Commercializing a cure

Jessica Winter
Associate Professor of Chemical, Biomolecular and Biomedical Engineering

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As a cancer researcher and survivor, Associate Professor Jessica Winter is leveraging her unique position to help others battle cancer directly — by bringing cancer-fighting technology from the bench to the bedside.

In February 2011, I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 35. I was fortunate enough to receive my treatment at The James and the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center. Unlike most breast cancer patients, however, I am a cancer researcher, and ironically I had just started working on a breast cancer project a few months earlier — a departure from my primary background, brain cancer.

Jessica Winter during chemotherapy treatment

Up to that point, most of my research had focused on developing new technologies to diagnose and understand the progression of cancer. Like many researchers, my main emphasis had been publishing papers. As a professor at Ohio State, my success is primarily measured by two standards: my ability to raise money to do research and the number and quality of publications that result from that research.

By these standards, my career was remarkably successful. But the truth was my research papers were probably only impactful to the 10 other people researching in my area. 

I was an island of discovery with no translation.

A fresh perspective

My treatment process lasted nearly two years and included a mastectomy, 16 rounds of chemotherapy over five months, three months of radiation and five separate reconstruction surgeries. 

As I went through that arduous process, I thought more and more about what contribution I might leave behind. I was deeply unsatisfied with the traditional academic paradigm of publishing a paper and then moving on to the next paper. I really wanted to make a difference with my work, and as a cancer researcher, I was in the unique position to fight cancer in a global way. 

My focus shifted more and more to the idea of commercializing my research.

I should note that clinical research translation is very difficult. It involves taking something from the paper stage, where proof of concept is shown, to generating something a doctor could actually use in the clinic in day-to-day operations. Unfortunately, funding for clinical research has historically been very difficult to obtain.

In 2012, during the middle of my treatment, several of my students joined me in forming Core Quantum Technologies, a company dedicated to clinical diagnostic technologies. Our first efforts are focused at developing labels to identify biomarkers — the specific signatures of different cancers. 

Currently, most pathologists image biomarkers one at a time using separate pieces of biopsy tissue. If we could develop a way to image multiple markers in the same tissue sample, we wouldn’t need to take biopsies that are as large. We could also see interactions between different biomarkers, which are becoming more important as cancer treatment moves toward combinatorial drug therapy.

(Left) A device developed by collaborator Dr. R. Sooryakumar that isolates breast cancer cells from patient blood (Right) Isolated patient cells and their expression levels of the HER-2 marker, used to determine if the patient is a candidate for the drug Herceptin.

Our company has received support from Ohio State, as well as the state’s Third Frontier program and federal sources. In November, we received private equity investment, and we hope to launch our product within the next two years. Because we are a medical technology, the road to commercialization is more difficult as we must comply with government regulation and receive FDA approval.

What really matters

Starting a company was one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but when I think about it, it was also one of the most rewarding. I am in the unique position to help others battle cancer directly, and as a technology developer, I can impact many more patients' lives than an individual physician. 

My cancer experience greatly changed my outlook on life, and one of the most important things that occurred was a refocusing of my research on what really matters: patients. Papers are great, and proof of concept is important, but what really counts is trying — even if you’re not always succeeding — to make a difference in the world. 

Jessica Winter's Core Quantum lab produces nanoparticles that help detect cancer. The nanoparticles glow in ultraviolet light, making it easier to diagnose cancer cells under a microscope.

Now, my research is focused on bringing technology from the bench to the bedside. 

Of course, we still do fundamental work. We have an interesting research project right now focused on building nanomachines from a combination of biological and engineered elements that may one day form a large-scale single molecule detection array. However, I am also focused on the bigger picture of how research can impact day-to-day life, and trying to make that a reality. 

I now live each day as if it might be my last, and think about the impact that I can make in the world and on those around me. I have been fortunate to receive funding from a number of philanthropic organizations for this work, including Pelotonia and Women & Philanthropy. With my job at Ohio State, I have been given the precious gift of being in a position to fight cancer in a global way, and I am thankful every day.

About the author

Jessica Winter
Jessica Winter -
Associate Professor of Chemical, Biomolecular and Biomedical Engineering

Jessica Winter is an associate professor in the William G. Lowrie Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at The Ohio State University, where she also serves as associate director of the MRSEC Center for Emergent Materials. She received her PhD in chemical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Innovative Visual Rehabilitation at the Boston VA Hospital. Her research interests include nanoparticle synthesis and assembly for biological applications and development of polymeric materials for the brain.


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