The MIT Media Lab this week launched a wellness initiative designed to spark innovation in the area of health and wellbeing, and to promote healthier workplace and lifestyle behaviors.  

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which is providing a $1 million grant, the new initiative will address the role of technology in shaping our health, and explore new approaches and solutions to wellbeing. The program is built around education and student mentoring; prototyping tools and technologies that support physical, mental, social, and emotional wellbeing; and community initiatives that will originate at the Media Lab, but be designed to scale.

The program begins with the fall course “Tools for Well Being,” followed by “Health Change Lab” in the spring. In addition to concept and technology development, these courses will feature seminars by noted experts who will address a wide range of topics related to wellness. These talks will be open to the public, and made available online. Speakers will include Walter Willett, a physician and noted nutrition researcher; Chuck Czeisler, a physician and sleep expert; Ben Sawyer, a game developer for health applications; Matthew Nock, an expert in suicide prevention; Dinesh John, a researcher on health sciences and workplace activity; Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist studying the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease; and Martin Seligman, a founder of the field of positive psychology. More information about the courses, speakers, and presentation topics and dates can be found at: http://wellbeing.media.mit.edu.

The RWJF grant will also support five graduate-level research fellows from the Program in Media Arts and Sciences who will be part of a year-long training program. The funding will enable each fellow to design, build, and deploy novel tools to promote wellbeing and health behavior change at the Media Lab, and then at scale.

One of the significant ways that this program will impact Media Lab culture is in the review of all thesis proposals submitted by students in media arts and sciences. Media Lab faculty recently added a new requirement that all proposals consider the impact of the work on human wellbeing.

Other Media Lab-wide aspects of the initiative include:

  • A monthly health challenge that would engage the entire lab, with review and analysis of each month’s deployment to help inform the next month’s initiative.
  • Pairing students with one another — to build awareness of wellbeing as a social function, not just a perosonal goal, and to draw on people’s inclination to solve the problems of others differently than their own.

“Wellbeing is a very hard problem that has yet to be solved by psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, biologists or other experts in the scientific community,” says Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and one of the three principal investigators on the initiative. “It’s time to bring MIT ingenuity to the challenge.”

“RWJF is working to build a culture of health in the U.S. where all people have opportunities to make healthy choices and lead healthy lifestyles. Technology has long shaped the patterns of everyday life, and it is these patterns­ — of how we work, eat, sleep, socialize, recreate and get from place to place — that largely determine our health,” says Stephen Downs, chief technology and information officer at RWJF. “We’re excited to see the Media Lab turn its creative talents and its significant influence to the challenge of developing technologies that will make these patterns of everyday life more healthy.”

Along with Picard, the other two principal investigators on the Advancing Wellness initiative are Pattie Maes, the Alex W. Dreyfoos Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Kevin Slavin, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences.

PhD student Karthik Dinakar, a Reid Hoffman Fellow at the Media Lab, will co-teach the two courses with the three principal investigators. Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology, will also create independent assessments through the year on the impact of this project.

By Alexandra Kahn | MIT Media Lab

A new technique for studying the lifecycle of the hepatitis B virus could help researchers develop a cure for the disease.

In a paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sangeeta Bhatia of MIT and Charles Rice of Rockefeller University describe using microfabricated cell cultures to sustain hepatitis B virus in human liver cells, allowing them to study immune responses and drug treatments.

Around 400 million people worldwide are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV); of those, one-third will go on to develop life-threatening complications, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Although there is an effective HBV vaccine, only around 50 percent of people in some countries where the disease is endemic are vaccinated. A complete cure for the disease is very rare, once someone has been chronically infected.

“Once a liver cell is infected, the viral genome persists inside the nucleus, and that can reactivate later,” says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “So although we have a vaccine, it’s important to find a way to study this persistent form of the virus to try to identify treatments that could efficiently clear it.”

“Finicky” hepatocytes

To develop a treatment for HBV, researchers need to be able to study infected liver cells, known as hepatocytes, so they can understand how the virus interacts with them.

