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Dots Pinpoint Cancer

News from around campus

A Social Security Cure

Without drastic reform, the social security retirement benefit program will be in the red by 2042. Institute Professor Peter A. Diamond, PhD ‘63, and Peter R. Orszag of the Brookings Institution published a book last December outlining a plan that they believe could salvage the program.

In Saving Social Security: A Balanced Approach, the economists propose a gradual increase in payroll taxes and a slight reduction in future retirees’ benefits, depending on their income. “When the system is short of money, there is no way of fixing it without paying,” Diamond says. These adjustments will take increased life expectancy into account, since beneficiaries will need to be supported longer.

Their book challenges proposals made in 2001 by President Bush’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security. The commission suggested instituting voluntary individual accounts through which workers could invest their Social Security payroll taxes in the stock market. Diamond and Orszag argue that 401(k)s and IRAs already serve this purpose. They further argue that individual accounts will increase the national debt because the commission is reluctant to fund them by increasing taxes, instead proposing to shift funds from other, unspecified sources.

A problem with making his plan a reality, Diamond says, will be getting bipartisan support. However, his ideas are gaining attention. He recently discussed the book at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a Washington, DC, think tank.

Rover Controller

This winter, data gathered by the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity revealed that parts of the red planet were likely once covered in liquid water. MIT sedimentologist John Grotzinger was part of the NASA team that  came to this conclusion by analyzing pictures taken by the rovers. He also helped the team plot the rovers’ paths during their three-month missions.

NASA chose Grotzinger, a professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, to participate in the mission because of his expertise in the geology of Earth’s formation. According to Grotzinger, he was able to apply his knowledge to NASA’s search for early life on Mars because, like Earth, Mars was a relatively wet planet early in its geologic history. Grotzinger analyzed images of rocks and soil daily, looking for distinct textures that would suggest that water had been an agent in their formation.

Grotzinger also helped organize and direct the teams that decided the best paths for Spirit and, later, Opportunity. Each day, he gathered information from the dozens of scientists involved to develop a route for the rover that maximized its efficiency without neglecting important geological features. For example, Grotzinger helped decide whether the rover’s time would be better spent analyzing an interesting rock formation or moving away to get a panoramic shot of the Mars landscape.

Grotzinger is one of more than 20 MIT alumni and faculty working on the mission, including Jennifer Trosper ‘90, mission manager for the Spirit rover.

Dots Pinpoint Cancer

Researchers from MIT’s Department of Chemistry and two Boston hospitals-Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Brigham and Women’s-recently tested a method that could simplify exploratory cancer surgery for both surgeons and patients. The researchers used semiconducting particles, called quantum dots, to illuminate specific lymph nodes in test animals. The technique could allow surgeons to “see” lymph nodes before they begin surgery.

Currently, patients who have been diagnosed with skin and breast cancer must undergo biopsies-surgical procedures to determine what stage their cancer is in. When performing biopsies, surgeons use a combination of radioactive particles and blue dye to locate potentially malignant lymph nodes. They then make incisions and dig around until they see the blue dye, a procedure that remains restricted to patients with breast and skin cancer because deeper probes pose high risks. “They are basically blind when they start,” says Moungi Bawendi, an MIT chemistry professor who worked on the study. Quantum dots, however, could change that.

The researchers suspended quantum dots between 10 and 20 nanometers in diameter in solvents and injected the solutions into test animals. The dots are small enough to travel to the lymph nodes but large enough to be caught in them. Then, a special camera captures the fluorescence from the dots, and imaging software superimposes a green patch over an image of the skin surface, indicating exactly where the surgeon can find the lymph node for biopsy. This precision could mean a less invasive procedure for patients. It could also extend the procedure to patients with cancer deeper in their bodies. Bawendi says the next step will be to determine whether the dots are toxic.

Solving a Celestial Mystery

For years, astronomers have debated whether the dense astronomical object in nearby star system SS 433 is a black hole or a neutron star. New measurements compiled and presented by Laura Lopez ‘04 and Herman Marshall ‘78, a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for Space Research, point to one answer: a black hole. Their findings also offer one of the best views yet of mysterious structures known as particle jets that originate near the black hole, and they could help describe other systems with similar characteristics that are too massive and distant to be observed from Earth.

SS 433 comprises a normal star and a black hole that rotate around each other in a quick 13-day cycle that provides ample study opportunities. Gas from the normal star swirls around the black hole; then, inexplicably, some of the matter shoots out in two jets moving at about a quarter the speed of light.

Lopez and Marshall used NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory to analyze the jets. They calculated that the x-ray-emitting portion of the jets measured about two million kilometers; that the diameter of the jets’ bases was 2,060 kilometers; that the temperature ranged from about 10 million to 100 million degrees Celsius; and that the jets originated five times closer to the black hole than previously thought.

They also used information from Georgia State University to determine that the diameter of the normal star is about nine times that of the Sun and that the black hole has 16 times the mass of the Sun. Next year, the team plans to work more closely with researchers at Georgia State and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory to study the jets further.

Vest on Intelligence Commission

President George W. Bush has appointed president Charles M. Vest HM to the independent and bipartisan commission formed to investigate the flawed preIraq war intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. The nine-member panel will also look at U.S. intelligence on weapons programs in other countries.

“This assignment is a call to major national service, and I will work to the best of my abilities together with my fellow members to accomplish the goals of this independent commission,” Vest said in a statement following his appointment in February. “The issues to be addressed are of profound importance.”

Vest is highly regarded in Washington, DC, where he spent part of his time as president of MIT cultivating strong connections with members of Congress and the White House staff and promoting federal support of university research in science and technology (see “MIT in Washington, DC,” MIT News, April 2003). He served on numerous federal panels and task forces and became a trusted advisor to presidents and lawmakers. He is one of only two members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology to serve on that council under both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Other commission members include former Virginia senator and governor Chuck Robb, Arizona senator John McCain, Rick Levin, president of Yale University, and Henry Rowen, an emeritus professor of public policy and management at Stanford University who has held national-level security posts since the early 1960s. The commission has until March 2005 to report its findings.

Software Collaboration

MIT has teamed up with three other major research institutions in a $6.4 million, two-year project to create an open-source course management system based on the Institute’s Open Knowledge Initiative (OKI) specifications (see “One System Fits All,” MIT News, December 2003). The new system, called Sakai, will provide a framework within which institutions can offer collections of Web-based software that their faculty can use to manage courses. Course management systems typically include tools for grading, testing, managing course content, posting assignments, facilitating online discussions, and managing class lists.

“We’ve heard over and over again through OKI that universities want modularity,” says Jeffrey Merriman, MIT’s OKI project leader and a member of the Sakai board. “Right now, you buy a commercial product where all this functionality is bound together, and if you decide that you want to replace the chat tool, you cannot do it.”

The University of Michigan, MIT, Stanford University, and Indiana University will develop tools to be incorporated into Sakai. The Sakai framework, which will use OKI specifications, will be based on Michigan’s course management system, CHEF. The finished system will be easy for institutions to integrate with existing infrastructure services, such as authentication and authorization.

Another part of the project, the Sakai Education Partners Program, will provide support for institutions preparing to adopt Sakai, as well as workshops for developers at those institutions once the system is in use. Sakai, which is named after a famous Japanese chef, will be available for institutions and commercial vendors this summer.

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