Professor Seb Perrier
"Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve felt in my career is the realisation of how little we actually know, and how much there is still to learn.
I’m amazed by how much we just take for granted, but we don’t actually know."
Who are you, and what do you do?
I'm Seb Perrier, and I’m the Monash-Warwick Chair in Polymer Chemistry. That means that I work on polymers and nano-technology. I was also appointed as part of the alliance between Warwick and Monash, so I’m employed 80% here in Warwick in Chemistry, and 20% in Monash in their faculty of Pharmacy.
We're doing a lot of basic initial work with the Medical School here, and then we'll work with the faculty of Pharmacy in Monash. They're one of the top faculties in the world and they’re really well equipped.
What does polymer chemistry mean?
A polymer is basically a very big molecule. And the way that you make a polymer chain is to attach a lot of molecules together – it’s like a big necklace, and all the beads are different functionalities, or molecules, and we attach those together. So a protein is a polymer. DNA is a polymer. They’re large macromolecules which are made up of small molecules attached together. We’re looking at each of the molecules and trying to design them as an individual in the same way that nature would make a protein.
We’ve developed synthetic tools that allow us to do that; we’re going to make a very long molecule and programme different functionalities on to that molecule – for instance, to fold in a specific way like a protein and then have special functionalities that are going to do something like an enzyme. And that enzyme will trigger very specific chemical functionality in the cells and the body. So rather than taking a protein out and using it to do X, we engineer it to do Y instead; and we can make it and synthesise it. We’ve developed synthetic processes that allow us to do this, and make it as simple as possible so that anyone can do it too, even if they have no chemistry training.
Essentially we take the functionality of the anti-cancer drug and load it inside the particle, and then programme the outside shell with ‘triggers’ so that when they find cancer cells, they’ll activate.
So basically, you’re finding ways to target cancer cells?
Yes. The cancer drug is being developed elsewhere, and our work is about getting it to target the right part of the body. So that’s how our work applies to healthcare - we develop systems that are going to encapsulate an active agent, and we’re going to target and deliver it somewhere. There’s a whole range of applications of course beyond cancer research.
What drugs are you working on right now?
We're working on an incredible project with Peter Sadler and Isolda Romero-Canelón right now, sponsored by Cancer Research UK.
They've found ways to attack cancer which are much more effective than the classic systems, using some metals which are very good at killing cells. The problem is that they’re a bit too good at killing cells – and you don’t want to kill healthy cells if possible! We come in by taking the drug and putting it almost exclusively into the cancer cells, so that’ll optimise its efficiency and reduce side-effects.
We’re also working with Francis Levi, whose expertise is to look into the timing of everything based on the circadian rhythm, and the idea here is that we’re not only going to package the drug and target the cell, we’re also going to deliver the drug at the time when it’s also the least toxic to the healthy cells. So that’s all about protecting the healthy cells even more - there’s no best or worst time to attack cancer, but there is a best time to protect healthy cells.
Could we have a 100% accurate treatment then?
No, there’ll never be 100% accuracy because that's not the way the human body works, but it’ll be as close as we can get. It’s very patient-dependent, and our system will almost self-tune to the patient.
One of the things we’re looking at right now is the timing of when we produce enzymes, and using those enzymes as a trigger for the drug – whether that happens for you at 2am, 4am, 6am, it’ll just happen at that time. Which would be great for patients, because at the moment they’re measuring body temperature and having a machine hooked up for an injection at the right time. You have to wake up at 3am to take your injection, and people just don’t like it. Instead you might end up taking a pill with particles that will circulate in your body for a fixed period of time, having them every day when you wake up, and it’ll be in there for the next 24 hours.
We’re some way away from this: we’re still working on the cellular level and in basic fundamental research. It will take a long time to get to human patients. That last step is the most difficult one because – thankfully! – there are a lot of rules around it. That’s usually where you work with a Pharmaceutical company who have the funds and expertise to do it. It depends on so much, and it’s still years away from application.
When will you be going to a drug company about it?
We’re still establishing the concept because it’s quite new. We have systems that could go into clinical trials soon, but it’s a big hurdle to get from promising theories to patient studies. It’s very expensive in terms of setting it up and passing the regulatory approvals; it’s a lot of paperwork, time and effort. So you want someone to do it for you, and some people create start-ups just to do that. It’s easier if you can convince a big pharmaceutical company to help."
How does our cancer research compare to others? Are we in a 'race' and couldn't we just work together to get there faster?