But while researchers have previously been able to infect cultures of human hepatocytes with HBV, the cells’ limited lifespan has made it difficult to study the virus, says Bhatia, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

“That’s because the hepatocyte — the main cell in the liver — is unstable,” she says. “It’s a very finicky cell, and when you isolate it from the liver and try to culture it under conventional conditions, it rapidly loses its repertoire of liver functions.”

So the team set out to develop a technique to keep the liver cells stable and functioning long enough to monitor their response to the virus and antiviral drugs.

They based their approach on a system they had previously developed for studying the hepatitis C virus, in which they were able to successfully infect human hepatocytes with the virus and use it to compare antiviral regimens.

The hepatocytes are first patterned onto surfaces dotted with tiny spots of collagen, and then surrounded by supportive tissue made up of stromal cells, which act as connective tissue and support the hepatocytes in carrying out their liver functions.

Two complementary systems

To apply the technique to infection with HBV, the researchers developed two complementary systems. One uses primary hepatocytes obtained from livers donated for transplant; the second uses stem cells derived from human skin samples and guided into hepatocyte-like cells, Bhatia says.

When they compared the relative merits of the two systems, they found that the primary liver cells had a stronger immune response when infected with the virus than the stem cell progeny. However, unlike the primary hepatocytes, the hepatocyte-like cells offer an unlimited supply of test cells, since the researchers can simply grow more as required, Bhatia says.

“But that being said, both systems were able to grow this persistent nuclear form [of HBV], so we think they offer complementary tools,” she says.

The paper’s lead authors are Amir Shlomai of Rockefeller University, and graduate student Vyas Ramanan and former postdoc Robert E. Schwartz, both of MIT.

To investigate whether the cell cultures could be used to test new treatments for the disease, the researchers monitored their response to two existing drugs. They found that the infected cultures responded to the drugs in the same way that liver cells inside the body are known to do. This means the systems could be used to help predict how effective new treatments will be in eradicating the virus from liver cells, Bhatia says.

Having developed the technique, the researchers now plan to begin using it to investigate new treatments for HBV. They also plan to use the model to study liver cells’ natural antiviral response in more detail, and in particular to try to understand why cells from different donors have different immune responses to the disease.

Raymond Chung, vice chief of the gastrointestinal unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in the research, says that despite the availability of effective vaccines, researchers have made few inroads into eliminating HBV. “While we have excellent suppressive therapies, there are no truly curative treatments, in large measure because we have been handicapped by the lack of robust cell-culture models that support HBV infection,” he says.

“The new approach described here provides one avenue by which we may more effectively study the HBV lifecycle, and in so doing identify new agents that block additional steps in that lifecycle,” he adds. “Using such an approach could bring us one step closer to a cure for HBV.”

By Helen Knight | MIT News correspondent

The MIT Media Lab this week launched a wellness initiative designed to spark innovation in the area of health and wellbeing, and to promote healthier workplace and lifestyle behaviors.  

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which is providing a $1 million grant, the new initiative will address the role of technology in shaping our health, and explore new approaches and solutions to wellbeing. The program is built around education and student mentoring; prototyping tools and technologies that support physical, mental, social, and emotional wellbeing; and community initiatives that will originate at the Media Lab, but be designed to scale.

The program begins with the fall course “Tools for Well Being,” followed by “Health Change Lab” in the spring. In addition to concept and technology development, these courses will feature seminars by noted experts who will address a wide range of topics related to wellness. These talks will be open to the public, and made available online. Speakers will include Walter Willett, a physician and noted nutrition researcher; Chuck Czeisler, a physician and sleep expert; Ben Sawyer, a game developer for health applications; Matthew Nock, an expert in suicide prevention; Dinesh John, a researcher on health sciences and workplace activity; Lisa Mosconi, a neuroscientist studying the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease; and Martin Seligman, a founder of the field of positive psychology. More information about the courses, speakers, and presentation topics and dates can be found at: http://wellbeing.media.mit.edu.

The RWJF grant will also support five graduate-level research fellows from the Program in Media Arts and Sciences who will be part of a year-long training program. The funding will enable each fellow to design, build, and deploy novel tools to promote wellbeing and health behavior change at the Media Lab, and then at scale.

One of the significant ways that this program will impact Media Lab culture is in the review of all thesis proposals submitted by students in media arts and sciences. Media Lab faculty recently added a new requirement that all proposals consider the impact of the work on human wellbeing.

