Dec 30, 2008

Researchers unlock secrets of 1918 flu pandemic

Researchers have found out what made the 1918 flu pandemic so deadly -- a group of three genes that lets the virus invade the lungs and cause pneumonia.

They mixed samples of the 1918 influenza strain with modern seasonal flu viruses to find the three genes and said their study might help in the development of new flu drugs.

The discovery, published in Tuesday's issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could also point to mutations that might turn ordinary flu into a dangerous pandemic strain.

Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin and colleagues at the Universities of Kobe and Tokyo in Japan used ferrets, which develop flu in ways very similar to humans.

Usually flu causes an upper respiratory infection affecting the nose and throat, as well as so-called systemic illness causing fever, muscle aches and weakness.

1,000 years on, perils of fake Viking swords are revealed

It must have been an appalling moment when a Viking realised he had paid two cows for a fake designer sword; a clash of blade on blade in battle would have led to his sword, still sharp enough to slice through bone, shattering like glass.

"You really didn't want to have that happen," said Dr Alan Williams, an archaeometallurgist and consultant to the Wallace Collection, the London museum which has one of the best assemblies of ancient weapons in the world. He and Tony Fry, a senior researcher at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, south-west London, have solved a riddle that the Viking swordsmiths may have sensed but didn't quite understand.

Some Viking swords were among the best ever made, still fearsome weapons after a millennium. The legendary swords found at Viking sites across northern Europe bear the maker's name, Ulfberht, in raised letters at the hilt end. Puzzlingly, so do the worst ones, found in fragments on battle sites or in graves.

The Vikings would have found it impossible to tell the difference when they bought a newly forged sword: both would have looked identical, and had razor sharp blades. The difference would have only emerged in use, often fatally.

Dec 28, 2008

Hobbyists are trying genetic engineering at home

The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself.

Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering — a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories.

In her San Francisco dining room lab, for example, 31-year-old computer programmer Meredith L. Patterson is trying to develop genetically altered yogurt bacteria that will glow green to signal the presence of melamine, the chemical that turned Chinese-made baby formula and pet food deadly.

"People can really work on projects for the good of humanity while learning about something they want to learn about in the process," she said.

So far, no major gene-splicing discoveries have come out anybody's kitchen or garage.

But critics of the movement worry that these amateurs could one day unleash an environmental or medical disaster. Defenders say the future Bill Gates of biotech could be developing a cure for cancer in the garage.

Dec 26, 2008

Blood flow linked to Alzheimer's

A GRADUAL loss of blood flow to the brain over years or decades could be a major trigger for Alzheimer's disease, doctors say.

Up to now, what provokes the debilitating disease has remained a mystery, even if the mechanism causing the damage is well understood.

Research to be published today shows that an insufficient supply of sugar glucose, transported by blood, sets off a biochemical chain reaction resulting in the accumulation of the neuron-attacking proteins that cause Alzheimer's.

"This finding is significant because it suggests that improving blood flow to the brain might be an effective therapeutic approach to prevent or treat Alzheimer's," said Robert Vassar, a professor at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and lead author of the study.

Exercising, reducing cholesterol intake and managing hypertension could provide added protection.

"If people start early enough, maybe they can dodge the bullet," he said.

And for people who already show symptoms of constricted arteries, taking vasodilators - drugs that boost blood flow - could help deliver nourishing oxygen and glucose to the brain.

Drawing from experiments with humans and mice, Dr Vassar and colleagues showed that reduced blood flow alters a protein called elF2alpha.

In its changed form, this increases the output of the enzyme that spurs production of the fibre-like knots of amyloid beta protein that form outside neurons and disrupt their ability to send messages.

The new study opens a path to the development of drugs designed to block elF2alpha, and thus the biochemical process leading to the disease.

Dec 25, 2008

Dementia campaigner hails Government plan

A DEMENTIA campaigner has given his support to new Government plans to support Alzheimer's sufferers.

Every GP in the country is to be trained to diagnose dementia under an ambitious five-year plan that will revolutionise treatment for sufferers.

Memory clinics are to be set up in all major towns to give patients and their families support, up-to-date care and help on a scale never seen before.

For the first time the NHS will make a priority of Alzheimer's sufferers with a promised boost to services that will put them on the same footing as heart and cancer patients, Government dementia 'tsar' Phil Hope, has pledged.

The news is music to the ears of 80-year-old Joe Grant, whose wife Blanche, 76, is an Alzheimer's sufferer.

