Research Notebook

Fires in Tall Buildings Pose Lofty Challenges

“High-rise fires present some of the most challenging and hazardous situations firefighters face,” says Kathy Notarianni, professor and head of WPI’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering (FPE). “What’s the most effective way to attack the fire, search for victims, and rescue people when a fire occurs in a tall building, beyond the reach of aerial ladders?” she asks. “What are the minimal and optimal ways to deploy firefighters and firefighting apparatus to mitigate fires like these?”

To answer these questions, the FPE Department is jointly leading a national study through a longstanding partnership with the Center for Public Safety Excellence, the International Association of Fire Fighters, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Urban Institute. With a $1 million award from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the study seeks to address issues raised by the 9/11 World Trade Center fires and other high-rise blazes.

In the study, firefighting crews of varying sizes and equipped with different arrays of firefighting apparatus will be deployed to a simulated fire on the 15th floor of a 20-story building. Facing scenarios ranging from a best case (sprinklers in the offices, service elevators available for use by first responders) to a worst case (no sprinklers, no available elevators), they’ll fight the fire and rescue victims while researchers measure how quickly they can complete these tasks.

“Unfortunately, fire codes provide little guidance on how to respond to fires in tall buildings,” Notarianni says, “and fire and city officials have little or no quantitative data to draw on as they evaluate the effectiveness of various deployment configurations. This study will provide the data, analysis, and guidance they need.”

Hold the Phone for Vital Signs

Need to check your vital signs? There’s an app for that, thanks to research by a team led by Ki Chon, professor and head of WPI’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. The app, which runs on a smartphone and which will eventually also work on tablets, measures heart rate, heart rhythm, respiration rate, and blood oxygen saturation. Users simply hold a fingertip to the device’s built-in camera. The camera’s light penetrates the skin and reflects off pulsing blood. Subtle shifts in the color of the reflected light are correlated with changes in the patient’s vital signs. As reported in a recent issue of the journal IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering, the readings reported by the app are as accurate as those obtained with standard medical monitors now in clinical use.

“This gives a patient the ability to carry an accurate physiological monitor anywhere, without additional hardware beyond what’s already included in many consumer mobile phones,” notes Chon, who is an expert on signal processing. “One of the advantages of mobile phone monitoring is that it allows patients to make baseline measurements at any time, building a database that could allow for improved detection of disease states.”

Popular Websites Leak Your Information

You visit a travel site to plan a vacation in Hawaii. Next, you hop over to a retail site to buy some shorts. On that site you notice an ad inviting you to a luau in Honolulu. According to a study coauthored by Craig Wills, professor and head of WPI’s Department of Computer Science, that’s just one symptom of the widespread leakage of private information from popular websites used by tens of millions of people.

The study, presented at the 2011 Web 2.0 Security and Privacy conference, found that three quarters of 100 popular sites directly leak either private information or users’ unique identifiers to thirdparty advertising tracking sites. The study also demonstrated how the leakage of private information by many sites, including email addresses, physical addresses, and even the configuration of a user’s web browser — so-called browser fingerprints — could permit tracking sites to link many disparate pieces of information, including browsing histories contained in tracking cookies and the contents of searches on health and travel sites, to create detailed profiles of individuals.

“Despite a number of proposals and reports put forward by researchers, government agencies, and privacy advocates, the problem of privacy has worsened significantly,” Wills said. “With the growing disconnect between the existing and proposed privacy protection measures and the increasing and increasingly worrisome linkage of personal information from all sorts of websites, we believe it is time to move beyond what is clearly a losing battle with third-party aggregators and examine what roles firstparty sites can play in protecting the privacy of their users.”

Despite a number of proposals and reports put forward by researchers, government agencies, and privacy advocates, the problem of privacy has worsened significantly.”

— Craig Wills

A Stitch in Time Saves Muscles

Unlike salamanders, which can regrow lost limbs, humans and other mammals respond to large wounds by forming scar tissue. New research by a team of scientists from WPI and CellThera, a private company located in WPI’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, has taken an important step toward a vision of salamander- like tissue regeneration for people. In a study published in the November 2011 issue of the journal Tissue Engineering, they report that they have regenerated functional muscle tissue in mice, opening the door for a new way to treat major muscle trauma. They used a novel protocol to coax mature human muscle cells into a stem cell–like state and grew the reprogrammed cells on biopolymer microthreads. When the seeded threads were placed in a surgically created wound in a mouse leg muscle, near-normal function was restored and no scarring was seen. Surprisingly, the microthreads, which were used simply as a scaffold to support the reprogrammed human cells, actually seemed to accelerate the regeneration process by recruiting progenitor mouse muscle cells, suggesting that they alone could become a therapeutic tool. “Frankly, we were surprised by the level of muscle regeneration that we observed,” says Raymond Page, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at WPI and chief scientific officer at CellThera.

The current study is part of a multi-year program funded, in part, by grants from the National Institutes of Health and DARPA, the advanced research program of the U.S. Department of Defense, to support the development of new technologies and therapies for people who suffer serious wounds and limb loss.

Please note picture above: After a portion of a leg muscle was removed, untreated mice grew scar tissue (left image, blue area); mice receiving microthreads seeded with transformed adult cells grew functional muscle (right image).

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