Health

Professor Linda Griffith leads MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research, founded in 2009.

Professor Linda Griffith leads MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research, founded in 2009.

Update: Watch the MIT’s Research in Women’s Health webcast.

In the March 2014 Faculty Forum Online, Linda G. Griffith, director of MIT’s Center for Gynepathology Research (CGR), shared new techniques for attacking endometriosis and research on systems biology and tissue engineering that has impact on clinical practice in gynecology. Follow the MIT Alumni Association on Twitter or use the hashtag #mitfaculty for live tweets during the event. Watch the archived webcast.

CGR brings together engineers, biologists, and clinicians to work on understanding of the basic biology, physiology, and pathophysiology of the female reproductive tract and the diagnosis and treatment of related diseases.

Griffin faced some of the tough issues CGR works on when she had her own breast cancer diagnosis. Read about her journey in the New York Times article, “Cancer Fight: Unclear Tests for New Drug.”

 

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Research focused on some women’s health issues, such as breast cancer, receives significant attention in scientific and funding communities while other areas, such as gynecological disorders, garner much less interest and support.

These disparities led MIT Department of Biological Engineering Professor Linda Griffith to co-found the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research, an interdisciplinary research group that brings new engineering and science approaches into the underserved area of gynepathology.

In the March 2014 Faculty Forum Online, Griffith shared insights into new techniques for attacking endometriosis and discussed research on systems biology and tissue engineering that has impact on clinical practice in gynecology.

Following her comments, Griffith—a renowned expert on regenerative medicine—took live questions from the worldwide MIT community. Enjoy a sample or watch the full webcast then continue the discussion in the comments below.

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Linda Griffith

About Linda Griffith

Professor of Biological and Mechanical Engineering Linda Griffith’s research focuses on tissue engineering, which the manipulation of cells using to form multi-dimensional structures that carry out the functions of normal tissue in vitro or in vivo. Her work focuses on controlling the spatial and temporal presentation of molecular ligands and physical cues which are known to influence cell behavior.

Griffith is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the Popular Science Brilliant 10 Award, NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, and the MIT Class of 1960 Teaching Innovation Award. As chair of MIT’s Undergraduate Curriculum Committee for Biological Engineering, she led development of the Biological Engineering undergraduate degree program—MIT’s first new undergraduate major in more than 40 years.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Georgia Tech and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, both in chemical engineering.

Related

MIT Department of Biological Engineering profile
MIT Center for Gynepathology Research

Cancer Fight: Unclear Tests for New Drug,” New York Times
MIT bioengineer works to unravel endometriosis,” Boston Globe
Scientist takes aim at her longtime silent scourge,” Boston Globe

About Faculty Forum Online

Eight times per season, the Faculty Forum Online presents compelling interviews with faculty on timely and relevant topics. Viewers watch and participate in live 30-minute interviews via interactive chat. Since its inception in 2011, archival editions of these programs have been viewed more than 50,000 times.

For the 2013-2014 season, the Alumni Association will produce three public service-themed evening editions, titled “One Community Together in Service.”

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Guest Post by Deborah Halber from the Ask an Engineer series, published by MIT’s School of Engineering

Gray hair, sagging skin, wrinkles—all signs of aging can be traced to the same cause: dying cells…

Photo: Erin Murphy

Gray hair, sagging skin, wrinkles—all these signs of aging can be traced to the same cause—dying cells, said MIT biologist Lenny Guarente ’74, author of the 2007 book Ageless Quest: One Scientist’s Search for the Genes that Prolong Youth.

Hair follicle cells cooperate with cells that produce pigments such as melanin that make hair shades of brown, black, blond or red, said Guarente, a pioneer and leader in the study of the molecular biology of aging. As we get older, the pigment-producing cells fail, and the only thing left is the white, unpigmented protein that makes up the hair shaft.

“The reason we lose the ability to make the pigments is that we lose a lot of cells as we get older,” he said, including the subcutaneous fat cells that keep skin looking smooth and wrinkle-free. “Those cells die with age. A lot of the physical aspects of aging can be explained by damage to important macro-molecules and death of cells.”

Guarente’s lab studies sirtuins—proteins that are now understood to retard aging in a wide variety of organisms. While he is interested in reversing symptoms of age-related diseases—not improving appearance—he expects that his work, which “attacks the aging process high up in the hierarchy” may affect a lot of things in the mix—including, potentially, graying hair. At MIT, one-third of the engineers now work on biological problems, including cancer research.

Visit the MIT School of Engineering’s Ask an Engineer site for answers to more of your questions.

 

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Despite spending 18% of its money on health care, the United States gets less in return than other countries. Here, doctors more often prescribe antibiotics for common viruses despite knowing better, and patients often don’t stick to their physicians’ recommended treatment.

