Biologist, poet and fledgling entrepreneur Ivana Gadjanski has worked on using animal toxins as a possible treatment for MS, and is growing bones and cartilage in dishes. She has also published two books of poetry in Serbia. Now she’s developing Pubsonic, an online research tool that allows users to access free medical journal papers via a graphical anatomical interface.
You started out doing interesting work in multiple sclerosis research. What problem were you trying to solve?
In multiple sclerosis, the sheath around the nerves — which has to be there so the nerve can function properly — is getting damaged. Previous research showed that too much calcium causes this myelin to break up, and I identified this increased calcium in the optic nerves I was investigating. My question was: Why is there too much calcium? How does it get in nerves? There are different calcium channels in the nerves, and some animal toxins can block these channels. For example, the black mamba snake, scorpions and some spiders each have toxins that block different types of calcium channels. I applied these toxins to rats with the model of multiple sclerosis. And I found out that there is one toxin, from a sea snail of the genus Conus, that blocks the channel that is the most significant in multiple sclerosis. When I applied this conotoxin to the rats with the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, their symptoms decreased.
This toxin has already been used on humans for treatment of chronic pain, though it has not yet been applied for MS. But the fact that the substance is already approved for use in humans is good news.
After you finished work with MS, you moved on to working with bones. Tell us about that.
I moved to the osteochondral field, meaning I work on bones and cartilage — the tissues in the joints. Whereas before I was working on in calcium channels in the nerves, I now work on calcium channels in cartilage. In cartilage, calcium is involved in transduction of mechanical signals. Tissues like bones and cartilage are very sensitive to mechanical stimulation. Bones and cartilage cannot form and function properly without mechanical stimuli — another reason why physical activity is important to maintain its health. When you move, you perform mechanical stimulation on your bones and cartilage. Likewise, when you are trying to engineer new bone and new cartilage in a lab from stem cells, you need to stimulate it mechanically, and that means you have to press these tissues in some kind of a machine, or bioreactor. That’s not easy when you have something already very fragile and anatomically shaped. My project was to try to induce mechanical stimulation using chemical stimulation — in other words, to try to get to the same effects as mechanical stimulation by applying chemicals. And that’s where it’s important for this calcium to work, so that we can directly stimulate the calcium channels, helping bone or cartilage to repair itself.
At the moment, this is all still happening in the lab, essentially in a dish.
How will this then eventually be applied?
It can eventually lead to the repair of damage in osteoarthritis and sport injuries. There is already one clinical treatment available. It’s called autologous chondrocyte implantation. And that means that you get cells from the knee of the patient, and then you grow these cells in the lab to have more of them and put them back in the knee. This has actually very good results. I was in Sweden at the lab that invented this technique. During one operation, the patient said he was a mountain climber, and he said his wish was to go climb Mt Everest. He’d never done it. The doctor said, “Okay, let’s do it. Let’s help you to go to Mt Everest.” And the funny thing is that several months afterwards, he actually did climb Mt Everest! So the treatment is very effective. Applying chemical compounds to mimic mechanical simulations could become part of this procedure. So in the lab, you’d have cells that you take from the knee, and you’d apply substances to create more of the healthy cartilage cells.
In your TEDGlobal 2012 talk, you also spoke of how poetry helped you make changes in your scientific career.
Yes, poetry helped me make some decisions regarding my career. I was writing poetry during my PhD. I was writing forever, but especially the poems I wrote during my PhD showed me there were things that I was not satisfied with. Basically, poetry was keeping me on track. When I work in the lab, I am very focused on the experiments. And basically I think only about calcium, toxins, cells. I don’t know how to explain it. But then I go back home and I feel some kind of nagging, something I need to do. I don’t know exactly what. And then I write a poem. And then I see in the whole poem, okay, there is something not exactly right. Because the poem is about missing the meaning, finding the purpose.
Have you written poetry all your life?
Yes. My father was also a poet, but he wrote long poems. He used to work on one poem for a long time, writing one part, and then he would go do something else and then come back to it. So it was growing over time, that one poem. For me it’s one poem, the other poem — and then six poems make a group. That’s how I write, in groups of poems.
