During her treatment for breast cancer, biomedical engineer Jessica Winter challenged her laboratory to bring its discoveries to patients more quickly.
By Chris Palmer
Jessica Winter stands outside the Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Chemistry building at the Ohio State University in Columbus. Her research on quantum dots could advance cancer diagnosis. | Photo by Jodi Miller
As chemotherapy drugs coursed through her veins, biomedical engineer Jessica Winter tried to distract herself from her breast cancer treatment by writing grant proposals and reviewing scientific journals, part of her work leading a thriving research lab. But she kept asking herself the same question: “What am I doing with my life?”
Winter, 40, is a professor of biomedical engineering at the Ohio State University in Columbus. She specializes in creating particles 1/10,000th the width of a human hair, called quantum dots, that light up on imaging scans when they attach to cancer cells in a tissue sample. The dots appear in a variety of colors, making it easier to identify cancer types. (See “What Are Quantum Dots?
”.) Over the past decade, Winter has tweaked the particles to be ever more sensitive to find and attach to specific types of cancer cells. Yet the progress made in her lab left her feeling hollow inside as she was treated with Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide) for her stage III breast cancer.
Then Winter had an epiphany: She would no longer be content to make incremental improvements in cancer detection technology and publish the results in academic journals. She would shift her focus from pure research to figuring out how to turn her lab’s discoveries into diagnostic tools that could influence patients’ lives more quickly.
“I’m now more interested in creating things that make their way all the way to the patient,” she says. It’s one thing to publish research papers in journals. “But, in order to actually ever impact anyone, you have to take it to the next step.” The next step for her would include leading a new company to bring advanced technology to patients.
Winter was born and raised in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Her father was a physicist for General Dynamics, an aerospace and defense company, and her mother was a chemist for oil and cosmetic companies. In fact, most of her family members are physicians, scientists or engineers. “We’re all pretty science-y,” Winter says.
When she left home for college at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in 1993, the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, an environmental catastrophe in Alaska, was still fresh in her mind. She was inspired to study environmental law, but she followed the advice of her uncle, a corporate lawyer, and started out focused on pre-law and chemical engineering. After her first semester, she decided to concentrate on chemical engineering.
Following college and two years spent making semiconductor chips at Intel, Winter studied chemical and biomedical engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. Her primary project involved using nanoparticles to convert light into electricity and harnessing that energy to stimulate nerve cells in people with nerve damage. She continued this type of research at Ohio State, where she was hired as an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering after earning her doctorate in 2004. In her new lab, she also began creating quantum dots for labeling different molecular markers of cancer. At first, she created these particles to detect glioma, a type of brain cancer she was studying with powerful imaging equipment. Later, colleagues at Ohio State asked her to create similar quantum dots to identify cancer cells in breast tissue samples.
Three months into the breast cancer project, however, she detected a lump under her arm, and her work on breast cancer took a personal turn. It was 2011 and Winter was 35 years old.
“It was very surprising to me,” recalls Winter. “I was in the bathroom, getting ready to take a shower. I noticed when I raised my hand into the air, there was a lump that moved with my arm and it looked odd.”
Winter’s gynecologist told her it was likely just a cyst, but he advised her to get a mammogram. Three weeks later, Winter went to the Stefanie Spielman Comprehensive Breast Center in Columbus for the procedure. The Spielman Center is part of the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Everything was in one place,” she says. “I had a mammogram in the morning, an ultrasound in the afternoon and two biopsies in the late afternoon.”
The diagnosis was stage III hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative breast cancer. Instead of choosing a lumpectomy and another round of tests—one treatment option for patients in her situation—she opted for a mastectomy. “I said, ‘Just cut it off,’ ” she recalls. “I didn’t want to be thinking about it for a long time.”