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Tetsuhiro Harimoto

Harvard University

Wall Street is full of Ph.D.s, scientists who grew weary of academia and decided their expertise could be better — and more lucratively — applied to picking stocks. Tetsuhiro Harimoto’s resume is the rare case of that process in reverse. His post-college work as a biotech analyst at Morgan Stanley exposed him to the burgeoning field of cancer immunotherapy, in which scientists were using cutting-edge techniques to train the body’s natural defenses against tumors. Inspired, he swapped his Bloomberg terminal for a lab coat within the year.

“I definitely had a couple people telling me, like, why are you doing this,” Harimoto said with a laugh. “But I just really got excited about these technologies, and I wanted to be someone who was actually making it.”

That animating fascination with using nature’s tools to combat disease led him to the Columbia University lab of Tal Danino, where he earned a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering with the help of a microbe that’s been studied for a century. Harimoto’s work focused on a strain of E. coli first isolated in 1917, a bacteria with tumor-killing potential but serious issues with toxicity. The team crafted what is essentially a molecular cloaking device for the bacteria. Switch it on, and the microbe can evade the immune system and infiltrate cancerous tissue. Switch it off, and the body’s janitors will swoop in and clean it out.

Harimoto is first author on the resulting paper, published in Nature Biotechnology last year, showing that the Columbia cloak reduced the toxicity of bacterial treatment by a factor of 10, and that the treatment shrunk tumors in mouse models of breast and colorectal cancer.

“The technology is still early, but I think we’re really starting to enter this new world of living medicine — including genetically engineered T cells, bacteria, and oncolytic viruses — in which the therapeutic agent itself is a living entity,” Harimoto said.

— Damian Garde