Q: Your CV is littered with qualifications and awards — a Philip Leverhulme Prize, The Royal Society Interface Award, an Engineering Medal at the Parliamentary Science, Engineering & Technology for Britain awards — but which part of your success are you the proudest of?
A: For me it’s the work that we’ve been doing that we’re now translating into the clinic – specifically for the treatment of pancreatic cancer and chronic infection. The first time we saw a beneficial effect in human volunteer was incredibly exciting!
Q: How long have we been studying the use of microbubbles in cancer treatment? Have we realised the potential of this technology yet — or have we only scratched the surface?
A: We’ve definitely only scratched the surface! The first paper published on using ultrasound to enhance drug delivery was published in 1981 and it’s only in the last 5 years that this method has started being tested clinically.
There’s still a huge amount that we need to understand better in terms of fundamental science and that’s vital to make sure we’re using bubbles as safely and effectively as possible. The range of potential applications though is absolutely huge, encompassing neurological diseases, stroke and bacterial infections.
“There’s still a huge amount that we need to understand better in terms of fundamental science and that’s vital to make sure we’re using bubbles as safely and effectively as possible.”
Q: What are the advantages of using microbubbles for targeted drug delivery? And does the process have any drawbacks?
A: Microbubbles enable us to be much more precise in how we control when and where a drug is delivered because we can destroy them using focused ultrasound at a target site in the body. This greatly reduces the risk of side effects. We can image them non-invasively to check that they’re in the right place. And the movement of the bubbles when we hit them with ultrasound helps to increase the depth to which the drug penetrates, which means we can use much lower doses. There is also increasing evidence that bubbles may stimulate the immune system which could be extremely important in a range of different applications.
The drawbacks of microbubbles are that they are quite fragile so we don’t have very long to complete the treatment. Also, because we have to use ultrasound, the procedure is more complicated than standard chemotherapy and that makes it more expensive.
Q: In 2016, you were recognised as one of the Top 50 Women in Engineering. Is the engineering industry now more diverse, or is there still work to be done? If so, what should be done to increase accessibility for women who want to work in engineering?
A: There have definitely been improvements in some areas, certainly the number of female students applying to do Engineering. But it’s far from 50:50 and we still have significant problems both in terms of attracting new engineers and losing them after they complete their first degree or even a PhD.
I think there are several things that need to happen. The first is looking at how science is taught in schools and making sure we do a better job of explaining what engineering actually is.
A lot of people still think it’s something do with engines and “for boys.” There are lots of really fantastic initiatives out there, but we need to keep up the momentum. The problem of retaining talented engineers really worries me. A lot of my students (male and female) look at the work/life balance, salary and working conditions offered by jobs in Engineering and turn away. I find that really surprising given the incredible job satisfaction that Engineering has to offer and the very high pressures that, for example, lawyers or bankers have to work under. But there’s clearly a big problem and we need to fix it.
Engineers are going to become more and more important as we tackle global issues such as climate change and we need to make it something that talented young people want to do.
“Engineers are going to become more and more important as we tackle global issues such as climate change and we need to make it something that talented young people want to do.”
Q: What do you have planned for the future? What are you currently researching?
A: We’re very much hoping to run several clinical trials in the next couple of years. We’ve been badly set back by COVID but hopefully we’ll be back on track soon. We’ve also recently started a major new program on developing new antimicrobial therapies.
Thank you to Eleanor for taking the time to answer our questions.