26 Nov 2020
A PhD Candidate in the Brain Ageing Research Laboratory at CHeBA, Marina Ulanova is researching the development of iron nanoparticles aimed at discovering improved methods to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Marina hopes this research will eventually lead to earlier intervention and more effective treatment of the disease.
How did you first get into research?
After completing my undergraduate degree, I wasn’t entirely sure about what I wanted to do next. A friend informed me of a research internship opportunity at the Garvan Institute and, given I had always been interested in neuroscience, I was encouraged to apply. As my Psychology degree barely involved any laboratory work, I confess I wasn’t sure whether I was capable of doing the role. As it turned out, I was successful and ended up in the Eating Disorder lab working on a project on the neurobiology of Anorexia Nervosa using an animal model. It was so exciting to learn the different techniques and observe how the presence or absence of certain neuropeptides influenced the behaviour of the mice. Following that introduction to lab work I was hooked - and stayed on to do my Honours.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
The brain has fascinated me my whole life and I’ve always found myself orbiting around neuroscience research, clearly not quite sure of the precise field I wanted to settle on as I wanted to research it all. After my Honours - while I was deliberating whether and where to do a PhD - my friend and mentor from the lab advised me to choose a project where I felt I could learn the most. This proved to be good advice. The project I’m currently working on sits at the intersection of chemistry and biology and requires me to constantly collaborate with scientists from several different fields. I learn so much from every single one of them. Additionally, during the first two years of my PhD I worked as a Disability Support worker; primarily caring for an elderly patient.
This first-hand experience of the way neurodegenerative illness impacts the lives of our aged population really reinforced my decision to conduct research in the field of brain ageing.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
I love learning new things and staying active – both of which are protective against cognitive decline. This year I joined a soccer team for the first time in my life and have been trying to learn how to surf by annoying the locals each week in Maroubra. Sometimes, when I’m relentlessly getting dumped by waves or struggling to kick the soccer ball where I’m aiming, I placate myself by remembering this is great for my cognitive health! I guess healthy brain ageing is never far from my mind.
I’ve also always loved learning languages. I am originally from Russia so I speak Russian with my family, and during high school I fell in love with French. This year I joined the CoronaNet Project where I’m responsible for coding government responses to the coronavirus pandemic in a specific region of France. Regularly reading articles and government updates in French is forcing me to revive and practice the language skills I learned years ago – something that has been shown to protect from cognitive impairment associated with ageing.
What are you currently researching?
The focus of my PhD project is the development of iron nanoparticles for use as targeted MRI contrast agents for the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Microscopic amyloid-beta plaques develop in the brain in the earliest stages of Alzheimer’s disease, however MRIs lack the sensitivity to be able to detect these changes. When injected into the body, contrast agents can improve the quality of an MR image. Iron nanoparticles can be functionalised with a ligand which specifically targets amyloid plaques and induces contrast, enabling visualisation of the plaques and resulting in a diagnosis. My work involves characterising the physical properties of the nanoparticles which have been developed by researchers in the School of Chemistry, attachment of various targeting ligands to their surface and determining their efficacy at targeting plaques ex vivo and in vivo in mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, I am conducting a comprehensive analysis on the cell-nanoparticle interaction, including toxicology, proteomics, and cellular uptake and localisation.
Why is your research important?
In any setting where my research has come up, at least one person will have a personal experience about a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease which they share with me. As the median age of our population continues to increase, neurodegenerative illnesses will become an even larger part of our daily lives. Research like mine, aimed at finding a more effective means of diagnosis, could allow physicians to capture Alzheimer’s at much earlier stages of the disease progression.
Early diagnosis means a wider window for effective treatments and lifestyle changes, and importantly, it gives the patient more time to plan for their future and spend quality time with their loved ones.
I am constantly energised by the research that is being done at CHeBA. Although I am located in a different building to most of the other CHeBA researchers, I feel connected with them via regular seminars and showcases. I particularly love the amount of work CHeBA does to connect with the wider community, providing updates about the latest research on the ageing brain to people outside of science.
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
Nanoparticles have the potential to be a powerful and cost-effective tool for diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s and many other diseases. Due to their unique physical properties, they can be customized to cross the blood brain barrier and not only act as an imaging agent, but as potential carriers of therapeutic drugs in high quantities. Ultimately, I hope we can successfully develop an imaging agent that can be widely used in early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and allow earlier and more effective treatment of this disease.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. During the strictest isolation, Marina painted at home to relax and took turns with her friends hosting weekly zoom trivia to stay socially connected while physically isolated. As restrictions have eased, Marina has enjoyed socially distanced picnics and outdoor activities to reconnect with people she didn’t get to see during the height of lockdown.
Marina Ulanova is a PhD student at CHeBA with the Brain Ageing Research Laboratory. She is supervised by Dr Nady Braidy and Professor Perminder Sachdev, working on a collaborative project with the School of Chemistry and the Biological Resources Imaging Laboratory to develop targeted magnetic nanoparticles for use as MRI contrast agents in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Marina completed a Bachelor of Science majoring in Psychology at the University of Sydney, followed by an Honours project focusing on the neurobiology of Anorexia Nervosa at the Garvan Institute.