Speaking at the Knight Science Journalism program, the Wyss Institute director showcased the institute’s diverse portfolio of bio-inspired engineering work.
Of all his accomplishments — 450 research publications, close to 200 patents, 35 years on the faculty of Harvard University — Donald Ingber is most proud of having founded the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Ingber told attendees of a seminar at the Knight Science Journalism Program on November 12. Ingber started the non-profit Wyss Institute 10 years ago with the single largest gift in Harvard’s history — $125 million dollars. A decade later, the funding, and the technological innovation, continue to flow.
In a presentation that he described as “a Disneyland ride” through bioinspired technology, Ingber showcased a long list of technologies that have emerged from the Wyss Institute’s wide portfolio of research, including vibrating shoe inserts for the elderly, a cancer vaccine licensed to Novartis, a remedy for vascular occlusion, self-assembling nanorobotic molecules, and a breathing human lung on a computer chip.
The lung-on-a-chip has attracted particular attention from investors since it was unveiled in 2010. The chip could potentially solve what Ingber sees as one of the biggest problems in health care research: a broken drug development system that’s overly reliant on mice and other animal models. “It costs probably [over] $3 billion to go from discovery at the bench to regulatory approval” said Ingber. Most of these drugs fail in clinical trials, he continued, because “over 70 percent of the time the results of animal studies are wrong.”
The lung-on-a-chip idea was conceived as a way to model real life organ functions of humans in a manner that’s safer, more ethical, and more reliable than animal studies, Ingber said. It consists of a membrane, coated with lung cells on the top and capillary cells on the bottom, that can expand and contract to mimic breathing. When bacteria are introduced on the top of the membrane to simulate a lung infection and white blood cells are introduced on the capillary side, the white blood cells are observed to penetrate the membrane and attack the bacterial invaders, just as they would in a real human lung.
The Institute is working on similar organs-on-chips that can model the gut, liver, kidney, heart, and bones. The goal, Ingber said, is to build a complete model of a human system that can be used to study how drugs move through the body. A chip may not be the perfect substitute for an actual body, Ingber said, but he believes it’s still a step in the right direction.
With a strategic intellectual property team, in-house prototype developers for commercial endeavors, and a communications department that includes animators and writers, the Wyss Institute is designed to get research swiftly out of the lab and into the world. Occasionally, projects do hit snags. For instance, Ingber recalled suffering a setback on a treatment for sepsis, a life-threatening condition commonly triggered by hospital infections, when an investor decided to back a competing product instead.
The Wyss Institute regularly touts the work of its three-dozen core and affiliate faculty through press releases and animated explainers. Ingber said that although the Institute’s early efforts to build a strong communications team were initially met with some pushback from academics, the Institute’s ethos is “Breakthrough discoveries cannot change the world if they do not leave the lab.”