries, the device contains lithium ions that shuttle back and forth either storing or releasing electrical charges on demand. But instead of packaging those ions along with the electrodes and other apparatus all together, as in a typical battery, Chiang's semisolid flow cell separates the energy-delivery apparatus from energy storage. In this battery, the storage medium is a pair of gooey, black liquids, the consistency of yogurt, that contain nanoscale particles of materials commonly used as anodes and cathodes in lithium-ion cells. These particles are suspended in an electrolyte and separated by a porous membrane. When power is needed, a bolus of each goo is pumped from external tanks into a network of current collectors that extract electrons while lithium ions shuttle through the membrane from the anode particles to the cathode particles. The spent slurries can then be reenergized, as in a normal rechargeable battery, or pumped out and replaced. Other types of flow batteries have been made in the past, but Chiang says the new setup can store up to 30 times as much energy as previous versions. He has launched another company, called 24M, to commercialize the technology.

    Plug power.

    Widespread adoption of electric vehicles hinges on reducing battery costs.


    Chiang's flow cell still faces a host of challenges, such as ensuring that lithium-containing particles in the goo don't settle to the bottom of the battery tank. But Dawson Cagle, a chemist who helps run the batteries program at the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), says the work is indicative of a new spirit of creativity among battery researchers. “I knew this was different the first time I walked into Yet-Ming Chiang's lab and he was talking about yogurt and toothpaste,” Cagle says. “There are so many good ideas out there that there really is a bright future.”

    If the boldest projects now in labs around the globe succeed, they could provide at least 10 times the energy of today's lithium-ion batteries, enough to make fully battery-powered cars competitive with today's gasoline models. “I have never seen as much interest in batteries as there is now,” says Esther Takeuchi, a chemist at the University at Buffalo in New York state. “It's a tremendously exciting time to be involved in energy storage.” Mark Verbrugge, who directs the chemical sciences and materials systems lab at GM's Global R&D Center in Warren, Michigan, says carmakers are now “within shouting distance of making battery vehicles for the mass market.” And the improvements are adding up. “It's starting to snowball,” Verbrugge says.

    Balancing act

    That's the good news. The bad news is that battery evolution has always been painfully slow. “The progress we have made compared to other technologies is extremely low,” says Jürgen Leohold, research chief for Volkswagen Research in Wolfsburg, Germany. It's not for lack of trying. Batteries produce electricity by taking advantage of the fact that some metals hold on to their electrons more tightly than others do, the same principle Allesandro Volta used to make the first battery in 1800. Metals that readily dump electrons are stored at a negatively charged electrode, or anode, while a positively charged electrode, called a cathode, harbors electron-hungry compounds. When a wire or an electric circuit is connected between the two electrodes, electrons stream from the anode to the cathode; at the same time, charged ions travel through an ion-conducting electrolyte to react at the cathode, where they produce a stable compound and complete the electrochemical cycle. If the battery is rechargeable, plugging it into an outlet provides a higher voltage that pushes the chemical reactions in reverse.

    Successive generations of battery materials—lead acid batteries, nickel metal hydrides, and now lithium-ion cells—have improved the density of energy that can be stored. But changing battery chemistries raises issues by the bundle. Not only must the new anode and the cathode materials work together, but the ion-conducting electrolyte and membrane separators used in many batteries must also evolve. Problems with any one of these materials can prevent a battery from working, prevent it from recharging, cause it to burn out after a few recharge cycles, interfere with its safety, and on and on. “You have to optimize many different things at the same time,” says Venkat Srinivasan, a transportation battery expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. “It's a hard, hard problem.” That's held increases in storage capacity to about 5% per year—a rate that pales in comparison to “Moore's Law” in semiconductors, in which the number of transistors on each chip has doubled every 18 months over a period of decades. And it's given rise to an unwanted rule of thumb that batteries on the market deliver only one-quarter of the energy storage potential of their active ingredients.

