By Lauren Landry – Associate Editor, BostInno and  Jordan Ecarma – AutoWorld News 


A medical researcher has won the $500,000 Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology prize for work that included developing a model liver to use in studying disease.

Sangeeta Bhatia, an engineer and researcher at MIT, worked with a team of colleagues to create a “microliver” that functions like a real human liver and furthers research into liver disease and cancer, NBC News reported.  

“We try to be really nimble,” Bhatia, 46, told NBC News before the prize was announced on Tuesday. “As innovations emerge, we’re constantly asking whether they can be repurposed for one of the two diseases we concentrate on: liver disease and cancer.”

Because liver cells rapidly start to lose function after being removed from the human body, it was difficult for researchers to grow a liver in the lab that mimicked a normal liver. The MIT team has developed microlivers that “model human drug metabolism, predict drug toxicity and interact with human pathogens,” according to a press release.

“We use that exact same process, but what we do is pattern our petri dishes with molecules that living cells attach to,” Bhati told NBC News.

She and her colleagues used computer chip technologies to develop the microlivers and other biomedical tools, implementing the photolithography techniques used to make integrated circuits.

Bhati has also developed “synthetic biomarkers” to help detect diseases such as cancer. In the simple process, nanoparticles can be injected into a patient, where they will interact with diseased tissue to make biomarkers that show up in urine samples. The disease-screening system, which is purportedly as straightforward as a pregnancy test, is in the works for commercialization.

The next step for Bhati is to see if harmless bacteria can be used to combat cancer by diagnosing the disease or even fighting it.

“We’ve been looking at engineering probiotics so they can enter the body and be cancer-diagnostic or cancer-therapeutic,” she told NBC News. “The interesting thing about probiotics is that they are already in people, so it’s not too unrealistic to imagine that one could one day manipulate the microbiome in cancer patients.” 

Bhatia has been recognized for commercializing miniaturized technologies that span the areas of drug toxicity, tissue regeneration, cancer therapeutics, noninvasive diagnostics and infectious disease.

“Bhatia has amplified the impact of her inventions through the collaboration of diverse teams that tackle complex problems,” said Josh Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, in a statement. “She cultivates ideas with creative individuals and focuses her team on grand challenges that require long-term scientific discovery to ultimately engineer inventive ways to improve lives of patients around the world.”

Equipped with a Ph.D. from MIT and M.D. from Harvard, Bhatia has developed “synthetic biomarkers” capable of detecting cancer, thrombosis and fibrosis through a paper urine test. The tests have been adapted for communities with low medical infrastructure, where procedures such as mammograms and colonoscopies aren’t administered due to cost. With the support of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Research, Bhatia is working on commercializing the biomarkers.

Even more impressive, Bhatia and her team have produced human microlivers to fight infectious disease. The micro-livers can predict drug toxicity and interact with human pathogens, as well as replicate the life cycles of liver-stage human malaria for drug screening. According to Lemelson-MIT, Bhatia’s research could, one day, be what replaces the need for transplants in liver disease patients.

If that wasn’t enough, Bhatia is also the co-founder of Medford, Mass.-based Hepregen, a company focused on commercializing the microliver platform to improve drug development and toxicity testing. She has launched 10 companies in total and led to the launch of more than 70 products.

“My husband, Jerry, always believed that it was critical to highlight and encourage inventors dedicated to improving the human condition,” said Dorothy Lemelson, Lemelson Foundation chair, in a statement. “Dr. Bhatia is a wonderful example of a woman who has used her brilliance, skill and creativity to radically improve the detection and treatment of serious global health issues.”