Bioengineering at MIT: Building Bridges Between the Sciences, Engineering and Health Care (Part Two)
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Glycomics, the study of sugars’ role in living systems, is a relative newcomer to the revolution in molecular biology. In fact, Ram Sasisekharan remembers how colleagues told him “not to work on carbohydrates -- that it was useless.” But his research has shown that glycans, observed as long chains or intricate branches of sugars on the surface of all cells, are significant players in the complex drama of cell growth, migration and death. Tracking down the function of sugars from their structure has turned out to be trickier than determining what protein a segment of DNA codes for. Sasisekharan likens it to “image processing, with six blind men and an elephant.” His team, deploying diverse analysis techniques, learned that sugars affect such properties of proteins as the ways in which they fold. Sasisekharan has also discovered that tumor cells contain sugar sequences that keep tumors dormant, or signal them to start dividing. He has found that pathogens such as viruses and bacteria bind to glycans. This opens the possibility for using glycans in subtle diagnostics as well as for “novel drug delivery strategies.”
Martha Gray provides some vignettes from the Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), demonstrating stunning advances in medical engineering. Leaping beyond RotoRooter methods for treating plugged blood vessels, HST researchers have developed stents for opening arteries that deliver drugs and function longer. And in a major breakthrough, scientists have managed to produce a polymer seeded with rat heart cells, and stimulate this living tissue to beat the way actual heart muscle does. Gray’s own research involves arthritis, and she describes new imaging techniques “that allow you to see things you didn’t see before,” including tiny defects in cartilage that may predict the emergence of joint disease.
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