Dr. Cristianne Rijcken is pharmacist by training and holds a PhD degree in Pharmaceutics from Utrecht University, The Netherlands.
She is Founder and Chief Scientific Officer of Cristal Therapeutics which is a clinical stage pharmaceutical company. Their mission is to create the next generation of targeted nanomedicines for improving the treatment of cancer and other diseases.
Dr. Rijcken’s PhD thesis provided a strong basis for Cristal Therapeutics and she was awarded multiple grants and prizes including the Simon Stevin Gezel Award in 2008 and the Knowledge for Growth Inspiring Young Scientist Award in 2014. She has authored over 30 scientific publications and is named on all Cristal Therapeutics’ patents and patent applications.
In recognition of Dr Rijcken’s innovative approach, strength in translational research and her entrepreneurial attitude, she was awarded the Limburg Businesswoman of the Year in 2017.
Questions for Luminaries
1. What sparked your interest in science in general and drug delivery/nanomedicine in particular?
It is for me truly fascinating how a few mg of a chemical substance can have such an effect on biological pathways, thereby aiming to treat various (severe) diseases or conditions. Since drugs in general simply distribute over the entire body, also healthy tissue is reached, cause there unwanted effects. This problem can be circumvented by smart drug delivery systems. In the ideal situation, the magic bullet: only going to the diseased area, and locally either releasing the drug that immediately exert a therapeutic effect (i.e. cytotoxic agent), or locally inducing an effect that triggers the body to take further actions (immune modulators). Particularly, understanding the optimal biological exposure dependent on the drug’s mechanism of action and translating / engineering this into the precise design of a nanomedicine is highly intriguing.
2. Did you experience a significant turning point or defining moment during your career?
I am trained as a pharmacist, and since I had ambitions to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry, people advised me to do first a PhD.
This I did at the Department Pharmaceutics in Utrecht, and I could join already established research line on polymeric micelles (guided by Prof. Wim Hennink and Dr. Rene van Nostrum). The assumption back in the days was that polymeric micelles, as demonstrated to be stable on the lab bench, would also illustrate a good in vivo stability including long circulation. However, I discovered that this was unfortunately not the case: polymeric micelles are physical assemblies of individual polymer chains. Upon in vivo injection, these assemblies rapidly disintegrated, and the individual chains were rapidly cleared. So the anticipated concept of long circulation and thereby improved tumour uptake was not achieved.
To circumvent this, I thought of a way to temporarily bind the polymers together, i.e. crosslinking. I still recall when the first in vivo results of these crosslinked micelles came in: I was the reception of Dutch Polymers Days in Lunteren. I received a text message of my colleague who was performing the in vivo assays, saying: ‘Well, you can better open another beer – these are the results: crosslinking resulted in a much longer circulation as compared to non-crosslinking, and thereby also much higher tumour uptake.“ And so I did: I drank another beer with Prof. Wim Hennink to celebrate the break through!
3. According to you, what are the most exciting developments in your research field?
Clinical imaging, i.e. that a whole plethora of diagnostic techniques have developed so rapidly in recent years, incl. much higher resolution and sensitivity. Now that one starts to combine this with artificial intelligence, one is really capable to process all data and find potential correlations. This means that all kind of biological pathways have become much more understood, and that the complete biological journey and local performance of advanced drug delivery systems can be much more monitored. The overlay of biological data with the product performance give crucial insight, and is extremely useful to further improve understanding of disease pathways and enables tailor-made optimising drug products.
4. What is the best piece of professional advice you have received and from whom?
Define your long-term ambitions, translate this into a very pragmatic plan incl. go/no go milestones and then execute very focused and diligently. This advice was from my first coach while I was just starting the entrepreneurial journey after finishing my PhD. She literally gave me a blank piece of paper and ask me: “how to do you see yourself in 5 years from now? Don’t tell it to me, but simply visualize this for yourself. If you are happy with the image, what is required to reach it? Once this is known, you can make smart choices along the bumpy road that is called life, and progress forward to reach your own defined goals”
5. Would you change anything about your career path if you could start over?
As of the earliest moment onwards, ask the best worldwide experts to join. Drug product development comprises so many different disciplines, that one can never be an expert in all. It is truly a waste of time to try to invent all wheels him/herself. Asking somebody else to think or act along is not against one own expertise and/or lack of confidence, it is all about keeping a clear focus on the end goal, and how to reach this as soon as possible.
6. What advice would you give to someone who is starting their scientific career?
Focus focus focus – time flies by so quickly. Only with focus, clear decision making and surrounded by experts, one can truly make progress in this very challenging field.
7. How do you manage a healthy balance between work and personal life?
I try to maintain this by combining the intriguing work activities with a mixture of sport, nice food, winding off with friends and family and sufficient rest and reflection. In a typical week, I sport 3 – 5 times in the morning, either running or fitness. In general, I truly enjoy the work within our very dedicated team, including a variety of dynamic interactions. Clearly, unexpected topics may be quite challenging, but I am also really grateful that together with management and board Cristal is continuously making progress. After a day at work, I can really enjoy some nice foods and drinks with friends or family, and to discuss all that keeps us wondering in life. More and more however, I also do appreciate to have at least 2 – 3 evenings per week in which there are no fixed appointments. I try to get at least 6 hours of sleep at night, and have a weekly reflection in which I look back as well as forward. Life can go so fast, and this half hour a week is for me really helpful to be much more aware of the journey as well as being grateful for all exciting that is ongoing.
8. What do you enjoy doing outside of the lab? What are your hobbies/interests?
Sports (fitness and running), enjoying good foods and drinks, meeting with friends and family, travelling e.g. to Tanzania or other nature rich environments
9. Why would you advise scientists to become CRS and Local Chapter members and what are the membership’s benefits?
Having friends in the same work area is nice to meet and align, and to see whether one can collaborate in tackling tough challenges.
It is a small world after all, and one never knows where to meet in the future, and how one can help each other.