Alice Chen / Harvard-MIT
A mouse with a human-like has been created that could improve the safety and efficacy of the drug discovery pipeline. The innovation helped earn Alice Chen at Harvard-MIT win the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.
A "humanized mouse" is among four innovations honored this year with the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, an annual invention contest that comes with a $30,000 check.
The mouse has been outfitted with a liver that was engineered to be human-like, a step that could improve the safety and efficiency of the drug discovery process.
Other winners include a manual-powered wheelchair with an automatic gear shift that improves mobility of wheelchair users; a novel technique to detect bombs and dangerous chemicals with terahertz waves, and a powerful portable microscope for hunting down malaria.
All of the inventions are breakthroughs that prove the spirit of innovation is alive and strong in at least some corners of America.
The mouse with the human-like liver bridges a gap in the drug discovery pipeline between laboratory animals and human trials, Alice Chen, a biomedical engineer and graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences, told me on Tuesday.
Alice Chen invented a mouse with a human-like liver.
In the current pipeline, drugs are tested on animals such as lab mice before they cleared for human trials. The problem is that animals and humans are different in how their livers metabolize drugs. As a result, some lethal adverse interactions aren't caught before the human trails.
"We have some sad and preventable deaths," Chen said.
To help avoid those unnecessary deaths, Chen tissue-engineered a liver that breaks down drugs and responds to toxic drug products like a human liver and implanted it into a mouse. In these "humanized mice," she has found breakdown products of drugs that are normally only found in humans, proving the concept works.
Chen has also co-founded Sienna Labs, a biotechnology startup that has developed a class of medical pigments to enhance laser surgeries for skin disease.
"They are separate ventures, but in my mind they are connected in a way that's bringing a technology to a medical space that has a need for improved efficacy and improved safety," she said.
As Scott Daigle walked around the campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, he watched how people who were in wheelchairs moved and decided that he could improve on the design. He did just that with his IntelliWheels, a manual wheelchair with an automatic gear shift.
University of Ilinois at Urbana-Champaign
Scott Daigle has invented a manual powered wheelchair with an automatic gear shift.
He told me that it is similar to the way people ride bicycles. "As they go up and down hills, shifting gears can make it much more ergonomically efficient. We use that same idea but in an automatic sense," he said.
Sensors on the chairs sense speed, how hard the users are pushing on the wheel rims, and the tilt of the slope. Based on those parameters, it shifts into the appropriate gear.
Daigle hopes the technology will cut down on the incidence and severity of shoulder pain experienced by many wheelchair users. "It can be almost an environmental barrier by having pain in your shoulders every push," he noted.
The technology entrepreneur is also developing other features for wheelchair users, including "hamster skis" that go on the small wheels in front of the chair and make getting around on snow covered sidewalks and roads easier.
Some of the so-called naked body scanners at airports used to see through passengers clothes and determine if they are carrying things such as plastic explosives do this with terahertz waves, which occupy a segment of the electromagnetic spectrum between the infrared and microwave bands.
Rensselaer / Kris Qua
Benjamin Clough has invented a way to use sound waves to remotely detect terahertz waves.
Benjamin Clough, a graduate student in the department of electrical, computer and systems engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute uses them to do spectroscopy – that is getting chemical fingerprint of materials such as bombs.
A limitation of the technology, though, is that terahertz technology only works over distances of a few feet. At longer distances, naturally occurring moisture in the air absorbs the terahertz waves, weakening the signal. To overcome this limitation, Clough went on a beach vacation to Mexico.
That's where a discussion with his dad, a retired scientist with Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, helped him figure out a way to use soundwaves to remotely listen to terahertz waves.
To do this, he focuses two laser beams into the air to create small bursts of plasma, which in turn create terahertz pulses. Another pair of lasers is aimed near the target of interest to create a second plasma for detecting the terahertz pulses after they have interacted with the material.
This detection plasma produces acoustic waves as it ionizes the air.
"This is similar to a lightning and thunder situation," he told me. "You have a flash of light and a crack of thunder and it is this acoustic wave that I'm monitoring." That's because when the terahertaz interacts with this plasma, it influences the sound waves.
"We are taking that acoustic information that has the encoded terahertz information and we are able to retrieve the exact electric field profile of the terahertz pulse simply by listening to this event," he explained.
So far, the concept has been proven in the lab at distances of about 35 feet, making it, eventually, applicable for monitoring objects from a safe distance.
"You could envision several years down the road … a system where we could actually use this to detect an explosive material from 10, maybe 30 meters away," he said.
For electrical engineering graduate student Guoan Zheng at the California Institute of Technology, his combination of a portable, high-resolution on-chip microscope and the computing power of smart phones should be enough to allow affordable detection of malaria in blood cells anywhere in the world.
EAS Communications Office at Caltech
Guoan Zheng invented a portable, on-chip microscope that provides high-resolution images.
The microscope doesn't use a lens or other optical components to magnify the blood cells, he explained to me. "Instead, we take a sequence of low resolution images of the cell (with a CMOS sensor) and then we process this sequence of low-resolution images to get a high-resolution image."
The on-chip microscope is about the size of a human thumbnail. The breakthrough means that a microscope as powerful as conventional lab microscope can be carried to remote parts of the world where bulky, expensive lab equipment isn't practical or possible.
This might help prevent some of the 1 million deaths attributed to malaria, a disease that is detected with a conventional microscope. "This whole process can be simplified using our little device," he said.
Zheng now plans to develop a smart phone application that can do the image processing for the microscope. "In the near future, there will be 1 billion smart phones out there," he noted. "So, if we can take advantage of that, the impact of our device will be much higher."
More stories about innovation:
- Eyeglass maker wins prize for inventors
- Creator of bomb detector wins prize
- Biotech pioneer wins invention prize
- Sound beam inventor takes the prize
- 7 award-winning innovations
- How inventive is the next generation
John Roach is a contributing writer for msnbc.com. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by hitting the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page or following msnbc.com's science editor, Alan Boyle, on Twitter (@b0yle).