Shining a light on the potential use of diamonds in cancer treatment

2 Aug 2022

Image: Dr Samvit Menon

IPIC’s Dr Samvit Menon tells us about his study into ‘the next best thing in carbon materials’ and breaks down some misconceptions about working in research.

Dr Samvit Menon is a postdoctoral researcher at the Irish Photonics Integration Centre (IPIC). Based at Tyndall National Institute in Cork, this Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) research centre is focused on the science and application of light.

Menon moved to Ireland in 2020 and is now in the Sparkle programme at IPIC, an intersectoral career development and mobility training programme co-funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme and SFI to create Europe’s future photonics research leaders.

‘If it does work, we’d have come up with an absolutely bonkers way to diagnose and cure cancer – using diamonds!’

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

I’m working on developing nanodiamonds for cancer diagnosis and therapy. Yes, you heard right! I work with diamonds and, contrary to popular belief, a decent-sized diamond does not cost three times your salary!

Jokes aside, diamonds – being incredibly stable – can be doped with multifunctional ions that make them both optically active and magnetic, opening up the options of using these diamonds to optically image cancer tumours and use magnetic hyperthermia to kill the tumours.

Diamonds are biocompatible, structurally and optically stable, making them powerful tools in long-term cancer research. I am trying to figure out the right concentrations of ions I can dope diamonds with to get optimal optical and magnetic activity simultaneously.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

Someone has to go where no one has gone before. For all you know, you’re going to hit a massive road block, a dead end. Most research today ends in dead ends. However, in doing so, you’re still reporting ways a particular hypothesis doesn’t work, which is equally important for other researchers working in similar fields.

That’s what we’re doing. Exploring the unknown. For all you know, this may not work. But, what if it does? That’s what we’re going to find out.

If it does work, we’d have come up with an absolutely bonkers way to diagnose and cure cancer – using diamonds! We’d have developed a really cost-effective and highly efficient method to diagnose different cancers at their earliest stages and put an end to the tumours growing and spreading.

What commercial applications do you foresee for your research?

Optically active nanodiamonds are the next best thing in carbon materials. We had graphene, then we had graphene quantum dots, and now we have nanodiamonds. Think of all the great stuff graphene and graphene quantum dots could do, minus the toxicity and stability issues!

You can develop environmentally friendly devices for the agro-dairy industry for testing soil fertility or water or milk quality; you could use them as single photon emitters in quantum technologies; they can be used as highly effective drug delivery systems; there are some emerging publications that suggest nanodiamonds can be used in heavy metal detection and water purification.

There’s plenty that can be done using this new and emerging versatile material!

What inspired you to become a researcher?

On my 10th birthday, an uncle of mine gifted me Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and then all I could think of was becoming a physicist. I navigated through my academic life with just one goal in sight – becoming a scientist. That kind of also shows the power of science communication, doesn’t it? I’m not the only one who took to science being inspired by Hawking’s classic on black holes and time travel!

However, I grew up in a small town in India and, like a lot of Indian kids from the 90s, I took a massive interest in cricket, a game we were obsessed with. I did well as a young cricketer, representing my school in different state and national tournaments. When I was 15, I remember getting home heartbroken after losing the finals of a major tournament, only to have Dad greet me at the door. “OK son, this is your moment of truth – do you want to be like Sachin Tendulkar or Stephen Hawking when you’re older?” he said, referring to one of India’s cricketing legends. For some reason, without even batting an eyelid, I replied “Stephen Hawking”. And that was the last time I ever saw my cricket kit.

From then, I was well on my way. I did my high school majoring in science, bachelor’s with an honours in physics, followed by a master’s in physics and then, after a brief stint as an astrophysics research intern, I did my PhD in condensed matter physics. At 32, as I walked up that stage to collect my PhD diploma, I realised I was exactly where I had envisioned myself as a scrawny 10-year-old.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

The feeling of not being good enough. This is something almost every PhD student goes through. Somewhere in the first few years of your research you start doubting yourself. What am I doing here? Do I belong here? Have I made the right choices? Do I have the right aptitude for this?

There’s a lot of self-doubt, especially if one is as impatient and impulsive as I am. However, this gets taken care of in time. This is where you need to start trusting your abilities. This is where you start evolving and changing as a person.

You adopt patience as a way of life. You don’t impulsively dump a beaker full of your reaction mixture down the drain because nothing happened. You wait that extra two minutes to see what happens. You don’t pick up a research article, read the first few lines and say, “I don’t get this!”, and fling it to the corner of your room. You figure out a way to extract information from the article!

I was lucky I had a very patient thesis adviser who made sure I became the researcher I am today. Today, I am rational, calm and composed. I don’t get angry at a failed experiment; I smile at it. There’s always so much to learn even if something doesn’t work out the way you expect it to. All this composure comes with experience. A PhD changes you.

Are there any common misconceptions about working in research?

Oh, there are plenty! Here’s three of them.

‘A researcher doesn’t have a life outside their work.’ Not true! It’s crucial as a researcher that you find yourself a hobby to unwind and de-stress. For me, it’s playing the guitar and writing. I love quizzing and am a member of a few pub quiz groups in Cork – and we don’t do too bad!

‘As a researcher, you’re overqualified for several industry jobs.’ No! You’re perfect for industry. You have what it takes to excel in industry. The only thing I’d say we’d be lacking a little bit would be our networking ability. Look, I get it, we’re not the most social people on the planet! But we do know how to disseminate our work to various audiences and can use that skill to network.

‘The number of publications is a direct measure of your ability as a researcher.’ Absolutely not! In the tune of TLC’s classic, don’t go chasing manuscripts! Focus on your job at hand. Focus on quality over quantity. One of the biggest mistakes researchers do is cutting their work short to publish just because they feel they have something new and are in a hurry to publish.

For instance, instead of writing “this material may be used in different biomedical applications”, why not demonstrate its use in one such application and then publish. It makes a huge difference and the scientific community always appreciates quality papers over quantity.

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