Yamuna Krishnan is revolutionising disease detection based on DNA

Harini Barath

Yamuna Krishnan is a professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago and the co-founder of Esya Labs. She describes herself as a DNA devotee, RNA fanatic and biology addict in her Twitter bio. Indeed, her lab has pioneered the use of DNA to construct devices that can sense chemicals inside living cells. Using these patented devices, Esya Labs seeks to revolutionize diagnosis of some genetic and neurodegenerative disorders and pave the way for better therapeutic outcomes.

What drew you to science? Do you remember when you wanted to become a scientist?

I was very interested in science from a very young age. This was encouraged by my parents—my father often used to ask questions that made me apply scientific principles and reasoning. My parents bought me a chemistry set equipped with some harmless salts that didn’t do much but did create a zest for experimenting. My grandparents were doctors, so I had access to a set of old dissecting knives with which I used to dissect everything in my father’s garden. So science was always a part of my life.

You work with nanodevices. What are they? And what do they do?

Nanodevices have at least one dimension in the nanoscale. In my lab, the medium we use to create nanodevices is DNA. You can really think of DNA as a 2 nanometer thick filament that can be knitted into different shapes. We use DNA to create extraordinarily simple devices that measure the level of chemicals inside compartments of living cells called organelles. Just like organs of the body perform very specific functions, the organelles perform very specific functions for cells.

Why are we interested in organelles? What does this technology help us do?

Several diseases cause organ malfunctions that can be traced right down to changes in organelles inside the cells of that organ. Biologists and clinicians have known of organelle malfunction for decades, but our current description of organelles is largely physical and morphological—for example, they go from tubular to fragmented when diseased. Unless you have chemical and molecular correlates of normality or malfunction, you will never be able to leverage the signatures of organelle dysfunction in disease. Identifying these signatures would help in early disease diagnosis and it could help in precision medicine. And that’s what out technology is leading to now.

You co-founded Esya Labs in May this year. What is your vision for the company?

At Esya we have two propositions. On the one hand, our technology can be used to diagnose rare genetic diseases that largely affect infants and children. On the other, it allows us to categorize neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, assess disease severity and predict patient responsibility towards therapeutics just from a skin biopsy or blood test.

We have been largely treating Alzheimer’s as a single disease. It turns out this isn’t the case and our technology can chemically differentiate between Alzheimer’s patients at the cellular level. If we can classify patients into groups with different sub-types of Alzheimer’s, then one can start looking at developing specific drugs for specific sub-types.

What did the transition to entrepreneurship entail? Did you have any challenges that you did not anticipate?

Yes. Everything’s a challenge when you are setting up your first company. The way you fundraise as a scientist is completely different from the way you fundraise for companies. It was a steep learning curve. But once Dhivya Venkat came on board as the CEO, she was able to help me see how business and finance people look at and evaluate technologies. One of the things I’ve learnt from setting up a company is how to be able to talk about my lab’s work in a way that everyone will be able to understand.

Are there women who you see as role models?

A person I admire a lot is Rosalind Franklin. She was a magnet for people of extraordinary calibre. She led Watson and Crick to the significance of their own findings and she lives on today even though she didn’t win the big accolades.

What do you do to relax?

I meditate, I do yoga and pilates. I also listen to music and read books. I’ve realized that we cannot take health for granted. That one hour of you take off from work for your wellbeing is really an investment to the remaining hours that you are awake. It changes the quality of your day.