Sangeeta Bhatia - Sophisticated medicine

Sangeeta Bhatia's research defies tradition, drawing on biological and medical sciences, and multiple engineering disciplines.
Leda Zimmerman | MIT Spectrum
December 15, 2014

"I’m mostly driven by how to fix things,” states Sangeeta Bhatia. “I’m always thinking about how to solve problems by repurposing tools.” Although not a mechanic, Bhatia, the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), and Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES), does run a repair shop of sorts. As director of the Laboratory for Multiscale Regenerative Technologies, she tackles some of medicine’s most intractable problems, developing sophisticated devices and methods for diagnosing and treating human disease.

Bhatia’s research defies traditional academic categories, drawing simultaneously on biological and medical sciences, and multiple engineering disciplines. She has generated dozens of patents, several business spinouts, and earned a host of major scientific honors, including the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Prize, a $500,000 award recognizing an outstanding American midcareer inventor, and the David and Lucile Packard Fellowship, given to the nation’s most promising young professors in science and engineering.

A member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, her unorthodox career got an early start, thanks in part to Bhatia’s self-described passion for “tinkering.” As a child, she could fix the family’s broken answering machine, and was handy with hot glue guns “in a Martha Stewart way.” Her father, recognizing her potential as an engineer, brought her to the lab of an MIT acquaintance who was using focused ultrasound to heat up tumors. Her encounter with technology used against deadly disease proved formative.

Bhatia was determined to become a biomedical engineer, earning an undergraduate degree in the field. She came to view the human body “as a fascinating machine” whose failures she might address by designing interventions. But it was while she was simultaneously pursuing her doctorate in medical engineering at MIT and her MD at Harvard Medical School that Bhatia’s core research concerns began to crystallize.

Investigating a potential artificial organ to process the blood of patients suffering liver failure, Bhatia improvised a novel approach. Borrowing microfabrication technology from the semiconductor industry, she arrayed liver cells on a synthetic surface, and to her delight, this hybrid tissue remained alive in the lab for weeks. Scientists had long sought a way to sustain liver cells ex vivo, and Bhatia had delivered a biomedical first.