Rewriting Life

Molecularly Driven

A physicist becomes an entrepreneur – and combines her interests in biosensors, biomedicine, and nanotechnology.

More than 10 years ago, as a physics undergraduate at Stanford University, I fell in love with the way the molecular motors known as polymerases read and write information from and into DNA. Experimental tools like optical tweezers were just emerging, making it possible to manipulate individual biomolecules.

I joined the lab of Nobel laureate Steven Chu, who was pioneering biological applications of such technologies. In his lab, I became fascinated with the prospect of visualizing in real time the single-molecule dynamics of the polymerase motors.

I hypothesized that the dynamics of a molecular motor depend not only on the sequence of the DNA it is reading but also on the milieu in which it operates. Simply put, the environment changes the way cells process the information encoded within DNA. Perhaps cancer-causing mutations could be the result, in part, of environmental stresses on the motor as it reads DNA.

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My quest to bridge physics and biomedicine brought me to a joint MD-PhD program at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and the Harvard Department of Physics. I found an inspirational mentor in Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach, a Harvard chemist. A significant part of my thesis was devoted to using concepts from physics and chemistry to theoretically elucidate how various changes in the molecular motor’s environment could influence its actions along the DNA template.

Since my Stanford days, I had dreamed of harnessing these molecular motors for various nanotechnology and biotechnology applications, such as controlled synthesis, molecular manufacturing, and reading and writing information on the nanoscale. Then some folks in the U.S. Department of Defense invited me to brainstorm how emerging nanoscale technologies could be used to reduce the threat of biological terrorism.

One evening, I had an epiphany about how to improve the accuracy and sensitivity of biosensors using nanoscale platforms. This led me to found Nanobiosym. With funding from the Defense Department, we have managed to establish the feasibility of nanoscale approaches to pathogen detection, which enables molecular diagnostic assays to be scaled down to the size of a chip.

Ultimately, we envision developing handheld pathogen detection devices to address not only the needs of the biodefense market but also those of the biomedical industry. Our approach compensates for some of the shortcomings of current sensors, enabling detection down to the single-molecule level. It is a personal interest of mine to make our technology available in the developing world, where the lack of infrastructure, such as electricity and running water, can preclude effective diagnostics.

Anita Goel, a physician and physicist, founded Nanobiosym in 2004.

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