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Friday, March 28, 2008

Study sees mental link between drug price, effectiveness

A higher-priced medication with a brand name might work better than a generic version--even if the pills are exactly the same--simply because the patient thinks the expensive prescription should work better, according to a recently published MIT study.

The study--conducted by researchers including graduate student Rebecca Waber and Dan Ariely, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT--involved 82 volunteers who were given identical placebos that were supposed to be a new pain medication. But the volunteers were told the pills had different costs, with some getting pills supposedly costing 10 cents, and some getting $2.50 pills.

Results of the study, which appeared in the March 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that those who were told the pill cost more reported feeling less pain from a series of electrical shocks to the wrist. Those told the pill only cost 10 cents reported feeling more pain on average.

The results may impact how generic medication and brand-name medication are marketed, packaged and distributed, and help explain "the popularity of high-cost medical therapies over inexpensive, widely available alternatives," according to the study.

A tangled web: CEE researchers unravel the secrets of spider silk's strength

This figure shows the structure of a beta-sheet protein, Z1-Z2 telethonin complex, in the giant muscle protein titin. The inset shows the orientation of the protein backbone of three beta strands (in purple) with hydrogen bonds (yellow) holding the assembly together. Buehler and Keten found that hydrogen bonds in beta-sheet structures break in clusters of three or four, even in the presence of many more bonds.
The strength of a biological material like spider silk lies in the specific geometric configuration of structural proteins, which have small clusters of weak hydrogen bonds that work cooperatively to resist force and dissipate energy, researchers in Civil and Environmental Engineering have revealed.

This structure makes the lightweight natural material as strong as steel, even though the "glue" of hydrogen bonds that hold spider silk together at the molecular level is 100 to 1,000 times weaker than the powerful glue of steel's metallic bonds or even Kevlar's covalent bonds.

Based on theoretical modeling and large-scale atomistic simulation implemented on supercomputers, this new understanding of exactly how a protein's configuration enhances a material's strength could help engineers create new materials that mimic spider silk's lightweight robustness. It could also impact research on muscle tissue and amyloid fibers found in brain tissue.

"Our hope is that by understanding the mechanics of materials at the atomistic level, we will be able to one day create a guiding principle that will direct the synthesis of new materials," said Professor Markus Buehler, lead researcher on the work.

In a paper published in the Feb. 13 online issue of Nano Letters, Buehler and graduate student Sinan Keten describe how they used atomistic modeling to demonstrate that the clusters of three or four hydrogen bonds that bind together stacks of short beta strands in a structural protein rupture simultaneously rather than sequentially when placed under mechanical stress. This allows the protein to withstand more force than if its beta strands had only one or two bonds. Oddly enough, the small clusters also withstand more energy than longer beta strands with many hydrogen bonds.

"Using only one or two hydrogen bonds in building a protein provides no or very little mechanical resistance, because the bonds are very weak and break almost without provocation," said Buehler, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Assistant Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "But using three or four bonds leads to a resistance that actually exceeds that of many metals. Using more than four bonds leads to a much-reduced resistance. The strength is maximized at three or four bonds."

After observing the simultaneous rupture of these hydrogen-bond clusters within the proteins in their atomistic simulations, Buehler and Keten wanted to know why the bonds break in small clusters, even in long strands with many hydrogen bonds. They used the laws of thermodynamics to explain this phenomenon. The paper in Nano Letters describes how the external force changes the entropic energy in the system and leads to the rupture of hydrogen bonds. By calculating the energy necessary to initiate the unfolding process in a protein molecule, they demonstrated that adding more hydrogen bonds in longer strands would not increase the material's strength.

"You would simply have this long chain of beta strands with lazy bonds that don't contribute to the strength of the assembly," said Keten. "But a material that employs many short beta strands folded and connected by three or four hydrogen bonds may exhibit strength greater than steel. In metals, the energy would be stored directly in much stronger bonds, called metallic bonds, until bonds rupture one by one. In proteins, things are more complicated due to the entropic elasticity of the noodle-like chains and the cooperative nature of the hydrogen bonds."

Structural proteins contain a preponderance of beta-sheets, sections that fold in such a way that they look a bit like old-fashioned ribbon candy; short waves or strands appear to be stacked on top of one another, each just the right length to allow three or four hydrogen bonds to connect it to the section above and beneath.

Beta sheets with short strand lengths connected by three or four hydrogen bonds are the most common conformation among all beta-structured proteins, including those comprising muscle tissue, according to experimental proteomics data on protein structures in the Protein Data Bank.

This correlation of a common geometric configuration among beta sheets--which are one of the two most prevalent protein structures in existence--suggests that a protein's strength is an important evolutionary driving force behind its physical design. The researchers observed the same behavior in similar small clusters in alpha-helical structural proteins, the other most prevalent protein, but haven't yet studied those assemblies in detail.

