Mehmet Toner

Bioengineering & Cancer Research

Self Exam

  • Occupation: Helen Andrus Benedict Professor of Surgery (Bioengineering), Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School
  • Alternative career choice: I always wanted to be a surgeon but ultimately decided to go to an engineering school. After a rather tortuous path, I ended up becoming a Professor of Surgery at Harvard as a bioengineer.
  • What do rock stars and scienctists have in common: We are all communicators-- some better than others! They use songs to communicate their feelings and we use scientific mechanisms to disseminate our ideas. To be successful in both, one needs to have both creativity and skills. So I think there is more in common between rock stars and scientists than meets the eye!
  • Musical Instrument I Play: None
  • I tend to approach life: When I was younger I used to approach life very seriously, now not so much. I try to enjoy what I do, I carefully select people with whom I work, and try to, usually unsuccessfully, balance personal life, professional life, and family life.
  • Biggest misconceptions about me or my work: Most people think professors sit at a desk and then lecture. Although I do some of that, most of my time is spent motivating a team of young scientists, establishing collaborations, creating an environment conducive for uninhibited creativity, and raising funds to get the work done.
  • Worst part-time job ever: I am blessed with positivity and I do not recall any worst part-time job. I learned early in my life from my parents that I need to do my best whatever the job is and enjoy the journey. I think I have practiced that quite well!
  • Longest med school study session: I took almost half of the medical courses including significant clinical training as part of my multi-disciplinary doctorate education in biomedical engineering. Anatomy class was an eye opener for an engineer like me. I loved it but I felt the course was never going to come to an end. We must have spent 30+ hours a week dissecting cadavers and trying to find every single structure in human body.
  • Best moment in medicine/research: The dogma in the cancer field was that circulating tumor cells are not in numbers to be clinically useful in the peripheral blood. We challenged the dogma because my feeling was that the technologies used in the field in the past were not developed specifically for isolating extremely rare cells and thus were not sensitive enough for the task of isolating rare cells. We went to blackboard and designed and developed a microfluidic chip for this purpose. When we started getting cells at numbers that could potentially change the way we diagnose, manage, and treat cancer patients, I was thrilled!

About My Research

Disease Area: Given my multidisciplinary interests, I cut across several disease areas in my research including cancer, global health, burns and trauma, and regenerative medicine.

Research Area: My research area is in biomedical engineering, more specifically in the applications of micro- and nano-technology in clinical medicine.

Science Impact/Accomplishments or Goal: My interest in nanotechnology has led to groundbreaking work in the isolation of circulating tumor cells (CTCs) from the peripheral blood of cancer patients. Although the existence of CTCs has been known for 140 years, they have eluded researchers because they are so rare—as few as 1 CTC in one billion of blood cells. I developed a highly sensitive microfluidic chip technology called ""CTC-chip."" The CTC-chip interrogates 2 million cells per second enabling processing of large volumes of blood to find extremely rare CTCs. The potential of the CTC-chip is tremendous as it can allow physicians to detect cancers early, follow how well cancers are responding to treatments in 'real time' and develop drugs that are aimed at suppressing these metastasizing cells.

Research Description: I am motivated by multi-disciplinary problems at the interface of engineering and life sciences that are of clinical importance, and deploy engineering tools to understand complex biomedical problems. I have had the good fortune to work on a number of exciting fields including cryobiology for long-term storage of biological materials to make them readily available for therapeutic applications in regenerative medicine, stem cells, cell therapy, and reproductive medicine; tissue engineering to grow tissues and organs as replacement parts for injured or diseased organs especially interested in bioartificial liver and skin; and micro/nanotechnology as an enabling approach to probe into basic biological mechanisms and to tackle complex clinical problems."