Dec 22, 2008

Kiwi spammer nailed

A New Zealand man living in Australia has agreed to pay fines totalling $92,715 after admitting his role in an international spam email operation said to be responsible for sending out billions of unsolicited emails in recent years.

Lance Atkinson, 26, of Pelican Waters in Queensland, is also facing charges in the US where a court has frozen his assets at the request of the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which also succeeded in having the spam network shut down.

New Zealand's Internal Affairs' Anti-Spam Compliance Unit found Lance Atkinson's operation responsible for more than 2 million unsolicited electronic messages that were sent to New Zealand computers between 5 September 2007 and 31 December 2007.

These emails marketed Herbal King, Elite Herbal and Express Herbal branded pharmaceutical products, manufactured and shipped by Tulip Lab of India.

Dec 21, 2008

Pfizer to Sell Penis-Straightening Drug


Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, has struck a deal to sell Xiaflex, a drug that cures curvature of the penis due to a buildup of collagen in the organ’s shaft. There’s just one drawback to Xiaflex — it’s administered by injection. This site and this site both suggest that the site for the injection needs to be the penis itself, a sure drawback to sales.

Bent PipeCurvature of the penis, called Peyronie’s disease, is caused by a buildup of fibrous plaque in the penis. It affects 1 - 4 percent of men. It can cause painful erections, leading to patients withdrawing from sex and becoming depressed. It is most commonly seen in males over 40. You can read a recent study on the drug here and a test of the drug in rat tails — I kid you not — here.

BNET’s take: Pfizer is spending only $75 million on this deal, which suggests that sales of the drug will be low, due to the small number of patients and their probable resistance to needle-based treatments. So why bother with the deal? Because patients with the condition also suffer from depression and erection problems, and Pfizer has a much bigger franchise in those categories, with Viagra and Zoloft. (Zoloft still sells $135 million per quarter).

Marketing Xiaflex — with branded or unbranded ads — will be a good way for Pfizer to drive men to the doctor who are depressed or who have erectile dysfunction of one sort or another, benefitting all three franchises. It’s a triple threat for Pfizer because the relevant demo — men over 40 — is a target for all three drugs.

Dec 17, 2008

No browsing!

Microsoft Australia has issued a plea to customers not to switch browsers in the wake of the Internet Explorer zero-day exploit, claiming it will have a fix ‘roughly’ within 24 hours.

The Redmond giant is responding to a wave of reports that suggest the exploit is worse than first thought, affecting not only IE7 but also all earlier versions.

“Microsoft teams worldwide have been working around the clock to develop a security update to help protect our customers and has [sic] just released the Advanced Notification Service advising customers that Microsoft will be providing a Security Update at roughly 5am, December 18th, to protect them from the vulnerability discussed in Microsoft Security Advisory 961501,” a Microsoft Australia spokesperson said.

“To date, the impact on Microsoft’s Australian customers has been minimal and Microsoft is not advising Internet Explorer users to switch browsers.”

Dec 16, 2008

DNA database of terror suspects up 400%

The Pentagon has cataloged 80,000 DNA profiles in an obscure database that holds genetic information on foreign terrorism suspects and detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to defense officials and documents.

The Joint Federal Agencies Intelligence DNA Database has grown by more than 400% since the end of 2006, when it held about 15,000 DNA profiles, Pentagon documents show. The Army, which maintains the database for use by the military, FBI and other intelligence agencies, has not previously disclosed its size or growth.

Pentagon officials would not provide any more information about the database, including details about the rapid growth in collected samples or how they were collected. Lt. Col. Lee Packnett, an Army spokesman, confirmed that "currently there are approximately 80,000 profiles in the database."

The database provides "information that you can actually use to prevent something bad from happening," said Kevin Lothridge, chief executive officer of the National Forensic Science Technology Center, a government-funded, nonprofit institute that provides forensic training and consulting for the public and private sectors.

Lothridge says DNA profiles could be used to identify an Iraqi detainee whose genetic profile links him to particular bombing incidents, or to identify potential terrorists trying to enter the United States with fake identification.

The database emerged from an initiative called Black Helix that envisioned "a secure depository and interactive database, which will focus on archiving, retrieving and interpreting biomolecular data for the identification and tracking of terrorist suspects," according to a 2007 report by the Defense Science Board.

The database is overseen by a working group comprising officials from the Defense Department, FBI and select intelligence agencies, Pentagon records show. The FBI, CIA and Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.

