Maria Alice Willrich, Ph.D.
Mayo Clinic Labs @ Work
Thousands of people in hundreds of different roles work at Mayo Clinic Laboratories. Mayo Clinic Labs @Work offers a glimpse behind the scenes into this busy reference laboratory, featuring staff from throughout the organization talking about what they do and why they do it.
My first visit to Mayo Clinic was in 2011 as a research trainee under Dr. Linnea Baudhuin’s mentorship. When I was here at that time for a few summer months, I felt a strong connection with Mayo Clinic. The mission and its values really resonated with me, and I felt like coming back. Then in 2012, I applied and got the position for a Clinical Chemistry fellowship, and I was lucky to stay on staff after that in 2014.
Maria Alice Willrich, Ph.D.
I’m a consultant in the division of Clinical Biochemistry and Immunology. My primary appointment is in the Protein Immunology Laboratory. That’s where I spend about 70% of my time. I also have responsibilities in the Antibody Immunology and in the Clinical Mass Spectrometry Laboratories, where I have oversight of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies testing. In addition, I’m associate program director for the Clinical Chemistry Fellowship Program — the same program where I trained. And I’m a member of Mayo Clinic’s Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. My day-to-day activities involve education of residents and fellows, test development, and test interpretation.
The award recognizes and encourages professional development of a young investigator under the age of 40 who has demonstrated exceptional scientific achievements early in their career. It is a peer-nomination award in the field of clinical laboratory medicine, which is humbling and a true honor to me. I could not have achieved so much without several mentors, primarily Dr. Melissa Snyder and Dr. David Murray, now also esteemed colleagues.
My most prominent work has been on the mass spectrometry of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies. Therapeutic monoclonal antibodies are in a new class of drugs called biologics. It’s become apparent that monitoring biologics in serum has led to improved outcomes for patients, especially in inflammatory bowel diseases. Prior to having those monitoring tests available, patients would have to go through trial and error with therapies without really knowing if there was a better option available for them. Before this testing, for example, there was no way to know if they could increase their drug dose or move to a different therapy with the potential for improved outcomes.
We brought our first test live in 2015. We weren’t the first in this area, but the previous tests were expensive. We were able to bring our test to market at a fraction of the cost, and several subsequent studies showed that therapeutic drug monitoring was a much better route for patients. It became common practice after that.
The therapeutic monoclonal antibodies that we’ve worked on so far are in the area of gastroenterology. Beyond that, we’re looking at identifying these therapies used in myeloma and differentiating them from the antibodies that actually cause disease. We also continue expanding tests for the complement system — a challenging area, given that complement proteins are heat-labile.
One of the hardest parts is to be timely, and to devote the right amount of time and resources to everything I want to move forward. I learned through several projects and colleagues that the biggest challenge is driving innovation to the finish line. It’s one thing to bring an innovative test live. But then you have to make sure it’s ordered appropriately, and to do that, you need to communicate effectively with all the stakeholders. Then there’s the regulatory environment and other logistics that have to be handled appropriately to make everything work. All of that poses significant challenge.
Seeing the innovation we create. Seeing the lab perform better because of a test implementation that we did or getting more answers to our patients because of a new test we brought live. That gives me a lot of satisfaction. In some ways, it’s connected to our biggest challenge — seeing it all through to implementation. But in many cases, the biggest challenges bring the biggest rewards.
Being part of Mayo Clinic’s mission-driven purpose — that we always think of the needs of the patient first — that’s pretty unique, too. I do find having that value in front of us helps as we look to answer tough questions. When we are faced with a difficult decision, that value guides our work and adds additional meaning to all we do.
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