Is there a strong tradition of poetry in Serbia, or is this just something that’s personal to you and your family?
Actually, there was a strong tradition. Currently it’s not strong in because people seem to be a little bit scared of poetry. But my father was my initial contact with poetry. I was hanging out with his poet friends, too. My dad used to live in the US, and he was friends with Allen Ginsberg and Mark Strand. American poets also came to Yugoslavia at the time, where there was a very strong community of poets who were organizing poetry festivals, international festivals. Ginsberg, for example, came pretty frequently. I really enjoyed that when I was young. I went with my parents to these festivals. It was like a completely other world. People would talk about poetry on a daily basis for the whole week. It was just unreal, an incredible experience. But that stopped after the break of Yugoslavia. Perhaps because it was a very hard economic situation in all these countries, and it still is. People don’t have time for poetry anymore.
The good thing is I now have a couple of friends, even younger than I am, who are students, and they started to write poetry. And now they’ve even started organizing these improv nights and poetry readings. Poetry among these young people is more aggressive. That is really what I notice. It’s more a “Let’s change something” attitude, while before it was more descriptive.
Who are some famous Serbian poets? Is your father famous?
He was pretty famous – sadly, he passed away last year. His name is Ivan Gadjanski. Vasko Popa is one of the most popular poets, even now, in Serbia. His writing, to me he reminds me of Beckett – very simple but at the same time very unusual.
Do you think that poetry and entrepreneurship are compatible?
When I was at TEDMED in 2013, I met a CEO, and we were talking about my startup. But then somehow we got to poetry — I don’t remember exactly how. It turned out that he writes poetry, a lot, but he’s very reluctant to mention it in his business communication with other people because, again, people seem scared of poetry. Somehow when you mention poetry it is like you become too fragile. That’s my observation. You appear fragile.
We’ve kept in touch. He’s now even giving me advice on my startup, but primarily our discussion is always about poetry and about differences in thinking. It’s very hard to combine thinking about business and poetry. I managed to combine poetry and science, but now I’m trying to combine poetry and business.
Do you write poems about science?
Yes, I write about things from biology. I’m writing poems about anatomy, for example. [See Ivana's poem "Anatomy" below.] And interestingly, I started writing about anatomy before I switched to this other field dealing with bones. So again, poetry was somehow an initiator. I don’t try to exactly write only about science.
Tell us about your new startup, Pubsonic.
I like to describe it as Googlemaps for the human body. If you open to the landing page, what you see is a user interface that looks like an illustration of a human body. Users can navigate through different parts of the body, clicking all the way down to the level of cells and proteins. For example, click on the bone, then click once more and you are inside the bone. Each clickable body part, including the cells, lead to open-access publications about that part. The idea is to make it easier for scientists to access relevant publications and also keep everything in context.
It was inspired by having to switch from neuroscience to osteochondral tissue engineering. It was hard to learn a lot of specific information in a limited time — less than one year, during my Fulbright scholarship at Columbia University. I would look at diagrams of how a stem cell becomes a bone cell, and I was thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if I could click on any of these steps and get the papers describing it?”
How much did you have to learn in order to make that jump?
A lot. It’s another system of organs. First I was working on the brain, then I started working on the joints. There are, of course, some similarities, but it’s a completely new field. So I was reading a lot of science papers, sometimes three per day, every day of the week. One paper is the result of sometimes several years of research. So to read one, it takes a lot of focus and effort to keep it all in perspective. If you read about two proteins, how they interact, it’s not always easy to keep in mind where in the body that’s happening. I wanted to have it visualized. That’s how I got to the idea for Pubsonic. We use open-access publications in our application, because I am a firm believer in open access — it is the way it should be done in scientific publishing. Most of the research is also funded from the public grants, so the public should be allowed to access the results of this research freely.
Does this mean that you have to negotiate with journals to make the information open?
Well, there are already several journals that publish open access. So we are using these for starters. But yes, the plan is to make strategic partnerships with publishing houses so that the users can access papers through Pubsonic. Currently, it can cost up to $50 for an individual to purchase a paper. Often institutions have subscriptions to the journals, though. There is even one interesting concept that would make it possible for users to rent an article, without having to pay the full subscription. You can just pay one paper a small amount to read it, within a time limit, like 48 hours. That’s an intermediate solution.
