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A microengineer who thinks big

(Lemelson-Mit Program)
By Carolyn Y. Johnson
Globe Staff / March 14, 2011

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Alice A. Chen, a biomedical engineer, set out with a big goal: to build an artificial human liver that could ultimately help the thousands of patients who must wait months or years for scarce donor organs. But as the graduate student built prototypes, embedding human cells in a device resembling a contact lens, she realized her work could have more immediate consequences.

Chen discovered she could implant the engineered slivers of human liver into rodents and create “humanized’’ lab mice that might one day be used to improve drug development and safety screening.

“The convergence of science and engineering and business — I think there is more of an awareness that it’s an integration of these different areas that is really going to be important in making an impact on the world,’’ Chen said.

“Certainly as a graduate student, we all want to work on interesting problems. But if we find some solution, we’d really like to see that advance go out into the world.’’

For her creativity in bringing microengineering techniques to biomedical research, Chen — a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences — was awarded a 2011 Lemelson-MIT student prize last week.The $30,000 prize highlights inventive work by undergraduate and graduate students.

Chen’s graduate adviser, Dr. Sangeeta Bhatia at MIT, said Chen was remarkable for the diversity of her interests as well as for her ability. Instead of working in one area, Chen integrated her work into projects across the laboratory, which focuses on using “tiny technologies’’ — micro- or nano-size tools — to manipulate the environment of tissue on the finest scales.

Bhatia and Chen realized that a mouse with a humanized liver could surmount a major hurdle in the development of drugs and provide a new model for diseases that do not affect rodents the same way they affect humans, such as hepatitis C.

Many drugs fail in clinical trials because toxic effects do not become apparent until they are tested in humans. Mice and other animals are useful surrogates for humans during initial tests, but many drugs that seem safe and effective in animals turn out to be dangerous when tested in people. If it were possible to do testing in an animal that more closely resembles a human being — such as a mouse with a human liver — safety issues might be flagged earlier.

“Her passion to tackle problems and create solutions through collaboration and tenacity are qualities that must be celebrated at the collegiate level,’’ Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, said in a statement.

Chen, 29, said her interest in science grew out of her love of art. Unlike some people, who knew from day one that they wanted to be engineers, she was drawn to art projects. She said she has found that biomedical engineering gives her an opportunity to use her creativity to try to solve real problems.

“We try to bring novel solutions to problems in health and science, and that’s been my whole goal as a grad student: to immerse myself in what biological and medical problems are there and be creative about finding solutions to the problems,’’ Chen said.

After she receives her doctoral degree, Chen plans to concentrate on Sienna Labs, a start-up that she cofounded.

The company, which has offices in Boston and Southern California, is developing pigments that could enable greater precision in laser surgery for skin disease. Chen said the company is just beginning to raise seed funding, with hopes of launching a clinical trial within a year.

Chen said that her scientific mentors and her graduate program — which included clinical rotations as well as lab work — inspired and pushed her professionally. Personally, she said, she owes a lot to her single working mother, who taught her persistence, hard work, and never taking opportunities for granted.

Other Lemelson-MIT student prizes were awarded to students at the California Institute of Technology, the University of Illinois, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Guoan Zheng at Caltech created a microscope imaging technology that could be used as an inexpensive diagnostic tool in developing countries.

Scott Daigle at the University of Illinois built an automatic gear-shifting system to help people in wheelchairs get around.

And Benjamin Clough at RPI developed a way to use sound waves to improve the remote detection of hazardous materials.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com.