A pioneering approach

Professor Molly StevensMolly Stevens is Professor of Biomedical Materials and Regenerative Medicine and the Research Director for Biomedical Material Sciences in the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at Imperial.

She joined Imperial in 2004 after postdoctoral training in the laboratory of Professor Robert Langer in the Chemical Engineering Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

With a First Class Honours degree in Pharmaceutical Sciences and a PhD in biophysical investigations of specific biomolecular interactions and single biomolecule mechanics, Molly's eventual transition to regenerative medicine was inspired by a lecture by Professor Langer. Here, she saw a picture of a young boy with terminal liver failure and learned how Professor Langer was working to address such important medical problems.

A Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Molly now spearheads her own research in this promising field at Imperial, leading a large research group.

She is also Director of the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform Hub for Acellular Smart Materials, Deputy Director of the “i-sense” Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Early Warning Sensing Systems for Infectious Diseases and Associate Director of the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Centre.

In addition, she teaches on our undergraduate and MSc Materials programmes.

Could you give me an overview of the work you do?

I lead a multidisciplinary research programme that focuses on the design and development of bio-inspired materials for regenerative medicine.

We focus on producing innovative biomaterials which are used in applications such as diagnostics and scaffolds for tissue engineering.

Our major aim is to help solve unmet patient needs across a broad range of important medical areas.

We do this by designing studies that answer the most relevant questions in medicine so that the results are most applicable to clinical processes and patients.

I have a fantastic team of highly motivated, brilliant and multidisciplinary students and postdocs, with backgrounds in engineering, chemistry, physics, biology and medicine! It is very important to approach our experiments using various aspects of all of these disciplines.

The key is for researchers to communicate across fields and be able to form collaborations.

What has some of your most recent research been on? And how do you feel it could be applied clinically to make a difference to people’s lives?

We have recently made exciting progress in the development of a technique to detect early signs of diseases such as cancer and infectious disease.

A major challenge for us is to design devices that are easy to use at the site of patient care.

Scientists often integrate so many components in their technologies that the complexity of the entire system is not practical for the target demographic, such as the developing world.

We hope to overcome this problem by developing a technology that is much simpler to use.

Other interesting areas of our research include the development and creation of materials for tissue engineering scaffolds. These are used in the healing process of damaged bone, cartilage, cardiac tissue and neural applications.

We have exciting possibilities dealing with 3D biomaterial scaffolds which can deliver signals and direct cellular behaviour for the intended applications.

Which new developments in regenerative medicine are you most excited about?

There are many exciting developments, so it is difficult to choose only a few, but one of the newer faculties that we are studying is epigenetics.

Epigenetics is the study of how genes can be turned on or off through chemical reactions in the body.

The more we learn about cells and their behaviour, especially in response to materials, the better we can create optimised approaches in tissue engineering.

How did you become interested in this area of science?

My initial studies in single molecule biophysics were incredibly important in teaching me how to approach fundamental research. However, my group now also tackles more applied challenges and this is equally rewarding.

An important turning point for me was attending a lecture by Professor Bob Langer where I saw a picture of a young boy with terminal liver failure and learned how Bob was working on such important medical problems. This was one of the reasons why I made the transition into regenerative medicine by joining Bob’s group at MIT for my postdoctoral studies.

I have spent considerable time in India, South America, Africa and South East Asia and find it very motivating to help address some of the global healthcare challenges.

As a female working in academia, have you ever felt barriers to getting to where you are now? What advice would you give to other females entering the field?

There are multiple barriers to overcome in performing research, especially in a field as challenging as ours! After all is science not all about trying to solve puzzles and make new discoveries?

Hard work is the best way to overcome these challenges and other barriers, but I think the privilege of working on exciting research with amazing people far outweighs them.

In research such as ours any award reflects how fantastic the team of researchers is and amazing team effort.

I would advise that they work as hard as possible and in a field that motivates and interests them.

Ultimately, I am motivated by the possibility of the science in my labs making an impact on biomedicine and the healthcare system.

Seeing new results and being a part of projects that uncover long-standing unanswered questions in biomedicine is simply exciting!