These anatomical illustrations are beautiful. Who’s drawing them? And if you’re doing the entire human body all the way down to the cellular level, isn’t that incredibly complicated?
Yes, it is complicated. And that’s why we’re doing it step by step. We have two designers who have worked before in medical illustration. I am working with them, and we will have also more biologists joining the team, but at the moment it’s three of us who work on visual presentation. There are also four software developers in the team. We are making one organ at a time. Right now, we are focusing on the bone and then the stem cells in the bone marrow. So it will take several months for each organ.
We applied to a startup accelerator for support. They were really interested, so we are waiting to hear if we got the funding, but currently we are bootstrapping. So we are still in the early stages. We are also doing this crowdfunding campaign on Microryza, a platform for funding scientific research. Max Little is also on our advisory board, because we are also introducing some semantic search — searching by relationships between terms, not only keywords — which he’s very good in.
Who will your users be?
Our primary users will likely be researchers, but it’s for anyone who is interested in the topic. And what I am personally very enthusiastic about is for medical doctors to use it, as it will also be a way to learn more about stem cells. Many medical doctors currently are not very familiar with stem cells and stem cell treatments. But as patients read about such treatments online now, medical doctors should be able to offer information about it. Pubsonic would be a way for them to stay updated.
What’s your TED Fellowship been like for you?
It’s amazing because of the people I meet. For example, I became a frontline scholar at TEDMED because Nassim Assefi helped me attend. At TEDMED, I met a lot of people who also helped me with the startup. And in this startup business, it gives a lot more credibility when I say that I’m a TED Fellow. I get increased respect immediately, which is really, really cool. And also I meet Fellows like Max, for example, who really helps me professionally in machine learning and semantic search. He’s the best expert on the topic. And C Jimmy Lin introduced me to the guys from Microryza. Last year, Nina Tandon and I co-organized the TEDxCooperUnion event. This year, I’m planning the TEDxBelgradeWomen event I just got the license for. I’m also active in the TED Open Translation Project. It’s great being part of the TED community on so many levels.
How does it feel to go from being a researcher to an entrepreneur?
Oh, wow. It was a bit scary in the beginning. Now when I go to do the pitch in front of not only ordinary people but investors, it does get to me a little bit. It’s just a different mindset. That’s what I’m still working on, how to convert from the mindset of a scientist to an entrepreneurial mindset. It’s not completely exclusive, but there are differences. In science, everything has to be very precise and detailed. And entrepreneurship, especially in this lean startup approach, you try to make a minimum viable product as fast as possible, to show the basic features of your product. Then you show it to the people, to the users. Then you get feedback, and then you make a new version. In science, you’d work on the equivalent of the MVP for years, and then you show it to people. So that’s basically the biggest difference that I’ve had to accept.
I’m also trying to promote female entrepreneurship here in Serbia. I got a Fulbright alumni grant to produce a conference: Female Entrepreneurship in Biotech. That’s the working title — there will be a more catchy one soon. That will take place on September 21 in Belgrade. I’ve invited several entrepreneurs from the region and from the US. I’m trying to help more women in science explore opportunities for entrepreneurship.
It must make you feel quite vulnerable to put an idea that maybe feels not quite done out in front of people.
Yes. That is a good word — vulnerable. But at the same time, I have surprised myself with my response to it, this feeling vulnerable. It makes me even more stubborn. I want to prove to myself that I can do it.
Below, read one of Gadjanski’s science-inspired poems:
Around my eyes
orbits a clew of strings
made of steel
They sweep through
The light flashes
shaped like a string
comes to my pupil again
There are many things
out of that clew
I do not know
I do not see
I vaguely perceive
Those strings are my boarders
they hold the tissue of darkness
just as the bones do
Something good in this
The bones grow
more and more light
comes to my eyes
The steely clew becomes blurred
It is still around me
its facets opening
The darkness is there as well
now it makes only
its blind frames within the light
The light is strong
And I can see
Nevertheless, I know it
The strings are there
The bones are part of me