March Madness for Research Teams

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[March 8 update: In the second round, Sameer Sonkusale’s group is still in the running. Vote for their entry at the STAT site until Sunday, March 14 at 11:59 p.m. in the Round 2 bracket. You may vote once per day.]

It’s March, that time of year when college teams go head-to-head and we’re watching them avidly as they move up the bracket towards the championship.

We are, of course, talking about STAT Madness, a virtual competition between research teams for the best biomedical innovations of the year. This year, two Tufts teams qualified for the starting round of 64, selected by contest sponsor STAT, a leading health, medical and life sciences news publication.

Winners are advanced by vote – you can add your vote to each round here by selecting the search that impresses you the most. Voting in the first round of 64 ends Sunday, March 7 at 11:59 p.m. ET. In an interesting twist, each voter can vote once per day during the competition: vote early and vote often, in other words.

Jumbo enthusiasts can add their support and vote for Tufts’ two research teams: Sameer Sonkusale’s group, which has developed a tiny 3D-printed pill that can sample and diagnose your gut microbiome, and Michael Levin’s lab with its work on tiny living robots.

Sonkusale, an electrical and computer engineering professor who leads the Nano Lab, and his team have developed a pill-sized 3D-printed device that can be swallowed and sample the microbes that live in your gut.

This microbiome is known to have a beneficial and supportive role in digestion and protection against disease. When the natural balance of the microbiome is disrupted, bad things can happen, including inflammation, susceptibility to infections, and even the exacerbation of other diseases such as cancer. The microbiome pill is said to be the first device capable of providing a comprehensive profile of nearly 1,000 species of bacteria along the entire gastrointestinal tract.

“The design of this device makes it incredibly easy to use, posing little risk to the subject, while providing so much information,” says Giovanni Widmer, professor of infectious diseases and global health at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the in charge of testing the effectiveness of the pill in animals and high-throughput sequencing the microbiome samples.

Levin, A92, is the Vannevar Bush Professor of Biology and director of the Allen Discovery Center at Tufts. He and his team made waves in the media last year with their creation of entirely new life forms assembled from frog embryo cells.

The tiny millimeter-wide “xenobots” (so named because the cells come from the African tree frog Xenopus laevis) use heart muscle cells to scurry across a surface and can work collectively with other robots to collect debris in neat little piles. They can even heal themselves if damaged. Future versions of these living robots could be used to clean environments of contaminants, detect diseases in the body, or deliver treatments to specific locations.

Mike Silver can be contacted at [email protected]

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