Omair Khan may get squeamish reactions when he talks about the benefits of a particular tampon, but it’s a topic the Yale sophomore is pretty keen to discuss.
After a summer internship with NextGen Jane, a fledgling company that recently graduated from Illumina’s Accelerator program, Khan is excited about the potential of the tampon the company is developing — called the Smart Tampon™ — to radically change the future of women’s health. Ultimately, the company hopes its Smart Tampon™ will allow women to use their own menstrual blood to test various aspects of their reproductive health, ranging from detecting the presence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), endometriosis, and cancer to monitoring their nutritional hormones and even their Anti-Mullerian Hormone to check their ability to successfully produce an egg capable of fertilization.
Wearing a “Yale Feminist” t-shirt, Khan recently took the time to talk to YaleNews about his summer internship and his new interest in medical entrepreneurship. Here’s what we learned.
A new angle: Khan, a premed student, said that he contacted NextGen Jane because he wanted exposure to a side of medicine he knew little about.
“I already had some experience in medical research and clinical shadowing, so I wanted to explore something that students my age may not know exists,” says Khan, who published two research papers on the gut microbiome before even coming to Yale. Since his freshman year at Yale, he’s been investigating the relationship between that microbiome and the human immune system in the laboratory of Sterling Professor of Immunobiology Richard Flavell.
“After discovering the huge role of private industry in medicine, I looked up private companies that are intertwined with the healthcare system but don’t get as much attention as I think they should,” continues Khan. “That’s how I learned about NextGen Jane.”
Empowering women: NextGen Jane, based in San Francisco, was founded by two Harvard alumni: entrepreneur Ridhi Tariyal and scientist Stephen Gire. The Smart Tampon™ they devised allows women access to information about their own bodies by testing blood collected from a tampon in the privacy of their own homes. While the detailed specifics of this process are still under wraps during the company’s first clinical testing phase, the NextGen Jane device will soon be submitted to the Food and Drug Administration for approval, according to Khan.
One of Khan’s summer projects was to help develop a novel diagnostic method for detecting genetic markers for endometriosis.
“About 10% of women get diagnosed with endometriosis,” notes Khan. “Unfortunately, the only way to diagnose this disease is through exploratory surgery. In addition to the cost of surgery, the problem is that a woman can go 5 to 10 years with endometriosis without being diagnosed. It’s a progressive disease, but there may be no symptoms, in some cases, for nearly a decade. At the point that a woman has significant abdominal distress, the only option is a radical hysterectomy. Some of these women are in their 20s.”
NextGen Jane’s future clinical trials will test for reproductive health cancers, says Khan, noting that in the future women will be able to use the Smart Tampon™ to check for common infections such as chlamydia and other STIs, as well as to monitor their own fertility.
“The NextGen Jane product is essentially giving women ownership of their own reproductive health,” says Khan.
From idea to reality: In addition to researching genomic markers for endometriosis, cervical cancer, and other women’s reproductive health diseases, Khan helped
develop cost-effective diagnostic methods for such diseases using the Smart Tampon™ device. He also sequenced the DNA/RNA of patients in the clinical trial for endometriosis (comparing the genes in healthy versus diseased patients), among other laboratory tasks.
“Omair spent the summer helping NextGen Jane unpack many interesting scientific questions,” says Tariyal. “Most notably, he was driving the experiments to understand the differences in protein signals found in a tampon versus venous blood. He was also helping to elucidate the changing composition in bacteria during varying time points in a woman’s cycle. Omair’s scientific curiosity and bench skill-set helped NextGen Jane develop a deep understanding of women’s health from a completely novel perspective.”
Outside of the lab, Khan learned firsthand about the transition of NextGen Jane from a startup to a new company. He attended investor meetings and assisted in developing pitches to venture capitalists, helped develop the company’s scientific business model, and aided the cofounders with marketing and communications. He also had the opportunity to promote relations with potential collaborators and explored how NextGen Jane’s platform can be applied in different markets and settings, such as using the device to detect STIs in developing countries.
“This summer really opened my eyes to the entrepreneurial side of medicine,” says Khan. “I got to see how someone takes a medical idea and launches it as an early-stage startup and then commercializes the idea. I also learned a whole lot about women’s health.”
Bad luck turned to good: Khan credits his public high school, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), for helping to foster his interest in science and giving him some practical experience. The public boarding high school gives its students a day off each week for off-site research; this opportunity gave him his first experience in a scientific laboratory examining the gut microbiome.
That opportunity, he notes, would never have happened without Hurricane Katrina.
“I grew up in New Orleans. My parents are immigrants [from India] who lost everything after the hurricane. So we moved to Chicago, where I had so many opportunities I never would have had in New Orleans, such as being able to attend IMSA.”
In Chicago, Khan and his family experienced another hardship that bolstered what in his family has been a shared goal: helping to empower women.
“My dad fell ill a couple of years ago with a brain tumor,” explains Khan. “My mom really took over while my dad was recovering. She was able to do that because she’s always been a strong person. She raised three kids in a completely new country while doing her Ph.D. in education and curriculum development, tending to both her familial and academic responsibilities — something for which I am eternally grateful.”
“For both my mom and dad,” he continues, “education is important. They have been actively involved in an organization that funds schools to allow girls in India who live in poverty to have an education. I share their cause of empowering women; it’s something that’s really important to me.”
Staying involved in the process: Khan became so interested in the future of the Smart Tampon™ that he asked to continue his involvement with the company during the academic year. Among other tasks, he is helping to write up research results with the NextGen Jane team on the vaginal microbiome, a project that he initiated at the company. A research paper on that topic is due out later this fall. He also hopes to be involved in future clinical trials of the Smart Tampon™. He manages to squeeze in work time while also serving on the boards of the Muslim Students Association and the advocacy group Students Organizing for Syria, as well as being a member of the Yale Rotaract Club (a service organization) and the Yale Undergraduate Research Association, all while conducting biomedical research at the medical school with Flavell. He also participates in intramural sports, whenever he can.
“I never imagined myself doing something like this internship, and it’s made me realize that there are a lot of opportunities out there for Yale students, where we can do things we’ve never done before,” says Khan, whose work with NextGen Jane was funded by the Yale College Dean’s Office and the Office of the Provost. He said he is also grateful for the events hosted by the Office of Career Strategies at Yale that allowed him to connect with other Yale student interns in the Bay Area and with alumni in the biotech field.
“I’ve never been engaged in science as a private enterprise, and I discovered I liked it,” Khan says. “There are now so many other aspects of medicine I want to be exposed to, such as health care policy and health care economics. I have a very deep interest in medicine, and this internship opened my eyes to the fact that the entrepreneurial side of medicine is a very real and fascinating thing — that medicine is so much more than a lab coat and a stethoscope.”