“Dresden is known around the world for its materials research.”
Prof. Dr. Brigitte VoitProfessor Voit, was it a wrench for you to move to Dresden in 1997?
No, it was an easy decision to come to Dresden. I had an alternative offer from a university in the Berlin region, but at that time, TU Dresden had a much stronger reputation for science and engineering. In any case, there was more to it than a job at TU Dresden; it also came with a senior role at the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research attached. That added to the attraction.
Dresden's rise to prominence as a city of science was in its infancy then. What were your impressions at the time?
It is certainly the case that TU Dresden has evolved tremendously over the past two decades. It has considerably raised its profile and has acquired an excellent reputation, particularly in the fields of engineering, material science and biomedicine. In all these areas, of course, the natural sciences play a major role.
What about in your own specialist area, polymer science?
As home of the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research (IPF), Dresden is one of the leading research locations in Europe. But quite apart from this, we pride ourselves on having high international visibility. Dresden is known around the world for this branch of science. Materials research in Dresden enjoys a superb reputation, not only in Europe but also as far afield as Korea, China, Japan and the United States.
What is the secret of Dresden's attraction as a location?
I think it is a combination of several factors. First of all, there is a genuine and enthusiastic sense of partnership, not only between the various departments of the university but also with the extramural institutions. This spirit of collaboration is subscribed to by all parties. The reason is almost certainly that, after the communist regime collapsed, everyone here felt they had to pull together to overcome the challenges ahead. It was like starting all over again. And also, there was an influx of new colleagues at that time. Secondly, it has to be acknowledged that a lot of money was pumped into the region, though obviously, from a research perspective, you can never get enough.
As a professor at TU Dresden and scientific director at the Leibniz Institute of Polymer Research supervising the work done by 500 staff, you exemplify the link between university and non-university research. Does this dual role ever cause you problems?
On the contrary. There are many such joint appointments in Dresden, which naturally results in the institutions working together and not against each other. My terms of employment state that my direct employer is TU Dresden. But at the same time, of course, I also answer to the Leibniz Institute where I am in charge of scientific research. I have to balance the interests of both institutions at all times, but this rarely leads to friction. Of course, it can give rise to minor conflicts at the administrative level. But overall, it works wonderfully well, also for the management at IPF.
And that's probably why there is so little envy of successes such as the Cluster of Excellence...
Indeed, we've all worked together to secure the University of Excellence label for TU Dresden because we all benefit from it. This accolade reflects well on the entire community. Scientists and students who also rate as ‘excellent' are attracted to Dresden, and contacts can be more readily made with third-party funding providers. Our staff at IPF are also directly involved in the Cluster of Excellence.
Is there also a Dresden feel-good factor?
Of course, our guests are always impressed by the city. The quality of life is remarkable, and cultural life is second to none. Families especially like to move here. You have a pleasant living environment plus excellent school and nursery provision. Also, if you are the partner of someone moving to Dresden, you will find a job more easily here than, say, in a town where the local economy relies almost exclusively on its university.
How would you explain polymer research to a lay person?
Polymers are large molecules, also referred to as macromolecules. Synthetic chemists, of which I am one, enjoy designing new molecules. You have to consider very carefully how the structural elements need to look if they are going to constitute an application-specific customised material that will ultimately consist of these macromolecules. That's precisely what we do here at the Institute, with my team right at the centre of the process. It is essential that we meet the exact criteria for the material, which is why we come into contact at an early stage with the users and/or the physicists and engineers who best understand the application for which it will be used.
Could you perhaps give us a concrete example?
There is one area that we have been looking at in much greater detail for the past five or six years; we have set up a dedicated team to research new functional polymers for organic electronics. These are polymers that have semiconductor properties that you will find in silicon-based chips. In this case, however, they are made of organic material, namely these polymers. We are working closely with Karl Leo's project team on this. And it is a subject area in which we are also involved in the new Cluster of Excellence which is working on materials to be used in the information technologies of the future. Organic materials promise a high level of flexibility. With them, you can open up entirely new areas of application, for example making much more use of sensor technology in everyday life.
What is the special advantage of organic materials?
The main advantage of organic polymers is that they can be processed with inexpensive manufacturing techniques. We are already seeing the first examples of ‘printed electronics'. Using printing techniques that are familiar from the newspaper industry or from your home printer, you can print an integrated circuit, a chip or a transistor. Silicon-based semiconductor technology, by contrast, is very expensive. It has to be said, however, that organic electronics still lag behind conventional technology in terms of performance. But we're working on it.
IPF can also point to some major achievements in biomedical research...
That's right. For the past seven years or so, a team reporting directly to me has been working on what we call ‘carrier structures'. These are organic macromolecules with specific functions. One very clear function might for example be that these macromolecules can transport drugs safely in the human body. Many drugs are insoluble in water and are therefore difficult to administer, so we need to find suitable carrier systems. It is also very important that they work selectively. In cancer therapy, for example, the drugs used are often toxic and are intended solely for the infected cells or tumour. These polymers have to hold on to the drug as they travel to their destination, but then release it into the cell in order to be effective.
Who are you collaborating with in this group?
We need to know how the biology interacts with such a synthetic macromolecule. Therefore, we are working very closely with colleagues in medicine and cell biology. Our local partners are based at TU Dresden, the university hospital and the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG). I also have some PhD students who are integrated into the Dresden International Graduate School for Biomedicine and Bioengineering (DIGS-BB) where they will find excellent conditions for networking.
When can we expect to see the fruits of this research being used in medicine?
Timelines in medicine can be quite long, but you could say that we are relatively well advanced. Take for instance these spherical molecules (dendrimers) with their complex branching structure: they look a bit like a snowflake and are good at encapsulating things. We have given them a shell of maltose to make them biocompatible. We have just demonstrated that these substances are well tolerated by the blood and cells and our medical colleagues have conducted experiments on animals in this respect. Also, we were able to confirm absorption of these substances by the cell and their therapeutic efficacy. So we have succeeded in targeting tumours and releasing the drug in the affected cells. But even though we have made such considerable scientific progress, there is still a long way to go - possibly years - before we get approval for use on patients. The process is so complicated and expensive that a research institute is unable to bear the cost all on its own. So we publish our findings and hope that pharmaceutical companies will be interested. Incidentally, the research is not aimed exclusively at beating cancer. We have also had good results with brain disorders, more specifically Alzheimer's disease.
How big is the competition?
We are obviously not the only ones who are researching carrier structures. The science is very broad, and researchers around the world are trying to identify new effective structures in this area. While there are always new results and new medications in which polymer chains play a role in administering the drug, the big breakthrough - which would include licensing - is yet to come.
And how do things stand here in Dresden?
I think that we are further along the road than many other groups with the polymer chains we have developed. Our advantage is that we work very closely with cell biologists and the medical profession. The environment you operate in has to be just right. Many groups that are made up predominantly of chemists publish details of their new structures but have to stop at that point because they haven't got the partners to take the research further and to test it in the field. Our location represents a clear advantage in this regard. We also involve partners from outside Dresden, of course.
Are polymers set to revolutionise medicine?
Well, they certainly aren't a niche application. These carrier structures can be used for many different medications and different therapies. This is hugely important for the pharmaceutical industry. But don't expect the new polymer to make the headlines. These will be reserved for the active ingredient of the drug. We may have beautiful polymer chains and make a significant contribution to a successful outcome, but ultimately this will be only one factor amongst many.
Do you feel that the chemists do not get enough recognition?
It's the medical and pharmacology researchers who receive the major accolades rather than the people working in polymer chemistry. But at least we get an honourable mention and know that we have played our part.
Thank you for the interview.