U.S. law permits the collection and archiving of DNA from foreigners for law enforcement and national security purposes. And the Bush administration has sought additional funding from Congress to expand and better coordinate that process.

The Pentagon database includes genetic information taken directly from detainees and terror suspects, usually through oral swabs, as well as biometric data lifted from physical evidence, such as bomb-making materials, cell phones and other items collected in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, according to the science board's report.

Britain's DNA Database Violates Privacy: Court

Britain violated the privacy of two people by storing their DNA profiles, Europe's human rights court ruled on Thursday, a decision that calls into question rules governing the use of the country's DNA database. British groups campaigning for individual liberties immediately demanded a change in the law, which the government rejected.

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters)—Britain violated the privacy of two people by storing their DNA profiles, Europe's human rights court ruled on Thursday, a decision that calls into question rules governing the use of the country's DNA database.

British groups campaigning for individual liberties immediately demanded a change in the law, which the government rejected.

The case centered on a boy who was charged with attempted robbery aged 11 and later acquitted, and a man who was charged with harassing his partner before the case was formally discontinued.

Both applied for their fingerprints, DNA samples and profiles to be destroyed, but police kept the information on the basis of a law allowing them to keep it indefinitely.

The two individuals argued this continued to cast suspicion on them after they had been cleared of any wrongdoing.

"The court was struck by the blanket and indiscriminate nature of the power of retention," said the European Court of Human Rights, based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg.

Google Chrome Web Browser Shines

No longer a beta, Google's Chrome Web browser is an able challenger to Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. Chrome offers strong new features, such as integration with Google Gears, a hybrid search address bar and solid security offerings. However, the search company's browser lacks some basic features found in IE, Firefox and Opera, and limits users who want to define settings and customize their browser. Despite its shortcomings, browser users should give Google Chrome a try.

Just a few short months ago, Google shocked the Web world with the release of the beta of Google Chrome, a new Web browser direct from the search giant itself.

And despite some jokes that Google Chrome would remain a beta for years—just like Gmail—the Chrome browser is no longer a beta and is now fully shipping.

So what does the release of Google Chrome 1.0 mean for the Web browsing world and the Web in general? Well, the simple fact that it is from Google has a major impact, and should put the browser in a good position to compete with Microsoft and Mozilla for market share.

But what about the browser itself? From a strict usability standpoint, Google Chrome is one of the most interesting and intuitive browsers I have ever used, and is probably the most impressive first version of a browser ever. Once a user gets over some of the quirks and differences from other browser interfaces (such as tabs at the very top of the window and no file menus), Google Chrome quickly begins to feel like the right way to surf the Web.

Google Chrome also has some other nice touches, such as a hybrid search address bar and integration with Google Gears to provide desktop Web applications. However, not everything about Google Chrome shines brightly.

To see eWEEK Labs' walk-through of Google Chrome, click here.

The browser lacks many features found in other browsers, especially when it comes to highlighting text in a Web page and carrying out additional actions, and it is very limited in terms of options for users to define settings and customize their browser. In fact, Google Chrome is without a doubt the least customizable Web browser available today. Also, at this time Google Chrome is only available for Windows XP and Vista.

Forget Sleepwalking, Study Reports First Case of Zzz-Mailing

A study published in the journal Sleep Medicine reports what's believed to be the first known case of a person e-mailing while asleep. According to the study, a 44-year-old woman, believed to be in a deep sleep, sent e-mails to friends asking them over for wine and caviar in what doctors believe is the first reported case of "zzz-mailing" or using the Internet while asleep.

The woman was taking the sleep medicine Zolpidem, sold in the U.S. as Ambien. Previous studies have found that some people taking Ambien have experienced side effects such as eating, walking and even having sex while sleeping. Doctors reported that the woman went to bed about 10 p.m. but got up two hours later and walked to her computer in the next room, Britain's Daily Mail newspaper reports.

She turned it on, connected to the Internet, and logged on before composing and sending three e-mails. Each was in a random mix of upper and lower cases, not well-formatted and written in strange language, the researchers said.

One read: "Come tomorrow and sort this hell hole out. Dinner and drinks, 4 p.m., Bring wine and caviar only."

Another said simply, "What the ..."

The new variation of sleepwalking has been described as "zzz-mailing."

