“I am the leading inventor of a new type of two-dimensional mass spectrometry for the structural analysis of biomolecules.” says Dr Marina Edelson-Averbukh. “It enables us to obtain a new kind of structural information that is not available from any existing analytical technique.”

Dr Edelson-AverbukhDr Edelson-Averbukh completed her PhD in mass spectrometry of small organic molecules in Israel before expanding her expertise to proteins. Mass spectrometry is an analytical technique whereby molecules are fragmented in order to find out how exactly atoms are connected inside them. It is used in many fields, for example in medicine where it helps to understand the structure of proteins that seem to be involved in various diseases. 

Role models

She believes we need to encourage female entrepreneurial researchers and provide role models so we have more visible examples of success. Despite the faith that Imperial and her funder Wellcome have placed in her, there are people and organisations who remain sceptical about female inventors and this needs to change.

During a postdoc in Heidelberg as a Minerva Max-Planck Society Fellow and later as a DFG Principal Investigator in Dresden, Germany, Dr Edeson-Averbukh began developing new techniques in mass spectrometry in order to better analyse and understand protein structure. She was awarded a Wellcome Fellowship based on her idea and design for a new type of two-dimensional mass spectrometry called partial covariance two-dimensional mass spectrometry.

The award acknowledged hers was an extremely high-risk project with a potential for high gain as the new technique allows greater understanding of molecules and how they interact. It offers more detailed information and insights, and this can provide new understanding about changes that occur in proteins during the development of diseases like cancer.

“I was quite academic previously, with a narrow focus, and when I embarked on this journey I didn’t know if my ideas would be successful. When I saw for the first time that this would work, it felt unbelievable – a different feeling from other discoveries at work”, she explains. Dr Edelson-Averbukh continues: “I owe a lot of my success to the multidisciplinary team of experts across physics, chemistry and medicine that I assembled at Imperial. We are all continuously fascinated with new facets of 2D mass spectrometry”.   

“I believe that my academic discovery can completely change the way we think about analytical mass spectrometry. It provides us with a new type of physical information that is missing in standard 1D mass spectrometry: connectivity between the fragments of the molecule being broken apart inside a mass spectrometer. We use this connectivity to solve the peptide sequence puzzle by piecing the fragments together. This will enable biomedical researchers to solve problems that have been considered beyond reach until now.” Dr Edelson-Averbukh continues: “In order to realise its full potential, I want to engage with industry so they can adopt this technology and to empower users with the new capabilities that this provides.”

Understanding industry

This means embarking on the unknown with commercial vendors so Dr Edelson-Averbukh is doing an MBA in parallel to her research to learn more about how industry works and maximise her knowledge. She also works closely with the Industry Partnerships and Commercialisation team in the Enterprise Division at Imperial, who provide experience and support. 

Part of the beauty of her invention is that it uses current technology with no need to modify existing commercial hardware. It can be incorporated as a software into the most commonly used mass spectrometry platform, called the linear ion trap. Once commercially available, users will not need to wait for industry to make new hardware or to invest in expensive new tools, but can quickly begin to solve structural problems inaccessible to the standard technique.

As a female entrepreneurial researcher, Dr Edelson-Averbukh says she sometimes faces extra challenges. In applying for two patents, she and her co-authors decided to share equal contribution; listing her name first on both applications as the lead and principal investigator. On both applications the order was changed as it went through the process and came back from the patent bureau, with her name appearing second and penultimate on the applications and listing male academics first.

“It felt like it was a hurdle for some people to be convinced that women can be leading inventors.” She concludes: “We need to highlight successful case studies so everyone can see that women can lead in innovation. Role models are important.”