Adrian Najer wins faculty prize

Image: Thomas Angus, Imperial College London

During the Dies Academicus in November 2017, young nanoscientist Dr. Adrian Najer received the prize for the best doctoral dissertation in the Faculty of Science at the University of Basel. Adrian Najer studied nanoscience in Basel before beginning his award-winning work in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Basel and the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute. In the course of this work, he developed two innovative nanotechnology methods that could be used to treat and prevent infectious diseases such as malaria. After completing his dissertation, he continued to fight the ever-increasing threat presented by malaria. Supported by an Early Postdoc Mobility grant from the SNSF, he is currently investigating improved treatment options at Imperial College London.

Crowning glory
The faculty prize is a wonderful conclusion to Adrian’s successful period of study at the University of Basel. Back in 2005, he came along to an information day and heard about the nanoscience degree program for the first time. He soon realized that nanoscience offered the perfect combination of science subjects.

In 2006, he began to study nanoscience at the University of Basel. He particularly enjoyed the block courses that students complete in various research groups in the third year of their bachelor’s studies. “This gives you an early insight into the diverse research currently underway and teaches you a great deal about academic work,” he recalls. In one of these block courses, he worked in the group run by Professor Cornelia Palivan and Professor Wolfgang Meier, where he first discovered the artificial membranes and polymer vesicles used for a wide range of applications.

Planning his own project
During a project at Lund University in Sweden funded by an SNI travel grant, Adrian developed a concept of using these polymer vesicles to fight infectious diseases such as malaria. “I simply cannot accept that around half a million children are still dying of malaria each year,” he explains. “I want my research to help reduce this threat.” He convinced Professor Wolfgang Meier and Professor Hans-Peter Beck of the Swiss TPH to supervise a master’s thesis in this field.

Adrian completed his master’s studies in September 2011 with top grades. Still fascinated by the complex and multi-layered topic of malaria, he continued his research with a doctoral dissertation in the Department of Chemistry and the Swiss TPH,. Here, he developed two different nanotechnology approaches to target the parasite cycle in human blood.

Outsmarting parasites and optimizing release
Malaria parasites of the Plasmodium genus, which are carried by the Anopheles mosquito, infect and breed in human red blood cells. The infected blood cells rupture and the parasites are set free to infect new blood cells. To stop this cycle, Adrian Najer has developed minute polymer vesicles that, thanks to certain sugar molecules on their surface, look like red blood cells to the parasites. After release, these nanomimic cells block the parasites. Once attached to the nanomimics, the parasites will then be absorbed by immune system cells. “We expect an effect similar to a vaccination that is intended to protect against further infection,” Adrian explains. “Many other pathogens use the same mechanism to identify host cells, so this strategy could be applied to other infectious diseases as well,” he adds.

Adrian has also used minute polymer particles in his work to better distribute instable or poorly soluble drugs throughout the body. To achieve this, the drug is encapsulated in the polymer particles. Parasitic infection of the red blood cells alters the intracellular environment so that the polymers disintegrate. The drug is released and kills off the parasites. Blood cells that are not infected do not absorb the particles; outside the cells, the particles remain intact and the drug remains inside.

Promising nanotechnology approach
In investigating these two concepts, Adrian Najer has revealed whole new approaches and delivered promising results to treat this highly complex disease. The committee that awards the annual faculty prize was impressed by his work, and Wolfgang Meier, Adrian’s supervisor over the last few years, is also full of praise: “Adrian has worked with great efficiency, diligence, independence, and creativity to open up a new, complex field of activity and has made a significant contribution to the future treatment of infectious diseases.” For Adrian, his dissertation is far from the end of the line. He is convinced that a nanotechnology approach is one step in the right direction, and is therefore continuing his research as a postdoc at Imperial College London. After many years in Basel, he is enjoying big-city life and drawing inspiration from his colleagues from all over the world. He would like to spend a few more years abroad as a postdoc before ideally finding a position as an assistant professor in Switzerland. His goal is to form his own research group to apply nanotechnology to the study of infectious diseases and the development of innovative treatments.

We wish him every success and congratulate him on this prestigious award!