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EXTRA CREDIT

Heart of the South
By Sally Ann Flecker

IN HIS NEW NOVEL, WOLF WHISTLE, AWARD-WINNING WRITER LEWIS NORDAN UNCOVERS THE MYSTERIOUS CONNECTIONS BETWEEN HUMAN TENDERNESS AND HUMAN CRUELTY AS HE EXPLORES THE MAGIC--AND THE DARKNESS--OF THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA.
What is mysterious about the heart is also what is most mundane--that it beats without fail, lubb dupp, lubb dupp, the sound itself as ordinary and elementary as the words in a child's picture book. Lubb dupp, Lubb dupp.

In the novel Wolf Whistle, winner of the 1994 Southern Book Award, writer and Pitt professor of English Lewis Nordan creates a world as mysterious and regular as the world of our hearts. It's a world built, as all worlds are, really, from small, un remarkable moments, the warm stuff of the everyday, moments as faint and as strong as the ticking of the heart. A caveat, however: The everyday of Arrow Catcher, Mississippi, the setting of this novel as well as of Nordan's three earlier collections of sh ort stories, is not quite conventional.

For instance, here is an exchange that takes place when Coach Heard, a Korean-War veteran and head of the town's beloved and singular high school arrow-catching team, offers a ride home to Runt Conroy, the town's gravedigger and father of one of Heard's b est archers. These are two men who do not know each other well, except in the way all members of a small town do:

They walked over and climbed in the pickup.
Runt slammed his door shut, and then Coach Heard
pumped the accelerator a couple of times with his
fiberglass foot and started up the engine.

Runt said, "You're not wearing your peg leg today, I see. "

Coach said, " I got it slung back in the bed of the truck if I need it.
My wife prefers for me to wear the one with a foot."

Runt said, 'It's a little dressier."

Coach said, "I suppose."

Runt said, "Your shoes wear out more or less even, I'd guess."

Coach said, "I guess."

Arrow Catcher is a community that does not flinch from what is not easiest to love about its people. It is a town that beats with elemental kindness, with sure and uncomplicated emotions, straight as arrows streaking through the air. A child prattles on, asking his father an endless string of unrelated questions about humidity, Superman, death, and Mortimer Snerd, and the father answers each in its turn, as best he can, with unfailing courtesy. ("'What would be the meaning of the expression .where you sa y somebody went under the limbo stick?"' the boy asks. "His daddy said, 'It mought have something to do with the expression when you say somebody looks like he got beat with an ugly stick, do you reckon?") Alice, the moral touch-stone of the novel, is th e fourth-grade teacher fresh out of normal school, getting over a love affair with her former professor, Dr. Dust. She wishes with her whole heart that Mrs. Dust would be a little forgiving and that she and Alice could be friends. Even Solon, the book's p athetic villain, with the terrible, flawed logic of his heart, evinces a twisted solicitude for his victim: "Solon sho did hate for Bobo to be out there behind the truck, scared half out of his wits and cutting his feet on sharp gravel, just because he wa s taking him out to kill him. It was a shame, a crime and a shame. And dark out there, too, don't you spect? Pore thang, blind in that Delta darkness, don't know where he's running to."

Nordan offers a story that unfolds with the heart's relentlessly patient beating. It's rich, at times magical, but at its center is a great darkness. In 1955, when Nordan was a teenager growing up in Itta Bena, Mississippi, a 14-year-old black youth, Emme tt Till, was murdered in a nearby Delta town over reports that he had whistled at a white woman. The murder trial created national attention and became a galvanizing moment in the civil rights movement. In Wolf Whistle, Nordan now deals with the co mplex cultural and emotional material of that time and place. (In the novel, the murdered teenager is Bobo, sent from Chicago to stay with Uncle and Auntie. While trying to impress the local kids with his snakeskin wallet, which contains the photo of actr ess Hedy Lamar, whom they mistakenly take to be Bobo's girlfriend, Bobo gets carried away and makes the move that proves fatal for him.)

The novel finds no more resolution in the outcome of the trial than happened m real life. The murderers get off, as everyone knew they would, and as few thought they should. There is no justice for Bobo's murder. And in that fact, there is no choice but t o move forward. Gilbert Mecklin, the house painter, begins to go to "Don't Drink" meetings. Alice decides not to renew her teaching contract for the next year. Runt finds a simple dignity in his given name, Cyrus, which until then seemed not to have fit h im. Balances are changed. There is a deepness that settles in the kind that can only be born out of a tragedy, an injustice, out of the thing with which you cannot, dare not make peace.

