Sunday Sitdown: Chad Mirkin, seeking big cures with tiny spheres

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Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Chad Mirkin came to Northwestern University as a chemistry professor 25 years ago. Today, he’s one of the nation’s most renowned experts on nanotechnology, which marries science and engineering on a scale so small it’s difficult for lay people to comprehend. He spearheaded the creation of Northwestern’s $1 billion International Institute for Nanotechnology. And he’s been heavily involved there and through various companies in finding ways to use his discovery of spherical nucleic acids — think of a cushball-like structure of short strands of DNA on a tiny nanoparticle — to create drugs to treat cancer and other diseases. He co-founded a biotech company, called Exicure, in 2011 in Skokie that boasts investors such as Bill Gates, Aon founder Pat Ryan and Groupon co-founder Eric Lefkofsky. Mirkin spoke with reporter Sandra Guy. An edited transcript follows.

Question: Where is innovation taking nanotechnology?

Answer: With these new materials, you can design a drug to pinpoint where it needs to go in a person’s body to target diseased cells and selectively stimulate a person’s immune system to fight a disease.

We can design, synthesize and run a drug through preclinical tests in 12 to 18 months. That compares with five years or more to get a typical drug ready to be tested in humans, another seven years of trials to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It’s a paradigm-shifter for the pharmaceutical industry.

The newest drugs show tremendous promise in treating certain forms of cancer and other diseases. That’s really exciting.

Q: How much is nanotech having an impact on lives?

A: On the medical diagnostic side, there are already powerful new ways of using the same types of particles as sensitive labels to track disease-markers — from markers for flu to ones associated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

On the pharmaceutical side, the first human trial for the treatment of psoriasis has just been completed in Europe with no adverse side-effects. One day soon, a person who now takes a systemic drug like Humira, with all its potential side-effects, could use a topical treatment.

We can develop hundreds of new drugs by just changing the genetic code of spherical nucleic acids with rearranged, new forms of DNA and RNA — to treat the over 200 diseases of the skin we know have a genetic basis.

The same ball of DNA that can target the immune system can be combined with a checkpoint inhibitor — a protein that keeps cancer cells from avoiding the immune system — to let T-cells attack and eradicate the cancer cells. That can boost a patient’s immune system. And it works for many types of cancer.

We’re developing a real therapeutic. In the next 12 months, it will go into clinical trials.

Today, Exicure has 23 employees, but one investor said he believes one day it may become one of the biggest employers in the Chicago area.

Q: Does it ever weigh on you that you’d better work even harder and faster, lives might be depending on you?

A: I work like a dog at the university and at the company to try to rally a team and build the right type of organization that can capitalize on the opportunity and not make mistakes.

If you fail, it might sit there for another three decades.

It’s really important to do all of this very carefully, very well and to make sure we put our best foot forward.

Being able to use a biological pathway with the unique spherical nucleic acid architecture to treat disease turns out to be very important in cancer research. It’s part of a rapidly growing field called immunotherapy. For the first time, people aren’t talking about treatments. They’re talking about cures.

Q: How much sleep do you get?

A: If I can get eight hours of sleep, I try. I usually get six or seven.

Q: You’ve said your father’s quest for his purpose led to your family’s moving constantly until you were 10.

A: I was born in Phoenix, but I grew up all over the world. I have very few crystal-clear memories before the age of 10. That was the first time we established roots.

My father never found what he wanted to do in life. During his mid-life crisis period, he joined the Peace Corps as an associate director, overseeing the volunteers. So he took our family of six — there are four of us boys — to South Korea, where my sister was adopted. We spent two years in Korea and one in Malaysia.

We often lived in buildings with few amenities, including one with no hot water and no heat. Korea was truly a Peace Corps country in the late 1960s — even raw sewage in the street.

In Malaysia, our home had a big ditch around it with a monitor lizard living in it. We had cobras in our back yard.

My family went to school on the local military bases.

In my early years in the United States, we lived all over the East Coast. My father eventually became an administrative judge with the Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., but we kids grew up in rural Somerset County, Pa. There was one cop in the entire town. I went to a one-room schoolhouse for one year. The school drew from a radius of about 10 miles to get a class of 35.

My father was gone during the week. My mother had three unwritten rules: You can stay out until midnight, but don’t get in trouble with the law, and don’t cost me any money.

Q: Your parents were influential in different ways.

A: My father was brilliant — the smartest guy I ever met. He spoke many languages. He was constantly reading, reading. A real intellectual. Deep down, I believe none of his sons wanted to compete with him.

My mother was very motivational. She was tough but also nurturing and inspiring. One day, I got up late and missed the bus to school — two miles away. I thought she would drive me. Instead, she pointed me in the right direction and said, “Start walking.” I never did that again.

I went to middle school in a slightly bigger town — Salisbury, population 700. Then, we moved to Meyersdale, with 2,700 people, where I went to high school. If you wanted to play basketball, they essentially just threw you a jersey — very different than my kids’ experience at New Trier High School, where they’d go through numerous tryouts.

My experience made me think I was a lot smarter and better than I really was.

Q: You majored in chemistry — but at a private liberal-arts school, Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

A: A liberal arts school is a great training ground. You often get more personalized experiences and greater emphasis on developing writing and speaking skills. A big part of what I do is communicating about technology.

Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Chad Mirkin, director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University. | James Foster / Sun-Times

Q: What’s kept you at Northwestern?

A: To me, it’s a privilege. This is an incredible university to be a part of — motivated students, incredible colleagues and a staff that’s second to none. I’ve had lots of opportunities to move. The administration has been very pro-science. One of our chemistry and nanotechnology faculty members, Fraser Stoddart, just won the Nobel Prize. We hope more are on the way.

Q: President Obama appointed you to his Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. What’s your impression?

A: President Obama, deep down, is a science geek. When it comes to science policy, he strongly believes in evidence-based decision-making. We’ll typically meet for a day and plan our recommendations, then meet with him in the White House for an hour. Remarkably, he runs those meetings. He has an uncanny way of seeing where investment in science can make an impact.

I hope the new administration recognizes science is central to U.S. success and innovation.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: I always coached my children’s sports teams.

Now, Ben, 25, has just started a company with me and Andrey Ivankin, a Ph.D engineer from my research group, to develop nano-printing tools. Sarah, 22, is a senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia studying marketing and business. Rachel, 19, is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, deciding what she wants to do.

I love movies. I go to Bulls games and Northwestern football games, and I like the Blackhawks.

I love playing Texas Hold ’Em. I think most scientists are good at it since it’s a game of numbers and not purely luck. It’s understanding statistics and magnitudes of bets and reading people.

My wife Elizabeth and our family travel. We just came back from Israel. Before that, we went to Spain, Greece and Turkey.

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