Science faculty spotlight

Achievements from the nanoscale to the Institute: Paula Hammond SB ’84 PhD ‘93 named 52nd Killian Award recipient

Killian Award Committee: “She is someone worth emulating. Indeed, simply put, she is the best of us.”

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Prof. Paula Hammond, 52nd Killian Award recipient, delivers her lecture “Programming Medical Treatment One Nanolayer at a Time”, Tuesday.
Photo courtesy of Jake Belcher

On April 9, 2024, Institute Professor Paula Hammond SB ’84 PhD ’93 presented her lecture, “Programming Medical Treatment One Nanolayer at a Time” to a crowd of students, fellow professors, and administrators alike.

The Killian Award is a tribute to James R. Killian, the tenth President of MIT, and recognizes one faculty member each year for their professional contributions, extraordinary communication to the community, and support of the Institute’s intellectual life. Hammond’s lecture, intended to be understandable to a majority of faculty and students at MIT, covered her leading work in “designing novel polymers and nanomaterials” that has garnered the attention and recognition of MIT and the wider scientific community. 

Delivery of therapeutics into the human body is riddled with challenges. For example, chemotherapy is widely known to be ruthless and undiscriminating, killing healthy cells along with tumor cells. In another case, certain traumatic wounds and birth defects leave gaps in people’s bones, and current therapies may involve metal replacements and collagen sponges, which fits within the bone defect and contains growth factors to aid new bone formation. Issues, however, arise with growing children, who cannot tolerate a fixed-size metal plate. Collagen sponges provide little control of where and how quickly the growth factors are released, leading to overgrowth and a deleterious spread into the rest of the body.

Hammond’s biomaterials are thin films — made one nanolayer at a time — that encapsulate the drug like shrink-wrap. They can further be wrapped in layers of chemicals such as antibiotics to prevent infection, siRNA to silence a tumor’s defense mechanisms, and stealth layers to prevent the nanoparticle from interacting with cells other than its target as it travels through the body. The result is something resembling a gobstopper — a spherical nanoparticle with layer upon layer of proteins and biologic drugs. This set-up not only allows for slow release of the drug as the layers gradually dissolve, but also an ordered release depending on which drugs are layered on the outside of the nanoparticle or at its core. The drug loading capacity of the nanolayers is so high that a single dose of a drug might be contained in a single layer — compared to a full collagen sponge.

In an interview with The Tech, Hammond emphasized, “There are so many things we can do when we can deploy materials at this very small, tiny scale, because we can access the parts of the body in unique ways. We can design the system so that they engage with some tissues and not others. And there's huge possibilities there.”

Some of her more recent scientific endeavors focus on therapeutics for ovarian cancer, which, Hammond states, has had little progress in terms of treatments for the past 30 years. Research has shown that an immune protein, Interleukin-12 (IL-12), could help to control ovarian cancer by activating an anti-tumor immune response. However, when delivered directly, it could spread throughout the body, not just the tumor, and cause a harmful autoimmune reaction. Instead, Hammond and her team encased IL-12 in the center of a nanoparticle. Instead of the hundreds of layers her team once used, their recent work reduces that dramatically to a few layers or even one layer. The nanoparticles are able to stick to tumor cells for days. In collaboration with the labs of Professors Sangeeta Bhatia and Angela Belcher, Hammond’s work on nanoparticles aims towards multi-dimensional approaches to early detection and treatment of ovarian cancer.

Yet another avenue of research involved glioblastomas, where nanoparticles are useful for penetrating the blood-brain barrier that guards the brain from many foreign substances.

However, Hammond stated that there is more to nanoparticles than medicine. “We can think about agriculture, and how we might be able to design nanoparticles that help to provide more nutrients for plants. We can think about how nanoparticles might be designed for climate applications,” she shared. “We can do a huge amount with these systems.”

Hammond is no stranger to receiving accolades for her innovation. She is one of nine current Institute Professors, the highest title that can be awarded to a faculty member, and was elected into the National Academies of Medicine, Engineering, Sciences, and Inventors. However, Hammond shared that she felt especially moved by the Killian award. “It’s the award that my colleagues gave in recognition of the research on the science that I do. To me that's incredibly meaningful, especially when I look at the list of people who received this before me.”

In fact, MIT is not just the place of Hammond’s professorship. “In the 1980’s,” Hammond playfully mumbled, to the humored delight of the crowd, she attended MIT as an undergraduate. She felt like an imposter, but eventually found community. Coming back for her Ph.D. and eventually as a faculty member, she praised the Institute for bringing people together and enabling people to do things that they would not have been able to do alone. Stepping into the role of Vice Provost of Faculty in December 2023, Hammond strives to “create an environment that is really going to give faculty an opportunity to be their best at MIT,” as they are the ones who “create our learning environment for our students” and for “an even greater, brighter MIT.”

By listening to those around us — “members of your research lab, collaborators, cohorts, the person asking the question in the crowd” — and having channels of hearing open, things always go better, Hammond states. Regarding the members of her lab who were frequently named throughout her lecture — UROPs, graduate students, and postdocs alike — Hammond states, “Without them, there would be no science.” Each of their ideas and perspectives has meaning, and “it can shine a light that we didn’t see before,” she explains. “It's just amazing that I can have so many diverse perspectives, the undergraduates, the graduate students, the postdocs, everyone has something to bring.”

“She is someone worth emulating,” the Killian Award Selection Committee’s statement writes about Professor Hammond. “Indeed, simply put, she is the best of us.”