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Now Available: Innovators Under 35 2013 See The 2013 List »

Yaakov Benenson, 28

He wants to replace physicians with molecular machines that diagnose and treat diseases with phenomenal precision.

Graduate student, Weizmann Institute of Science

In just five years, Benenson has taken the concept from drawing board to test-tube prototype. Working at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, he has built molecular devices -- essentially DNA strands and enzymes -- able to analyze genetic changes associated with lung and prostate cancers and to release a drug in response. These prototypes are "a beautiful work of molecular and conceptual integration, pointing the way toward truly integrating diagnostics with therapeutics," says George Church, director of the Center for Computational Genetics at Harvard Medical School. "Using these tiny diagnostic machines, we could selectively treat only the diseased cells," Benenson says. For example, the prototype device for small-cell lung cancer assesses the activity of four genes. Cancerous cells produce extra RNA copies of each of these genes. Consecutive sections of the DNA strand in the prototype bind, in turn, to these RNA strands; when they do, an enzyme chops them off. If all of the cuts are made properly, the enzyme releases and activates an anticancer drug that has been tethered to the DNA in an inactive form. Benensons molecular machines offer a unique combination of precision and flexibility. A single one of them can be designed to look for up to 10 different diagnostic markers before it releases its drug payload. The devices can also be tailored to several different diseases through simple-to-make changes in their DNA sequences. These machines represent a quantum leap not only in medicine but also in DNA computing. Benensons molecular "doctors" -- which are computers in the sense that they store information and analyze it following a yes/no logic -- are "directed at a practical interface with biomedicine rather than losing an abstract race with existing computers on their own turf," says Church.

2004 TR35 Winners

Vadim Backman

Found a way to spot colon cancer earlier than was previously possible

Yaakov Benenson

He wants to replace physicians with molecular machines that diagnose and treat diseases with phenomenal precision.

Rebekah Drezek

Develops photonic technologies that use targeted nanomaterials to detect, monitor, and treat breast and gynecologic cancers painlessly, and at a fraction of the cost of conventional approaches.

Ryan Egeland

Slashed the cost of producing a DNA chip from hundreds of dollars to a few dollars by combining microfluidics, computer control, and novel electrochemistry.

Michael Elowitz

Combines existing genes to build artificial biological pathways, or "circuits," that operate inside cells.

Tim Gardner

Constructs computer models of cellular pathways in order to optimize bacteria for energy production and environmental remediation.

Colin Hill

Aims to more than double human trials success rate by virtually prescreening drugs in computer models of human cells.

Shana Kelley

Builds nanoscale electrochemical and electrical sensors to detect medically relevant gene sequences and proteins.

Gloria Kolb

Devised a way to remove kidney stones more cost effectively and less invasively by taking advantage of the ureters tendency to dilate around foreign objects.

Jörg Lahann

Designed an electrically switchable surface coating that can alternate between attracting and repelling water.

Eric C. Leuthardt

Showed that a patient could achieve real-time control of a computer via electrodes placed on the brains surface.

David Liu

Applies evolutionary principles to synthetic molecules by linking starting materials to DNA strands.

Frank Lyko

Aims to reprogram cancer cells to be more like normal cells by developing compounds that block the aberrant modification of DNA in cancer cells.

Lauren Meyers

Helped public-health officials control epidemics of walking pneumonia and SARS with sophisticated mathematical models that predict how a disease will spread through networks of human interactions.

Ananth Natarajan

Bridging the gap between research and patient care.

Vasilis Ntziachristos

Facilitated noninvasive optical imaging of proteins and other molecules in the body, which could lead to ultraprecise diagnosis of cancer and other diseases.

Shayn Peirce

Models how individual cells in tissues migrate, multiply, and develop during processes such as blood vessel growth. The models should aid tissue engineering and drug development.

Cristoph Schaffrath

Discovered an enzyme that could enable environmentally benign production of fluorine-containing compounds such as Teflon and Prozac, which are now made via noxious chemical processes.

Monisha Scott

Determined how small, natural proteins boost the immune response.

Vikram Sheel Kumar

Developed interactive software that motivates patients to manage chronic diseases such as diabetes and AIDS.

Christina Smolke

Fine-tunes the activity of individual genes via an adaptable technology

Kahp-Yang Suh

Came up with the first method that allows researchers to pattern proteins and cells directly onto glass or plastic surfaces or within microfluidic channels without complicated preparation.

Olga Troyanskaya

Devised sophisticated and accurate computer algorithms for analyzing data generated using DNA microarrays.

Smruti Vidwans

Development of drugs to assist in the battle against TB.

Lei Wang

Expanded the genetic code in order to allow living cells to incorporate new, unnatural building blocks into the proteins that they make.

Sandra Waugh Ruggles

Uses clever testing schemes to determine which protein- slicing enzymes make the cut as potential drugs.

Xiaowei Zhuang

She has filmed a single influenza virus infecting a cell.


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