Other Media Lab-wide aspects of the initiative include:

  • A monthly health challenge that would engage the entire lab, with review and analysis of each month’s deployment to help inform the next month’s initiative.
  • Pairing students with one another — to build awareness of wellbeing as a social function, not just a perosonal goal, and to draw on people’s inclination to solve the problems of others differently than their own.

“Wellbeing is a very hard problem that has yet to be solved by psychologists, psychiatrists, neuroscientists, biologists or other experts in the scientific community,” says Rosalind Picard, a professor of media arts and sciences and one of the three principal investigators on the initiative. “It’s time to bring MIT ingenuity to the challenge.”

“RWJF is working to build a culture of health in the U.S. where all people have opportunities to make healthy choices and lead healthy lifestyles. Technology has long shaped the patterns of everyday life, and it is these patterns­ — of how we work, eat, sleep, socialize, recreate and get from place to place — that largely determine our health,” says Stephen Downs, chief technology and information officer at RWJF. “We’re excited to see the Media Lab turn its creative talents and its significant influence to the challenge of developing technologies that will make these patterns of everyday life more healthy.”

Along with Picard, the other two principal investigators on the Advancing Wellness initiative are Pattie Maes, the Alex W. Dreyfoos Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, and Kevin Slavin, an assistant professor of media arts and sciences.

PhD student Karthik Dinakar, a Reid Hoffman Fellow at the Media Lab, will co-teach the two courses with the three principal investigators. Susan Silbey, the Leon and Anne Goldberg Professor of Humanities, Sociology and Anthropology, will also create independent assessments through the year on the impact of this project.

By Alexandra Kahn | MIT Media Lab

Seven MIT faculty members are among 204 leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities and the arts elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced today.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT this year are:

  • Elazer Reuven Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences and Technology
  • Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics
  • Keith Adam Nelson, a professor of chemistry
  • Paul A. Seidel, a professor of mathematics
  • Gigliola Staffilani, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Mathematics
  • Sherry Roxanne Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology
  • Robert Dirk van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

“It is a privilege to honor these men and women for their extraordinary individual accomplishments,” Don Randel, chair of the academy’s Board of Directors, said in a statement. “The knowledge and expertise of our members give the Academy a unique capacity — and responsibility — to provide practical policy solutions to the pressing challenges of the day. We look forward to engaging our new members in this work.”

The new class will be inducted at a ceremony held on Oct. 11 at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge.

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

By News Office

A new technique for studying the lifecycle of the hepatitis B virus could help researchers develop a cure for the disease.

In a paper published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sangeeta Bhatia of MIT and Charles Rice of Rockefeller University describe using microfabricated cell cultures to sustain hepatitis B virus in human liver cells, allowing them to study immune responses and drug treatments.

Around 400 million people worldwide are infected with the hepatitis B virus (HBV); of those, one-third will go on to develop life-threatening complications, such as cirrhosis and liver cancer.

Although there is an effective HBV vaccine, only around 50 percent of people in some countries where the disease is endemic are vaccinated. A complete cure for the disease is very rare, once someone has been chronically infected.

“Once a liver cell is infected, the viral genome persists inside the nucleus, and that can reactivate later,” says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “So although we have a vaccine, it’s important to find a way to study this persistent form of the virus to try to identify treatments that could efficiently clear it.”

“Finicky” hepatocytes

To develop a treatment for HBV, researchers need to be able to study infected liver cells, known as hepatocytes, so they can understand how the virus interacts with them.

But while researchers have previously been able to infect cultures of human hepatocytes with HBV, the cells’ limited lifespan has made it difficult to study the virus, says Bhatia, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science.

“That’s because the hepatocyte — the main cell in the liver — is unstable,” she says. “It’s a very finicky cell, and when you isolate it from the liver and try to culture it under conventional conditions, it rapidly loses its repertoire of liver functions.”

So the team set out to develop a technique to keep the liver cells stable and functioning long enough to monitor their response to the virus and antiviral drugs.

They based their approach on a system they had previously developed for studying the hepatitis C virus, in which they were able to successfully infect human hepatocytes with the virus and use it to compare antiviral regimens.

