Sacramento area science wunderkind gets national recognition

02/09/2014 12:00 AM

02/08/2014 6:08 PM

From the time her dad introduced her to the TV shows “The Magic School Bus” and “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” 3-year-old Divya Nag loved to learn how things worked – and how to make them work better.

Now the 22-year-old Mira Loma High School graduate and Stanford University dropout – who co-founded her own genetics research company and created a nonprofit for other medical researchers to market their inventions – has been recognized as one of the brightest young stars in the science world. On Jan. 20, Forbes magazine named Nag the youngest person on its list of “30 Under 30” brightest stars in science and health care.

“Divya Nag is attacking one of medicine’s biggest problems: the fact that most human cells – like those in the heart and liver – die when you keep them in a petri dish,” Forbes said. Nag has helped invent a new technology that can turn adult skin cells into stem cells, which could someday be used to replace heart tissue that dies during a heart attack.

Inspired by Japanese Nobel Prize winner Shinya Yamanaka – “the first to show that skin cells can turn into stem cells” – Nag is attacking heart disease, which kills about 600,000 Americans annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 715,000 Americans suffer heart attacks each year.

Nag said she made her breakthrough after spending 60 to 80 hours a week trying to create new heart cells in Stanford’s stem cell lab. “I have a lot of raw curiosity,” she said. Halfway through her sophomore year, Nag took a leave from her studies at Stanford to start her own company, Stem Cell Theranostics, with three partners, two of them Stanford professors.

“One of the big controversies at the time was there were a lot of ethical concerns taking stem cells from embryos, and President George (W.) Bush had put a ban on embryonic stem cells, so finding a way to bypass using them was really big,” she said.

She and her colleagues made their stem cell breakthrough at the Stanford lab with a $20 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Stanford granted Stem Cell Theranostics the exclusive license for the technology, and the company was launched with a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

“One day, if you have a heart attack, instead of having to put your name on an organ transplant list, we hope to take your own skin cells, grow your own beating heart cells, replace the damaged cells and repair the heart on the spot,” Nag explained. “We would be able to take out all your dead cells and put in new functioning cells.”

Nag said the idea of using a startup to advance the technology was preferable to having Stanford license it to a big pharmaceutical company, where it might just “sit on a shelf.”

“It has so much potential, and we felt we were the best ones to bring it forward,” she said.

Nag estimates it could take about 10 years to receive FDA approval and see this treatment become a reality. “We’ve already done testing on pigs and dogs, and have shown the functionality of the heart goes back to 100 percent.

“It’s still a small startup, none of the founders get paid, but I own equity in the company and I have full faith this will be a billion-dollar company,” said Nag, who lives in Palo Alto. She receives a salary from another company she created in 2011, the nonprofit StartX Med, that helps medical scientists who want to start their own firms. “So far, 35 medical companies have gotten started through the program and collectively they’ve raised $110 million in financing,” she said.

The first-born daughter of Indian immigrants from the city of Jaipur, Nag took off like a meteor. At 13, following a long interview process, she became the youngest student ever to enter Folsom Lake College, where she aced geometry, precalculus and statistics. “It was awesome,” said Nag. “I am always looking to be challenged. When people tell me I can’t do something it just makes me want to do it even more.”

“She was always a trailblazer,” said her father, Harish Nag, software program manager at Intel Folsom. “Right from the start she was winning all kinds of awards. She was student body president at Rolling Hills Middle School in El Dorado Hills. She continues to be on a great trajectory.”

Nag told her parents she wanted to attend Mira Loma High School’s International Baccalaureate program in Sacramento, 45 minutes from her home. “I had done so many of these robotics clubs and science Olympiads but the problems didn’t feel big enough. I wanted to work alongside scientists. My dad always taught me, ‘If you’re the smartest person in the room, leave.’ ” So Nag found 50 UC Davis scientists on the Internet, looked at their research and sent them cover letters with her résumé and high school transcript.

Only one, Alexandra Navrotsky – director of Nanomaterials in the Environment, Agriculture and Technology and the interim dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences – responded. She offered Nag an internship.

“I’d leave the house at 6:30 a.m., drive to UC Davis (after school at) Mira Loma, stay in the lab until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. and come home,” Nag said. “They gave me my own project to work on.”

California was being ravaged by forest fires – her neighbor’s house burned down in a wildfire – and Nag researched how microscopic particles called nanomaterials could help stop forest fires in the first place.

“We found if we could increase the quartz concentration in the soil, it can absorb a lot more heat and you require a much higher temperature for the fire to begin,” Nag said. Now, she added, state fire officials are using the quartz-enhanced soil along highways and around campfires to prevent accidental embers, such as those from lit cigarettes, from starting fires.

While working at the UC Davis lab, Nag learned she’d been accepted to Stanford, and her mom made a seven-course Indian meal for all of her UC Davis co-workers to celebrate, recalled Sergei Yushakov who had put her on his research team. “A lot of people have this potential, it’s whether they go forward with it or not,” Yushakov said. “The project we put her on literally had to do with dirt, ‘Does Dirt Burn?’ She impressed me that she didn’t expect to be just passively soaking in knowledge. She got her hands dirty.”

Navrotsky called Nag “another Bill Gates.”

“I’m absolutely delighted I had a little hand in getting her started,” she said. “She will probably sell her company to one of the big medical companies, then start something completely different. It might be going into space for all I know.”

Nag enjoys listening to the Yellowjackets and other jazz musicians, visiting museums, attending concerts and exploring the hiking and biking trails around Stanford, where she still takes a few classes. “I would love to go to the moon, it’s definitely on my list! What gets me out of bed every morning is working on something people think can’t be solved,” she said.

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