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Inventor creates tiny technologies for medicine; awarded $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize

Sangeeta Bhatia combines clinical and engineering perspectives to tackle complex health challenges.
Lemelson-MIT Prize winner Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia
Lemelson-MIT Prize winner Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia
Photo courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT Program.

Sangeeta Bhatia SM ’93, PhD ’97, biomedical engineer and professor at MIT, is the recipient of the 2014 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Bhatia is recognized for designing and commercializing miniaturized technologies with applications to improve human health. The Lemelson-MIT Prize, celebrating its 20th year, honors outstanding mid-career inventors improving the world through technological invention and demonstrating a commitment to mentorship in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Bhatia is a multidimensional inventor, with a PhD from MIT and an MD from Harvard University, who is poised to impact human health as an engineer, doctor, and scientist. Her collaborative ability to identify and solve clinical problems by connecting miniaturization to medicine is exemplified by Bhatia’s passion for applying high-tech solutions to under-resourced settings globally. Bhatia’s creative portfolio of inventions addresses complex problems in the areas of drug toxicity, tissue regeneration, cancer therapeutics, noninvasive diagnostics, and infectious disease. A snapshot of the diversity and impact of her work includes:

Detecting cancer through a paper urine test

Bhatia and her team are tackling limitations of the growing biomarker industry with a focus on increased accuracy of disease detection. She designed "synthetic biomarkers" to offer improved sensitivity in detecting diseases including cancer, thrombosis, and fibrosis. The approach uses nanoparticles to deliver enzyme substrates to diseased tissue through a shot, creating synthetic biomarkers that shed in urine and are read in a simple paper-based urine test. The tests have been adapted for global use to support communities with low medical infrastructure, for example in areas that do not support costly cancer-screening approaches such as mammogram and colonoscopy. The incidence of non-communicable diseases in developing nations is on the rise with 5 million cancer deaths per year, accounted for by these regions. A majority of these patients have already advanced to incurable disease by first diagnosis, highlighting the need for improved access to early detection methods. Bhatia is developing this platform for commercialization with support of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation.

Building a liver from scratch to fight infectious disease

Liver cells begin to lose function within hours of being removed from the body. Current tools to predict toxicity use dysfunctional human cells that don’t accurately mimic a normally functioning liver. This has made it difficult for scientists to build an artificial organ for patients whose livers have failed, or to develop remedies to fight infections that grow in the liver, including malaria.

Bhatia and her team produced human microlivers that model human drug metabolism, predict drug toxicity, and interact with human pathogens. The human microliver she developed can also replicate the life cycle of liver-stage human malaria for drug screening, an application of this platform that is being developed further in collaboration with the Broad Institute with support from the Gates Foundation. The microliver can improve predictions of drug safety without risking patient exposure; help identify drugs that could eradicate malaria from its reservoir in the liver; and serve as a basis for an engineered liver that could one day replace the need for transplants in liver disease patients.

Bhatia’s focus on translation to the clinic demonstrates her commitment to improving human health. Bhatia, in partnership with her students and post-doctoral associates, pursues all available paths to commercialization, from licensing to existing companies to co-founding startups to supporting student-led startups and pursuing industrial collaborations. These efforts have led to the launch of 10 companies and more than 70 products. She is currently a co-founder of Hepregen, offering diverse lines of HepatoPac® products for drug development and toxicity testing, and Zymera, a nanocrystal technology for preclinical in vivo imaging and molecular detection.

“Bhatia has amplified the impact of her inventions through the collaboration of diverse teams that tackle complex problems,” says Josh Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “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.”

Bhatia is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, a member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT, and a senior associate member at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. She also holds an appointment at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is the John J. (1929) and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

She is also a leader, inspiring role model, and passionate advocate for diversity in science and engineering. Bhatia founded the Biomedical Engineering Society Diversity Committee and advises the MIT Society of Women Engineers, a group that oversees Keys to Empowering Youth, an outreach organization Bhatia helped establish that aims to instill young girls with curiosity about science and engineering.

Bhatia will speak at EmTech MIT, the annual conference on emerging technologies hosted by MIT Technology Review at the MIT Media Lab on September 23, 2014 at 5:00 p.m.

“My husband, Jerry, always believed that it was critical to highlight and encourage inventors dedicated to improving the human condition,” says Dorothy Lemelson, Lemelson Foundation chair. “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. We are proud to recognize her as this year’s Lemelson-MIT Prize winner.”

The Lemelson-MIT Program is now seeking nominations for the 2015 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Please contact the Lemelson-MIT Program at for more information or visit the Lemelson-MIT Prize website.

Press Mentions

Boston Globe

The Boston Globe writes about Professor Sangeeta Bhatia's commitment to mentoring her students. “It's heartening to know that, tucked away in labs all over our region, solution-driven scientists like Sangeeta Bhatia are tinkering and building — and encouraging others to do the same.”

NBC News

NBC News reports that MIT Prof. Sangeeta Bhatia has been awarded the Lemelson-MIT prize for her work designing miniaturized biomedical tools. "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,” says Bhatia. 

Boston Globe

Boston Globe reporter Chris Reify writes that Professor Sangeeta Bhatia has been awarded the 2014 $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. “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,” says Dorothy Lemelson, Lemelson Foundation chair. 

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