    Even with that penalty, today's lithium-ion batteries store 120 to 140 watt-hours per kilogram (Wh/kg), enough to give an electric car “a halfway decent performance,” Leohold says. In terms of range, that's enough to drive up to about 160 kilometers. “It is acceptable in an urban environment, but it does not allow for long-distance driving,” Leohold says. That's why most cars incorporating an electric motor today are gas-electric hybrids. By 2017, Leohold suggests, engineering advances to current lithium-ion cells are expected to boost that capacity to about 200 Wh/kg, or about 240 kilometers. “But to get long-range driving, we need 1000 to 1500 Wh/kg,” which Leohold says should boost battery-powered cars close to the range of gas-powered versions today.

    The painful question is, at what cost? Most industry estimates place current vehicle battery costs at between $600 and $700 per installed kilowatt-hour. For electric vehicles to succeed on the market, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has concluded that batterymakers need to lower that number to $250 per kilowatt-hour. One recent study by Boston Consulting Group suggested that batterymakers could approach that DOE target by 2020. But others have been more cautious. A study last year by the National Research Council points out that the usable energy output of batteries is typically lower than advertised. That effectively lowers their range and thus increases their current cost to between $1250 and $1700. Costs are expected to decline 35% by 2020, the study says, but that will still leave batteries too costly to spur mass-market adoption of electric vehicles. And cost isn't the only hurdle. Vehicle batteries must be safe and vibration-resistant, must work over a wide range of temperatures, and must be capable of being recharged at least 1000 times while retaining 80% of their storage capacity. “For a less than $250 a kilowatt-hour system, those are very tough goals,” says Trygve Burchardt, chief scientific officer of ReVolt Technology, an advanced battery maker in Portland, Oregon.

    Even if battery costs drop, electric vehicles are almost certain to cost more than their gas counterparts. So as long as oil is cheap and governments remain uncommitted to limiting carbon dioxide emissions from cars, electric vehicles of all types will face an uphill battle. But most electric vehicle proponents are convinced that rising concerns about energy security, gas prices, and climate change are creating an inexorable demand for better batteries. “The societal need for energy storage will be much greater in the future than in the past,” says Peter Bruce, a lithium battery pioneer at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom.

    Beyond lithium?

    Over the past 15 years, lithium-ion battery makers have doubled the energy-storage density of their devices. And battery companies have at least a dozen combinations in the works of new anodes, cathodes, and electrolytes. But to make dramatic strides in energy storage, Srinivasan says, “it's become obvious to us that we need to start thinking about what's beyond lithium ion.”

    The contenders.

    Energy-storage materials used in batteries can hold energy at a far higher density (dark green) than working batteries can (light green). When batteries are collected in packs, the storage density drops further.


    Several such prospects took the spotlight at a meeting* here earlier this month. Among the most tantalizing was a chemical combination known as lithium sulfur (LiS) batteries, which could have a capacity at least several times that of today's lithium-ion cells. In these batteries, lithium ions shuttle between an anode made from lithium metal and a cathode made from sulfur, typically packed into a carbon-based housing. The basic idea isn't new, but a host of problems have held back LiS batteries. For starters, when lithium ions move to the cathode they react with solid sulfur, creating a family of polysulfide compounds that can dissolve in the battery's liquid electrolyte. Some of these, such as Li2S, readily precipitate out of solution and can coat and clog the electrodes. Equally troubling, the dissolved polysulfides, rather than continuing to undergo chemical reactions to form Li2S—the desired end product when it's within the cathode—can diffuse back and forth between the electrodes, in the process undergoing reactions that sap the battery of much of its charge-carrying capacity.

    Those problems aren't solved yet. But at the Richland meeting, a couple of groups reported steady progress. For example, Chengdu Liang, a chemist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, announced that he and his colleagues have come up with a bromine-based electrolyte additive to fight Li2S buildup. The additive doesn't prevent Li2S from precipitating out of solution, but it reacts with the compound, converting it back into a soluble polysulfide that dissolves into the electrolyte.

