Tell us about what you do and your current research focus?
Nature is fascinating and as scientists we can learn many lessons from the natural world around us, think for example of the complexity of a spider’s web. My research group has a strong interest in developing materials inspired by nature, and we think biomimetics such as molecularly imprinted polymers (MIPs) can compete or surpass the recognition capabilities of natural receptors such as antibodies and enzymes. The main focus of our work has been on sensors and implementing these sensors into portable devices for rapid screening of samples including water (to determine contamination) and human serum (for early diagnosis of diseases).
Why did you decide to focus your research on MIP based sensing platforms?
I started working with MIPs during my PhD at Hasselt University in Belgium. My colleague Bart van Grinsven (now Associate Professor at Maastricht University) found it was possible to monitor DNA mutations with thermal analysis; I was able to extend this approach to determine binding of small molecules to MIPs. In my career, I have worked with the whole spectrum of recognition elements including enzymes, aptamers, and antibodies to develop new sensing platforms. However, I have always been drawn to MIPs due to their versatility, allowing us to study molecules as small as ions to large macromolecules such as bacteria and whole cells.
Why do you choose to use MIPs as opposed to traditional affinity reagents?
The focus of my PhD was to measure neurotransmitters in vivo. Sensors in vivo are exposed to harsh environments including the presence of a plethora of proteins, enzymes, and extreme conditions of pH. As such, it would be very difficult to use antibodies since they rapidly degrade under these circumstances. I continue to collaborate with my PhD supervisor Professor Patrick Wagner (Professor at KU Leuven), whose team has developed a catheter prototype with a series of integrated MIP sensors which will be used on patients in the very near future.
How do you find MIPs to work with compared to other affinity reagents?
Compared to antibodies, MIPs are more stable and I have found there is less variation between different batches. Historically, the tricky aspect for people new to the field is that it can take a while to develop MIPs for new targets due to the complexity of determining the optimal monomer composition. However, through MIP Diagnostics, scientists can easily access their expertise and computational modelling software which underpins the monomer selection process. There are good resources out there such as mipdatabase.com to provide an insight to how MIPs can be applied to various technologies. As the technology has advanced there is also an increasing number of MIPs that are commercially available as well as companies who are utilizing MIPs in new and existing technologies.
What direction do you plan to take your research in the future?
The main focus of our work at the moment is to develop a platform for continuous measurements of biomarkers; this has unique challenges from a sensors aspect since we need to combat fouling, and non-invasive sampling will be equally difficult. In an ideal scenario this will be a biomimetic array where we can simultaneously measure a range of health markers. We are also very interested in exploring new avenues for our MIP research such as drug delivery.
Where do you think the future of sensor technology will have the biggest impact?
I think sensors, in combination with breakthroughs in artificial intelligence are going to play a vital role in digital health. It will mean the future of precision medicine; the more we can measure, the better we are able to “personalize” therapy for each patient and thereby have better clinical outcomes. I would like to see the ‘Tricorder’ of Star Trek coming to life: a simple scan by the doctor that is able to give you all the answers!
Where can our readers find more information about your research?
We have our own YouTube channel which contains >40 videos on various topics such as bioinspired materials, meeting the scientists behind the work, and tips for early career researchers. More information can also be found on my personal research website www.marloespeeters.nl