Although Sangeeta Bhatia didn’t know what a “bioengineer” was as a young student, her aptitudes—math, technology, and anatomy—were nearly prophetic of her future career. As an undergraduate at Brown University, Bhatia explored various fields at the interface of biology and engineering, ranging from biotech to medical device development, but none resonated. It wasn’t until she came across a door at Brown labeled “Artificial Organs” that she discovered a niche where she could simultaneously flex her skills as an engineer and fulfill her passion as a biologist. Now an HHMI investigator at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bhatia embraces the scientific split stance, inventing technology-based solutions to problems that bear on human health, such as cancer detection, tissue regeneration, and drug delivery.
Bhatia’s PhD work focused on growing livers in the lab—an undertaking that many scientists had pursued, but hadn’t conquered. Through a series of detailed experiments, Bhatia discovered that, to survive, artificial liver cells need a microenvironment that mimics the cellular support systems found in the body. Later, in her lab at MIT, she put her discovery to work, creating “microlivers” that could live and function outside the body for weeks. The window of viability for these slide-based microlivers allowed Bhatia and her team to probe the tissues in various contexts, such as testing models of liver disease, examining liver cell metabolism, and gauging the toxicity of emerging therapeutic drugs.
Bhatia also leverages nanotechnology to develop new medical applications in cancer detection and treatment. She and her lab team have engineered special nanoparticles—1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair—that scour the bloodstream in search of nascent bits of tumor tissue. Upon contact, the particles release a chemical signal that’s detectable through urine screening. Though not yet in clinical use, the roving particles have been shown to detect cancer in mice at earlier stages than possible with other available techniques. Bhatia hopes that this detection method will one day help physicians expose cancer at its onset and stop the disease from spreading.
Image: Robert E. Klein
About the HHMI Investigator Program
HHMI investigators, appointed through rigorous competitions, are among the most creative and promising biomedical researchers in the nation. Scientists receive long-term, flexible support, enabling them to follow their own curiosity in the pursuit of answers to significant biological questions. The Investigator Program is the Institute’s flagship program, with an annual commitment of more than $600 million dollars to support the investigators and their host institutions across the United States. The collaboration between HHMI and these institutions powerfully expands the nation’s research capacity. Read more >>