Coach said, "What I'm trying to say to you is, I never knowed about this emptiness inside me, until that little colored boy got killed and Solon and Dexter got let loose. That's when it come to me. I want them uniforms back, and them brass belt buckles, them cartridge belts and Eisenhower caps and field jackets. I want my daddy, who died twenty years ago. I want every durn thing I ever lost."

Runt said, "It's a bad world, Coach. It's an evil world we live in."

Coach said, I know, Cyrus, I know. We'll just have to make do."


An Ounce of Prevention
By Mark Collins

A POTENTIALLY POWERFUL VACCINE AGAINST CANCER IS NOW BEING TESTED. CAN WE FIND A WAY TO USE THE STRENGTH OF THE HUMAN IMMUNE SYSTEM TO ATTACK AND DESTROY CANCER CELLS?

The human body gets bad press . Okay, it's not perfect; there are countless contagions and conditions that can make life miserable, if not unlivable. Truth is, however, the human body suffers the slings and arrows of virus es and bacteria, for instance, all of the time, and weathers the majority of these storms quite well.

Most of these onslaughts are repulsed by the body's two-pronged defense: a generalized immune response of antibodies and white blood cells; and the more specific response of T cells, the natural-born killers of foreign invaders. (These aggressive cells ar e so efficient, they even destroy transplanted organs unless the recipient gets treatment or drugs to quash T cell production.)

Scientists have long used the body's own chemistry to develop vaccines. For instance, the polio vaccine developed at Pitt by Jonas Salk works by sparking antibodies against the polio virus.

Recently, researchers have turned their attention to a cancer vaccine. But cancer seems to be endlessly adaptable. Tumors find ways to deceive antibodies or suppress the immune response. The inability to kill off cancer is especially evident in patients w ho seemingly " beat " the disease, only to have it recur.

Now researchers at the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (PCI) are exploiting the second weapon in the body's immune arsenal. Led by Olivera Finn, associate professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, they ar e developing the first synthetic vaccine designed to stimulate both T cell production and localized response. The idea was born, Finn says, from a simple question: "Why can't the same immune system that so effectively rejects transplanted organs b e effective in rejecting tumors?"

Finn's experimental vaccine works in two ways. First, it targets tumor cells. Previously, this task was problematic, because tumors often "hide" from immune detection. Now scientists have discovered a quirk of nature that may help the immune system ferret out cancerous culprits. This anomaly involves certain proteins called mucin. Ordinarily, mucin proteins don't get much publicity. They're found in organs such as the breast, colon, and pancreas. The mucin proteins form tree-like projections that thrust o ut into the ductwork of these organs, such as the breast's milk duct.

What makes these proteins interesting is their coating. Each little branch is completely cloaked with a layer of sugar molecules, sort of like a glazed doughnut, only with protein underneath.

In cancer cells, however, the mucin branches have incomplete coatings. For some reason, the sugar molecules fail to fully form, thus exposing portions of the inner protein.

And that's the secret Finn and company have found: a way for the immune system to identify this abnormal mucin. The introduction of mucin peptides (or fragments of protein) into the body might very well spawn a strong, specific immune response against any cells bearing the abnormal mucin coating -- in other words, the cancer cells themselves.

But that's just one aspect. The researchers have also included another ingredient that attracts T cells to the site, helping the formation of immune response against the tumor. Rather than "curing" existing cancers the double whammy of immune response mak es the site too hostile for the cancer to recur.

That's the theory, at least. Laboratory experiments have produced excellent results, so last year Finn--along with co-investigator Michael Lotze, professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry--tested 60 patients at the Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. The results left Finn cautiously optimistic. A second slate of tests is scheduled for early this year.

Because this therapy is so new, Finn and Lotze are careful in their approach. While using vaccines for advanced cancer might provide key insight into T cell production, the researchers caution against seeing the vaccine as a miracle therapy--the size and sheer number of tumor cells may simply dwarf the immune system's ability to respond.

But the vaccine does offer a promising new weapon in keeping cancer in remission. One day, Lotze adds, the vaccine may be also used as a preventative measure in people at high risk for breast, colon, or pancreatic cancers.