Doug Hough ’71 discusses these and other such quandaries in the U.S. health care system in a new book. Amid the chaos of the Affordable Care Act’s debut year, Hough published Irrationality in Health Care, What Behavioral Economics Reveals About What We Do and Why.

Doug Hough ’71.

Hough, who studied economics under four Nobel laureates in his days at MIT, is now an associate professor in the department of health policy and management at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University. After teaching medical students traditional economics for years, he discovered that behavioral economics, a relatively new field, appealed much more strongly to their experience. Hough realized that no one had yet written an examination of how the country might learn from applying such a model to the healthcare system at large.

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“The problem with the Affordable Care Act,” says Hough, “and in some sense with Healthcare.gov is that now people are mandated to have some insurance…but in order to have that insurance they’ve had to go through that awful experience on the website. [Americans] want to buy insurance with as much difficulty as they have buying a book on Amazon.”

“One way this whole process could have been easier is to say by default you are automatically insured. That way, everybody would know they would have insurance starting January 1, and they’d have the ability and ease to change that in a relatively short period of time.”

Listen to or download this podcast for more of Hough’s thoughts on contemporary health care and economics.

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Despite the cold outside, inside MIT’s CityFarm bell peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes are ripening for an early February harvest. Unlike conventional farming methods, many of CityFarm’s plants are being grown with air.

Photo: Aleszu Bajak

Founded by Caleb Harper MArch ’14, CityFarm is an MIT Media Lab initiative designed to explore the large-scale adoption of both aeroponics and hydroponics to “invent the future of agriculture,” according to their website. Unlike traditional farming, which irrigates and uses soil as structural support, an aeroponic plant’s roots are fed a mineral-enriched mist and protected in boxlike chambers. Plants are exposed to spectrally-optimized LED lights and are constantly evaluated to ensure optimum growing conditions.

The results? A head of romaine lettuce can grow in 19 days. By comparison, it takes 80 days to grow the same lettuce through traditional farming and 22 days using hydroponics, which submerges the roots in water.

Aeroponics uses 98 percent less water than conventional farming, and plants can grow 365 days a year inside and in much smaller areas. That’s a whole lot more veggies even during Boston’s chilliest winters.

Harper and his team of farmers celebrate their first harvest this past November.

Harper and his team of farmers celebrate their first harvest this past November.
Photo: Aleszu Bajak

With recent estimates that 60 percent of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2030, aeroponics might be an increasingly common growing method in cities. Harper predicts city dwellers will be able to pick up their berries, lettuce, and vegetables at local growing sites right in their neighborhoods.

Back at CityFarm, the lab’s 1,500 plants provide Harper’s team with detailed data on embodied energy—exactly how much energy a plant needs to grow. Small radio transmitters on the lights, misters, and other equipment submit information on each kilowatt of energy used. Eventually equipment will tweet this data.

Such detailed tracking of energy inputs and produce outputs is new to farming. Often the energy required to power the tractor or transport tomatoes to the grocery store is rarely factored into the true energy requirements to grow produce. Harper hopes to change that.

Harper envisions launching an Open Agriculture Initiative in the next couple months with CityFarm hosting an open source platform of farming data to improve the evaluation of aeroponics and other farming methods. “We’re providing an economic and data-driven back bone for fundamental agricultural change,” he said.

Caleb Harper checks on lettuce plants in the CityFarm. Photo: Kent Larson

He sees MIT leading the way in the new technology-agriculture space and encouraging cross-discipline scholarship between tech and agriculture universities. “I’m not competing with agriculture, I’m really providing networked intelligence and technological optimization that wasn’t there before.”

For now, Harper continues to taste test his lettuce plants in preparation for the upcoming harvest. “I have become a lettuce connoisseur,” he jokes.

For farm updates and news on the latest harvest event follow CityFarm on Twitter at @MITCityFARM.

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Minutes matter. Emergency medical technicians like Crystal Law ’07 know this too well.

After reviving heart-attack victims in ambulances en route to hospitals on Boston’s north shore, Law was often frustrated by what many EMTs see every day: an inefficient system for getting vital stats from a moving vehicle to a stationery hospital and its overworked staff.

Now Law says that she’s found a solution through software. In 2013, she launched Twiage, a software service for EMTs and health care workers.

Twiage (a combination of “Twitter” and “Triage”) lets EMTs send real-time diagnostic stats on patients from a central database to the entire chain of doctors, nurses, and medical personnel who will treat a patient as she arrives at a hospital and is checked in.

Twiage founder Crystal Law ’07.

Law founded the company with a doctor and a serial entrepreneur and sought mentoring from MIT Sloan Entrepreneur in Residence Zen Chu and Center for Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology EIR Mike Dempsey. The Twiage team entered last fall’s MIT 100k Pitch Contest where their product placed in the top three in the mobile category.

