Sangeeta Bhatia knew in her teens that she wanted to work on improving human health and, after studying biomedical engineering at Brown University, took her first job at a pharmaceutical company. That foray lasted less than a year, and sent her “running back to grad school” to recover her connection to what she calls “the human interface.” But as her academic career progressed, she never lost sight of the power of industry to bring medical advancements to patients in large numbers. Now, Bhatia has joined a community of similarly translation-focused researchers, becoming the newest associate faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University.
“I share the Wyss Institute’s core values: that nature is inspiring and that it can be used to motivate the design of new approaches to therapeutics and diagnostics, and that inventing them, while exciting, is not enough — we have to put time and energy into translating them into products that can help people,” said Bhatia. “I’ve been watching with admiration as the Wyss Institute has grown over the last decade, and I’m excited to finally be able to engage with its work directly.”
Her research began at MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital when she started to work on finding a way to keep liver cells alive outside the body so that they could be used to filter the blood of patients with liver disease. After attempts to achieve that using microfluidic surfaces didn’t pan out, she teamed up with the MIT microfabrication facility to apply their knowledge of manufacturing computer chips to creating a new chip for cellular study.
Bhatia continued to develop and refine her “microliver” technology throughout medical school and her first professorship, and demonstrated that not only could liver cells thrive outside the body on her chips, the system could identify drugs that have dangerous side effects before they are given to patients, saving money, time, and lives. In 2008 she founded her first biotech company, Hepregen (now BioIVT), based on that technology. Hepregen’s system is currently used by more than 40 biotech and pharmaceutical companies around the world to test their drugs for liver toxicity before they enter clinical trials.
Her lab at MIT has expanded its scope to work on various projects within the realm of improving medicine via bioengineering, including using her microliver system to study how the malaria parasite interacts with the human liver, hoping to develop drugs to eliminate them.
Another project uses nanotechnology to detect and monitor disease within the human body and reports the results via a simple urine test, and was spun out into Bhatia’s newest startup, Glympse Bio, in 2015. The system is being commercialized as a non-invasive alternative for liver biopsies to diagnose and monitor patients with fatty liver disease.
“In my lab, we put ourselves at the interface between disciplines. The Wyss Institute is a whole new fertile ground of ideas and technologies that we can harvest constructively for the unmet medical needs that we’re focused on,” Bhatia said.