Mehmet Toner. Ph.D., is the Helen Andrus Benedict Professor of Surgery (Bioengineering) at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School and the Director of the BioMicroElectroMechanical Systems Resource Center (BMRC) at Massachusetts General Hospital, and he is an internationally recognized bioengineer. Dr. Toner was born in July 28, 1958 and lives in Wellesley, Massachusetts. He received a Bachelor of Science degree from Istanbul Technical University and a Master of Science degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), both in Mechanical Engineering. Subsequently he completed his Ph.D. degree in Medical Engineering at Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology in 1989. Since that time he has been on the faculty at MGH and Harvard Medical School. He was appointed as an assistant professor in 1990, promoted to associate professor in 1996, and to professor in 2002. Dr. Toner is a member of the senior scientific staff at the Shriners Hospital for Children, Boston. Dr. Toner is also a Trustee of Özyegin University in Istanbul.

Dr. Toner is known for his scientific contributions at the interface of engineering and life sciences, especially in the use of micro- and nanotechnology in clinical medicine and cancer. He has published more than 250 scientific publications; 44 reviews and chapters; 25 patent applications; and he has delivered 358 invited, keynote, plenary, and meeting presentations. He has been very successful in raising funding for his research endeavors from multiple sources including NIH, NSF, DARPA, Shriners Hospital for Children, National Textile Center, American Prostate Foundation, Stand Up To Cancer, and multiple industrial and pharmaceutical institutions. In 1994, he was recognized by the “Y.C. Fung Faculty Award” in Bioengineering given by American Society for Mechanical Engineers (ASME) for his pioneering work in ice-nucleation in biological cells. In 1995, he received the “Whitaker Foundation Special Opportunity Award” to develop a unique bioengineering educational program for physicians. In 1998, Dr. Toner was selected to become a “Fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering.” In 2007, he became a “Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.” In 2008, he was given “One-of-the hundred” award by Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center for his impact in cancer research using bioengineering approaches. He also received the “2008 Breakthrough Award” by the magazine “Popular Mechanics” in recognition of his invention of a microchip to isolate rare circulating tumor cells from peripheral blood called CTC-chip. In 2010, he received the “American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) Team Award” for his efforts to translate the CTC-chip technology from bench-to-bed side.

Dr. Toner has served on many national and international panels and review boards. In 2010, he was selected to serve on the NSF Directorate of Engineering, Board of Advisors. He currently serves on the scientific advisory board of Tissue Engineering Research Center (TERC) at Tufts U/MIT/Columbia U, Resource for Synthesis and Bulk Characterization of Polymer Biomaterials (RESBIO) at Rutgers U, Institute of Engineering and Medicine at U Minnesota, Center for Biomedical Engineering at UNC Charlotte, Midwest Cancer Nanotechnology Training Center, and Center for Biomedical Engineering at Brown U. He has also served on panels and review boards at NIH, NSF, DARPA, Alberta Cancer Board;Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research; Allegheny-Singer Research Institute; Israel Science Foundation; The Whitaker Foundation; European Research Council.

Dr. Toner also serves or has served on the editorial board of various technical and scientific journals including the Journal of Biomechanical Engineering (Associate Editor, 1998-2004), Cryo-Letters (1999-2003), Cryobiology (Associate Editor, 2000-present), Cell Preservation Technologies (Associate Editor, 2006-present), Nanomedicine (2007-present), Integrated Biology (2009-present), Nanolife (2010-present). Also noteworthy is Dr. Toner’s leadership in his role as the founding Associate Editor of the Annual Review of Biomedical Engineering, which since its inception in 1999, has been ranked number one in impact factor among its peer group.

Among the more than 100 graduate and postgraduate students trained by Dr. Toner today, many occupy major academic positions at prestigious institutions including MIT, Harvard, UC Davis, UC Irvine, U Minnesota, U Michigan, Vanderbilt U, UCLA, among others. Many of his alumni have received the NSF Career Award, NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, NIH First Award, and many are now Fellows of AIMBE or ASME. A number of his former students secured endowed chairs or other prestigious awards such as Howard Hughes Medical Investigator (HHMI).