Melissa Skala

Tailoring the right cancer treatments to the individual

Melissa Skala

Melissa Skala

Principal Investigator, Morgridge Medical Engineering

Medical Engineering

I knew in first grade that I had to be a scientist. I received my first astronomy book and couldn’t put it down, I was so curious about everything in that book and what the universe is made of and how it worked.

I originally studied physics to be an astronomer. I loved the classes, but when I did the research, it wasn’t exciting and rewarding. I realized I wanted to work with my hands and build things, so in grad school I decided to be an optical engineer. I loved optics because I wanted to work with light, and I decided to build new instruments that use light to sense the body. There’s so much connection between astronomy and microscopy because of the technology, but we’re looking at cells and molecules in our bodies to see what we are made of, instead of looking beyond the universe.

Now I am a biomedical engineer working on cancer, especially pancreatic cancer, one of the biggest killers. We take samples from tumors and test different chemotherapy combinations on them. I’ve developed imaging technology that is sensitive enough to quickly test and measure how the cancer cells are responding to treatment.

Collaboration is vital to this work. I don’t treat patients. I don’t prescribe them treatment. I work very closely with surgeons and oncologists to develop a technology that will be useful and also fit within the clinical workflow so it can be used with current clinical practices.

It requires talking across disciplines. Biomedical engineers serve as a bridge between technology and clinical practice. It takes a lot of time and a lot of interactions to learn how to speak the language of clinicians when you’re an engineer.

I think there’s tons of exciting technology out there, but people have to understand that technology has to work within the framework of clinical practice. It takes a while to learn what that framework is and to communicate how you fit into that framework. Sometimes people who are incredibly talented have a hard time breaking that barrier.

Right now, we’re just taking tissues from patients and seeing if we can predict how they will respond to their treatment, but we’re not yet informing the physicians how to treat their patients. If it turns out the technology is effective, it will be used to help physicians decide what combinations of drugs to use on their patients in a personalized way.

I want to impact the quality of life and survival of cancer patients. If I can make anything that improves their treatment so that they receive less toxicity and they live longer, that’s a grand slam home run for me.

Fearless Science

Science moves. It unlocks mysteries in medicine and opens new doors in human health. But science doesn’t thrive by asking safe questions. It moves when we push fearlessly into new frontiers. This Spring 2018 report explores science with the promise to move our lives.

Learn more >