Dec 15, 2008

Study Underscores Role of the Brain in Obesity

And what we are seeing in obesity are a large number of common genetic risk factors with a relatively modest impact on disease. One of the most notable aspects of these discoveries is that most of these new risk factors are near genes that regulate processes in the brain. This suggests that as we work to develop better means of combating obesity, including using these discoveries as the first step in developing new drugs, we need to focus on the regulation of appetite at least as much as on the metabolic factors of how the body uses and stores energy," said Kari Stefansson, CEO of deCODE and senior author on the paper.
"Today's findings also underscore our ability to employ our population-based resources and statistical knowhow in Iceland as a cornerstone of large-scale multinational collaborations to identify and replicate the inherited causes of the most complex phenotypes. These new variants may point to valuable new drug targets, and we are already integrating them into deCODEme.(TM) We look forward to expanding upon our productive collaboration with colleagues in the US and Europe to continue to increase our understanding of the biology that underlies obesity," Dr. Stefansson added.

Obesity might be linked to genes

Many people who become overweight may be hardwired for hunger, according to the results of two major genetic studies.

Researchers identified several new areas of genetic variation in the brain linked to appetite control and obesity.

The findings add to the growing evidence that whether a person is slim or fat is largely due to brain-regulated food intake rather than metabolic functions, such as fat storage. People with a certain genetic make-up may be "hardwired" from birth or early childhood to eat too much, the results suggest.

Both teams of scientists carried out genome wide association (GWA) studies of many thousands of DNA samples.

This kind of research looks for correlations between the variations in the genetic code and particular traits.

An international group conducting one study, the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (Giant), analysed genetic information from more than 32,000 people of European ancestry.

The other study led by the Icelandic company deCODE genetics, which provides a personal service assessing the genetic risk of developing common diseases, looked at the DNA of more than 30,000 people from Iceland, the Netherlands and the US.

Giant highlighted six sites in the human genetic code associated with weight gain, and the deCODE study seven. In many cases the same regions of genetic variation were identified.

The findings, published in the journal Nature Genetics, may assist the development of new appetite-controlling drugs, say the scientists.

Dr Cristen Willer, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, US, a leading member of the Giant team, said the discoveries should change people's attitudes to obesity.

Dec 14, 2008

Jellyfish run amok

Huge swarms of stinging jellyfish and similar slimy animals are ruining beaches in Australia, Hawaii, the Gulf of Mexico, the Mediterranean and elsewhere, US researchers reported.

The report says 150 million people are exposed to jellyfish globally every year, with 500,000 people stung in the Chesapeake Bay, off the US Atlantic Coast, alone.

Another 200,000 are stung every year in Florida, and 10,000 are stung in Australia by the deadly portuguese man-of-war - also known as bluebottles - according to the report, a broad review of jellyfish research.

The report says the Black Sea's fishing and tourism industries have lost $US350 million ($530 million) because of a proliferation of comb jelly fish.

The report says more than 1,000 fist-sized comb jellies can be found in a cubic metre of Black Sea water during a bloom.

Dec 12, 2008

Fat people should pay more to fly

EVERY time I fly, I have the same thought: people carrying extra weight should pay more to fly. And I don’t just mean pay for their heavy luggage. I’ll take a deep breath and say it: fat people should have to pay more to fly.

After returning home from overseas recently, I raised this idea with a group of friends. They nodded in furious agreement. They were sick of having to subsidise the bad lifestyle choices of so many obese people. While some obesity may be caused by medical conditions or genetic makeup, most is caused by the simple equation of too much food and too little exercise. It’s bad enough that obesity is causing a blowout of costs within our health system. “Why should we also have to subsidise the poor lifestyle choices of the obese when we fly?” asked my friends. I agreed.

Then something interesting happened. A couple of friends said this: “But, of course, you can’t write about ‘fat’ people. It’s too judgmental.” At least, suggested one friend, call then “tubby custards” instead of using the “f” word.

Surely, I wondered aloud, making rational judgements was not a bad thing for a society? Perhaps there would be fewer tubby custards and therefore less strain on our health system if we were more willing as a society to make judgements about patently bad lifestyle choices like overeating.

Similarly, the fear of hurting someone’s feelings about their self-inflicted weight problem should give way to some rational thought when it comes to flying. As airlines the world over have been getting tougher on imposing baggage weight limits and charging mightily for excess luggage, it makes sense they start taking a closer look at their passengers.

Hospital mistakes killed 28 people in Victoria this year

MEDICAL mistakes caused by hospital staff killed 28 Victorians in the past year, according to a report released today.
The Department of Human Services' annual Sentinel Events report shows the 28 people died in preventable circumstances.

