Dr. Anita Goel has an impressive pedigree when it comes to merging science and research with being a global entrepreneur.
She’s an award-winning world-renowned expert and pioneer in the emerging field of nanobiophysics, a multidisciplinary new branch of science operating at the interfaces of physics, chemistry, biology and medicine.
Dr. Goel (left), who holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Physics from Harvard University, an MD from the Harvard-MIT Joint Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) at Harvard Medical School and a BS in Physics with Honours & Distinction from Stanford University – is the chairman and CEO of Nanobiosym and Nanobiosym Diagnostics.
In 2020, Barclays Bank and the Unreasonable Group selected Nanobiosym as one of the “World’s Top 10 Companies solving the Global CoVID Crisis” and the Scientific American journal featured her work on how mobile precision testing for CoVID-19 could safely re-open the US and global economy. The 2019 Davos in the Desert conference named Dr. Goel and Nanobiosym as one of the 12 most promising frontier technology companies that will shape “What’s Next for Global Business”.
Dr. Goel addressed universities’ senior executives at this week’s Executive Leadership Workshop on the Commercialisation of Research, that was hosted by Universities South Africa’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme. She was speaking alongside another professor from Stellenbosch University on How to collaborate with industry partners for fast tracking commercialisation.
Dr. Goel grew up in a small town in rural Mississippi, where her Indian parents had emigrated to follow the American dream, and says she found herself in the middle of different worlds that did not connect to each other. She believes this led to her quest to find the underlying unity in nature between life sciences and physical sciences.
“I grew up in a cultural ecosystem where I was exposed to many different cultures and ways of thinking and silos that did not talk to each other at the same time. So many years later, when I came to Harvard and MIT and did physics and medicine, I saw that these departments also weren’t really talking to each other. So it felt like home to know that there are always worlds that don’t talk to each other. But I always find myself searching for a unification or a thread or fabric that looks for some underlying unification of all these different approaches, or a different context through which people see their reality,” she explains.
“I am convinced the same physics used to understand the far reaches of the universe must be applicable to a deeper understanding of life, living systems and the problems of medicine. This early experience of living on the nexus of different worlds that did not talk to each other set me on a journey to bring medicine and physics closer together in a more unified framework and to create practical applications from this nexus,” she says.
She reveals that one of her early childhood heroes was Albert Einstein who aptly said that one can best appreciate, from a study of living things, how primitive physics still is: “It’s not just what physics can do for biology but what an understanding of living systems and consciousness could do for how we understand physics. A lot of our developments in the last 500 years in the physical and the biological sciences have happened on parallel tracks; they don’t talk to each other.”
Nanobiosym, and its commercial partner Nanobiosym Diagnostics, have been privately developing GeneRADAR®, a portable nanotechnology-enabled platform, which can rapidly and accurately detect genetic fingerprints from any biological organism. The company’s vision is to give patients worldwide real time access to their own diagnostic information via low-cost handheld devices. In 2017 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an Emergency Use Authorisation (EUA) for the Gene-RADAR® Zika Virus Test.
Explains Dr. Goel: “By precision controlling nanomachines that read and write DNA, new technologies like Gene-RADAR® can rapidly and affordably detect and quantify genetic fingerprints of various pathogens like Ebola, HIV Aids and COVID-19.”
The possibilities, she feels, are endless.
“Two people can have the same oncogene that causes cancer; one may develop cancer and one may not, which leads to the question of what is different? Are there knobs in the environment that turn on and off? Which genes get replicated or transcribed? We can look at these nano machines as a biological network. We need a language that enables a deep coupling with the environment. And we need a way of predicting what we can see in experiments.”
These precision control nanomachines read and write information from DNA and use macroscopic knobs in the environment to control how the genetic information is interpreted: “The way nanomotors read and write information into DNA and how these innovations are being commercialised empower people with real-time precision data about their own health.”
Her work at Nanobiosym has been recognised by multiple rounds of competitive funding from the United States Department of Defense agencies, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR); the US Department of Energy (DOE) SBIR Programs and the US Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA).
Dr. Goel has also created the Nanobiosym Global Initiative to bring emerging technologies into emerging economies by forming innovative public-private partnerships with governments, NGOs, industries, academia and global thought leaders across the world.
She firmly believes that the most pressing global challenges in water, food security, energy and the environment necessitate a highly collaborative effort between governments, non-profit institutions and the private sector. She has a special interest in bringing disruptive technologies such as Gene-RADAR® to address the critical unmet needs of people at the bottom of the pyramid in both the developed and developing world.
The recipient of three DARPA Breakthrough Research Awards and the winner of the first XPrize for healthcare, Dr. Goel believes these accolades helped her get her product to the market.
“We were ‘known’ and that was a hugely positive thing. I believe it helped us get FDA (the United States Food and Drug Administration) approval. Because we had worked with DARPA, that helped with the regulatory bodies. But what we quickly learned is that with the FDA, there is no clear guidebook you follow in the beginning, especially if you have a new technology. You have to create your own proposed pathway. You have to demonstrate its efficacy against the established predicate. And then you have to win people’s confidence,” she says.
The nanomachine usage is not only limited to diseases; Dr. Goel says the technology will be also be used for wellness and anti-aging.
“Its uses are limitless,” she believes.
Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.