UNDERSTANDING RADIATION: FROM THE ATOM TO THE PATIENT
Jorge Kohanoff has a vivid memory of his first day as a lecturer at Queen’s.
‘It was 1999. I’d never done any teaching before, except with postgraduates, but the first thing I was given was a level one course with 150 students. And on top of that the overhead projector didn’t work.’
The second lecture went a lot better and so did the ensuing years. He is now Professor of Computational Chemical Physics, he leads the Atomistic Simulation Centre (ASC), and he is playing a major role in one of the new Pioneer Research Programmes (PRP), the Centre for Advanced and Interdisciplinary Radiation Research, focused on optimising cancer treatment using radiation.
His journey to Queen’s was a long one:
First from Buenos Aires as an undergraduate student to Trieste in Italy as a Master of Philosophy, then a PhD from ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, while working at IBM in Zürich, which boasts several Nobel prizewinners. Later came a postdoctorate at the École Normale Supérieure of Lyon, back to Trieste as a visiting scientist at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, and then to Belfast.
‘A new research direction had opened up here in 1995 with the establishment of the Atomistic Simulation Group by two leading figures in my field, Professor Mike Finnis and Professor Ruth Lynden-Bell. So when a temporary position became available I applied.’
Jorge became Director of Research at the ASC in 2012, taking on several new staff and creating diversity. ‘We designed and built a research team where members have complementary expertise and interests and yet there is sufficient overlap to promote collaboration.’
Atomistic simulation focuses on the theoretical and computational modeling of what happens in the atomic scale in solids, liquids, molecules and plasmas. ‘We simulate the motion and properties of such systems at the level of the atoms and, even deeper, of nuclei and electrons.
‘We then use this to interpret existing experimental data and predict new phenomena, to reach computationally where pen and paper theory alone can’t, and to investigate hypothetical situations where experiments aren’t yet possible – e.g. under extreme conditions or at size and timescales that can’t yet be accessed directly.’
One of his specific interests is the interaction of radiation with biological systems
‘I had developed a collaboration with Professor Gary McVeigh, a Queen’s academic who was my consultant at Belfast City Hospital. He was investigating early detection of cardiovascular disease and analysing blood flow in a way similar to work I had done for my PhD. This sparked my interest in interdisciplinary research at the interface of medicine, biology and physics.’
In 2008 Jorge went to Cambridge for a sabbatical year to focus on this area of research. When he came back he passed his interest and his knowledge on to a student, Maeve Smyth, who was looking for an appropriate PhD subject.
‘We talked about research avenues and she chose the area of modeling radiation damage to DNA in its natural environment, an important aspect which was not being thoroughly addressed in the community.’ He explains, ‘What we do lies at the microscopic end. We try to understand model systems made of small DNA fragments, instead of simulating a whole DNA that’s metres long. Our goal is to find out how irradiating the DNA produces the damage that will then trigger the apoptotic response – cell death.
‘Within the PRP the knowledge acquired at the nanoscale through simulations will be used within an approach known as multi-scale modeling to access larger scales. Here is where we connect with the modeling and experimental work that Professor Currell’s team is doing. ‘We’re trying to bring all the questions together and get answers for the bene t of the patient, to find out if what we’ve learned can be used to develop new therapies or improve existing ones.’ And there is a footnote. The PhD student of 2009, Dr Maeve Smyth, has continued her training at the Velindre Cancer Centre in Cardiff and has recently been hired by the NHS as Stereotactic Radiotherapy Development Physicist.
Jorge says, ‘From those early beginnings, she will now be in hospitals using the greater knowledge of radiotherapy that she has developed. That is a very successful journey.’
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