Dr. Zdenko Machala’s interview to The Science and Engineering Cafe
We continue to celebrate November as Plasma Medicine month on The Science and Engineering Cafe! Our featured scientist this week is Professor Zdenko Machala, Chair of the upcoming conference on Plasma Medicine that will take place in Bratislava, a beautiful city located by the Danube, next year. I have heard great things about Slovakia and the hospitality of its citizens but I haven’t had the chance to visit the country. However, I had the pleasure to interact with Zdenko last year at the 5th International Conference on Plasma Medicine that took place in Nara, Japan and I am sure that he and the organizing committee will hold a very interesting conference that will attract the most renowned experts in the field. So it looks like this event combines an excellent program of featured talks that will be hosted in a beautiful location!
Enjoy Dr. Machala’s interview – see you all in Bratislava next year!
1. Why and when did you decide to become a professor?
Since my early childhood I remember being fascinated by science and technology. I loved reading Jules Verne’s science fiction/adventure books. I dreamt of piloting an aircraft or becoming an astronaut, saving the Earth by finding a new clean source of energy, etc. At school I loved science, especially physics, chemistry, some parts of biology, and also math. I actually always tried to understand “how things work” and “why things happen” and was excited about experiments. That steered my decision to choose physics at the university and later select scientific research as my career path.
2. What made you choose plasma as your field of study? Did you consider other studies other than plasma science?
I chose to study physics at the Faculty of Mathematics, Physics and Informatics at Comenius University in Bratislava (Slovakia) where I received a really high-level science education and learned to think differently & more critically, when answering the endless “how” and “why” questions. At some point, I had to decide on my field of specialization in physics for my MSc. degree and I was torn between biophysics and plasma physics. I ended up choosing plasmas, mostly likely thanks to the very enthusiastic teachers and mentors who motivated me. My further research has always been in the interdisciplinary edge of plasma physics, chemistry and environmental science. Nevertheless, I returned to my Alma Mater and became a professor after working in several areas in plasma science in several labs around the world. Then, I went into the completely novel interdisciplinary area of plasma bio-medicine, which had fascinated me for quite some time. So I am now even more interdisciplinary-oriented, trying to delve even deeper in my superficial knowledge in biology and biophysics that I considered to study long ago.
3. Describe a time in your career that you had to make a difficult decision.
By the end of my postdoc at Stanford University I was sure that I wanted to pursue a career as a university research professor. The difficult decision was whether to stay in the US where the conditions for research were much better, or return back to Slovakia. My wife and I decided for the latter, for many reasons, but especially having our family in mind. I do not regret my decision, despite the fact that starting as an assistant professor at Comenius University in Bratislava offered practically no financial or lab equipment support which made my research really tough. Progressively, due to the great collaboration with two fellow colleagues, we succeeded in building new labs and started a completely novel interdisciplinary area of plasma bio-medical applications that nobody in Slovakia studied before.
4. In your opinion, why has the field of Plasma Medicine attracted a lot of interest in the past decade?
Applying non-thermal (cold) plasmas in biology and medicine is very new, interesting, and fascinating to both plasma scientists and biologists. Trying to understand what happens on the cellular and molecular level when such a complex and reactive medium as plasma directly interacts with the complexity of living cells and tissues is a great challenge, yet a very exciting scientific exploration of new and never explored areas with potential breakthrough outcomes in medical treatments. From the medical doctors’ point of view, I think the motivation is the increasing antibiotic resistance of many pathogens due to the overuse/misuse of antibiotics, and the lack of efficient methods and the increasing abundance of some kinds of diseases, especially different types of cancer.
5. What are the biggest breakthroughs of Plasma Medicine so far?
Cold plasmas are very complex media; they resemble cocktails of electrons and ions, neutral reactive species and radicals, UV radiation, and electric fields. Each of these components is known to induce various biological responses in the cells and tissues and are often used in therapy. When applied together, these effects can become synergized and enhanced and, when we at least partly understand how things work (or are lucky enough, or both), a properly dosed plasma can help or stimulate the natural body immune cells to fight the infection or the disease. This is due to the local and enhanced production of the same chemicals that are natural weapons. The biggest breakthroughs of Plasma Medicine so far can be, in my opinion, categorized into two big areas:
- plasma bio-decontamination and sterilization (plasmas can effectively kill bacteria and other hazardous microorganisms on medical instruments, in water, air, even very resistant forms such as bacterial spores and biofilms, and so can help prevent hospital-acquired infections. They can also be used in developing countries with high infection rates);
- plasma treatments in medicine, especially in dentistry (root canal disinfection, periodontal diseases), dermatology and wound healing (plasmas can selectively attack bacteria & disinfect the wound and leave tissue cells intact. Plus, they can induce growth of tissue cells), and cancer therapies (it has been shown that well dosed plasmas can selectively kill cancer cells and leave normal cells unaffected).
6. Who should attend the next International Conference on Plasma Medicine that will take place in Bratislava next year?
I encourage medical doctors to come and learn about these new breakthrough achievements, get excited about them, and bring them into clinical practices. Of course physicists and biologists are key contributors as they bring along their fundamental knowledge based on their different backgrounds . Chemists are needed too, since they help link the physical and biological processes, as well as engineers will bring the fundamental research into practical applications. For example, some plasma bio-applications recently emerged into food technology and agriculture. Experts with all these different backgrounds are welcome. The Board of Directors of the International Society for Plasma Medicine (ISPM) has carefully selected invited speakers of these multidisciplinary areas, so I believe that every participant will find some relevance to her/his own field and be exposed to a wealth of new ideas.
7. What are the biggest challenges of conducting research in the field of Plasma Medicine?
Multidisciplinarity is a great plus on one hand and a great challenge on the other. Physicists and biologists speak different “languages”, and even more different than medical doctors. Interdisciplinary collaboration is absolutely crucial in plasma medicine. To foster this, all these experts they must learn to communicate using terms of each other’s language and embrace some of the other’s way of thinking and perception of the problem. Often, it takes great effort to get experts of other fields or backgrounds really interested in new and never-heard-of plasma medical applications. Even harder is to convince regulatory agencies to accept these new achievements and allow clinical trials. Plasma medicine researchers in Germany have done perhaps the greatest leap on this path and have succeeded to certify some their plasma sources for medical uses. I believe other countries will follow suit and plasma medical treatments will become established and offered to patients, since I am sure they can provide the best therapeutic method in many cases.
The other challenge, especially in getting research funding, is that plasma medicine is not pure physics, or pure biology, or even pure clinical medicine. It is very difficult to frame it among established disciplines and grant agency programs. Yet, the fundamental research with solid funding is indispensable to understand mechanisms and then develop the best clinical methodologies in terms of efficacy, uniqueness and safety. I have been lucky to receive funding from our national Slovak Research and Development Agency for this interdisciplinary fundamental research but it is generally hard everywhere.
To conclude on an optimistic note, my strong hope is that the upcoming ICPM6 will be a solid scientific meeting that will show the great achievements in the field of Plasma Medicine. Hopefully, it will help spinning the wheel all the way up to the funding agencies and regulatory bodies. As chairman I will do my best to achieve this goal.