Discipline and sheer fascination lead to success

Tomaž Einfalt developed artificial organelles


As part of his doctoral dissertation, Tomaž Einfalt developed artificial organelles in which various enzymatic transformations can occur. Arriving in Basel from Slovenia in 2013 to attend the SNI PhD School, the young scientist was supervised by Professors Cornelia Palivan and Jörg Huwyler. While working on his doctoral thesis, Tomaž enjoyed the interdisciplinary flair and excellent equipment both within his working groups and at the SNI – and he learned a great deal. Sports served as an important counterpoint to his research. He showed immense discipline, training before and after long days in the laboratory, and achieved remarkable successes as a triathlete. In addition, he played an active role as a representative of SNI PhD students and in SNI outreach activities, as well as establishing a wide circle of friends in Basel. Immediately after his doctorate, Tomaž continued his work in Professor Jörg Huwyler’s laboratory as a postdoc.

An attractive mix
Tomaž Einfalt came to the University of Basel in 2013 after studying pharmacy in Ljubljana (Slovenia). He had seen a PhD project advertised with Professors Cornelia Palivan and Jörg Huwyler and was immediately attracted to the mix of physical chemistry and pharmacy that the project would involve. His aspirations at that time were ultimately realized. “There is probably nowhere else I could have learned as much as I have done here in the last four years,” he tells us in our interview. “For me, the SNI PhD School is not simply a funding opportunity for PhD students, but rather an environment in which new ideas are generated and good friendships are formed between budding researchers,” he adds. Indeed, that is precisely what the SNI PhD School strives to be: an interdisciplinary community in which people learn from one another and that provides space for new ideas.

Artificial organelles
In his doctoral thesis, Tomaž studied artificial organelles. In the future, these could be used to transport precursors of a pharmaceutical agent to the site of action inside the body, for example. Only once they reached the target site would the precursors be converted into the active substance, before being released in a targeted manner. Administering drugs in this way could considerably reduce both the amounts used and the side effects, as the active substances would only be produced and released in the desired tissue.

In simplified terms, the artificial organelles are tiny hollow spheres, also known as polymersomes, which form spontaneously in solution from amphiphilic polymers and can enclose various elements, such as enzymes. Working with his colleagues from Palivan’s team, Tomaž succeeded in equipping the polymer membrane with a pore, whose permeability can be controlled by external factors. He incorporated chemically modified natural membrane proteins into the membrane. As these proteins open and close depending on the pH value, they allow the targeted exchange of substances with the surroundings. At a neutral pH, the membrane proteins are impermeable – that is, no substances can pass. If the pH of the surroundings becomes slightly acidic, however, the protein gate opens. Substances from the outside can enter the polymersome, where they are converted thanks to the enzymes inside. The product of the reaction – a pharmaceutical active substance, for example – can leave the polymersome through the open gate and act directly at the target site.

Effective in living organisms
For his research project, Tomaž Einfalt first prepared these artificial organelles and tested the opening mechanism. Then, he managed to integrate the polymersomes into natural cells and to demonstrate that the system works excellently, even in live zebrafish. “We think that a mechanism of this kind could be effective when applied to inflammation and tumors in particular, as these are often found to have a slightly acidic pH,” he explains. Together with his colleagues, he has registered two patents, which are intended to protect the innovations derived from his work.

Tomaž continues to be fascinated by the opportunities that polymersomes offer. In his current position as a postdoc in Jörg Huwyler’s laboratory, one of the topics he is working on are liposomes (small hollow spheres with a membrane consisting of phospholipids), which he tracks as they spread throughout the body. He models this using zebrafish, which are so transparent that the liposomes can be stained with a fluorescent dye and then observed inside the living organism using a fluorescent microscope.

Enthusiasm for research and varied extracurricular activities
Tomaž hopes to continue working in research. In the medium term, however, he is also open to the idea of going into industry and can also imagine founding his own company one day. The important thing for him at the moment is to stay in Basel. After his degree in Slovenia and ERASMUS placements in Germany and England, and the numerous relocations this involved, he is glad to have found an ideal place to base himself.

He still spends about 15 hours a week training – on the bike, in the water, or running in the forest. Whereas two years ago he still found time to successfully compete in the European Triathlon Championships, triathlons are off the agenda for now. However, that does not mean that sport is any less important to him. As a competitive athlete, he continues to seek out challenges and also has the discipline to face and overcome them.

The remarkable thing is that, despite the amount of work this entails, Tomaž still finds the time and energy to get involved in other activities. During his doctorate, he represented the SNI’s doctoral students as a representative of the SNI PhD School. He participated in so many SNI outreach activities that he was awarded the SNI’s Outreach Award in 2016. He recently took part in the University of Basel’s Science Slam and still enjoys making the fascination of his subject area more accessible to non-scientists in an entertaining way.

In the invitation to the defense of his doctoral dissertation in June 2017, Tomaž wrote to the SNI’s management team: “The SNI PhD School proves not only that there is ‘plenty of room at the bottom’ but also that SNI students are able to fill this space with new ideas and materials.” Tomaž Einfalt himself is an excellent example of how this can be done.