Alice Chen just received a Ph.D. from MIT and is already proving the potential of biomedical engineering to make human health care safer and more effective.
Cofounder of a biomedical startup, Sienna Labs, Chen recently won the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for invention for her innovative work in microtechnology — including developing a humanized mouse with a tissue-engineered human liver.
The work should greatly speed the testing and approval of new medications. Currently, approximately 90 percent of all drugs fail in clinical trials — many due to unforeseen liver toxicity. Since animal livers differ from those in people, using this model for testing should reveal toxic compounds earlier and with less risk to human health.
Improving health care is common to Chen’s work, which has produced numerous new technologies over the past six years. “I always wanted to do something creative, but health-care related,” said Chen, citing the influence of her mother, a clinical nutritionist. Her research has led her to apply for five patents; she also recently launched Sienna Labs, a company that has developed a new class of medical pigments to enhance microsurgeries for skin disease.
“I’m excited about Sienna Labs because of its potential to rapidly make a difference in dermatological medicine,” Chen said. “Lasers have a limited range of efficiency and safety. Procedures are therefore either ineffective or dangerous…The pigments we’ve developed can help lasers work better.”
Collaboration has been key to her success. “Critical to my work was conjoining techniques and ideas from different labs and fields — and doing it with brilliant people,” said Chen, who this spring received a Ph.D. from the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Another factor of her success, she said, was entering biomedical engineering at a time when the field was still defining itself. “We didn’t have a curriculum, so my cohort and I had to make our own,” she said. “I think it was unofficial training for how to later figure out how to meld different disciplines.”
Fascinated by the prospect of interfacing biological materials with synthetic materials, Chen sought to do her doctoral research with Sangeeta Bhatia, MD, an MIT professor of health sciences and technology and electrical engineering who has pioneered the use of microtechnology and nanotechnology to repair and regenerate tissue.
“She was so accomplished, yet approachable. I knew I could learn from her not just science, but work-life balance and how to be a successful leader in a male-dominated field,” Chen says of Bhatia, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
Chen focused her research on the liver because Bhatia’s lab was growing hepatocytes (liver cells) in artificial arrays — work preparatory to the goal of tissue engineering, which is to make artificial organs. And, while the liver Chen developed remains far from one that could be transplanted into a person, she said she was thrilled to discover her invention worked. When she first saw the human liver tissue vascularized within the mouse, she said, “I remember thinking, whatever happens, this is really cool.”
It’s the same phrase she uses to describe how she felt when she first looked through a microscope as a child — which may be why Chen spends so much time encouraging young people. “I try to expose people to how fun science and technology is,” said Chen, who mentors MIT and Harvard undergraduates and volunteers in the community.
Chen maintains that science, engineering, and innovation are accessible career pursuits for anyone who’s interested. “The message I want to give young people is that you should just work hard at what you love to do.”