Manufacturing the future

Dr Theoni GeorgiouDr Theoni Georgiou is a senior lecturer in the Department of Materials.

She obtained a BSc in Chemistry from the University of Cyprus in 2001, followed by a PhD in 2006 in polymer chemistry.

Her career has taken her via the USA and East Yorkshire before joining Imperial in January 2014.

Her research focuses on synthesis and characterisation of polymers and their evaluation in a variety of applications like drug delivery, gene delivery and photothermal therapy.

"Ever since high school, I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist and I first began falling in love with it when I started doing chemistry – I was fascinated by the fact that I could make new molecules."

"Like all scientists – you have your good days where everything works out and that’s great but you also have your bad days!"


 

Much of your work to date has focused on polymers – what is a polymer? And why are they so useful?

By its very definition - a ‘polymer’ is when there are lots of small molecules connected together to make a bigger molecule and in fact, the actual word ‘polymer’ means ‘many parts’ in Greek.

Importantly, you can vary the properties of the materials hugely by varying the underlying chemistry and also the overall structure of the polymer meaning they are hugely diverse and have many fascinating properties.

Ever since high school, I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist and I first began falling in love with it when I started doing chemistry – I was fascinated by the fact that I could make new molecules.

Then, when I was 17, I told my dad I wanted to be a chemist and actually wanted to do a PhD in bio-applicable polymers. He was like; “Yeah – lets see if you make it uni first and then you can decide” and so, I eventually did exactly that and here I am!


Polymers are hugely diverse in their applicability – how have you applied them to the world of biomedicine?

My actual PhD project was focused on Gene Therapy. Basically, for any genetic disease – you have a gene in the body that is not functioning correctly and that’s why you have that disease. In gene therapy, they try and correct that gene by replacing it with a functioning gene.

To do this though, you have to transfer DNA into the body. In the beginning they used viruses – which is nature’s way of transferring things into the body – but because these are viruses, the body’s immune system can sometimes become activated - which is not ideal.

In fact, a patient died because of this immune reaction and so they began looking at alternative vectors to transfer this DNA and polymers were one such molecule.

At the moment there are around 12,000 papers published on this topic so it’s very popular! With that said, it’s so popular because the technique is so promising – from curing cancer to reversing blindness; the possibilities are seemingly endless.


Another application you’ve been working on is Tissue Re-Engineering – how have you used polymers in this sense?

When it comes down to it, all my work is about systemically investigating something about a material. I will systematically vary all the parameters to get an optimum material before it’s applied. Otherwise it’s just through trial and error – which can be both time-consuming and costly.

What I really like about it here at Imperial is because it’s a Materials department; it gives me lots of different directions my work can go in."

In terms of Tissue Engineering, the work I do is all to do with the scaffolds that the engineered tissues form on.

A conventional method is to make the scaffold and then add cells into it and this is then implanted into the body. However, sometimes when this scaffold is implanted into the body surgically, you may damage the tissue around the scaffold site.

To try and prevent this, they are now trying to make scaffolds that will actually form after they’ve been injected into the body.

This can be done by making a solution which remains a solution at room temperature and then, when it’s injected and reaches the body – where the temperature is higher than room temperature – it forms a gel and the cells can grow on this scaffold.

These are known as ‘injectable gels’ and much of my work has looked at the effects of changing, for example, the molecule size and how that effects the way the gel acts at different temperature.

Both of these ever-evolving techniques are at the forefront of 21st medicinal research – how exciting is it to be part of such cutting edge science?

Like all scientists – you have your good days where everything works out and that’s great but you also have your bad days!

What I really like about it here at Imperial is because it’s a Materials department; it gives me lots of different directions my work can go in.

Before this, I was in a chemistry department and chemists can sometimes be obsessed with just making new molecules that might not have any applications. But now that I’m part of the Materials Department - it’s always about the end product and application and I kind of like that!