A Smallpox Therapy?

Federal officials hope to rely on a smallpox vaccine to protect the U.S. population in the event of an outbreak, but there’s a problem: the vaccine can cause serious side effects in up to a fifth of users, including pregnant women and individuals with impaired immune systems. By studying the impacts on mice of a smallpox-related virus called vaccinia — which forms the basis for smallpox vaccine, and which causes a smallpox- like ailment in mice — MIT scientists may have opened the door to an alternative, an actual therapy for the disease. Key to their approach is a protein, E3L, which exists in almost identical forms in the smallpox virus and in vaccinia. The MIT group, with counterparts from Arizona State, found that this virus essentially jumps in just as the information in a cell’s genetic machinery is being readied to be put to use — an event called transcription. The E3L in both viruses, says team leader Alexander Rich, a professor of biology, binds to a region in the genetic entity known as Z-DNA. (This intriguing molecule, discovered by Rich, twists in a direction opposite to that of regular DNA). The Z-DNA, it turns out, enjoys a transitory existence precisely when a cell’s regular DNA is being transcribed. The researchers also found that blocking E3L’s links with the short-lived genetic material can moderate and even prevent the smallpox-like disease in mice. “I think the right small molecule that binds to E3L might prevent the pathology caused by either virus,” says Rich.

Hard-to-get Image

Anyone who’s had a laptop go dark on an airline or in some other electricity- deprived setting knows how nice it would be to have longer lasting batteries. In work that may set the stage for just such an advance, an MIT researcher, with colleagues from other institutions, has for the first time imaged lithium, a key ingredient in today’s most sophisticated batteries. Lithium, one of the lightest of the elements, is too small to show up in imaging with standard electron microscopes. But MIT’s Yang Shao-Horn, an assistant mechanical engineering professor, thought the advanced imaging device known as the one-angstrom microscope might do the trick. (An angstrom is one-ten billionth of a meter — far smaller than, say, the width of most molecules.) Using a device owned by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., the group “took pictures” of a lithium-cobalt-oxygen compound widely used in advanced batteries. The effort proved Shao-Horn right: all three types of atoms are visible in their images. The results could help manufacturers structure the compound in a way that optimizes battery performance. Besides scientists from Lawrence Berkeley lab, Shao-Horn’s collaborators included representatives from a French leading chemistry lab.

Embryonic Insights

In a work that may have relevance to problems of aging, a team from MIT and the University of California at San Diego has found a natural role for a substance used to treat arthritis. The substance, chondroitin, taken by arthritics in the form of a dietary supplement, is found in joints and cartilage. The substance, a protein, also has a role in early development and shaping tissues in the body, says Ho-Yon Hwang, a team member and postdoctoral scientist in the lab of Nobel Prize winner H. Robert Horvitz. “We found that chondroitin influences cell-shape changes during the first cell division in embryo and later during organ development in a type of nematode worm,” says Hwang. With his co-workers, team leader Horvitz — who did his prize-winning work using this species of worm — analyzed eight genes involved in making chondroitin. Intriguingly, the human counterpart of one of these genes turned out to be one that’s mutated in a variant of the connective-tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos syndrome associated with premature aging. (Its effects are illustrated by the fact that a four-year-old with this form of the disease suffered from slow wound healing; osteopenia, which is a precursor to osteoporosis; unstable joints, and loose skin.) The new findings may eventually yield ways of treating premature aging or age-related symptoms.

Printing Houses

Imagine designing your dream house on a computer, and then almost instantaneously creating a 3-dimensional model of it. Such is the magic of 3-D printing, a form of rapid prototyping that was developed by MIT researchers and has already been used to fabricate products like propellers and hip prostheses. Lawrence Sass, an MIT architecture professor, is now pioneering the technology’s use in his field. Currently, blueprints are created either on paper or on a computer, then models are constructed by hand. But Sass sends his computer-produced designs straight to a 3-D printer, which creates the models by spraying plastic in a manner similar to the way its 2-D counterparts discharge ink. Eventually, he envisions scaling up the technology to allow the fabrication of actual building parts. Contractors could “print out” walls and other structural elements right on site, he says. The process could also permit new types of designs. “This opens up the possibility of making buildings shaped like leaves, potato chips or what have you — shapes you can’t realistically create without a computer,” notes Sass.