NEW CHAIR IN TOWN: F. James Sensenbrenner Republicans retained control of the House and Senate in last month's elections, but there will be a few newcomers on science-related committees when the 105th Congress convenes early next month.The retirement of Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) leaves Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) as his successor as chairman of the House Science Committee. Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.) will remain its ranking minority member. Committee members Bill Baker (R

Dec 9, 1996
The Scientist Staff

NEW CHAIR IN TOWN: F. James Sensenbrenner
Republicans retained control of the House and Senate in last month's elections, but there will be a few newcomers on science-related committees when the 105th Congress convenes early next month.The retirement of Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.) leaves Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) as his successor as chairman of the House Science Committee. Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.) will remain its ranking minority member. Committee members Bill Baker (R-Calif.), Andrea Seastrand (R-Calif.), Harold Volkmer (D-Mo.), and Mike Ward (D-Ky.) failed to win re-election, as did Larry Pressler (R-S.D.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Pressler will be replaced by John McCain (R-Ariz.), while Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) will take over the Senate Appropriations Committee from the retiring Mark Hatfield (R-Ore.). J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Appropriations Committee's subcommittee on energy and water development, is retiring; Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) follow him in seniority. The new faces have similar ideologies to the departing ones, and many committee chairmen will stay the same, leading several observers to believe there will be few changes for science. In a recent edition of his online newsletter "What's New," Robert L. Park, a professor of physics at the University of Maryland and the American Physical Society's director of public relations, writes: "Status quo wins re-election in a landslide."
Scientists are learning more about what happens biologically to people who attempt suicide. At the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting, held recently in Washington, D.C., a team of four researchers from various institutions reported that many victims are unable to process the neurotransmitter serotonin, and that the key region where the dysfunction takes place is the ventral prefrontal cortex, which sits just above the eyes and mediates inhibition and mood regulation. Team members commented that by using brain-imaging techniques, doctors may be able to determine which patients are higher suicide risks and to treat the serotonin dysfunction that seems to play such a key role. "The importance of this is [that] it's the first study of the human brain to find a biochemical anomaly in depressed suicide patients and to localize it," one of the researchers, Mary Pacheco, a postdoctoral fellow in psychiatry at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, said at a news conference (M.A. Pacheco et al., Society for Neuroscience Abstracts, 22:1677, 1996). Added Victoria Arango (V. Arango et al., Society for Neuroscience Abstracts, 22:730, 1996), an associate professor of chemical neuroanatomy at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University: "The people who commit suicide may be unable to control their suicidal thoughts and may act on them. . . . The best way to look at suicide is not to look at one thing. It's a multifaceted illness."

Photo: Thomas W. Durso
COPPER AND CASH: From left, David Farber and George Heilmeier
Fifty years ago, University of Pennsylvania engineers fired up ENIAC, launching the computer era. Late last month, the annual John Scott Awards were presented in Philadelphia to a pair who have helped advance the revolution. David J. Farber is Penn's Alfred Fitler Moore Professor of Telecommunications, and Penn alumnus George H. Heilmeier is president and chief executive officer of Bellcore, the Livingston, N.J.-based research arm of the United States' seven regional telephone companies, whose sale was announced recently. The prize was established in the early 19th century by John Scott, a Scottish druggist who entrusted the administration of the award -- originally $20 and an inscribed copper medal --to the city of Philadelphia to reward those whose useful inventions contributed significantly to people's "comfort, welfare, and happiness." While the copper medal is still awarded, the amount of the prize is now $10,000. Farber helped to create several forerunners of the Internet, while Heilmeier assisted in inventing the liquid crystal display. "The Internet and the technology that led up to it is the result of many people's efforts," Farber noted at the ceremony. "I am happy to have played a small part through my work and the work of my students." Recalled Heilmeier: "My work on liquid crystal displays was done almost 30 years ago. The only vestige of that is a drawerful of liquid crystal display watches, of which my wife says, 'What are we going to do with them?'"

