HHMI Investigator Sangeeta Bhatia is recognized for designing and commercializing miniaturized technologies with applications to improve human health.
- The Lemelson-MIT Prize honors outstanding mid-career inventors improving the world through technological invention and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
- Bhatia's research focuses on the intersection of engineering, medicine, and biology to develop novel platforms for understanding, diagnosing, and treating human disease.
Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Sangeeta Bhatia has been named recipient of the 2014 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, which honors outstanding mid-career inventors improving the world through technological invention and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Bhatia is recognized for designing and commercializing miniaturized technologies with applications to improve human health.
Bhatia directs the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and of health sciences and technology. She is also a biomedical engineer in the department of medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital. Bhatia will speak at EmTech MIT, the annual conference on emerging technologies hosted by MIT Technology Review at the MIT Media Lab on September 23, 2014.
Jerome H. Lemelson, one of the most prolific inventors in U.S. history, and his wife Dorothy founded The Lemelson-MIT Program in 1994. It is funded by The Lemelson Foundation and is administered by MIT’s School of Engineering. The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention based enterprises to promote economic growth in the U.S. and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.
Bhatia focuses on the intersection of engineering, medicine, and biology to develop novel platforms for understanding, diagnosing, and treating human disease. Her technologies interface living cells with synthetic systems, enabling applications in tissue regeneration, stem cell differentiation, diagnostics, and drug delivery, such as human microlivers that model human drug metabolism, drug-induced liver disease, and interaction with human pathogens. Her group also develops nanomaterial systems that assemble and communicate to investigate and coordinately treat cancer.
For years, many labs have tried to grow liver cells. Bhatia painstakingly figured out that one reason the liver cells did not thrive was because they were not in the right microenvironment. For example, they were missing contact with their neighboring cells. With that new knowledge in hand, she and her colleagues set about designing novel ways to provide liver cells in the laboratory with the critical factors they need to survive.
One of her long-term goals is to generate a complete implantable liver. Bhatia and her colleagues have designed tools—based on miniaturization methods used in making semiconductors—that they have used to create tiny colonies of human liver cells that model aspects of the full-size human organ. Through a process known as micropatterning, the bioengineers use a stencil to "print" liver cells onto glass in tiny islands, each 500 micrometers (millionths of a meter) in diameter. They surround each island of liver cells with supporting cells, providing a balance of "self" and "nonself" neighbors. The miniature livers can survive for up to six weeks and carry out the multiple functions of the natural organ, such as secreting albumin, transporting bile, and producing enzymes that metabolize toxins.
Practical applications are already emerging. "We think we can use human liver tissues to study whether a drug will be toxic in patients," she says. A test-drive showed that the system correctly flagged a number of drugs that were known to be toxic to the liver. This shortcut could reduce the costs of drug development and yield safer drugs, says Bhatia. Lately, Bhatia is particularly interested in using liver cell cultures to test live attenuated vaccines to ensure that they do not create a risk of causing disease.
Another major effort in Bhatia's lab is the development of nanoparticles designed to diagnose and treat cancer. One strategy makes use of nanoparticles that can sneak into blood vessels that feed tumors and then merge in clumps large enough to be detected by magnetic resonance imaging scans and reveal fast-growing cancer "hot spots."
Longer term, Bhatia envisions novel cancer treatments. In one scenario, nanoparticles would enter the patient's circulation, assemble themselves into tiny drug-dispensing machines, and then travel to tumors where physicians would trigger them by remote control to release their cancer-fighting payloads.