    Linda Nazar, a chemist at the University of Waterloo in Canada, reported that she and her team had incorporated porous silica particles into their sulfur-carbon cathode. During charging and discharging, the particles sop up most unwanted polysulfides that form and then release them late in the cycle, when the cell can convert them into solid Li2S within the cathode. The upshot, Nazar reported, is that the Canadian team's cathodes have a capacity of about 900 milliamps per gram, a number that in full batteries would likely translate to roughly 600 Wh/kg. “We're not there yet,” Nazar says of her team's effort to make LiS batteries practical. “But this is a step along the way.”

    As impressive as the energy-storage numbers are for LiS batteries, those that pair lithium with oxygen (also known as lithium-air batteries) make battery experts down-right giddy. In theory, their active materials can generate a staggering 12,000 Wh/kg. Lithium-air batteries again use lithium metal as the anode material. But in this case the cathode isn't sealed in the battery. Rather, oxygen from the air serves as the electron-hungry cathode material. That makes the batteries far lighter—and potentially cheaper—than the competition.

    Of course, there are plenty of challenges there, too. Metallic lithium reacts violently with water, which is ever-present in air. It has also been harder to get lithium-air batteries to recharge over large numbers of cycles, as their capacity fades quickly or crashes altogether.

    But there has been halting progress on these fronts as well. Over the past several years, researchers at PolyPlus, a battery start-up in Berkeley, California, have made steady progress on creating a solid ceramic electrolyte to coat their lithium metal anode. The ceramic has pores that allow lithium ions to diffuse through, but it blocks water molecules from reaching the anode. Steven Visco, PolyPlus's chief technology officer, told attendees in Richland that company researchers have built nonrechargeable batteries that work when fully immersed in seawater, with a capacity of 1000 Wh/kg. The hope, Visco says, is that such cells could power undersea robotic vehicles far longer than batteries today can accomplish.

    Despite such advances, Visco acknowledges that making fully rechargeable lithium-air batteries continues to prove difficult. Another strategy replaces the solid ceramic electrolyte with a more conventional organic liquid. The capacity of such cells tends to fade quickly, as unwanted chemical reactions within the batteries kill the cells. At the meeting, St. Andrews's Bruce reported detailed characterization studies that showed that much of the problem arises when byproducts of the lithium-oxygen reactions, such as superoxide and lithium peroxide, react with and break down standard carbon-containing electrolytes. Bruce and others also revealed that alternative electrolytes, such as polyethers and ionic liquids, tend to hold up better. “It's clear the community is getting a better handle on these systems. But we need quite a bit more research if we're going to have a chance at getting a practical system,” Bruce says.

    Real-world LiS and lithium-air batteries are still likely years away, Srivinasan says, as are other upstarts, such as rechargeable zinc-air and magnesium-based batteries. But Srinivasan adds that even though the challenges of improving batteries almost always appear daunting, decades of persistent, dedicated effort have led to a string of breakthroughs that seem obvious in hindsight. “With [battery] chemistry, you have a lot of knobs you can turn,” Srinivasan says. That's both good news and bad news, as batterymakers now sift through the vast number of materials combinations for just the right mix.

    • * Fourth Symposium on Energy Storage: Beyond Lithium Ion, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 7–9 June.

  5. Technology

    Battery FAQs

    1. Robert F. Service

    Science answers some frequently asked questions about batteries.


    Why is lithium so often used in batteries?

    Lithium is the lightest metal and has the highest energy density for its weight.

    Is there enough lithium to make batteries for millions of cars a year?


    In 2005, roughly 21,000 tons of lithium was produced worldwide. More than 6 million tons of lithium reserves are thought to be economically viable to recover. Twice that amount exists in forms not economically viable to recover today. An analysis presented at the meeting* by Paul Albertus of the Robert Bosch Research & Technology Center in Palo Alto, California, suggests there will be plenty of lithium over the near term, through the next 15 years. It's only in the long term, 40 to 50 years from now, that the lithium supply could get tight. Other elements, such as cobalt, could pose a bigger problem, depending on the chemistry of the batteries produced.

