Readers of a certain age may remember the 1970s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” about a catastrophically injured astronaut named Col. Steve Austin (Lee Majors) who is rebuilt with bionic body parts that restore him to health and super-duper ability. Well, we’re not there quite yet, but today, it’s not such a wild idea. A new center at MIT, established with a $24 million gift from Pennsylvania-based health and science funder K. Lisa Yang, will draw together experts from across tech and medical fields to drive the development of bionic limbs and other treatments that have the power to restore function to people with amputations, paralysis and other disabilities.
The K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics will unite experts from the MIT schools of Science, Engineering, and Architecture and Planning. The center’s essential interdisciplinary nature reflects the convergence of the many fields that must collaborate to create something like, say, a synthetic hand that works and feels approximately the same as the ones we’re born with, or a replacement leg that enables an amputee to move around with the same ease as someone with intact feet, said Hugh Herr, an MIT professor of media arts and sciences who will co-lead the Center for Bionics.
Medically speaking, the solutions and innovations the center is developing range from life-changing to unbelievably cool. Bionics has been under study at MIT for decades, said Herr, with contributions from many disciplines, including tissue engineering and robotics. It’ll also include the study of a newer field called optogenetics, a method of using light to control neurons—and the muscles they in turn control—instead of the traditional use of electricity to stimulate cells artificially. In fact, one of the key architects of optogenetics, Ed Boyden, will co-lead the MIT bionics center along with Herr.
“Over the last several decades, there’s been critical work that’s led to a sufficient level of sophistication in science and technology in areas relevant to bionics,” said Herr. “We’re at the cusp of a new era for function and clinical care due to the convergence of these disciplines—this gift couldn’t have come at a better time.”
Historically intractable health challenges like spinal cord injury and associated paralysis may one day be fixable with bionic research. The dream, said Herr, is to develop a level of integration between the synthetic and the biological that not only will enable natural movement and sensation, but will also make the synthetic parts appear to the brain the same as natural body parts. In that prospective future, the bionic limbs won’t so much be artificial prostheses; they will simply be a part of the owner’s body.
Yang pushed to build a social justice element into the DNA of the bionics center, as well. As a result, one of the center’s founding goals will be the development of mobile healthcare delivery systems to ensure that patients in medically underserved communities have access to prosthetic limb services and other advances. Investigators at the bionics center intend to bring this mobile delivery system to the country of Sierra Leone, where thousands of people suffered amputations during the country’s 11-year civil war. Part of the center’s work along these lines will be to develop medical interventions and delivery to avoid amputations in the first place, such as through timely treatment for diabetes. Ultimately, the center aims to deliver such mobile care solutions globally.
The U.S. Department of Defense had invested in the basic study of bionics, said Yang, but that research only went so far. “I thought maybe we are at that state with bionics when researchers just need a little bit of funding to push it to the next level,” she said. “I hope that if I’m able to make that little bit of a nudge, other funders will come in, too.”
Yang refers to some common themes we see in science philanthropy, wherein donors will often rally behind a field or line of research that shows potential, but is perhaps just shy of the mainstream. Interdisciplinary science is also a frequent philanthropic cause, as researchers may find themselves slipping through the cracks of siloed funding streams. In both cases, the hope is to spark larger pools of funding to follow.
We’ve written before about the philanthropy of Yang and her husband, Hock E. Tan, the CEO of the Broadcom technology company—much of which has focused on neuroscience and autism. In the last decade, they’ve given tens of millions to MIT, Cornell, Harvard and other grantees for autism-related research and other causes.
Yang doesn’t consider herself a full-time philanthropist, but she’s certainly active. Earlier this year, she donated $24 million to establish the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (Yang is a Cornell alum.) The bioacoustics lab uses sound to study species, ecological processes and environmental health.
In recent years, donations from Yang and Tan have included $28 million to establish the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Center for Molecular Therapeutics in Neuroscience at MIT’s McGovern Institute. The molecular therapeutics lab investigates the CRISPR gene-editing method and other approaches to study and develop treatments for major brain disorders. That gift followed a previous $20 million gift to create the Hock E. Tan and K. Lisa Yang Center for Autism Research, also at the McGovern Institute. The latest donation for the bionics center pushes the family’s giving to MIT alone to nearly $100 million.
Tan, CEO of tech giant Broadcom Inc.—and said to be the highest-paid CEO among the country’s largest companies—has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard. In 2019, the couple donated $20 million to Harvard Medical School, which is partnered with the MIT autism center that Yang and Tan funded; at that time, the couple’s giving to Harvard for autism-related research totaled $70 million.
In her previous giving, as in this latest donation to the bionics center, Yang has typically focused not just on the science but on making solutions and care available to all those who need it—not just those who can afford it. Yang and Tan have also funded other practical measures to improve the quality of life for people with autism or other disabilities, such as through their 2015 donation of $10 million to Cornell University to create the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Employment and Disability Institute, which focuses on helping people with disabilities find meaningful work.