The hepatocytes are first patterned onto surfaces dotted with tiny spots of collagen, and then surrounded by supportive tissue made up of stromal cells, which act as connective tissue and support the hepatocytes in carrying out their liver functions.

Two complementary systems

To apply the technique to infection with HBV, the researchers developed two complementary systems. One uses primary hepatocytes obtained from livers donated for transplant; the second uses stem cells derived from human skin samples and guided into hepatocyte-like cells, Bhatia says.

When they compared the relative merits of the two systems, they found that the primary liver cells had a stronger immune response when infected with the virus than the stem cell progeny. However, unlike the primary hepatocytes, the hepatocyte-like cells offer an unlimited supply of test cells, since the researchers can simply grow more as required, Bhatia says.

“But that being said, both systems were able to grow this persistent nuclear form [of HBV], so we think they offer complementary tools,” she says.

The paper’s lead authors are Amir Shlomai of Rockefeller University, and graduate student Vyas Ramanan and former postdoc Robert E. Schwartz, both of MIT.

To investigate whether the cell cultures could be used to test new treatments for the disease, the researchers monitored their response to two existing drugs. They found that the infected cultures responded to the drugs in the same way that liver cells inside the body are known to do. This means the systems could be used to help predict how effective new treatments will be in eradicating the virus from liver cells, Bhatia says.

Having developed the technique, the researchers now plan to begin using it to investigate new treatments for HBV. They also plan to use the model to study liver cells’ natural antiviral response in more detail, and in particular to try to understand why cells from different donors have different immune responses to the disease.

Raymond Chung, vice chief of the gastrointestinal unit at Massachusetts General Hospital, who was not involved in the research, says that despite the availability of effective vaccines, researchers have made few inroads into eliminating HBV. “While we have excellent suppressive therapies, there are no truly curative treatments, in large measure because we have been handicapped by the lack of robust cell-culture models that support HBV infection,” he says.

“The new approach described here provides one avenue by which we may more effectively study the HBV lifecycle, and in so doing identify new agents that block additional steps in that lifecycle,” he adds. “Using such an approach could bring us one step closer to a cure for HBV.”

By Helen Knight | MIT News correspondent

The following notice was sent Thursday afternoon to individuals at MIT and Harvard Medical School by representatives of the joint Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program. Eliana Hechter was a student in HST who had been working toward an M.D. degree from Harvard.

To the Harvard Medical School, MIT, and HST Communities:

It is with great sadness that we report the untimely death of Dr. Eliana Hechter, a first-year MD student in HST. Her family notified the medical school this morning, and have not yet made definitive plans regarding services or a memorial. As information becomes available, we will share it with you. We encourage students, administration, and faculty to come together as a community to remember Eliana as a student with tremendous promise, and one who has been lost far too soon.

Losing a member of our community is always difficult and we want to remind you that there are resources here to help you with grief or stress (please see below).

David Cohen, Emery Brown, Matthew Frosch, Patty Cunningham, and Rick Mitchell

— on behalf of HST

MIT Medical’s Mental Health and Counseling Service

E23 — 3rd Floor

On weekdays: call 617-253-2916 to schedule an appointment

For more urgent issues, visit them during walk-in hours on weekday afternoons from 2–4 p.m.

For very urgent issues, call one of the numbers below; a mental health clinician is on call and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:

Weekdays (M-Th 8 a.m.–7 p.m., F 8 a.m.–5 p.m.): 617-253-2916

Nights/weekends: 617-253-4481

Chaplains at MIT

Contact information for individual Chaplains is available online here:

http://studentlife.mit.edu/rl/mit-chaplains

MIT’s Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE)

3-132

The office provides two pamphlets, “How to help someone in distress” and the MIT Medical brochure “Caring for our community.”

See also: http://web.mit.edu/student/personal_support.html

By News Office

Seven MIT faculty members are among 204 leaders from academia, business, public affairs, the humanities and the arts elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the academy announced today.

One of the nation’s most prestigious honorary societies, the academy is also a leading center for independent policy research. Members contribute to academy publications, as well as studies of science and technology policy, energy and global security, social policy and American institutions, the humanities and culture, and education.