    How will widespread adoption of electric vehicles affect CO2 emissions and possible climate change?

    It won't, unless the electricity used to power those cars is generated by renewable energy sources. But even if the electricity is produced by coal-fired power plants, many of which exist in rural areas, urban emissions of smog-forming particles could still drop dramatically.

  6. Biotechnology

    Lab-on-a-Chip Maker Looks to Put Hong Kong on Biotech Map

    1. Richard Stone

    Better known for business acumen than scientific smarts, Hong Kong is betting on biotech as a new "pillar industry"; a novel biochip suggests it's on the right track.

    HONG KONG—In 1994, neuroscientist Albert Cheung-Hoi Yu gave up a plum position at Stanford University to join the new Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST). The career gamble paid off in an unexpected way. In 1997, H5N1 avian influenza hammered Hong Kong. “There was no sensitive tool for diagnosing this virus,” Yu says. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were not standardized and therefore not reliable, he says. He launched a company to develop molecular diagnostics. As his startup made headway, Yu aimed higher. He hoped to succeed where larger companies had failed: devise a biochip that quickly diagnoses emerging pathogens.

    Overcoming obstacles that dogged previous efforts, Yu's company, Hai Kang Life, has rolled out a novel chip that binds target DNA strands and coats them with nanoparticles for identification. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention of Guangdong Province will soon begin testing the chips and automated readers. “It's a unique system,” says Zhengping Zhuang, a clinical pathologist at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, who is not connected to Hai Kang Life. “You get a readout much faster than with other technologies.”

    If Yu's Electric Field Assisted Diagnostic (EFAD) chip proves its mettle, it will be a milestone in nascent efforts to make Hong Kong a biotechnology hub. For decades, the city reigned as Asia's financial powerhouse. Then in 2008, the Lehman Brothers collapse sparked a crisis in the financial services industry—and jarred leaders here. “They started thinking about how to diversify the economy,” says Janet Wong, Hong Kong's Commissioner for Innovation and Technology.

    The next year, Hong Kong's government designated innovation and technology as one of six new “pillar industries.” To stimulate the biotech and pharmaceutical sectors, the government last February unveiled a clutch of measures, including $138 million for a new medical research fund and a $5 million initiative to open centers for international clinical trials and translational research.

    Success is by no means assured. Hong Kong embraced biotech later than other regions in China, such as Shanghai, Tianjin, and the new medical city rising in Taizhou. These municipalities have showered companies with tax incentives and spent billions of dollars on infrastructure. Here, meanwhile, land is scarce and expensive. “We never say our cost is low,” Wong says. The city's chief selling point may be strict enforcement of intellectual-property rights, she says: “We're attracting IP-sensitive R&D.”

    Underdog victory.

    Albert Cheung-Hoi Yu's young company beat the competition in developing a DNA chip for rapid diagnoses.


    That's a sea change. When Yu relocated here, he says, “Hong Kong was not a place to do science.” Local universities set out to shift that perception in the 1990s by recruiting overseas talent. During a stint overseeing undergraduate admissions soon after joining HKUST, Yu touted biotech as a potential career option. “But graduates had nowhere to work in Hong Kong. At best they could be a salesperson for a drug company,” Yu says. He realized his own company could play a small role in changing that; Hai Kang Life employs several HKUST grads, including its founding chief operating officer, Terence Lau.

