Researcher profile: Albert Mihranyan
He sees greatness in small things
Harnessing and developing the properties of materials for applications should be based on identified needs and take into account multidisciplinary perspectives. That is the starting-point for Albert Mihranyan, Senior lecturer in Nanotechnology and Functional Materials at Uppsala University. As a Wallenberg Academy Fellow, he successfully combines research in materials science and nanotechnology with a focus on biomedical applications.
The centre for materials science at the Ångström Laboratory gathers a wide spectrum of materials research: from basic physics, chemistry and mathematics to the development and composition of materials in new technological systems. Being surrounded by a multitude of skills and state-of-the-art equipment is invaluable, says Albert Mihranyan.
“What we’ve got here as well as at the entire university is the essential infrastructure and environment for both collaboration and research which allows for research at the highest international level.”
This integrated approach forms the basis for each project of his research group. In order to identify needs and problems to be solved, he and his colleagues ensure initial dialogue with the industry in question.
“Because that’s the only way your work can result in an application. You can develop new materials all the time or synthesize thousands of drugs, saying ‘it's not my problem if it doesn’t meet all the requirements’ instead of understanding the entire process, if it can work or not.”
Many pieces must fit together, in particular within life sciences, where the material not only must possess certain properties or structures, but also be non-toxic, functional, and acceptable by the body's immune system, among other things.
“It’s a very complex and time-consuming process before realization. But the biggest affirmation would be to develop something that can be used to help people, to cure them or prevent diseases from developing.”
His interest in medicine was there right from the start. Born and raised in Armenia and with an older brother studying to become a physician, Albert Mihranyan sets his sight on Yerevan State Medical University (YSMU). However, he enrolled in the Programme in Pharmacy, where he received a subsequent scholarship to Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh), Greece. In 2000, he applied for and got a scholarship from the Swedish Institute to do research at the Department of Pharmacy, Uppsala University. Main supervisor was Ragnar Ek, with Maria Strømme at the Department of Engineering Sciences as Assistant supervisor.
“During my first years as a doctoral student, I did a lot of work on cellulose in order to develop new materials for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals. But in 2007, I started working on a broader scale with materials science when I moved from the Department of Pharmacy at the Biomedical Centre (BMC) to Maria Strømme’s new group within nanotechnology and functional materials at Ångström.”
In 2013 he was appointed Wallenberg Academy Fellow, a career program for promising young researchers, and now heads his own research group. During the five-year-funding totalling SEK 7.5 million, he runs three subprojects involving nanocellulose for biomedical purposes. In one of the subprojects, the group is developing cellulose nanomaterials to more effectively remove harmful antibodies from the blood and treat diseases such as lupus.
“Nanocellulose has about 100 times higher surface area per unit weight than regular paper. This creates opportunities for the development of new materials that can extract autoimmune antibodies from the blood by binding them to the surface," says Albert Mihranyan.
In the second subproject, the group uses cellulose to filter viruses by tailoring the pore size distribution of a paper filter. Virus particles are roughly a thousand times thinner than a human hair, which makes them very difficult to remove by filtration. The researchers’ ambition is to produce a paper filter that sift out viruses "as easily as you brew coffee," according to Albert Mihranyan. The filter is designed for both medical usage and water purification where viruses are a major problem. So far, the results are very promising. Their work was highlighted on the cover of the journal Advanced Health Care Materials in October 2014 and was among the journal’s 10 most downloaded articles last year.
Several previous projects have also attracted great media interest. In 2007, Albert Mihranyan developed an electrode material consisting of algal cellulose obtained from the Cladophora algae, covered by a thin layer of conductive polymer. Another great achievement was the rare porous magnesium carbonate Upsalite ®, a material discovered by Albert Mihranyan and his colleagues in 2011.
“The development of the algal battery and Upsalite is continuing full speed ahead and most of the researchers in Maria Strømme’s group are working on these two projects. But personally I’m focusing on my own research group within the Wallenberg Academy Fellows program.”
The researchers’ third subproject deals with the development of composite materials for specific tasks in the human body. In addition, Albert Mihranyan has manufactured a nanocellulose gel of polyvinyl alcohol to be used for example to heal burns and wounds, regenerate cornea or replace cartilage. Also, he teaches.
“I am responsible for an elective course called Nanotechnology for Industrial Applications in Life Science. Nanotechnology is a new subject for teaching which interests many students. But they don’t know how to navigate the subject. The goal is to not go in too much depth but to introduce the students to the topic and provide an integrated perspective going through the synthesis, applications, security, characterisation, well, all the steps.“
What does the future look like?
“I want to focus on my projects and experience this stage of my career where I’m still close to the actual lab work. I really enjoy living in Uppsala and feel lucky to be here, being at a university with such long traditions and getting to contribute to its long history, somehow becoming a part of it.”
Facts – Albert Mihranyan
Title: Professor in Nanotechnology and Functional Materials at Uppsala University.
Age: 39 years.
Selection of merits: Some 50 scientific articles, 8 patents, awarded by King Carl XVI Gustaf’s 50-years foundation for research in technology and environmental sciences in 2007, the Chester Carlson's Science Prize 2009, the Oscar Prize 2011, The Göran Gustafsson Prize for young researchers in 2013.
Leisure time activities: Working endless hours is impossible. In my spare time, I enjoy both playing and watching sports. In Armenia, I used to play basketball but haven’t done much of it here in Sweden, unfortunately. My colleagues and I played floorball in the past, but now it’s tennis.
Favourite football team: Real Madrid, of course. A long relationship that stretches for several decades. I was there last year at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium and watched a match. Madrid is a favourite city, it’s got everything, except a coast.
About Uppsala: I really feel at home here. It's pretty funny, when I go home to my parents in Armenia, I tell people I’m going home. And when I leave to come here, I still say "I'm going home".