Well, there's different research from all over the world right now, and we have many competitors and collaborators. We are ‘racing’ each other in a sense, but competition is a good thing - it pushes you. For example, if we found a way to deliver a drug with our materials, and another team did it with completely different materials, we would both try to come up with the better one. If we worked together we might just agree ‘that’s good enough, 80% is good enough’. If we’re competing, we both say, 'Right! We’ll try to get to 85%. 90%’. It’s a friendly competition, not a cold war!
There are people you talk to and share your results with. They ‘criticise’ every paper, every grant, so that you improve your quality constantly. It’s not trying to win at every cost. It forces you to be as good as you can be. Of course there are some personalities who perhaps are more competitive than others and the science can be lost along the way, but it’s rare. Generally if you meet someone in the field who’s working in a very similar way, you do meet up and see if you can work together. You find collaborations after publishing a paper or doing a talk.
Research does exist in industry too but it’s based on technologies that were developed 10-15 years ago, and in our field that’s like pre-historic times. Innovations are more likely to come from universities than companies, who stick to what they know – we also just have superior analytical techniques to understand materials better, and we have a multidisciplinary approach with experts from all over the place - chemists like Peter and Isolda; clinicians, and nursing experts like Annie Young.
It sounds like a long, long process. What keeps you motivated?
We’re never just working on one project. For example, there’s a whole field called ‘theranostics’ – that’s therapy and diagnostic –so you develop systems where you have a particle that will fluoresce. You programme it to only go to cancer cells, and if it all accumulates somewhere, you can ‘see’ the tumour. One day we’ll programme it to have the drug too, so if it finds it, it will treat it. So it’ll all be a bit faster.
There’s also the fundamental side of things. Someone told me a long time ago that a biology textbook gets re-written every three to four years, and that always stayed with me and I had no idea what they meant. Now I understand what they mean. Through the work we do, we find that things we thought were fully understood are actually not. Things we thought were happening in the body don’t happen. So how a cell takes material in for example: we’ve developed some fundamental polymers with programmed functionalities ABC, ACB, BCA, all the combinations you can imagine, and we’ve put them in a cell. Some of them get in, and some of them don’t. How does that work?
So we have to understand that bit, and then we start understanding more about the fundamental process of how the cells going to behave. We find that, talk about it and publish it, and then get people saying “This is brilliant! We’ve been having that problem for years, we didn’t understand what was wrong with it, and now thanks to you we can move forward.” So there’s a lot of this happening.
Also as I've said, a lot of the work we do is actually not medical. We’ve created new particles to help with killing weeds or creating better paints. Part of my group right now is working with companies to do something very different, to create new oil modifiers for cars. This morning when you start your engine, the oil in it was very viscous, and as the engine goes it became non-viscous, and that’s a problem which can stall your engine – so what companies want is to have an oil that will be in-between all the time. So some of the materials that we develop can be used for drug delivery, but their structure means we can use them for other things. So that’s what I find interesting.
What’s surprised you most?
That’s difficult to answer, because as we progress in our understanding of what we do, we’re always surprised. The most surprising thing I’ve found will always be our latest discovery, because we’re progressing and doing things we did not think were possible, which we then move on from very quickly. It’s moving so fast and it feels like an endless field of discovery.
Perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve felt in my career is the realisation of how little we actually know, and how much there is still to learn. I’ve discovered biology over the past few years and I’m amazed by how much we just take for granted, but we don’t actually know.
It’s also surprised me how science has progressed so dramatically in universities, much faster than elsewhere. The facilities we have here are incredibly advanced, and you simply can’t purchase them in the market.”
What would you like to say to people giving a donation?
I would thank them sincerely because we’re very grateful for all the support we receive. You know where your donation will go with Warwick too.
Firstly, there’s a big gap in research funding between developing interesting ideas and between trials with pharmaceutical companies, and we urgently need your help filling that gap.
Secondly, we need funding to recruit the right people. In my group I have biologists, organic synthetic chemists, polymer chemists, pharmacists, and when they’re all collaborating, that’s when they have great ideas. But research councils don’t tend to help funding that kind of recruitment, whereas donations give us flexible funding to be creative in that way.
Finally, we’re training the next generation of scientists every day. I might not cure cancer, but I might train someone who does, because science is moving so fast and they’re growing in a place with top-notch facilities, amazing research, and great people. They’re going to learn great skills, become passionate and do good things.