I'm attracted to challenges. Protein engineering and working in a spin-off company offer plenty of them.
doc. Mgr. Radka Chaloupková, Ph.D.
Head of Research at the spin-off company Enantis
Associate Professor, Department of Experimental Biology, Faculty of Science, Masaryk University
Radka Chaloupková studied Physical Chemistry at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University (MU), and defended her Doctoral thesis in the field of Biochemistry. She has completed two foreign research internships in Great Britain, one at the University of Warwick and the other at Diamond Light Source Ltd. As an Associate Professor, she received her habilitation in the field of Environmental Chemistry at the Faculty of Science MU, where she now teaches Protein Engineering. At present, she is working in the spin-off company Enantis as Chief Scientific Officer.
What was your relationship to the natural sciences at primary school?
My favourite subjects included chemistry, mathematics and history, and I also participated in the Olympics in these subjects. I think that a good teacher can always awaken an interest in a specific subject in a child, and I was lucky to have excellent teachers in the subjects I mentioned. I recall one experience at school when they showed us an attempt to burn methane collected in a test tube following decarboxylation of sodium acetate. The chemist told us that the bubbles in swamps are also escaping methane, caused by the action of microorganisms without access to air. I immediately went out to look for at least a mini swamp in order to catch methane and then burn it in a test tube. I had kitchen funnels with me, a few test tubes from my aunt’s laboratory and matches. I didn't catch anything that time, and all my test tubes broke and I returned home with cut rubber boots; but it was my first real expedition to try something and I really liked it. One of the things that motivated me was that chemistry was an unpopular subject, no one enjoyed it much. I took it as a challenge, in the sense that you have to work hard to understand chemistry. I thought learning chemical nomenclature by heart was fun, and when I enjoy something, I learn it easily.
What high school did you decide to study at?
I really enjoyed chemistry, so I decided to study at the specialised Secondary Industrial School of Chemistry in Pardubice. Almost all the subjects were about chemistry, with subjects such as general chemistry, organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry and biochemistry, as well as a lot of mathematics and physics.
At which university did you continue your chemistry studies?
I went on to join the chemistry programme at the Faculty of Science MU. From the third year, we chose a specialised field and I chose Physical Chemistry. I have a Doctorate in Biomolecular Chemistry, which was a sub-field of the Biochemistry study programme.
Was it clear from the beginning that you wanted to pursue a professional career, or did your studies draw you to science?
At high school, we had a lot of laboratory exercises, and even a two-week internship. In addition, I often chose summer jobs in a laboratory environment. Even at high school, I knew that I wanted to go to university, but it was my Doctoral studies that decided me on my scientific focus. I joined the Protein Engineering Group, now the Loschmidt Laboratories, and chose as my topic the use of spectroscopic techniques for studying the structure and stability of proteins. I was attracted to work on a newly purchased spectrometer for measuring the spectra of circular dichroism, and I liked the idea of introducing this physical chemistry methodology to the group. I like challenges, and this was kind of challenge was right up my street.
What was the topic of your Docent work?
My work was focused on current knowledge as regards the structure, function and engineering of haloalkane dehalogenases, which are primarily microbial hydrolytic enzymes with great application potential.
You work in a leading position at Enantis, a spin-off biotechnology company of Masaryk University that seeks to put ideas from basic research at the Faculty of Science MU into practice, and then offer them to commercial entities. What is your position at Enantis, and what is the scope of your work?
I am a leading researcher and my job is to lead the company’s research and development activities, together with leading custom research. Our company undertakes its own research projects, some of which are financed from public subsidies. In these projects, the company is either the main researcher or a co-researcher in cooperation with another company or research institution. We also offer custom research focused mainly on improving the stability and activity of proteins and enzymes using advanced protein engineering methods according to the customer’s requirements, as well as biophysical and biochemical characterisation of proteins, molecular/biological modifications of recombinant proteins and recombinant protein production. In our custom research, we always try to meet the customer’s expectations. My position, therefore, involves coordinating individual members of the research and production team and making sure that all planned research activities are completed on time. I also participate in planning research activities for future years and work on the preparation of research projects. As already mentioned, Enantis is a biotechnology company that is mainly engaged in protein engineering. In cooperation with the Faculty of Science MU, we introduced a unique method of protein stabilisation and, thanks to this, we are able to modify the sequence of the protein of interest in such a way as to stabilise it, while preserving its biological function and thus improving its application potential. Our research activities are focused on the engineering of therapeutically attractive proteins. Our current key product is stabilised fibroblast growth factor 2 (fgf2), which is offered worldwide through a distributor. The protein is protected by a patent filed by Masaryk University together with Enantis s.r.o. in 2015 (WO2017089016A1 Thermostable FGF2 polypeptide, use thereof). The European patent was granted in July this year. Stable FGF2 protein is an essential component of stem cell culture media and stimulates the healing of chronic wounds. It is presently being studied as a promising tool in the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, mental disorders and many other diseases. In addition, stable FGF2 has great potential for cosmetic applications as it prevents the formation of fine and deeper wrinkles by activating the formation of new skin cells and stimulating the proliferation of fibroblasts and keratinocytes.