Time, of course, will tell if the vaccine works. The history of scientific discovery tells us that revelations are often made when people ask impolite questions of prevailing theories. Olivera Finn followed in that tradition, and perhaps found an answer t hat is anything but...well, sugar-coated.


Sticky Business
By Laura Shefler

HOW DO YOU BLEND TWO PLASTICS THAT JUST DON'T WANT TO MIX? THE ANSWER LIES IN FINDING THE RIGHT KIND OF MOLECULAR GLUE

Sometimes when it comes to solving problems, two answers are better than one. Take Velcro, for instance. This amazingly sticky material--actually, a team of two materials--has quietly changed the world. The two halv es of Velcro, with their unique ability to cling together, have given us an easy way to fasten everything from wallet flaps to shoe straps (or, depending on how you look at it, a generation of children who can't tie their shoes).

Now, Pitt researchers have used a similar two-part principle to make what they call a "molecular Velcro. "The problems molecular Velcro solves have nothing to do with shoes. Instead of fastening pieces of material, molecular Velcro, developed unde r Anna Balazs, associate professor of materials science and engineering, offers a two-part way to bind substances--specifically, those versatile, useful substances known as polymers.

This is exciting news for manufacturers, who have long searched for cheap, efficient ways to blend polymers. The goal: to make new materials that combine properties of the original ingredients--stiffness and toughness, for instance, or flexibility and str ength. Balazs' team reasoned out their blending process through computer modeling and experiments. Colleagues at another university have already used the process to create one new material. Says Balazs, "They were able to take a material that was strong b ut very stiff and brittle and another that was very rubbery and tough and combine them into a new material that is both strong and easily shaped."

Over the past century, scientists have synthesized hundreds of polymers. Though they share the same basic structure--complex molecules of repeating chemical strands--these polymers are remarkably varied. Some are strong. Others are easy to mold. Some cond uct electricity. Others have special optical properties. That's why manufacturers have wanted to combine two polymers-- for instance, to make a material that both is strong and conducts electricity.

The problem is that, usually, polymers won't mix. If you heat polymers and stir them together, they typically draw off, like stirred oil and water, into small, separate pockets or "domains. "The ill-blended plastics that result have a weak, uneven consist ency. "I have an example in my office," Balazs says, "and what it looks like is crinkled paper."

Molecular Velcro, however, can strengthen a polymer blend. It does so by going to the edges of the domains of the two polymers--let's call them polymers A and B--where the two polymers meet. Like ordinary Velcro, molecular Velcro has two pieces--two separ ate versions of the molecules known as "graft copolymers." Each graft copolymer is a complex molecule with a main strand, or backbone, as well as chemically distinct side chains that branch off the main strand like teeth on a comb.

Think of the first graft copolymer as the first piece of the Velcro. Its backbone is designed to "stitch" itself chemically to polymer A. The second copolymer--the second piece of Velcro--has a backbone with a different chemical composition. This backbone attaches not to polymer A, but rather to polymer B.

At the same time, the two halves of the molecular Velcro--that is, the two different graft copolymers--join chemically with each other. They join not by their backbones (which, if you recall, are attached to the polymers ), but rather by their side chains. If you hold up your hands and interlace your fingers, you'll get the idea. The result is a molecular glue: a series of two-part bonds at the interfaces between polymer A and polymer B. The new blended material that Balazs' colleagues made with graft co-polymers was three times as moldable and strong as a mixture made without.

Molecular Velcro is hardly the first attempt to strengthen polymer blends. In the past, researchers have used, instead, a copolymer called a "diblock." This single diblock formed a bridge between polymers A and B. The trouble was that since the bridge had to incorporate both molecules that bonded with A and molecules that bonded with B, it was difficult and expensive to create.

The Velcro solution, on the other hand, is more flexible. The teeth of the molecular Velcro can be made from a wide variety of inexpensive materials. As an additional benefit, the Velcro also breaks up the separate domains of the polymers, making them sma ller, so that the ingredients mix more thoroughly.

Balazs hopes that the Velcro technique will he used to make a whole range of new materials. Lighter, safer car bodies and tougher, leak-proof plastic pipes are just two of the many possibilities. One thing is clear, however: molecular Velcro is an idea th at will be sticking around. *Velcro is a trademark of Velcro USA Incorporated.


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