Saluting Jason Kim, PhD

Arthritis Foundation Vice President of Osteoarthritis Research 

Jason Kim


  • Born in South Korea and trained as a chemist, Dr. Kim received his Bachelor of Science from UCLA, his PhD from UNC Chapel Hill and completed his postdoctoral training at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. 
  • As a corporate scientist and executive, Dr. Kim developed health care products from concept to commercial launch. 
  • He spent over 10 years making diagnostic tests for sickle cell disease, thyroid disorders, cardiac disease and cancer. 
  • Dr. Kim’s goal at the Arthritis Foundation is to relieve the burdens of arthritis patients through science. 
  • His vision for the future of osteoarthritis is to maximize patients’ options for treatment, including drugs, regenerative therapies, rehabilitation and surgical techniques. 
  • Dr. Kim says: “I've been an Asian American on both coasts of the U.S. and in Asia. I've come to understand being Asian American is a unique thing anywhere you go, with both good and bad aspects.” 



May 20, 2022 – Following is an in-depth interview with Jason Kim about his background and his work with the Arthritis Foundation.


Q: Tell us about your background, your early childhood and growing up.

A:  I was born in South Korea. My parents and I came to the United States when I was 3 months old in the 1980s. My mom was part of a recruitment program to bring foreign nurses to the U.S.

We settled in Southern California where she worked in the neonatal unit of a local hospital. My paternal grandmother traveled from Korea to stay with us and take care of me until I was school aged. My mom eventually stopped working as a nurse when my brother was born; my grandmother couldn’t keep up with two little boys.

My dad was trained in engineering as a drafter, but he became a convenience store owner to put a roof over our heads in a suburban cul-de-sac house. After school, my brother and I spent a lot of time playing in milk crates and cardboard boxes in the store’s stock room in the back. 

During that time, the population of Asian Americans exploded in the U.S. When I attended high school, 70% of my graduating class were Asian American, and 40% were Korean American. And when I later attended UCLA, there was a similarly high Asian American representation of the 30,000+ student body. 


Q: Share with us more about your educational journey and career path.

A: For graduate school, I took the opportunity to go cross country to get my doctorate in chemistry from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I was drawn by the strength of the program, but I also wanted to see something different than Southern California and be immersed in traditional Americana. I could walk around and not see an Asian face all day. Some of my fellow students had never had an Asian American friend before.   

After my doctorate, I spent almost two years at a postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. I was focused on a hot area of research interest coined “lab-on-a-chip,” which sought to use microfabrication technologies (like those used to create computer microchips) to control fluids in order to solve problems in biology and chemistry.

Specifically, I was working on portable technology to detect pathogens and biothreats. I found myself connected to a start-up company in South Korea that was working on similar technology for diagnostic blood tests. During the “Snowpocalypse” of 2010 in D.C., I trudged through the snow and slush with all my belongings stuffed in a few big duffel bags (including one filled with ice hockey gear) for a long flight to Seoul.  Seoul is very dense, with two times the density of New York City and four times the density of Los Angeles. I resided in the smallest room I’ve lived in since I was a child. I might have been able to turn on the stove while sitting on the toilet.

The population of Korea is also very homogeneous, with 97% of the people being Korean, so, it would not be unreasonable for them to expect that I know how to speak Korean by my appearance. But when I moved there, I could speak Korean only at an elementary-school level at first, even though my listening comprehension was better. As a result, I spent a lot of time at the office and ate lunch and dinner with my work colleagues. For many months and maybe years, I had anxiety of leaving my apartment to go alone into the city because of my poor ability to communicate.

I led a group of scientists to build and launch portable diagnostic tests for cancer, cardiovascular diseases and thyroid disorders. After a few years back in Korea, I returned to the U.S. Though I created successful products, I encountered barriers to career advancement [in Korea]; I was Korean American, but I wasn’t Korean.

I came back to become chief science officer of a diagnostics start-up in North Carolina. While we worked on a few different products, the flagship product I developed was for sickle cell disease. Working in this disease community was my first exposure working with nonprofit organizations — and patients, scientists and health care providers who are mission-driven. Which eventually led me to the Arthritis Foundation.


Q: What drew you to the field of science and research to start with, and arthritis research in particular? And what do you hope to accomplish professionally?

A: As a high school kid, I never expected to get a PhD in chemistry. The last 15 years since I got my doctorate has been a pursuit of what interests me (and what is financially sustainable). 

During grad school, I did work in arthritis research. Our lab developed a nanoparticle that would be taken up by cells active in inflammation, such as in a mouse model of rheumatoid arthritis. The nanoparticle has properties to enhance MRI and optical detection. After that project concluded, I never expected to be involved in arthritis research again.


Q: There has not been enough done to develop treatments, therapies and other interventions for osteoarthritis (OA). Why? And where are we now in bringing greater relief for OA to reality?

