The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has highlighted how essential it is to have affordable, rapid and, above all, accurate disease diagnosis tools at our disposal. The 2022 Experientia Foundation stipend award winner, Anna Poryvai, is planning to develop a new biosensor to overcome the limitations of the existing RT-PCR and antigen tests. “The RNA isolated from a saliva sample will pass through a special membrane covered with the new biosensor that we are developing. If the sample contains viral particles, the viral RNA will bind to the sensor, making it possible to detect the disease quickly and reliably. The advantage of the new biosensor is that we can test for different pathogens using a single sample, which facilitates an accurate diagnosis,” explains the young scientist. Anna will start working on the ambitious project during her one-year research stay at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL).

You won the competition for the prestigious Experientia Foundation stipend. What does this mean to you?
It really means a lot to me. The stipend comes with an unique opportunity to travel abroad. Changing one’s environment and getting to know new colleagues is a really important step in science. It gives me the opportunity to gain new knowledge and learn new techniques. I see the stipend award as something that can give me wings. A successful grant application is very useful in your CV, and a research stay like this also allows you to develop more collaborations and expand your network… 

What do you feel were the main factors that helped you get as far as you have in your career?
I owe a lot to my family for their support. And the teachers at my grammar school in Kharkiv, Ukraine, which is where I’m from – it’s thanks to them that I was able to take part in the Olympiads in biology and physics and they are responsible for my falling in love with science. And later, the academic environment was another major formative experience for me. At the V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University I worked on the development of new antivirals under Professor Victoria Lipson. Her example as both a scientist and a female leader inspired me a great deal, making me want to continue with my studies. I found that I was very interested in organic chemistry and decided to study the subject at the University of Chemistry and Technology (UCT) in Prague. I liked the variety the UCT offered, the fact that every group was working on something completely different. At the UCT, I worked under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Michal Kohout, and later at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry of the Czech Academy of Sciences, I worked under Dr Ivo Starý, and currently I’m in Dr Tomáš Slanina’s group. I was lucky to be able to work with the group leaders that I really wanted to work with. Their personalities and their scientific ideas were major influences on me.

 And another scientist of renown that you are going to meet is Professor Sandrine Gerber at the EPFL. How did you come to choose her?
I knew that the Experientia Foundation offered me a chance to do something completely different from what I had been doing. I realised that this was perhaps one of my last opportunities to have someone teach me something completely new for me. I wanted to try my hand at RNA and DNA research. I got in touch with several groups, but I was most interested in Professor Gerber’s group, which focuses on biomaterials and gene therapy and has a lot of experience in DNA research. 

How did the topic of biosensors for virus detection that you will be working on with Professor Gerber come about?
My mother has a long-term condition that means that she has to go to hospital twice a year for treatment. In October last year, she got COVID. She needed to go and receive her regular treatment, but even though she had already recovered from COVID, she still tested positive. I started looking into why this might be. Professor Gerber is involved in the development of detectors for various pathogens, so I had a discussion with her about this topic. We both thought it would be a good idea to develop a new kind of virus particle detector that would overcome the shortcomings of the existing kinds of RT-PCR and antigen tests. One that would be as fast as an antigen test, but able to detect the disease more reliably. We had in mind a test that a family doctor could administer, testing for the presence of various pathogens and therefore allowing the doctor to establish an accurate diagnosis. And the detector should also deliver what my mother needed: to distinguish positive but healthy patients from those who are still ill. So people in need of acute surgery or treatment could get this test.

What is the principle behind the new biosensor?
Our biosensor will be based directly on the detection of viral RNA. The RNA isolated from a saliva sample will pass through a special membrane covered with the new biosensor that we are developing. If the sample contains viral particles, the RNA will bind to the sensor, making it possible to detect the disease quickly and reliably. The advantage of the new biosensor is that we can test for different pathogens using a single sample, which facilitates an accurate diagnosis.

Does this mean that the biosensor would be able to detect diseases other than SARS-CoV-2?
Yes, this is intended as a versatile technology. SARS-CoV-2 is actually just a case study that we want to test to see how the principle might work. Once we have a working membrane surface and the detection technology, then it is just a matter of further research and development as to what sensors we might connect to it. With a different sensor, we can detect a different disease. For this, we would only need to conduct a six-month study to know which sensor is suitable for a given pathogen. 

That sounds like a very ambitious plan for a one-year research stay…
Our overall objective is to deliver the biosensor itself, but it is clear that this new technology will take a lot longer than one year to reach a finished product. The objective of my one-year research stay is therefore to develop the membranes and determine the conditions under which we would be able to detect viral RNA on the membranes. If I succeed, I will apply for additional funding from various grant agencies and foundations to advance the development of the technology.

Is it important to you personally that the work you do should have the potential for real-world application?
It’s very important to me. I take the view that in science we should take one of two approaches: either we have a question we want to answer, or we want to develop something for a specific purpose we have in mind. So the goal may be a potential application; it may come a hundred years from now; it may be an incredible idea for which we don’t have the technology yet.

What do you enjoy the most about being a scientist?
What I enjoy the most about science is that we are constantly learning new things, discovering, educating ourselves, discussing. I also like the fact that among scientists there are many active people who are trying to change things around them for the better, who take an interest in other disciplines, and this makes it possible to find new perspectives on the problems we are dealing with. I like that science has no limits. 

How much are you looking forward to working with Professor Gerber at EPFL?
I’m really looking forward to it. I know the EPFL only virtually at the moment, but I know that it is an institution with high scientific standards and very good results in terms of student education. Professor Gerber and I had several online meetings. I was introduced to the whole group and had the opportunity to present my research and see what her students are currently working on. I enjoyed the discussions with the group members and was intrigued by the topics of their research projects. 

What would you like to learn during your stay?
I would like to learn a different approach to solving scientific problems, to learn how the school treats the students, how their group and lab management works. I would also like to learn new research techniques and, among other things, a new language – French. I also hope to learn how to better establish new collaborations in a new environment, get to know the work of other groups, etc. I am very interested in Professor Gerber’s example as a group leader – a woman successfully leading a research group. 

You keep referring to strong female scientific role models. Is it your dream to start your own group one day?
Yes, one day I would like to start my own group focused on developing new, environmentally friendly materials. As I see it, we will soon be facing major energy and financial crises, we will be re-evaluating our moral attitude to life, and I would like to contribute as a scientist to some of the challenges of the future. If I don’t succeed in having my own group, I would like to work for a start-up company so that I can keep learning, evolving and keep tackling new challenges. 

What do you do by way of taking a break from science?
I’ve danced all my life, and I have hiked widely in Ukraine – in the Carpathians and Crimea. These days, when I need to switch off completely, I hike, or play chess. I also enjoy embroidery, knitting and growing plants. And since last summer I have worked as a voluntary interpreter from Ukrainian into Czech.

Anna Poryvai

was born in 1990 in Kharkiv, Ukraine. She graduated from the Faculty of Chemistry of V. N. Karazin Kharkiv National University in pharmaceutical chemistry and later from the UCT in Prague in organic chemistry. Her research has focused on organic chemistry and synthetic methodology, initially in the context of new drug development and later in materials chemistry and photochemistry. She was awarded the Professor Otakar Červinka Prize for the best lecture (“Liblice 2021”) and the best poster presentation (16th FLC, Hong Kong, 2017). Thanks to the stipend award from the Experientia Foundation in the amount of CZK 1,050,000, Anna will enrol at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in December 2022 for a one-year research stay in the group headed by Professor Sandrine Gerber.