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Department of Physiology and Biomedical Engineering Department of Transplantation Medicine, Mayo Clinic
Assistant professor of medicineVIEW PROFILE
Joy Wolfram, Ph.D. (TRANM ’17), is a wunderkind. By her mid-20s she had more than 40 peer-reviewed publications. She’s had her own lab focused on nanomedicine and extracellular vesicles at Mayo Clinic in Florida since 2017. A native of Finland, Dr. Wolfram trained in several countries, including China — a leader in nanomedicine. Forbes named her to its 30 Under 30 in U.S./Canada Healthcare. Dr. Wolfram is on a mission to load nanoparticles with drugs and deliver them to cancerous or damaged areas of the body. She sees collaboration among physicians and scientists as key to ensuring any advances become translational and reach patients. She sees Mayo Clinic as the ideal environment for this to take place.
“It’s important to me to change perceptions about what a scientist is. Sometimes scientists are too isolated from the lay audience. I want to show people who we are. A young woman can be a scientist and a role model for girls.”
I was always interested in science, even as a child. When I was 11, my dog got a bacterial skin infection. The veterinarian took skin swabs, which I found fascinating. I asked her for bacteria culture dishes to take home. I started my own mini-microbiology lab in my room. I swabbed the shelves of our refrigerator and in a couple of days saw colors and patterns develop. I called my family to my room and showed them how dirty our refrigerator was — there were bacteria everywhere.
I did my bachelor’s work in biology in Finland. One of my first research projects was studying butterfly muscles. I wanted to do something that could help people. Many of my friends had lost parents to cancer, which led to my interest in cancer research. I then did cancer research in Sweden and Canada as part of my bachelor’s and master’s program in Canada and Sweden. In the past 60 years, despite the many resources dedicated to cancer research, we still have several cancer types with no cure. Pancreatic cancer and late-stage breast cancer rates haven’t really changed. Some cancers have made tremendous progress, of course. I wanted to do something completely new. That’s where nanotechnology came in.
When I was still in Finland, I searched for where to study nanotechnology medicine. One of the hospitals at Texas Medical Center in Houston had just opened a new nanomedicine department. I went there for my Ph.D. They’re not a degree-granting institution but have collaborations with universities all over the world. I chose the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. China is a leader in nanotechnology along with the U.S. I traveled between Houston and Beijing for those four years.
I wanted to start my own lab and got an offer from Mayo Clinic. It would allow me to do translational research. I started the Wolfram Laboratory for Nanomedicine and Extracellular Vesicles in 2017.
In part due to lack of communication between scientists and physicians about how to translate research about drugs from the lab to clinical practice is often lacking and is, in fact, called the Valley of Death. That’s not an issue at Mayo Clinic in Florida. Everyone knows each other, and it’s easy to interact and collaborate.
I haven’t seen that spirit to this extent elsewhere. At the end of the day, clinicians at Mayo still have the enthusiasm to collaborate with scientists and do research to achieve new discoveries for our patients. It’s amazing to see.
Nanoparticles are like tiny cars that can drive in blood circulation and transport medications to diseased areas. My research focus is on biological nanoparticles, which are found in urine, blood and saliva, and isolate from other biological fluids and transport medication inside the body.
If the cells in the stomach want to send a message to the brain, they can use biological nanoparticles. If we can tap into these components of the body’s “text message” system for therapeutic gain, there are many opportunities to help patients. We’ve developed a method where we can isolate a large amount of biological nanoparticles from fat tissue — isolating them from liposuction aspirates — without damaging them.
I want to play a role in developing drugs that become part of clinical care and help patients. That’s extremely difficult to do. Only 1 percent of those efforts succeed, and the journey takes on average 12 years and $2.7 billion.
My lab is in the process of submitting an application for injecting biological nanoparticles obtained by isolating them from subcutaneous fat into the scalp to treat hair loss. Why hair loss? Once we’ve shown that nanoparticles work for hair loss, we’re more likely to get approval to use them for our true purpose — intravenous injections for cancer treatment.
Yes. Most leaders in research are older white men. I am often told I don’t look like a scientist. It’s important to me to change perceptions about what a scientist is. Sometimes scientists are too isolated from the lay audience. I want to show people who we are. A young woman can be a scientist and a role model for girls.
I’m most proud of inspiring the next generation of scientists and mentoring students who have gone on to do amazing things.
It’s a lot more responsibility. I don’t just have to worry about myself and my program but, rather, a team’s progress. I have to write grants and bring in funds to sustain the lab.
Networking is very important for students. Start going to conferences and introducing yourself to people in your field. It’s never too early to have a business card. Explore program for students interested in science to learn more and see if it’s something you’re interested in. As you progress, it’s important to get international experience. Go to other institutions and see how things are done there. That exposure will broaden your horizons.
Don’t remain at one institution your entire career. Nature reported on a study of scientists who had moved to different countries. The ones who were exposed to different places did better at achieving their goals. You get better solutions and better exposure to other ideas.
I don’t feel like I work because my job doesn’t feel like work. It’s a lifestyle. If I’m not at work, my mind is still thinking about science.
I listen to audiobooks in different fields such as philosophy, management and the universe when I’m driving or at the grocery store. This helps me come up with new ideas in my own field.
Ninety-nine percent of what researchers do fails. That’s the nature of research. People who succeed in science are persistent. I’ve developed a quality of resistance. I think about what I do and how important it is for our patients.
A friend of mine died recently at age 31 from breast cancer after an eight-year struggle. When someone close to you goes through that, you realize how urgent it is to work hard to make progress so others don’t have to go through that experience. The frustration of not being able to help a patient keeps me going and gives me strength.
See past New Chapter stories here.