From artificial intelligence (A.I.) to materials science, this year’s Xconomy Awards finalists in the Innovation at the Intersection category are bringing a variety of disciplines outside of biology to bear on tough problems in life science. The hope is that advanced algorithms, novel biomaterials, and digital technologies will make drug discovery more efficient, cancer immunotherapies more effective, and wearable devices more beneficial for health and well-being. Here’s more on the finalists.
Angela Belcher, MIT
Angela Belcher’s molecular tool of choice has long been a virus that infects bacteria, called the M13 phage. The MIT materials scientist has engineered the virus so that it can grab onto nanomaterials to build better batteries and solar cells. In recent years, as a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, she has turned her attention to cancer. She’s using the versatile virus to create new imaging agents that could one day help cancer surgeons find and remove small tumors that they currently can’t see during surgery.
Her lab has tweaked the M13 virus to bind to nanoparticles called carbon nanotubes that fluoresce in near-infrared light, which safely shines through human tissue. The virus also attaches to ovarian cancer cells, bringing with it the fluorescent nano-beacons that light up tumors when hit with near-infrared light, allowing surgeons to spot tumors and take them out.
Belcher has presented data showing that her technology has allowed surgeons to find tumors less than 1 millimeter in size in mice, and that lab animals that had their tumors removed with the help of the imaging technique lived 40 percent longer. Her lab is continuing to build better imaging equipment, has come up with other kinds of cancer-imaging nanoparticles, and is moving towards non-invasive imaging and screening for the early detection of ovarian cancer.