AG PHOTOGRAPHY/YIMING KANG
Derek Platt, a graduate student in molecular microbiology and microbial pathogenesis, earned a spot on the Forbes “30 Under 30” list of science stars for his studies of Zika virus. His work has contributed to the development of diagnostic tests and treatment for Zika infections. Erica Barnell, PhD, an MD/PhD student, was named one of the “30 Under 30” health-care innovators for her work as cofounder and chief science officer of Geneoscopy, a clinical-stage diagnostic company working on early detection of colorectal cancer.
During her first year in medical school, Barnell met a middle-aged woman with colon cancer who said that her disease had been caught late because she’d had difficulty getting time off work for a colonoscopy. The screening procedure, while potentially lifesaving, requires a day of dietary restrictions in preparation and then a day off work for the colonoscopy, and many people struggle to make time for it.
The encounter led Barnell to cofound Geneoscopy in an effort to develop less burdensome alternatives to colonoscopies. The company, which analyzes RNA in stool samples for signs of disease, has raised over $8 million in venture-backed funding. Barnell and the Geneoscopy research team recently published a promising paper indicating that the company’s RNA-based method could detect high-risk cancers as well as or better than the most accurate noninvasive diagnostic tests on the market. As the chief science officer, Barnell’s responsibilities include directing research initiatives, applying for external grants, and writing papers for peer-reviewed journals.
“It’s my name that you see on the Forbes list, but Geneoscopy is a team effort,” Barnell said. “We have 11 people who are all working their tails off to achieve this vision of developing a noninvasive diagnostic for people at-risk for colorectal cancer. This is a tremendous honor, but more importantly it’s a validation that what we’re doing is important. It reminds us that we are building a product that’s going to impact health care, and that the work we do every day will ultimately add up to something big.”
Barnell received her bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in 2013. In October, she completed her PhD in molecular genetics and genomics at Washington University, in the laboratory of Obi Griffith, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine. She is working full time at Geneoscopy and plans to resume her medical studies at Washington University in June.
Barnell holds two patents related to cancer diagnostics. She was named one of St. Louis’ top young entrepreneurs by the St. Louis Business Journal in 2016.
In 2015, Platt was a college graduate with a degree in cell and molecular biology, working on an obscure virus called Zika in the Washington University laboratory of Michael Diamond, MD, PhD, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor of Medicine. Then, news from Brazil broke that Zika virus might be causing babies to be born with unnaturally small heads.
“Once Helen Lazear left the Diamond lab to join the faculty at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, Derek was the only trainee working on Zika virus at WashU when Zika spread to the Western Hemisphere,” said Jonathan Miner, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine and Platt’s graduate adviser. Miner was a postdoctoral researcher in Diamond’s lab at the time. “So when Zika virus arrived in Brazil and was found to cause birth defects, a lot fell on Derek in terms of developing tools to study the virus, which he then shared with me and others in the Diamond lab and elsewhere. He contributed to several seminal papers on Zika virus, and his work was integral to building the body of knowledge that we now have to fight Zika.”
Platt was involved in developing a mouse model of Zika infection, and contributed to a study showing that Zika infection lowers fertility in male mice. He helped identify antibodies that block Zika infection, and those antibodies later were developed into a diagnostic test for Zika infection. He also led a study that showed that West Nile virus, a cousin of Zika’s, can cause fetal brain damage and death, much like Zika. Now a doctoral candidate, Platt has turned his attention to a rare but deadly autoimmune disease similar to lupus. He is studying whether microbes contribute to the condition.
“It’s really a privilege to get this award, but I have to give a lot of credit to all the brilliant people who were around me at the time and who are still around me,” Platt said. “I grew up on a farm in a small, rural town – less than 500 people – so I never thought the opportunity to work in a scientific community like this would come to me. Science is a team sport; an individual might get the award, but it’s always a team that’s solving these complex problems.”
A former high school football star, Platt received a full athletic scholarship to Tennessee State University, where his academic accomplishments earned him the Outstanding Undergraduate Student award from the College of Agriculture, Human and Natural Sciences. At Washington University, Platt is a Chancellor’s Graduate Fellowship Program Scholar and a member of the Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society. An advocate for underrepresented minorities in science, he leads a forensic science teaching team and serves as a mentor to high school students interested in science.
This article is written by Tamara Bhandari and was originally published by the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis News Hub.