A month earlier, Twiage won Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) iHub Hackathon in a landslide vote. In December, it won the 2014 Massachusetts Medical Society IT Award, given for innovation in information technology for medicine.

Twiage works essentially through photo-sharing. While in an ambulance, or in an emergency room, a patient is photographed along with a photo of his vital stats readout. This is sent via HIPPA approved code to a server which doctors and medical personnel can view in the hospital.

Twiage, Law says, saves EMTs time in explaining a patient’s ever-changing state and needs to medical staffs while they themselves are in a distracted state. Radios can be staticky, doctors too busy to listen, and ambulances too stuck in traffic. Twiage lets all parties access info on their own timeframe.

“We’re going for something simple and elegant,” says Law of Twiage. “[Co-founder] Dr. YiDing Yu and I worked to create a concise dashboard of the pertinent information that EMTs and doctors need, so we don’t have stop what we’re doing.”

With Twiage, Law told JustMeans in an interview, “there’s no more waiting around, no more health care providers trying to catch each other up because they already know what’s happening.”

This winter, Law is piloting the software in a major Boston hospital. One of the biggest obstacles to date, given that Twiage relies on each EMT’s personal device, has been security.

“It’s always on our minds,” Law says. “We’re always hacking away at encryption. Security is a major part of the development effort and is made much harder by our support for bring-your-own-device. We have to do security from scratch and every bit of added security impacts performance, battery life, user experience, and functionality.”

Recently, Twiage won seed funding from Blueprint Health in New York City, and Law and her team hope to continue raising capital to expand their business and its functionality.

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on Dec. 6, Slice highlighted MIT alumni who were nominated for TIME magazine’s Person of the Year. But those alumni nominees weren’t the only MITers honored by the magazine in 2013.

A few months back, TIME announced the 2013 TIME 100, the magazine’s annual list of the 100 most influential people throughout the past calendar year. According to TIME, entrants are recognized for changing and affecting the world—in a positive or negative way.

Three MIT alumni made this year’s list and Slice is proud to announce that each had a positive effect on the world in 2013.

Image via TIME

Image via TIME

Mario Draghi PhD ’77

As president of the European Central Bank, Draghi oversees the world’s largest single-currency area and is responsible for leading the European banking system towards an economic recovery.

“After 18 months at the helm of the Frankfurt institution, Mario has reshaped the bank. His down-to-earth approach and keen sense of humor conceal a formidable will and the courage to take on skeptics for the good of the currency — and the continent.”

Image via TIME

Image via TIME

Katherine Luzuriaga ’78, SM ’80

Luzuriaga is an immunologist from the University of Massachusetts who, according to the magazine, is one of three women responsible orchestrating a medical breakthrough that functionally cured a newborn of AIDS.

Luzuriaga was named to the list alongside Hannah Gay, a pediatrician at the University of Mississippi, and Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.

“There’s even hope that adults may benefit from the same rapid treatment immediately after HIV infection. Following the success with the newborn, another study reported that 14 more patients have been able to control HIV. These findings show that early HIV treatment has even greater benefits than previously thought.”

Image via TIME

Image via TIME

Andrew Ng SM ’98

Ng, the director of the Stanford University AI Lab, cofound Coursera, the educational technology company that partners with universities to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs). He was named to the list with Coursera cofounder and Stanford Professor Daphne Koller.

“Coursera recruited elite schools and top professors, offers a range of courses beyond computer science and built a platform with enough bandwidth to reach a global audience. Daphne and Andrew’s energy and devotion to try to educate the world is terrific.”

In 2012, five members of the TIME 100 had MIT connections: Draghi; educational pioneer Sal Khan ’98, MEng ’98; Professor Andrew Lo; Benjamin Netanyahu ’75, SM ’76; and Professor Donald Sadoway.

What’s your take? Are there other MIT alumni—or anyone else—who should have been named to the TIME 100? And which alums should be named to the 2014 list? Let us know in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

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Paul Walker PhD ’78 spent Thanksgiving day en route to Scandinavia, where he will have an exciting two weeks.

On Tuesday afternoon, he’ll be honored at the Swedish Parliament building with the Right Livelihood Award, which honors individuals “offering practical and exemplary answers to the most urgent challenges” facing the world.

The Right Livelihood Foundation, which will bestow half a million krona upon Walker’s organization Green Cross International, lauds him for his lifelong crusade to rid the world of chemical weapons.

Paul Walker PhD '78. Photo: Green Cross.

Paul Walker PhD ’78.
Photo: GCI.

A week after that appearance in Stockholm, Walker will join his colleagues from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Oslo for the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize. This year’s prize honors OPCW, which Walker advocated for creating in 1997 and to whose convention and diplomacy he has been a noted contributor.

