EVENTS, ADVANCES, AND NEWS
■ BY JEFF ECKERT
abundance is significant for the
long-term effort of characterizing
planets to find out what they are
made of and if they could be a
possible host for life."
Unfortunately, HD 189733b is
too hot to support life as we know
it, but at least it provides proof of
concept for continuing exploration.
COURTESY OF ESA, NASA, M. KORNMESSER (ESA/HUBBLE), AND STSCL.
■ Artist's view of exoplanet orbiting
the star HD 189733.
In December, researchers at NASA's
Jet Propulsion Laboratory in
Pasadena, CA, announced a new ray
of hope for those who dream of
discovering life on other worlds.
Researcher Mark Swain was using the
Hubble Space Telescope's near-infrared camera and multiobject
spectrometer to study infrared light
emitted by HD 189733b — a Jupiter-size planet located in the Vulpecula
constellation — about 63 light-years
away. It is so-named because it orbits
the star designated HD 189733 by
the International Astronomical Union.
(However, feel free to call it "Aunt
Zelda" if your check to the
International Star Registry cleared.)
In any event, Swain discovered
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,
which is the first time the gas has
been detected in a planet orbiting a
star other than our own. This is
considered to be an important step
toward finding chemical biotracers of
extraterrestrial life. He also found
carbon monoxide, but, "The carbon
dioxide is the main reason for the
excitement because, under the right
circumstances, it could have a
connection to biological activity as
it does on Earth. The very fact we are
able to detect it and estimate its
Back in May 2006, Prof. Shan Wang,
an associate professor at Stanford
University ( www.stanford.edu),
announced the development of the
MagArray™ chip — a nanotech device
that employs 64 embedded sensors to
monitor for changes in nearby magnetic
fields. At the time, he predicted that it
could lead to improvements in medical
instrumentation, particularly in the realm
of cancer detection.
Because magnetism stands out
more than fluorescence — which is the
basis of current sensor instruments — if
a cancer cell could be made to trigger a
magnetic change, that could enable a
more sensitive cancer detector. It now
appears that Prof. Wang's efforts have
paid off, as he recently unveiled a prototype MagArray-based blood scanner
that can find cancer-associated proteins
in a blood serum sample in less than an
hour, and with much greater sensitivity
than existing commercial devices. In
fact, the device is tens to hundreds of
times more sensitive, so the proteins
can be found while there are relatively
few of them in the bloodstream.
Wang noted, "The earlier you can
detect a cancer, the better chance you
have to kill it. This could be especially
helpful for lung cancer, ovarian cancer,
and pancreatic cancer, because those
cancers are hidden in the body."
A minor drawback is that a
patient's blood sample has to be
processed in a centrifuge to separate
out the biomarker-containing serum, so
the instrument will have to be used in a
hospital or lab. This pretty much eliminates the possibility of home testing.
But it still should raise the standard not
only for cancer detection but also for
verifying heart attacks in emergency
room patients who are suffering from
chest pains. (As in the case of cancer,
heart cell death is associated with the
release of specific biomarker proteins.)
The next step is clinical testing
and trials to obtain regulatory approval,
which will be done by Wang's startup
company, MagArray, Inc.
FINALLY, YOU CAN
OWN A CRAY
■ The prototype MagArray scanner.
STANFORD UNIVERSI TY.
In days of yore (well, 1982),
Seymour Cray and company
introduced the world's first multi-processor supercomputer (well, two
processors), the Cray X-MP™. Quite
a monster for its day, it ran on a 105
MHz clock and delivered a peak
speed of 200 MFLOPs per processor.
Later versions, culminating in the XMP
/EA, offered up to four processors and
speeds up to 942 MFLOPs. The XMP
/EA model was priced at about $15