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Jina Ko on ultra-high sensitive diagnostics

The Humans of the Wyss (HOW) series features members of the Wyss community discussing their work, the influences that shape them as scientists, and their collaborations at the Wyss Institute and beyond. 

Jina Ko speaks five languages, but in the lab, she’s trying to answer some big questions that being multilingual won’t help with. Why does immunotherapy work for some people and not for others? How can she create a device to detect and analyze molecules that are too small to be seen by any current technology? Learn more about Jina and her work in this month’s Humans of the Wyss.

What are you working on?

I’m working on developing a diagnostic device to solve some of the most clinically intractable problems. The specific technology I’m working on now is a disease monitoring device that we are developing in collaboration with Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH). It detects nanovesicles in the blood that act as disease markers and allows us to monitor immunotherapy in cancer patients.

What real-world problem does this solve?

I’m trying to develop a device that will help to explain why immunotherapy cures some patients yet doesn’t work for others.

In addition to addressing these larger issues, this device also solves some practical problems. Right now, when a patient has a tumor and you want information about that tumor, you perform a biopsy, which involves taking tissue from the tumor and profiling it. Unfortunately, this process is invasive, it cannot be done often, and may not represent the entire tumor, since the tumor is really heterogeneous, and we are only looking at a subset of the tumor. The device I’m developing looks for extracellular vesicles that are released by the tumor into circulating blood. These extracellular vesicles are more representative of the population than just the small area of the tumor that can be probed during a biopsy. These disease markers are too small (30nm – 1µm) and rare for current machinery to detect. In the novel microfluidics device that I’m developing, we will solve this problem by matching the scale of the device to the biomarker (extracellular vesicles) by encapsulating each vesicle into small droplets and performing single particle analysis.

What inspired you to get into this field?

When I was really young, I always liked things with definitive answers that were more objective and less subjective. That drew me to science. Of course there are some debates on new discoveries, but overall there are clear answers. Engineering is similar in that if my device works it is useful, if it doesn’t work it’s not. I like that it’s clear-cut.

Engineering would allow me to build a device and commercialize it, then see patients actually benefit from it. That translational perspective really inspired me to pursue this area of work.

Jina Ko

The other reason I was interested in pursuing a career in science was because I wanted to do something that’s related to humans. We are always interacting and communicating with humans, so I thought human health would be really interesting to explore. Within human health I was looking for something really practical where my work could have a direct impact. At one point I was teetering between biology and engineering. It seemed to me that while biology could allow me to make a fundamental discovery, engineering would allow me to build a device and commercialize it, then see patients actually benefit from it. That translational perspective really inspired me to pursue this area of work.

What continues to motivate you?

One thing I enjoy is collaborating with really smart people. I work on one project, but when I talk to other people, we come up with new ideas that sometimes relate to projects we already have, and other times lead to entirely new projects. I also like interacting with people from different fields because I get to learn a lot. Sitting in both a lab at MGH and a lab at the Wyss in Longwood exposes me to two different environments. Within each of these labs there are people working in many different fields, so it’s very interdisciplinary. Every single day I learn something new that I didn’t know yesterday, which is really motivating.

Every single day I learn something new that I didn’t know yesterday, which is really motivating.

Jina Ko

What excites you most about your work?

I think one exciting thing is that I can solve a problem that has not been solved in a new way. There is no device that’s already available like the one I want to develop, so it will be the very first thing. And, it’s not just novel – it can be really beneficial to patients. That’s quite amazing too.

What are some of the challenges that you face?

A general challenge for people in engineering is that when you make a device, it either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, there’s no middle ground. Trying to get to that perfection is always challenging. This level of uncertainty can be difficult.

Also, since I really want to tackle important problems, I know that I cannot work by myself. Collaboration is key, especially with people who work in different fields. We all bring our own skills together to address these currently unsolvable problems. But since my colleagues are from another area of expertise, they have a different point of view and different priorities. It can be somewhat challenging to bring everyone on board and get them really excited about my idea and my work. To do this, I try to explain how their specific contributions are crucial and highlight what would be valuable for them if the collaboration were to be successful, rather than just focusing on what excites or interests me. Once I get everyone on board and we form a team, it’s really exhilarating.

How does your experience shape your approach to your work?

These are results Jina might see from her device. The droplets highlighted in fluorescent color are the ones that contain the disease signatures.

My research is primarily on diagnostics. For my Ph.D., I was focused on the early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, and now in my postdoc I’m developing this disease monitoring device. Through my work, I have noticed that there is still a huge gap between diagnostics and therapeutics. People are working on developing a lot of new technologies in each of these fields, but if they could work together, I think the tools they produce could be more efficient and more practical. I want to try to bridge this gap, so I chose to work in a multidisciplinary environment where I get to work side by side with chemists developing therapeutics. Being at the Wyss gives me the opportunity to work with a team of fellow engineers in developing cool technologies while simultaneously having access to the full breadth of clinical resources through our collaboration with MGH. I try to take advantage of this unique environment by constantly learning from my colleagues in different fields. Eventually I’d like to work on therapeutics as well as diagnostics. I know it’s a totally different world, so it will be really hard to jump in, but I want to be as familiar with it as possible to see what I can do.

When not in the lab, how do you like to spend your time?

I really like to travel – I travel a lot! If I have 1-2 weeks I’ll go far, but even if I have a weekend I’ll go on a short trip around the United States. I also like different cultures, so I enjoy learning languages. I studied French as an undergraduate, Italian as a Ph.D. student, and now I’m trying to learn Spanish. I also speak Korean – that’s my native language – and English. It’s a really fun thing to do that’s totally different than what I’m usually doing during the week.

I’ve been able to use my language skills in my travels. I recently went to some small towns in Spain – they had awesome food and music, and the weather was perfect. Since I just started learning Spanish, I wasn’t very good, but I was able to understand a little and use some words, which made the trip even more fun. During my undergraduate studies I wanted to live in France, but I was also a bioengineering major. So, I found an internship at a biomechanics lab in France that allowed me to work on French and science at the same time. That was really hard because everyone only spoke French, but it was also a really good experience.

If you had to choose an entirely different career path, what would it be?

There are two possibilities. One is a medical doctor. When I was young, I was interested in being a surgeon. I didn’t really know about research, but there were a lot of medical doctors around. I thought it would be cool to communicate with every single patient and try to provide the best therapy for each of them. The other career path, which is totally irrelevant to what I do now, would be working in fashion design. I really like fashion, living in big cities, and traveling.

What does it feel like to be working on cutting-edge technology that has the potential to have a real and significant impact on people’s lives and society?

I feel two things simultaneously. In some ways, I feel really cautious, because what I do can be related to some social issues, such as access to healthcare. At the same time, it is extremely exciting to be doing something novel and developing a technology that has the potential to have a really high impact on society.

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