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03/03/2010 08:00:00

Young Caltech Innovators Recognized for Their Work in Advanced Disease Therapies

$30,000 Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prizes Awarded to Students Nationwide; Four Leading Institutes Celebrate Winners

PASADENA, Calif.—California Institute of Technology (Caltech) graduate student Heather D. Agnew is the recipient of the 2010 $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize. 

Agnew was among the four $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize winners announced Wednesday, March 3, 2010. She was recognized for her integral contributions to the development of innovative biochemical protocols that can be utilized for more stable, robust—and inexpensive—detection of diseases like cancer, HIV, or malaria.

The Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize is supported through a partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating innovation and inspiring youth. The Lemelson-MIT Student Prize has been awarded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1995 and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2007; in 2009, the program expanded with a similar award given to Caltech students. Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science administers the Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize. 

The Caltech selection committee also acknowledged a finalist, Yvonne Y. Chen, also a Caltech graduate student, who will receive a $10,000 award made possible through the support of Caltech alumnus Michael Hunkapiller.

Agnew, a graduate student in chemistry, has been working in the laboratory of James R. Heath, the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor and professor of chemistry.  Agnew contributed to the development of a progressive technique to create inexpensive, yet highly reliable and stable biochemical compounds that have the potential to replace antibodies (blood proteins produced in response to specific toxins or antigens) used in many standard medical diagnostic tests.  This antibody equivalent, or "protein capture agent" protocol, allows for more efficient, inexpensive diagnostics.

In her presentation, entitled "Protein Capture Agents for Improving the Performance and Stability of Point-of-Care Diagnostics," Agnew explained the stable and robust nature of the protein capture agents.  Their ability to withstand higher temperatures enhances their applications, paving the way for more reliable, inexpensive, and readily available medical diagnostic testing for use not only in the United States, but also in developing countries.

According to Heath, "Heather has led this project from start to finish, and it has involved innovation every step of the way.  In terms of public benefit, I believe that the stable, scalable protein capture agents truly have the chance to revolutionize in vitro diagnostics by putting them onto the path of increased capability at lower cost—similar to what has happened for genome sequencing."

Agnew was born and raised in Allentown, Pennsylvania.  She received dual undergraduate degrees in chemistry and in biochemistry and molecular biology from the Pennsylvania State University.  As a Gates Scholar, she received her master's degree in chemistry from the University of Cambridge.  Throughout her academic career, Agnew has received numerous honors and awards, and has continually volunteered as a research mentor and teacher for youth.  Agnew plans to continue her pursuit of biochemical solutions as a principal research investigator in a start-up commercialization venture.  Agnew may also pursue a teaching career at a leading research institution.

The Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize finalist is Yvonne Y. Chen, a graduate student in chemical engineering at Caltech who worked in the lab of Christina D. Smolke, assistant professor of chemical engineering.  Chen will receive a $10,000 prize for her work on improving advanced, cell-based solutions for the treatment of certain incurable diseases, including various cancers and inoperable tumors. In her presentation, entitled "Improving Cell-Based Cancer Therapy with RNA Regulatory Systems," Chen describes an innovative T-cell (a type of white blood cell) therapy for treating aggressive, inoperable tumors.

Traditional chemotherapy and radiotherapy have often proved unable to eradicate diffusive tumors such as glioblastoma (the most common type of primary brain tumor in adults), and these therapies can have severe side effects.  And conventional immunotherapy, which enlists the body's immune system to fight diseases, while conceptually well suited to cancer treatment, has had limited success—efforts to improve its efficacy have raised safety concerns for leukemic growth. Chen's research has the potential to greatly increase both the safety and the efficacy of immunotherapy by controlling T-cell proliferation with regulatory systems based on engineered RNA (ribonucleic acid) devices—thus avoiding risks of uncontrolled T-cell proliferation and eventual leukemic side effects. Chen's novel RNA-based technology is a promising therapeutic candidate for clinical applications in the fight against cancer, and is adaptable to a wide range of disease treatment strategies. 

Chen was born in Taipei, Taiwan, and moved with her family to Rowland Heights, California, when she was 13 years old.  She earned her BS in chemical engineering from Stanford University and her MS in chemical engineering from Caltech.  Chen plans to pursue a career in academia as a researcher at a major institution or in public policy as it relates to scientific research.

According to Ares Rosakis, division chair and Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and professor of mechanical engineering, "The Engineering and Applied Science Division is proud to support such real-world applications of science by student researchers at the Institute.  These innovations have the potential for creating significant advances in the future."

"This year's winners from the California Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign shine light on the significance of collegiate invention. They have the ability to transform seemingly implausible ideas into reality and are the true entrepreneurial leaders of their generation," states Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. 

Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prizes

In addition to Agnew's pioneering work, the other winners of the annual Lemelson-MIT Collegiate Student Prize were announced today at their respective universities:

·      Lemelson-MIT Illinois Student Prize winner Jonathan Naber and the Illini Prosthetics Team developed an affordable, durable, extremely functional prosthetic arm for people in underdeveloped countries, made from recycled materials.

·      Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner Erez Lieberman-Aiden demonstrated creativity and innovation across several disciplines, most recently with his invention of "Hi-C", a three-dimensional genome sequencing method that will enable an entirely new understanding of cell state, genetic regulation and disease.

·      Lemelson-MIT Rensselaer Student Prize winner Javad Rafiee developed a new method for manufacturing and using graphene, an atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms arranged like a nanoscale chain-link fence, to store hydrogen at room temperature – opening the door to better and safer on-board fuel storage systems for hydrogen vehicles. 


Celebrating innovation, inspiring youth

The Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes the outstanding inventors and innovators transforming our world, and inspires young people to pursue creative lives and careers through innovation.

Jerome H. Lemelson, one of U.S. history's most prolific inventors, and his wife Dorothy founded the Lemelson-MIT Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994. It is funded by the Lemelson Foundation and administered by the School of Engineering. The Foundation sparks, sustains and celebrates innovation and the inventive spirit. It supports projects in the U.S. and developing countries that nurture innovators and unleash invention to advance economic, social and environmentally sustainable development. To date the Lemelson Foundation has donated or committed more than U.S. $150 million in support of its mission.

About the Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize
Administered by the Caltech Division of Engineering and Applied Science, the Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize is awarded to a student at Caltech who has demonstrated remarkable inventiveness and innovation.

Funded through a partnership with the Lemelson-MIT Program, the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize has recognized outstanding student inventors at MIT since 1995 (see: 

For more information, go to:

Lemelson-MIT Caltech Student Prize:

Written by Deborah Williams-Hedges