“What you’re looking for does not exist.” That was some frank advice Corrie Ortega once heard from her Ph.D. advisor at the University of Washington. “It just doesn’t exist,” she remembers him saying. “You can’t have this humanitarian focus and do things without your work being at the mercy of stakeholders and economics or finances.”
Then, around the spring of 2015, Corrie learned about a research scientist position with Intellectual Ventures (IV) at the IV Lab. She applied and ended up meeting with Damian Madan, a principal investigator working with disease diagnostics and screening. “I interviewed with Damian and was like, ‘It does exist!’ People are interested in doing this [research] strictly because there are people in the world who need it, and those who need it most can’t necessarily pay for it.”
Corrie was sold—on the mission and the people at the Lab—and she joined IV in April of that year. Today, she leads a project to develop a test that supports cervical cancer screening in low-resource areas. It’s exciting work, she says, and a perfect culmination to many years of study, preparation and a little luck.
Corrie grew in Chicago’s South Side, where she attended Whitney Young High School (which Michelle Obama also attended). After graduation, she moved to Baltimore to attend Johns Hopkins University, where she worked part-time in a psychology lab focusing on brain science. She was enjoying that research, but then she heard of a different lab working on infectious disease. Her interest piqued, she soon transferred to the disease lab, where she would spend countless hours during the rest of her time at Hopkins. “It was very serendipitous,” she says.
One of the collaborators with that lab worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and through that connection Corrie later learned they needed a lab technician. She interviewed for the job, got it and moved down to Washington, D.C., after completing her degree.
Like her undergrad lab, her NIH program focused on vector biology in the context of infectious disease transmission—specifically, exploring the relationship between mosquitos and the Plasmodium falciparum parasite, which, when transmitted to a human through a mosquito bite, causes malaria (and is responsible for roughly half of all malaria cases in the world). They wanted to know how a mosquito is able to support the parasite’s life cycle for transmission, and also how to break that cycle.
Corrie’s two years at NIH further sharpened her interest in infectious disease, and she started looking at graduate programs where she could consider diseases within their full context—social, economic, geographic, regional, policy, etc. On the advice of a former advisor, she applied to the University of Washington’s Department of Global Health, where she ended up studying the relationship between Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes TB, and the enzymes that are active in different growth stages of the bacterium.
On to IV
About a year after completing her dissertation, she came across that job posting at IV. From her first conversation with Damian, Corrie knew it was the right fit. “We really hit it off,” she says, “and I hit it off with the team, and the work was like—it’s amazing. It was exactly what I was looking for.”
In her role with IV, she leads a molecular diagnostic project to develop a test to support cervical cancer screening in low-resource areas. Ninety-nine percent of cervical cancer cases are caused by a viral infection of the human papillomavirus (HPV), and screening and treatment programs in developed countries have proven hugely successful at reducing that rate of infection. “So we know it works,” says Corrie. “If you have proper screening, and it’s paired with effective treatments, you can dramatically drop the burden on women’s health related to cervical cancer.”
Specifically, her team is focused on designing a tool that would be able to support same-day screen and treat programs. The goal, says Corrie, is to make the process as easy as possible for the end user, meaning women would be able to come in, have a test done, get the results in about 30 minutes, and then have a health care provider walk them through the next steps.
They are currently in early-stage development of the diagnostic, and they’re working with a partner, QuantuMDx, to build the device that will run the screening test. It is designed to be portable—something that could fit in a backpack—in order to reach remote locations easily. Corrie’s team has a prototype of the device, and they’ve tested it with a panel of patient samples with promising results. “We’re pumped,” she says. “We’ve gotten really encouraging data just in the last couple weeks, and we’re planning for field evaluations this year.”
From there, they’ll focus on integration: Taking what they’ve developed, incorporating what they learn in the field, tailoring it to QuantuMDx’s materials and device, and merging all the pieces to make a final product—one that could end up helping countless women in the developing world.