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Kaylin McMahon, PhD

Postdoctoral Trainee in Nanotechnology

Kaylin McMahon, PhD

I make extraordinarily small particles that can be used to detect and treat disease. The inspiration for many of the materials I make comes from nature.”

Kaylin McMahon, PhD, is a postdoctoral trainee in nanotechnology at the Feinberg School of Medicine. Her research involves many disciplines, including biology, chemistry, and materials science, with a focus on designing and synthesizing materials for new diagnostic tests and therapeutics. Kaylin recently co-founded a start-up biotechnology company called Zylem Biosciences, Inc., which aims to perform the complementary work required to move invented therapies from the lab to the clinic.

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
I make extraordinarily small particles that can be used to detect and treat disease. The inspiration for many of the materials I make comes from nature. There are a number of examples of natural nanoparticles that circulate in the human body and naturally interact with components of the blood or human cells. In order to target these same elements, I make materials that “look” very much like their natural counterparts; however, I manipulate the chemistry so that it can be used as a diagnostic probe in blood or to impart a therapeutic function when engaging a diseased human cell. I recently developed a diagnostic nanoparticle platform that may provide state-of-the-art diagnostic information in the case of predicting cardiovascular disease, like heart attack and stroke, diagnosing acute or chronic inflammation, and tracking an individual’s response to certain treatments, such as for severe infections or cancer. 

I am also developing a next generation technology for measuring biomarkers associated with wellness and personal fitness that may enable individuals to make more informed lifestyle changes, for instance exercising or changing their diet. This technology may enable an individual to measure molecular changes that occur in response to lifestyle modifications as often as they would like and at home.

Finally, I have developed drugs that exquisitely target and inhibit cells of the immune system and new therapeutics that kill cancer cells. I am motivated to work at the unique intersection of biology, medicine, chemistry, materials science, and nanotechnology in order to make big advances in human health. 

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
Being a scientist is tremendously challenging. However, with perseverance, it can also be highly satisfying and rewarding. I take pride in asking difficult questions and then strategically and rationally designing experiments to get answers. I find that some of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my career are not necessarily huge breakthroughs, but rather the excitement and satisfaction that come with successfully collecting a single piece of data that has taken weeks to obtain through finely tuning and executing difficult experiments. I find it most rewarding when I get to celebrate this moment with a colleague. The resulting smiles, congratulations, and shared excitement fuel my desire to tackle the next challenge. 

What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
I choose to do research that is highly translational. Often, this means that I am working on a project that is focused on developing a new diagnostic or therapeutic technology that, if successful, could lead to the significant improvement of human health. Success in this regard is only a small step down a long road to, ultimately, realizing the true impact. For this reason, I am also focused on realizing the implications of my work by co-founding a start-up biotechnology company called Zylem Biosciences, Inc. The focus of Zylem is to perform the complementary work required to move therapies that I have invented and developed at the bench to the clinic. Of course, it is my hope that the clinic is where the therapies that I have developed will have the greatest impact and allow people to live longer, healthier, and happier lives.

How do you unwind after a long day?
To unwind, I enjoy running and cooking. I believe that I am drawn to these hobbies because they can be approached scientifically - so, do I ever, really, take a break? I like to run for fun, but I also like to participate in local races. I am proud that I have completed the Chicago Marathon multiple times! I do enjoy looking over data collected on my running watch, but mostly I pay attention to my body and have learned how to push harder or pull back when needed. Cooking is my second hobby, and I consider my kitchen to be my second laboratory. I love testing new recipes, ingredients, and learning new kitchen skills. I like to experiment with flavors and different types of foods. Not everything turns out the way I plan, but I enjoy the challenge of cooking great tasting and healthy food. 

Tell us about a current achievement or something you're working on that excites you.
I am tremendously proud of a company that I recently co-founded, called Zylem Biosciences. I am part of an ambitious team looking to translate many of the new therapies that I invented and developed in the laboratory. I am finding that this is a new kind of hard work, but the work excites me and I enjoy discussing my work and its potential with folks considering investing in the company. It is also exciting to understand and participate in the process of taking a new drug from the bench to the bedside. Certainly, this requires a new skill set and collaboration with outside groups, and I find this exciting, too. Ultimately, getting a drug into human clinical trials will take a team of likeminded individuals working well together in order to achieve success.

Tell us about a time when things did not go as you planned, what did you learn?
One of my research projects was focused on developing a new drug platform that could be used to formulate and deliver a certain kind of drug, called a therapeutic nucleic acid, to targeted diseased cells. I experimented with countless chemical formulations, read all of the published and contributing literature, and had discussions with as many people as I could to find success. It took two years of my PhD to finally realize my breakthrough moment, which was certainly not my plan! However, the result was that I discovered a synthetic route to a nanoparticle platform that could be used to repeatedly and efficiently deliver therapeutic nucleic acids to target cancer cells. The materials worked flawlessly! Certainly, this experience taught me to persevere through difficult times and to learn from my failures. I also learned to trust myself, and my technical skills, so that I could recognize the silver linings in certain failed experiments and build upon them for ultimate success.