David Berry always was inventive. As a child, he loved to build but never built anything according to the directions. He mixed Legos with Tinker Toys to create original schooners, catamarans, and castles.
“I loved building because of its unlimited potential,” he says. “You could run out of pieces, but the infinite part was your imagination.”
His mother, Linda, says she always knew he would become an inventor. It was just a matter of time.
Now, the 27-year-old graduate student from Mt. Kisko, N.Y., has won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for Invention for developing revolutionary approaches to treat stroke and cancer.
Institute Prof. Robert Langer, one of his advisors, says: “David’s ability to produce a wide variety of inventions with such tremendous clinical potential is rare.… His new and insightful ways to tackle problems have produced solutions with the potential to change medical practice.”
Berry’s research led to the invention of a new protein that can limit brain damage if administered within 24 hours of a stroke. And if administered after 24 hours, it can still improve a patient’s recovery rate, while also reducing side effects. The drug is now patented and licensed and will soon be tested at clinical trials.
In addition, his research into heparin led to his creating a polymer-heparin conjugate, which can help with the treatment of cancer. The conjugate is absorbed first by cancerous cells instead of healthy cells, and then kills the cancer cells.
“With this single invention, David made several innovations to create a new way to potentially treat a wide variety of cancers,” says Prof. Ram Sasisekharan, his co-advisor. “This technique paves an exciting new path for the anti-cancer potential of heparin.”
And recently, Berry also developed a “cancer Band-Aid“ — a biomaterial to stop cancer cells from spreading and to remove cells that may have been missed during surgery.
Berry says that he hopes his treatments for cancer will one day help others like the friend he had in childhood, who died of a brain tumor when they were 8. “I wasn’t consciously thinking about it when I did the research,” he says, “but (the death) really affected me. I’ve never forgotten it, and I probably never will.”
Berry, the son of a lawyer and an art dealer, earned an MIT degree in brain and cognitive sciences in 2000 and now is a doctoral candidate in biological engineering. He is also working toward a medical degree through the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology Program. He got the idea to become a doctor one summer, he says, after he took an EMT training course and loved it.
If he could fix any problem on earth, Berry says, he would reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, which would cut the price of electricity and power, reduce pollution, and affect our geopolitical stability.
In fact, he says, he is now examining new ways to use sugar biology and bacteria to develop hydrogen gas more cost-effectively. This process could someday revolutionize the production of hydrogen and lead to a decreased dependence on fossil fuels.
Berry says that it was actually MIT Prof. Robert Langer who gave him the insight to make his discoveries when he told him to think in the context of big problems.
“As I looked at my microcosm of research, I asked myself, How can I use these results to treat stroke or cancer?” Berry says. “Now, I always ask myself, What’s the application for this? I always think about the small picture at the same time as the big.”
Berry adds that he dreamed up dozens of ideas that did not work before he made his effective discoveries. “Experiments do not always work out the way you plan,” he says. “But I find that I often learn as much from what does not work as I do from the successes.
“There’s a lot I want to do in life,” he says. “I hope to achieve something good to benefit society. Helping to cure disease is one way I can really have a strong impact. I hope to come up with inventions that will really serve the world.”