Penn State Chemist Seeks to Photograph the Body's Elusive Aura
Inventor says process can detect illness
By Tom Abate
Monday, August 7, 2000

URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2000/08/07/BU21073.DTL

Gary Settles never uses the word "aura" when he explains his work.

But I can't think of a better term to describe his research into the plume of airborne particles that envelopes every human body, is invisible to the naked eye, but can be seen through a process called schlieren photography.

"When you call it an aura, people think we're mystics," complained Settles, a Penn State University chemist. "It's not a human aura, it's just hot air."

Call it what you will, Settles has patented a device that looks like an airport metal detector. But instead of using magnetism to search for concealed weapons, Settles' device uses a chemical analyzer to detect signals in this invisible cloud of hot air that surrounds our bodies.

Settles calls this cloud a human thermal plume. It seems that body heat creates a convection current around us. This updraft carries with it flecks of skin, the molecular residue of objects we've touched, invisible bits of clothing fabric and the dust of places where we've been.

In short, when subjected to the proper chemical analysis, this human thermal plume can reveal all sorts of information about what we may have done or touched -- and perhaps even whether we are ill.

If a person handled dynamite, for instance, molecular traces of the explosive would adhere to the body. These trace molecules would be swept up into the human thermal plume and detected by the chemical analyzer in Settles' innovative device.

The same would apply to flakes of plastic explosive, or flecks of drugs smuggled on a person's body. Settles has already patented his device for drug and explosive detection in airports.

"There is a very serious threat of terrorists carrying explosives into the passenger compartments of airplanes,'' said Settles, whose work thus far has been supported by the

Federal Aviation Administration.

Ion Track Instruments of Massachusetts is about a year away from turning Settles' invention into a commercial product. Settles said prototypes can do a chemical sniff test for explosives in roughly 10 seconds -- fast enough for use at busy airports.

With the security aspects of his invention in the works, Settles is exploring medical uses of his technology.

He postulates that a whole range of medical conditions could be diagnosed by his new instrument. He envisions creating a walk-through diagnostic tool that could spot early stage diabetes, for instance, by tuning the detector to look for acetone, a chemical that seems to emanate from the perspiration of diabetics.

"The medical uses could be more important in the long run than the security application," he said. "Any medical condition that produces a chemical signal could be a candidate, and there are probably dozens and dozens of applications that would qualify."

The human thermal plume was first observed shortly after World War II, when a group of British scientists, who had wandered in front of a special photographic apparatus, noticed that their bodies seemed to be encased in an aura, ahem, I mean a thermal perturbation of the air currents in proximity to their body heat.

The process that revealed this hitherto unknown cloud was called schlieren photography. It involved photographing a subject in front of a parabolic mirror that bent light in such a way as to reveal the thermal pattern formed by body heat.

Settles, who has been interested in schlieren photography for some 20 years, started looking into the thermal plume from body heat, and one of the things he noticed was that it was full of flecks of skin.

"Skin is coming off our bodies all the time," he said. "We actually shed our entire skin over a two- or three-day period, we just don't shed it all at once like snakes do."

Although Settles is convinced his device has medical applications, he says, so far, his doctor friends have been slow to embrace a technology that seems to have a whiff of quack science.

To learn more about his work visit www.me.psu.edu/psgdl.

MILE-HIGH COMPETITION: An economic development team from Colorado visited the Bay Area recently, trying to drum up new tenants for a 150-acre bioindustrial park. Colorado plans to build this biotech center next to the campus being built to house the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.

Colorado is stealing a page from San Francisco's economic development book. A biotech ring is being planned around the new Mission Bay campus of the University of California at San Francisco.

But Mission Bay's commercial park is probably destined to house research and development (R&D) offices. Colorado officials didn't come here expecting to poach that sort of biotech startup.

Instead, Christopher Gray, business development director for the city of Aurora, Colo.,said he and his colleagues are hunting for large or midsize firms that have grown beyond the R&D stage and are moving into manufacturing. Such firms might be prime targets to locate production facilities in Colorado's new bio-industrial zone to avoid the high labor and rent costs that make manufacturing too expensive in the Bay Area.

Colorado has no illusions about the fact that, for now at least, it's a bit player on the biotech stage. There are about 174 firms in the entire state of Colorado under the broad category of life sciences and medical devices. By contrast, the Bay Area has 747 firms in the same category.

But Colorado has had some success in siphoning off some of California's excess growth in high tech. It has attracted satellite plants from Bay Area giants like Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Seagate Technology. Now, Colorado officials hope to convince growing biotechnology firms that their state already knows how to do business the California way.

Like every other state on the prowl, Colorado has armed its bio- prospectors with tax incentives designed to ease the cost of hiring staff and fielding equipment.

Colorado also hopes that putting the University of Colorado hospital inside the new bio-zone will help attract out-of-state tenants, because it will assure a steady flow of people with biomedical skills.

Of course, several Bay Area firms have already established satellite manufacturing centers in nearby Vacaville, to beat the Bay Area housing prices and labor rates in a locale that's still an easy drive from headquarters.

But Julie Bender, a business development official with Denver International Airport, said the Bay Area is just a hop, skip and jump from Denver's modern airport -- which, she assured me, has ironed out the much-publicized kinks in its luggage handling system.

But those who do fly in to scope out the mile-high state, take it from me: Play it safe and stick a toothbrush and change of undies in your carry-on case.

BORN AGAIN: There's a tale of perseverance behind the recent reappearance on the Nasdaq of the ticker symbol for Neurobiological Technologies (NTII).

A little less than two years ago, when NTII was booted off the exchange for having insufficient cash reserves, chief executive Paul Freiman admitted that corporate death was knocking at the door of the tiny Richmond firm.

But Freiman, a veteran drug industry executive and former chairman of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturer's Association, believed NTII had a potential winner in a drug named Memantine. It was in late stage clinical trials of the drug that treats Alzheimer's disease and diabetic pain. Freiman used all his contacts and skills to sign the partnership deals that would allow the struggling company to continue development of the drug that could make its fortune.

It has become evident during the past few weeks that Freiman is succeeding. At a recent national conference on Alzheimer's, investigators at New York University said patients given Memantine during a six- month period showed improved memory and self-care skills.

Memantine faces more hurdles before it can seek U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. But based on these and other encouraging scientific findings, Freiman has made deals that have swelled NTII's coffers -- and paved the way for the company's return to the Nasdaq.

I called Freiman to discuss the company's prospects, but he was on vacation in Rio de Janeiro and we ended up trading voice mails.

Enjoy the rest, Paul. You've earned it.

Look for BioScope every Monday in the Business section. Send your bio-feedback to Tom Abate by e-mail, abate@sfgate.com or tabate@sfchronicle.com; fax, (415) 543-2482; or phone, (415) 777-6213.

2001 San Francisco Chronicle 

On page 18 of  TIME Magazine [issue August 14, 200] you can read a small article and view a picture of Gary Settles Human Thermal Plume.