Professor Angela Belcher, a materials scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the MIT program co-Leader for the ICB at UCSB, is featured in The Economist this quarter for her impressive research and inventions that span a multitude of industries. Her research focuses on rapidly evolving genetically engineered viruses to build new materials and devices for clean energy, electronics, the environment and medicine.
Belcher’s basic virus toolkit, already used to great success in other fields is now being used with her colleagues in the medical field at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, which Belcher joined in 2010. “Working on cancer is so important. I didn’t want to take up space and not contribute and make a difference,” said Belcher. But she attended tutorials and became more confident by considering cancer as yet another material to work with. Although it is in the early days, the work looks promising.
The plan is to produce a medical probe, which can be used to locate extremely small tumors. One way this is being tried is to get genetically engineered viruses to latch onto carbon nanotubes, which glow under light from a laser. These viruses carrying the tubes would be injected into the body, and with light shining on the skin, be capable of glowing up to 10cm or so inside the body. The glow can be detected with a specialized camera.
The technique is still experimental and is being tried out in the laboratory on cellular models of ovarian cancer, which can be difficult for surgeons to detect when the tumors are tiny. There is a lot to do, but, says Belcher, “I know we can find very small tumors and that should allow surgeons to remove them.”
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