October 2012

Biologically inspired innovation

Exterior of Harvard University’s Wyss Institute

The Wyss Institute’s pursuit of alternatives is gaining momentum

At lab benches and computer desks throughout the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in Boston, researchers are attempting to solve some of humanity’s most pressing problems. The questions its scientists are asking are not uncommon: How can we discover more effective drugs? How can we solve the global energy crisis? But the possible answers they’re developing are atypical, such as using autonomous microrobots to diagnose and treat diseases.

Part engineer, part biologist, researchers at Wyss (pronounced “Vees”) are combining the power of synthetic biology, microfabrication technology and tissue engineering principally to understand how biological systems work and to manipulate and re-engineer them in the lab in a way we could never have done before. Researchers such as Pamela Silver and George Church, both synthetic biologists, hope that their work — and their colleagues’ work — will have far-reaching health, environmental and economic benefits.

Silver and Church are among 17 full-time faculty members at Wyss whose research programs are supported in part by a more than $125 million institutional gift intended to foster a very special kind of environment. “The Wyss has been instrumental in bringing the right people together and providing the right atmosphere,” Silver emphasizes. The institute allows the researchers the freedom to operate in entirely new fields, and this is at the heart of the institute’s mission.

What is the Wyss?
The institute emerged in 2008, when it was known initially as the Harvard Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. In a bid to blend the understanding of basic engineering and biological processes, fields that had a long and successful history at Harvard University, and apply them to the burgeoning number of medical and environmental issues in the modern world, a multidisciplinary team of Harvard-based faculty were convened by the provost to discuss the future of bioengineering in Boston.

Then, in 2009, Harvard business school alumnus and Swiss engineering magnate Hansjörg Wyss donated $125 million, and the story of the Wyss Institute began in earnest. That money from Wyss, who was then chief executive officer of the medical-implant manufacturing company Synthes, which recently was sold to Johnson & Johnson, allowed those at the institute to pursue high-risk scientific endeavors and to begin to realize the potential of a new research model, described in the institute’s mission statement as one of “innovation, collaboration and technology translation.”

Photo of Pamela Silver 

Organs on a chip
This capital injection has allowed one of Wyss’ groups to confront, head-on, one major challenge facing modern drug-discovery programs: Why do animal models so often fall short of predicting the biological effects of drugs in humans?

“Animal models often fail to predict results in human clinical trials, and this has had a devastating effect on drug development,” says Don Ingber, who is the leader of the biomimetic microsystems platform and founding director of the Wyss Institute as well as a professor at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital. “Not only have costs skyrocketed, but fewer and fewer good drugs are in the pipeline, and so fewer good drugs are reaching patients.”

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