A Paper Test for Cancer

Sangeeta Bhatia’s unique research leverages advances in semiconductors, nanotechnology, and other technical fields to tackle some of medicine’s most intractable problems. The John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Bhatia SM ’93, PhD ’97 trained both as a physician and engineer. Her affiliations include MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and the Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, as well as the Broad Institute.

Among her remarkable achievements: she took the photolithographic technique that computer chip makers employ to manufacture integrated circuits, and repurposed it to create a molecular support for a functioning micro-liver she kept alive for weeks. This device has since been used to model liver cell interactions with pathogens and drugs.

By pioneering technologies that interface living cells with synthetic systems, Bhatia has devised new applications in tissue regeneration, stem cell differentiation, medical diagnostics, and drug delivery. She has successfully grown human micro-livers in mice, and hopes to be close to her “naively audacious” goal of building replacement livers.

Bhatia has also developed an inexpensive paper urine test that aims to use nanoparticles to diagnose several diseases, including cancer. In the test, engineered nanoparticles would be injected into the patient, after which they find their way to a tumor site. Interaction between the nanoparticles and the tumor environment creates biomarkers that are shed in the urine, and can change the color of a paper test strip. As easy to read as a pregnancy test, the process could be immensely useful in the developing world. “As an engineer, I’m a hammer looking for the next nail,” says Bhatia. “But as a physician I want to pick problems with the greatest clinical impact.”