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
Alumni Flock to Fenway: Cardinal jackets visit the Green Monster
A busload of alumni made a pilgrimage to Fenway Park during reunion weekend for a tour of the famed ballpark. The MIT group began its tour by walking around the edge of the field for an up-close look at the scoreboard–one of the last remaining hand-operated scoreboards in Major League Baseball. The tour guide pointed out the initials TAY and JRY–for Tom A. Yawkey and Jean R. Yawkey–that appear in Morse code in two vertical stripes on the scoreboard in tribute to the former Red Sox owners.
Alumni also got to check out some newer parts of the park, including the new right-field-roof table seats. Although people who sit there may be disappointed that there’s practically no chance a ball will reach them, they do enjoy a $100 food voucher that comes with each four-person table. A bar at the back of this section is made out of wood from the old bowling alley that used to be situated below the field. Nearby, alumni spotted the red seat that marks the farthest measurable home run ever hit inside Fenway–502 feet by Ted Williams in 1946.
The tour also took alumni to the .406 Club, the luxury seating area, and concluded in the new section atop the Green Monster–the most popular seats in the park. – By Lisa Scanlon
Turn on, Tune in, or Don’t: Alumni revisit the LSD debate
The topic of the debate was LSD–shortcut to nirvana or health threat? Timothy Leary, one-time Harvard psychology professor and advocate of psychedelic experiences, sat cross-legged on the stage. His opponent, MIT professor Jerome Lettvin ‘47, stood at his microphone. It was 1967, and PBS was filming the debate between the counterculture leader and Lettvin, who was known for his work in cognitive psychology. Leary argued that people lose brain cells naturally, so killing off a few with recreational drugs shouldn’t be taboo. Lettvin countered by expressing concern over the possible residual effects of a psychedelic trip.
Thirty-eight years later, Lettvin is retired and Leary is dead. The Class of 1970 screened the debate as part of its 35th reunion celebration. The audience laughed at the ideas their younger selves took seriously and at the video segment Leary used in his argument. Lettvin, who appeared certain of his views in 1967, admitted that he passionately favors medical marijuana use, and told the audience, “Oddly enough, I respected Tim. He was an honest guy.”
Alumni asked him a few questions about psychiatry and drugs, but then the questions quickly veered to the old Bexley Hall days, and courses Lettvin taught. Whether to take LSD or not didn’t seem important anymore. – By Catherine Nichols