Two were killed because they were given the wrong medication, too much medication or drugs were administered incorrectly.

But the report does not reveal how, where or why the other 26 people died.

The department's quality and safety director Alison McMillan said the details of these tragic mistakes are kept private to protect the families involved.

The number of deaths in Victoria's 173 hospitals has dropped from 38 in the previous year.

Dec 9, 2008

U.S. Is Losing Global Cyberwar, Commission Says

The U.S. faces a cybersecurity threat of such magnitude that the next President should move quickly to create a Center for Cybersecurity Operations and appoint a special White House advisor to oversee it. Those are among the recommendations in a 44-page report by the U.S. Commission on Cybersecurity, a version of which will be made public today. The bipartisan panel includes executives, high-ranking military officers and intelligence officials, leading specialists in computer security, and two members of Congress.

To compile the report, which is entitled "Securing Cyberspace in the 44th Presidency," commission members say they reviewed tens of thousands of pages of undisclosed documentation, visited forensics labs and the National Security Agency, and were briefed in closed-door sessions by top officials from Pentagon, CIA, and British spy agency MI5. From their research, they concluded that the U.S. badly needs a comprehensive cybersecurity policy to replace an outdated checklist of security requirements for government agencies under the existing Federal Information Security Management Act.

Dec 8, 2008

It's official: Men really are the weaker sex

The male gender is in danger, with incalculable consequences for both humans and wildlife, startling scientific research from around the world reveals.


The research – to be detailed tomorrow in the most comprehensive report yet published – shows that a host of common chemicals is feminising males of every class of vertebrate animals, from fish to mammals, including people.

Backed by some of the world's leading scientists, who say that it "waves a red flag" for humanity and shows that evolution itself is being disrupted, the report comes out at a particularly sensitive time for ministers. On Wednesday, Britain will lead opposition to proposed new European controls on pesticides, many of which have been found to have "gender-bending" effects.

It also follows hard on the heels of new American research which shows that baby boys born to women exposed to widespread chemicals in pregnancy are born with smaller penises and feminised genitals.

"This research shows that the basic male tool kit is under threat," says Gwynne Lyons, a former government adviser on the health effects of chemicals, who wrote the report.

Wildlife and people have been exposed to more than 100,000 new chemicals in recent years, and the European Commission has admitted that 99 per cent of them are not adequately regulated. There is not even proper safety information on 85 per cent of them. 

Many have been identified as "endocrine disrupters" – or gender-benders – because they interfere with hormones. These include phthalates, used in food wrapping, cosmetics and baby powders among other applications; flame retardants in furniture and electrical goods; PCBs, a now banned group of substances still widespread in food and the environment; and many pesticides.

Terrorists, Google advance

The terrorists who attacked several locations in Mumbai last week were reported to have used Google Earth images of the city to coordinate their attacks. Their use of technology did not stop there, according to Indian investigators and police who interviewed the only captured suspect. The attackers approached by sea making use of global positioning systems alongside Blackberrys, mobile phones with multiple SIM cards (reducing the likelihood of their calls being traced), and the CDs containing high-resolution satellite imagery from Google Earth. 

The revelations will spark protests by privacy advocates and national security advisors who claim Google provides too much information to civilians. It is not the first time Google Earth has  
been labeled as a potentially dangerous tool in the hands of terrorists. 

Indian and Chinese security agencies are concerned that the free download exposes their defense installations, and the Pentagon has expressed alarm that US military bases have been revealed. Defense department installations have been ordered to ban Google from taking photos of their bases for the Street View application (see Google eye too close for comfort, Asia Times Online, March 15, 2008). 

Government restrictions have a cap on commercial satellite imagery at a 50-centimeter resolution. Yet despite protests and potential national security risks to innumerable countries, Google is upgrading its satellite image data to even higher resolutions. The search giant’s GeoEye-1 is currently retaking satellite images of the Earth; it can reach up to 41-centimeter resolutions. GeoEye-2, which is planned for launch in 2012, will be able to take imagery at 25-centimeter resolution. So there will be no escaping from Big Brother Google.

New trojan in mass DNS hijack

Researchers have identified a new trojan that can tamper with a wide array of devices on a local network, an exploit that sends them to impostor websites even if they are hardened machines that are fully patched or run non-Windows operating systems.

