Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Biomedical Science
Technical ingenuity is an apt byword for Polina Anikeeva’s scientific career. Currently The Class of 1942 Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering and associate director of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Anikeeva has devised breakthrough solutions to formidable challenges in bioengineering. By fashioning tools that enable unprecedented access to the brain, she has helped neuroscientists glean insights that could illuminate brain and spinal cord disorders.
Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to mechanical engineers, Anikeeva was exposed to science at a young age. Her boundless curiosity betokened a precocious intellect. “My mother kept realizing that school was constantly too easy for me,” she says. So she was enrolled in an elite high school for gifted students run under the aegis of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In high school, inspired by a teacher, she gravitated toward physics, which she pursued in college in St. Petersburg. There, another mentor, Tatiana Birshtein, spotted her scientific promise, offered her an internship in polymer physics, and enjoined her to apply to a summer research course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.
At Cold Spring Harbor, Anikeeva acquired a taste for molecular biology. Invigorated by the apprenticeship, she resolved to return to the United States for graduate school. “It was formative in many ways, and the US seemed like a magical place, where anything was possible,” she says. After forays at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, she applied to graduate school at MIT.
In the fall of 2004, Anikeeva began doctoral work in optoelectronics at MIT under the supervision of electrical engineer Vladimir Bulović, developing a class of light-emitting devices based on nanomaterials called quantum dots, which are used in displays. A testament to her ingenuity, her designs were licensed by a company that supplied optical parts to television manufacturers, and that has since been acquired by Samsung.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Anikeeva yearned for fresh challenges and new frontiers. “Rather than improving devices, I wanted to create them,” she recalls. Before long, she struck up an acquaintance with Stanford University neuroscientist Karl Deisseroth, now celebrated for his pathbreaking work in optogenetics—an approach that uses light to control the firing of neurons in living animals. When it burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s, optogenetics was hailed as a revolutionary technique to plumb the mysteries of the human brain.
During a postdoctoral stint with Deisseroth, Anikeeva fashioned implants that allowed neuroscientists to simultaneously stimulate neurons with light and record their activity in freely moving, rather than sedated, animals—a major technical coup. “It’s important to work on awake rather than anesthetized brains to directly correlate neural activity with behavior,” she explains. She soon realized, however, that the implants were cumbersome and largely incompatible with the nervous system, whose elastic properties are a far cry from the metals and glasses that make up most brain-machine interface devices.
“When I arrived in Karl’s lab, I thought the brain had the same consistency as muscle. After I did my first mouse brain extraction, I was surprised to find that it was more like pudding; it disintegrated in my hands. Implanting something like tungsten into an organ with the elastic properties of pudding seemed very invasive,” she says, only half in jest. Given the mismatch in material properties between the brain and implanted devices, it was hardly surprising, then, that many brain-machine interfaces failed. To remedy the shortfall, she returned as an assistant professor to MIT, where she launched her own research group in 2011.
At MIT, she built implantable probes from flexible, hair-thin polymer fibers that approximate the brain’s mechanical properties and account for its diverse signaling functions. These probes can be used to simultaneously stimulate neurons with light, record neuronal activity, and deliver drugs and viruses into the brains of freely moving mice. Described in Nature Biotechnology in 2015, the probes, which can remain functional in the brains of mice for up to two months, enabled neuroscientists to breach a technical barrier. Two years later, she repeated the feat with stretchable, resilient fibers that allow optical control and recording of neurons in the spinal cords of awake mice, expanding the range of neural circuits amenable to optogenetic analysis and paving the way for sophisticated studies of spinal cord injury and recovery.
Building on those findings, Anikeeva next sought to manipulate the actions of neurons without using hardware. To this end, she developed a system of wireless deep brain stimulation that harnesses the ability of a magnetic field to elicit the firing of brain cells in mice. In the system, nanoparticles injected into the brain convert a gentle, external magnetic field into heat, which triggers heat-sensitive ion channels that have been genetically engineered into neurons. Once triggered, the channels cause the neurons to fire, enabling exquisitely targeted stimulation of circuits. Demonstrated in Science in 2015, the system represents a noninvasive prototype that could help researchers unravel the neuronal underpinnings of brain disorders and someday help treat recalcitrant psychiatric and neurological diseases—without resorting to the bulky electrodes currently used for deep brain stimulation in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease and some forms of depression.
Through the breadth of her accomplishments, Anikeeva has earned recognition as a rising star among her peers. She credits her success to the unfailing mentorship and unqualified welcome she received at every turn of her journey through science, particularly in the United States. “As a country, the US is built on immigrants. This prize is not only an affirmation of my life’s calling but also a reminder of the contributions of the people who help make this country what it is today,” she says.
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