If your Coopers beer tastes better, you might have UTS researcher Majid Warkiani to thank.
While the biomedical engineer’s main focus is the fight against cancer, his innovative work in cell separation is helping the Adelaide brewer lift beer quality and taste by preventing the growth of spoilage and pathogenic micro-organisms through in-line separation in their yeast tanks.
It’s just one of the novel applications Majid has found for the ‘cancer dialysis’ system he’s developed that helps separate cancer cells in the bloodstream from healthy cells.
The 36-year-old’s work on cell separation sits neatly at the interface of engineering and medicine and could lead to more affordable early diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
While Majid’s journey to this middle ground is a long detour from his engineering studies at the prestigious Ferdowsi University of Mashhad in north-eastern Iran, it reflects his initial hope to study medicine. While that dream was thwarted by family expectations of the right career for a young man, Majid now sees the hand of fate at work in that decision.
“I feel like everything happened for a good reason and the path I went on was very rewarding. Now, I'm somewhere in the middle of engineering and medicine, which I really like. I understand the language of clinicians as well as the language of engineers. You can find lots of engineers, and lots of clinicians, but you rarely find people with both skills. And that's where all the needs of the world are aligning.”
Learning these two languages took some time, but it was during his work as a doctoral student in Singapore using nanotechnology to improve water quality that Majid realised the wider potential of his research. “We were creating tools to identify bacteria in water and I started to get exposed to the world of micro-filtration. And I realised how much application you can find for these things.”
After completing his PhD, Majid moved to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US where he began to work closely with biologists and clinicians applying his micro-filtration techniques to rare cell sorting. His work with clinicians on cancer research reinforced his longing to work in the medical realm, but as his tenure in Boston came to an end Majid accepted an opportunity at the School of Mechanical Engineering at UNSW.
He admits being influenced by Sydney’s proximity to beautiful beaches and the heat. “I’m from the Middle East and Boston is cold,” he laughs by way of explanation. But, he admits he never felt quite at home in his new surroundings. “I realised that most of my research was centred around biology and biomedical areas rather than pure mechanical, so I thought the environment at UNSW didn't fit,” he says.
In July last year, he moved his research and team to UTS to be part of the new School of Biomedical Engineering. A little more than a year later, Majid is embracing the opportunities on offer. “UTS gave me the freedom to build the laboratory that I want with all the equipment that I need, which was great. So now we have a world-class laboratory with all the necessary tools, and given we are in close proximity to the biologists and scientists in the Faculty of Science, we can jump across there and collaborate.”
Majid is convinced his collaborative approach is the key to real progress on disease prevention. “The big problems like cancer, like cardiovascular disease; these are not the type of problems that one group with one set of skills can solve. We will only tackle the problems if scientists, engineers and biologists talk together and chip in from different perspectives.”
At UTS, Majid is continuing to refine the cancer dialysis system that earned him a place in the 2016 MIT Technology Review Top 10 innovators under 35 in the Asia-Pacific. At the same time, he’s also developing microscale tumour models (so-called tumour-on-a-chip) that will eliminate the need to test drugs and treatments on animal models.
But, as his work with Coopers Brewery shows, Majid’s innovations are not confined to cancer treatment. He has applied the cell separation technique to algal research with C3 in the UTS Faculty of Science and is also collaborating with peers in Adelaide on using the system in pre-natal screening for genetic disorders. It’s also being used to separate stem cells to better understand their therapeutic potential.
“There are so many opportunities in this context, because all diseases come back to the cells – either a bacteria infection, a virus infection, or cell-related abnormalities,” he says. “Then it just requires a mechanism to separate them.”
While he makes it sound easy, Majid concedes there is a long path still to take before his research moves out of the laboratory into the real world. Yet he remains driven by his belief that his work will make a difference. “We are working on real-world problems and the technology we are developing is useful and patient orientated and can change the life of people that are diagnosed with cancer or other diseases.”
Marketing and Communication Unit