As a scientist with biotech startup Carcell Biopharma, Dr Militsa Yaneva develops drugs with the potential to save lives. In this conversation with SGInnovate, she speaks about her passion for science and her quest to treat solid cancer tumours and autoimmune diseases through her research at Carcell Biopharma, which focuses on next-generation cell and gene therapy.
Tell us about what you do at Carcell Biopharma.
I joined Carcell Biopharma more than a year ago as a scientist from the platform team. My role is to come up with and develop a new class of drugs, so, to put it simply, I’m engineering red blood cells (eRBC) that can be used as a very specific drug to modulate the immune system in the human body. Our eRBC have close interaction with immune cells, which makes them selective, potent, alternative and ready-to-use cellular therapies for treating diseases arising from immune dysregulation, including several autoimmune diseases and cancers.
What attracted me to a smaller biotech firm is that I have a lot of opportunities to try different things. At my age, that’s very exciting because it gives me a way to grow! So far, Carcell has given me lots of opportunities and empowered me to enhance my skills – they've even implemented some of my ideas, which is very rewarding.
Militsa in the lab, looking through the microscope and studying the histology of tissue samples.
What sparked your interest in this field?
As a kid, I always questioned how and why things were happening. Over time, I developed an interest in chemistry, and I went on to pursue a bachelor's in chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. After that, I wanted a more big picture understanding of how to apply what I learnt, so I did my master's in medicinal biological chemistry, which provided a bridge to biology and biotech.
While I was completing my Master's Degree, I did a research assistant internship in Singapore at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) under Professor Anh Tuan Phan, who later became my PhD professor. Here, I worked on inhibiting gene expression, which was my first time working on a more applicable real-life project. As a chemist, I was involved in engineering different parts of this project, creating tools to stabilise easily degraded single strands of DNA. I enjoyed this experience so much that I decided to do my PhD in chemical biology at NTU.