This year, two exceptional doctoral students have been awarded the prestigious Helen Carr Peake Research Prize. The 2016 winners are: Biology student, Mr. Fahim Farzadfard, working under the supervision of Prof. Timothy Liu; and Mr. Sarvesh Varma who was nominated by Prof. Joel Voldman, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
During his PhD, Mr. Farzadfard has leveraged computation and memory in living cells with the goal of engineering robust and scalable synthetic gene networks. Mr. Farzadfard has developed SCRIBE (Synthetic Cellular Recorders Integrating Biological Events), a modular platform for long-term recording of multiple events directly into the DNA of living cells. SCRIBE is an autonomous analog memory platform that uses DNA as a “tape recorder” for information storage. This tool, published in Science in 2014 opens the entire genomic space for artificial memory storage and overcomes the limited scalability and recording capacity of existing cellular memories. The ability to continuously encode analog information about cellular events offers an unprecedented opportunity for investigating basic cell biology agnostic of cell type and may in future lead to therapeutic insights for genetic disorders.
Mr. Varma’s PhD research addresses the clinical need for drug-screening technologies for endothelial diseases such as atherosclerosis. The development of such tools faces a challenge of recreating the complexity of blood flow. Using low-cost and high throughput microfluidic ‘organ-on-a-chip’ approach, Dr. Varma replicated the flow profiles relevant to atherosclerosis. His novel system entitled ‘atherofluidics-on-chip’, presented at MicroTAS 2016 conference, consists of a microfluidic device that can simultaneously apply programmable spatio-temporal atheroprone and atheroprotective flow signatures offering substantial improvement over state-of-the-art in the field. The design consists of a custom cell culture chamber with programmable fluidic environment, which enables real-time assessment of cell biology through optical and molecular assays. Furthermore, this miniature device lowers reagent costs, and offers potential for multiplexed assays suggesting its utility in a variety of clinical applications in addition to atherosclerosis.