We want to make a nanoparticle that works better. To achieve this, we are interested in unpacking how nanoparticle properties affect the ability to deliver drugs - this means understanding how nanoparticles can be engineered to interact with the body better. There is one road block that we are particularly interested in studying.
When many of our nanoparticles are delivered into a cell, they are delivered into a compartment which is like the stomach of the cell. It basically acts to chew up everything it doesn’t recognise. The problem is that our very expensive drugs – our nanoparticles, which we have spent ages engineering – become trapped there.
A drug doesn’t act effectively there and it needs to be released into the rest of the cell. But how do we engineer its release? That’s really hard to do. Even the best nanoparticles only get out in small amounts. We’re interested in trying to unpick that road block, known as the endosomal escape.
We are also playing with vaccines. We’re looking at taking a model protein and delivering it. It could tell us whether our nanoparticles allow a good immune response. Our first port of call is not a specific disease, but a model vaccine. Then we could look at something like flu where a lot of work has been done on understanding how vaccines for that sort of illness fare.
For this work, collaborations are crucial. I have a lovely collaborator in biochemistry – Dr Justine Mintern, who heads the Vaccine Biology Laboratory at the University of Melbourne. She is helping us by studying some of our materials and vaccines. And I’m also working with Dr Angus Johnston, at the Monash Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, who is trying to understand these materials. We’re getting there but it’s a long-term process.
Our nanoparticles can also be used to deliver more traditional types of drugs, but we think the problem of biological drugs is more challenging and more interesting. We do deliver hydrophobic drugs and look at how they behave but our focus is on this biological drug problem.
When I first started my own research group in 2013, I decided I was interested in designing nanoparticles that were a little more simple and modular, so that we could do them in a couple of steps. It was something that would ultimately be attractive to industry because anyone could do them.
A breakthrough would be life-changing. If we can improve vaccines so they are more potent, and could be used for chronic diseases like cancer – that could change the lives of so many people.
I would love to work on a vaccine for cancer. I got kidney cancer about four years ago and it was just out of left field. I felt really healthy and then went to a doctor and then suddenly I had kidney cancer. It touched my family, as I had two young children at the time; my son was only 18-months-old.
I’m one of those people who is insanely upbeat. It’s very annoying for most people. To be a research scientist, you have to be incredibly stubborn and tenacious. You have to go home, maybe sulk for half-an-hour and then go, “No! I have a new idea. I want to try X, or I want to try Y”. And then you get inspired all over again.
Family is very important to me. Until his retirement, my father was the chief scientist at Dulux and he now actually works as a consultant for me. He’s working with me and a PhD student on designing nanomaterials.
We have tried many different nanomaterials and we don’t understand to this day why some of them have worked and some haven’t. What inspires me about that is the huge challenge to understand this biological environment. And what’s not to love about that?
Pitting yourself against something that’s fighting you back every step of the way. It just keeps you going, piecing a little bit more of the puzzle together. I unashamedly love what I do.
My work is a quest. The things most worth doing are hard, but that’s true of everything in life. There’s so much rejection and so many knocks, especially being a woman in science where you have other things on your mind and other balls in the air.
If I get too stressed about something or too worked up, I think about that moment when my kids came into hospital to see me. And I think, let it go. Cancer has given me perspective and that’s very useful in academia. I’m very passionate about what I do but at the end of the day, what is important? I believe it’s family and the people you love.
- As told to Muriel Reddy
Banner image: Scanning electron micrograph of a multi-cellular prostate tumour spheroid (cluster of tumour cells) treated with nanomedicines carrying anticancer drugs/Wellcome Trust