A NANOMETER is only one billionth of a meter. Technology on the nanoscale operates on the level of molecules and atoms. Its impossibly miniscule size has opened new avenues of research in the field of medicine ranging from alternative treatments to cancer to improved techniques for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). One of the leading chemists in inorganic materials and a pioneer of nanomedicine is Cheon Jinwoo (Prof., Department of Chemistry), the Director of the Institute for Basic Science Center for Nanomedicine (IBS CNM), whose current research is in the field of magnetogenetics*. As the director of IBS CNM, which was established in 2015, Professor Cheon leads a team of researchers and graduate students to develop a better understanding of nanomaterials and biological systems for novel approaches to modern medicine. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Professor Cheon shares his inspiration and journey for his research.
Annals: What inspired you to major in chemistry at Yonsei University?
Cheon: I chose to major in chemistry during my second year at Yonsei University because I have always loved art, and I saw that in my first chemistry classes. The way the shapes of molecules are represented through compounds and atoms, and the unique properties that each molecule possesses fascinated me. I felt as if I was playing with Legos, and the different shapes helped me visualize and comprehend what was happening on a molecular level. Learning the geometry of atomic structures, whether pyramidal, linear or planar, was like drawing an image.
Annals: According to the Yonsei University Department of Chemistry, the focus of your research consists of inorganic nanomaterials and nanomedicine. Can you elaborate on your current research?
Cheon: Currently, I am examining ways to control the growth and shape of inorganic nanocrystals, allowing those particles to be tailored to specific uses. My team and I have been developing magnetic nanoparticles that deliberately target and attach themselves to cancer cells, where they serve as chemical triggers of cell death and growth reduction. Carried out remotely and noninvasively, without side effects or toxic residue, this “magnetic nanoswitch,” holds great potential, not only for treating cancer, but in cell biology and regenerative medicine.
If we are able to use nano robots to understand phenomena, provide tools, and accurately diagnose and treat diseases, we will be able to create something completely different from our current medical instruments and be able to treat diseases that we cannot treat now. For example, by applying nano particle research to auditory cells, even people with hearing disabilities could be able to hear sound again through smartphones. The goal of our research is to manufacture functional nanomaterials, investigate cell control, evaluate the risks, and test the safety of nanomaterials to create precise tools that understand the characteristics of cells and can be used for diagnosis and treatment in the next generation.
Annals: As a scientist you have been awarded multiple honors and titles, including being named one of the world’s most influential scientific minds and receiving the Madhuri and Jadish N. Sheth International Alumni Award for Exceptional Achievement last year. How do you feel about this and what has kept you motivated throughout your journey?
Cheon: Out of the numerous alumni who have achieved great things and also as a Korean citizen, I was very honored to be awarded the International Alumni Award from the University of Illinois. However, throughout my journey of development and research, these titles and awards were never my objectives. My aim has always been to look for something new and different. I believe that no matter how innovative a scientific idea or theory is, if it isn’t mine, I’ll never be creative. As a scientist, my passion is to create what will be put into the textbook no matter what is already in there. The purpose of graduate school is knowledge creation, and if we continue to do what everyone else is doing, we will never be pioneers. My priority is to make something different from everyone else, something that I can call mine. In addition to being new and different, groundbreaking research must be scientifically and academically important. Regardless of who says what is important, or how long it has been researched, there will always be something missing—this is what constitutes as “important” and should be pursued.
Annals: IBS CNM was established at Yonsei University in 2015. Can you explain the vision of the center, and the process of getting this established at Yonsei University?
Cheon: As the director of IBS CNM, I envision the institute as a global hub where researchers around the world can develop new and exciting scientific discoveries based on an interdisciplinary system of research including nanoscience, chemistry, biotechnology, and medicine. To create solutions for bigger scientific problems we are facing today, I believe the Center should aim for “Team-Science,” an international collective of scientists specializing in diverse disciplines from chemistry to engineering as well as medicine that drives collaborative research. I also hope that the center will pursue universal values of humanity while creating a paradigm shift in our future generation and become one of the world’s top ten research institutes for convergence science. As we supportthe next generation of students and provide them an environment to thrive while researching unexplored methods for using nanomaterials and devices to cure neurological diseases and cancer, I am confident that through IBS CNM, a Yonsei University graduate will earn a Nobel Prize in the near future.
Annals: Is there any advice you would like to give to Yonsei students?
Cheon: I would like to advise Yonsei students to try to develop their own interpretation of science. All success and innovation requires failure. As a scientist, if my team conducts thousands of experiments a year, only a select few will yield results that are useful to my research. In your pursuit of becoming a scientist, be persistent and enjoy the ride and you will be rewarded in the future regardless of where the road takes you.
*Magnetogenetics: remote activation of cells using magnetic fields