Targeting cancer drugs more effectively

  • July 15, 2020
Targeting cancer drugs more effectively

Muhamad Hartono's research uses nanoscience to target cancer cells more effectively.

I want to find a way to diagnose and deliver drugs more effectively to tumours using nanotechnology.

Muhamad Hartono

Muhamad Hartono’s PhD, which he begins in the autumn, will aim to design and synthesise nanoparticles that can selectively target pancreatic cancer cells and deliver anticancer drugs and diagnostic functionality which can improve treatment outcomes. 

There is a personal motivation to his work: two years ago his grandmother died from pancreatic cancer while he was studying in the Netherlands. Muhamad was unable to travel to Indonesia to attend her funeral.  “I knew I wanted to work on cancer, but I did not know initially that pancreatic cancer was so difficult to treat. Losing my grandmother made me reflect,” he says.

Muhamad’s university journey has seen him move from the desire to get a good engineering job to help himself and his family to understanding the wider impact research can have on local communities like the one he grew up in and the wider world.

Childhood and education

Muhamad grew up in a small village in Sumatra Island, Indonesia. His mother – a farmer –  brought him up on her own as his father died before he was born. He was very academic as a child and had a lot of support from his teachers who helped him to find a high school and scholarships. At high school he excelled at science and maths and took part in several competitions. He considered a career in engineering as he was keen to get a well paid job at the end of his degree. No-one in his village had a degree and many students did not graduate high school.

Supported by a scholarship for academic excellence, Muhamad did his undergraduate degree studying Chemical Engineering. Just as he had been helped by his teachers and his scholarship, Muhamad wanted to help others so he started a mentorship programme to help high school students to get into university and find the scholarships they needed to do so. He has recruited other mentors over the years and so far the programme has mentored around 35 college graduates, some of whom are now teachers in his province. “Higher education has changed my life for the better. It makes me very happy to see that it has helped others too,” he says. 

Over the course of his degree, Muhamad gradually rejected the idea of going into a corporate engineering job and felt he could have more impact as a researcher. This was in large part shaped by his experience in his third year on a project in a rural community in Bali which, like his own, had no access to electricity. 

Postgraduate studies

A postgraduate degree seemed the next logical step. Before he embarked on the degree he worked for a year with a professor to gain valuable research experience, including with mechanical and chemical engineers on a biodiesel project to bring electricity to a rural village, similar to his own, using cooking oil. Muhamad worked with locals to show them how to make it work and says the experience strengthened his motivation to use his education to help people. The region now has a biodiesel pilot plant which produces electricity for lighting with the most important benefit being for education.  

With another full scholarship, Muhamad was able to pursue a degree in chemical product engineering at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands the following year. There he became interested in the application of nanomaterials for medicine, working on the synthesis of nanoparticles for tumour diagnosis. 

After finishing his study, Muhamad applied to Cambridge to do an MPhil in Biotechnology, for which he received a Gates Cambridge scholarship. He felt he needed to understand the biological side of his research in order to be able to design nanomaterials that are efficacious and not toxic. “So much research on nanomaterials turns out to be toxic to cells and are not capable of overcoming the biological barriers present in our body. I wanted to learn how we can direct their design from a biological perspective,” he says. His MPhil looks into novel nanoparticles made from biocompatible materials that can potentially be used for diagnosis and treatment of many age-related diseases and cancers. “During my Gates Cambridge interview I did not promise to cure cancer. I want to find a way to diagnose and deliver drugs more effectively to tumours using nanotechnology,” he says.

Muhamad says being a Gates Cambridge Scholar has been one of the best things about being at Cambridge. “It has inspired me to do better. Gates Cambridge Scholars are very passionate about the world. A lot of my Gates Cambridge friends study cancer and I have been able to pick their brains to design my own research,” he says.

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