In her TEDMED talk, Harvard-MIT physician, bioengineer and entrepreneur Sangeeta Bhatia showed how miniaturization, through the convergence of engineering and medicine, is transforming health– specifically, through the promise of nanotechnology for early detection of cancer. She’s also been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. We asked her to share more about her dedication to empowering girls to develop their skills in the STEM fields.
What we desperately need: the best minds, and their talent.
In addition to your work in bioengineering, medical research and being a professor, you’ve been a huge advocate for the participation of women and girls in STEM-related fields. How are these two strands of your work related?
They are absolutely related! We need the best and brightest minds to realize these kinds of technological visions. The engineering pipeline is only 20-25% female; only 3% of tech startups are led by women. If I look around at the workforce in engineering at the moment in our country, it’s only 11 to 12 percent women. And the data shows that we lose women from this discipline all the way along what we call the ‘leaky pipeline’ that starts at age 11 and progresses all the way through to the workforce and to the board room– presently 40 percent of women who earn engineering degrees quit the profession or never enter the field at all....
Increasingly, innovation sparks from creative connections across disciplines. Drawing from deep expertise in several branches of science, some of our TEDMED speakers employ their own interdisciplinary knowledge to create breakthrough technology that is advancing healthcare and our understanding of human potential.
Also innovating at the nexus of technology and medicine is Sangeeta Bhatia, cancer researcher, MIT professor and biotech entrepreneur, who tells us, “I am #BreakingThrough academic silos to converge engineering and biology on medical innovations.”
Trained as both a physician and engineer, Sangeeta directs a laboratory that leverages “tiny technologies” of miniaturization to yield inventions with new applications in tissue regeneration, stem cell differentiation, medical diagnostics, predictive toxicology and drug delivery. She and her trainees have launched more than ten biotechnology companies to improve human health.
“As a young woman, the daughter of Indian immigrants, I didn’t have many role models for the path on which I found myself,” Sangeeta recalls. “Nonetheless, I had three mentors (all men) who saw more for me than I saw for myself in high school, college, and then graduate school. They believed in what I had to offer and invested time and energy in pushing me beyond my comfort zone. As a mentor now, I realize how important this is—to recognize talent, in all its forms, and to energetically support it.”...
Sangeeta Bhatia MD, PhD, associate bioengineer at BWH, is one of six recipients of the 20th Heinz Award for Technology, Economy + Employment. The Heinz Award in this category honors individuals who have created and implemented innovative programs to advance regional or national economic growth through job creation, technology advancement, competitiveness and fair trade — all in a sustainable and environmentally safe manner. Recipients are selected by the Heinz Family Foundation for the $250,000 award.
Bhatia received the award for her success in growing artificial human microlivers, which has revolutionized screening for drug toxicity, and for her advocacy for the advancement of women in engineering.
Bhatia is the director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies at MIT. Her laboratory is dedicated to leveraging miniaturization tools from the world of semiconductor manufacturing to impact human health. Bhatia is also the founder of two companies that have put her discoveries, such as microlivers, into production. She is also a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and a senior member of the Broad Institute. Her work has been profiled in Scientific American, The Boston Globe, Popular Science, Forbes, PBS’s NOVA scienceNOW, The Economist and MSNBC....
A spoonful of yogurt could soon offer a cheap and simple way to screen for colorectal cancer.
Sangeeta Bhatia, a professor at MIT, is working to replace costly and uncomfortable colonoscopies and MRIs with a helping of yogurt followed by a urine test—a cheap method that could improve the early diagnosis of colorectal cancer.
Bhatia is developing synthetic molecules that can be introduced into the body via yogurt, and will interact with cancer in a way that produces telltale biomarkers. These molecules can then be detected easily when passed in urine.
Bhatia previously developed nanoparticles that find their way to tumors, and are then broken into smaller pieces by enzymes produced by the cancer. The broken up particles are small enough to be collected and concentrated by the kidneys, after which they are excreted.
The first iteration of the technique involved the use of lab instruments to analyze urine and find the telltale markers. Now Bhatia has developed a paper-based urine test—like the one you’d use for pregnancy. So far this test has been demonstrated in mice for colorectal cancer and liver fibrosis.
The nanoparticle work, described in a paper earlier this year, requires an injection (see “A Paper Diagnostic for Cancer”). In new, as-yet-unpublished work, Bhatia is developing a way to deliver the nanoparticles by modifying a type of bacteria found in yogurt. The bacteria produces the nanoparticle biomarkers by interacting with a tumor.
Bhatia hopes the approach will “transform diagnostics,” and says she’s in the process of forming a company to commercialize the approach. Because the test requires no specialized equipment, it will be particularly helpful in poor countries, she says, where few people are currently screened for common cancers. But it might also replace or augment colonoscopies....
Broad senior associate member Sangeeta Bhatia has been named the 2014 recipient of the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The honor, which is celebrating its 20th year, recognizes outstanding, mid-career inventors who are improving the world through technological invention, and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
Bhatia, a biomedical engineer and MIT professor, is being honored for her pioneering work in the design and commercialization of miniaturized technologies that aim to improve human health. That work includes the development of model human microlivers that can be used for studying human drug metabolism, drug-induced liver disease, and interactions with human pathogens. These microlivers have been used to study the liver stages of malaria, making it possible to screen drugs without testing them on patients. They may also be a basis for an engineered liver that could one day replace the need for human liver transplants.
Bhatia has also designed “synthetic biomarkers” for use in low-cost urine tests for cancer. This technology could eventually make it possible for physicians to detect cancer in places around the globe where they do not have access to more costly cancer screening tools. It’s also being leveraged for use in the detection of other diseases....