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The Art of Science

The Koch Institute Public Galleries offer a glimpse inside the lab.

Racing on foot past the MIT Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research is a bit like trying to run through an art museum. It’s hard not to get drawn in by the 10 eight-foot images lining the glass-fronted Main Street lobby. Those who do stop to look more closely find that what appears to be an abstract painting might turn out to be an extreme close-up of blood vessels, a map of neuronal activity, or an eerily beautiful image of cancer cells.

The Koch Institute Public Galleries give passersby a glimpse into the research going on inside the building—and in labs across campus. “We’re engaging the local community so it’s not all happening behind closed doors,” says KI executive director Anne Deconinck. 

MIT researchers submitted more than 120 images for the 2014 exhibit; a panel of scientists and artists chose the 10 winners, six of which are shown here. The full 2014 exhibit will be unveiled formally in the galleries and online on March 4. (Register here for the opening event, which begins at 6:00 p.m.)

“It’s great to design some kind of nanotechnology that you’re pretty sure works, but one of the best ways to know it works is to actually see it happening,” says KI postdoc Omar F. Khan of his winning image. “For a researcher, it almost gives you peace of mind.”

gold nanorods

Blood, Heat, and Tumors: Improving Drug Delivery with Gold Nanorods
Alex Bagley ’08, Jeff Wyckoff,
Sangeeta Bhatia, SM ’93, PhD ’97
Bhatia Laboratory, MIT Koch Institute

Blood vessels can transport drugs to cancer cells, but finding the appropriate drop-off point can be difficult.

This image shows a network of blood vessels (green) and collagen (purple) infused with gold nanorods (yellow) inside a living tumor. When researchers heat the particles with near-infrared light, the blood vessels become leaky, making it easier to deliver therapeutic cargo to the right spot. Such combination therapy could be used to deliver a variety of drugs for many types of cancer.

PhD candidate Alex Bagley ’08 saw this image as a “microscopic world that felt both familiar and new.” While it confirmed what he thought was happening in the tumor, he also noticed things that he hadn’t thought ofideas he may explore in future projects. “Seeing the images made me more aware of other intricacies not being talked about and not fully appreciated,” he says.

map of neural pathways in the brain

Rainbow Connections: Mapping Neural Pathways in the Brain
Zeynep Saygin, PhD ’12
Kanwisher Laboratory, MIT Department
of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

This MRI image shows pathways of nerve fibers through the brain in three dimensionsup/down (blue), front/back (green), and left/right (red). By comparing maps of connectivity with maps of neural function, researchers can begin to predict how individual brains will respond to different stimuli. That will eventually help them understand healthy brain development and make possible earlier diagnosis and interventions for conditions such as autism and dyslexia.

“Whenever I look at this image, I’m reminded of the complexity of the human brain,” says Zeynep Saygin, PhD ’12, a postdoc in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. “And this image is only a small portion of all the neural connections in the brain. What information do these connections carry and how do they orchestrate complex mental processes? My research combines connectivity with neural response patterns in order to understand the complex circuitry of the brain and how it ultimately shapes who we are.”

tumor growth

The Bad Seed: Modeling Tumor Growth
Mandar Deepak Muzumdar
Jacks Laboratory, MIT Koch Institute

We know that certain gene mutations trigger tumor formation, but the subsequent cellular events driving cancer progression are not well understood. By introducing mutations into genetically engineered mice and tagging cells with fluorescent proteins, researchers can track mutated cells as cancer develops.

This image shows mutated (green) and nonmutated (red and yellow) pancreatic cells. Over time, the green cells multiply dramatically to form a tumor; the others don’t. Comparing the properties and behaviors of the different cell types could lead to earlier diagnosis, better treatment, and even cancer prevention.

KI postdoc Mandar Deepak Muzumdar had helped develop the fluorescent tagging technique in his graduate research at Stanford. So when the KI researchers applied it to the Jacks Lab’s mouse model, he says, “it was pretty exciting to see that the system worked to create cells uniquely labeled with different fluorescent markers.” At first, the mutated and nonmutated cells “looked the same, just different colors,” Muzumdar says. Over three months, however, he and his colleagues “could actually observe the mutated cells eventually grow out to form cancer.”

3-D models of neurons

Ganglion Style: Crowdsourcing Science through Online Games
Alex Norton for EyeWire
Seung Laboratory, MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences

To better understand the eye-brain connection, researchers developed the online game EyeWire. The game challenges players, most of whom have no background in neuroscience, to scroll through and color in images of cross-sections of neurons. With over 100,000 players’ help, the researchers are creating virtual 3-D models of actual neurons.

By comparing this gamer-generated map of ganglion cells in the retina with data about the neurons’ firing activity, neuroscientists can develop a functional model of how vision works.  Players’ performance in the game will also be used to improve artificial-intelligence algorithms for future 3-D modeling programs.

EyeWire’s creative director, Amy Robinson, says that players include high school and college students, sculptors, dentists, and retired people. “It’s extraordinary to see how much effort they put into the game,” she says. “Discoveries can be made with the help of people who are not scientists, but gamers with an interest in the brain.”


Biopolymer in Bloom: A New Environment for Studying Cell Growth
Julio M. D’Arcy, Erik C. Dreaden, Paula T. Hammond ’84, PhD ’93
Hammond Laboratory, MIT Koch Institute

Measuring cancer cells’ real-time response to environmental factors or therapeutic agents is challenging. Here, engineers have created biocompatible plastic structures for the cells to grow on as they would inside the body. The scaffolds are electrically conductive, providing a way to measure the growing cells’ properties. By changing the structure, the environment, or the substances the cells interact with, researchers can figure out which factors promote or discourage growth. This electron microscope image reveals the scaffold’s texture.

“This is the result of countless hours spent in the lab and across multiple microscopes,” says postdoc Julio D’Arcy. Fellow postdoc Erik Dreaden adds, “One of the most exciting aspects of working with nanotechnologies is the ability to make, and then see, the unseen.”

nanoparticles in the cytoplasm of cervical tumor cells

Target Practice: Improving Gene Therapy With Nanotechnology
Omar F. Khan and Edmond W. Zaia
Langer and Anderson Laboratories
MIT Koch Institute

How can we turn off the genes that promote the development of cancer? Using specially designed nanoparticles as genetic patches, engineers can deliver customized payloads to the gel-like cytoplasm where most cellular activity occurs and mitigate the effects of cancer-causing genes in the cell’s nucleus.

This image shows nanoparticles (red) in the cytoplasm of cervical tumor cells (green). As researchers learn more about how cells respond to these therapies, they will continue to tweak the patches to determine which distribution of synthetic and genetic material can best target different types of cancer.

“The idea of cancer research and cancer is generally nebulous, but to actually see it in action, see that this is a cancer cell and this is what we make to attack them and see them go together, is really important,” says KI postdoc Omar F. Khan. “When you see something work like this, it actually makes you more excited and motivates you even more to just keep going. I guess that’s one of the reasons many of us stay in research—because of these moments that happen where you feel validated and vindicated. That makes it worth it: the thought that one day what I make can help somebody, whether it be your own father or a friend or someone you don’t even know.”

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