    At the outset, Yu's company picked low-hanging fruit: It was the first private laboratory accredited in Southeast Asia to test foods for genetically modified organisms and to do prenatal testing for Down syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities. Then in 2003, the emergence here of the SARS virus spurred Yu to redouble research on a diagnostic lab on a chip. “We saw the bottleneck was hybridization,” he says, in which DNA is dissociated into single strands that bind to a probe. This process typically takes many hours. Yu hit upon a winner: applying an electric field to tweak the capacitance of DNA strands and speed up probe-to-DNA binding. Yu's team could get DNA or RNA to hybridize in minutes. The technique is also sensitive enough to eliminate the need for PCR to amplify targets. “It's easy to say you want to make a biochip like this,” Zhuang says. “It's another thing to do it. Albert is focused and stubborn, and he found a way.”

    Another challenge is to identify strands bound to probes. Other companies use fluorescent tags, which require a pricey microscope and trained eyes. Yu's team floods sample wells with silver nanoparticles that latch onto bound DNA strands. Like a black-and-white picture, the coating's contrast is picked up by an inexpensive charge-coupled device camera and analyzed by a small automated reader.

    The approach is so simple, Yu says, that when Hai Kang Life applied for patents, “we were thinking that someone else must have done this.” They were wrong and now hold 30 patents. It's no surprise that Hai Kang Life got there first, says Bernard Roizman, a virologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Many diagnostics companies prefer to sell large, complicated, and expensive machines, he says. EFAD chip readers are the size of a microwave oven. “Attach it to a power supply, and it's a lab on a chip on wheels,” Roizman says. “It could identify a new infectious agent in time to curtail its spread.”

    When he's not in the lab, Yu, who moved to Peking University in Beijing in 2002 and now shuttles between Beijing and Hong Kong, promotes biotech here as inaugural chair of the Hong Kong Biotechnology Organization. To better compete with the mainland, Hong Kong's science park, home to more than 340 companies, has just launched a $600 million expansion expected to create 4000 R&D jobs. “We need to identify our niches,” for example, nurturing start-ups focused on Chinese medicine or medical devices, says Nicholas Brooke, chair of Hong Kong Science & Technology Parks Corp. “We will be lost if we attempt to be all things to all people.”

    The first step is to get an innovative biotech product on the market. Yu's biochip is poised to do just that. “Nobody in the world would believe that this could be done in Hong Kong,” he says.

  7. Profile: Ogobara Doumbo

    Mali Researcher Shows How to Reverse Brain Drain

    1. David A. Taylor*

    Relying mainly on homegrown talent, Doumbo leads a network in Mali that does state-of-the-art studies of mosquito genetics, tracks drug resistance, and tests new vaccines.

    BAMAKO, MALI—On a bluff overlooking a flat Sahelian landscape, evening finds most offices empty at the University of Bamako's Faculty of Medicine. But a few lights remain on in the Malaria Research and Training Center (MRTC), and three Ph.D. candidates wait to speak with the director, Ogobara Doumbo. He leaves in a few days for Geneva to present new research affecting World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines on malaria prevention for children. But he makes space in the lab to discuss with a visitor what makes MRTC a paradox.

    Doumbo, in his mid-50s but still looking like a student, smiles faintly when he speaks about his protégés, who recently led a roomful of top West African scientists through a comprehensive research discussion. Only in Mali, he says, will you find a critical mass of African Ph.D.s, with no loss to brain drain.

    Bamako, a capital city of dusty streets on the banks of the Niger River, is not a place you expect to find a world center for research. Serving one of the world's poorest countries, Mali's health system is stretched to the breaking point. Yet on this bluff known as Point G, with a colonial-era hospital from 1906, Doumbo has built MRTC and nurtured, by his count, five generations of researchers committed to solving one of the continent's most intransigent problems.

    Since co-founding MRTC with support from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1992, Doumbo has led it into state-of-the-art research on mosquito genetics, vaccine testing, and drug resistance. Furthermore, MRTC supports a network of research-affiliated clinics throughout Mali in very basic village settings. Doumbo has cultivated this cadre for 15 years, what he calls “the bush doctor initiative,” to bring top-quality medical research and practice to villages. The conditions would seem ripe for an exodus of highly trained physicians. In most developing countries, simply keeping capable scientists in the capital is difficult. A 2007 World Bank study noted the accelerated migration of skilled professionals, particularly in medicine, and its important effects on poor countries. MRTC has found another path.


