When Our Bodies Have the Solution

The human body is the beautiful coordination and collision of complex systems. While there are some systems that we understand on the deepest levels, other systems have continued to elude us. In the process of unlocking that knowledge of these elusive networks, researches have been able to find solutions to some of our most challenging problems. By amplifying the power of these systems within our bodies, scientists are finding ways to slay the dragons of paralysis and cancer. Coming to the TEDMED stage this November, we have 3 scientists who have found inspiration from within the human body to develop solutions that maximize the impact of the immune and musculoskeletal systems and developed life-changing therapies and technologies for their patients.

Since he was young, Tim Lu was interested in computer programming. He found a way to channel that talent into biology, where his research focuses on engineering bacterial and human cells to perform new functions. Considered one of the founding fathers of synthetic biology, Tim has been working with the Synthetic Biology Group at MIT on designing synthetic gene circuits that encode in DNA. These circuits can be designed to do many things, including distinguishing various cancer cells from non-cancerous cells. With concerns around growing resistance to traditional antibiotics, Tim has looked for inspiration within the body to research how to utilize a person’s immune system to attack the cells that do not belong using bacteriophages. Tim’s research has also focused on immunotherapies for a range of cancers, using synthetic gene circuits that activate when it detects two specific cancer markers. Manipulating the body from the inside out, Tim is leading the way through the synthetic biology revolution.

Also finding inspiration from the human immune system, Carl June designed the CAR T cell immunotherapy for lymphoid leukemia while leading the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies at the Perelman School of Medicine, and the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy at the University of Pennsylvania. This immunotherapy is the first FDA approved personalized cell therapy for cancer in the US. Carl weaved together his experience as a Navy-funded HIV researcher and his research experience studying cancer to develop the idea of using genetically engineered T cells. Using the body’s own immune system, Carl saw an opportunity for a modified HIV virus to deliver modified DNA to a tumor. While thinking outside the box, Carl dove deep inside of cells and is one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2018. While the therapy is focused on specific types of leukemia, for now, this gives us hope that may more cancers will be able to be treated using similar therapies.

While Carl and Tim design therapies from the inside out , Kathleen O’Donnell has been designing solutions from the outside in. As an Industrial Designer at the Wyss Institute, Kathleen focuses her work on designing and programming a robotic exosuit to mitigate, or ultimately eliminate, challenges to mobility, such as the impact of partial paralysis caused by stroke. Through a robotic device attached to a patient’s lower limb, the exosuit allows for gait correction and prevents the development of maladaptive compensatory strategies, such as limping. As the team member leading the effort in getting this technology to a clinical setting, Kathleen is working with ReWalk Robotics to mass-produce the design for physical therapy clinics.

The human body is an extraordinary set of systems and has evolved to overcome nature’s most complex problems. Just like we look to optimize our systems to maximize our health, Carl, Tim, and Kathleen have found ways to support powerful systems in our body and guide them to perform in ways that can cure illnesses and impairments that were once thought impossible to overcome. The human body still holds many secrets, but we know that some of the solutions to our most difficult challenges lie within it.