Those elected from MIT this year are:

  • Elazer Reuven Edelman, the Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Health Sciences and Technology
  • Michael Greenstone, the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics
  • Keith Adam Nelson, a professor of chemistry
  • Paul A. Seidel, a professor of mathematics
  • Gigliola Staffilani, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of Mathematics
  • Sherry Roxanne Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology
  • Robert Dirk van der Hilst, the Schlumberger Professor of Earth Sciences and head of the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

“It is a privilege to honor these men and women for their extraordinary individual accomplishments,” Don Randel, chair of the academy’s Board of Directors, said in a statement. “The knowledge and expertise of our members give the Academy a unique capacity — and responsibility — to provide practical policy solutions to the pressing challenges of the day. We look forward to engaging our new members in this work.”

The new class will be inducted at a ceremony held on Oct. 11 at the academy’s headquarters in Cambridge.

Since its founding in 1780, the academy has elected leading “thinkers and doers” from each generation, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century, Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 19th century, and Albert Einstein and Winston Churchill in the 20th century. The current membership includes more than 250 Nobel laureates and more than 60 Pulitzer Prize winners.

By News Office

MIT spinoff WiCare, founded by mechanical engineering alumna Danielle Zurovcik SM ’07, PhD ’12, has been named one of six finalists in this year’s Hult Prize competition.

The Hult Prize Foundation is a nonprofit organization focused on supporting social entrepreneurs. This year’s challenge is to solve non-communicable disease in urban slums, and winners receive $1M in seed funding.

Zurovcik, who developed a revolutionary negative pressure wound therapy pump (NPWT) as a PhD student in MechE, started WiCare (Worldwide Innovative Healthcare Inc.) with the goal of bringing high-quality medical devices to low-income countries. She is currently a fellow in the D-Lab Scale-Ups fellowship program.

Her Wound-Pump differs from other NPWT pumps on the market because of its unique materials, application method, and size. Standard pumps cost approximately $100 per day to overcome their inefficient energy usage, preventing low- and middle-income patients from utilizing the therapy. But because the Wound-Pump eliminates such energy waste, it costs less than $2 to manufacture and doesn’t require electricity at all.

Hult Prize finalists will give their presentations this summer, and the winner will be announced in September.

By Alissa Mallinson | Department of Mechanical Engineering

The following notice was sent Thursday afternoon to individuals at MIT and Harvard Medical School by representatives of the joint Harvard-MIT Health Sciences and Technology (HST) program. Eliana Hechter was a student in HST who had been working toward an M.D. degree from Harvard.

To the Harvard Medical School, MIT, and HST Communities:

It is with great sadness that we report the untimely death of Dr. Eliana Hechter, a first-year MD student in HST. Her family notified the medical school this morning, and have not yet made definitive plans regarding services or a memorial. As information becomes available, we will share it with you. We encourage students, administration, and faculty to come together as a community to remember Eliana as a student with tremendous promise, and one who has been lost far too soon.

Losing a member of our community is always difficult and we want to remind you that there are resources here to help you with grief or stress (please see below).

David Cohen, Emery Brown, Matthew Frosch, Patty Cunningham, and Rick Mitchell

— on behalf of HST

MIT Medical’s Mental Health and Counseling Service

E23 — 3rd Floor

On weekdays: call 617-253-2916 to schedule an appointment

For more urgent issues, visit them during walk-in hours on weekday afternoons from 2–4 p.m.

For very urgent issues, call one of the numbers below; a mental health clinician is on call and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:

Weekdays (M-Th 8 a.m.–7 p.m., F 8 a.m.–5 p.m.): 617-253-2916

Nights/weekends: 617-253-4481

Chaplains at MIT

Contact information for individual Chaplains is available online here:

http://studentlife.mit.edu/rl/mit-chaplains

MIT’s Office of the Dean for Graduate Education (ODGE)

3-132

The office provides two pamphlets, “How to help someone in distress” and the MIT Medical brochure “Caring for our community.”

