Kajsa’s particles seek their targets

Professor Kajsa Uvdal is a physicist who moves between chemistry, biology and medicine. She maintains that materials science is integral to all of these disciplines, and this has opened for collaboration with both the healthcare system and industry.

Woman, researcher standing by machine in the lab. Professor Kajsa Uvdal works with imaging XPS - an advanced equipment for producing images with chemical information, for example where different elements are found in the molecular layer Ulrik Svedin

Her work to develop new contrast agents for use in magnet resonance imaging and spectral computer tomography may make it possible for the particles also to carry drugs, and in this way combat a tumour at its location, for example. The objective is to create better treatments for several types of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Photo of hand holding pen to a paper.Kajsa Uvdal suddenly turns over an old print-out, to draw and describe particle motion on the back.  Photo credit Ulrik SvedinKajsa Uvdal has recently been awarded SEK 17.8 million from the Swedish Research Council for a research environment in the borderland between physics, chemistry, medicine and image science. Right from the start, Kajsa Uvdal became active in interdisciplinary fields.
“When I started studying, I was told that there was no point in combining physics, chemistry and biology. It seemed that these subjects were separated from each other by high fences. But I started to study biology as soon as I had finished my master’s degree in physics, because I wanted to work in an interdisciplinary manner. At the time, this was unusual. But today, LiU has complete study programmes based on the principle of interdisciplinarity.”

Leading a large research environment

She now manages around 20 scientists. Her own laboratory is in the Physics Building on Campus Valla but she collaborates closely with the Center for Medical Image Science and Visualization (CMIV) at the Linköping University Hospital. During the project, she has also carried out tests on nanomaterials at the new national synchrotron laboratory, MAX IV in Lund.
Her research at LiU spans across several departments, and has direct links with clinical operations.
“Our large research environment has experts in physics, nanomaterials and advanced technology, together with several clinicians working in cardiovascular medicine and oncology.”
Kajsa Uvdal emphasises her desire that her expertise in materials science, photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) and radiology should benefit medical care.
“The need to develop visualisation methods for the human body is huge, such that we can reach accurate diagnoses and carry out precision surgical procedures.”

Designing nanoprobes

All over the world, contrast agents are used that are injected into the blood when, for example, cancer patients undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The contrast agents currently in use contain scarce rare earth metals that are not naturally found in the body. An example is gadolinium, which has excellent magnetic properties for use in MRI. These metals, however, can have detrimental effects on the body. What is required are new contrast agents with stronger signals at lower doses, and fewer secondary effects. Kajsa Uvdal’s research aims to design such contrast agents, and in the long term discover contrast agents that are not foreign to the body.
“We are designing nanoprobes in which the hard core contains these rare earth metals. By embedding the nanoparticles in a soft, biocompatible shell we can exploit their speciality: visibility in X-rays and good mobility in the body.”
Woman doing tests in laboratory.Kajsa Uvdal, Professor. Photo credit Ulrik SvedinOne of Kajsa’s doctoral students, Peter Eriksson, recently concluded a study into the possibility of combining cerium and gadolinium. Together with oxygen, these metals form an antioxidant crystal with properties that are suitable for contrast-rich imaging – either in MRI or using X-rays. This is a potential contrast agent with both high local contrast and anti-inflammatory capacity.
“Nano” means one billionth part, which describes the size of these particles. By using imaging XPS – an advanced technique to produce images with chemical information – the scientists can discover where different elements are located in the molecular layer, how they are distributed, and what surrounds them.
“This information can be used to tailor the structure of the nanoprobes and their internal properties.”

Targeting diseased tissue

Kajsa’s dream is to make the encapsulated particles into target-seeking carriers of medicines that can be delivered in very small amounts to the right location in the body.
“In cancer treatment at the moment, you have to attack also the healthy tissue, with, for example, chemotherapy agents. Imagine the particles being able to directly target diseased tissue and release the chemotherapy agents and other drugs in a very small region.”
How would that work?
“There are several possible methods, depending on the particular target in the body. One example is to use a change in pH to activate delivery when the nanoprobes that carry the drug reach a tumour”, says Kajsa Uvdal.
Kajsa Uvdal is a physicist with many irons in the fire, and is working with several other projects at the same time as her research into contrast agents. One of these is looking at surface layers and the lightweight materials of the future, together with aircraft manufacturer Saab Aeronautics and the RISE research institute.
“A lot remains to be done in materials science. As researcher, it’s important for me to have many different projects on the go. Knowledge in one project may lead to advances in another”, says Kajsa Uvdal.

(Translated by George Farrants)

Brief facts

Portrait of a woman.Karin Uvdal, Professor.
Kajsa Uvdal is professor
in molecular surface physics and nanoscience, and leads a research group of around twenty scientists at Linköping University. After taking a doctoral degree at LiU in 1991, she moved to the US and worked in research at the University of Washington in Seattle.
She returned in 1995 and has created an interdisciplinary platform that works in the field of medically inspired nanosciences. One of her achievements is the invention of a nanoprobe that consists of Gd2O3-nanoparticles (patented by Uvdal and Engström) that has higher MRI intensities than commercially available contrast agents.
Kajsa Uvdal has ongoing industrial research collaboration with several small spin-off companies, large research institutes, and companies, including RISE and Saab Aeronautics.

 


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