From Chemistry of Chocolate to Liquid Biopsies
Dragana Milosevic Receives the Positive Droplet Award

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The Positive Droplet Awards Program recognizes achievements, success stories and breakthroughs made by scientists and researchers in both academia and industry while using a special technique called Droplet Digital PCR (ddPCR) technology. Dragana Milosevic was a recipient of the inaugural presentation of the Positive Droplet Awards in 2021 for her contributions made to the field of oncology using the ddPCR technique. 

Dragana’s road to receiving the 2021 Positive Droplet Award was paved by perfecting chemistry of chocolate making, pursuing a degree in biochemistry with limited reagents and tools available during harsh years of a civil war, coincidences and challenges related to international travel and immigration processes, and advancing new technologies in her laboratory. The foundation of it all was laid by having a physics teacher for a mother, spending time in her mother’s laboratory on a regular basis and having an extremely curious mind.

Milosevic works as principal developer in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Over the last 10 years, she has developed and implemented numerous clinical assays that were based on ddPCR methodology. She was one of the first at Mayo Clinic to introduce this methodology in clinical laboratory practice.  

One of the main applications of ddPCR in cancers is for liquid biopsies. Liquid biopsy is a test that enables the diagnosis or analysis of tumors/cancer using blood or other bodily fluids such saliva, urine, cerebrospinal fluids, stool, bile etc. It is a non-invasive alternative to tissue biopsies, where a piece of tissue is removed from the body and tested for cancer. 

The clinical management of cancer has evolved in recent years toward more personalized strategies that require a comprehensive knowledge of the complex molecular features involved in tumor growth and evolution, and the development of drug resistance mechanisms leading to cancer/disease progression. Droplet digital PCR has become one of the most accurate and reliable tools for the examination of a wide variety of cancers because of its high sensitivity and specificity. This methodology has proven useful for the evaluation of tumor tissues, where poor DNA quality and limited sample availability are major obstacles for other standard methods. 

As is the case for many successful scientists, Dragana had a teacher and mentor in high school in Serbia, where she grew up, who inspired her to pursue applied biochemistry due to her natural affinity for chemistry. She began her higher education in a university and in the backdrop of a civil war, which caused limited accessibility of reagents and equipment. She still strived in her goals to do science. She then secured a job in a confectionary company, optimizing the chemistry of chocolates while also continuing her work at the university. A university professor in Serbia recognized her passion for science and recommended her for an educational partnership program with Mayo Clinic in the United States in Rochester.

Many coincidences led to her current role at Mayo. Dragana secured her visa and ticket and was set to go to the United States when she received an email saying that her research sponsor at Mayo Clinic had passed away in an accident. Dragana took her chances and asked that her resume be shared with other scientists at Mayo Clinic. Fortunately, several professors were impressed with her training and background and invited her to join Mayo Clinic as a special projects associate. 

Coming to the United States at 28 years of age was a big adjustment for Dragana. Her husband played the role of a trailing and extremely supportive spouse. Nowadays, Dragana is happiest when she is teaching and mentoring others to be good scientists and have inquiring minds and when she is developing successful technologies to help patients. Every assay that is developed is one step toward getting quicker and more adequate diagnoses and the appropriate treatment.  ::

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