On the other hand, synthetic materials like steel have a very different and crystalline structure held together by the stronger glue of metallic bonds. Because steel and other synthetic materials tend to be dense, and therefore heavy, they consume a good deal of energy in manufacturing and transport.

"Metals are configured with bonds that are much stronger and require a much greater force to break," said Buehler. "However, the crystalline lattice of a metal's structure is never perfect; it contains defects that effectively reduce the material's strength quite drastically. When you place a load on the metal, the defect can fail, possibly causing a crack to propagate. In protein's beta sheets, the confined nature of the hydrogen bond clusters helps to dissipate the energy without compromising the strength of the material. This shows the amazing ingenuity and efficiency of natural materials."

This research was supported by an MIT Presidential Graduate Fellowship, the Army Research Office, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the Solomon Buchsbaum AT&T Research Fund, and a grant from the San Diego Supercomputing Center (SDSC

Apple releases updated version of iPhone SDK

Apple has released an updated version of the iPhone software development kit, adding support for a popular tool.

The new SDK is available for downloading on Apple's site, and now comes with Interface Builder. That tool allows you to design user interfaces in line with Apple's human interface guidelines, which is a requirement for iPhone applications.

This is a helpful reminder that the SDK is a beta product until June, when it's scheduled for a formal release. After an initial bottleneck, Apple has started accepting developers into its program to begin developing and testing their applications for a June release.

Microsoft hopes to offer applications to iPhone consumers that could benefit the use of Office on both the Mac and mobile phone.
Microsoft recently interviewed developers to consider a variety of possibilities that include offering its Office functionality on Apple's iPhone.

The plan began when Apple released its iPhone SDK (software development kit) earlier this month which gives developers access to the same tools that Apple uses for building new applications that run on the Mac OS X-based mobile phone.

"It's really important for us to understand what we can bring to the iPhone," Tom Gibbons, corporate VP of Microsoft's Specialized Devices and Applications Group, said told Fortune magazine. "To the extent that Mac Office customers have functionality that they need in that environment, we're actually in the process of trying to understand that now."

The software giant hopes to assist customers connecting the iPhone to more options than just the Exchange server. The iPhone can be synced with Mac or PC e-mails, calendars and contact lists. Apple licensed Microsoft's ActiveSync protocol for connecting the iPhone to an Exchange server earlier this year.

Gibbons said the software giant has experience with the iPhone environment and is very confident on providing the new application. Microsoft developers are still getting comfortable with the SDK and are going over feasible plans that could benefit iPhone consumers.

The final iPhone SDK will be released in June, along with new versions of the iPhone and iPod Touch operating systems. The latter gadget contains the same platform as the iPhone. AT&T remains as the exclusive cellular provider of the smart phone.

Mobile TV By AT&T

AT&T to offer live mobile TV in May
AT&T Set to Offer Qualcomm Service
To Broadcast Live Video to Cellphones
AT&T said Thursday that it will start offering live mobile TV service from MediaFlo in May, but will anyone be watching?

AT&T first announced its partnership with MediaFlo in February 2007. Back then it said it expected the service to begin by the end of 2007. AT&T spokesman Mark Siegel told Reuters the company waited until May to offer the service because it was "a brand new service on a brand new network, and two brand new devices."

The new service will operate on two new handsets, the LG Vu and the Samsung Access. Subscribers will get access to eight channels of live TV plus two exclusive channels. AT&T said it would make pricing information available in May when the service officially launches.

MediaFlo USA is a subsidiary of wireless chipmaker Qualcomm. Using analog broadcast TV wireless spectrum it bought several years ago, MediaFlo has built a wireless network to deliver broadcast TV service to mobile devices.

Verizon Wireless, which was the first wireless provider to work with MediaFlo, has been offering the service for more than a year. Verizon hasn't published specific subscriber numbers, but Qualcomm's CEO Paul Jacobs said during a speech at the Tech Policy Summit in Hollywood on Wednesday that the uptake has been going slower than the company would like, according to RCR Wireless News.

Jacobs blames the carriers for not advertising the service enough. He said that carriers might be waiting for MediaFlo to increase its coverage, which he said will happen in February 2009 when TV broadcasters will transition to digital TV, the article said.

Qualcomm, which owns spectrum for the analog TV Channel 55, has had to negotiate with broadcasters in each market to be able to use the spectrum that some of them have used to broadcast TV. The network is currently operating in about 55 markets and is available to about 130 million people, said Gina Lombardi, president of MediaFlo USA. Markets where MediaFlo has launched include Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Orlando, and Philadelphia.

But some mobile experts question whether people really want to watch TV on their phones. Verizon is charging $15 a month extra for eight channels of live TV. Perhaps the price point is still too expensive for consumers who on average spend about $40 to $50 a month on cell phone service. And as the economy dips further into a recession, I question how willing people will be to spend extra money on what I'd consider an unnecessary service like mobile TV.

It will be interesting to see AT&T's customers' response to the live TV service. AT&T already offers an on-demand video service to customers who buy certain 3G data packages.

