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Lights, Hologram, Action!


Gene Roddenberry would be proud. If the Star Trek creator were still alive, he would be witnessing one of his futuristic fantasies taking shape at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It's the holodeck, that space on the Starship Enterprise where crew members could go to create virtual worlds and live out their fantasies. Scientists and theater professors at MIT are working with Britain's Royal Shakespeare Company to create a space where, one day, actors may be able to rehearse -- or even perform -- in virtual environments.

For now, the holodeck stage is really just a concept. Members of MIT's artificial intelligence lab aim to begin by automating production tasks such as lighting. Camera-equipped computers would track actors onstage and feed location data to a computerized lighting system, which would raise or lower beams based on the camera's input. Several years down the road, the team might be able to create a vapory forest for Macbeth. "You have to have grand fantasies to have research get somewhere," says Howard Shrobe, who heads MIT's AIRE (for agent-based intelligent reactive environments) research group. In the meantime, the troupe is developing video games with MIT that feature the Bard's work. Coming soon: The Tempest. All breast cancers aren't alike. Some tumors tend to withstand all treatments, even when caught early. But doctors have had no way to spot these deadly cancers -- until now. Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston have identified molecular changes, detectable in the earliest stages of breast cancer, that help predict the disease's course.

The research team, led by MGH pathologist Dr. Dennis Sgroi, used a laser system to isolate pure populations of tumor cells from biopsy samples. They extracted RNA from the cells and amplified it to see which genes were turned on or off. Then they measured the levels of more than 12,000 genes simultaneously, using advanced molecular-analysis technology developed by Arcturus in Mountain View, Calif.

The researchers, reporting in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, said they had expected each stage of cancer to have a different pattern of genes. Instead, they found that the genes in individual tumors stayed the same throughout the course of the disease. But they did find a strong correlation between the deadliest of the tumors and certain gene patterns. Such microanalysis could help doctors decide how aggressively they should treat specific tumors from the start. An aviator who ejects successfully from a downed jet fighter is lucky by any measure. But imagine if that pilot parachutes into a sun-baked desert in mid-summer in the Middle East. Temperatures can soar so high that the aviator would be likely to suffer heat stroke, or even die, in a matter of hours.

The Navy is trying to improve a Marine or Naval pilot's odds in this situation. The "cooling armor" being developed by the Naval Air Systems Command in Patuxent River, Md., is a chest-mounted mini air conditioner. About the size of a notebook computer, the 14-pound battery-powered unit passes water from a reservoir into a cartridge filled with a zeolite-silica mineral compound that cools as it adsorbs water. Circulated by a small fan, hot air is then chilled as it passes over the cooler water. A prototype of this wearable unit lowers the temperature of the air moving around the pilot's head and chest by up to 18F for over three hours.

Next, NAVAIR hopes to lengthen the cooler's life span and better integrate it into aviators' flight ensemble. And since it sits over vital organs, "it's a natural to make it guard against bullets, too," says Bill Reason, a NAVAIR engineering technician who is developing a superstrong version of the vest made out of carbon fiber. The Office of Naval Research is seeking development partners and hopes to deploy the device by 2006. -- A new class of titanium alloys created by Toyota (TM) Motor researchers would be welcome in the physics-defying Matrix movies. They're super-elastic -- able to stretch more than 2 1/2 times their original length and then spring back to the same size. Most metals would be permanently deformed by this trick. The Toyota researchers call their creation "gum metal" and report in the journal Science that its super-elasticity allows the material to be molded without heat. When it is heated, it becomes twice as strong as steel.

-- A survey finds that the U.S. has a higher prevalence of serious mental illness and a lower treatment rate than four other developed countries. Harvard Medical School Professor Ronald Kessler says treatment in the U.S. is more strongly related to the ability to pay and less to need for care than in the other countries studied -- Canada, Chile, Germany, and the Netherlands -- all of which have universal health care.


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