Graduate student Alice Chen wins 2011 Lemelson-MIT student prize

$30,000 prize recognizes four individuals nationwide who show exceptional innovation and a portfolio of inventiveness

Alice Chen, winner of the 2011 MIT-Lemelson student prize. Photo courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT Program.

Cambridge, Mass. - March 9, 2011 – Alice A. Chen (Ph.D. ’11) today received the prestigious $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for her innovative applications of microtechnology to study human health and disease.

Chen, a biomedical engineer, is enrolled at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in the Medical Engineering and Medical Physics (MEMP) program, which is part of the collaborative Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology (HST).

She is the second SEAS student to win the Lemelson-MIT prize. Last year, SEAS/HST graduate Erez Lieberman Aiden (Ph.D. '10), now a junior fellow in Harvard's Society of Fellows, won the award for his inventive work on the three-dimensional structure of the genome.

A fearless problem solver with a passion for mentorship, Chen is honored alongside three other winners from across the nation.

“Alice Chen’s inventive accomplishments will impact the effectiveness of new therapies,” says Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “Her passion to tackle problems and create solutions through collaboration and tenacity are qualities that must be celebrated at the collegiate level.”

“Much like this year’s winners from Caltech, RPI and UIUC,” Schuler says, “Alice’s approach to problem solving proves that with hard work and creativity, it is possible to invent broadly and introduce innovations to the world.”

Connecting the Dots for Scientific Development

Chen’s innovations have always sprung from her ability to make unique connections—whether by linking approaches gathered from disparate fields and problems to novel solutions, or by building the relationships with others that create successful teams. It is a characteristic that makes the 29-year-old thrive when faced with a new challenge.

Combining micro- and nanotechnology-based approaches to biological questions, Chen has developed an assortment of innovations with implications for drug development and disease modeling.

Chen’s most recent inventive breakthrough—a humanized mouse with a tissue-engineered human liver—is intended to bridge a gap in the drug development pipeline between laboratory animal studies and clinical trials. In drug development, animal models are used as a surrogate to human patients to develop dosing regimens and identify potential dangers to the liver and other organs. Because of stark differences between animal and human liver activity, however, pre-clinical animal screens commonly under-report human toxicities.

According to Chen, the mouse “becomes a miniature patient with a tissue-engineered liver that behaves like a human’s in many ways,” including the way the liver breaks down drugs and responds to toxic drug products.

Chen’s hope is that her humanized mouse model will ultimately lead to a safer, less expensive, and more efficient path for drug testing. Chen and her colleagues have already begun to screen drug combinations in the mice and study the interactions of the human liver with pathogens such as Hepatitis C and malaria. Although there is a long road before market adoption, pharmaceutical companies are increasingly interested in Chen’s humanized mouse to complement existing drug screening platforms.

Chen has also pioneered inventions that connect new technologies to the process of scientific inquiry, including, with Gregory Underhill (an MIT Research Scientist), a platform to rapidly analyze engineered tissues under development for therapeutics and discovery; and with bioengineer Austin Derfus, a method to increase the predictability and accuracy of siRNA as a research tool.

Her innovative accomplishments are already widely recognized. Just a few months ago, she won first prize in the graduate student division of the 2010 Collegiate Inventors Competition.

The Path to Commercialization

Chen’s innovative spirit has also led her down an entrepreneurial path, where she is building connections between existing and emerging technologies to improve the safety and efficacy of diverse patient treatments.

With fellow HST graduate Todd Harris, Chen co-founded Sienna Labs, a biotechnology company that has developed a breakthrough class of new medical pigments to enhance microsurgeries for skin disease. Chen and her team have conducted pilot human studies and plan to enter clinical trials in the multi-billion-dollar dermatological laser treatment market within the next year.

“It’s about development beyond the invention,” says Chen. “Being able to see my work go to market and make a real impact on patient lives is a big motivator.”

Chen holds five pending patents and, with her graduate co-adviser on the MIT side, Sangeeta Bhatia, is also exploring avenues for commercializing her humanized mouse model through a start-up or industrial partnership.

Chen’s adviser at SEAS is David J. Mooney, Robert P. Pinkas Professor of Bioengineering. His development of a prototype cancer vaccine forms the basis of InCytu, a start-up biotechnology company based in Lincoln, Rhode Island.

Also passionate about sharing her love of technology and translation with today’s youth, Chen hopes to pay forward inspiration from her own role models to the next generation of innovators.

Chen explains, “I want our youth to see that invention is solving any problem, big or small, and comes naturally just by mixing what’s fun and interesting with persistence and creativity.”


About the Lemelson-MIT student prize

The $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize is awarded annually to a senior or graduate student who has created or improved a product or process, applied a technology in a new way, redesigned a system, or demonstrated remarkable inventiveness in other ways. A panel of MIT alumni including scientists, technologists, engineers, and entrepreneurs chooses the winner.


Content adapted from the original Lemelson-MIT press release.

Topics: Health / Medicine, Bioengineering