Biotechnology will continue to be "fruitful for mining" by chemical engineers, who have already developed many of the enabling technologies for that field, said Institute Professor Daniel I.C. Wang at last Friday's inaugural lecture in Frontiers of Biotechnology. The new series is organized by the Department of Chemical Engineering.
Professor Wang, who directed the Biotechnology Process Engineering Center (BPEC) from 1985-98, went on to give specific examples of enabling technologies developed in his own lab. He then reflected on unmet engineering challenges in biotechnology and some of the technologies that will be key to meeting them.
Key inventions developed in Professor Wang's lab include microspheres on which mammalian cells can be grown (a worldwide patent on the work was licensed to Pharmacia), and a technique for purifying proteins at rates 10 to 1,000 times faster than existing technology.
The latter technique was developed by Dr. Noubar Afeyan, the first to receive a PhD in chemical engineering from BPEC (1987) and the sponsor of the new lecture series. In introducing Professor Wang, Dr. Afeyan noted that "this lecture series is really a tribute to him." In addition to being a "father figure and extremely generous," he said, "I think many students would agree that [Professor Wang] has helped us in our careers."
There are still significant challenges for chemical engineers in biotechnology. One example: the scale-up of mammalian-cell bioreactors. "We will need bioreactors of significantly larger sizes," Professor Wang said. Right now the largest such reactor holds 12,000 liters. "We must remove the myth of 12,000 liters as an upper limit," he said. Another challenge: preventing the death of cells from bursting gas bubbles in these reactors.
As biotechnology matures, further enabling technologies will be needed. For example, Professor Wang noted that once the human genome is sequenced, we'll want to know the function of those genes and their proteins. To that end, we'll need rapid and automated protein separations, and the ability to purify large numbers of proteins.
Professor Wang, who said his ultimate legacy is his students, concluded his talk with a proverb from Confucius: "Always walk the path no one has traveled; remember to leave your footsteps for others to follow."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 27, 1999.