Interview CSIC

Early Stage Researcher, Ivaylo Balabanov MSc
  • What are your research interests? What are you working on?

I have broad research interests. From basic immunology through cancer immunotherapy to neurobiology and endocrinology. I’m currently working in basic or basic-to-applied immunology – trying to understand more about the T-cell receptor and its functional characteristics, so I could apply the knowledge in the design of chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) against different blood cancers, in particular Acute myeloid leukemia.

  • How did you decide to make this the focus of your research?

The topic of my project fit quite well with my research interests. It’s about immunology and cancer biology and it’s about designing novel therapies – particularly attractive subject for me. I’ve always been drawn by career opportunities with social impact and I find this the perfect research area for me. My goal with this project is to contribute with one small step in improving CAR-T-cell therapies, so they find their way into the clinic soon and start saving patients. The prospect of me contributing to science and society in this way would be the ultimate feeling of fulfillment and success.

  • Where and how did your scientific journey begin?

My scientific journey started as a Bachelor student in my home country Bulgaria in a lab of experimental immunology, where together with fellow undergrads I learned the basics about the immune system, about cancer and autoimmunity. I was introduced to many methods and techniques; taught to handle laboratory animals, but most importantly how to design and execute experiments – all skills I have since needed and further improved. During the three years I spent there as a trainee in a young and motivating environment I developed a strong bond for immunological research and decided to dedicate my career to it.

  • What do you plan to do after you complete your PhD?

My view for the future has not changed much since before I started my Ph.D. I still like what I do and therefore I plan to stay in academic research – do a postdoc or two, depending on opportunities, but also on private life changes. I believe being a part of the ENACTI2NG consortium, thus accumulating skills and contacts puts me in a good position for the future.

  • Was there something specific about the ENACTI2NG that drew you to apply?

What drew my attention to the ENACTI2NG project was first the topic – of particular relevance and one which matched my interests completely. Second, but equally important, was the international composition of the consortium, the various expertise of the participating groups with which a common topic was being investigated. When I found about ENACTI2NG I was completing my Master’s degree in Japan and had planned not to apply for positions yet. However, even though I had no idea at the time of the scientific prestige of MSCA networks, I immediately recognized this was a unique opportunity for me. Being part of ENACTI2NG allowed me to meet great researchers – both on the PI and the ESR side – the interactions with whom have enriched me enormously and further raised my ambitions for the future.

  • Someone curious about participating in a consortium like asks for your feedback or advice, what would you tell him/her?

I’d definitely encourage anyone considering of such network project to apply. Being part of a consortium gives numerous options for exchange, training and collaboration, and thus multiple career opportunities. Science is team work, so the more contacts one builds early on, the better for their future

  • What do you like most about your time at your institution/group/consortium?

I like the group I’m part of at my institution a lot. It’s a great team environment. I’ve learned a lot for the three years I’ve been here and I’ve also culturally enriched the group with my diverse background. I love the fact I’m able to build my own work schedule and deliver to the best of my abilities.

PI: Hisse M. van Santen

  • What is the focus of your group?

We mostly work on the T cell Receptor (TCR), a protein complex expressed by so-called T cells that allows these cells to recognize pathogens such as viruses and bacteria and mount an immune response to these pathogens. T cells are critical components of the immune response that can protect the body from pathogens but also cause damage when generating a response against its own organs. T cells have to learn to discriminate between pathogens and its own organs and this learning process is dependent on how the TCR transmits signals to the T cell during the development and function of the T cell. We study these mechanisms using mice with genetic changes in various components of the TCR and study the development and function of the T cells in these mice, both when encountering a pathogen or upon inducing an autoimmune response against its own organs. This type of studies allows us to identify critical components of the TCR and understand the underlying molecular events that lead to these responses. Such knowledge is necessary to develop therapeutic strategies that improve immune responses against pathogens or inhibit autoimmune responses.

The EN_ACTI2NG network has stimulated a new line of research in which we try to optimize recombinant receptors ('Chimeric Antigen Receptors' or CARs) that make T cells better at recognizing and eliminating tumor cells. We focus here on the part of these receptors that transmits signals to the T cell upon recognition of the tumor cells, using our knowledge obtained from our fundamental research on the TCR to make new variants of these CARs.

  • Where and how did your scientific journey begin?

My interest in biology was stimulated by a very inspiring high school teacher who taught us the basis of genetics and biochemistry without books and with just fantastic blackboard schemes. Best thing was that he only needed 30 minutes of each class to teach the subject matter and then told all sort of stories about his dogs and the neighbors or showed us organs and body parts from cows and pigs obtained via a veterinary connection at the local abattoir.

  • What would you like the impact of your career to be?

Provide reliable and solid data and ideas about basic T cell biology and, hopefully, finding ways to make better CARs that could be used in the clinic. Also, providing early career scientists with the tools and knowledge to launch their own scientific career.

  • The favorite moment of your career.
Helping to set up and starting the new laboratory of my PhD supervisor Hidde Ploegh at MIT. The experience of living in a new country, the number of great research groups at close distance, fantastic seminars almost every day and ample resources to do science were simply overwhelming.

  • One thing in science that changed the most since your PhD (early science career) - something that would have made your life so much easier if you had it back then?

Fully annotated genomes, seamless cloning, CRISPR/Cas9, incredibly cheap gene synthesis (technically four things, but all related with facilitating molecular biology).

  • What will be the next big thing in the field?

Predicting TCR specificity from its amino-acid sequence (will be a hard nut to crack).

  • Day to day life of a PI (and how much the consortium demands out of you).

Paperwork, discussion with the students, seminars and meetings, writing grants and papers, evaluating manuscripts and projects, reading and thinking. I am the coordinator of EN-ACTI2NG but thanks to the help of fantastic project managers the demands have been bearable.

  • A PI curious about submitting an ITN asks you for feedback or advice on it, what would you tell him/her?

The most important is getting together a group of participants (in our case research groups, clinical groups, companies) that each can make a credible contribution towards a joint goal.

  • What do you like most about the consortium?

The enthusiasm of all the participants, the great opportunities to exchange information and reagents, being part of a group of excellent students and scientists.

  • What do you envision the future of science to be?

Curiosity-driven, conscious of moral implications of our work, able to inform and listen to non-scientists.