“I am honored to receive the Right Livelihood Award, and to see the OPCW so recognized with the Nobel,” Walker said earlier this week, “but it’s this new public attention to building a world free of chemical weapons which will carry the day.”

Walker’s name has become synonymous with demilitarization in the past three decades. He has been outspoken this fall about Syria’s chemical weapons disarmament after the deadly August attack near Damascus, and he has been on site for several inspections over the years in other nations. Walker’s citation for the Right Livelihood Award credits him with leading elimination efforts of over 55,000 metric tons of chemical weapons over the years.

While the United States and Russia still hold the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons, Walker is also concerned about Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, North Korea, and South Sudan, the six nations that have yet to ratify OPCW’s convention.

Walker, who lives in Washington, leads Green Cross’s advocacy in the United States, supporting green housing, clean water, and alternative energy initiatives.  Founded by former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, Green Cross International also works on environmental disaster readiness, mine safety, and air and water pollution crises in developing nations.

While abroad this month, Walker will continue his work in helping advise authorities on Syria’s promised disposal of chemical weapons, though as he told the New Yorker, it won’t be easy. Finding a European country to take in and help dispose of many of the weapons is his utmost concern at present.

But in the next two weeks, Walker will have time to reflect on the work behind him and celebrate how far his efforts have brought him and the world. Both awards, he says, are an important acknowledgement of that.

“This success will demonstrate that we can indeed eliminate a whole class of weapons of mass destruction today,” says Walker, “and also verify that chemical weapons will never again reemerge. This is an enormous breakthrough in global security for all humankind.”

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2762089_GWhen Thad Starner ’91, SM ’95, PhD ’99 created his first wearable computer as an undergraduate, he hoped it would help him take notes in class without having to divert his eyes from the board. As the technical lead and manager on Google’s Project Glass, Starner brought that ability to the rest of the world—and Google Glass has proved particularly helpful to surgeons who don’t want to divert their eyes from the operating table.

Many surgeons have used the device to take video of their surgeries for use as teaching tools, or even to communicate with other doctors, but cardiothoracic surgeon Pierre Theodore, MD has begun to use his Glass as a reference tool as well.

“To be able to have those X-rays directly in your field [of vision] without having to leave the operating room or to log on to another system elsewhere, or to turn yourself away from the patient in order to divert your attention, is very helpful in terms of maintaining your attention where it should be, which is on the patient 100 percent of the time,” Theodore explained in a Health Canal feature story.

Watch how surgeons make use of Google Glass’s teleconferencing features via this UAB News footage, in which orthopedic surgeon Brent Ponce, MD operates on a patient in Alabama while consulting with a Georgia-based colleague Phani Dantuluri, MD.

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Trevor Mundel, Gates Foundation

Trevor Mundel, Gates Foundation; Photo: David Barron

The intersection of science, medicine, and data informatics will likely be the source of future medical engineering breakthroughs, according to the doctors, researchers, and scientists at MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering & Science (IMES) inaugural symposium, held during the fall semester.  “Be bold, think big, and save the world,” President Rafael Reif told participants who are tackling new treatments for child mortality, HIV/AIDS, and other diseases.

Speakers described substantial global challenges:

•    Nearly half of the 6.6 million children under the age of five who die each year worldwide could be saved using existing medical treatments.

•    By 2050, worldwide reported cases of Alzheimer’s are estimated to nearly triple to 277 million.

•    Only half of the 33 million people living with HIV have received treatment.

Costs are also a critical issue. In the US alone, national health expenditures account for nearly 18 percent of GDP in 2011, according to the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and are nearly two and a half times that of other OECD countries. Costs are expected to rise as the nation—and much of the world—grapple with health care for an increasing elderly population.

Surprisingly, health care technologies are often part of the problem, because they further drive up costs. Emery Brown, IMES associate director, called for participants to innovate wisely by developing “frugal engineering” ideas.

President Rafael Reif

President Rafael Reif
Photo: David Barron

 

In third-world countries, medical innovations not only need to be frugal, but sometimes they even need to be more technologically advanced than those in the developed world. “All too often products are not good enough for the countries where they need to be deployed,” said Trevor Mundel, president of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program.

For example, vaccines must be made to withstand high temperatures for years in storage because refrigeration is not always an option for third-world clinics. Clinicians also need real-time tools for diagnosis to so contagious patients will not be sent home to infect their communities.

The symposium, which can be viewed online, was part of MIT’s broader initiative to improve global healthcare. IMES will house the interdisciplinary MIT-Harvard Health Sciences and Technology graduate program and build partnerships with MIT scientists and engineers and doctors at Boston-area teaching hospitals.

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