Harvard University/Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering
| Harvard University/Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering |
|Developing advanced biological technologies together with the military/intelligence organization DARPA|
The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering is a cross-disciplinary research institute at Harvard University which focuses on developing novel biologically inspired engineering materials and devices for applications in healthcare and other areas. Founded with large grants from the conservationist billionaire Hansjörg Wyss, the institute is also developing technologies in collaboration with the military/intelligence research organization DARPA
Its research is centered around six "enabling technology platforms":
- Adaptive material technologies: Integrated multiscale structures composed of biomimetic materials and devices that dynamically adapt to their environments for energy and environmental applications, such as construction materials that harness energy, heat, and water
- Anticipatory medical and cellular devices: Development of controllable and dynamic devices to anticipate and detect malfunctions and infections in the body, and intervene to restore health, by taking advantage of the dynamic and changing nature of human physiology to engineer novel approaches for performance assessment, diagnosis, and therapeutic intervention
- Bioinspired robotics: Developing computer algorithms and sensor/actuator materials that enable robots to act collectively in response to changes in their environment, such as swarms of flying insect robots.
- Synthetic biology: Creating massively parallel capabilities for directed evolution of biomolecules and whole genomes for applications in cell reprogramming, drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and bioenergy
- Biomimetic microsystems: Engineering microsystem technologies that reconstitute complex human organ-level functions for use in drug testing, diagnostic and therapeutic applications
- Programmable nanomaterials: Creation of targetable, self-assembling nanotechnologies for regenerative medicine and drug delivery applications
Self-replicating living xenobots
In 2021, Wyss Institute, in collaboration with scientists at the University of Vermont and Tufts University, discovered an entirely new form of biological reproduction, and then applied the discovery to create the first-ever, self-replicating living xenobots.
With an artificial intelligence program working on the Deep Green supercomputer cluster at UVM’s Vermont Advanced Computing Core, an evolutionary algorithm was able to test billions of body shapes in simulation—triangles, squares, pyramids, starfish—to find ones that allowed the cells to be more effective at the motion-based “kinematic” replication.
People have thought for quite a long time that we’ve worked out all the ways that life can reproduce or replicate. But this is something that’s never been observed before.
Wyss Institute researchers have combined their multidisciplinary expertise from infectious diseases, immunology, drug delivery, materials science, and protein engineering to develop OMNIVAX, a broadly applicable infection vaccine platform that offers prophylactic and therapeutic treatments against common bacterial and viral pathogens (per the changed, broader definition of vaccine from 2021).
The modular OMNIVAX platform can be used to rapidly assemble a biocompatible and biodegradable immuno-material-based vaccine from three non-variable components (the base vaccine) that are combined with one or more pathogen-specific antigen(s) of choice in a simple and scalable aqueous manufacturing process.
DNA Nanotechnology Tools
Wyss Institute researchers have created a range of novel, multifunctional DNA nanotechnological tools with unique capabilities and potential for a broad range of clinical and biomedical research areas. The DNA nanostructures can transport and present a variety of biologically active molecules such as drugs and immune-enhancing antigens and adjuvants to target cells and tissues in the human body.
In one of the research areas, Wyss scientists, inspired by the mechanics of the body’s own immune system, developed a robotic device made from DNA that could potentially seek out specific cell targets within a complex mixture of cell types and deliver important molecular instructions, such as telling cancer cells to self-destruct.
Macrophages are specialized defense cells in involved in the detection and destruction of bacteria, and even cancer cells, even though cancerous tumors are able to switch arriving macrophages from an anti-cancer state to a pro-cancer state. Scientists at the Wyss Institute have created a cellular “backpack” for macrophages: disc-shaped nanoparticles that can stick to a macrophage without being engulfed, and release a steady stream of cytokines into their macrophage “hosts” to keep them activated against cancer.
A multidisciplinary team of Wyss Institute researchers and collaborators have adapted computer microchip manufacturing methods to create “Organs-on-Chips” (Organ Chips): microfluidic culture devices that recapitulate the complex structures and functions of living human organs, for drug development, disease modeling, and personalized medicine.
COVID-19-detecting face masks
A team of researchers from the Wyss Institute and the MIT has found a way to embed synthetic biology reactions into fabrics, creating wearable biosensors that can be customized to detect pathogens and toxins and alert either the wearer or a remote monitor via a smartphone app. The team integrated this technology into standard face masks to detect the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in a patient’s breath.
The Wyss Institute was launched in January 2009 with a $125 million gift to Harvard—at the time, the largest single philanthropic gift in its history—from billionaire conservationist Hansjörg Wyss. In 2013, Hansjörg Wyss doubled his grant to $250 million and in 2019 he donated a further $131 million.