Mehmet Fatih Yanik has stopped light in its tracks and created a self-contained biological laboratory, complete with large numbers of living test subjects, on the surface of a microchip. Now he is focusing on learning how to keep nerve cells from degenerating and getting damaged ones to regenerate.
That research just received a big boost. Yanik, 29, was one of 20 young scientists awarded a 2007 David and Lucile Packard fellowship in science and engineering, which carries an unrestricted five-year grant of $625,000.
This award continues a string of recent honors for Yanik. Just last month, he won a New Innovator Award from the director of the National Institutes of Health, which carries a total of $2.5 million in new funding. In August, he was named one of Technology Review magazine's TR35, the world's top innovators under the age of 35.
Yanik, an assistant professor in MIT's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Research Laboratory of Electronics, hopes to use the grants to help his work on developing microchips that can analyze living neurons in action. In some cases, he will observe the nerve cells at work inside a living organism--the nematode C. elegans, widely used in biological research because of its simplicity and fast lifecycle. In others, he will use primary mammalian neurons as well as human neurons produced from laboratory strains of stem cells, and manipulate and monitor them at subcellular resolution.
In both cases, the key to the research is producing complex high-throughput micromanipulation systems, or those able to carry out large numbers of tests at once at sub-cellular precision. This would streamline the research process considerably.
Yanik and his students have already produced microchips designed with a network of tiny channels, complete with branching passages, control valves and vacuum-suction segments, which can be filled with water to carry large numbers of C. elegans at once through identical passageways, yet allowing each to be subjected to different conditions.
In a recent work, he also demonstrated how to conduct very precise laser surgery on the tiny animals using femtosecond laser pulses, which made it possible to sever a single axon, the tiny filament that delivers the output from a nerve cell, inside a living C. elegans. The damaged neurons were able to completely regenerate within 24 hours.
Now, Yanik plans to conduct large numbers of such tests all at once on a single chip, as a way of screening different chemical compounds and genes that might speed regeneration of the damaged neurons or inhibit their degeneration. "These high-throughput technologies could be used for the discovery of new drugs and genetic targets" he says.
A similar technology his group is developing could be used to screen the effects of a variety of potential drugs on primary mammalian neurons as well as human neurons derived from embryonic stem cells. "We can treat them with drug candidates, and then observe how that would affect regeneration or degeneration of the neurons at subcellular resolution" he says.
To produce neurons that more closely resemble those in a living body, Yanik's team is also working on building three-dimensional structures to provide tiny scaffolds for the growth of neurons in the lab.
Earlier in his career, Yanik invented a physical mechanism to bring light to a standstill on a chip then start it moving again as a possible way of storing information.
Given his wide interests, Yanik appreciates the flexibility of the Packard award, which can be applied to other work as his research develops. "I plan to spend it on high-risk, high-impact work," he says.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 17, 2007 (download PDF).