Acclaimed HHMI investigator and MIT professor combines scientific tinkering in the lab with clinical translation
By Lindsay Brownell
(BOSTON) — Sangeeta Bhatia knew in her teens that she wanted to work on improving human health and, after studying biomedical engineering at Brown University, took her first job at a pharmaceutical company. That foray lasted less than a year, and sent her “running back to grad school” to recover her connection to what she calls “the human interface.” But as her academic career progressed through an M.S. in Mechanical Engineering at MIT, a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, an M.D. at Harvard Medical School, and professorships at the University of California, San Diego and MIT, she never lost sight of the power of industry to bring medical advancements to patients in large numbers. To date, she and her trainees have contributed to more than 50 issued or pending patents and launched multiple biotechnology companies.
Now, Bhatia has joined a community of similarly translation-focused researchers, becoming the newest Associate Faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
“I share the Wyss Institute’s core values: that nature is inspiring and that it can be used to motivate the design of new approaches to therapeutics and diagnostics, and that inventing them, while exciting, is not enough – we have to put time and energy into translating them into products that can help people,” said Bhatia, M.D., Ph.D. “I’ve been watching with admiration as the Wyss Institute has grown over the last decade, and I’m excited to finally be able to engage with its work directly.”
Bhatia will be part of the Wyss Institute’s new 3D Organ Engineering initiative, and will work most closely with Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D. and Christopher Chen, M.D., Ph.D. “We bring the know-how about how to go in vivo with engineered organs, and we really want to explore the capabilities that Jennifer and Chris are developing, with the ultimate goal of growing tissues that are large enough to help patients,” she said.
Bhatia is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Director of the Marble Center for Cancer Nanomedicine and member of the Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, an Affiliated Faculty member of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, an Institute Member of the Broad Institute, a Biomedical Engineer at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital; and a board member of both Brown University and Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
Her research began at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital when she started to work on finding a way to keep liver cells alive outside the body so that they could be used to filter the blood of patients with liver disease. After attempts to achieve that using conventional methods didn’t pan out, she teamed up with the MIT microfabrication facility to apply their knowledge of manufacturing computer chips to creating a new chip for cellular study.
Bhatia continued to develop and refine her “microliver” technology throughout medical school and her first professorship, and demonstrated that not only could liver cells thrive outside the body on her chips, the system could identify drugs that have dangerous side effects before they are given to patients in clinical trials, saving money, time, and lives. Bhatia returned to Boston in 2005 to join the faculty at MIT, and founded her first biotech company, Hepregen (now BioIVT), in 2008 based on her microliver technology. Hepregen’s system is currently used by over 40 biotech and pharmaceutical companies around the world to test their drugs for liver toxicity before they enter clinical trials.
Her lab at MIT has expanded its scope to work on various projects within the realm of improving medicine via bioengineering, including using her microliver system to study how the malaria parasite interacts with the human liver, hoping to learn how the parasites become dormant so that drugs can be developed to eliminate them.
Another project uses nanotechnology to detect and monitor disease within the human body and reports the results via a simple urine test, and was spun out into Bhatia’s newest startup, Glympse Bio in 2015. The system is being commercialized as a non-invasive alternative for liver biopsies that are used to diagnose and monitor patients with fatty liver disease. It also has the potential to be used for the early detection of other complex diseases like cancer, fibrosis, inflammation, and infections.
“In my lab, we like to put ourselves at the interface between disciplines. The Wyss Institute is a whole new fertile ground of ideas and technologies that we can harvest constructively for the unmet medical needs that we’re focused on,” Bhatia said.
“Sangeeta is a longtime friend of many of us at the Wyss Institute, and we are thrilled that she will now also be a colleague,” said Wyss Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School and the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, as well as Professor of Bioengineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Her creativity, vision, and impact in engineering and medicine are inspiring for all of us, and I personally look forward to see the innovations that emerge through collaborations among Sangeeta, Jennifer and Chris, as well as many other members of our community, because I am sure they will be truly transformative.”