June 2001


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The Cutting Edge

Working on Mars

Near the base of a volcano jetting almost 17 miles toward its sky, red dirt gives way to a canyon that spans the distance from Los Angeles to Maine. To climb the canyon’s steep walls would mean a five-mile scramble in winds as cold as -207 degrees Fahrenheit, in a climate so dry that a single drop of water would vanish before reaching a person’s mouth.This is where David Crown likes to work.

Crown started “working on Mars” in grad school, and today, if you take him literally, you’d think he’s covered the solar system and back again. “I’ve worked on Venus, Mars, and one of the moons of Jupiter,” he says, “but I spend most of my time studying volcanoes on Mars and Earth.” Crown, an assistant professor of geology and planetary science at Pitt, hasn’t actually been to other planets. (He doesn’t even like flying.) He’s a planetary geologist and volcanologist who spends much of his time on Earth using imaging technology to create maps of planets like Mars. As a member of the NASA Mars Site Selection Steering Committee, he uses these maps to establish optimal landing sites for future missions. But that’s only one of many reasons Crown sees for creating planetary maps. His true motivation is uncovering the planet’s history.

Crown’s maps spend much of their time spread across long tables, where he and Pitt graduate students huddle over them, looking for clues to the history of Mars. They focus on areas spanning 24,000 square miles, and document the processes that have affected the planet’s surface—things like where volcanoes stand, where rivers once flowed, and how they impacted the planet. Crown looks at canyons caused by catastrophic floods, and at “dendritic drainage networks,” small riverbeds that snake across his maps.

“We look for those things,” says Crown, “and we build up a story of the planet’s geologic history. These maps tell us what went on, provide some constraints on the sequence of events, and help us refine our understanding of the planet as a whole.”

The fact that scientists like Crown have documented river valleys on a planet where a single drop of water evaporates before it can be detected may seem a bit strange. “When we first saw these channels,” says Crown, “people said, no, no, that can’t be. For a long time people tried to attribute the riverbeds to different things—the wind, strange volcanic activity, you name it. But over time, we’ve done the comparisons to Earth, and we know there’s been water there, or some fluid that acts like water. It’s just a question of figuring out what that means about the evolution of the planet over the solar system’s history.”

The debate by scientists continues over how Mars’ climate may have changed through history. And for now, the jury is still out. Some believe Mars once had a climate with rain and snowfall, maybe even oceans. Others claim the planet has always been cold and dry, that any water disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Crown’s not sure at this point, but he knows that the volcanoes jetting from the planet’s surface, and the canyons surrounding them, offer a storehouse of knowledge that he plans to keep tapping. —Rebecca Skloot

Making New Drugs the Easy Way
Fluorous technology speeds drug testing

It was not the typical eureka moment associated with big laboratory breakthroughs—at least the way mild-mannered chemistry professor Dennis P. Curran, tells it. His story begins with the search for a faster, cleaner way to make drugs that fight diseases such as cancer. The problem was by-products—those pesky things left in the mixing bowl after a new compound had been made.

Historically speaking, purification was a slow process. How to get rid of wastes quickly and efficiently? Curran found the answer in a pale yellow gas called fluorine, an element that was discovered more than 100 years ago. Curran said that it occurred to his research team (even though he is the principal inventor, he eschews first-person references to his work) to use fluorous “tags” to remove unwanted by-products. For instance, tin, which is critical to the chemical process necessary for making certain anti-cancer drugs, must be removed once the chemical reaction has occurred. The team found that organic and fluorine molecules bind together, making it a snap to wash out the by-product. What is really amazing is the time saved by the new process. Purifying an organic product using conventional methods such as distillation may take three to five hours. With fluorous tags, the same process can be reduced to as little as 15 minutes. Decreased production times means that new drugs can be developed, tested, and marketed faster.

That’s it? No surprise discovery from a spilled vial? No years of toil at the bench working on the perfect solution? No international race to achieve a breakthrough in fluorous technology? Curran half laughs. “In retrospect, someone should have thought of this 15 years ago. Fluorine chemistry and organic chemistry are different, and the two groups don’t communicate much. So one field had the problem, and the other had the solution,” he says.

Six years and seven patents later, Curran and Pitt have turned fluorous research into a commercial venture—Fluorous Technologies Inc. Last year, Albany Molecular Research Inc., a chemical technology firm, announced that it would invest $650,000 in Fluorous Technologies. The University of Pittsburgh is also an investor.

Pharmaceutical companies have been clamoring for ready-made fluorous compounds, and the technology could mean better and less expensive drugs. Instead of haphazardly mixing and testing chemical compounds one at a time, scientists can use fluorine tagging to tag one molecule and simultaneously combine it with different compounds. It’s more controlled, simpler, and faster, says Curran, adding that some see promise in using fluorous technology to develop agrochemical products and more environmentally friendly methods of chemical manufacturing.

While the new technology will speed up research, Curran says the business side of things has moved slowly: It took three months just to take care of legal odds and ends, but now Fluorous has hired several employees and a COO, occupied labs at U-PARC, and is making final plans to commercialize first-generation products and services. The new venture is an example of what Curran enjoys most about his job: “The freedom of the academic system, the ability to pursue what you and your students are excited about.” —Emily Tipping

Promises Unmet
Ridgway Center researcher finds faults with Russian aid strategy.