    A grandson of healers, Doumbo dreamed of becoming a village doctor.


    “Quite often many senior researchers who could mentor the younger ones have themselves left,” says Wilfred Mbacham, executive director of the Multilateral Initiative on Malaria, based in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Those who aren't lured to higher-paying international jobs get tapped for political appointments away from the university, he adds. A country's political climate—and its valuation of research—are contributing factors. Mbacham has known Doumbo since 2003 and says that Doumbo saw the need to create a stable environment. “Very early on, he set up a grant-administration program that was attractive for more funding,” Mbacham says.

    Mali has many problems shared by other sub-Saharan countries, including minimal infrastructure and corruption. In 2010, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria suspended its malaria programs in Mali after an internal report found health department officials (not MRTC) had siphoned program funds.

    Nor has MRTC been immune to charges that it benefited from donor favoritism. In the early years, says Stephanie James, director of science at the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, a public charity in Bethesda, Maryland, “I know there were some jealousies in the university.” And some predicted that Doumbo “would never relinquish control over projects,” recalls Christopher Plowe, a researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore and an MRTC collaborator. “Last year I was struck by how wrong that prediction was.”

    Path to parasites

    Doumbo, a son and grandson of traditional healers, grew up in a Dogon village 965 kilometers northeast of the capital. He first rode in a car as a teenager in 1971, to take his secondary-school certification exam in the town of Bandiagara. He never intended to go into research. “I really wanted to be a doctor and to serve in the bush,” he says.

    After obtaining an M.D. degree at the University of Bamako and finishing a residency in internal medicine at Point G, Doumbo began to practice in 1981 at a clinic at Selingué, about 2½ hours south of the capital. There he aimed to win over local skeptics of Western medicine. The many C-section deliveries he performed were dramatic proof that his methods could save lives. “He was famous for being the guy who handled complicated obstetric labor emergencies and surgeries,” Plowe says.

    In Selingué, Doumbo found larger problems: river blindness, schistosomiasis, and malaria. “I saw a lot of people suffering,” he says. He realized he could have greater impact by recruiting more young doctors to help. He returned to his studies, earning an M.Sc. in tropical medicine from the University of Marseille studying under parasitologist Philippe Ranque and a Ph.D. in parasitology from the University of Montpellier.

    Doumbo also saw a role for indigenous medicine. Pragmatically, he saw traditional healers as scarce health care providers already treating rural dwellers, often with useful local knowledge, and thought it better to gain them as partners. “The best way to promote traditional medicine is to show that both types of medicine can work together to resolve a public health problem. This is what we are doing with malaria.”

    Choosing partners

    Home base.

    The Malaria Research and Training Center in Bamako has fostered, by Doumbo's count, five generations of researchers. Many work today in rural clinics.


    Harold Varmus, Nobel laureate and now director of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, visited Mali when he was NIH director in 1997 and traveled to several remote villages. “Doumbo and his senior colleagues grew up in villages without electricity, worked hard for an education in Mali and France, and decided to build a scientific effort in Mali to combat one of its most difficult diseases,” Varmus says. “His determination, deep knowledge of malaria, and positive effects on co-workers and government leaders were quickly evident, even in a short visit.

    “One of the great things about this effort was his engagement of villagers in the projects,” Varmus recalls. That yielded a better understanding among villagers of how transmission of the malaria parasite Plasmodium takes place. After that, they built “multi-functional” health clinics and wells for clean drinking water. Doumbo aims for “a new way of thinking,” he says, “of how we can deal with rural areas,” one that involves them as partners.

