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Sangeeta Bhatia

Director, Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies, MIT

Bhatia is making cancer testing more accessible in developing countries.

[Photo by Geordie Wood]

For getting creative with cancer treatments.

To medical researcher Sangeeta Bhatia, art and science have more in common than you might think. "You have to explore and play and tinker, and see what things merge and coalesce," she says. To do that, Bhatia tries to create an atmosphere of serendipity in her lab, recruiting scientists and engineers with diverse backgrounds and interests and telling them to spend 20% of their time on "submarine projects"—things they only need to tell her about if they make significant progress. As a result, her team has developed breakthroughs such as nano-size gold-rod injections that make tumors more susceptible to treatment. Here's how she approached another cancer-combating project:

The Problem:

Seventy percent of cancer mortality occurs in the developing world, but current diagnostic technology is expensive. "If you have a patient in a rural clinic, you don't want to send them home and order a lab test," Bhatia says. "You want a test that's inexpensive—in an hour."

The Epiphany:

Bhatia's team had been working on tumor-seeking magnetic nanoparticles that could be injected into patients as a way to improve the imaging capability of MRIs. During tests, one of her students noticed that bladders of cancerous animals were glowing brightly on the MRI. "We were like, 'What is this?' " she says. "We realized that the tumors were changing the nanoparticles and fragments were coming out in the urine. If we were able to measure something in the urine, then we'd have a completely noninvasive way to monitor the tumor. That was the 'aha' moment. Then we went back and did it deliberately."

The Execution:

The team developed a system that worked like a pregnancy test for cancer. "Once we knew we wanted to detect it on paper [test strips]," she says, "we changed the nanoparticle a little bit so it would be easy to capture."

The Result:

Bhatia's lab just received funding from MIT's commercialization center for a startup that could eventually get the effective, economical tests into the hands of doctors in the field. Next she's working on a variation that can detect other serious conditions, including blood clots and liver fibrosis.