Dresden-Rossendorf, (HZDR) Institute of Radiopharmaceutical Cancer Research, Germany
The best cure for cancer we have today is to diagnose the disease in its early stages – but we don’t have such technology yet. The main problem with this kind of diagnostics is that the materials we use are attacked by our immune system. Karina Pombo-Garcia’s aim is to develop a new form of early cancer diagnostics which is compatible with the human body.
Karina: Hi, My name is Karina Pombo-Garcia and I’m doing my Ph.D. in the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf and I think I’m a little bit of a dreamer.
Nerina: And your dream is to better detect cancer…
Karina: To detect cancer at an early stage is one of the best cures that we have at the moment. That means that if we detect it very soon, we have much more chances to cure cancer than if we detect it later on. That is why detection of cancer is so important and that is very challenging.
Nerina: Why is it that difficult to detect cancer nowadays?
Karina: So, at the moment we don’t have the technology to detect it at a very early stage, and we need more sophisticated techniques that increase insensitivity that medical doctors can use in the clinic. So that is the big challenge.
Nerina: What was the goal of your PhD?
Karina: So my research is based on small nano-particles that once injected into the patient, allow the doctors to visualize much more precisely and sensitivity to cancer. The goal of my Ph.D. has been to develop a new novel system, ultra-small particles, so we’re talking about particles smaller than 5 mm, that on the surface of these little balloons, we decorated with different things. So the challenge was to put those different things onto the surface and make the whole complex still something worth trying. So, on the surface, we had like a small light that allows us to follow the tumor. We also had another substance, like another molecule that carries what we need to detect cancer via PET imaging. It also has a small key, if we imagine it’s like a key that will open the door, so that door will be the cancer cells, and that key addresses the nano-particles where they have to go, and at the same time avoid that these nano-particles go somewhere else, to organs that we don’t want them to go. So it has been a big challenge because it has been a lot of mix of biology, chemistry, bio-chemistry, physiology, in one single thing.
Nerina: Why is it difficult to find a substance?
Karina: It is difficult to find a substance but it is more difficult to bring that substance into the human body. Because in our body we have like a “police” that is called the immune system, and what this immune system does is that it will degrade any kind of substance that it doesn’t like, let’s say. So if that happens, whatever we have created makes no sense because it will never reach the cancer. That is the challenge, to inject or create something that is still compatible with the human body.
Nerina: What was the biggest challenge during your Ph.D.?
Karina: The biggest challenge was to stick to what you think is the right thing to do. You will deal with many people that will say you know, this is just not possible or how are you going to prove this, or this is too much work, so I think the biggest challenge was to say I believe in this, and I will carry on with what I have done.
Nerina: What did you discover?
Karina: Where I have reached after these four years of Ph.D. is that we have developed a new system that we have tried in-vitro and in-vivo with promising results and from the basic knowledge in front of you. It was a huge step I think.
Nerina: Is there a day that stood out in a special way?
Karina: Yes, I think that the day that we tried, two days I would say. So one day was the day that we saw the first video of how these particles internalize into cells, so we kind of see which direction they’re taking, where, and opening to many more questions such as why are they going here and not somewhere else as we would have expected. And also the day that we tried in vivo, although there were many things to improve in the results, it was so exciting to see how this system works through this living organism. It was a funny story because I sent one of the videos to my mom and although she is not in this field, she was so excited, she said: “Oh look at that, look at that”. Ok, I think I showed it to many people but I think if you’re passionate about your work, you always want to spread it around.
Nerina: Who inspires you?
Karina: My inspiration always comes from my parents; because they give me the freedom to always do whatever I want to do without asking me why are you doing this now, or think of the next step, or think of what you’re going to do. I never had that pressure as I always had 100% support from their side, and that is very inspiring because it’s like they are pushing you to develop yourself.
Nerina: What makes Nano-particles so special to you?
Karina: Nano-particles is like playing with these little Legos that kids play with, so you change something, and Nano-particles become something different completely to what it was before, and you can keep on changing and keep on investigating what else you can do with them. At the same time, it’s very challenging because there’s no methodology to characterize them so precisely yet; and that makes it a very exciting topic to research on.
Nerina: How important is communication for research?
Karina: Communication is very important for the society because society wants to know what researchers are doing in their lives. It’s a way to pay off, that they support us with their taxes; most of us get paid by government institutions, so it’s good feedback. But at the same time, and it’s a point that not many people see is that researchers are experts in whatever they do. So it means that they are the ones who have to teach people about the big challenges of the society nowadays. So, I see researchers as educators somehow.
Nerina: Is there anything that you would like to change?
Karina: I would like to believe that the only limitation that a scientist has to have is the creativity that they have, and not something else. I know that we still have to deal with other things, but I feel that the main limitation should be with creativity, and not other random things.
Nerina: What is your wish for the future?
Karina: I think we need dreamers in life, not just in research, but in any field, we need people that do things passionately and that dream very big. Especially in research, we need dreamers because in most cases we work with things that we don’t know or we don’t know how they’re going to be experienced or react. So we need, in research, to leave our creativity and freedom very free, so we need to dream.
Nerina: Thank you very much, Karina.
Karina: You’re welcome Nerina, thank you very much for this interview.