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Sangeeta Bhatia wins $250,000 Heinz Award

Bhatia is recognized for her work in tissue engineering, disease detection, and advocacy for women in STEM.
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Sangeeta Bhatia
Sangeeta Bhatia
Photo courtesy of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies.

Sangeeta Bhatia has been named the recipient of the 2015 Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy, and Employment.

The Heinz Family Foundation, which administers the award, cites Bhatia, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, for her seminal work in tissue engineering and disease detection. She is also recognized for her passion in promoting the advancement of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The award includes an unrestricted prize of $250,000.

The Heinz Awards pay tribute to the memory of the late U.S. Senator H. John Heinz III by celebrating his belief that individuals have both the power and responsibility to change the world for the better. In his honor, the Heinz Family Foundation annually recognizes individuals for their extraordinary contributions to arts and humanities; environment; human condition; public policy; and technology, the economy, and employment.

“John Heinz believed that individuals have the power and responsibility to improve the human condition. I believe this wholeheartedly and feel enormously privileged to have received training in engineering, biology, and medicine that enables my team to do interdisciplinary work that impacts human health,” says Bhatia, who also is a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. “This type of recognition helps to bring science into the public eye so that everyone can appreciate the dedication and innovation that is happening in laboratories all over the country.”

Bhatia’s team pioneered the fabrication of artificial human microlivers, which are being used by many biopharmaceutical companies to test the toxicity of drug candidates. Bhatia is also using microlivers in the lab to model malaria infection and test drugs that can eradicate malaria parasites completely — even the parasite reservoirs that remain in the liver after a patient’s symptoms subside. Bhatia hopes to eventually develop implantable liver tissue as a complement or substitute for whole-organ transplant.

In her study of cancer and the tumor microenvironment, Bhatia and her laboratory have developed synthetic biomarkers that are paving the way for simple, low-cost cancer diagnostics. Their engineered nanoparticles interact with tumor proteins in the body and release hundreds of these biomarkers, which can be detected in urine. One application relies on a paper-strip urine test that can reveal the presence of cancer within minutes in mouse models. This point-of-care, low-budget technology holds great promise for earlier cancer detection in the developing world and other settings with limited medical infrastructure.

Aside from her work in developing new solutions for liver disease and cancer, Bhatia is an advocate for bringing more women into STEM fields — especially at a young age. While a graduate student at MIT, Bhatia helped start Keys to Empowering Youth (KEYs), a program that engages middle school girls with science and engineering through hands-on activities and mentorship from MIT students. Bhatia continues to advise KEYs and MIT’s Society of Women Engineers chapter, which manages the program.

“I'm hopeful that the visibility associated with this award can inspire young girls by showing them what a rewarding profession — and life — STEM can yield,” she says.

Bhatia will receive her award on May 13 at a ceremony in Pittsburgh. There, she will be honored along with the Heinz Award recipients in the four other categories: Roz Chast, a best-selling illustrator and cartoonist (arts and humanities); Frederica Perera, an environmental health researcher at Columbia University (environment); William McNulty and Jacob Wood, founders of Team Rubicon (human condition); and Aaron Wolf, a geoscientist and professor at Oregon State University (public policy).

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