LEMELSON--M.I.T. STUDENT INVENTOR PRIZES: The Lemelson-M.I.T. Program awarded four student inventors Wednesday with $30,000 prizes to help bring their emerging technologies to market. Image: COURTESY OF BENJAMIN CLOUGH/RENSSELAER POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE
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The Lemelson–M.I.T. Program recognized four student inventors Wednesday poised to make a profound impact in the areas of disease diagnostics, drug development, assistive devices such as wheelchairs, and security screening for explosives. Each of the winners—from the California Institute of Technology; Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (R.P.I.); and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (U.I.U.C.)—receives a $30,000 prize to help bring their emerging technologies to market.
This year, Lemelson–M.I.T. tipped its hat to a group of young entrepreneurs that includes Caltech's Guoan Zheng, Harvard–M.I.T.'s Alice Chen, R.P.I.'s Benjamin Clough and U.I.U.C.'s Scott Daigle.
Zheng, a fourth-year electrical engineering PhD candidate at Caltech in Pasadena, is developing a low-cost, portable imaging device and software that can inexpensively turn a computer or smart phone into a high-resolution digital microscope. Such use of computers to enhance the quality of low-resolution images is familiar to fans of CSI and other TV police procedurals, where law enforcement lab technicians often crack a case by magnifying some small detail of a digital image pulled from grainy surveillance footage. "The trick they're using is the same trick I'm using, which is to use super-resolution technology to turn a sequence of low-resolution images into one high-resolution image," says the 26-year-old native of Guangzhou, China.
Zheng adapted super-resolution image-processing technology to create an on-chip microscope—a sub-pixel resolving optofluidic microscope (SROFM)—made up of a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) sensor connected via a USB port to a computer loaded with image-enhancing software. His primary objective is to provide doctors in developing countries with a means to scan residents for malaria at a cost of about 50 cents per blood sample. A SROFM device would use microfluidics channels (micrometer-size molded tubing and interconnects) to deliver a blood sample directly across the CMOS sensor, which would capture a series of low-resolution images for a mobile computer and reconstruct them as a single high-resolution image.
Last month, Zheng received a research grant from Qualcomm to develop a SROFM smart-phone application, which will make his on-chip microscope even more portable. He is hoping to have the application—which would enable the on-chip microscope to plug into an iPhone or a handset running Google's Android mobile operating system, for example—ready this summer and to begin field-testing the technology as soon as possible.
Zheng wants to wrap up his studies either late this year or in early 2012, at which time he hopes to focus on a start-up he formed with his advisor, Changhuei Yang, a Caltech professor of electrical engineering and bioengineering.
Faster, cheaper, safer drug development
Chen, a biomedical engineer and graduate student in the Harvard–M.I.T. Division of Health Sciences and Technology and the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was recognized for her work developing a new way to implant human cells in lab mice to better test the efficacy of new drug candidates. The result could shave time and money off of the process of developing new drugs, which can take a decade and cost tens of millions of dollars.
Drug developers often rely on in vitro cell-based microchips to test promising new chemical compounds. These chips are important for eliminating many early problematic amalgams, but animal tests are still needed to see how a drug is broken down by multiple organs in the body—the liver and gut, in particular—and how the broken-down metabolites circulate to other organs, the 29-year-old San Jose, Calif., native says.
Chen discovered a way to "humanize" a mouse with a tissue-engineered, humanlike liver to better determine how a real human liver might metabolize a particular chemical compound and respond to infectious disease. Differences between animal and human liver activity often result in under-reported human toxicities in preclinical animal testing of drug compounds. "Right now, we have this whole pipeline where drugs are developed, and animal toxicology models are a very important part of that," she says. "But they miss a lot of drug dangers and drug metabolites that then show up in clinical trials and can cause toxicities and adverse reactions and, in worst-case scenarios, deaths."
Chen's bioengineered liver does not actually resemble a human liver. It resembles a soft contact lens comprising a biomaterial matrix that encapsulates human cells in much the same way Jell-O can encapsulate fruit, she says. "It's tuned so that it connects to the mouse's circulatory system but will respond to drugs in a similar way to a human," she adds.
When Chen wraps up her studies at the end of this month, she plans to focus full time on Sienna Labs, a start-up she co-founded with fellow M.I.T. graduate Todd Harris. Although Sienna does not focus on humanized mice, it follows a similar thread in her career goal, which is to develop technologies that can improve existing medical treatments. Sienna's medical pigments designed to enhance microsurgeries for skin disease are expected to go into clinical trials this year, she says.