If consumers don't fall in love with live mobile TV it could spell trouble for Qualcomm's MediaFlo USA, which has spent millions of dollars acquiring spectrum and building the network. Right now the company wholesales the service to mobile operators. But Verizon and AT&T are currently its only customers.

Lombardi said the company is in talks with other wireless operators in the U.S. But the company is also considering offering its service on any device with a small screen.

"We've had a lot of interest from car manufacturers," she said. "We've even had refrigerator manufacturers ask if we could provide TV service to the tiny screens they put on refrigerators."

Lombardi said the service could be sold much like satellite radio, which allows people to subscribe to a monthly service for about $10 per month. If subscribers want satellite radio service on additional devices, they get a slight discount on the monthly subscription for the second and third device.

"We are looking into all of these options," she said. "If there's interest, we don't want to turn away from any opportunity knocking at our door."

Adobe added new online shop for Photoshop Express

AdoWeb-based image editor aimed at the millions of consumers that want a simple way to touch up, share, and store photos.

Photoshop Express, available for free with 2 gigabytes of storage at, is a significant departure from Adobe's desktop software business and a big bet that it can make money offering Web services directly to consumers.

The application, which needs Flash Player 9 to run, pushes the limits of browser-based applications and will likely ratchet up the competition on the dozens of free and online photo-editing products available now (see our full review of Photoshop Express and gallery of screen shots of the application).

News of an online version of Photoshop first came to light last year when Adobe's then-CEO Bruce Chizen told CNET that the product would be available within six months.

Since then, Adobe has expanded the scope of the project, one reason why the product launch has taken longer than expected, according to executives. Rather than only an image editor, Photoshop Express also has ties to social networking sites like Facebook and other image-sharing sites.

Also, Adobe needed to build the back-end infrastructure needed to offer the service directly to consumers, rather than partner with another photo-sharing site, as it did with its online video editor, Premiere Express.

"We've seen a convergence of trends where the everyday consumer is becoming overwhelmed with the number of images and they have the desire to share images in new and interesting ways," said Doug Mack, the vice president of consumer and hosted solutions at Adobe.

"We're at the point now with bandwidth that most consumers can use really rich Internet applications and also have a relationship with a service where they store and upload images," he said.

The service will go live in beta test mode on Thursday. Mack said that the company intends to use the test period as a way garner feedback from customers.

Adobe intends to offer more features to consumers who pay a yearly fee. Some planned features include a printing service, more storage, support for audio and other media, and the ability to read additional image file types (the service works with .JPGs now.)

Adobe also plans to build an offline client using AIR (the Adobe Integrated Runtime) so that people can edit photos offline, executives said.

Under the hood
Adobe already has a few other Photoshop-branded products--Photoshop Creative Suite 3 and Photoshop Lightroom are aimed at professional and serious amateur photographers, while $99 Photoshop Elements is a consumer-oriented product.

Photoshop Express is designed to be used essentially by anyone who uses a point and click digital camera, said Mack.

People can organize photos by dragging them into albums or create a gallery to share images. The service also lets people email links images stored online, embed them in a Web page, or download them.

When people hover a mouse over an image, a menu appears that lets people do tasks, such as rotating an image. The editing tools are designed for speed, with an autocorrect option, redeye removal, and a touch-up tool.

Adobe has sought to make Photoshop Express intuitive enough for people to use without any training but still have features that appeal to more sophisticated photographers, said Geoff Baum, director of Adobe's Express products.

For example, the touch-up tool will automatically choose a color from a surrounding item to, say, remove a blemish on a face. Or, a person can choose where to sample a color to replace the blemish.

Photoshop Express also includes several ways to tweak photos just for fun. There are a number of effects to change the color of one item in a photo, like a hat on someone's head, or blur parts of an image.

While editing, the application displays thumbnail images that let people view how effects will change a photo before saving it and people can revert back to an original. The connections to Facebook and other social networking sites let people edit and update images from within Photoshop Express.

First impression
Adobe engineers wrote Photoshop Express from scratch using its Flex development framework and ActionScript, its JavaScript-compatible language.

"We had some of the top Photoshop engineers who understand the technology and science behind Photoshop rewrite some of the algorithms in ActionScript 3," Baum explained.

Having used Photoshop Express for a short time, I can say that it is simple to use. It's attractive, too. The use of Flash animation makes for a dynamic page and smooth transitions between operations.

Adobe is hoping that people who use Picasa, Google's free downloadable application, will be tempted by Photoshop Express.

As someone who uses Picasa for both work and personal photo editing, I'd say that Photoshop Express is indeed tempting because it's slick yet easy to use. You can get edits done quickly, particularly using the thumbnail preview feature
launching the editor and actually saving changes is far slower than Picasa. That's not surprising, given that Photoshop Express has to download photos and upload changes, while Picasa doesn't. By design, Photoshop Express also has a broader range of options for sharing photos on other sites.

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