CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (March 9, 2011) – Alice A. Chen, a biomedical engineer and graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology (HST) and Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), today received the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for her innovative applications of microtechnology to study human health and disease. A fearless problem solver with a passion for mentorship, Chen is honored alongside three 2011 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize winners from across the nation.
“Alice Chen’s inventive accomplishments will impact the effectiveness of new therapies. Her passion to tackle problems and create solutions through collaboration and tenacity are qualities that must be celebrated at the collegiate level,” states Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Much like this year’s winners from Caltech, RPI and UIUC, Alice’s approach to problem-solving proves that with hard work and creativity, it is possible to invent broadly and introduce innovations to the world.”
Connecting the Dots for Scientific Development
Chen’s innovations have always sprung from her ability to make unique connections – whether it is linking approaches gathered from disparate fields, problems to novel solutions, or the relationships with others to build successful teams. It is a characteristic that makes the 29-year-old thrive when faced with a new challenge. Combining micro- and nano-technology based approaches to biological questions, Chen developed an assortment of innovations with implications for drug development and disease modeling.
Chen’s most recent inventive breakthrough – a humanized mouse with a tissue-engineered human liver – is intended to bridge a gap in the drug development pipeline between laboratory animal studies and clinical trials. In drug development, animal models are used as a surrogate to human patients to develop dosing regimens and identify potential dangers to the liver and other organs. However, because of stark differences between animal and human liver activity, pre-clinical animal screens commonly under-report human toxicities. According to Chen, the mouse “becomes a miniature patient with a tissue-engineered liver that behaves like a human’s in many ways,” including how the liver breaks down drugs and responds to toxic drug products. Chen’s hope is that her humanized mouse model will ultimately lead to a safer, less expensive and more efficient path for drug testing. Chen and her colleagues have already begun to screen drug combinations in the mice and study the interactions of the human liver with pathogens such as Hepatitis C and malaria. Although there is a long road before market adoption, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly interested in Chen’s humanized mouse to complement existing drug screening platforms.
Chen has also pioneered inventions that connect new technologies to the process of scientific inquiry, including, with colleague Gregory Underhill, a platform to rapidly analyze engineered tissues under development for therapeutics and discovery; and with Austin Derfus, a method to increase the predictability and accuracy of siRNA as a research tool.
The Path to Commercialization
Chen’s innovative spirit has also led her down an entrepreneurial path, where she is building connections between existing and emerging technologies to improve the safety and efficacy of diverse patient treatments. With fellow MIT graduate Todd Harris, Chen co-founded Sienna Labs, a biotechnology company that has developed a breakthrough class of new medical pigments to enhance microsurgeries for skin disease. Chen and her team have conducted pilot human studies and plan to enter clinical trials in the multi-billion dollar dermatological laser treatment market within the next year. “It’s about development beyond the invention,” says Chen. “Being able to see my work go to market and make a real impact on patient lives is a big motivator.”
Chen holds five pending patents and, with her graduate advisor Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia, is also exploring avenues for commercializing her humanized mouse model through a start-up or industrial partnership.
Reaching Out to Tomorrow’s Innovators
“Alice is a fearless and prolific inventor, a dogged experimentalist, a deep and broad thinker, a mentor and role model,” says Dr. Bhatia. Chen is passionate about sharing her love of technology with today’s youth and hopes to pay forward inspiration from her own role models to the next generation of innovators. Chen explains, “I want our youth to see that invention is solving any problem, big or small, and comes naturally just by mixing what’s fun and interesting with persistence and creativity.”
Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prizes
In addition to Chen’s pioneering work, winners of the annual $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize will be announced today at their respective universities:
- Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize winner Guoan Zheng developed an on-chip, inexpensive microscopy imaging technology with many potential applications, including improved diagnostics for malaria and other blood-borne diseases in the developing world and rapid screening of new drugs.
- Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize winner Scott Daigle developed a system that utilizes automatic gear shifting to reduce the efforts exerted by wheelchair operators. Daigle’s company, IntelliWheels, Inc., has an entire suite of products to improve the everyday actions of wheelchair users.
- Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize winner Benjamin Clough has demonstrated a new technique that employs sound waves to boost the distance from which researchers can use terahertz spectroscopy to remotely detect hidden explosives, chemicals, and other dangerous materials.
ABOUT THE $30,000 LEMELSON-MIT STUDENT PRIZE
The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to an MIT senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system, or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways. A distinguished panel of MIT alumni including scientists, technologists, engineers and entrepreneurs chooses the winner