“It was a bit crazy,” laughs Beatriz Pelaz as she describes her colorful academic journey. “But I did, and it worked.”
“Worked” is certainly an understatement – this year Pelaz received the Young Investigator Award from the Royal Spanish Society of Chemistry in recognition of his outstanding early career. In 2017, Pelaz and Pablo del Pino co-founded the BioNanoTools group at CIQUS, Spain, one of several co-led research groups within the department. The group includes researchers from all sciences and develops smart nanomaterials for medical and biological applications. However, this is far from where Pelaz started.
“I was actually doing a master’s in organometallic chemistry,” she recalls. “But I became more interested in the organic side.” Pelaz then made a bold decision: she moved to Zaragoza to start an undergraduate degree in biochemistry alongside a doctorate. Here, his work with Jesús Martínez de la Fuente, researching carbohydrate synthesis for the biofunctionalization of nanoparticles, introduced Pelaz to nanotechnology. “The field was totally new to me at the time, and also very multidisciplinary. I was really excited about that.
It was also in Zaragoza that she met del Pino, a biophysicist who joined the de la Fuente group. After five years of collaboration for different supervisors across Europe, the duo decided to create a joint research group, combining their expertise to work towards a common goal. “People find it hard to understand why we wanted to have equal positions in one group,” comments Pelaz. “From time to time we are pressured to separate groups, but we believe we are most effective when we work together.”
My favorite thing about the group is that we really bring together people from different walks of life
Fundamentally, nanotechnology comes down to size – at the nanometer scale, many materials exhibit interesting size-dependent properties, including optical, electromagnetic and fluorescence characteristics. Importantly for the BioNanoTools group, nanomaterials are also the right size to directly interact with biological systems such as cells, proteins and antibodies. “The challenge with bionanotechnology is to get a really efficient nanomaterial – you design a material to perform an action and you want that action to happen in a very specific area,” says Pelaz. “The overall goal of our group is to fabricate smart, efficient, remote-controlled nanomaterials that can be turned on or off using external stimuli.”
With such an interconnected field, the advantage of diversity in academic backgrounds is obvious. Pelaz and del Pino share responsibility for all group projects, but conduct different lines of research depending on their skills. This collaborative mindset is reflected throughout the group where students are encouraged to develop skills beyond their specialty. “We have people from a lot of academic backgrounds, and I think that’s very rewarding,” says Pelaz. “Different employees will have points of view, which provide solutions from different perspectives.”
It is perhaps this base of varied knowledge and experience that gives the team the confidence and skills to approach bionanomaterials from so many angles. One of the group’s largest lines of research focuses on the design of biomimetic nanocomposites for drug delivery. The antibodies are loaded into a cell-derived plasmonic nanomaterial, which is doped with gold nanorods. The team allows these composite nanomaterials to internalize into living cells where they remain dormant until activated by a specific wavelength of light. “By combining these two capabilities, the biocompatible plasmonic properties and the thermal capabilities of gold nanorods, which absorb light, we can induce a controlled release of antibodies,” says Pelaz.
But like all researchers, Pelaz also has a favorite project. Using DNA origami, she hopes to create nano-printers capable of functionalizing the surface of nanomaterials with exquisite control. DNA strands can be bent with near atomic precision to form highly specialized 3D structures that the team is trying to adapt to imprint ligands on the surface of nanoparticles, for example, to mimic protein patterns expressed on viral membranes. “This is a very basic study,” says Pelaz. “I would like to understand how the spatial distribution and the number of ligands can determine the biological fate of nanomaterials.” A year later, this project is still in its early stages, but the team hopes it will eventually help them design more effective nanomedicines.
The BioNanoTools group certainly appears to be a dynamic and stimulating research environment. But while the science is obviously important, it’s clear people are defining the band for Pelaz. “For us, it is essential that people feel comfortable in the laboratory, that they learn, but also that they enjoy it”, she smiles. “I think my favorite thing about the band is that we really bring people from different backgrounds together. To me, that’s great because as a group of chemists alone, we wouldn’t be able to achieve or develop the approaches we’re currently working on.