Lighting up molecular interactions with metals: New approaches to improving diagnosis and drug delivery

Early diagnosis and effective drug delivery is often the key to successfully treating potentially life-threatening diseases. Professor Zoe Pikramenou’s pioneering research is leading on the design of molecules and nanosized labels which can track and direct biomolecular processes, which could have huge impact on the diagnosis and treatment of serious illness.

And it’s all about shedding light on the subject – literally.

Zoe runs an active interdisciplinary research programme on photophysics in nanoscience and biomolecular chemistry using supramolecular design and synthesis, coordination chemistry, luminescence spectroscopy and imaging.

‘We work with metals that emit light,’ explains Zoe, who is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Photophysics. ‘We study their properties to find out how we can make them more luminescent, and how we can use these probes for detection and for monitoring certain events.

"We’ve been making metal probes for new diagnostic methods and also targeting delivery of therapeutics. For example, we have studied them going into cancer cells. The idea is if you put in one of these probes and you know where it goes within the cell or the tissue, then we can monitor the delivery of a drug in a patient. Sometimes, for instance, cancer drugs are not taken up well by tumours and it’s not clear why. They get into the bloodstream but not the tumour. So you need to look at the little picture of where it has gone and how it’s absorbed. Furthermore, if you can select the delivery by probe you can target the drug directly towards the cancer cells.

“In all of our research projects the underpinning theme is understanding the mechanisms for light conversion and transfer of energy to lead to new molecular designs. These designs allow new methods to be developed which can bring breakthroughs in detection enabling earlier disease diagnosis, for example, in clinic where assays are used routinely with bench-top instrumentation. Key developments in this area are based on clever molecular designs with simple detection techniques.”

The study of photochemical processes is also important in the development of new materials for light conversion and dye sensitised solar cells. Supramolecular and nanoscale designs are important in the function of a device and Zoe’s research group studies new ways for bringing molecules together to increase efficiency in device performance.

The cutting-edge work has received international recognition; and international collaborations with biochemists, medical scientists, materials scientists and chemical engineers have resulted in a raft of research grants, from bodies including the EPSRC, Leverhulme Trust and Royal Society.

International collaborations come naturally to Zoe: she’s lived and worked in a host of different European countries and cities.

After gaining her first chemistry degree at the University of Athens – ‘what really inspires me in chemistry is the creation element; making molecules. You’re making something new and creating a new process’ – she moved to the United States, winning a scholarship from the Academy of Athens to study for a PhD at Michigan State University, working with Dan Nocera (currently at Harvard University). From there she went to France, with a Marie Curie Fellowship to work with Nobel Prize-winner Jean Marie Lehn in Strasbourg. Then it was off to Scotland, where she took up a lectureship at the University of Edinburgh in 1995. Five years later she moved to Birmingham.

As well as being a world-leading scientist, Zoe (mother of three children) is also a passionate advocate of equal opportunities in science. She is the School of Chemistry Lead for Athena SWAN, a national charter that promotes and rewards good employment practice in the recruitment, retention and progression of female academics in STEMM.

As the School of Chemistry’s first mother to hold a professorship and the first woman to be internally promoted to a chair, Zoe used her recent Inaugural Lecture to highlight some of the challenges mothers face in advancing their careers.

The principles promoted by the Athena SWAN Charter has made a positive difference in the last few years says Zoe. but she believes there is work still to be done to portray female scientists as the norm – and to drum home the message they can have a family too. ‘I think it needs to start with schoolchildren – to show them that there are different types of scientists and change the images of conventional stereotypes.”