NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2010

Cutting-Edge Research


Molecules With a Twist

by Kevin Fallon / CAS ’09

We all read with concern the side effects written on pill bottles and labor through those warnings at the end of pharmaceutical commercials. But those lists may soon get a whole lot shorter thanks to scientists who are now constructing “bulletproof” molecules that may make the drugs you take stronger and work faster, with fewer potential downsides.

“We’re improving on things that nature does and doing things nature can’t do,” explains Michael Ward, chair of the department of chemistry. He, along with associate professor of chemistry Kent Kirshenbaum and postdoctoral fellow Galia Maayan, recently authored a study describing how to fold synthetic molecules into helical shapes, mimicking those that occur naturally and enabling them to accelerate chemical reactions with far greater specificity. The researchers have “tuned” these new molecules to be consistent with biochemical processes but may have made them resistant to the effects that cause regular molecules to break down. Thus, medicines may soon be absorbed more efficiently and more accurately engage targets in the body, which means that they may also have fewer side effects.

Beyond the challenges of the human body, these synthetic molecules might also withstand extremely high temperatures and other stressful conditions, making them useful in creating industrial chemicals, polymers, and plastics. This could eliminate a time-consuming step in a range of manufacturing venues. “If you think of the process as an assembly line that can be used to generate lots of different products,” Kirshenbaum says, “what we’ve done is create a tool that will allow us to speed up that assembly line.”


Madonna Meets Mozart

by André Tartar / GSAS ’10

New software can map your music, such as the movements in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

Like most media, music is riding the digital tide. This year music downloads are projected to account for 35 percent of all sales, with nearly 1.4 billion singles streaming to computers across the globe. That’s a lot of files. And while the search engine on iTunes or the similar-song device at Pandora.com are both nice options for those looking to expand their libraries, the future of music retrieval, according to Juan Bello, lies in studying a song’s DNA—visually mapping its texture, rhythm, and harmony.

The concept is almost as biological as it sounds. Bello, assistant professor of music technology in the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, is a leader in the nascent field of Music Information Retrieval, which he believes may “do for musicology what bioinformatics has done for the life sciences.” As a founding member of NYU’s Music and Audio Research Laboratory, he’s helped to create software that literally draws the compositional elements of a piece of music—allowing researchers to visually link components of such odd-couple artists as Madonna and Mozart.

Here’s how it works: Imagine the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As the program graphs the trajectory of the piece’s tempo and volume, a black line jumps around the screen, much like an Etch A Sketch. Bello then traces thousands of other songs and determines, often to his surprise, which overlap. His goal is to eventually bring this technology to consumers so that they can expand their spheres of sounds, but for now he’s focused on the applications for expert users, such as musicologists. He’s even teamed up with the NYU Division of Libraries to make their music collection more accessible and searchable, and will soon use a National Science Foundation grant to conduct workshops in the city’s public high schools on the points where math, science, and music intersect. It’s part of his greater vision of finding connections in unlikely places. “Music is just an excuse in this case,” Bello says. “But it’s a pretty good one.”


Where There Is No Doctor, Technology Steps In

by André Tartar / GSAS ’10

A thirtysomething woman in a Seattle research study breaks into tears after the tablet computer in her hands asks whether she’s depressed. She is, not to mention HIV-positive and struggling with a drinking problem, but it’s the first time she’s ever been asked and doesn’t mind that it was by a computer. Really asking the questions is CARE+, a counseling tool developed by Ann Kurth, a professor at the College of Nursing, that involves an interactive questionnaire embedded with literature and skill-building videos.

This is just one of the ways that technology is bridging the social taboos and financial chasms that can keep patients from the care they need. “We all would prefer to have a really wonderful, empathetic, well-trained health provider who listens to all of our issues, but that doesn’t always happen,” notes Kurth, who’s bringing CARE+ overseas to help extend scarce health-care resources in Africa. A new study in Kenya, for example, will use the tool’s videos to get people thinking about safer sexual habits, such as how to correctly use a condom. The tablet computers give patients a judgment-free zone to discuss such sensitive issues, and Kurth says that the touchscreen technology is more intuitive for inexperienced computer users than keyboards.

Another project that Kurth runs in Africa plans to test up to 3 million people for HIV—a feat that would have been logistically and financially impossible until recently. In Kenya, locally trained staff on motorcycles is visiting 2,400 couples in their homes, which often have no addresses, and tracking them via the GPS on their cell phones. There they conduct surveys with PalmPilot-like devices and take blood samples to test for HIV/AIDS and pregnancy using simple reactive strips. Meanwhile, teams in Uganda are testing for HIV using Google-powered phones, which connect to the patients’ records via a bar code on their clinic card, to chart a treatment plan for those who test positive.

Doctors in underserved places are also harnessing new telecommunications technology to talk among themselves. In Ghana, where each doctor is responsible for 11,000 people on average, Brian Levine (GSAS ’03, MED ’08) noticed that these providers all had cell phones but were unable to communicate with one another cost-effectively. So Levine, who is an obstetrics and gynecology resident at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, introduced MedicareLine, which connects doctors with free cell phone minutes—so they can easily make referrals, follow-up appointments, and send emergency bulletins. The project has since spread to Liberia, Tanzania, and Kenya, with plans for Rwanda and India. In Ghana, Levine is working on another project called SmartTrack, which would track the distribution of HIV drugs to patients by scanning pill bottle bar codes with camera phones, thereby speeding up their delivery and limiting waste and graft.

Positive signs have started to emerge from some of these pilot projects, but many questions still remain. For example, Levine asks: “How do you get a $600 device to people who can barely afford food on their tables?” Kurth also cautions that the right balance must be found between health-care providers and the newly available gadgetry. She explains: “We [cannot] replace the need on the ground for more bodies.”

Illustration © Elwood Smith; Computer Images © Juan Bello