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Alumni profile

Paula Hammond ’84, PhD ’93

Fighting a giant foe at a tiny scale
August 16, 2017

Paula Hammond’s research focuses on using nanoscale biomaterials to attack what she calls “a supervillain with incredible superpowers”—cancer. Using targeted nanoparticles, she is attempting to turn off the natural defenses of mutant genes and deliver a deadly punch to the cancer cell. Her work will soon be translated into clinical practice through partnerships with pharmaceutical companies, entrepreneurial partners, and startups in health care.

“Using molecular engineering, we can actually design a superweapon that can travel through the bloodstream,” said Hammond in her 2015 presentation for the live show TED Talks: Science and Wonder. “It has to be tiny enough to get through the bloodstream, it has got to be small enough to penetrate the tumor tissue, and it’s got to be tiny enough to be taken up inside the cancer cell. To do this job well, it has to be about one one-thousandth the size of a human hair.”

Long interested in reading and the arts, Hammond considered writing children’s novels before she decided to study chemical engineering as an undergraduate at MIT. After working at Motorola for two years, she earned her master’s degree at Georgia Tech and then returned to MIT for a new PhD program in polymer science. In 1995 Hammond joined the MIT faculty, where she is now the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Chemical Engineering.

During her 2003 sabbatical, she began to focus on biomaterials. As someone entering that field in mid-career, she says, “I brought a new perspective, with a materials design approach.”

Since then, she has merged design and polymer engineering to create breakthroughs in drug delivery technology. By layering negatively and positively charged molecules, Hammond and her team can create coated meshes and wound dressings that gradually release combinations of an antibiotic and a growth factor to help the wound heal, support bone regeneration, or control the scarring that can result from a burn or tissue injury.

This same layering concept is used to treat cancer, says Hammond. By taking a nanoparticle core loaded with drugs that kill cancer cells, surrounding that core with layers that contain silencing RNA to turn off the genes that promote cancer survival, and adding a final outer layer that helps the nanoparticle reach the tumor, it is possible to target drug-resistant cancer cells.

Hammond, who was profiled in MIT Technology Review in 2011 and is a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 2017 and the National Academy of Medicine in 2016. She is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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