A blood test heads off to the lab for analysis, while a patient leaves the doctor’s office without answers.
Filiz Yesilkoy sees a different way forward, one in which small, inexpensive biosensor devices fill some of the roles currently reserved for large, complex lab machinery that requires trained technicians. Those next-generation devices will generate results within minutes—and might not even necessitate a trip to a clinic.
“It can be a small box that you have in your bathroom, and once in a while you drop some blood in and it alerts your doctor if something doesn’t look right,” says Yesilkoy, who joined the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor in January 2020. “It was impossible before, but now the technology is ready to disseminate these types of devices.”
Designing and creating such devices is one of Yesilkoy’s specialties, among interdisciplinary research endeavors that incorporate nanotechnology, biophotonics, microfluidics and electronics.
Yesilkoy, a cluster faculty hire as part of the Forward BIO Institute, and collaborators recently published a paper in the journal Small detailing a portable biosensor that would enable rapid screening for sepsis, a potentially deadly condition stemming from an outsized biological response to an infection.
The small optical device could allow doctors in small clinics—including those in rural areas—to quickly and inexpensively screen for sepsis at the earliest symptoms using the blood from a simple finger prick.
“It gives you the results in five minutes,” says Yesilkoy. “By the time the doctor gets your blood pressure and measures your temperature, the result is there.”
Yesilkoy plans to develop similarly cost-effective and widely accessible tools for other infectious diseases, including sexually transmitted infections. She also hopes to enhance cancer diagnosis and treatment evaluations, while creating technology that assists researchers investigating fundamental biological mechanisms as well.
After focusing on clean energy applications using nanotechnology as a graduate student in electrical engineering at the University of Maryland, Yesilkoy changed directions during her postdoctoral appointment at EPFL, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. A stint as a visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo exposed her to biotechnology, and she saw the natural utility of nanotools for studying biomolecules and biological processes.
“I was really fascinated with how much an engineer can contribute to biomedical sciences and the impact of the research outcome coming from this joint work,” says Yesilkoy, who then switched labs upon returning to EPFL to work on biosensors and other biomedical tools.
She says she’s wired for work that inherently demands partnering with researchers from other fields.
“I always like working with other people,” she says. “Just being on my own, looking at the same thing all the time is not my thing, and interdisciplinary projects are great, because I get to talk to a lot of people, learn their perspectives and learn new things.”
As a teenager, Yesilkoy’s natural curiosity helped her earn a spot at a selective and rigorous science high school in her hometown of Izmir, Turkey. The boarding school, designed to train the country’s future scientists, featured a rigorous science-oriented curriculum, starting daily at 6 a.m. with a study hour and including just two hours of personal time in the early evening.
“It’s like a science camp that lasts three years,” says Yesilkoy, who credits the experience with inspiring her—and a number of her high school friends—to pursue an academic career.
And she’s thrilled to launch the next phase of her career at UW-Madison, where she says international prestige and research infrastructure initially drew her interest before something more personal and qualitative sealed her decision.
“What made me really fall in love was the people. I was really awestruck when I started interacting with people. They’re so nice,” she says. “Here, what I sensed was yes, they do amazing research, but the human side really appealed to me. And that was unique.”
Author: Tom Ziemer