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The Bioengineering Frontier

It was a happy coincidence that this year’s Technology Day topic, “Bioengineering at MIT: Building Bridges between the Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine,” coincided with the appointment of Susan Hockfield–a life scientist–as president of MIT. During her opening remarks at the event, Hockfield said MIT is leading the way in this new field, a “fantastic convergence between life sciences and engineering.” Five MIT faculty members presented their work as part of the program, giving the audience a sense of the kind of groundbreaking research happening at the Institute.

According to Douglas A. Lauffenburger, director of the Biological Engineering Division, MIT researchers have been combining biology with engineering disciplines for about 40 years. But though both biology and engineering contributed, for example, to the development of prosthetics, biology wasn’t really approached from an engineer’s perspective until recently. Researchers simply didn’t know enough about how biological systems worked or how to manipulate them. Now, Lauffenburger says, the field will be grounded in biology on the molecular level, making it possible to understand biology on a systems-wide scale, rather than on the scale of individual cells or organs.

Linda Griffith’s work is an example of looking at individual cells in the context of the larger system to which they belong. Griffith, a professor of biological engineering and mechanical engineering, has developed a small device she describes as “a liver on a chip,” which allows scientists to grow liver cells in an environment that closely mimics that of the human body. This and similar technologies, Griffith says, will let scientists study drug metabolism and toxicity, or assess gene therapy delivery techniques, without having to use human test subjects.

Bioengineering also has applications in areas other than health care. Angela Belcher, associate professor of biological engineering and materials science and engineering, is making viruses that grow semiconductors, which self-assemble into very thin wires. This technique could be used to, for example, create inexpensive, flexible batteries, or tiny electronic devices that could be woven into a soldier’s uniform.

Some questions that have stumped scientists in the past are drawing the attention of bioengineers today. Ram Sasisekharan, professor of biological engineering, works in the emerging field of glycomics, studying “how the ‘sugar coat’ on some cells dramatically affects how they behave.” Because it’s difficult to make proteins with sugar groups attached to them, scientists have historically shied away from studying them. But sugar groups can substantially alter the behavior of protein drugs, so Sasisekharan believes they shouldn’t be ignored. Right now, his group is studying ways to quickly make a glycomics database.

Martha Gray, SM ‘81, PhD ‘86, directs the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology, which she says has also made large contributions to several bioengineering projects. The examples in her Tech Day talk included stents that release drugs to prevent arteries from reclogging; “patches” of heart tissue that can be grown in the lab and then used to replace dead tissue in patients; and new imaging technologies that show details in the body that would have gone unseen a decade ago. Gray said the division’s project proposals were sometimes dismissed because others believed them impossible, but she pointed out that the impossible research of today is often tomorrow’s breakthrough. “We [at MIT] are extraordinarily poised to accelerate advances in human health” over the next decade, she said. Susan Hockfield also spoke of MIT’s unique position in her opening remarks: “At MIT, we have a gift for learning from one another,” she said, which is one of the reasons that “MIT is leading the way in this new field.” – By Lisa Scanlon

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