Former Mariner student works on cutting-edge research

Woo Do’s love of science started with the dissection of a fetal pig.

He was an eighth-grader at Explorer Middle School, and part of the Mukilteo district’s Summit Program for gifted students. At Mariner High School — Do graduated in 2007 — he excelled in academics. But it was personal experience that fueled an interest in medicine.

“I was born in Korea,” said Do, now 20. “When I was younger I would often accompany my grandfather to his hospital visits. I’d go to translate. The doctors were phenomenal. They do so much more than medicine.”

He is now Cadet Woo Do, a member of the class of 2011 at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy. He plans to go to medical school and become an Army doctor.

Although still an undergraduate, Do is on his way to helping develop what could be a life-changing remedy for amputees. Outside of class time, he is working with Dr. John Kenneth Wickiser, an associate chemistry and life sciences professor at West Point.

They are several months into research to create a genetic, ribonucleic-acid-based drug that would halt the growth of painful bone spurs in amputated limbs.

“This is very cutting-edge stuff,” Do said Thursday from West Point, N.Y.

I’ll spare you the science lesson Do shared. In short, he said that ribonucleic acid, or RNA, “has very versatile functions, one of which may help these patients with issues of bone spurs.”

Wickiser, an associate of the Network Science Center at West Point, said the two are collaborating with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. There, a biological gel has been developed that would serve as a delivery system for the bone-spur treatment.

“If we put a drug inside this bio-gel and inject it at the site, we’d have a healthy, timed release of the drug in a localized region,” said Wickiser, adding that human trials could begin in 18 to 24 months.

Explaining a distressing complication, Wickiser said that especially in combat-related injuries, bone growth occurs in the soft tissue at the end of amputated limbs. Now, he said, the only treatment is surgical removal of the bone-riddled tissue — more surgery for people who have already endured much.

“I’m humbled by the fact that I can contribute,” said Do, who juggles research time with his regular classes, military drills and athletics. A four-year wrestler at Mariner, Do coaches intramural wrestling at West Point.

Wickiser said Do is the rare student who can do it all. “Woo Do is a very unusual young man. He’s at the top of his class academically. He’s very well respected in the morality and leadership realms. He has 24 hours a day, like the rest of us,” he said. “Woo has found this ability to organize and prioritize time to conduct this research, as well as remain on top of his studies.”

Those aren’t new qualities. In 2007, Do’s Hi-Q team won a championship in the academic contest, bringing a trophy and $1,000 back to Mariner. And in 2006, as a Mariner junior, Do won first place in a Prodigies for Peace essay contest, part of Snohomish County’s Martin Luther King Jr. celebration.

“He’s extremely bright,” said Don Robertshaw, who taught physics, chemistry and calculus at Mariner before retiring. “He’s an outstanding young man.”

Robertshaw, who was drafted into the Army long ago, remembers Do talking about West Point. “It was a good decision for him,” Robertshaw said.

The son of Raymond and Myong Sim Do, Woo has a 19-year-old brother at the University of Washington and a sister, 14. His mother speaks mostly Korean.

Do said he’s had lots of support along the way. “I’m indebted for all the help I’ve received,” he said.

From that dissection in middle school through Advanced Placement biology and physics at Mariner, Do said, “I really fell in love with science.” With that love came a sense of possibility. “Always, there’s been a prospect of something big happening,” Do said.

Wickiser, too, sees great promise in the student who became a research partner.

“Woo is aggressive in his desire to help as many people as he can,” Wickiser said. “By being a surgeon, he can help individuals. If he can develop new techniques, he can help not only soldiers but the public. He has the big picture in mind.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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