See also: http://web.mit.edu/student/personal_support.html

By News Office

A paper diagnostic for cancer

September 30, 2014

Cancer rates in developing nations have climbed sharply in recent years, and now account for 70 percent of cancer mortality worldwide. Early detection has been proven to improve outcomes, but screening approaches such as mammograms and colonoscopy, used in the developed world, are too costly to be implemented in settings with little medical infrastructure.  

To address this gap, MIT engineers have developed a simple, cheap, paper test that could improve diagnosis rates and help people get treated earlier. The diagnostic, which works much like a pregnancy test, could reveal within minutes, based on a urine sample, whether a person has cancer. This approach has helped detect infectious diseases, and the new technology allows noncommunicable diseases to be detected using the same strategy.

The technology, developed by MIT professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Sangeeta Bhatia, relies on nanoparticles that interact with tumor proteins called proteases, each of which can trigger release of hundreds of biomarkers that are then easily detectable in a patient’s urine.

“When we invented this new class of synthetic biomarker, we used a highly specialized instrument to do the analysis,” says Bhatia, the John and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt it instead to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone.”

Bhatia, who is also a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science, is the senior author of a paper describing the particles in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of Feb. 24. The paper’s lead authors are graduate student Andrew Warren, postdoc Gabriel Kwong, and former postdoc David Wood.

Amplifying cancer signals

In 2012, Bhatia and colleagues introduced the concept of a synthetic biomarker technology to amplify signals from tumor proteins that would be hard to detect on their own. These proteins, known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), help cancer cells escape their original locations by cutting through proteins of the extracellular matrix, which normally holds cells in place.

The MIT nanoparticles are coated with peptides (short protein fragments) targeted by different MMPs. These particles congregate at tumor sites, where MMPs cleave hundreds of peptides, which accumulate in the kidneys and are excreted in the urine.

In the original version of the technology, these peptides were detected using an instrument called a mass spectrometer, which analyzes the molecular makeup of a sample. However, these instruments are not readily available in the developing world, so the researchers adapted the particles so they could be analyzed on paper, using an approach known as a lateral flow assay — the same technology used in pregnancy tests.

To create the test strips, the researchers first coated nitrocellulose paper with antibodies that can capture the peptides. Once the peptides are captured, they flow along the strip and are exposed to several invisible test lines made of other antibodies specific to different tags attached to the peptides. If one of these lines becomes visible, it means the target peptide is present in the sample. The technology can also easily be modified to detect multiple types of peptides released by different types or stages of disease.

“This is a clever and inspired technology to develop new exogenous compounds that can detect clinical conditions with aberrantly high protease concentrations,” says Samuel Sia, an associate professor of biological engineering at Columbia University who was not involved in the research. “Extending this technology to detection by strip tests is a big leap forward in bringing its use to outpatient clinics and decentralized health settings.”

In tests in mice, the researchers were able to accurately identify colon tumors, as well as blood clots. Bhatia says these tests represent the first step toward a diagnostic device that could someday be useful in human patients.

“This is a new idea — to create an excreted biomarker instead of relying on what the body gives you,” she says. “To prove this approach is really going to be a useful diagnostic, the next step is to test it in patient populations.”

Developing diagnostics

To help make that happen, the research team recently won a grant from MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation to develop a business plan for a startup that could work on commercializing the technology and performing clinical trials.

Bhatia says the technology would likely first be applied to high-risk populations, such as people who have had cancer previously, or had a family member with the disease. Eventually, she would like to see it used for early detection throughout developing nations.

Such technology might also prove useful in the United States, and other countries where more advanced diagnostics are available, as a simple and inexpensive alternative to imaging. “I think it would be great to bring it back to this setting, where point-of-care, image-free cancer detection, whether it’s in your home or in a pharmacy clinic, could really be transformative,” Bhatia says.

With the current version of the technology, patients would first receive an injection of the nanoparticles, then urinate onto the paper test strip. To make the process more convenient, the researchers are now working on a nanoparticle formulation that could be implanted under the skin for longer-term monitoring.

The team is also working to identify signatures of MMPs that could be exploited as biomarkers for other types of cancer, as well as for tumors that have metastasized.

The research was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a Mazumdar-Shaw International Oncology Fellowship, the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award from the National Institutes of Health, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the National Cancer Institute, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

By Anne Trafton, MIT News Office