Melissa Skala is a UW–Madison professor of biomedical engineering and an investigator with the Morgridge Institute where she leads the Optical Microscopy in Medicine Lab. Her lab uses photonics-based imaging technologies to develop personalized treatment plans for cancer patients. In addition, the Skala lab and its collaborators leverage their unique imaging technologies for clinical problems including quality control in T cell and stem-cell therapies, monitoring diseases in the eye, and predicting pre-term birth, among many others.
During the 2019-2020 academic year, Skala and fellow team members Andrea Schiefelbein, Emmanuel Contreras, Dan Pham, and Kayvan Samimi took part in Discovery to Product’s Innovation to Market and Igniter programs, two free non-credit courses that help faculty, staff, and student innovators bring ideas to the marketplace. “The technologies being developed by Melissa and her team have the potential to be applied in a lot of exciting ways,” says Abram Becker, one of the mentors on the project. “This includes the potential to make a real impact on development of new and better cancer therapies, as well as methods which could allow more predictive and personalized treatments for patients.”
One of the methods they have developed is a novel label-free imagining technique that can differentiate between active and inactive T cells at the single cell level. T cells are a type of white blood cell that play an important role in the immune system’s ability to fight infectious diseases and cancer. In recent years, the development of new engineered cell therapies, such as CAR T-cell therapy, have provided important new therapeutic options for cancer patients. Although there are only a couple of approved CAR T therapies at this point, there are literally hundreds more being developed. However, there are significant difficulties and bottlenecks involved with the development and biomanufacturing of these cell therapies. “Melissa and her team had some ideas about how their discovery could be developed into a product that could improve cell therapy biomanufacturing, but they embraced and dove into the process of interviewing potential customers and stakeholders to explore these and other potential ideas,” says Becker.
We asked Melissa to share insights on the project and her role as a campus innovator.
Where did the idea for your project come from initially?
We read a paper that showed T cells activate through a metabolic switch. We knew we had label-free photonics methods to detect metabolism in cells, so we wondered whether we could detect T cell activation. While we were working on this problem, I moved my lab from Vanderbilt to Wisconsin, and people here are working on T cell manufacturing, like Kris Saha and Christian Capitini. The move to Wisconsin helped us realize that our technology could improve the biomanufacturing process.
How has D2P helped you, and what have you learned along the way?
D2P helped my team understand how our technology could impact the biomanufacturing industry. Through our interviews and training, we learned who appreciates the technology, the value of the technology, and the gaps in the industry. We also learned the vocabulary for discussing products, which is different from discussing research.
What other entrepreneurial resources/programs have provided guidance to you?
We have worked with the Forward BIO institute, which has key connections in cell manufacturing. They have also provided us with mentoring in cell manufacturing so we understand the process, industry, and customers. This helps us communicate more effectively. We are also working with the WARF Accelerator Program on prototyping.
What drives you/why is this project important to you personally?
If we have a technology that can help people, it is our responsibility to develop it. This is our job as biomedical researchers, and I want to provide the greatest benefit possible.
What advice would you give to other campus innovators that are just starting out with exploring the potential for their ideas?
Take the time to commit to some formal training. The jump from research lab to product is big, and it is hard to navigate without guidance.
How do you balance the time you need to spend on your project with other work and life responsibilities?
I have a fantastic team. Dan, Emmanuel, Kayvan, and Andrea really carried the torch. They are the leaders of this project and are committed to making an impact.
Campus is full of bright minds and amazing ideas, but many people do not self-identify with the term “entrepreneur.” Do you connect with that term, and why or why not? Is there another term you’d use to describe what you’re doing with your project?
I call myself as a mad scientist! I am focused on discovery, and if those discoveries are useful, I have a responsibility to develop them. I don’t specifically seek out technologies with commercial value; instead I use my skills to discover new approaches and knowledge. I think discovery on its own is valuable, and pieces of discovery have additional value in useful products. It’s all part of the same process of open, rigorous research.