From the dust of a crumbling Berlin Wall rose an historic opportunity. Communism as Russia had known it for 70 years was gasping its last breath, opening wide the door to economic and social reform. What’s more, the fall came at a time when Russia and its people had grown tired of state-run economics and were ready to embrace free-market ways. But nearly 10 years and billions of dollars in foreign aid later, the average Russian is no better off. The tangled mess created by “tycoon capitalism” run amok will take years to straighten out. These are among the sobering findings of Pitt anthropologist Janine R. Wedel, associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) and researcher at GSPIA’s Ridgway Center for International Security Studies. “US economic aid was intimately involved in designing, implementing, and promoting privatization,” Wedel says. “Where is the accountability?”

A student of the evolving economic and social order of Eastern Europe for 20 years, Wedel dissected what she describes as the failings of American foreign aid policy toward Eastern Europe and Russia in her 1998 book, Collision and Collusion: The Strange Case of Western Aid to Eastern Europe, 1989-1998. Recently, Wedel’s book was chosen, from among 51 nominations submitted by individuals and organizations worldwide, for the prestigious University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award, which includes a cash prize of $200,000.

The very urgency that drove the West’s efforts to reform Russian society contained the seeds of failure, Wedel found. Decades of the Cold War obscured the West’s understanding of Russian society and its leaders. What’s more, as Wedel testified in 1998 before the US House of Representatives’ Committee on International Relations, the Harvard Institute for International Development (HIID) received the lion’s share of funding for economic aid to Russia without competitive bidding. In the days after the fall of the Soviet Union, Anatoly Chubais ran Russia’s privatization agency. Working closely with Harvard, Chubais took control of hundreds of millions of dollars in US aid through a variety of institutions and organizations that were ostensibly designed to privatize state industry and develop capital markets. Both sides—HIID and Chubais’ group—operated with little oversight, Wedel says. And therein lay the problem. Efforts to privatize Russian industry, in fact, did little more than line the pockets of the very people who helped design the programs. “It undermined the whole aid effort,” Wedel says. Citing evidence that Harvard principals were engaged in “activities for personal gain,” the Agency for International Development suspended the institute’s funding in May 1997.

Little has changed for most Russians since Wedel’s book was published. An independent survey last year found that the Russian life expectancy is still among the lowest in Europe, and death rates are soaring. By one estimate, 20,000 cancer patients die annually because they cannot afford medicine. Worse, bitterness and cynicism have replaced the Russian people’s eagerness to embrace open-market reforms. What to do?

In an address to Congress three years ago, Wedel outlined what was needed. “The United States needs to adopt a pro-democracy stance that encourages institution-building and as broad a range of democratic positions as possible,” she said. “We must cease to select specific groups or individuals as the recipients of uncritical support, which both corrupts our ‘favorites’ and delegitimizes them in the eyes of their fellow citizens.” The Russian aid debacle contains “some cautionary lessons on abuse of trust by supposedly disinterested foreign advisers,” she points out. Increased vigilance is needed, Wedel believes, in a world where private or non-profit groups are increasingly taking on responsibilities—such as economic reform—that historically were tasks assumed by nations. “We have to pay a lot more attention to who the players are,” she says. “No one group should be given a blank check.”

The Harvard group was not the only agency pressing for change in the former Soviet Union. Washington, DC-based Eurasia Foundation has been underwriting the cost of democratic and free market reforms in the former Soviet Union’s 12 new independent states. In February, GSPIA received a $132,210 foundation grant to evaluate some of these reforms. Wedel was named chief investigator. Among the foundation-sponsored changes was implementation of a code of ethics for city employees and competitive bidding procedures, according to GSPIA Dean Carolyn Ban, who initiated and will be assisting in the study. In cooperation with the Institute for Urban Economics in Moscow, GSPIA researchers will assess the changes that have been made, and how well city workers have been trained in the new practices. Unlike other efforts, Eurasia-funded changes are more focused, Ban said, promising a brighter future for all Russian citizens.—Kris Mamula

Breakthroughs in the Making

Seeing Stars: When do astronomers see stars? More than half the time they think they are looking at recently discovered “planets” outside our solar system, according to a preliminary study done by researchers at Pitt’s Allegheny Observatory, the Lunar and Planetary Institute, and the Korea Astronomy Observatory. Some of the 30 or so heavenly bodies believed to be new planets may, in fact, be stars because the angle of view can distort measurements.... Virtual Medicine: Logging on may be good for your health, but doctors, insurers, and other health care providers have been reluctant to refer patients to the Internet for information about medical problems. That’s among the findings of a study done by GSPIA for the Jewish Healthcare Foundation. Although half the consumers surveyed in Allegheny County turn to the Internet for medical information, health care providers most often use printed materials to educate patients....Weak Link: Killing germs in an age of antibiotic-resistant bacteria may one day be easier, thanks to new insights into the protective outer shells of bacterial viruses. Roger W. Hendrix, co-director of the University of Pittsburgh Bacteriophage Institute, and fellow researcher Robert L. Duda were among a group of scientists who discovered an entirely new kind of catenane, a series of interlinked protein rings. The new catenane can be compared to the chain mail that once protected medieval knights. One day, the discovery may make it easier to kill harmful bacteria by harnessing specific viruses.

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