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Wyss team wins top prize for wearable synthetic biology sensors

Project envisions a “lab coat of the future” that can detect and respond to biological dangers

BioFabric team members (left) James Collins, Nina Donghia, Luis Soenksen and Peter Nguyen. Credit Wyss Institute at Harvard University

A team of researchers from the Wyss Institute at Harvard University and MIT won first place in the Johnson & Johnson Innovation “The Lab Coat of the Future” Challenge. MIT graduate student Luis Soenksen, Wyss Institute technology development fellow Peter Nguyen, Ph.D., and Wyss Institute researcher Nina Donghia competed with other contestants through a series of due-diligence rounds and a final pitch at the New York Genome Center, presenting the team’s approach of using of wearable synthetic biology sensors built into a lab coat to transform the age-old, often stereotyped symbol of science – the white lab coat – into a newly enabled symbol of breakthrough innovation in the 21st century.

The team envisions that their BioFabric lab coat could detect and analyze a range of external threats, like viral or bacterial pathogens, and then alert the wearer that they have been exposed. This could be done with cell-free reactions freeze-dried on fabrics, ready to activate when they come in contact with a specified substance. The team has provided demonstrations of this approach for the detection of the Zika virus with the use cell-free reactions embedded into paper and, more recently for the competition, cotton thread.

Wyss Institute researchers Nina Donghia (left) and Peter Nguyen (right) with entrepreneur Daymond John (center). Credit: Darren Levine

World-renowned entrepreneur and Shark on ABC’s Shark Tank, Daymond John, as well as Nigel Barker, famous photographer on the reality show America’s Next Top Model, both served as final judges at the live event on March 21, 2018. The team won a $50,000 first-place prize to continue their work, exclusive mentoring services, and an invitation from Johnson & Johnson Innocation to produce and display thirty copies of their design at J5LABS locations around the globe.

Other members of the BioFabrics team include Wyss Core Faculty member James Collins, Ph.D., MIT graduate student Ally Huang, and Wyss Institute business development lead Will Blake, Ph.D.

The final round of the competition was streamed live on Facebook. The winning pitch presentation, given by Peter Nguyen and Nina Donghia, begins at 19:05.
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