    Since 1997, Karamako Nimaga has been a researcher-clinician in Marka Coungo, a village 2 hours east of the capital. His clinic there collected data for a paper he co-authored with MRTC colleagues chronicling the failure of chloroquine, then the standard antimalarial drug. The findings helped overturn WHO and national policies on malaria prevention: WHO changed its guideline in 2006 from chloroquine to artemisinin-based combination therapy as the main drug treatment. MRTC has also pioneered new treatments for prevention with pregnant women and children and won international awards.

    Doumbo's style has sometimes raised hackles, however. Health officials argue that the government's rural clinics, which are village-funded, get overshadowed by MRTC's network of international-funded clinics like Nimaga's with lab facilities. Tensions came to the fore when MRTC recommended that the health department abandon chloroquine, in line with WHO's policy. Doumbo and his staff spent a day explaining to ministry staff the WHO recommendation and supporting data. Some officials, seeking to keep chloroquine, focused their frustration on Doumbo. “As you can imagine, a lot of people are reluctant to make any changes,” Doumbo says of that battle. But finally, WHO's policy was adopted.

    Bernhards Ogutu, senior scientist with the international INDEPTH Network, who coordinates malaria research from Ghana, notes that MRTC has made remarkable progress for the same reason that makes it controversial: MRTC has “marketed the research agenda to the country's political leadership,” getting leaders “to appreciate the importance of research and its long-term impact on Mali.”

    Doumbo has mastered the metaphors that get politicians' attention. He compares malaria's toll to three tsunamis every year and says: “Africa has lost a lot of Einsteins, a lot of Pasteurs, a lot of Bill Gateses because of malaria. And if you're able to eliminate malaria, you will see it increase the general creativity in a country and the ability of people to innovate and bring science to make their own solutions.” This encourages younger scientists, Ogutu says: “They can see that science is valued, up to the highest office.”

    The next generation

    Doumbo has shown a knack for nurturing younger scientists. Leaders need to create capable successors. “If this is not done, then scientists will burn out and exit,” Ogutu says by e-mail. Mbacham agrees: Doumbo has given responsibility to those Mbacham calls “generation F2, who now begin to have their own teams and success stories.”

    One star of the younger generation is Abdoulaye Djimdé, who started at MRTC in 1993 after putting himself through the University of Bamako's Pharm.D. program. Djimdé was managing a pharmacy in the mornings and volunteering at MRTC in the afternoons, Plowe recalls. Doumbo assigned the young pharmacist to learn a technique for identifying gene mutations and later, with Plowe, arranged for Djimdé to attend short-term training at NIH. Typically, a director would feel obligated to send a more senior technician, Plowe says, but Doumbo made an exception “for somebody who he thinks has that spark that's going to lead to success.”

    Plowe and Doumbo helped Djimdé get into a Ph.D. program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore. He returned to Mali in 1999 with a research plan and prospects for a grant. “That collaboration,” Plowe says, “led to a lot of good work published over the years.” Djimdé heads MRTC's drug resistance unit and is the first person from West Africa to receive a Howard Hughes grant.

    “It really is a meritocracy,” Plowe says, “which I think is unusual.”

    As night falls with his Ph.D. students waiting, Doumbo describes the key factors for keeping talent: careful selection of staff from among the medical students, a mentor for each graduate student going abroad, and workshops on subjects such as grant-writing so they can find funding for research on their return. “Malians don't like leaving their country,” Doumbo says. “I never even ask them to come back. Never. I say, ‘It's up to you if you want to join the team and help the population.’ But they all come back.” Varmus says the strategy works well, in part “because the students have a good place to which to return to do research.”

    Doumbo's emphasis on self-sufficiency, stemming from his own background in a remote village, may be a wave of the future. “I think we're in a period in Africa where you can no longer centralize,” he says. “We have no choice but to go toward decentralization for all activities, to give responsibility to people.” In community-based medicine, people find their own solutions. “That's why I'm confident that will be the future of Mali and the future of Africa.”

    • * David A. Taylor traveled to Mali with support from the International Reporting Project.

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