In with the new

January 3, 1997

What will the sciences look like in 1997 and who will be the people to watch? Graham Lawton, in the final part of the series, spots the projects to watch


In Cell division is a delicate matter. Without it we would be unable to grow, maintain our bodies or repair damage. But every dividing cell is a potential tumour and the body needs to keep them in check.

The restraining mechanism is programmed cell death. Dividing cells automatically prime themselves to die and will commit suicide unless they are told not to. Cells only survive if they are in the right place at the right time.

Very occasionally things go wrong. If a cell acquires two mutations in rapid succession, one switching on the instruction to divide and the other switching off the suicide programme, it can become a cancer cell.

"Every tumour has something wrong with its cell death programme,'' says Gerard Evan of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. "If you could find out what's wrong, it would make an amazing therapeutic target.'' Professor Evan is attempting to unravel the multifarious ways that the suicide programme becomes unstuck. "At the moment we don't know all the suicide thwarting mechanisms,'' he says. "But in the future we should be able to genetically fingerprint tumours and identify the critical mutations, then tweak those mutations with drugs.'' SMART DRUGS

Amy Johnstone of the Open University has a problem with absent-minded chicks. She teaches them things, they forget them. Sometimes she even gives them drugs that make them forget more quickly. But soon she hopes to be able to prescribe drugs with the opposite effect.

Johnstone's work is part of a research programme into smart drugs, substances that could improve the lives of people with age-associated memory impairment, neuro-degenerative diseases or head injuries. "It will not be long before there are effective memory enhancers on the market," she says.

In order to determine how smart drugs might work, Johnstone looks at a broad sweep of memory phenomena. She needs to explore what happens during learning, from the biochemical and genetic cascades associated with memory to the behaviour of animals.

Johnstone is wary of the potential for drug misuse. Around 300,000 Americans are already using self-prescribed smart drugs, most of which probably don't work. She likens the situation to body-builders using anabolic steroids. "It is not controlled and has no medical or social purpose," she says. But she does not doubt that memory enhancers have an important role. "There are a lot of people out there who need these things," she says.

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