A: The Arthritis Foundation recognized that there was not enough being done to develop treatment options for patients of osteoarthritis. OA comprises most of arthritis, affecting over 30 million Americans. Thus, the Foundation, with the sage advice of many scientific advisors, began to invest specifically in OA research, and hence my role.

OA is a difficult disease to develop treatments for, because it is not one disease. Think of all the different joints that can be affected. And think about how all cancer is not treated the same. OA also can take a long time to develop, up to 30 years. 

The FDA approves products based on how the product can help how a patient feels, functions and survives. There are a few drugs that can help with how a patient feels by reducing pain. The search for a drug that also helps a patient prevent disability (maintain function) or delay joint replacement has been complicated. 

Our FastOASM Initiative aims to find and study patients at highest risk of developing OA within just a few years. Our OA Clinical Trials Network (CTN) comprises the best scientists and institutions working on post-traumatic OA.

We are currently developing the OA Repository, a bank of patient data, clinical imaging, biomechanics and biospecimens, to help scientists use advanced technologies to analyze and understand the complex disease of OA. We are providing an important platform and resources for the best scientists to work on OA. Many of them go on to start companies to pursue the extraordinary challenges of OA. And hopefully, the larger companies will see the opportunity to tackle a huge health care problem and choose not to fear the challenge.  

There are many surgical options available to OA patients. Many of the millions who receive joint replacements of the knee, hip and shoulder continue satisfying lives without OA pain. Every year, surgical techniques improve. I hope to advocate for the development of longer lasting and more functional joint replacements, as well as better surgical options for other joints, specifically the small ones.


Q: Can you speak about any specific OA-related advancements in recent years that are considered cutting-edge?

A: There are several, such as:

  • Anabolic agents administered by intra-articular injection to OA patients, which are currently being studied in clinical trials and have shown cartilage regrowth.
  • An anti-inflammatory agent administered to patients has shown delay of joint replacement.
  • The use of wearable trackers and monitors to encourage physical activity and exercise to improve OA.
  • The identification of genes that may help those more susceptible to OA and subsequent interventions.
  • Robotic surgery for shorter surgical times and better positioning of joint replacements.


Q: What’s the next “big thing” for OA and beyond that?

A: With more funding, we’re achieving so much every day, like:

  • Personalized medicine and recognition that OA is not one disease. One size does not fit all. And we should customize treatments through understanding patients better, through their data and measurements.
  • The role of healthy joints in respect to aging and longevity. More people recognize brain trauma and the need for proper healing; we must recognize the need for proper healing after joint trauma.
  • Regenerative medicine and gene therapies.


Q: What’s special about the Arthritis Foundation’s efforts to accelerate treatments for OA?

A: The Arthritis Foundation is developing a clinical trial network to test potential interventions on OA patients. Many “cures” promoted in the media have insufficient data. Scientists may not know if they work, because not enough patients participated in the clinical trial.

Our network is an effort to perform a clinical trial at multiple clinical sites across the U.S. to help drive up the number of patients to give us an answer we can trust. 

Our brave bets are:

First, we have a focus on post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA) of the knee, and specifically for anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries. PTOA is a large and important subset of broad OA. 

  • The knee is the most studied joint in OA.
  • Scientists know the starting point of the OA, because PTOA starts from some traumatic injury, like an ACL rupture. 
  • PTOA is highly studied in animal models. 
  • PTOA is an enticing research target because it is a model of early OA; when scientists feel like they have a chance to catch OA before it becomes too severe. 
  • Our scientists believe that the findings from knee PTOA will translate to the rest of OA.

Secondly, we have launched the FastOASM Initiative. This is our effort to identify patients at the highest risk of developing OA within a two- to five-year window. 

  • It can take 30 years to develop OA, but a clinical trial usually runs for two years. 
  • A long trial with many patients is prohibitively expensive. 
  • We need to find patients who will develop OA and show effective treatment within those two years. 
  • Our scientists believe that findings from this initiative and the patients we study will translate to the rest of OA. 


Q: What is the Arthritis Foundation’s — and your own — goal in relieving the burdens of osteoarthritis patients?

A: OA patients suffer pain, disability, poor sleep, obesity, depression and other losses in quality of life and/or comorbidities. I hope to utilize my own scientific background and the community of scientists in OA to drive research toward better care and more treatment options. 


Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about your perspective as an Asian American who is committed to conquering arthritis?

A: As my younger self contemplated my Asian American identity, I may have been consciously or subconsciously switching the scenery around me. I experienced situations where I was in the minority and majority, and I feel lucky to have found a comfortable balance/homeostasis.

But it saddens me that my 4-year-old will be confronted by racism in a few short years, as is happening to a friend’s middle schooler: Classmates won’t touch his Asian American child, because they think he has “corona.” And elderly Asian Americans experience violent hate in the most prominent U.S. cities.

I feel fortunate to have an outlet to help vulnerable Americans (those who suffer from arthritis) using my scientific skillset here at the Arthritis Foundation — it's the best job I’ve ever had.