As a scientist, Mijin Kim’s first love was physical chemistry. She spent her Ph.D. diving into the nuances of carbon nanotubes, altering them slightly so that they would react differently to molecules around them. “Nothing related to biomedical engineering stuff,” she said.
But Kim wasn’t content to tinker academically under the microscope, not when she knew her research — these modified carbon nanotubes — held the potential to advance medicine. The material can fluoresce, emitting infrared light in the presence of other molecules including proteins and biological metabolites. In a paragraph at the end of her Ph.D. thesis, Kim made a minor note that this property could represent new opportunities for biomedical applications.
That idea has become the foundation of her career. “I decided to make a drastic transition from fundamental physical chemistry to biomedical engineering work to apply this new nanomaterial for cancer diagnosis and research,” she said.
As a postdoctoral fellow at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Kim has been studying how to use her carbon nanotubes to detect ovarian cancer in blood. Ovarian tumors can be tricky to detect that way, since known markers for the disease can also come from benign conditions. But because Kim’s nanotubes will fluoresce in response to a milieu of different proteins or other biological compounds, she was able to use machine learning to discover a version of the nanotubes that would react to the blood of ovarian cancer patients.
With refinement, the technology could be used as a test to find hard-to-screen diseases like ovarian, pancreatic, and other cancers, and help clinicians intervene earlier for patients. That could make an enormous difference in those patients’ survival and morbidity outcomes. Also, by analyzing what compounds are sticking to the nanotubes’ surfaces, Kim hopes to use the technology to identify new biomarker signatures unique to different diseases.
“It’s opened up so many follow-up questions that I want to explore,” she said.
— Angus Chen