Interview: Creativity and chemistry

10 November 2010

Eva Harth talks to Marie Cote about chemistry as a way of expression, nanosponge technology and her love of colour and structures

Eva Harth is professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, USA. Her research focuses on advancing delivery technologies across challenging biological barriers and towards highly vascular tumors, via the design and utilisation of macromolecular and polymeric architectures. Eva is an associate editor for Polymer Chemistry.

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I always wanted to find out how things really worked and I was first interested in animals. Later on I became interested in more biological questions; I bought books on how cells and plants function. I found that chemistry is a very creative way of expression - artists can make paintings but chemists can make compounds, which is also a way to express yourself. It's always novel and nearly never repetitive in a way. This is what I liked about it.

One of your main themes of research is polymer therapeutics. Could you tell us more about this?

We are interested in increasing the efficacy of drugs. Sometimes drug discovery people come up with really beautiful molecules having great curative potential but cannot deliver them to the site of action in the dosage needed, and this is where we come in. By developing delivery technologies we bring the drug to a tissue, a cell or the inside of the cell. We help the drug delivery to be more efficient, because the drug is better solubilised and guided, so less drug is needed which brings benefits to the patient as well. It is a very good time to be in this field and explore drug delivery with polymers, as great methods in polymer chemistry have already been worked out and all the nice techniques are out there to make versatile and multifunctional macromolecules. This was not possible 10 years ago!

Could you tell us about a key project that you are running in your lab at the moment?

We are really excited about a technology that we have developed, called 'nanosponge' technology. We have built 3-dimensional nano-networks for which we can modulate the size, the crosslinking density, functional groups and other properties. These can be critical for aiming at a certain drug delivery kinetics profile - whether you desire a slow, moderate or fast release. They are completely soluble in organics, which is important for drug loading and further functionalisation with targeting ligands. By tailoring these nanoparticle architectures we are able to modulate the different release kinetics and can really optimise these targeted drug delivery systems for an aggressive cancer for example, or a slower progressing cancer. We got very promising preliminary data on breast, brain and lung cancer with increased efficacy of three to five-fold higher than a direct injection of the drug using the nanosponge delivery system. We now want to use it as a platform, not only to deliver small molecule drugs in combination therapies but also peptides, which are an evolving class of therapeutics.

What do you think will be the key challenges in this field of enabling technologies?

We need to simplify the process of modification and make the drug loading more versatile and efficient. We need processes that can be easily translated to industry and that are approved by the FDA. Also we need to be able to modulate systems in line with the disease that is targeted. So far we have worked with a system and then looked at what disease it could be applied to. We need to think the other way around.

Why did you move back to academia having worked in industry?

A key point for me is that in a company I could never really talk about my research or present my data, and it made me realise this was not really a job for me. I needed something where my contribution could be recognised and I could say 'this is what my students or my lab designed'. It may sound egoistic, but I have a strong identification with my research and I want to show it and present it. This is where I get my pride and confidence, which are very important to me. If I cannot show my results, then it is taking a part of me away: I can't just work for a paycheck, this is not possible!

You are an associate editor for Polymer Chemistry, which has just published its first issue this February. How did it feel?

Having the first issue in your hands and seeing it in print is an exciting moment, because you have worked with the journal very early on and thought about how you would build it. When the first papers come in, and they are in print right in front of you, it's a very exciting moment - that's very cool!

How do you see the journal developing?

We are ambitious and our goals are very high; we want to make Polymer Chemistry one of the best polymer journals out there. The aim is to attract the best papers in the field so as to provide the polymer chemistry community with very interesting science, papers of broad appeal and showcasing great research.

What would be your advice to the younger generation of scientists?

My advice would be don't give up! And do not forget that you are doing something really creative, which is not often possible in other professions. I also think advisors or professors have to realise they are dealing with very young people who need guidance, encouragement and motivation. Often, the advisors can be too harsh and only point out the negative things. At this young age your confidence still has to evolve. Send them to conferences and build their confidence. And then they'll see that suddenly they can stand up and give perfect talks!

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

I very much like interior design. I have also started collecting contemporary art and young artists' work. I go to galleries often, once a month at least. If I wasn't a scientist, I may actually have become an interior designer or gone into fashion. I think I would have chosen a path on the artistic side: something where you can build structures and work with colours.


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