Can computer-chip technologies be harnessed to miniaturise biomedical tools? Yes. Sangeetha Bhatia , a 46-year-old Indian engineer and medical researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, proved it and bagged the coveted Lemelson-MIT Prize for world-changing inventions, mounting
$500,000 ( about Rs 33,000,000) in 2014. “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,” says Sangeetha.
For example, consider the ‘microliver’ that she and her colleagues created to study the functions of the human liver in the laboratory. Researchers typically use human liver cells that have been removed from the body, but those cells do not 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,” Sangeetha says. 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 lifecycle of liver-stage human malaria for drug screening.
Another one of Sangeetha’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 (PSA) in the blood. However, it is possible to have an elevated PSA level without having prostate cancer, because that chemical can be naturally produced in response to infections.
Sangeetha is often described as a bold risk taker; she seeks out big issues without regard for disciplinary boundaries. She brings together a collaborative and multidisciplinary team which has led to a broad and impactful range of inventions. Sangeetha and her colleagues came across their alternative while they were experimenting with mice and nanoparticles in the laboratory. They added tumour-enzyme molecules to the nanoparticles, and were surprised to find that when they injected the nanoparticles into cancerous mice, the molecules interacted with their tumours. “The bladders of the animals were lighting up whenever the mice had cancer,” Sangeetha says.
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 commercialisation. “We’ve been looking at engineering probiotics so they can enter the body and be cancer-diagnostic or cancer-therapeutic,” according to Sangeetha. 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.”
Sangeetha 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 Sangeetha hopes that her Lemelson- MIT Prize will give a boost to the next generation. Bhatia has been recognised as one of the “the nation’s most promising young professors in science and engineering” by the Packard Foundation and one of the “100 most innovative young scientists worldwide” by MIT Technology Review. Forbes named her one of 18 Indian scientists – across all nations – who are “changing the world” and “one of the 100 most creative people in business” by Fast Company, among many other recognitions•