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MIT Portugal students win entrepreneurship competition

Invention could help diagnose muscle wasting
Winners of the 2008 Biocant Ventures Prize from the MIT Portugal Program's Bio-Teams, from left: researcher John Jones and students David Malta, Mariana Fernandes and Tatiana Aguiar.
Winners of the 2008 Biocant Ventures Prize from the MIT Portugal Program's Bio-Teams, from left: researcher John Jones and students David Malta, Mariana Fernandes and Tatiana Aguiar.
Photo / Marta F. Reis; CienciaHoje

Protein breakdown, when occurring naturally in the body, can be relatively harmless. But when this process is the result of disease, it can have dangerous outcomes and extend hospital stays. Researchers and students from the MIT Portugal Program hope a new biotechnology they developed will help treat patients with medical complications from abnormal protein breakdown.

Detecting the pace of this process in medical patients is crucial to addressing harmful conditions such as muscle wasting that result from protein breakdown caused by cancer, HIV or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

"Our technology is a tracer-based metabolic test for protein breakdown. It is an innovative test that detects protein breakdown much earlier than the available tests," said David Malta, a PhD student in MIT Portugal's PhD Bio-Engineering program.

Prot|Met can be used as a predictor for early diagnosis or to monitor the treatment of muscle wasting, Malta said.
Malta and fellow MIT Portugal students Mariana Fernandes and Tatiana Aguiar teamed up this spring with researchers John Jones and Pedro Saraiva from the University of Coimbra in Portugal to further develop Prot|Met and create a go-to-market strategy.

The students participated in this work as part of a Bio-Teams course within the MIT Portugal Program. The course is modeled after MIT's Deshpande Center's i-Teams.

"The Bio-Teams Innovation course was a real awakening for the MIT Portugal students. It was a new entrepreneurial experience for them and they accepted the challenge head-on," said Professor Dava Newman, co-lead of the Bio-Engineering Focus Area of the MIT Portugal Program. 

Other MIT professors including Charles Cooney, director of the Deshpande Center, and researchers Ken Zolot of the MIT Sloan School of Management and Luis Perez-Breva of the School of Engineering participated in the course and helped develop several events related to the course, including a formal competition.

The competition, with two prizes, one for 10,000 euros and a second for 5,000 euros in services, involved six teams with projects covering several fields in bioengineering, from novel biomedical devices and new diagnostic tools to commodity products with enhanced properties. The applications of the technologies are mainly in the food, medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Prot|Met, which won both prizes, plans to use the funding to continue to develop the technology and its market focus. Next steps to include finding a corporate partner to help manufacture and market the technology.

The MIT Portugal Program was launched in October 2006 by the Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education as a large-scale international collaboration involving MIT and government, academia and industry in Portugal to develop education and research programs related to Engineering Systems.

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