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Innovator of the Year

TR names its winners for “Innovator of the Year” and “Technology in the Service of Humanity” awards.
September 29, 2005

Kevin Eggan: A Better Route to Embryonic Stem Cells

Why do some individuals contract a disease – cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s – and others not? Or, to put it in more scientific language: What occurs in a human being that sometimes transforms healthy cells into diseased ones?

Asking these big questions means delving into the two most promising, complex, and often debated fields in biomedicine: cloning and stem-cell therapy. Yet neither complexity nor controversy has slowed down Kevin Eggan, an assistant professor of molecular and cellular biology at Harvard University and a researcher at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute.

Eggan, who was recognized Wednesday as Technology Review’s Innovator of the Year, has dedicated himself to using cloning and stem cells to learn why major diseases occur and how to alleviate them. In a paper published in Science magazine last month, he and his colleagues announced preliminary results that might even lead to a quelling of ethical concerns about the use of embryonic stem cells.

Today, a common technique for obtaining embryonic stem cells is to take a nucleus from an adult cell (such as a skin cell) and inject it into a unfertilized egg whose nucleus has been removed. The egg then “reprograms” the adult cell’s nucleus to develop into an embryonic state – without the need for fertilization. The cells divide, forming a blastocyst, from which embryonic stem cells can be harvested.

But this method has several drawbacks: it’s technically difficult, it involves creating and destroying embryos, and it requires donated human eggs. In their latest work, Eggan and his coworkers took a different approach: they fused an entire skin cell to an embryonic stem cell, creating a “hybrid” cell. In doing so, they discovered that the fusion process caused genes from the skin cell to be reprogrammed into an embryonic state.

And, even more promising, the fused hybrid cells had many of the same properties as embryonic stem cells, including the ability to form different kinds of cells – the all-important trait of embryonic stem cells.

While the new technique still requires the use of an embryonic stem cell, it opens up a whole new possibility: that adult cells might be transformed into embryonic stem cells without the need for cloned human embryos. What’s more, human eggs are not needed. The next step: to find out how the embryonic cell reprograms the genes of an adult cell.

That’s where Eggan’s expertise comes in. As a PhD candidate at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, he was able to do what many scientists considered impossible: clone mice from neurons, the most specialized cells in a body. In the process, he began to focus on a key research problem: how genetic material gets reprogrammed so that a nucleus is reset to the beginning of development.

It’s a similar challenge to the one now facing the Harvard stem-cell team: finding out how the embryonic cell is able to reprogram the adult stem cell. The team’s best-guess is that it will take another decade to achieve that goal. And from there, they can begin to determine how the stem cells differentiate into diseased cells and tissues.

Saul Griffith: Rethinking the Physical World

While he was a graduate student at MIT, Saul Griffith took some time off in 2000. He traveled to Guyana on a Lion’s Club mission to deliver eyeglasses, as well as to “learn practically how organizations were working in developing countries.” What he found was a frustrating and expensive system for providing eye-testing and refractive lenses.

So, taking advantage of his background in materials and mechanical engineering, Griffith began working on a novel solution: a process for manufacturing eyeglasses using membrane-liquid lenses (“like a drop of water on a leaf”) that could be produced for about a dollar each, in just a few minutes, using a machine “about the size of an inkjet printer.”

Griffith’s invention won him a Collegiate Inventors award from the National Inventors Hall of Fame. And a subsequent plan to distribute low-cost eyeglasses garnered a Harvard Business School Business Plan Competition prize. MIT also recognized his work last year with the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventiveness. And, today, Technology Review named Griffith the winner of its 2005 award for Technology in the Service of Humanity.

With a half-dozen other projects and a start-up company to run, Griffith still pursues his early inspiration as well. Specifically, he’s now developing an inexpensive device for testing eyes, a better process for molding lenses, and, of course, raising money to get his low-cost eyeglasses out to more people. “We are engaging with both investors and government support,” he says, “but not necessarily in all the ways and quantities that we would wish.” Standing on the stage in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on Wednesday for his official photograph, Griffith seemed relaxed. “If I’d known this was happening, I’d have shaved,” he joked.

Ever since his days at MIT’s Media Lab, Griffith has been coming up with ways to bring people together to exchange not just the usual “cool” ideas, but practical know-how about how to make and distribute useful things. There was his Media Lab design studio in 2001, called Design that Matters. It turned into an international design conference, Development by Design, first held at MIT in 2001, then India in 2002.

Taking advantage of the Internet, Griffith then began a website, Thinkcycle, where 4,000 members eventually created “thinkspaces,” contributing papers, articles, notes, and images on dozens of development-related topics, such as Human Power Generation, Cholera Treatment Devices, Electronics Reuse/Recycling, and Venture Capital Funds for Low-Income Entrepreneurs.

That website has now morphed into another one, Instructables, “a venue for showing what you make and how others can make it,” in Griffith’s words. Within Instructables is a spin-off for younger participants, Howtoons. There, kids share plans for projects with names like Underwater Viewer, Soda Bottle Safety Goggles, and Simple Electric Motor. The site uses cartoons instead of text instructions.

While Griffith works on participatory websites and low-cost eyeglasses, he also keeps his mind in the world of cutting-edge materials and their possible interactions with software, robotics, and information theory. His company, Squid Labs, offers both prototyping services and engineered products – like rope. It’s not just a rope made from the latest synthetic fiber, though, but one with sensors embedded in it, so it can tell when it’s about to weaken. Squid Labs is beginning to see commercial interest in the material for a rigging application, Griffith says.

Griffith says he got the idea for “smart” rope while indulging one of his favorite hobbies: kite-surfing along the California coast. So life isn’t all work – even for a dedicated humanitarian.

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