Dr Daniela Wilson’s international career has taken her from Romania to Japan, via the US, the UK and now to the Netherlands, where she is heading up a study into the use of nanomotors in cancer treatment. Here, she tells Doris Retfalvi about her ‘fantastic voyage’ towards becoming one of the country’s most respected female chemists
In 1966, Hollywood writers came up with the outlandish idea for a sci-fi film in which a group of surgeons were shrunken to a nanometre scale (one millionth of a millimetre) and injected into the bloodstream of a dying scientist to try and save his life. To this day, Fantastic Voyage remains a ground-breaking film for its innovative approach to science and medicine, but can we still call it science fiction?
Not according to Dr Daniela Wilson, Assistant Professor at the Institute for Molecules and Materials at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Originally from Romania, Dr Wilson has travelled the globe studying molecular chemistry and nanotechnology. She is currently leading an independent research group within the university to investigate the use of self-assembled nanomotored capsules with autonomous directed propulsion in biological systems.
‘We don’t need to miniaturise the doctors but if we create smart capsules that are able to sense their environment and deliver drugs to the place we want them delivered, we can achieve a Fantastic Voyage,’ explains Dr Wilson. ‘We are developing self-assembled drug-delivery capsules that can control their movement and sense fuel in the same way that bacteria sense food,’ she adds. They achieve this through a process called chemotaxis – the movement of an object, or organism, in response to a chemical stimulus. In Dr Wilson’s research, the chemical fuel stimulating the movement and directionality of the nanomotor capsules is hydrogen peroxide, which is produced in higher than normal amounts by cancer cells. Therefore, if the capsule can sense the fuel and can direct its movement towards the source of the fuel, it can reach the ‘sick’ cells and deliver the necessary anti-tumour agent.
Nanocapsules have played an important role in delivering therapeutic agents of all kinds within the body, however, these structures rely almost exclusively on passive delivery – circulating through the bloodstream – as they couldn’t previously sense their surroundings. Dr Wilson’s nanomotors, on the other hand, will perform an active delivery with the help of specialised receptors attached to their surface that are responsible for recognising the chemical fuel that will then control their directionality. ‘But for that recognition to take place, the capsules and hydrogen peroxide need to be in very close proximity to each other, an aspect of our study which we’re trying to improve at this time,’ Dr Wilson says.
‘We’re also focusing our attention on turning the capsules into biocompatible and biodegradable systems. We need to make them deactivate once they reach their target. This will keep us busy for the next five years,’ she admits.
Dr Wilson has been busy with this project since 2010, when the idea of self-assembled nanostructures first came to her. She was inspired by earlier work during her post-doctoral research at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studied drug-delivery capsules self-assembled from dendrimers – repetitively branched molecules, similar in structure to tree branches. She decided to put this idea into practice in Nijmegen, a city famous for its developments in nanoscience.
‘Coming from the US, a country that takes risks when investing in innovative ideas, I was quite frustrated when my applications for a grant to work on nanomotors from the Dutch government and the European Research Council (ERC) were both rejected. According to them my project was “high-risk”, so I had to take another post-doc at Radboud University to get the proof of concept for my study.’
But after she got her paper published, Dr Wilson finally received her €1.5 million ERC grant and a tenure position at the university in 2012. She has since been working with a multidisciplinary team of students and professors, including the University’s Chair of the Bio-organic Chemistry, as well as external researchers from the High Field Magnet Laboratory, to advance her study.
‘When I first came to the Netherlands I had to work hard to get myself noticed. Because the Dutch academic scene relies heavily on networking, as a foreign female scientist I had to be 10 times more competitive than my counterparts to prove my study was worth the attention. But after five years, I feel I’ve finally made my way up the ladder.’
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