Forecasting Ferocity

Of the two key things it’s vital to know about a hurricane — where it will go, and how fierce it will be when it arrives — only number one is relatively accessible. As for the second, says Kerry Emanuel, “beyond 12 hours we have no predicting skills, and 12 hours is nothing.” But Emanuel, MIT professor of earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences, has devised a system that could greatly improve things. A computer model, it reflects the fact that hurricanes draw much of their energy from the sea. In fact, if surface temperatures under a storm drop by as little as 2.5 degrees C. as it tracks over the ocean, that can effectively calm the wildest maelstrom. So Emanuel’s approach — tested by analyzing storms like Andrew, which devastated areas of south Florida in 1992 — relies on measurements of surface temperatures beneath a storm and in its projected track to forecast a hurricane’s intensity.

Targeting Fat

The fat we consume has an unfortunate tendency to end up in unwanted places in our bodies. A new discovery, though, may yield ways to interrupt its journey from the table to tummies and thighs. Such an approach would involve altering the effects of a cell-surface protein called fatty acid transporter protein 4 (FATP4.) Harvey Lodish, a professor of biology, has found several proteins of this type. In new studies, though, he and co-workers at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Millennium Pharmaceuticals and MIT found that number 4 plays a key role in enabling fat to move from the digestive tract to other bodily locales. The group also discovered that sharply reducing FATP4 levels in certain intestinal cells in mice triggered equivalent cuts in how much fat these cells absorbed. “Our data suggest that if we could design a drug that blocks this uptake, it could drastically cut the fat uptake by the small intestine,” says Lodish, who’s a member of the Whitehead’s staff as well as the MIT faculty.

Microbe Hunting

A new MIT-originated device gives users in remote or primitive areas the ability to test their water for potentially dangerous microbes even if there’s no electricity available. Called the Phase-Change Incubator, the device relies on a chemical that stays liquid and at a constant temperature for hours after being heated. That feature, says inventor Amy Smith, means you can keep a culture medium and water sample warm for the 24 hours needed to see if there are bacteria in the sample. It also means you can heat the device with a wood or coal fire, and don’t have to rely on electricity to keep the temperature up over time. Smith, a 1984 graduate who’s now a graduate student in the Technology and Policy Program, got the idea several years ago. Her push to develop it for field use, though, began when one of her students who’d gone to work in a remote part of Uganda reported putting tubes of water samples in her socks to keep them warm. “I thought, ‘Well, gosh, I can do better than a pair of socks,'” says Smith. The inventor plans to launch a company to market the device.

Robots and Healing

Therapy using an interactive robotic device may actually promote the recovery of stroke victims, and this may in turn mean there are permanent advantages for those aided. The robot, MIT Manus, works by moving the patient’s arm through various video-game-like exercises — helping them connect dots, for example. In a follow-up study of the device’s impact three years after it was first tested, Neville Hogan and co-workers found that patients who’d used the robot were doing better than those who’d had conventional treatment only. Hogan, a professor of mechanical engineering and brain and cognitive sciences, worked with collaborators from the Burke Medical Research Institute in New York State as well as with MIT on the study. “We don’t want to replace therapists, and I don’t think we ever could,” says Hogan. “Rather, we’d like to provide a tool to improve their productivity.”