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Who would have thought computer chip technologies could be harnessed to miniaturize biomedical tools? Sangeeta Bhatia, an engineer and medical researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thought so — and it's that kind of thinking that has earned her this year's $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize for world-changing inventions.
"We try to be really nimble," the 46-year-old professor told NBC News in advance of Tuesday's announcement. "As innovations emerge, we're constantly asking whether they can be repurposed for one of the two diseases we concentrate on: liver disease and cancer."
For example, consider the "microliver" that she and her colleagues created to study the functions of the human liver in the lab. Researchers typically use human liver cells that have been removed from the body, but those cells don't grow or react as they would in a normally functioning liver. To create a better model, Bhatia borrowed the photolithography techniques that chip makers use to create integrated circuits.
"We use that exact same process, but what we do is pattern our petri dishes with molecules that living cells attach to," she said. The result is a well-functioning microliver in a dish that can be used to model interactions with pathogens, to study hepatitis, and even replicate the life cycle of liver-stage human malaria for drug screening.
A spin-off company called Hepregen was created to commercialize the technology.
New kinds of cancer tests
Another one of Bhatia's inventions relies on synthetic biomarkers rather than naturally produced biomarkers to diagnose cancer. For example, the typical test for prostate cancer looks for an elevated level of prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, in the blood. However, it's possible to have an elevated PSA level without having prostate cancer, because that chemical can be naturally produced in response to infections.
Bhatia and her colleagues came across their alternative while they were experimenting with mice and nanoparticles in the lab. They added tumor-enzyme molecules to the nanoparticles, and were surprised to find that when they injected the nanoparticles into cancerous mice, the molecules interacted with their tumors. "The bladders of the animals were lighting up whenever the mice had cancer," Bhatia said.
That research led to the development of paper-based urine tests for cancer. The nanoparticles can be injected into the patient, and any interactions with diseased tissue will create synthetic biomarkers that are shed in the urine. The results can be read out as easily as a pregnancy test. The screening system is currently being developed for commercialization.
"We've been looking at engineering probiotics so they can enter the body and be cancer-diagnostic or cancer-therapeutic."
Now Bhatia is turning her attention to synthetic biology, and the possibility of enlisting benign bacteria for the fight against cancer.
"We've been looking at engineering probiotics so they can enter the body and be cancer-diagnostic or cancer-therapeutic," she said. Bhatia and her colleagues have already published one paper on the subject, and they talk only half-jokingly about inventing a new strain of cancer-detecting yogurt.
"The interesting thing about probiotics is that they are already in people, so it's not too unrealistic to imagine that one could one day manipulate the microbiome in cancer patients," she said.
Diversity in the lab
Doing science is about more than writing papers — and Bhatia's innovative approach to biomedical research was another factor behind her Lemelson-MIT honors. The students in her Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies are told to spend 20 percent of their time tinkering away on what Bhatia calls "submarine projects." Some of the projects go nowhere. Others produce unexpected payoffs.
"We're engineers working in a science environment, thinking about human health," Bhatia said. "What engineers like to do is tinker, so we encourage that spirit of tinkering in the lab."
She also encourages a spirit of diversity: On one level, that means bringing together chemists, engineers, physicists, biologists, immunologists and scientists from other disciplines for intellectual cross-fertilization. On another level, it means making sure women feel at home in a traditionally male-dominated field.
Bhatia is a founder of the Biomedical Engineering Society's Diversity Committee and advises the MIT Society of Women Engineers. Studies suggest that strong role models and mentors can play an important part in improving the status of women scientists and engineers, and Bhatia hopes her Lemelson-MIT Prize will give a boost to the next generation.
"We need more visible role models for women in science and technology," she said. "It would be a great outcome to be visible as an inspiration for young girls."