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TEDXCOLUMBUS: The Problem with Finding the Cure

On behalf of the greater scientific good, Jessica Winter welcomed the biggest problem she could find. And then the problem became hers.

She’s a researcher and professor at Ohio State in biomedical engineering, and she focuses on nanotechnology, the stuff of science fiction. From the stage, Winter cites Fantastic Voyage and Michael Crichton’s Prey as the most common examples of nanotech in our society. It’s not in the clinics yet, still reserved for labs and research, save for a couple exceptions like E.P.T. pregnancy tests.

Winter hates the thought of being bored, and after a couple years working as a process engineer for Intel, she sought a new obstacle. There is hardly a bigger problem than cancer, and she returned to school to focus on nanotech in medicine. Cancer research would give her a lifetime of difficult challenges, she figured.

She works on two of the most intractable forms of cancer: glioma, a uniformly fatal type of brain tumor that killed Ted Kennedy, and triple-negative breast cancer, which has the worst prognosis of any breast cancer. In their research, Winter and her team aim to utilize nanoparticles to improve diagnostic technology so doctors can determine which combination of drugs will target a person’s cancer best.

They had success, but as an academic research team, the success ended with a paper, and then maybe a beer. The research continued, building upon their previous findings, but the end result was always a paper. That’s how academia traditionally works, and it’s the primary metric by which medical researchers are measured—lots of papers. There was rarely much emphasis placed on translating any of the findings into something for the clinics, at least at the university level.

“You’re gonna have some happy mice who didn’t die, but you’re not helping anybody. I mean what’s the point, right?” Winter says. “You can build an entire career that way, and be successful as an individual within the academic system, but that’s just sad frankly.”

And that’s the way things continued to work, until she felt a lump.

“Knowledge is not always power,” she says to a now-hushed audience. After a self-exam uncovered the lump in her breast, her time researching cancer told her what the images on the scan showed, what the diagnosis meant, what the prognosis was, and what the treatment ahead held in store. It wasn’t the triple-negative form, but it was serious. The members of her team asked what they could do to help.

“What would help me most is data,” Winter responded.

She immersed herself in her work, now focusing on translational research that would eventually leave the lab. She hoped her findings would help others down the line receive more accurate diagnoses that would lead to better treatment and longer lives.

“I think that is the best way to benefit patients ultimately, and also to generate jobs and increase our economy because those inventions turn into jobs and money and companies,” she said.

“You’re gonna have some happy mice who didn’t die, but you’re not helping anybody. I mean what’s the point, right?”

She hasn’t received much encouragement for her work, but that tide is changing through her effort and that of others like her, as well as increased awareness across the country about the necessity of translational research. The National Institutes of Health has created a division dedicated to it, from which OSU has received funding and established the Center for Clinical and Translational Sciences.

“I’m just a figurehead for the message,” she says. “I would love to see this get the attention of policymakers who make decisions about funding at the national level to encourage them to put more funding into translational research and commercialization because that’s really the lifeblood that’s gonna get stuff from the bench into the clinic.”

After undergoing treatment, her health has improved and everything seems all right, but cancer can recur at any time. “There is never any true safety, only vigilance, and better detection technologies,” she says. She projects a slide onto the screen that shows her team’s progress. They used a magnetized nanoparticle to isolate and pull individual cells out of blood samples from breast cancer patients and then stain them for a particular biomarker, which indicates types of disease. If they are successful, the findings can ultimately be used to create a personalized treatment that targets cancer based on that person’s unique biomarker expression.

On the screen behind her, the cells are just little white blips on a black background—distant stars shining against nothingness. Like an ancient navigator, she uses the starlit biomarkers to illuminate the way forward, to find a path to a better diagnosis, to a solution to the biggest problem she could find.