The malware is a new variant of the DNSChanger, a trojan that has long been known to change the domain name system settings of PCs and Macs alike. According to researchers with anti-virus provider McAfee's Avert Labs, the update allows a single infected machine to pollute the DNS settings of potentially hundreds of other devices running on the same local area network by undermining its dynamic host configuration protocol, or DHCP, which dynamically allocates IP addresses.

"Systems that are not infected with the malware can still have the payload of communicating with the rogue DNS servers delivered to them," McAfee's Craig Schmugar writes here of the new variant. "This is achieved without exploiting any security vulnerability."

The scenario plays out something like this:
Jill connects a PC infected by the new DNSChanger variant to a coffee shop's WiFi hotspot or her employer's local network.
Steve connects to the same network using a fully-patched Linux box, which requests an IP address.
Jill's PC injects a DHCP offer command to instruct Steve's computer to rout all DNS requests through a booby-trapped DNS server.
Steve's Linux box can no longer be trusted to visit authoritative websites. Although the address bar on his browser may show he is accessing bankofamerica.com, he may in fact be at an impostor website.

The only way a user might know the attack is underway is by manually checking the DNS server his computer is using (e.g. by typing "ipconfig /all" at a Windows command prompt). There are several countermeasures users can take, Schmugar said, the easiest being hard-coding a DNS server in a machine's configuration settings.

(In Windows, this can be done by going to Start > Control Panel > Network Connections and right clicking on Local Area Connection and choosing properties. Scroll down to Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) and click the Properties button. Then type in the primary and secondary for your DNS service. We're partial to OpenDNS, whose settings are 208.67.222.222 and 208.67.220.220.)

Fears internet costs will soar

The national broadband network could see internet costs skyrocket under the proposed fibre to the node network, the head of a national internet service provider says.

The Government has received six bids to build the network, planned to deliver high-speed internet to 98 per cent of Australian homes and businesses.

Telstra, which analysts expect will win the bid even though the company's bid was not fully detailed, has proposed a fibre to the node upgrade to its existing network. Telstra says its network will provide millions of customers with broadband four times faster than today's entry level 1 megabit per second at no extra cost.

But Internode managing director Simon Hackett said consumer costs would inevitably rise under the proposed network.

Internode is part of the Terria consortium, including Optus and previously TransACT, which has bid to build the network in the ACT.

Mr Hackett will speak today at an international telecommunication conference in Adelaide, the major national meeting of researchers in information and communication technology.

''Consumer pricing is guaranteed to rise due to the removal of competitive tension from ADSL2+ providers,'' Mr Hackett said.

''[It] will also rise due to the need to recover the massive investment in building fibre to the node. Those costs can only be recovered from consumer price rises, and/or from paying the same price but receiving a worse outcome.''

Dec 7, 2008

World's first personal supercomputer unveiled

With its £4,000 price tag, the Tesla supercomputer is beyond the reach of most consumers, but is expected to revolutionise the way scientists and medical professionals carry out their work.

The gadget's power will allow doctors to process the results of brain and body scans much more quickly. This would allow them to tell patients within hours instead of days whether they have a tumour.

Scientists also believe that the supercomputers could help them discover cures for diseases, such as cancer and malaria, much more quickly than using traditional research methods.

This is because the device lets them run hundreds of thousands of simulations to create a shortlist of the drugs that are most likely to offer the potential for a cure.

Until now, supercomputers were massive systems made up of thousands of machines taking up entire rooms, which cost millions of pounds to build and maintain.

By contrast, Tesla personal supercomputers will cost between £4,000 and £8,000 and look much like an ordinary PC.

David Kirk, chief scientist at NVIDIA, the American company which has designed the new technology, said: "Pretty much anything that you do on your PC that takes a lot of time can be accelerated with this."

"These supercomputers can improve the time it takes to process information by 1,000 times.

"If you imagine it takes a week to get a result [from running an experiment], you can only do it 52 times a year. If it takes you minutes, you can do it constantly, and learn just as much in a day."

The new computers make innovative use of graphics processing units - a technological breakthrough, which the company claims could bring lightning speeds to the next generation of home computers.

They went on sale to British customers yesterday and will initially be sold to universities and to the scientific and research community.

The PC maker Dell, however, said that it would soon be mass producing them for the general consumer market.

Eric Greffier, a Dell senior executive, said: "Before mobile phones were reserved for the few, now we can't live without them. It will be the same with these supercomputers. They are the building block for the computing of the future."