The Next Generation of Scientists:

Johanna Wagner, Quantitative Biomedicine

Santina Russo

|2020-01-14

In today’s world, scientists of different fields need to work together – for better research, to improve patient care, and for their own success. PhD programs, which provide an interdisciplinary network, can facilitate collaborations. Students in Zurich tell us what they think the future holds for them.

Photos & Video: Raphael Zubler

The Patients’ Tumor Bank of Hope’s collaboration with the Department of Quantitative Biomedicine makes it possible for Johanna Wagner to research breast cancer.
Name: Johanna Wagner
Initial Education: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
From: Germany

The Molecular Life Sciences program is a joint initiative of two leading academic research centers in Switzerland, the ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. Johanna Wagner is part of the relatively new Department of Quantitative Biomedicine and focuses on cancer research using single-cell technologies.

“We analyzed millions of cells from 144 breast cancers with mass cytometry,” says Wagner. “This method enabled us to quantify dozens of proteins at the single-cell level. We see that each breast cancer is unique, which might explain why some patients respond to treatment and others not. Therefore, to improve patient care, precision medicine approaches are needed that consider and ideally exploit this uniqueness. We show that the detailed analysis of all cells in a cancer can enable a more precise patient classification – impacting both prognosis and treatment options.”

The goal of Wagner’s work is “to empower precision medicine approaches by providing an atlas or a roadmap of cancer uniqueness. Because only when we know what is present in a cancer we can choose treatments that target exactly that.”

Wagner explains that the research is only possible because patients and hospitals collaborate with them, such as the Patients’ Tumor Bank of Hope, an initiative by breast cancer survivors who wanted their diseased tissue to be available for research. “Our work would not have been possible without this collaboration,” Wagner says.

“Another step is to bridge basic biological research with data analysis. The data we generate is complex and not straightforward to analyze. We teamed up with external machine learning experts for the complex data analysis,” Wagner states. Still in the research phase, Wagner realizes the future of her work will require further collaboration: “Due to the costs associated with clinical trials, we need an industry partner to launch such an endeavor.”