GENE DREAMS: Jeffrey Smith aims to develop a screening test once the prostate cancer gene is identified.
Researchers are homing in on two highly sought-after prizes: genes for Parkinson's disease and for prostate cancer. In each case, scientists have located the DNA regions of the genes responsible for inherited cases. The precise genes themselves remain elusive for now. Last month, a research team from the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) in New Brunswick, the National Center for Human Genome Research (NCHGR), the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and the Istituto de Scienze Neuologiche in Naples, Italy, located the gene responsible for some cases of Parkinson's disease. They reported locating the gene on chromosome 4 (M.H. Polymeropoulos et al., Science, 274:1197-9, 1996). "The implication is that we have more work to do-we have to find the exact gene and determine what it does and if other genes are involved," says coauthor Alice Lazzarini, an assistant professor of neurology and director of clinical genetics at UMDNJ. "That will allow us to devise a screening test, perhaps, leading to genetic testing, early diagnosis, and treatment." Presymptomatic testing may be available some day. Until now, most scientists considered Parkinson's to be caused by environmental factors such as drugs, toxic chemicals, or injury. "We need to understand how the disease develops, and find out what to do to intervene pharmacologically and either prevent, interfere, or perhaps even cure the disease," Lazzarini says. A week later, another NCHGR team, along with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University and at Umea University in Umea, Sweden, reported that it had traced the gene for hereditary prostate cancer, dubbed HPC-1, to chromosome 1 (J.R. Smith et al., Science, 274:1371-4, 1996). NCHGR staff fellow Jeffrey R. Smith hints that it's likely that several genes, perhaps located on other chromosomes, may play roles in causing prostate cancer. "We were hoping that a single major player would stand out, and that's just the case. While it's likely that in these families it's a single gene [causing cancer], in other families, it could be another gene or genes." Once the exact gene is identified, a screening test may be developed, notes Smith. One in 500 may have an altered version of the gene, which may cause a third of familial prostate cancer, which accounts for roughly one in 10 prostate cancers.

If you like to smoke, a drink may entice you to smoke even more. Researchers at Purdue University found that alcohol actually increases the physical craving to take a drag. "We know that when smokers try to quit, and they drink alcohol, they're at a higher risk of relapse," says Stephen Tiffany, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue. "This is the first study that actually shows that alcohol physically drives up one's craving to smoke." In the study, Tiffany presented 60 male and female smokers with smoking cues-cigarettes and seeing others smoke. In the next session, participants were told they would be given alcohol, though only half received drinks. Afterward, the smoking cues were again given. Those who had alcohol gave responses and had physical signs of cravings well above those triggered by smoking cues only. Those who didn't drink alcohol showed no similar increase. Those who consumed alcohol had an increase of 35 percent on average in their craving to smoke compared with those participants who received nonalcoholic drinks. The researchers made sure that all 60 participants thought they were drinking alcohol, though only half were. "We wanted to make sure we weren't seeing an effect from expectations," explains Tiffany. "We found a pharmacological effect." The researchers used self-reporting by questionnaires, in addition to physical measures of blood pressure, increases in skin temperatures and heart rate, and mood changes to gauge smoking craving. Tiffany notes that the "alcohol did not make people hypersensitive to smoking triggers. Rather, it had an additive effect, increasing the urge." The group's paper has been accepted for publication in the British journal Addiction. The work is part of a larger study looking at factors involved in craving to smoke. "What is it about alcohol that drives the craving to smoke?" Tiffany asks. "We don't know. It could be that smokers have spent so many years drinking that it's just another cue, like morning coffee."

FIRST PRIZE: Doxorubin, an anti-cancer agent, magnified 80X
SECOND PRIZE: Six-day-old rat neurons, magnified 40X
When peering through a microscope, some scientists see merely the object of their study-cells or crystals, for example-while others see much more. The winners of the 22nd annual Nikon International Small World Competition-announced last month-are among that group who see profound beauty in the microscopic world. The Nikon Inc.-sponsored contest, which is open to anyone, recognizes excellence in photography using a microscope. Contestants may use microscopes made by any company. The first prize went to Lars Bech, a retired clergyman from the Netherlands, for his image of doxorubin, an anti-cancer agent, in methanol and dimethyl-benzenesulfonic acid. Brad Miller, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Washington University School of Medicine, took second place with his image of six-day-old rat neurons. Miller also received fifth prize for his photo of neuronal axons in an embryonic hamster brain. "I've seen the beautiful images [associated with the contest] over the years and noticed that most of them were crystals," remarks Miller, regarding his motivation to enter his biological micrographs. Winning entries were drawn from the inorganic and organic worlds: Images were derived from plants and animals as well as from such nonbiological sources as computer chips and salt crystals. Nikon is selling a 1997 Small World calendar depicting winning images. For more information on the contest, write to Small World Competition, Nikon Inc., 1300 Walt Whitman Rd., Melville, N.Y. .