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Interfering with HIV

A special form of RNA developed by a team that included MIT biologists could one day lead to new treatments for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. RNA is the molecule that carries the blueprint for translating DNA code into proteins. In a study published in the July issue of Nature Medicine, researchers inserted the special RNA into HIV-infected cells, significantly decreasing the production of new virus.

The team, led by Nobel laureate and MIT biology professor Phillip A. Sharp HM, included researchers from MIT, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. The group created several versions of the special RNA molecules, called short interfering RNAs (siRNAs). These molecules, which consist of short, double-stranded segments of RNA, were targeted to RNAs that carry the blueprints for specific HIV proteins. When put inside cells, the siRNAs bind to the cellular messengers, triggering the degradation of the whole complex. This prevents the proteins from being made, thus blocking the virus from replicating.

While the technique worked on cells in culture dishes, MIT postdoc Carl Novina, first author of the study, says “there is a long distance between siRNAs working in cells in a dish and siRNAs effectively working in a whole organism.” One problem that must be solved is the creation of a way to deliver the molecules to cells in animals or humans.

Technology’s Next Generation of Women

Last July a new group joined the throng of high school students that descend on MIT each summer: the 27 pilot participants of the Women’s Technology Program. Course VI graduate student Douglas J. Ricket ‘01, SM ‘02 created the month-long program to introduce high school girls to the male-dominated fields of electrical engineering and computer science. Ricket was inspired after noting the huge gender gap that persists in his field- at MIT, four men for every woman. Program participants studied Java programming, circuit design, and such math topics as probability and Boolean logic. The curriculum also included special hands-on projects, guest lectures, and tours of Institute labs. The Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, the Chancellor’s Office, and the School of Engineering sponsored the program.

The participants, chosen from more than 200 applicants, came from 15 states and one foreign country, Egypt. Not all had a technical background. Le Zhang of Houston, TX, describes herself as a “pseudotechie”: she manages a video technology startup, which she cofounded with a (male) friend who handles the technical work. After seeing the Artifical Intelligence Lab and building an electric motor, Zhang says an engineering career is now a serious possibility for her.

MIT researcher heads for Capitol Hill

Ronald Latanision, MIT professor of materials science and engineering and of nuclear engineering, was appointed to a four-year term on the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board by President George W. Bush in June. Congress created the board in 1987 to provide independent technical reviews of the Department of Energy’s decisions regarding the management and disposal of spent commercial nuclear fuel. As director of the H. H. Uhlig Corrosion Laboratory at MIT, Latanision focuses his research on materials processing and the corrosion of metals in aqueous environments, an expertise that will be useful as the board evaluates the packaging of nuclear waste for storage in Yucca Mountain, NV.

Latanision is no stranger to Capitol Hill. He served as a science advisor to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology while on sabbatical in 1982. He was also an education advisor to the late Paul Tsongas during the former senator’s 1992 campaign for president. Scientists, Engineers, and Lawmakers, a freshman seminar Latanision taught last fall, allowed him to share his political enthusiasm with students.

Latanision believes that scientists and engineers must become more directly involved in creating public policy, and he hopes that some of his students may go on to careers in politics. “I make my students promise that if they are elected to public office, they will invite me to their inauguration,” Latanision says.

An Asteroid of Their Own

This past June Thomas Burbine PhD ‘00 named an asteroid after former Ashdown House housemasters Vernon and Beth Ingram to thank them for helping make MIT “the best place to go to graduate school.” Vernon Ingram, an MIT biology professor who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in April 2002, has received considerable recognition for his work on neurodegenerative diseases. But Burbine, now a postdoc in planetary sciences at the National Museum of Natural History, says the Ingrams deserve acknowledgment for their 16 years at Ashdown House, from 1985 to 2001.

Burbine wasn’t sure how he would fit in when he arrived at MIT in 1993, but he made friends at an Ashdown orientation dinner the Ingrams had organized. Soon he became a regular at the Ingrams’ dorm events. “They interacted with thousands of graduate students,” says Burbine. “They really cared.”

While at MIT, Burbine’s friend and planetary sciences classmate Schelte “Bobby” Bus PhD ‘99 named an asteroid he had discovered after Burbine. “Vernon was always impressed,” Burbine says. So when Bus gave Burbine naming rights to another asteroid, he chose to honor the Ingrams by naming it after them. The process took more than a year, but the new name, 6825 Ingram, became official June 24. The Ingrams learned of the honor only when it made the front page of MIT’s Tech Talk newspaper on July 17. “We were totally surprised and very happy,” Vernon Ingram says.

White House Honors

As recipients of Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, Christine Ortiz of materials science and engineering and Scott Manalis of the Media Lab earned a trip to the White House, as well as five years of government funding for their research. The two MIT faculty members were among 60 researchers nationwide so honored by President George W. Bush in July.

Photograph by Webb Chappell

Ortiz, who was nominated by the National Science Foundation, is using biological principles to synthesize polymers for single-molecule nanoscale devices. Manalis, nominated by the Department of Defense, is developing new measurement techniques for extracting information from biological systems. The techniques will be used to make microfabricated sensors that will determine which genes are turned on in cells and measure how much protein each gene produces.

Both professors, who joined the faculty in 1999, will use their funding to support doctoral students in their labs.

Engineering a New Voice

A joint research initiative of MIT and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary may one day help people such as actress Julie Andrews, who lost her singing voice following vocal-cord surgery. MIT chemical engineer Robert Langer ScD ‘74 and otolaryngologist Steven Zeitels of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary have joined forces to develop an implant capable of restoring voice. Andrews spoke at a press conference in New York City announcing the project in June.

Voice is created by the vibration of vocal folds, two small bands of muscle in the voice box. Voice overuse or surgery can scar the delicate tissue that coats the folds, impairing its ability to vibrate and causing voice loss-a condition that affects millions of people. “Lots of research has been done on engineering heart tissue and cartilage, but very little on vocal folds,” says Mariah Hahn, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate student involved in the project. She says the task of creating replacements for vocal cords is especially challenging because of the wide range of frequencies over which the folds operate and the stress they must endure.

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