How did your studies at the Faculty of Science MU, and specifically at the Loschmidt laboratories, prepare you for this work?
The founders of Enantis are the heads of Loschmidt laboratories. Research at the Loschmidt laboratories is focused on understanding the relationships between the structure and function of proteins and enzymes in order to subsequently modify their properties for practical applications. To modify proteins, they develop and subsequently use their own software tools, with which they then design and subsequently implement protein modifications. Improving the properties of proteins for practical applications was the reason why Professor Jiří Damborský and Professor Zbyněk Prokop founded Enantis. During my Doctoral studies, and subsequently when working as the leader of one of the research teams at Loschmidt laboratories, I gained practical experience with protein engineering, recombinant protein production and its subsequent detailed biophysical characterisation. As such, I continue to use the skills acquired at the Loschmidt laboratories and expand them according to the company’s current research activities.
Where do you see the biggest difference between working at the Enantis spin-off and at our faculty?
Mainly in the dynamics and orientation to commercialisation of the result. The company must respond much more flexibly to challenges and demands. If there is demand from a customer for protein optimisation, a precise timeline must be arranged and strictly adhered to, then we focus on the result and its market application. At the university, it is mainly a matter of studying and understanding the properties of the protein, often at the level of the individual atoms that make up the protein and, in the case of engineering, providing a detailed description of the mechanisms by which the protein improvement was achieved. While such a level of detail is important for publishing the results achieved in prestigious journals, it is not so important for us as a company. Our goal is to achieve the desired protein properties in the simplest and fastest way possible and, subsequently, to commercialise the improved protein as quickly as possible. To this end, it is often necessary to further optimise the recombinant production of the newly stabilised protein, or to develop and subsequently optimise its formulation. This can be a lot of work. As an example, protein incorporation into solid supports must be tested, which involves monitoring how quickly the protein is released from the carrier, whether the release reduces its biological activity, etc. In a spin-off society, experiments need to be targeted so that they lead to what we want to achieve in the shortest and most efficient way. It's a varied job, and it suits me.
How do you perceive this shift as a step in your career?
Working in a biotechnology company opens up a new perspective on scientific work and new horizons. However, the drill and precision that is emphasised at the Loschmidt laboratories, along with the development of soft skills, the ability to think about data and its interpretation, the ability to process data into a report as well as its presentation, are also important within the company.
At the faculty of science MU, students typically become involved in research during their studies. Is this what you build on in your career?
Yes, that’s right. It is important that students at the faculty not only measure data themselves, but also have the space to think about it and interpret it. When preparing an experimental design, the question at the beginning is what the experiment should answer. Usually, however, it turns out differently and it is necessary to think about what the newly measured data means in the context of the original data and to find out how the newly acquired piece of the puzzle fits into the whole mosaic. You need to repeat the experiment several times, check the literature, plan a supplementary experiment and so on, in order to get the most complete picture possible.
How does teaching inspire you?
I have been teaching Protein Engineering at MU now for eight years and I still find it interesting. The aim of the course is to acquaint students with the basic approaches of protein engineering, together with standard methods used for the expression, purification and structural and biochemical characterisation of newly isolated or modified proteins. I perceive teaching as an integral part of my work at the university, where the transfer of knowledge to students and younger colleagues is, together with research, the primary task of a university teacher. I also supervise Doctoral students, and one is presently working with me at Enantis, where he participates in the company’s research activities as part of his Doctoral thesis. This is possible thanks to the European “Marie Curie Innovative Training Network Es-Cat (GA No. 722610)” project, in which Enantis participates together with nine other European institutions and which focuses on training and transfer of foreign Doctoral students.
What gender issues have you encountered as a woman in the scientific profession?
Sometimes such situations occur; when a woman applies for a research position, for example, questions arise on whether she has small children and whether she can combine a family with children and work. Sometimes such questions do not arise directly, but they are still considered. I don’t think men are asked such things. Today, this is changing a lot; the EMBO organisation and the EU, for example, are now listing projects that seek to support women in science.
How could more women in research or leadership positions help science?
I think having a woman in a leadership position can be an advantage in several ways. For example, she is likely to make a greater effort to make it easier for other women scientists to return to work after parental leave. I know that the Director of RECETOX, Prof. Jana Klánová, allows women to work part-time after parental leave. I think that many women want to start working as soon as possible after maternity leave, perhaps on a part-time basis, but they are not allowed to do so. What I do know from colleagues that lead other research groups is that employing a woman after she has become a parent can be mutually beneficial. They say that such women never leave unfinished work, that they can organise their time precisely and that they are good at multi-tasking, which can also be a benefit.
What measures could help women in the sciences reconcile their family and professional life?
The possibility of working from home, which Enantis allows, makes it a lot easier for my colleagues with very young children to cope with both. Just saving the hour or two that people normally spend getting to work is a big time-saver. Also, having the possibility of flexible working hours, and especially a kindergarten, also helps a lot. It is great that the Faculty of Science MU and the various faculties on the Bohunice campus manage to have a kindergarten available not far from the place of employment.
Thank you for the interview.
Translated by Kevin F. Roche